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Covid Chronicles XII

By lockdown_exit - 27th Oct 2020, 12:00 am - Covid Chronicles

The world's worst pandemic since the 'Spanish flu' of 1918-1919, has had its first direct political impact. Last weekend, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered the biggest election victory for her centre-left Labour Party in half a century as voters rewarded her for a decisive response to Covid-19. National leaders were decimated in their strongholds by young Labour candidates who appealed to voters with progressive, democratic messages, and highlighted the party's success in beating the coronavirus. Life is back to normal in New Zealand, but its borders are still shut, its tourism sector is bleeding, and economists predict a lasting recession after the harsh lockdowns. However, it's not over by a long shot, even in New Zealand, an island nation better able to contain the pandemic because it has no easily breachable land borders. New Zealand reported its first locally acquired case of Covid-19 in almost a month, just days after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's electoral victory. 

China, where it all began, is another burst of sunshine in the pandemic gloom. It is likely to end the year with an even bigger economy than it had at the start. Economists at the International Monetary Fund are pencilling an annual growth of 1.9%, which puts the country way ahead of its rivals, still facing a rising tide of the pandemic. The US, Germany and the UK are expected to shrink by 4.3%, 6% and 9.8%, respectively. China deployed a severe lockdown and a robust testing regime to contain the virus the first time around. Growth has powered ahead thanks to a state-backed boom in new infrastructure projects, including roads and high-speed train lines. This has fuelled the strong rebound in industrial production, which beat economists' forecasts to grow by 6.9% in the year to September, up from 5.6% in August. 

And when it comes to the war on the virus, researchers in the UK are preparing to infect healthy young volunteers with the coronavirus, becoming the first scientists to use the controversial technique to study the disease and potentially speed up the development of a vaccine. The UK government said last Tuesday that it will invest 33.6 million British pounds ($43.5m) in the Human Challenge Programme in partnership with Imperial College London, laboratory and trial services company hVIVO, and the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust. 

On the downside, one of the world's biggest trials of Covid-19 therapies released its long-awaited interim results last week - and they're a letdown. None of the four treatments in the Solidarity trial, which enrolled more than 11,000 patients in 400 hospitals around the globe, increased survival, not even the much-touted antiviral drug Remdesivir.  Scientists at the World Health Organization (WHO) released the data as a preprint on ahead of its planned publication in The New England Journal of Medicine. Yet scientists praised the unprecedented study itself, and the fact that it helped bring clarity about four existing, 'repurposed' treatments that each held some promise against Covid-19. "It's disappointing that none of the four have come out and shown a difference in mortality, but it does show why you need big trials," says Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust. "We would love to have a drug that works, but it's better to know if a drug works or not than not to know and continue to use it," says WHO's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan.

And this makes it all the more puzzling as to why the US Food and Drug Administration has approved Gilead Sciences' antiviral medicine, Remdesivir, as the first drug to treat Covid-19 after a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health showed that the drug cut recovery time of patients hospitalised due to coronavirus from 15 days to 10 days. Remdesivir, or Veklury as it is called by Gilead, works by inhibiting a substance the virus uses to replicate itself and has been authorised to be used on people hospitalised with Covid-19 who are at least 12 years old and weighing at least 40kg. 

Meanwhile, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro rejected the purchase of 46 million doses of CoronaVac, China's potential Covid-19 vaccine candidate, only days after the purchase had been announced by Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello. A contrarian, Bolsonaro said on social media channels that the 'Brazilian people will not be anyone's guinea pig' and that the vaccine has not yet been tested adequately. Brazilian health authority Anvisa said last Wednesday that a volunteer in a clinical trial of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University had died but added that the trial would continue. Oxford confirmed the plan to keep testing, saying in a statement that after careful assessment "there have been no concerns about the safety of the clinical trial." AstraZeneca declined to comment immediately. A source familiar with the matter told Reuters the trial would have been suspended if the volunteer who died had received the Covid-19 vaccine, suggesting the person was part of the control group that was given a meningitis jab. 

Moderna Inc's CEO Stephane Bancel expects interim results from its coronavirus vaccine trial in November and that the US government could approve the drug for emergency use in December, the Wall Street Journal reported. Speaking at the newspaper's annual Tech Live conference, Bancel also said last Monday that if sufficient interim results from the study are delayed, government permission to use the vaccine may not come until next year.

The global hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine for children is only just beginning - a lagging start that has some US pediatricians worried they may not know if any shots work for young children in time for the next school year. Older adults may be most vulnerable to the coronavirus, but ending the pandemic will require vaccinating children too. Last week, Pfizer Inc received permission to test its vaccine on US children as young as 12, one of only a handful of attempts around the world to start exploring if any experimental shots being pushed fo adults also can protect children. "I just figured the more people they have to do tests on, the quicker they can put out a vaccine and people can be safe and healthy," said 16 year-old Katelyn Evans, who became the first teen to get an injection in the Pfizer study at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

In light of the upcoming US Presidential elections, the incumbent must have the last word. Donald Trump, who tested positive for Covid-19 early this month, has said that as a president he cannot remain locked in a basement and he has to meet people despite the risks. Trump, responding to a question at a townhall organised by NBC News, also defended not wearing a mask as much as his own administration's public health experts recommend and said that lockdowns imposed by various states across the country to curb the coronavirus cases were 'unconstitutional'. He said he is not averse to wearing a mask, but people with masks are catching it all the time. 

Lalita Panicker is Consulting Editor, Views, Hindustan Times, New Delhi