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Independent panel finds critical early failings in COVID-19 response

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The global system for pandemic alert and response is “not fit for purpose”, highlighting the need for a new framework in the wake of COVID-19, experts appointed by the World Health Organization (WHO) said in an interim report presented on Tuesday. 

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response found critical elements to be “slow, cumbersome and indecisive” in an era when information about new disease outbreaks is being transmitted faster than countries can formally report on them. 

“When there is a potential health threat, countries and the World Health Organization must further use the 21st century digital tools at their disposal to keep pace with news that spreads instantly on social media and infectious pathogens that spread rapidly through travel”, said Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and co-chair of the panel.   

“Detection and alert may have been speedy by the standards of earlier novel pathogens, but viruses move in minutes and hours, rather than in days and weeks.”  

‘Lost opportunities’ at the outset 

The Independent Panel was established to review lessons learned from international response to COVID-19, which first emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Nearly 94 million confirmed cases and more than two million deaths have been reported globally as of Tuesday. 

The panel’s second progress report said countries were slow to respond to the new coronavirus disease, noting “there were lost opportunities to apply basic public health measures at the earliest opportunity”. 

Although WHO declared on 30 January 2020 that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), the panel found many countries took minimal action to prevent spread both within and beyond their borders. 

“What is clear to the Panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January”, the report said.  

“It is also clear to the Panel that there was evidence of cases in a number of countries by the end of January 2020. Public health containment measures should have been implemented immediately in any country with a likely case. They were not.” 

The report also outlined critical shortcomings at each phase of response, including failure to prepare for a pandemic despite years of warning.  

“The sheer toll of this epidemic is prima facie evidence that the world was not prepared for an infectious disease outbreak with global pandemic potential, despite the numerous warnings issued that such an event was probable”, it said. 

Deepening inequalities 

Pandemic response has also deepened inequalities, according to the panel, with inequitable access to COVID-19 vaccines a glaring example as rollout has favoured wealthy nations. 

“A world where high-income countries receive universal coverage while low-income countries are expected to accept only 20 per cent in the foreseeable future is on the wrong footing – both for justice and for pandemic control. This failure must be remedied”, said the panel’s co chair, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia. 

The report further highlighted the need to strengthen the UN’s health agency. 

“The WHO is expected to validate reports of disease outbreaks for their pandemic potential and, deploy support and containment resources, but its powers and funding to carry out its functions are limited”, Ms. Sirleaf said. “This is a question of resources, tools, access, and authority.”   

Countries are also urged to ensure testing, contact tracing and other public health measures to reduce virus spread, are being implemented, in efforts to save lives, particularly as more infectious virus variants emerge. 

The Independent Panel began its review last September and will present a report to the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of WHO, in May.

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Clarity still needed on effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccine passports

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Being vaccinated against COVID-19 may not prevent transmission and vaccination passports may not be an “effective strategy” for restarting travel, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned on Tuesday.

“At this stage, we would not like to see vaccination passports as a requirement for entry or exit because we are not sure at this stage that the vaccine prevents transmissions,” said WHO spokesperson Dr Margaret Harris, just ahead of World Health Day on 7 April 2021.

Supply and demand

Dr. Harris added that vaccine passports may not be an effective strategy as “not everyone has access to vaccines and there are groups in society who are excluded…We are still waiting on adequate supplies to provide the vaccines to all the countries that need them.”

Highlighting how COVID-19 has impacted some people more than others, Dr. Harris said that the virus “has really exposed the stark inequities in access to and coverage of health services…Groups who already faced discrimination, poverty, social exclusion, difficult living and working conditions were the hardest hit by the pandemic”.

World Health Day plea

For this year’s World Health Day, the UN agency has urged countries to build a fairer, healthier world post-COVID-19. Dr. Harris called for action to “put in place policies and allocate resources so the most vulnerable groups can see their condition improve faster”.

This means “improving living conditions for all”, tackling “poverty and health inequities”, building sustainable societies and strong economies, and promoting “a more equitable sharing of resources, ensuring food security and nutrition” and turning “the tide on climate change”.  There is so much work to do”, she said.

Latest WHO data from Tuesday 6 March at the time of posting, indicates that there have been 131,309,792 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 2,854,276 deaths globally, reported to WHO.

By the end of 5 April, a total of 604,032,357 vaccine doses have been administered.

Regionally, infections and deaths remain highest in the Americas, with 56,880,123 million confirmed cases, followed by Europe (46,085,310 million), South-East Asia (15,438,907), Eastern Mediterranean (7,785,717), Africa (3,126,037) and Western Pacific (1,992,953).

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How a Digital Algorithm is Helping Doctors Treat COVID-19 Patients

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Moscow’s backup hospitals and inpatient clinics for treatment of the coronavirus infection have started using a new solution as part of the unified digital healthcare platform. The News2 app, which is integrated into the Unified Medical Information and Analysis System (EMIAS), helps physicians assess the severity of a patient’s COVID-19 symptoms and risks of deterioration, and suggests adjustments to treatment tactics where necessary.

The system is operated on tablets with specialized software. These allow medics to read the QR codes on a patient’s hospital identification bracelet or on an identification sheet in an inpatient clinic and enter data on their condition: heart rate, blood oxygen saturation level, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiration rate. The system then calculates the result and assigns the patient to a risk group, highlighting the relevant category with a specific color.

The patient’s risk score is entered in their electronic medical record. Physicians can then review both the patient’s current integrated risk score on the international NEWS2 scale and any changes to it at any time, together with the baseline data used to generate the information. Use of this clinical scale significantly improves patient safety, ensuring that examinations are conducted at predetermined time intervals and that specific indicators are measured, resulting in timely and optimal adjustments to patient therapy.

The benefits of the system for physicians are obvious: when the risk score increases from 3 to 5, for instance, the clinician can simply decide whether more treatment is necessary or, conversely, satisfy himself that the treatment is effective if the score subsequently falls.

The NEWS2 scale is used around the world to assess the severity of a patient’s condition by interpreting results based on a sum of scores. These are used to generate a final score for assigning the patient to a specific risk group.

Digital solutions in Moscow’s healthcare sector are being implemented jointly by the city’s Department of Health and Department of Information Technology.

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COVID-19 origins report inconclusive: We must ‘leave no stone unturned’

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The report from a team of international scientists assembled by the World Health Organization (WHO) to examine how COVID-19 first spread to humans was published on Tuesday, and was described by the UN health agency’s chief as a welcome start, but far from conclusive.

“This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end”, said WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do.”

He welcomed the findings of the 34-member team, which in January, visited the Chinese city of Wuhan where the first cases of the then new coronavirus came to light at the end of 2019.

But the WHO chief was clear that overall, it raises “further questions that will need to be addressed by further studies, as the team itself notes in the report.”

He noted that although much data had been provided, to fully understand the earliest cases, they would need access from Chinese authorities “to data including biological samples from at least September” 2019.

“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data. I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”

Animal markets’ role, ‘still unclear’

Tedros welcomed the recommendations for further studies to understand the earliest human cases and clusters, and to trace animals sold at markets in and around Wuhan, but “the role of animal markets is still unclear.”

The team confirmed there had been widespread contamination in the large market of Huanan but could not determine the source of this contamination.

“Again, I welcome the recommendations for further research, including a full analysis of the trade in animals and products in markets across Wuhan, particularly those linked to early human cases”, he said.

He agreed that farmers, suppliers and their contacts should be interviewed, and that more study was needed to identify what role “farmed wild animals may have played in introducing the virus to markets in Wuhan and beyond.”

Lab leak theory not ruled out

The team also visited several laboratories in Wuhan and considered the possibility that the virus had entered the human population as a result of a laboratory incident, noted Tedros.

“However, I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions”, he said.

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”

As far as WHO is concerned “all hypotheses remain on the table”, he told the Member State briefing on the report in Geneva.

“Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again. No single research trip can provide all the answers.”

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