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Covid Chronicles XXIV

By lockdown_exit - 15th Jan 2021, 12:52 pm - Covid Chronicles

India begins its Covid-19 vaccination campaign over the weekend, described by officials as the world's largest. Doses of Covid vaccine - specifically the Oxford/AstraZeneca candidate - are being dispensed to cities by the Serum Institute of India. The mass inoculation drive will begin Saturday and aims to cover 300 million people in its first phase - 30 million frontline workers first and then 270 million at-risk people, including those over 50 and/or those with underlying conditions. India is widely regarded as the "pharmacy of the world" because of the sheer scale of its vaccine manufacturing facilities, accounting for 60% of the world's vaccine production. 

However, India's vaccination drive is not without controversy. Just after New Year's Day, regulators in India granted authorisation for restricted use to Bharat Biotech's Covaxin, adding another Covid-19 vaccine to the list of those that have been approved for use in various countries around the world. New vaccines against Covid-19 are sorely needed worldwide, especially in low-income countries, which are being left behind as high-income countries adopt "vaccine nationalism" and snatch up doses at the expense of those with less means. The Covaxin rollout, however, illustrates another worrisome trend. Regulators in India gave the vaccine the go-ahead before data from large-scale clinical trials are available, just as Russian and Chinese regulators did for their own homegrown vaccine candidates. 

Meanwhile, the Moderna vaccine candidate has secured approval from UK regulators - the third to do so - having shown 94% efficacy in late-stage trials. Seven million doses have already been ordered, with ten millions to follow. Health Secretary Matt Hancock welcomed the move, calling it 'another weapon in our arsenal'. The vaccine is soon expected to become available in the UK.

Johnson & Johnson's one-dose Covid-19 vaccine regimen could jump-start an immunisation push that's faltering in spite of the millions of doses Pfizer, BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Moderna are rolling out around the world. And the J&J shot is on the verge of its next big step forward. The pharma giant is in the "final stages" of data analysis for its phase 3 trial, CEO Alex Gorsky said last Monday. The company hopes "to have that information very soon," he added. 

The UK is set to trial a fourth vaccine candidate. Sixty million doses of the Valneva vaccine have already been ordered by the UK government. Trials will take place at the National Institute for Health Research sites in Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle and Southampton, targeting 150 volunteers in the first phase. The news comes amidst numerous controversies over vaccine rollout in the UK, including inconsistent supply to GPs. 

The global economic recovery, expected in the first quarter of 2021, is at risk of being pushed back further as coronavirus lockdowns and mobility restrictions in several countries cloud hopes of a swifter economic rebound, investment banks said. China announced lockdowns in four cities and European countries unveiled tighter and longer coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday, denting back-to-normal hopes and sparking worries about further economic damage in 2021.

And among the culprits responsible for fresh Covid waves are its variants. Japan's health ministry has declared a new coronavirus variant in the country. The new strain features 12 mutations, including one that was found in England and South Africa. Both the UK variant - which is significantly more transmissible - and a second strain in South Africa have raised concerns about whether a vaccine-resistant version could eventually develop.

Vaccine makers and medical regulators are sketching out plans in case the mutating coronavirus turns vaccine development into a game of cat and mouse. Just weeks after leading manufacturers secured the first regulatory approvals, mutations in the virus have forced scientists to re-test their Covid-19 vaccines and prepare to tweak their formula should the shots prove less effective.

Hit by a second virus wave that has forced another lockdown in the neighbourhood of its capital, Beijing, and amid reports that its much vaunted vaccine is showing a fraction over 50% effectiveness, China is showing signs of a climb down. The long-awaited World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the origin of the pandemic began on Thursday. A WHO team arrived in China to probe the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic - following months of political wrangling with President Xi Jinping's government. A 10-member team landed in Wuhan to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into the origins of the pandemic, amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries. Scientists suspect the virus - which has killed 1.9 million people since late 2019 - jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China's southwest.

Calculations are going awry over how many vaccines will be required and at what point in time. Europe, UK and the USA have been on the job, jabbing away since last December, only to be faced with the dilemma of whether to continue with single doses in the hopes that fresh supplies will allow for a second dose in the stipulated period, or hold off to complete the second dose (each vaccine requires two doses per person) before continuing. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's transition team said last Friday that it doesn't make sense to hold back vaccines at a time when more Americans are dying than at any point in the pandemic. Instead, they want to get shots into more arms, then follow up with second doses later. "The President-elect believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible," spokesman T.J. Ducklo said in a statement to USA Today. 

And the good news is Covax, an international initiative for Covid-19 vaccines led by the World Health Organization, has secured contracts of 2 billion doses of vaccines, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday. A good start although that's not entirely enough.

However, every silver lining has a cloud: worldwide coronavirus cases surpassed 90 million on Monday, according to a Reuters tally, as nations around the globe scramble to procure vaccines and continue to extend or reinstate lockdowns to fight new coronavirus variants. The new Covid-19 variants discovered initially in the UK and South Africa are rapidly spreading globally. Europe, which became the first region to report 25 million cases last week, remains the worst-affected area in the world, followed by North and Latin America, with 22.4 million and 16.3 million cases respectively.

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