Now ‘real hope’ to end COVID-19 with vaccines: WHO chief

Agencies
November 24, 2020

 

Geneva, Nov 24: "There is now real hope that vaccines, in combination with other tried and tested public health measures, will help to end the pandemic," said the World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The WHO chief's remarks came after drugmaker AstraZeneca said on Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine, developed with Oxford University, was up to 90 percent effective, making it the third major drug company after Pfizer and Moderna to have reported late-stage data for a potential COVID-19 vaccine, Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday.

"The significance of this scientific achievement cannot be overstated. No vaccines in history have been developed as rapidly as these. The scientific community has set a new standard for vaccine development," Tedros added.

He pointed out now the international community must set a new standard for access, as "the urgency with which vaccines have been developed must be matched by the same urgency to distribute them fairly."

Worried that the poorest and most vulnerable countries will be trampled in the stampede for vaccines, WHO established the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator to support global efforts in developing vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, and has joined so far 187 countries in the COVAX facility to collaborate on the procurement and rollout of vaccines, ensuring affordable prices, volumes and timing for all countries.

According to the WHO chief, some US $4.3 billion is needed immediately to support the mass procurement and delivery of vaccines, tests and treatments, while additional US $23.8 billion will be needed next year.

"The International Monetary Fund estimates that if medical solutions can be made available faster and more widely, it could lead to a cumulative increase in global income of almost US $9 trillion by the end of 2025," he said.

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Agencies
January 7,2021

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Washington, Jan 7: Nearly 4,400 adverse events were reported after people received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in the US, with 21 cases determined to be anaphylaxis, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The US Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on December 11, 2020, administered as two doses separated by 21 days, reports Xinhua news agency.

As of December 23, 2020, a total of 1,893,360 first doses of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in the US, according to the CDC report.

Reports of 4,393 adverse events had been submitted to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System in the country.

Among those, 175 case reports were identified for further review as possible cases of severe allergic reaction, including anaphylaxis.

Twenty-one cases were determined to be anaphylaxis, including 17 in persons with a documented history of allergies or allergic reactions, seven of whom had a history of anaphylaxis, according to the CDC.

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that does occur rarely after vaccination, with onset typically within minutes to hours, said the CDC.

Locations administering Covid-19 vaccines should adhere to CDC guidance for use of the jabs, including screening recipients for contraindications and precautions, having the necessary supplies available to manage anaphylaxis, implementing the recommended post-vaccination observation periods, and immediately treating suspected cases of anaphylaxis with intramuscular injection of epinephrine, said the CDC.

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Agencies
January 15,2021

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Washington, Jan 15: The US government has blacklisted Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp. and China's third-largest national oil company for alleged military links, heaping pressure on Beijing in President Donald Trumps last week in office.

The Department of Defense added nine companies to its list of Chinese companies with military links, including Xiaomi and state-owned plane manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac).

US investors will have to divest their stakes in Chinese companies on the military list by November this year, according to an executive order signed by Trump in November.

Xiaomi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Xiaomi Corp. overtook Apple Inc. as the worlds No. 3 smartphone maker by sales in the third quarter of 2020, according to data by Gartner. Xiaomis market share has grown as Huaweis sales have suffered after it was blacklisted by the U.S. and its smartphones were cut off from essential services from Google.

Separately, the Commerce Department put China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) on the entity list, an economic blacklist that forbids U.S. firms from exporting or transferring technology with the companies named unless permission has been obtained from the U.S. government. The move comes after about 60 Chinese companies were added to the list in December, including drone maker DJI and semiconductor firm SMIC.

CNOOC has been involved in offshore drilling in the disputed waters South China Sea, where Beijing has overlapping territorial claims with other countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

China's reckless and belligerent actions in the South China Sea and its aggressive push to acquire sensitive intellectual property and technology for its militarisation efforts are a threat to U.S. national security and the security of the international community, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.

CNOOC acts as a bully for the Peoples Liberation Army to intimidate Chinas neighbors, and the Chinese military continues to benefit from government civil-military fusion policies for malign purposes, Ross said.

CNOOC did not immediately comment.

Chinese state-owned company Skyrizon was also added to the economic blacklist, for its push to acquire and indigenise foreign military technologies, Ross said.

Beijing Skyrizon Aviation, founded by tycoon Wang Jing, drew U.S. criticism for an attempt to take over Ukraines military aircraft engine maker Motor Sich in 2017. The concern was that advanced aerospace technology would end up being used for military purposes.

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Agencies
January 18,2021

Global gaps in access to Covid-19 vaccines are raising concerns that the continued spread of the coronavirus will breed more dangerous versions of the pathogen, weakening medical weapons and further crippling economies.

In a race to catch up with emerging coronavirus variants, wealthy countries are already benefiting from potent vaccines. While the US, Britain and European Union have given citizens about 24 million doses so far -- more than half of the shots administered globally -- vast numbers of countries have yet to begin their campaigns.

Disparities in immunity pose a threat to both have and have-not states. Giving the coronavirus an opportunity to advance and generate new mutants would have significant economic and public-health consequences, adding to the pain as the death toll surpasses 2 million.

Growth forecast

“We cannot leave parts of the world without access to vaccines because it’s just going to come back to us,” said Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at health research foundation Wellcome. “That puts everyone around the world at risk.”

Countries are relying on effective immunisations to save lives and revive businesses. The World Bank’s projection for 4 per cent growth this year depends on the widespread deployment of vaccines. Surging Covid cases and a delay to the delivery of inoculations, however, could limit expansion to just 1.6 per cent.

High-income countries have secured 85 per cent of Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine and all of Moderna Inc.’s, according to London-based research firm Airfinity Ltd. Much of the world will be counting on UK drugmaker AstraZeneca Plc, whose vaccine is cheaper and easier to distribute, along with other manufacturers such as China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd.

Of 42 countries rolling out Covid vaccines as of Jan. 8, 36 were high-income countries and the rest were middle-income, according to World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. A growing number of countries are pursuing their own supply deals, in addition to participating in a global collaboration known as Covax.

Future mutants

Urgency is increasing as the pandemic extends into a second year. New variants that surfaced in the UK, South Africa and Brazil appear to spread significantly faster than earlier versions. Just in the past month, a “new dimension of risk has opened up for the world,” said Rajeev Venkayya, president of Takeda Pharmaceutical Co.’s vaccines business.

Reducing deaths and illnesses has been seen as the main driver of delivering vaccines rapidly, said Venkayya, who worked in the George W. Bush administration to develop a U.S. pandemic flu plan and directed vaccine delivery for the Gates Foundation.

“We now understand it’s also very, very important to control transmission,” he said, “not just to protect those most vulnerable populations, but also to reduce the evolutionary risk associated with this virus.”

While there’s no evidence to suggest the current crop of vaccines are ineffective against those variants, future mutants may be less responsive, Wellcome’s Weller said.

Drugmakers say they could tweak their shots to counter new variants within weeks if needed. The likelihood that such adaptations will be necessary has increased, Venkayya said.

“The longer the virus is allowed to continue in different parts of the world where we don’t have a vaccine,” said Anna Marriott, health policy adviser at the anti-poverty group Oxfam, “the greater the danger of new variants that could be more aggressive, more virulent or transmissible.”

Covid shots have been tested for their ability to prevent symptoms, not the transmission. Still, their performance in clinical trials gives an indication of how effective they might be against the spread.

Effectiveness gap

The rollout of shots from Pfizer-BioNTech SE and Moderna that achieved efficacy levels of about 95% has raised questions about whether everyone will have access to such high levels of protection.

“The gap isn’t just about access to vaccines,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s also about access to effective vaccines.”

One of the shots lower- and middle-income countries are relying on, from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, sparked worries in Australia that it may not be effective enough to generate herd immunity. Health authorities there, however, said they believe it will be comparable to the Pfizer and Moderna shots in preventing people from getting seriously ill.

The vaccine developed by the U.K. partners, introduced in the country earlier this month, delivered an average efficacy rate of 70%. That appeared to climb to 80% with a longer gap between doses, based on limited data available, according to regulators. Lengthening that period to as many as three months from one allows more people to get protected faster, while data show the level of antibodies also increases, an AstraZeneca spokesman said.

“An optimized regimen which allows the vaccination of many more people upfront, together with a robust supply chain, means we can have a real impact on the pandemic,” he said in an email.

Four vastly differing protection rates have been released on Sinovac’s shot, ranging from about 50 per cent to more than 90 per cent. The Chinese developer said the lower number seen in a trial in Brazil is due to participants being medical workers facing a high risk of contracting Covid.

“Despite the difference in efficacy rate, they all point to the vaccine’s ability for protection, especially against mid- and severe disease,” Sinovac said.

While the picture is still coming into focus, cleared vaccines are likely to be similarly effective in preventing serious sickness and death, said Takeda’s Venkayya. Where they could diverge is on side effects, the duration of protection and impact on transmission, an even more critical factor in light of new variants, he said.

Even shots with a lower efficacy level could have a considerable impact. US regulators set a 50 per cent threshold for deeming a candidate effective. But they would require a higher percentage of people willing to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, Huang said.

If less-effective vaccines are distributed to emerging markets, it could have significant economic implications, too, and “sharpen differences in pandemic outcomes across countries,” Justin-Damien Guenette, a senior economist at the World Bank, wrote in an email.

Many countries are depending on Covax, which aims to deploy vaccines equitably to every corner of the planet. Yet not all lower- and middle-income nations are waiting for a lifeline. Countries such as South Africa and Malaysia are also pursuing their own supply deals through direct talks with manufacturers, and some regions are set to receive Pfizer’s vaccine as well.

‘Losing patience’

“There seem to be indications that countries are losing patience,” said Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Covax has secured access to almost 2 billion doses, with deliveries due to begin in the first quarter, and set a goal of vaccinating up to a fifth of countries’ populations by the end of the year. That’s far short of the levels of two-thirds or more that many nations are targeting. Some may not get vaccines until 2024, researchers estimate.

The mobilization is ramping up. India, a nation of more than 1.3 billion people, kicked off a massive inoculation drive on Saturday, an effort expected to encounter challenges as it extends into rural areas.

Vaccine advocates have called on rich countries to share while pushing companies to scale up manufacturing capacity. While it’s early, the trends are concerning, Venkayya said.

“Success is defined as getting vaccines to people everywhere,” he said, “and we’re not yet successful in that endeavour.”

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