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WHO warns of COVID-19 ‘tipping point’ as cases rise across Europe

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of a “tipping point” in the fight against COVID-19, amid surging cases in Europe and the fresh challenge of a mutating virus. 

“We were prepared for a challenging start to 2021 and it has been just that”, Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said on Thursday during a virtual press briefing from Copenhagen. 

Although new tools against the disease are now available, including several vaccines, and knowledge about the virus has increased, “we remain in the grip of COVID-19”, he said. 

“This moment represents a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic – where science, politics, technology and values must form a united front, in order to push back this persistent and elusive virus”, he told journalists. 

More lockdowns expected 

Last year, more than 26 million cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the WHO European Region, which comprises 53 countries. 

Over a quarter of States are seeing very high incidence of the disease and strained health systems.   

Currently, more than 230 million people are living in countries under full national lockdown, and more governments are expected to announce lockdowns in the coming week. 

Dr. Kluge said the impact of the recent holiday period, characterized by family gatherings and the relaxing of preventive measures such as physical distancing and wearing masks, cannot yet be determined. 

Virus mutation ‘alarming’ 

Regarding the virus mutation, he reported the SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern has been detected in 22 countries in the region. 

“This variant is ‘of concern’ as it has increased transmissibility. So far, we understand there is no significant change to the disease this variant produces, meaning the COVID-19 is not more, nor less, severe,” he said. 

“It spreads across all age groups, and children do not appear to be at higher risk. It is our assessment that this variant of concern may, over time, replace other circulating lineages – as seen in the United Kingdom, and increasingly in Denmark.” 

However, the increased transmissibility has sparked concern over the impact on health systems already under stress. 

Dr. Kluge urged countries to take action to reduce transmission, and to step-up vigilance to identify new variants.  His recommendations include investigating cases of unusually rapid virus transmission and unexpected disease presentation, as well as sharing data. 

“This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short period of time we need to do more than we have done and to intensify the public health and social measures to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries, which may not have been seen to date”, he said, emphasizing basic measures promoted throughout the pandemic, such as wearing masks, limiting gatherings, and conducting adequate testing and contact tracing

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Guterres warns against self-defeating ‘vaccinationalism’

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With more than two million lives now lost worlwide to COVID-19, the UN Secretary-General appealed on Friday for countries to work together and help each other to end the pandemic and save lives. In a video statement, Secretary-General António Guterres noted that the absence of a global coordinated effort has worsened the pandemic’s deadly impact.

“Behind this staggering number are names and faces: the smile now only a memory, the seat forever empty at the dinner table, the room that echoes with the silence of a loved one”, Mr. Guterres said.

Solidarity, to save more souls

 “In the memory of those two million souls, the world must act with far greater solidarity,” he added.

Since its discovery at the end of December 2019, COVID-19 has now spread to all corners of the world, with cases in 191 countries and regions. Deaths due to the disease reached the grim milestone of one million only in September.

 In addition, the socio-economic impact of the pandemic has been massive, with countless jobs and livelihoods lost globally, and millions pushed into poverty and hunger.

 A ‘vaccine vacuum’

 Mr. Guterres went on to note that though safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out, disparity continue between nations.

 “Vaccines are reaching high income countries quickly, while the world’s poorest have none at all,” he said, adding that “some countries are pursuing side deals, even procuring beyond need.”

 The UN chief went on to note that while governments have a responsibility to protect their populations, “‘vaccinationalism’ is self-defeating and will delay a global recovery.”

 “COVID-19 cannot be beaten one country at a time,” he stressed. Mr. Guterres called on countries to commit now to sharing any excess doses of vaccines, to help urgently vaccinate health workers around the world and prevent health systems from collapsing.

He also reiterated the need to ensure full funding for the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT Accelerator) and its COVAX facility, to make vaccines available and affordable to all.

Proven steps

At the same time, people must remember and practice “simple and proven” steps to keep each other safe: wearing masks, physically distancing, avoiding crowds, and hand hygiene.

 “Our world can only get ahead of this virus one way – together. Global solidarity will save lives, protect people and help defeat this vicious virus”, added Mr. Guterres.

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Health experts arrive in Wuhan to investigate COVID-19 origins

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Members of an international team studying the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19 arrived in Wuhan, China, on Thursday, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) announced during an expert meeting on the disease. 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, was addressing the latest session of the Emergency Committee on COVID-19 established under the International Health Regulations (IHR), a treaty that guides global response to public health risks. 

The new coronavirus that sparked the pandemic first emerged in Wuhan in December 2019.  Tedros reported that most of the 15 members of the delayed mission are now in the city, although two people are still in Singapore awaiting COVID-19 test results. 

“All members of the team had multiple negative PCR and antibody tests in their homes countries prior to traveling”, he said. 

“The team members who have arrived in Wuhan will be in quarantine for the next two weeks, and will begin working remotely with counterparts in China. They will then continue their work on the ground for a further two weeks.” 

Focus now on vaccine equity, travel prospects 

Thursday marked the sixth meeting of the IHR Emergency Committee on COVID-19.   

Members first convened a year ago, when there were less than 560 cases of the new disease. Today, more than 90 million cases have been reported globally, and the death toll has almost reached two million. 

Tedros said although the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines represents “hope of light at the end of the tunnel”, focus is now on ensuring all countries can access them on an equitable basis. 

He also highlighted two urgent issues for the committee’s attention: the recent emergence of multiple new variants of the virus, and the potential use of vaccination and testing certificates for international travel. 

“One theme ties both issues together: solidarity”, said Tedros.  “We cannot afford to prioritize or punish certain groups or countries. We are all in this together, and we must all come out of it together.” 

Challenges in Africa 

Meanwhile, the UN agency has warned of the need to avert a “runaway surge” of infections in Africa, as cases there top three million and new variants of the virus emerge on the continent. 

COVID-19 cases have risen steadily since mid-September, with a steeper rise from late November, and could increase in the wake of the Christmas and New Year holidays due to travel and festive gatherings. 

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said although virus mutations are not surprising, preliminary analysis reveals that a new variant circulating widely in South Africa, known as 501Y.V2, is more transmissible.  

“Even if the new variant is not more virulent, a virus that can spread more easily will put further strain on hospitals and health workers who are in many cases already overstretched”, she said.  

“This is a stark reminder that the virus is relentless, that it still presents a manifest threat, and that our war is far from won.” 

WHO is supporting African countries with reinforcing genome sequencing efforts, key to finding and understanding new COVID-19 variants. 

So far, 501Y.V2 has been identified in Botswana, the Gambia and Zambia, while Nigeria is further investigating another variant found in samples collected in August and November.   The virus variant circulating in the United Kingdom has not been reported on the continent.

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WHO: Step up surveillance of emerging coronavirus variants

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Efforts should be stepped up to quickly identify and study emerging variants of the COVID-19-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus, UN World Health Organization (WHO) scientists said on Tuesday. 

Alongside monitoring, virus and serum samples should be shared via globally agreed mechanisms so that critical research can be promptly initiated each time, according to the agency. 

“Our collective goal is to get ahead of the game and have a global mechanism to quickly identify and study variants of concern and understand their implications for disease control efforts,” said Ana Maria Henao Restrepo, Head of WHO’s R&D Blueprint

She was speaking at a virtual meeting of scientists from around the globe, convened by the UN health agency, attended by over 1,750 experts from 124 countries. 

Participants noted the importance of research to detect and understand early on the potential impact of emerging variants on diagnostics, treatments and vaccines, and highlighted the importance of integrating new SARS-CoV-2 variants research into the global research and innovation agenda, according to WHO. 

Normal for viruses to mutate 

It is normal for viruses to mutate, but the more the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change. High levels of transmission mean emergence of more variants should be expected, according to WHO.  

Of the significant variants reported so far, some are associated with increases in transmissibility but not disease severity. Research is ongoing to address whether the changes impact public health tools and measures. 

“So far an astounding 350,000 sequences have been publicly shared, but most come from just a handful of countries. Improving the geographic coverage of sequencing is critical for the world to have eyes and ears on changes to the virus,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead on COVID-19

New variants of the coronavirus have been detected in the UK, South Africa and Japan, which appear to be more transmissible, although health officials have said that there is no evidence it is more deadly, or that it would not respond in the same way to the vaccines cleared for emergency use.

Information sharing critical 

Genomic sequencing has been critical in identifying and responding to new variants, and increasing sequencing capacity across the world is a priority research area for WHO. 

Better surveillance and laboratory capacity to monitor strains of concern needs to be accompanied by prompt sharing of virus and serum samples via globally agreed mechanisms so that critical research can be promptly initiated each time, the agency added. 

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