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New COVID-19 strains ‘poised to unleash’ more severe infections

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Since September, the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened, infecting close to 100 million people, costing more than $3 trillion in lost wages and intensifying obstacles for peace and security around the world, the UN political chief told the Security Council on Monday. 

And while the pandemic has “hindered diplomatic action and complicated our peacemaking efforts”, Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs said via videoconference that it has “amplified the prevention challenge” and aggravated underlying dynamics of armed conflicts. 

Moreover, “new strains of the virus are poised to unleash more severe waves of infection at a time when health systems and social safety networks are already on the brink”, she told the meeting on the implementation of the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire

Pressing concern 

The pandemic’s impact on peace and security is a “pressing concern”, Ms. DiCarlo said.  

By upending lives and economies, challenging community relations and undermining trust in the institutions meant to address its fallout, she maintained that “the pandemic has exacerbated inequality and corruption; bred misinformation, stigmatization, and hate speech; and created new flashpoints for tension and increased risks of instability”.  

The situation is especially precarious for women, youth and marginalized populations, who are particularly vulnerable to income loss and escalating gender-based and domestic violence. 

Global ceasefire call 

In pointing to the momentum generated by the global ceasefire so nations can focus instead on fighting COVID-19, Ms. DiCarlo cited Libya as an example of how sustained political engagement, more unified support from the international community and commitment by the parties can lead to tangible progress.  

She also spoke about the opportunity it has brought about for Afghan peace negotiations to “end decades of instability and conflict”, disarmament efforts underway in Mozambique, and hope for peace in eastern Ukraine. 

Notwithstanding these positive developments, some situations have witnessed dangerous escalation, such as clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus. 

‘Political stress test’  

“One thing is clear: The pandemic has served as a political stress test as much as a structural and public health one. It has laid bare where acute crisis is seen as an opportunity to gain advantage on the battlefield or as a pretext to perpetuate or entrench oppressive practices”, said Ms. DiCarlo.   

But she added, “it has also confirmed that where there is real political will to make and sustain peace, almost no barrier is insurmountable, especially if there is support from the global community”.  

‘Tip of the iceberg’ 

To date, close to 99 million people are confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus around the world, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures. Almost a quarter of them live in countries facing humanitarian or refugee crises, Humanitarian Affairst chief Mark Lowcock, said in his update.  

“As the tip of the iceberg, most cases are still not in the figures”, he stated, noting that many poor countries are amidst a dangerous second wave and new and more infectious variants will make the situation worse. 

Acknowledging that while vaccines “show the way out”, he said that “no one is safe until everyone is safe, and the risk that the most fragile countries are at the end of a long, slow moving queue for the vaccine imperils us all”. 

Lethal secondary consequences  

In assessing the economic effects of the pandemic, Mr. Lowcock highlighted a bleak picture for the most vulnerable, estimating that 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection, “almost entirely down to COVID”. 

He painted a grim picture of the worst global economic contraction in 90 years; a decade of lost per capita income growth; looming sovereign debt defaults; extreme poverty rising for the first time in 20 years, triggering a steep upsurge in food insecurity and multiple famines; and disappearing public services.  

“In more than 20 countries in which my office is present, disruption in routine immunization campaigns leaves millions of children vulnerable to killer diseases like measles and cholera”.  

An appeal to the Council 

While the humanitarian community has managed to scale up assistance, the effort has been outpaced by the growing scale of this crisis, according to Mr. Lowcock. 

He appealed to the UN Ambassadors for $35 billion to support the Global Humanitarian Overview, which aims to reach 160 million people; strengthen international financial institutes that provide for their most vulnerable; and action for equitable vaccine distribution.  

“The next six months will be crucial. Today’s decisions will determine our course for years to come”, he concluded. 

COVID repercussions 

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, head of Peace Operations, told ambassadors that already complex political situations have continued to feel the strain of COVID-19 – delaying the peace process in South Sudan, limiting contacts between the two communities in Cyprus, exacerbating the political and economic situation in Lebanon and being used as a pretext to establish an unconstitutional presidential transition in the Central African Republic. 

He noted that backlogs in peacekeeper rotations, due in large part to the pandemic, are now being loosened and described how UN peacekeeping has adapted to COVID, including during the drawdown in Sudan’s Darfur operation, patrols in Mali as well as in supporting host States. 

Testing collective resolve 

COVID-19 has also “put a spotlight on the importance of women’s leadership during crises”, said the UN peacekeeping chief, reminding that they are on the frontlines, coping with the fallout and helping to mitigate the political risk associated with the pandemic. 

“The pandemic presents a test to our collective commitment to international peace and security”, spelled out Mr. Lacroix, as he saluted the “courage and tenacity” of the women and men serving in peace operations and the Council’s “strong and steadfast” support in addressing the “unprecedented challenges” to peace. 

Meanwhile, Atul Khare, Under-Secretary for Operational Support, stressed the need to ensure that the necessary equipment and training modules to address COVID threats are made readily available for peacekeeping operations. 

He lauded the States that have provided the capacity for “medical evacuations” and advocated for inclusive discussions on how to ensure that peacekeepers and UN police can receive COVID vaccinations in a timely manner.

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Health & Wellness

Delta variant, a warning the COVID-19 virus is getting ‘fitter and faster’

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Cases and deaths resulting from COVID-19 continue to climb worldwide, mostly fuelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant, which has spread to 132 countries, said the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday.

Almost 4 million cases worldwide were reported last week to WHO and the agency expects the total number of cases to pass 200 million, in the next two weeks.

“And we know this is an underestimate”, underscored Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus during his regular COVID-19 briefing.

Infections have increased in every region of the world, with some even reaching 80 per cent more in the past month. In Africa, deaths have increased by 80 per cent over the same period, the official warned.

Overwhelmed

Tedros blamed the rise of cases on increased social mixing and mobility, the inconsistent use of public health and social measures, and inequitable vaccine use. He said “hard-won gains” are in jeopardy or being lost, and health systems in many countries are increasingly overwhelmed.

“WHO has warned that the COVID-19 virus has been changing since it was first reported, and it continues to change. So far, four variants of concern have emerged, and there will be more as long as the virus continues to spread”, he underscored.

A higher viral load

Lead WHO epidemiologist and COVID-19 technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, explained that the Delta variant has certain mutations that allow the virus to adhere to human cells more easily and that experts are also seeing a higher viral load in individuals infected.

She called Delta “dangerous and the most transmissible SARS-CoV-2 virus to date”. 

“There are some laboratory studies that suggest that there’s increase replication in some of the modelled human airway systems”, she added.

In terms of severity, Dr. Van Kerkhove highlighted that there has been an increase in hospitalizations in certain countries affected by the variant, “but we haven’t yet seen an increase in mortality”.

The WHO expert reminded that although there is some data that suggest that people vaccinated can get infected and transmit the variant, the likelihood is much reduced after the second dose has been administered and reached full effectiveness.

She also clarified that Delta is not specifically targeting children as some reports have suggested, but warned that as long as the variants are circulating, they will infect anybody that is not taking proper precautions.

Continuing to evolve

“It’s in the virus’s interests to evolve, viruses are not alive they don’t have a brain to think through this, but they become more fit the more they circulate, so the virus will likely become even more transmissible because this is what viruses do, they evolve they change overtime”, Dr. Van Kerkhove warned, echoing Tedros’ remarks.

We have to do what we can to drive it down”, she added, reminding that public health and social measures do work against the Delta variant, and that the vaccines do prevent disease and death.

Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies, said that even with the virus getting “faster and fitter” the gameplan does not change, but It needs to be implemented more efficiently.

“Delta is a warning that this virus is evolving, but it is also a call to action before more dangerous variants emerge”, he said.

Shots for Africa

Last month, the WHO chief announced the setting up of a technology transfer hub for mRNA vaccines In South Africa as part of WHO’s efforts to scale up production of vaccines and their distribution in Africa.

“Today we have taken another step forward, with a letter of intent that sets out the terms of collaboration signed by the partners in the hub: WHO; the Medicines Patent Pool; Afrigen Biologics; the Biologicals and Vaccines Institute of Southern Africa; the South African Medical Research Council and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention”, Tedros explained.

He added that WHO’s goal remains to aid every country in vaccinating at least 10% of its population by the end of September, at least 40% by the end of this year, and 70% by the middle of next year.

“We are a long way off achieving those targets. So far, just over half of countries have fully vaccinated 10% of their population, less than a quarter of countries have vaccinated 40%, and only 3 countries have vaccinated 70%”, Tedros warned.

The WHO head reminded that the global distribution of vaccines remains unjust, despite expert warnings and appeals, and said that all regions remain at risk, “none more so, than Africa”.

“On current trends, nearly 70% of African countries will not reach the 10% vaccination target by the end of September”, he cautioned.

New tool to fight Delta

Tedros also announced that on response to the Delta surge, the WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator is launching the Rapid ACT-Accelerator Delta Response, or RADAR, and issuing an urgent call for 7.7 billion U.S. dollars for tests, treatments and vaccines. 

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COVAX and World Bank to Accelerate Vaccine Access for Developing Countries

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COVAX and the World Bank will accelerate COVID-19 vaccine supply for developing countries through a new financing mechanism that builds on Gavi’s newly designed AMC cost-sharing arrangement. This allows AMC countries to purchase doses beyond the fully donor-subsidized doses they are already receiving from COVAX.

COVAX will now be able to make advance purchases from vaccine manufacturers based on aggregated demand across countries, using financing from the World Bank and other multilateral development banks. Participating developing countries will have greater visibility of available vaccines, quantities available, and future delivery schedules, enabling them to secure doses earlier, and prepare and implement vaccination plans more effectively.

This important and timely financing mechanism, made possible now by the World Bank and Gavi teaming up on the AMC cost-sharing arrangement, will allow COVAX to unlock additional doses for low- and middle-income countries,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “As we move beyond initial targets and work to support countries’ efforts to protect increasingly large portions of their populations, World Bank financing will help us advance further towards our goal of bringing COVID-19 under control.”

The scalable mechanism brings together COVAX’s ability to negotiate advance purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers with the World Bank’s ability to provide predictable financing to countries for vaccine purchase, deployment and broader health systems investments. The new mechanism will mitigate risks and uncertainties in country demand and financing ability.

Accessing vaccines remains the single greatest challenge that developing countries face in protecting their people from the health, social, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass. “This mechanism will enable new supplies and allow countries to speed up the purchase of vaccines. It will also provide transparency about vaccine availability, prices, and delivery schedules. This is crucial information as governments implement their vaccination plans.”

Countries with approved World Bank vaccine projects that confirm the purchase of additional doses through COVAX will agree with COVAX on the number of doses of a specific vaccine as well as related windows of delivery. On receiving a request from the country, the World Bank will provide COVAX a payment confirmation, allowing COVAX to make advance purchases of large amounts of vaccine doses with manufacturers at competitive prices.

Under the cost-sharing arrangement for AMC countries (92 low- and middle-income countries), COVAX plans to make available up to 430 million additional doses, or enough to fully vaccinate 250 million people, for delivery between late 2021 and mid-2022. There will be several supply offerings where countries will have the opportunity to select and commit to procuring specific vaccines that align with their preferences.

COVAX is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the World Health Organization (WHO). The World Bank and COVAX will work in partnership with UNICEF and the PAHO Revolving Fund as key implementing partners to ensure safe vaccine delivery and supply of materials such as syringes, safety boxes and other items essential for vaccination campaigns.

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Study Finds That India Might Have Half Of All Covid-19 Deaths Worldwide

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© UNICEF/Vinay

On July 20th, an analysis that was published of India’s “excess mortality estimates from three different data sources from the pandemic’s start through June 2021 … yields an estimate of 4.9 million excess deaths.” As-of July 20th, the total number of deaths that had been officially reported worldwide from Covid-19 was 4,115,391, and only 414,513 (10%) of those were in India. If this new study is correct, then the possibility exists that around half of all deaths that have occurred, thus far, from Covid-19, could be in India, not merely the currently existing 10% that’s shown in the official figures.

This study doesn’t discuss why the actual number of deaths in India from Covid-19 might be around ten times higher than the official Indian figures, but one reason might be a false attribution of India’s greatly increased death-rate from the Covid-19 epidemic not to Covid-19 but to other causes, such as to Covid-19-related illnesses.

The new study is titled “Three New Estimates of India’s All-Cause Excess Mortality during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, and the detailed version of it can be downloaded here.   The study was funded by U.S.-and-allied billionaires and their foundations and corporations, and by governments that those billionaires also might control. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that its methodology is in any way unscientific or otherwise dubious. The study raises serious questions — it does not, in and of itself, answer any. It’s a serious scientific study.

On 1 August 2020, I headlined “India and Brazil Are Now the Global Worst Coronavirus Nations”, and reported that, “India and Brazil have now overtaken the United States as the world’s worst performers at controlling the cononavirus-19 plague. The chart of the numbers of daily new cases in India shows the daily count soaring more than in any other country except Brazil, whereas in the United States, the daily number of new cases has plateaued ever since it hit 72,278 on July 10th, three weeks ago.” At that time, there was great pressure upon India’s Government to stop the alarming acceleration in the daily numbers of people who were officially counted as being patients (active cases) from the disease, and of dying from it. One way that a government can deal with such pressures is by mis-classifying cases, and deaths, from a disease, as being due to other causes, instead.

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