Pandemic Death Toll Passes 800,000, But Hopes for Treatments Rise Too

The United Nations health agency says no one is safe anywhere until the virus has been defeated everywhere around the globe.

A man wearing a face mask walks past an idol of elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha during a reimposed weekend lockdown in Jammu, India, on Saturday. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

(CN) — The global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic surged past 800,000 over the weekend, but the head of the World Health Organization said Monday “there is light at the end of the tunnel” thanks to new treatments and the prospect of vaccines.

The WHO chief’s statement echoes what appears to be growing optimism among health experts that the pandemic can be curbed with an array of new drugs, treatments and vaccines. On Monday, financial markets also reacted to this sentiment and were buoyed by news from the United States on Sunday that it was approving blood plasma treatment for coronavirus patients.

The treatment, which is not a new technique, involves injecting sick patients with blood drawn from people who’ve been infected and built up antibodies.

Despite the glimmers of hope, the pandemic continues to rage in many parts of the world and there remain many uncertainties about the nature of the virus, its long-term health effects on those who recover and whether the pathogen will run rampant in a so-called second wave when the colder months arrive in the Northern Hemisphere and people are stuck indoors in close proximity.

An example of those uncertainties came out on Monday when researchers at the University of Hong Kong said they had discovered a 33-year-old man who had been reinfected with a different version of the virus after traveling to Spain. It appeared to be the first documented case of reinfection and raises questions about how effective any vaccine may be. The man tested positive for this new strain of the virus 142 days after he had fallen sick with Covid-19 the first time. He showed no symptoms upon reinfection, the researchers said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic, cautioned against drawing conclusions from the study and said the reinfection, though it appeared well-documented through genome sequencing, may be an anomaly. She said there’s growing evidence most people build up immunity to the virus after they become infected.

“This may be an example of reinfection,” she said during a news briefing on Monday at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. But, she added, the possibility of reinfection needs to be studied on a much larger pool of people at the “population level.”

“We need to not jump to any conclusions,” van Kerkhove said. Based on other coronaviruses, she said people build up immunity, though that “may wane” over time.

For much of August, India has become the country reporting the highest number of new infections. Since the beginning of August, India has seen new infections rise daily from about 50,000 to more than 70,000 over the weekend. The United States and Brazil, the nations with by far the highest death tolls, are registering a slow decrease in new infections though deaths remain stubbornly high.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, offered a message of cautious hope Monday and said a growing number of vaccines are reaching advanced stages of clinical tests. He added that his agency hopes at least 2 billion vaccine doses can be distributed around the globe by the end of next year.

People wait in line for Covid-19 tests in Hyderabad, India, on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)

“A number of vaccines are now in the final stage of clinical trials and we all hope we will have multiple successful candidates that are both safe and effective,” Tedros said.

The United Nations health agency is urging the world to join forces and make sure vaccines are distributed globally in a coordinated fashion that ensures the most vulnerable people are vaccinated first – such as doctors and nurses on the front lines, those over the age of 65 and people suffering serious health problems. Tedros said 172 countries have pledged to join a WHO initiative to coordinate a global vaccination program.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said in expressing hope for the global distribution of vaccines through his agency.

Typically, vaccines are tested for years before they are used on general populations, but efforts to develop vaccines are taking place at unprecedented speed to end a pandemic caused by a new coronavirus that scientists believe emerged out of bats and began infecting humans last year in China.

Already, China and Russia are pushing ahead with vaccines they approved for use earlier this month, despite concerns among Western health experts those vaccines are being injected into people before they have been properly tested. The WHO has not approved the use of any vaccine yet.

Chinese officials say they began vaccinating key workers on an emergency basis, such as health workers and border patrol agents, in July. Among those next in line for inoculation in a bid to create an “immunity barrier” are people working in the transport and service sectors and those employed in wet markets, said Zheng Zhongwei, the director of China’s National Health Commission, in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV, according to a report by South China Morning Post, a newspaper based in Hong Kong. The virus was first found last December in a cluster of cases connected to a wet market in the industrial city of Wuhan where wild animals were sold.

Zheng said China plans to increase vaccinations before the onset of autumn and winter. Its rapid vaccine program, coupled with its success at curbing the epidemic within its borders, has left China ahead of others in the fight against a virus that many, most notably U.S. President Donald Trump, blame China for bringing into the world.

China has reported about 85,000 infections and about 4,700 deaths linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. By comparison, the U.S. has reported more than 5.8 million cases and more than 180,600 deaths. Recent images from Wuhan showing thousands of youths packed together at an outdoor music concert without wearing masks have left the impression that China’s outbreak is over and life has returned to normal, as the New York Times noted in a recent report.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported over the weekend that the Trump administration is considering fast-tracking approval of a promising vaccine being developed by Oxford University and AstraZenaca, a British-based multinational pharmaceutical company. That report about an emergency approval of the vaccine, in time for the November election, was later denied by the company, as the Guardian reported.

The distribution of vaccines is turning political. China says it plans to push out its vaccines around the world, though it wants to first give priority to its Asian neighbors, according to state media.

China also is offering loans to countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia to allow them to purchase huge volumes of vaccines, a strategy seen as bolstering China’s aim to build a network of allies around the world that are dependent on it. Russia too is offering its vaccine to many countries and leaders in the Western Balkans, Latin America and elsewhere are considering buying the Russian vaccine, known as Sputnik V, a reference to the world’s first satellite launched by the Soviet Union.

In a sign of how contested vaccines are, China, Russia and the U.S. reportedly have not joined the WHO’s initiative, known as COVAX, to ensure vaccines are distributed equitably and at affordable prices around the world. The WHO has not commented on negotiations with these countries about their participation in the program.

Tedros said rolling out vaccines on a global scale is of utmost importance in ending the pandemic.

“This is in the interests of all countries, even those that have invested with individual manufacturers independently,” he said, referring to richer countries like the U.S., the United Kingdom and those in the European Union bloc that have pre-ordered massive volumes of vaccines from private companies.

The WHO fears poorer countries will be left waiting for vaccines after they are hoovered up by richer nations, a scenario it says will prolong the pandemic. In arguing against national vaccination plans that prioritize inoculating people within a single country, the agency has repeatedly said no one is safe anywhere until the virus has been defeated everywhere around the globe.

“Vaccine nationalism only helps the virus,” Tedros said. “Investing in the COVAX facility is the fastest way to end the pandemic.”


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

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