6 Months Later, Pandemic Death Toll Surpasses 900,000

A woman wearing a protective face makes her way home with bagfuls of aid, in San Jose Calderas, Guatemala, on Wednesday. The government’s migrant support agency Conamigua delivered bags of food and household items to the community of people who have been deported from the United States affected by Covid-19. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

(CN) — World Health Organization experts pleaded for patience Thursday in a news briefing from Geneva only days after a patient injected with a promising antidote fell ill, grinding one large-scale trial to a halt.

While a vaccine is seen as the magic bullet that will end the pandemic, financial markets were spooked this week by an announcement by AstraZeneca that it was temporarily halting its late-stage clinical trials because a patient suffered serious side effects after being injected with its vaccine.

“This is perhaps a good wake-up call or lesson for everyone to recognize the fact that there are ups and down in research, there are ups and downs in clinical development,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, said about the Britain-based AstraZeneca’s announcement. “It’s not always as fast and a straight road.”

She said AstraZeneca’s setback was to be expected in such a complex vaccine trial involving thousands of patients. A vaccine takes a minimum of six months to be tested before regulatory agencies can do their own analysis of a drug’s safety and efficacy, she added. While vaccines can take years to be developed, drug companies and governments are working at breakneck speed to come up with Covid-19 vaccines. At the earliest, a vaccine might finish clinical trials by the end of the year, she said.

“But we don’t need to be overly discouraged because these things happen,” she said about the AstraZeneca upset. “We hope the trial will be able to move on, but it depends.”

With about 180 vaccines in various stages of development and several at advanced clinical trials, U.S. President Donald Trump has pinned high hopes on the vaccine, as have many in Europe. No vaccine has been declared ready for general use by the WHO, though China and Russia declared in August to have manufactured vaccines even though they had not been fully tested.

Overall, Swaminathan said early vaccine tests are promising because they have elicited an immune response in patients and side effects “have not been a big issue so far.”

The briefing comes six months after Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, rocked the world when he announced a mysterious new disease caused by a coronavirus first found in China was a pandemic.

As of that date, March 11, the virus was linked to about 330 deaths, almost all of them in China. Six months later, the death toll stands at more than 910,000 with more than 5,000 deaths recorded each day.

India is now the country suffering the highest number of new infections and deaths. In recent days, India has reported the most new infections recorded anywhere in the world for a single day. On Wednesday, it set a new record with more than 95,000 new cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

India’s death toll stands at 76,155, the third highest after the United States and Brazil. The U.S. death toll is approaching 200,000 and Brazil’s is close to 130,000.

But the virus is raging in many parts of the world and it’s making a strong comeback in Europe, where the virus broke out with deadly consequences in late February, prompting the pandemic declaration. On Wednesday, a resurgence of infections caused British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reimpose draconian restrictions, including a ban on gatherings of more than six people. Restrictions are being reimposed across Europe as the virus spreads rapidly and schools reopen with the end of summer vacations.

The pandemic’s economic toll is huge too and prospects for a speedy recovery are dimming. The International Monetary Fund estimates the world economy is suffering about $375 billion in losses a month due to the pandemic and that the global economy will suffer more than $12 trillion in losses between 2020 and 2021. To offset the pandemic’s effects, the world’s richest nations have injected more than $10 trillion in stimulus funding.

Even once vaccines are developed, however, Tedros said he is worried political divisions and a lack of solidarity will be hurdles in efforts to distribute vaccines around the world to the poorest people.

“What worries me the most is what I have been saying all along: lack of solidarity,” Tedros said Thursday. “When solidarity lacks and when we’re divided, that’s a very good opportunity for the virus and that’s why it’s still spreading.”

He called for better world leadership. “We will need solidarity and we will need global leadership, especially of the major powers in the world,” he said. “That’s how we can defeat this virus.”

The pandemic has poisoned relations between the U.S. and China, deepened rifts inside nations and upended global politics. There are concerns that inequalities that existed before the pandemic are becoming even more exacerbated.

Tedros called on the world’s richest countries to contribute to a WHO initiative to distribute vaccines and medicines to fight the virus around the world. So far, the WHO’s effort has received $2.7 billion, but that’s less than 10% of the $35 billion it is calling for, he said.

He warned that deals nations are making to preorder vaccine stocks may end up prolonging the pandemic, as could the politicization of vaccine distribution.

“Bilateral vaccine deals and vaccine nationalism could compromise equitable access and hold up progress for all countries in bringing the Covid-19 pandemic to an end,” he said.

Still, Maria Van Kerkhove, a lead WHO scientist on the pandemic, said she was heartened to see how many nations are putting into practice techniques to handle the coronavirus.

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in January, nations that had already experienced previous outbreaks of deadly viruses “knew how serious this could be” and were well prepared, she said.

In recent decades, parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa have dealt with major outbreaks such as ebola, avian influenza, and the coronavirus diseases known as MERS and SARS.

She said such nations were prepared for this new virus and had stockpiles of protective equipment, scores of trained public health workers and protocols in place to deal with an epidemic.

By comparison, the U.S. and Europe were unprepared for the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus. Six months later, though, many places are much better equipped to deal with the virus, she said.

“What we’re seeing now is we’re not in the same position we were in in the beginning,” Van Kerkhove said. “Countries have learned a lot; we’ve all learned a lot about what works in terms of suppressing transmission, in terms of saving lives.”

She said that as nations “try to open up their societies and get back to this new normal that we all crave” governments are applying measures “in a more localized way” to control the pandemic.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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