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COVID-19 New Mu variant could be more vaccine-resistant

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A new coronavirus “variant of interest” named Mu – also known by its scientific name as B.1.621 – is being closely monitored by the World Health Organization (WHO), the agency has said.

In its weekly epidemiological update, published on Tuesday, WHO warned it was becoming increasingly prevalent in Colombia and Ecuador, and showed signs of possible resistance to vaccines.

Mu was first identified in Colombia in January 2021, and since then, there have been “sporadic reports” of cases and outbreaks in South America and Europe, WHO said.

While the global prevalence of Mu among sequenced COVID-19 cases is below 0.1%, its prevalence has “consistently increased” in Colombia and Ecuador, where it is now responsible for around 39% and 13% of infections, respectively.

Reports on the variant’s prevalence should be “interpreted with due consideration” given the low sequencing capacity of most countries, the agency said. 

More resistant to vaccines

Mu is the fifth variant of interest to be monitored by the WHO since March. It has a number of mutations that suggest it could be more resistant to vaccines, the health agency warned, but stressed that further research would be needed to confirm this.

Preliminary data show a reduced effectiveness of vaccines “similar to that seen for the Beta variant”. The WHO said it would be monitoring “the epidemiology of the Mu variant in South America, particularly with the co-circulation of the Delta variant…for changes”

More infections

As of 29 August, over 4,500 sequences (3,794 B.1.621 sequences and 856 B.1.621.1 sequences), genome sequences, analysed samples of the virus taken from patients, have been designated as Mu in the past four weeks. The sequences are used to track how it moves through the population, on an open-source genome repository, known as GISAID.

Most of these have been reported in the U.S (2,065) and Colombia (852), Mexico (357) and Spain (473). 

Although this figure will be affected by both sequencing capacity, surveillance and the total number of cases in an area.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has killed at least 124,811 people in Colombia, according to a WHO report on Wednesday.

More than 4,905,258 confirmed cases have been officially diagnosed across the country since the start of the epidemic. As of August 27, a total of 34,247,170 doses of vaccine had been administered.

C.1.2, not currently a concern

South African scientists are closely monitoring the development of another new variant there, according to news reports in the country.

However, C.1.2, is not yet a variant to follow, nor a variant of concern, according to the classification of the World Health Organization.

“It does not appear that its circulation is increasing”, said Dr. Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the WHO, during a UN press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.

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India Completes First Drone Delivery of Vaccines

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Health workers pose with a vial of COVID-19 vaccine after receiving their shots at a hospital in India. UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

Today marks the beginning of the first trials for the delivery of MMR, influenza and COVID-19 vaccines in the southern state of Telangana.

The trials, which have been organized by the World Economic Forum in partnership with the state government of Telangana, Apollo Hospital’s HealthNet Global and NITI Aayog, will be conducted over 28 days in designated air corridors in the district of Vikarabad, Telangana.

Starting off with the first ever drone delivery of a vaccine in India, the trials are focused on laying the groundwork for a more elaborate drone delivery network that will improve access to vital healthcare supplies for remote and vulnerable communities. This is also the first drone programme since India recently liberalized its drone policy.

“The Forum is pleased to support Indian government and industry in demonstrating how emerging technologies can be used to improve access to healthcare for its most vulnerable populations,” says Timothy Reuter, Head of Aerospace and Drones, World Economic Forum. “The project has set into motion the adoption of drones to deliver lifesaving services across the country. We believe that India’s work with drones can serve as a model for other countries in the region and beyond.”

“Ever since Telangana issued the expression of interest in expanded drone use in March 2020, the industry has witnessed an acceleration around policy decisions,” said Vignesh Santhanam, Lead, Aerospace and Drones, World Economic Forum. “With the latest liberalization of India’s drone economy the Medicine from the Sky initiative has made efforts to invigorate the drone sector in India by demonstrating the essence of cooperative federalism and creating a template for the region.”

“Being at the forefront of leveraging emerging technologies, Telangana has always acted as a testbed for innovative solutions to support scaling across the nation,” said K.T. Rama Rao, Minister of Information Technology, Industries, Municipal Administration and Urban Development of Telangana, India. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that healthcare supply chains can be further strengthened and drones offer a robust value proposition especially when it comes to remote areas and emergencies. The Medicine from the Sky is the first of its kind initiative in the country to generate insights that shall benefit the entire ecosystem. The enthusiasm and support by all the partners is deeply appreciated.”

With the support of the Vikarabad municipality, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation and the Airports Authority of India, this will be the first drone-delivered COVID-19 vaccine in Asia. After extended trials with MMR and influenza vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines will also be transported beyond the visual line of sight.

“This pilot has been enabled through a series of collaborations between India’s regulatory agencies state government, the World Economic Forum, international organizations, healthcare experts and drone companies,” said Anna Roy, Senior Adviser, Frontier Technologies, NITI Aayog, Government of India. “The Medicine from the Sky community has acted as an important platform providing advice and insight that has translated the extensive academic groundwork into action on ground. Through a highly collaborative effort, the pilot programme also demonstrates the importance of localized inputs and micro planning for healthcare in remote parts of the world.”

This initiative aims to improve equity in healthcare while enabling healthcare access for isolated populations and hazard-prone areas. The project has eight participating partners, including drone operators and experts in healthcare and airspace management among others. Together, these partners will demonstrate short and long-range drone-based deliveries to assess the efficacy of low-altitude aerial logistics in healthcare.

“Drone use provides the opportunity to support our traditional approaches to healthcare delivery especially in underserved or remote regions of the country,” said Dr. Sangita Reddy, Joint Managing Director, Apollo Hospitals Group. “Our healthcare sector could potentially witness large-scale deliveries of long-tail medicines, vaccines, blood and vital organs throughout the country across terrains with drones in action. As clinical partners in the Medicine from the Sky initiative, Apollo Hospital’s HealthNet Global will be responsible for enabling vaccine and medicine availability and properly monitoring the adherence of clinical protocols throughout the project.”

An industry core group was commissioned in June 2021 to help scale the effort to bolster last-mile mobility in healthcare. The outcomes from the trials will be analysed and used to scale up the effort to additional states with the support of the Medicine from the Sky community and key stakeholders. The project is expected to be expanded to six states in the coming months.

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Pandemic increasing risk factors for suicide

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Suicide prevention must be prioritized after 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Americas office of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day, commemorated annually on 10 September. 

Studies show that the global crisis has exacerbated risk factors associated with suicidal behaviours, such as job loss, trauma or abuse, mental health disorders and barriers to accessing health care.

‘Urgent public health problem’ 

“Suicide is an urgent public health problem and its prevention must be a national priority,” said Renato Oliveira e Souza, head of the Mental Health Unit at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).  

“We need concrete action from all elements of society to put an end to these deaths, and for governments to create and invest in a comprehensive national strategy to improve suicide prevention and care,” he added. 

Globally, one in 100 deaths is by suicide, making it among the leading causes of death worldwide and the fourth leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds, after road traffic accidents, tuberculosis and interpersonal violence. 

More people die each year from suicide than from HIV, malaria, or breast cancer, or from war and homicide, according to WHO

Warning signs 

Some of the verbal or behavioural warning signs for suicide include talking about wanting to die, feeling immense guilt or shame, or feeling like a burden to others.  Other signs are feeling empty, hopeless or trapped, or having no reason to live, or feeling extremely sad, anxious, agitated, or full of anger. 

Among behavioural changes that can also be warning signs, are researching ways to die, staying away from friends, giving away important items, showing extreme mood swings, eating or sleeping too much or too little, and using drugs or alcohol more often. 

Anyone who detects warning signs of suicide, whether in themselves or in someone they know, should seek help from a health care professional as soon as possible. 

Hope through action 

World Suicide Prevention Day is organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) and endorsed by WHO.  

This year’s theme ‘Creating hope through action’, focuses on the need for collective action to address the issue. 

WHO recently published guidance that supports national efforts to help reduce the global suicide rate by one-third by 2030, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Key prevention measures include limiting access to means of suicide, such as firearms and pesticide, as well as early identification, assessment, management and follow-up of people affected by suicidal thoughts and behaviours. 

Other actions include fostering adolescent social-emotional skills, and educating the media in responsible reporting on suicide

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Majority Want to Prioritize Equitable Access to COVID-19 Vaccines Before Boosters

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A new survey found a majority of fully vaccinated adults would get a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot if offered, but think priority should be given to people who have not yet had a first dose.

The latest World Economic Forum/Ipsos survey was conducted at the end of August in 13 countries and included 9,521 adults under the age of 75, of whom nearly 6,000 had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The World Health Organization has called for a pause on COVID-19 vaccine boosters to narrow the gap in vaccinations between countries.

Genya Dana, Head, Health & Healthcare at the World Economic Forum said: “It is vital we work to close the gap between those with access to vaccines and those without. COVID-19 highlighted how vaccination is by far the most effective public health intervention to protect populations from disease and it is crucial that robust vaccination infrastructure is deployed in every country on earth.

Dr Dana continued: “At least 60% of world’s population needs to be vaccinated by 2022 to get the current pandemic under control – but the issue of equity and access must be front and centre of this effort. With only 0.4% of current doses administered in low-income countries, this crisis will keep multiplying. We need to redouble our efforts to get vaccines to everyone who hasn’t had one yet.”

Boosters likely needed

The survey shows a widespread belief that COVID-19 vaccine booster shots will be needed at least annually to maintain protection against the disease. The expectation was highest in Mexico, Brazil and the United Kingdom, but lowest in Russia.

The survey also showed that a majority of adults who have had two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine would get a booster shot if they were offered. Intent to get a booster shot was highest in Brazil (96%), Mexico (93%) and China (90%) and lowest in Russia (62%) and Italy (66%).

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