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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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Health & Wellness

Risky business: COVID-19 and safety at work

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Photo: UN Women Asia-Pacific

The numbers of home workers around the world  have been swelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, putting a fresh focus on the need for employers to ensure that their employees are working in a safe environment. On the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, we look at some of the ways the UN is helping employers and governments to keep people safe, wherever they work.

The world of work has been upended by COVID-19, and the effects are likely to be long-lasting. Before the pandemic, there were some 260 million home-based workers (not including domestic or care workers). The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that figure could have doubled, with as many as one in three workers remote working in North America and Europe, and one in six in sub-Saharan Africa.

The rollout of vaccines, mainly in the developed world,  has increased the possibilities of a return to the workplace, but many companies and workers have signalled a wish to retain a degree of home working, after seeing some of the benefits. For employers, these include minimising the risk of contagion and  potentially spending less on expensive office space whilst staff no longer have to spend commuting to and from the workplace.

‘If you’re losing your mind, I’m right there with you’

However, whilst some are enjoying baking bread or taking a stroll during a conference call, and using the commuting time to indulge in new pursuits, others have been craving a return to a more structured work-life routine.

“I tell myself daily that I am grateful to have a job with understanding supervisors and colleagues. But all of it is hard. If you’re also a working mum losing her mind daily, know that I’m right there with you,” says Paulina, a New York-based teleworker.

“I have chaired meetings with a laptop and headphones on one side of a tiny, New York City kitchen while cooking lunch and having a screaming toddler wrapped around my ankles. While all of this is cute once or maybe twice, regular screams of children in the background can only be tolerated for so long. I should know, because I passed that line sometime in July.”

Stories such as this explain why a recent study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that 41 per cent of people who worked from home considered themselves highly stressed, compared to 25 per cent of those who worked on-site.

“The most effective way to eliminate the risk of contagion in a work context is, for those who can do it, teleworking, says Joaquim Nunes, head of occupational health and safety at the ILO, “But we still need to pay attention to the physical and mental well-being of workers”.

As teleworking is likely to remain an important factor in many people’s jobs, Mr. Nunes says that work-related policies will have to be updated to reflect the new reality.

“There’s a good chance that the rise of teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic will permanently change how we live and work. Many governments have realised this, and are taking a fresh look at the rights of employees working from home. For example, companies should ensure that workers do not feel isolated, whilst giving them the right to disconnect, rather than being online 24 hours a day”.

In Chile, a law adopted early in March 2020 goes some way to addressing some of these concerns. The legislation recognizes the right of remote workers to disconnect for at least 12 continuous hours in a 24-hour period. In addition, employers cannot require workers to respond to communications on rest days or holidays.

A healthy home?

Beyond the question of comfort and mental health, is one of physical safety. It is often said that most accidents happen at home, so, if this is where much of the working week is spent, should employers be responsible for making sure apartments aren’t death traps?

“For now, there are no easy answers when it comes to ensuring a suitable home office environment”, says Mr. Nunes. “However, we can say that the same principles that apply to other workplaces apply to teleworkers, in that employers have a general duty of care, as reasonably practicable. Employers can’t control the workplace when staff are working from home, but they can provide ergonomic equipment to workers, such as suitable chairs, and help them to assess their own risks and to learn about how to maintain healthy lifestyles.”

Teleworking is also challenging for enforcement agencies, as usually inspectors do not have free access to the private spaces. One solution to ensure compliance with legislation could be virtual inspections, which are already taking place in Nordic countries on a voluntary basis. “These involve labour inspectors video calling a worker at home, and being shown their work chair, desk, and lighting setup”, explains Mr. Nunes. “These inspections can serve as a way to monitor the home workplace and provide advice, but also raise understandable privacy concerns”.

Frontline fears

Whilst the new teleworkers and their employers grappled with their new reality, a large part of the global workforce had no choice but to go to a physical place of work. The difficulties faced by health care workers were widely reported, but employees in several other industries had to brave the trip to the workplace – sometimes on crowded trains and buses – and, often, interact with other people, at considerable risk to their health.

In the US, these fears led to collective action by workers at Whole Foods, a grocery subsidiary of Amazon. On March 31, 2020, in response to seeing their colleagues testing positive with COVID-19, workers decided to call in sick, and demand sick leave, free coronavirus testing and hazard pay. This was followed in April by work stoppages at some of America’s biggest companies, including Walmart, Target and FedEx.

Whilst early advice on protection and prevention focused on measures such as hand washing, the wearing of masks and gloves, and physical distancing, the ILO quickly realised that more needed to be done to address work-related issues.

“In the workplace, you have to think about more than just the individual worker: the whole environment needs to be protected’, explains Mr. Nunes. “One example that many of us will have come across is in shops and supermarkets, where it is now common to see PVC separators between cashiers and customers. Work surfaces are also being cleaned much more frequently, but this raises other concerns that need to be addressed, such as the potential for skin complaints or respiratory problems caused by the chemicals in cleaning products.”

Whilst areas such as healthcare and retail have been grappling with these issues for several months, other parts of the economy could soon be opening up. In several countries, plans are being made to allow gatherings of large numbers of people to take place, in venues such as concert halls and cinemas, and, heading into summer in the northern hemisphere, the range of permitted tourist activities looks set to expand.

However, for this to take place, and for economies to safely open, governments and employers, in collaboration with workers, will need to make sure that workers in these, and all other industries, are safe at their workplaces, and confident they will not be exposed to unnecessary risks, particularly those related to COVID-19.

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Biotechnologies: Commission seeks open debate on New Genomic Techniques

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research coronavirus

European Commission published, at the request of the Council, a study on New Genomic Techniques (NGTs). The study shows that NGTs, which are techniques to alter the genome of an organism, have the potential to contribute to a more sustainable food system as part of the objectives of the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy.

At the same time, the study finds that the current GMO legislation, adopted in 2001, is not fit for purpose for these innovative technologies. The Commission will now start a wide and open consultation process to discuss the design of a new legal framework for these biotechnologies.

Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, said: “The study we publish today concludes that New Genomic Techniques can promote the sustainability of agricultural production, in line with the objectives of our Farm to Fork Strategy. With the safety of consumers and the environment as the guiding principle, now is the moment to have an open dialogue with citizens, Member States and the European Parliament to jointly decide the way forward for the use of these biotechnologies in the EU.”

NGTs developing rapidly in many parts of the world

NGTs, which can be defined as all techniques to alter the genome of an organism developed after 2001 (when the EU’s legislation on GMOs was adopted), have rapidly developed over the last two decades in many parts of the world, with some applications already on the market of some EU trade partners.

The main findings of the study are:

  • NGT products have the potential to contribute to sustainable food systems with plants more resistant to diseases, environmental conditions and climate change effects. Moreover, the products can benefit from higher nutritional qualities such as healthier fatty acid content, and reduced need of agricultural inputs such as pesticides;
  • By contributing to the EU’s objectives of innovation and sustainability of food systems, as well as a more competitive economy, NGTs can have benefits for many sectors of our societies;
  • At the same time, the study also analysed concerns associated with NGT products and their current and future applications. Concerns included the possible safety and environmental impact, for example, on biodiversity, the coexistence with organic and GM-free agriculture, as well as labelling;
  • NGTs are a very diverse set of techniques and can achieve different results, with some plant products produced by NGTs being as safe as conventionally bred plants for human and animal health and for the environment;
  • The study finds that there are strong indications that the current 2001 GMO legislation is not fit for purpose for some NGTs and their products, and that it needs adaptation to scientific and technological progress.

Next Steps

The study will be discussed with EU ministers at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in May. The Commission will also discuss its findings with the European Parliament and all interested stakeholders.

In the coming months, an impact assessment, including a public consultation, will be carried out to explore policy options concerning the regulation of plants derived from certain NGTs.

Background

The study was prepared following a request from the Council of the European Union which, on 8 November 2019, asked the Commission to carry out “a study in light of the Court of Justice’s judgment in Case C-528/16 regarding the status of novel genomic techniques under Union law.”

The study was conducted by the Commission and informed by expert opinions and contributions from Member States’ competent authorities and EU-level stakeholders via targeted consultations.

A wide range of participants was involved in the consultation, which preceded the preparation of the report. All contributions are published.

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COVID-19 cases rise for ninth consecutive week, variants continue spreading

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COVID-19 cases and global deaths. WHO

COVID-19 infections have increased for the ninth consecutive week globally while variants continue their spread, the UN health agency has confirmed

Nearly 5.7 million new cases were reported in the last seven-day period, above previous highs, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in its latest coronavirus update published late Tuesday. 

The number of deaths from the virus also increased – now for the sixth consecutive week – with more than 87,000 confirmed victims. 

Southeast Asia spike 

All parts of the world reported falling numbers of infections, apart from Southeast Asia and Western Pacific regions. 

And although Southeast Asia reported the highest increases in infections and deaths for the third week in a row, it was India that accounted for the vast majority of cases, with 2.17 million new cases – a 52 per cent increase. 

This is the equivalent of nearly four in 10 global cases reported in the past week, followed by the United States (with 406,001 new cases, representing a 15 per cent decrease), Brazil (404,623 new cases, a 12 per cent decrease), Turkey (378,771 cases, a nine per cent decrease) and France (211,674 new cases, a nine per cent decrease). 

Mutations 

On the three known coronavirus variants of concern, WHO said that the so-called UK strain has been detected and verified in three more countries since last week, bringing the total to 139; that’s effectively most of the world, except Greenland and several central and southern African nations. 

The South African origin variant is in 87 countries and the mutations first found in Brazil and Japan, has been reported in 54. 

Monitoring is ongoing into seven other so-called “variants of interest”, the UN health agency said. 

Globally, there have been more than 148 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 3.1 million deaths, according to WHO.  

As of 27 April 2021, a total of 961,231,417 vaccine doses have been administered. 

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