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Science points to causes of COVID-19

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research coronavirus

Coronaviruses are transmitted between animals and humans. Many are relatively harmless – causing no more than a common cold. Others result in diseases that are new and unfamiliar, like the COVID-19 pandemic, and before that, outbreaks of diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS (2002); Avian Influenza or bird flu (2004); H1N1 or Swine  Flu (2009); Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS (2012); Ebola (2014– 2015); Zika virus (2015–2016); and West Nile virus (2019).

Almost a century’s worth of global trends confirm that coronaviruses are occurring more frequently. A 2016 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report flagged coronaviruses–or “zoonoses­­”–as an issue of global concern. On average, three new infectious diseases emerge in humans every year; and about three quarters of these are zoonotic.

What is causing the spike in these diseases?  Here’s what decades of scientific research has to say: 

Coronaviruses are facilitated by human actions

According to the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “There is a single species that is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic – us.”

Not all coronaviruses result in disease. Without animal-to-human transmission, the current SARS-CoV-2 virus would not have presented itself in the form of COVID-19.  Indeed, other coronaviruses are circulating in animals and have not yet infected humans.

Coronaviruses are leaping to humans more frequently because we are providing them with more opportunities to do so. In the last 50 years alone, the human population has doubled and the global economy has almost quadrupled. Rapid migration from rural to urban areas and creation of new urban centres has affected demographics, lifestyles and consumer behaviour. 

Environmental changes

Our evolving lifestyles have dramatically altered the land around us. We have cleared forests and other natural areas to create spaces for urban areas and settlements, agriculture and industries. In doing so, we have reduced overall space for wildlife and degraded natural buffers between humans and animals.

Climate change is also a driver of zoonoses.  Greenhouse gas emissions–primarily the result of burning fossil fuels–cause changes in temperature and humidity, which directly affects the survival of microbes.  Scheduled for release next month, a new rapid assessment by UNEP and ILRI on zoonotics suggests that epidemics will become more frequent as the climate continues to change. 

Behavioural changes

Demand for dairy and meat products has led to the expansion of uniform cropland and intense livestock farming in rural areas and near cities.  Livestock often serve as a bridge between wildlife and human infections, meaning pathogens may be passed from wild animals to livestock to humans. 

Of particular concern are informal markets, where live, wild animals are kept and sold, often in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. Viruses and other pathogens may be easily spread among animals that are kept close together; or to the humans who handle, transport, sell, purchase or consume them, when sanitary and protective practices are not followed. 

Pathogen changes

Pathogens are always changing to survive in different animals, humans and environments. With the increase of intensive farming and overuse of antimicrobial drugs in both animals and people, pathogens are becoming more resistant to the very medications that might have been effective in treating zoonotic disease.

What COVID-19 is teaching us

COVID-19 is a reminder that human health and the planet’s health are closely linked. There are about 8 million species of life on the Earth, of which humans are just one. These include an estimated 1.7 million unidentified viruses, recognized as the type that may infect people, existing in mammals and water birds.  Any one of these could be transferred to humans, if we don’t take preventative measures now.

The most fundamental way to protect ourselves from coronaviruses is to prevent destruction of nature, which drives the spread of diseases

Where ecosystems are healthy and biodiverse, they are resilient, adaptable and help to regulate diseases. Pathogens that are passed around among reservoirs in animals are more likely to reach dead–and effectively die off–where there is greater diversity.

Genetic diversity builds disease resistance among animal populations and decreases the chances of outbreaks of high-impact animal diseases, according to a 2017 IPBES report.  Conversely, intensive livestock farming can produce genetic similarities within herds and flocks, reducing resilience and making them more susceptible to pathogens. This, by extension, exposes humans to a higher risk.

Behavioural changes

Demand for dairy and meat products has led to the expansion of uniform cropland and intense livestock farming in rural areas and near cities.  Livestock often serve as a bridge between wildlife and human infections, meaning pathogens may be passed from wild animals to livestock to humans. 

Of particular concern are informal markets, where live, wild animals are kept and sold, often in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. Viruses and other pathogens may be easily spread among animals that are kept close together; or to the humans who handle, transport, sell, purchase or consume them, when sanitary and protective practices are not followed. 

Pathogen changes

Pathogens are always changing to survive in different animals, humans and environments. With the increase of intensive farming and overuse of antimicrobial drugs in both animals and people, pathogens are becoming more resistant to the very medications that might have been effective in treating zoonotic disease.

What COVID-19 is teaching us

COVID-19 is a reminder that human health and the planet’s health are closely linked. There are about 8 million species of life on the Earth, of which humans are just one. These include an estimated 1.7 million unidentified viruses, recognized as the type that may infect people, existing in mammals and water birds.  Any one of these could be transferred to humans, if we don’t take preventative measures now.

The most fundamental way to protect ourselves from coronaviruses is to prevent destruction of nature, which drives the spread of diseases

Where ecosystems are healthy and biodiverse, they are resilient, adaptable and help to regulate diseases. Pathogens that are passed around among reservoirs in animals are more likely to reach dead–and effectively die off–where there is greater diversity.

Genetic diversity builds disease resistance among animal populations and decreases the chances of outbreaks of high-impact animal diseases, according to a 2017 IPBES report.  Conversely, intensive livestock farming can produce genetic similarities within herds and flocks, reducing resilience and making them more susceptible to pathogens. This, by extension, exposes humans to a higher risk.

UN Environment

Finance

Afghanistan: 500,000 jobs lost since Taliban takeover

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More than half a million people have lost or been pushed out of their jobs in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Wednesday.

In a warning that the economy has been “paralyzed” since the de facto authorities took control last August, ILO said that there have been huge losses in jobs and working hours.

Women have been hit especially hard.

By the middle of this year, it’s expected that job losses will increase to nearly 700,000 – with direst predictions topping 900,000 – as a result of the crisis in Afghanistan and “restrictions on women’s participation in the workplace”.

Gender gap

Women’s employment levels are already extremely low by global standards, but ILO said that they are estimated to have decreased by 16 per cent in the third quarter of 2021, and they could fall by between 21 per cent and 28 per cent by mid-2022.

“The situation in Afghanistan is critical and immediate support for stabilization and recovery is required,” said Ramin Behzad, Senior Coordinator of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for Afghanistan. “While the priority is to meet immediate humanitarian needs, lasting and inclusive recovery will depend on people and communities having access to decent employment, livelihoods and basic services.”

Hundreds of thousands of job losses have been seen in several key sectors which have been “devastated” since the takeover, ILO said.

These include agriculture and the civil service, where workers have either been let go or left unpaid. In construction, the sector’s 538,000 workers – of which 99 per cent are men – have suffered too, as major infrastructure projects have stalled.

Forces sapped

The Taliban takeover has also led to “hundreds of thousands” of Afghan security force members losing their job, said ILO, noting that teachers and health workers have been deeply impacted by the lack of cash in the economy, amid falling international donor support.

As the crisis continues to unfold, ILO explained that the Taliban capture of Kabul on 15 August, threatened hard-fought development gains achieved over the past two decades.

Domestic markets have been “widely disrupted”, the UN agency said, while productive economic activity has dropped, which has in turn driven up production costs.

At the same time, because Afghanistan’s reported $9.5 billion in assets have been frozen, “foreign aid, trade and investment…have been severely impacted”, ILO continued, pointing to cash shortages and restrictions on bank withdrawals, causing misery for businesses, workers and households.

Kids pay price

The lack of work also threatens to worsen child labour levels in Afghanistan, where only 40 per cent of children aged five to 17 years old attend school.

In absolute numbers, ILO noted that there are more than 770,000 boys and about 300,000 girls involved in child labour.

The problem is worst in rural areas – where 9.9 per cent, or 839,000 children –  are much more likely to be in child labour compared to those in urban areas (2.9 per cent or 80,000).

To support the Afghan people this year, the UN’s top priorities are to provide lifesaving assistance, sustain essential services and preserve social investments and community-level systems which are essential to meeting basic human needs.

In support of this strategy, the ILO has pledged to work with employers and trade unions to promote productive employment and decent work.

The organisation’s focus is in four key areas: emergency employment services, employment-intensive investment, enterprise promotion and skills development, while respecting labour rights, gender equality, social dialogue, social protection,elimination of child labour and disability inclusion.

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Development

World Economic Forum Annual Meeting rescheduled to 22-26 May

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The World Economic Forum is pleased to announce that it will hold its Annual Meeting 2022 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, from Sunday 22 to Thursday 26 May. Under the theme, Working Together, Restoring Trust, the Annual Meeting 2022 will be the first global in-person leadership event since the start of the pandemic.

The Annual Meeting 2022, returning to Davos-Klosters after a two-year hiatus, will offer world leaders an opportunity to take stock of the state of the world and shape partnerships and policies for the crucial period ahead.

Topics on the agenda will include the pandemic recovery, tackling climate change, building a better future for work, accelerating stakeholder capitalism, and harnessing the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum, said: “After all the virtual meetings taking place in the last two years, leaders from politics, business and civil society have to convene finally in person again. We need to establish the atmosphere of trust that is truly needed to accelerate collaborative action and to address the multiple challenges we face.”

The World Economic Forum will continue to communicate closely with the Swiss government on the public health situation in Switzerland. The meeting will take place as long as all necessary conditions are in place to guarantee the health and safety of its participants and the host community.

During the Davos Agenda 2022, heads of state and government and international organizations shared their priorities for a challenging year ahead. They joined leaders from business and civil society and spoke on the global economic outlook, inequality, healthy futures, climate and resilience.

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Health & Wellness

COVID-19: WHO expresses hope worst of Omicron wave is over

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Omicron continues to sweep the world, but cases seem to have peaked in some countries, which gives the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) hope that the worst of this latest wave of COVID-19 is over. 

Briefing journalists in Geneva, Tedros Ghebreyesus said that more than 18 million cases were reported last week, and the pandemic itself is far from over, so no country is out of the woods yet.

The number of deaths remains stable, but the agency is concerned about the impact the variant is having on already exhausted health workers and overburdened health systems.

“I remain particularly concerned about many countries that have low vaccination rates, as people are many times more at risk of severe illness and death if they’re unvaccinated”, Tedros said. 

Omicron may be less severe, but for the WHO chief “the narrative that it is mild disease is misleading, hurts the overall response and costs more lives.”

Tedros noted that the virus is circulating “far too intensely with many still vulnerable” and argued that, for many countries, the next few weeks remain critical.

COVAX

Over the weekend, the UN-backed COVAX facility delivered its one-billionth dose of vaccine. 

Tedros said he was proud of the milestone, but believes it’s essential to keep forging ahead with distributing shots fairly, across the world. 

“Vaccines may be less effective at preventing infection and transmission of Omicron than they were for previous variants, but they still are exceptionally good at preventing serious disease and death”, he explained. 

For him, immunization continues to be “key to protecting hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.”

Tracking the virus

The WHO chief also highlighted the importance of tracking new variants, like Omicron, in real time.

Tedros believes that the pandemic is “nowhere near over” and, with the incredible growth of Omicron, new variants are likely to emerge

So far, more than 7 million whole genome sequences from 180 countries have been submitted to GISAID, a global mechanism that provides open access to genomic data and was initially set up to track flu.

Using all that data, new formulations of vaccines are being developed and assessed for how they perform against different strains. 

Despite those efforts, Tedros is concerned that the world will enter “a second and even more destructive phase of vaccine inequity”, if it doesn’t change course. 

New treatments 

Last Friday, WHO recommended two new COVID-19 treatmentsto fight severe illness and death: a rheumatoid arthritis drug called baricitinib and a monoclonal antibody called sotrovimab.

For Tedros, the challenge, once again, is that high prices and limited supply means access is limited.

WHO is currently working with its partners in ACT-Accelerator to negotiate lower prices with manufacturers and ensure supply will be available for low- and middle-income countries.

Meeting

Next week, the WHO Executive Board, which is made up of 34 Member States, will meet to discuss the world’s health challenges.

The pandemic will remain at the forefront, but Member States will also be discussing the devastating impact of the pandemic on other health issues, and how the backsliding can be stopped. 

According to the WHO chief, the agency willbe working to accelerate progress on negotiations around a global pandemic accord.

Cervical Cancer Awareness

On a final note, Tedros noted that January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month.

In 2020, an estimated 604,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide and about 342, 000 women died from the disease.

The main cause of the disease is infection with high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV), an extremely common family of viruses that are transmitted through sexual contact.

There are, however, vaccines that protect against high-risk HPV types, which means it should be one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer.

On Monday, Serbia announced that this year,it will introduce a vaccination programme against HPV, joining the 116 nationswho already do it. 

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