Covid Chronicles II

By lockdown_exit - 8th Aug 2020, 1:39 am - Covid Chronicles

Covid-19 continues to confound the world, following an erratic vertical trajectory, up and down, mostly in terms of positive cases. These days it has also adopted an irregular curve horizontally, moving from hot spots to relatively Covid-free areas and back again. At last calculation, the global death toll had shot well past 700,000, an astounding one death every 15 seconds. Countries across the world have recently seen single-day records in new cases, signalling a second wave in infections.

The tiny glimmer at the end of a dark tunnel is a welcome improvement in the recovery rate of people hit by the virus. Doctors the world over have been learning on the job and from each other, essentially treating patients symptomatically as has been the case with any "viral fever" of unknown antecedents.

In Africa, earlier it was DR Congo that did a commendable job in controlling the spread. Now it is Uganda. The nation of 42 million people has recorded just over 1,200 cases and five deaths since March, a strikingly low total for such a large country. But its success came at a cost. Jobs were lost, and economic growth is set to plunge to as low as 0.4% in 2020, from 5.6% last year, according to the World Bank.

According to research by AlphaWise, U.S. bank Morgan Stanley's research unit, almost three-quarters of the staff of white-collar firms in Europe have started returning to work, compared to only about one-third of their counterparts in the UK. More than 83% of office staff have returned to their offices in France but the numbers in the UK are far fewer, despite the plea by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Britons to start returning to their workplaces.

And sure enough, Covid-19 continues to ensure the world resembles a YoYo: now back to normal and then back to the sickbed.

France, Spain and Germany each reported over 1,000 new daily infections and their highest numbers in months, in what's become part of the horizontal curve, as the world continues to battle a surge in Covid-19 cases. Germany announced mandatory tests for travellers coming from high-risk regions and French cities such as Nice and Toulouse ordered the public to wear masks in busy streets.

With no sure-fire cure in the offing, there's a frenzied race going on for an effective preventive vaccine. More than 150 coronavirus vaccines are in development across the world. Several efforts are underway to help make that possible, including the U.S. government's Operation Warp Speed initiative, which has pledged $10 billion and aims to develop and deliver 300 million doses of a safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by January 2021. (Dozens of Covid-19 vaccines are in development).

Having badly underestimated the pandemic and the devastating effects that followed, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is leading the charge to corner the market in vaccines still in the making. It will pay Johnson & Johnson over $1 billion for 100 million doses of its potential coronavirus vaccine.

The U.S. has also agreed to pay Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline up to $2.1bn to accelerate the development of the experimental Covid-19 vaccine the companies are developing and secure an initial 100 million doses. It is the eighth deal struck through the U.S.'s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda) and brings the total pledged to over $8.3bn, more than any other country or government to date. (U.S. agrees to buy Sanofi-GSK Covid-19 vaccine).

Sanofi SA and GlaxoSmithKline Plc have said they are in advanced discussions to supply up to 300 million doses of an experimental Covid-19 vaccine for the 27-country European Union.  Armed with an emergency fund of more than 2 billion euros ($2.4 billion), the European Commission wants to strike deals with up to six drug-makers for their 450 million citizens. (EU poised to secure Sanofi deal for coronavirus vaccine)

In China, where the pandemic began Shenzhen Kangtai Biological Products will produce AstraZeneca's Plc's potential Covid-19 vaccine, the British drugmaker said on Thursday, its first deal to supply one of the world's most populous countries.  Chinese ventures are leading at least eight of the 26 global vaccine development projects currently being tested in humans. Under the agreement, Shenzhen Kangtai, one of China's top vaccine makers, will ensure it has an annual production capacity of at least 100 million doses of the experimental shot AZD1222, which AstraZeneca co-developed with researchers at Oxford University.

Russia is treading a different path but with what could be unseemly haste. It is planning to go ahead with mass vaccinations in October - something the World Health Organization (WHO) has raised concerns about. There are usually three main phases of human testing before a vaccine can be approved for general use. The final stage, Phase 3, involves trials among a much larger group of volunteers. Six potential vaccines have reached this third stage. One, developed by the University of Oxford, appears safe and triggers an immune response in humans. Early results from two trials in the U.S.,run by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the biotech company Moderna, also appear to produce a good immune response in volunteers. However, they are all still under testing and none have received approval. According to document released by the WHO last week, the Russian jab, which has been developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute, remains far behind and is still in Phase 1. (Russia is planning to go ahead with mass vaccinations in October.)

Amidst the '"feeding frenzy" over vaccines that are still under development, WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned there's no 'silver bullet' amid the search for a vaccine. Striking a sombre note he said that while there is hope for a vaccine against Covid-19, one might never be found. He told a news briefing there was "no silver bullet at the moment - and there might never be."

The global coronavirus outbreak is the sort of disaster whose effects will last far into the future, the WHO Director General said last Friday. The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come, Tedros told a meeting of the WHO's emergency committee.

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