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COVID-19 infections approaching highest rates ever

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COVID-19 infections are approaching their highest rates since the pandemic began just over a year ago, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Friday. 

“Around the world, cases and deaths are continuing to increase at worrying rates”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking during his regular briefing. 

“Globally, the number of new cases per week has nearly doubled over the past two months. This is approaching the highest rate of infection that we have seen so far during the pandemic.” 

As of Friday, there were 138.5 million cases worldwide, and more than 2.9 million deaths. The pandemic was declared in March 2020. 

Tedros said some countries which had previously avoided widespread virus transmission are now witnessing “steep increases” in infections, with Papua New Guinea serving as an example. 

Concern for Papua New Guinea 

The Pacific island nation, which has a population of around eight million, had managed to keep the disease at bay. Up until the beginning of the year, there were less than 900 cases and nine deaths. 

Currently, more than 9,300 cases and 82 deaths have been recorded, and all 22 provinces have been affected. The country’s health Minister, Jelta Wong, who also briefed journalists, said half of all cases and deaths were reported in the last month alone, and health workers are increasingly among those infected. 

 “Our biggest challenge is seemingly to the late adaption or acceptance of the ‘new normal’ and the disbelief in the disease itself,” he said. “This overlaps into much infodemic – and conspiracies and misinformation on the safety and the efficiency of the vaccines.”  

The situation in Papua New Guinea, or PNG, is concerning, Tedros said, as it could lead to a much larger epidemic.  Late last month, Australia donated some 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to its neighbour, and an additional 132,000 doses were delivered this week through the COVAX solidarity initiative. 

Vaccine equity now 

Tedros said PNG was a perfect example of why vaccine equity is so important, an issue which the WHO chief and other senior UN officials have repeatedly highlighted. 

Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the Financing for Development Forum that “to end the pandemic for good, we need equitable access to vaccines for everyone, everywhere.”  

WHO continues to assess the pandemic’s evolution. Its Emergency Committee on COVID-19 met this week and Tedros said he will receive its latest advice on Monday. 

Update on virus variants 

Monitoring of the COVID-19 virus variant first detected in India continues, WHO said on Friday. 

The B 1 617 variant, which has two mutations, emerged at the end of last year and cases have been reported in other countries across Asia and North America. 

“This is one variant of interest that we are following,” said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the agency’s Technical Lead on COVID-19. 

“Having two of these mutations, which have been seen in other variants around the world, are concerning because there’s a similarity in these mutations that confer increased transmissibility, for example. Some of these mutations result in reduced neutralization which may have an impact on our counter measures, including the vaccines.” 

Strengthening surveillance 

COVID-19 variants have been reported in the United Kingdom and South Africa, while a third that was first detected in Japan is circulating in Brazil and elsewhere. 

Dr. Van Kerkhove said WHO and partners have been bringing together countries, researchers and different networks, to strengthen global monitoring and assessment of the new coronavirus

“It’s really important that that assessment is robust so we understand what each variant of interest and variant of concern means for transmission, for severity and for impacts on diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines”, she said. 

COVID-19 vaccines developed so far have been effective against the variants, she added, “but we want to have a system in place should there need to be a change in some of our counter measures going forward.”

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WHO approves Chinese COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

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A COVID-19 vaccine produced in China has been given the green light for global rollout, potentially paving the way for its use in underserved countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Friday. 

The UN agency has approved the Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use, which is a prerequisite for inclusion in the global vaccine solidarity initiative, COVAX.  

The vaccine is easy to store, making it suitable for locations with limited resources, and proved 79 per cent effective in clinical trials. 

“The addition of this vaccine has the potential to rapidly accelerate COVID-19 vaccine access for countries seeking to protect health workers and populations at risk”, said Dr Mariângela Simão, WHO Assistant-Director General for Access to Health Products.  

“We urge the manufacturer to participate in the COVAX Facility and contribute to the goal of more equitable vaccine distribution.” 

A vaccine first 

The Sinopharm vaccine is produced by Beijing Bio-Institute of Biological Products Co Ltd, a subsidiary of China National Biotec Group (CNBG).   

It is the first vaccine to carry a vaccine vial monitor. The vials have a small sticker that changes colour as the vaccine is exposed to heat, so health workers know whether it can be safely used. 

The vaccine is recommended for adults 18 and older, with a two-dose schedule spaced over a period of three to four weeks. 

Although few people over 60 participated in the clinical trials, WHO did not recommend an upper age limit for use as data suggests the vaccine is likely to have a protective effect in older persons.   

Safely expediting vaccines 

WHO emergency use listing (EUL) allows countries to expedite their own regulatory approval to import and administer COVID-19 vaccines. 

The EUL process assesses the suitability of new medicines, vaccines and diagnostics during public health emergencies.  

The goal is to make them available as rapidly as possible, while maintaining strict criteria of safety, efficacy and quality. 

The Sinopharm vaccine is the sixth to receive the EUL approval.  The others are by Pfizer/BioNTech, Astrazeneca-SK Bio, Serum Institute of India, Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) and Moderna.

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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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