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Escaping the ‘Era of Pandemics’: Experts warn worse crises to come options offered to reduce risk

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Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases, warns a major new report on biodiversity and pandemics by 22 leading experts from around the world. 

Convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for an urgent virtual workshop about the links between degradation of nature and increasing pandemic risks, the experts agree that escaping the era of pandemics is possible, but that this will require a seismic shift in approach from reaction to prevention.

COVID-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, and although it has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like all pandemics its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities, says the report released on Thursday. It is estimated that another 1.7 million currently ‘undiscovered’ viruses exist in mammals and birds – of which up to 850,000 could have the ability to infect people.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic”, said Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the IPBES workshop. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.” 

Pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity, by greater conservation of protected areas, and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of high biodiversity regions. This will reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spillover of new diseases, says the report. 

“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,” said Dr. Daszak. “We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics – but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability. Our approach has effectively stagnated – we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.” 

“The fact that human activity has been able to so fundamentally change our natural environment need not always be a negative outcome. It also provides convincing proof of our power to drive the change needed to reduce the risk of future pandemics – while simultaneously benefiting conservation and reducing climate change.” 

 The report says that relying on responses to diseases after their emergence, such as public health measures and technological solutions, in particular the rapid design and distribution of new vaccines and therapeutics, is a “slow and uncertain path”, underscoring both the widespread human suffering and the tens of billions of dollars in annual economic damage to the global economy of reacting to pandemics. 

Pointing to the likely cost of COVID-19 of $8-16 trillion globally by July 2020, it is further estimated that costs in the United States alone may reach as high as $16 trillion by the 4th quarter of 2021. The experts estimate the cost of reducing risks to prevent pandemics to be 100 times less than the cost of responding to such pandemics, “providing strong economic incentives for transformative change.”

The report also offers a number of policy options that would help to reduce and address pandemic risk. Among these are: 

  • Launching a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to provide decision-makers with the best science and evidence on emerging diseases; predict high-risk areas; evaluate the economic impact of potential pandemics and to highlight research gaps. Such a council could also coordinate the design of a global monitoring framework.
  • Countries setting mutually-agreed goals or targets within the framework of an international accord or agreement – with clear benefits for people, animals and the environment.
  • Institutionalizing the ‘One Health’ approach in national governments to build pandemic preparedness, enhance pandemic prevention programs, and to investigate and control outbreaks across sectors.
  • Developing and incorporating pandemic and emerging disease risk health impact assessments in major development and land-use projects, while reforming financial aid for land-use so that benefits and risks to biodiversity and health are recognized and explicitly targeted.
  • Ensuring that the economic cost of pandemics is factored into consumption, production, and government policies and budgets.
  • Enabling changes to reduce the types of consumption, globalized agricultural expansion and trade that have led to pandemics – this could include taxes or levies on meat consumption, livestock production and other forms of high pandemic-risk activities.
  • Reducing zoonotic disease risks in the international wildlife trade through a new intergovernmental ‘health and trade’ partnership; reducing or removing high disease-risk species in the wildlife trade; enhancing law enforcement in all aspects of the illegal wildlife trade and improving community education in disease hotspots about the health risks of wildlife trade.
  • Valuing Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ engagement and knowledge in pandemic prevention programs, achieving greater food security, and reducing consumption of wildlife.
  • Closing critical knowledge gaps such as those about key risk behaviors, the relative importance of illegal, unregulated, and the legal and regulated wildlife trade in disease risk, and improving understanding of the relationship between ecosystem degradation and restoration, landscape structure and the risk of disease emergence.

Speaking about the workshop report, Dr. Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of science and expertise to inform policy and decision-making. Although it is not one of the typical IPBES intergovernmental assessments reports, this is an extraordinary peer reviewed expert publication, representing the perspectives of some of the world’s leading scientists, with the most up-to-date evidence and produced under significant time constraints.”

“We congratulate Dr. Daszak and the other authors of this workshop report and thank them for this vital contribution to our understanding of the emergence of pandemics and options for controlling and preventing future outbreaks. This will inform a number of IPBES assessments already underway, in addition to offering decision-makers new insights into pandemic risk reduction and options for prevention” she added.

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COVID vaccines: Widening inequality and millions vulnerable

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Health leaders agree that a world without COVID-19 will not be possible until everyone has equal access to vaccines. More than 4.6 million people have died from the virus since it swept across the globe from the beginning of 2020, but it’s expected that the rate of people dying will slow if more people are vaccinated. 

Developed countries are far more likely to vaccinate their citizens, which risks prolonging the pandemic, and widening global inequality. Ahead of a dialogue at the UN on Monday between senior United Nations officials UN News explains the importance of vaccine equity.

What is vaccine equity?

Quite simply, it means that all people, wherever they are in the world, should have equal access to a vaccine which offers protection against the COVID-19 infection.

WHO has set a global target of 70 per cent of the population of all countries to be vaccinated by mid-2022, but to reach this goal a more equitable access to vaccines will be needed.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said vaccine equity was “not rocket science, nor charity. It is smart public health and in everyone’s best interest.”

Why is it so important?

Apart from the ethical argument that no country or citizen is more deserving of another, no matter how rich or poor, an infectious disease like COVID-19 will remain a threat globally, as long as it exists anywhere in the world.

Inequitable vaccine distribution is not only leaving millions or billions of people vulnerable to the deadly virus, it is also allowing even more deadly variants to emerge and spread across the globe.

Moreover, an unequal distribution of vaccines will deepen inequality and exaggerate the gap between rich and poor and will reverse decades of hard-won progress on human development.

According to the UN, vaccine inequity will have a lasting impact on socio-economic recovery in low and lower-middle income countries and set back progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the UNDP, eight out of ten people pushed into poverty directly by the pandemic are projected to live in the world’s poorest countries in 2030.

Estimates also suggest that the economic impacts of COVID-19 may last until 2024 in low-income countries, while high-income countries could reach pre-COVID-19 per capita GDP growth rates by the end of this year.

Is it working?

Not according to Dr Tedros, who said in April this year that “vaccine equity is the challenge of our time…and we are failing”.

Research suggests that enough vaccines will be produced in 2021 to cover 70 per cent of the global population of 7.8 billion. However, most vaccines are being reserved for wealthy countries, while other vaccine-producing countries are restricting the export of doses so they can ensure that their own citizens get vaccinated first, an approach which has been dubbed “vaccine nationalism”. The decision by some nations to give already inoculated citizens a booster vaccine, rather than prioritizing doses for unvaccinated people in poorer countries has been highlighted as one example of this trend.

 Still, the good news, according to WHO data, is that as of September 15, more than 5.5 billion doses have been administered worldwide, although given that most of the available vaccines require two shots, the number of people who are protected is much lower.

Which countries are getting the vaccines right now?

Put simply, the rich countries are getting the majority of vaccines, with many poorer countries struggling to vaccinate even a small number of citizens.

According to the Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity  (established by UNDP, WHO and Oxford University) as of September 15, just 3.07 per cent of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated with at least one dose, compared to 60.18 per cent in high-income countries.

The vaccination rate in the UK of people who have received at least one vaccine dose is around 70.92 per cent while the US is currently at 65.2 per cent. Other high-income and middle-income countries are not doing so well; New Zealand has vaccinated just 31.97 per cent of its relatively small population of around five million, although Brazil, is now at 63.31 per cent.

However, the stats in some of the poorest countries in the world make for grim reading. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo just 0.09 per cent of the population have received one dose; in Papua New Guinea and Venezuela, the rate is 1.15 per cent and 20.45 per cent respectively.

What’s the cost of a vaccine?

Data from UNICEF show that the average cost of a COVID-19 vaccine is $2 to $37 (there are 24 vaccines which have been approved by at least one national regulatory authority) and the estimated distribution cost per person is $3.70. This represents a significant financial burden for low-income countries, where, according to UNDP, the average annual per capita health expenditure amounts to $41.

The vaccine equity dashboard shows that, without immediate global financial support, low-income countries would have to increase their healthcare spending by between 30 and 60 per cent to meet the target of vaccinating 70 per cent of their citizens.

What has the UN been doing to promote a more equitable access to vaccines?

WHO and UNICEF have worked with other organizations to establish and manage the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, known as COVAX. Launched in April 2020, WHO called it a “ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines”.

Its aim is to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world based on need and not purchasing power.

Currently, COVAX numbers 141 participants according to the UN-supported Gavi alliance, but it’s not the only way that countries can access vaccines as they can also make bilateral deals with manufacturers.

Will equal access to vaccines bring an end to the pandemic?

It’s a crucial step, obviously, and in many richer countries, life is getting back to some sort of normality for many people, even if some pandemic protocols are still in place. The situation in less developed countries is more challenging. While the delivery of vaccines, provided under the COVAX Facility, is being welcomed across the world, weak health systems, including shortages of health workers are contributing to mounting access and distribution challenges on the ground.

And equity issues don’t disappear once vaccines are physically delivered in country; in some nations, both rich and poor, inequities in distribution may still persist.

It’s also worth remembering that the imperative of providing equal access to health care is, of course, not a new issue, but central to the Sustainable Development Goals and more precisely, SDG 3 on good health and well-being, which calls for achieving universal health coverage and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.

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Health & Wellness

Moderna vs. Pfizer: Two Recent Studies Show Moderna to Be The More Effective One

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The first study was published by medRxiv “The Preprint Server for Health Sciences” on August 9th, and compared (on 25,589 vaccinated v. 25,589 unvaccinated Minnesotans) “the effectiveness of two full-length Spike protein-encoding mRNA vaccines from Moderna (mRNA-1273) and Pfizer/BioNTech (BNT162b2) in the Mayo Clinic Health System in Minnesota over time from January to July 2021.” Moderna was 86% effective against the infection; Pfizer was 76% effective. In July (when the “Delta” variant first became dominant) Moderna was 91.6% effective against hospitalization; Pfizer was 85%. But during that month, effectiveness against the infection was 76% for Moderna v. 42% for Pfizer. Nationwide (including Mayo in MN, WI, AZ, FL, & IA), Moderna was about twice as effective “against breakthrough infection” v. Pfizer.

The second study was far smaller, published on September 10th by the CDC, and studied only 1,175 hospitalized U.S. veterans (93% male) at V.A. centers nationwide. Moderna was estimated at 91.6% effective, Pfizer at 83.4%. Since no non-hospitalized comparison-sample were studied, “Vaccine effectiveness … to prevent Covid-19-associated hospitalization was estimated by using multivariate logistic regression to compare the odds of full vaccination between case-patients and controls,” and so the reliability of this study was far less than in the Mayo Clinic study.

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India Completes First Drone Delivery of Vaccines

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Health workers pose with a vial of COVID-19 vaccine after receiving their shots at a hospital in India. UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

Today marks the beginning of the first trials for the delivery of MMR, influenza and COVID-19 vaccines in the southern state of Telangana.

The trials, which have been organized by the World Economic Forum in partnership with the state government of Telangana, Apollo Hospital’s HealthNet Global and NITI Aayog, will be conducted over 28 days in designated air corridors in the district of Vikarabad, Telangana.

Starting off with the first ever drone delivery of a vaccine in India, the trials are focused on laying the groundwork for a more elaborate drone delivery network that will improve access to vital healthcare supplies for remote and vulnerable communities. This is also the first drone programme since India recently liberalized its drone policy.

“The Forum is pleased to support Indian government and industry in demonstrating how emerging technologies can be used to improve access to healthcare for its most vulnerable populations,” says Timothy Reuter, Head of Aerospace and Drones, World Economic Forum. “The project has set into motion the adoption of drones to deliver lifesaving services across the country. We believe that India’s work with drones can serve as a model for other countries in the region and beyond.”

“Ever since Telangana issued the expression of interest in expanded drone use in March 2020, the industry has witnessed an acceleration around policy decisions,” said Vignesh Santhanam, Lead, Aerospace and Drones, World Economic Forum. “With the latest liberalization of India’s drone economy the Medicine from the Sky initiative has made efforts to invigorate the drone sector in India by demonstrating the essence of cooperative federalism and creating a template for the region.”

“Being at the forefront of leveraging emerging technologies, Telangana has always acted as a testbed for innovative solutions to support scaling across the nation,” said K.T. Rama Rao, Minister of Information Technology, Industries, Municipal Administration and Urban Development of Telangana, India. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that healthcare supply chains can be further strengthened and drones offer a robust value proposition especially when it comes to remote areas and emergencies. The Medicine from the Sky is the first of its kind initiative in the country to generate insights that shall benefit the entire ecosystem. The enthusiasm and support by all the partners is deeply appreciated.”

With the support of the Vikarabad municipality, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation and the Airports Authority of India, this will be the first drone-delivered COVID-19 vaccine in Asia. After extended trials with MMR and influenza vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines will also be transported beyond the visual line of sight.

“This pilot has been enabled through a series of collaborations between India’s regulatory agencies state government, the World Economic Forum, international organizations, healthcare experts and drone companies,” said Anna Roy, Senior Adviser, Frontier Technologies, NITI Aayog, Government of India. “The Medicine from the Sky community has acted as an important platform providing advice and insight that has translated the extensive academic groundwork into action on ground. Through a highly collaborative effort, the pilot programme also demonstrates the importance of localized inputs and micro planning for healthcare in remote parts of the world.”

This initiative aims to improve equity in healthcare while enabling healthcare access for isolated populations and hazard-prone areas. The project has eight participating partners, including drone operators and experts in healthcare and airspace management among others. Together, these partners will demonstrate short and long-range drone-based deliveries to assess the efficacy of low-altitude aerial logistics in healthcare.

“Drone use provides the opportunity to support our traditional approaches to healthcare delivery especially in underserved or remote regions of the country,” said Dr. Sangita Reddy, Joint Managing Director, Apollo Hospitals Group. “Our healthcare sector could potentially witness large-scale deliveries of long-tail medicines, vaccines, blood and vital organs throughout the country across terrains with drones in action. As clinical partners in the Medicine from the Sky initiative, Apollo Hospital’s HealthNet Global will be responsible for enabling vaccine and medicine availability and properly monitoring the adherence of clinical protocols throughout the project.”

An industry core group was commissioned in June 2021 to help scale the effort to bolster last-mile mobility in healthcare. The outcomes from the trials will be analysed and used to scale up the effort to additional states with the support of the Medicine from the Sky community and key stakeholders. The project is expected to be expanded to six states in the coming months.

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