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New COVID-19 variants raise questions around vaccines

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The emergence of new coronavirus variants has raised major questions around whether currently available vaccines will be effective against them, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday. 

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was speaking one day after South Africa announced it was temporarily suspending rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine after a relatively small study revealed it provided reduced protection against the variant first identified in the country. 

A role for the public and manufacturers 

Tedros described the development as “concerning news”, though noting important caveats related to the study. 

“These results are a reminder that we need to do everything we can to reduce circulation of the virus with proven public health measures”, he said, speaking during WHO’s latest press briefing from Geneva. 

“It also seems increasingly clear that manufacturers will have to adjust to the evolution of the virus, taking into account the latest variants for future shots, including boosters.” 

Severe illness questions 

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is among several found to be effective in preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, said Tedros. 

The South African study showed it was minimally effective at preventing mild to moderate illness caused by the variant first identified there, known as 501Y.V2. 

“Given the limited sample size of the trial and the younger, healthier profile of the participants, it is important to determine whether or not the vaccine remains effective in preventing more severe illness”, he told journalists. 

Some 2,026 participants took part in the trial, according to Professor Salim Abdool Karim, co-chair of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19.  

South African trial 

“While the overall efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine was 66 per cent in the larger study that includes the UK, Brazil and South Africa, the South African data on its own showed only 22 per cent efficacy,” he said. 

“We know from the overall trial that the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective against other pre-existing variants. We’re just not confident about its efficacy against the 501Y.V2 variant.” 

Professor Karim said South Africa is considering a proposal to rollout the vaccine among 100,000 people initially, and monitoring their hospitalization rates based on a threshold.  The country also plans to move ahead with deploying vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson and Johnson, according to media reports. 

WHO has a mechanism in place for tracking and evaluating COVID-19 variants, which is being expanded to provide guidance to manufacturers and countries on changes that may be needed for vaccines. 

The agency’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) met on Monday to review the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and its recommendations are forthcoming.    

Ebola resurfaces in DR Congo 

WHO has dispatched a research team to the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where Ebola has resurfaced after a previous outbreak was declared over last June. 

Congolese authorities announced on Sunday that a new case was reported near the city of Butembo, in North Kivu province, located in a region which had beat back the disease following nearly two years of battle. 

The woman, who has since died, was married to an Ebola survivor. WHO said in a press release issued on Sunday that it was not unusual for sporadic cases to occur, following a major outbreak. 

WHO is supporting local and national authorities to trace more than 70 contacts, while sites she visited are being disinfected. 

“So far, no other cases have been identified, but it is possible there will be further cases because the woman had contact with many people after she became symptomatic,” Tedros said. 

“Vaccines are being sent to the area and we hope that vaccination will start as soon as possible.”

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Over 500,000 people have been inoculated against COVID-19 in Moscow

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The number of people who wish to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in Moscow has reached half a million, and over 500,000 of them have already received their first jab. Every day between 12,000 and 20,000 residents of the city sign up for vaccination.

Vaccines are being administered in 100 vaccination points in city polyclinics and 20 popular public places, where mobile teams have been deployed. The list of categories of citizens entitled to vaccination is constantly expanding and the city’s vaccination campaign is picking up pace.

The list of categories of citizens prioritized for vaccination also includes Muscovites over the age of 60 years old (who form the largest risk group and are most vulnerable to COVID-19). More than 9,000 residents of 33 retirement homes have already been vaccinated. In addition, vaccination is recommended for people with chronic diseases who need to stay at home, as well as college and university students over 18 years of age.

A convenient online vaccination appointments system has been set up specially for Muscovites in the mos.ru portal. It can be accessed by going to ‘Doctor’s Appointment’ in the list of services and selecting ‘Vaccination Against COVID-19’.

In addition, vaccine appointments can be made via the My Moscow mobile app, the Moscow Gosuslugi government services website and the emais.info medical services portal, as well as by calling a vaccination center. The vaccine is administered in two doses, with appointments for the second injection being made automatically.

Many large employers are requesting on-site vaccination of their staff, and this network will be gradually expanded. Naturally, the throughput capacity of such organizations and, most importantly, the employers’ wishes are being taken into account.

Detailed information on the vaccination program has also been posted in the portal’s special project.

The Sputnik V vaccine consists of two components requiring two injections, and provides a reliable immune response. Volunteers will first be injected with the first component of the vaccine, with a second vaccination following 21 days later. Only the first appointment needs to be booked, as the doctor will arrange the patient’s second visit on the day of their first vaccination. To ensure that people do not forget about their re-vaccination, they will receive an SMS message the day before it, reminding them of the date, time and clinic they need to attend.

The vaccination process takes at least an hour, including a 10-minute examination by a doctor before the vaccination and 15 minutes spent preparing the vaccine, which is stored in frozen state (with five doses in one vial) and thawed for five patients at once when they have been examined. Post-vaccination observation and examination take a further 30 minutes. Each patient receives a certificate recording the two injections and confirming that they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The vaccine was produced using a biotechnological process based on the most modern technological platform created by Russian scientists. It is safe because it does not contain the coronavirus. It is based on special structures (carrier vectors) created in the laboratory that contain only a part of the virus gene. Upon encountering the vaccine, the human immune system produces protective antibodies.

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Natalia Vodianova joins UNFPA to tackle stigma and advance women’s health

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Russian supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova has been appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA. Photo: UNFPA

The UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, on Wednesday appointed supermodel, philanthropist, and impact investor Natalia Vodianova as its newest Goodwill Ambassador, in an effort to empower women and girls, including fighting stigma surrounding menstruation.

“For too long, society’s approach to menstruation and women’s health has been defined by taboo and stigma”, said Ms. Vodianova, stressing that the situation “has undermined the most basic needs and rights of women.”

In her new role with UNFPA, officially known as the UN Population Fund, Ms. Vodianova will seek to help culturally redefine menstruation, as a normal bodily function.

On any given day, more than 800 million women and girls aged 15 to 49 are actively menstruating. In many countries, taboos surrounding the cycle leaves girls vulnerable and can even be life-threatening, says UNFPA, as they are excluded from public life, denied opportunities, sanitation and basic health needs.

Major mission

The agency said in a press release, that the issue has been starved of the attention it deserves, but in recent years that has started to change, and “achieving this, is central to UNFPA’s mandate”.

“It’s a tragic irony that something as universal as menstruation can make girls feel so isolated…We all have a role to play in breaking the taboos around menstruation”, said UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem, underscoring the significance of spotlighting the damage caused.

She added that the agency “is pleased to partner with such a powerful and committed advocate. Societies prosper when girls are confident, empowered and making their own decisions!”

Building on past momentum

Over the past three years, Ms. Vodianova has teamed up with UNFPA to launch a series of “Let’s Talk” events worldwide, which have mobilised policy makers, civil society and the private sector to help tackle shame, exclusion and discrimination, faced routinely by millions of women and girls.

Leaders from various sectors such as fashion, politics, sport, technology and media have also gathered in Turkey, Kenya, Switzerland, Belarus and India to advance women’s health.

Raised in poverty by a single mother in Russia, along with caring for a half-sister who has cerebral palsy and autism, Ms.Vodianova is a passionate advocate for human rights, including reproductive rights and the rights of people living with disabilities, UNFPA noted.

The agency said it was looking forward to working with her in her role as a bridge builder across the fashion and technology industries, where she’s an influential international voice, to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

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Strengthen ‘One Health approach’ to prevent future pandemics

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The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates “intimate” linkages between the health of humans, animals and ecosystems, as zoonotic diseases spread between animals and people, the World Health Organization (WHO) chief said on Wednesday. 

While the concept of One Health – where multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes – may have once seemed simple, “it is no longer”, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, opening the 27th Tripartite Annual Executive Committee Meeting World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). 

“We can only prevent future pandemics with an integrated One Health approach to public health, animal health and the environment we share. Now is the time to take our partnership to a new level”, he underscored.  

Zoonoses on the rise 

The WHO chief maintained that to keep people safe, One Health must be translated into local-level systems.  

He pointed out that approximately 70 per cent of all emerging and re-emerging pathogens are zoonotic, jumping from animals to humans, warning that “we don’t know when the next threat – the next disease X – will emerge”.  

“It is clear, however, that One Health must be about more than zoonoses”, Tedros spelled out. “We cannot protect human health without considering the impact of human activities that disrupt ecosystems, encroach on habitats, and further drive climate change”. 

These activities include pollution, large-scale deforestation, intensified livestock production and the misuse of antibiotics, along with how the world produces, consumes and trades food. 

Effective collaboration needed 

As set out in the WHO Manifesto for a healthy and green recovery from COVID-19, the UN health agency supports a greater One Health emphasis on connections to the environment. 

“Paradoxically, the COVID-19 pandemic is giving us a unique opportunity to drive real change”, said the top WHO official, noting that One Health will be the focus of upcoming G7 and G20 meetings. 

He flagged the need for more science, better data and bolder policies across multiple sectors, “with a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach”.  

“Expectations for the Tripartite, and the need for effective collaboration, have never been higher”, he said. 

Citing closer collaborative efforts at regional and country levels, and progress in joint areas of work, including the launch of the United Against Rabies forum, Tedros said that advances are also being made in establishing governance structures to curb antimicrobial resistance, and noted that the Global Leaders Group held its first meeting earlier this year. 

Expert Council in the works 

The UN health agency chief said that WHO will support and host the secretariat of a One Health High Level Expert Council, which will advise the expanded Tripartite members on action priorities, building consensus and collaboration.  

“We also need to ensure that all partner organizations have the resources to play this role jointly”, he stated. 

The Tripartite consists of WHO, OIE and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) with the UN Environment Programming (UNEP) joining this year. 

For its part, WHO will scale up investment and work through its disease programmes and technical networks to strengthen the One Health workforce for outbreak alert and response. 

“We are at a critical juncture. We must build on this momentum to strengthen the One Health approach, with public health and disease prevention as its central pillar”, Tedros underscored. 

The WHO chief concluded by saying: “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re stronger together”. 

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