WHO blasts Europe’s slow vaccine rollout, as France heads for new lockdown

The new measures were met with a mix of resignation and anger in France

The WHO on Thursday slammed Europe’s “unacceptably slow” vaccine rollout and warned of a “worrying” surge in cases, as France became the latest country to impose new restrictions to combat soaring coronavirus infections.

In a sign of the devastation the virus is still causing while the world races to roll out vaccines, Brazil reported the country’s death toll had spiralled last month.

Officials said more than 66,000 people had died of COVID-19 in Brazil in March—more than twice as many fatalities as the country’s second-deadliest month of the pandemic, July 2020.

“Never in Brazilian history have we seen a single event kill so many people” in one month, said doctor Miguel Nicolelis, former pandemic response coordinator for Brazil’s impoverished northeast.

With the southern hemisphere winter approaching and the virus spreading fast, Brazil is facing “a perfect storm”, he told AFP.

The surge in Brazil has overwhelmed hospitals and forced doctors to make agonising decisions over whom to give life-saving care—prioritising those most likely to survive.

The virus has killed more than 2.8 million people worldwide since it emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

And though the world is looking to vaccines to end the upheaval the virus has brought, rollouts are off to a sputtering start in many countries, notably in Europe.

“Vaccines present our best way out of this pandemic… however, the rollout of these vaccines is unacceptably slow,” the World Health Organization’s director for Europe Hans Kluge said in a statement.

‘Precious weeks of liberty’

“We must speed up the process by ramping up manufacturing, reducing barriers to administering vaccines, and using every single vial we have in stock,” he added.

The organisation said Europe’s virus situation was “more worrying than we have seen in several months” and that slow rollouts were “prolonging the pandemic”.

Five weeks ago, the number of weekly new cases in the region had dipped to under one million. But last week there were 1.6 million new cases in Europe, the WHO said.

In France alone, daily cases have doubled to around 40,000 and hospitals are overflowing in flashpoints such as Paris.

The surge forced President Emmanuel Macron to relent and reimpose nationwide restrictions he rejected in January.

“We gained precious weeks of liberty,” he said in a national address late Wednesday, but the current measures “were too limited at a time when the epidemic is accelerating”.

The limited lockdown already in place in regions, including Paris, would be extended to the whole country from Saturday night for the next four weeks, he said.

Schools will close for three or four weeks depending on age level, he added.

The measures were met with a mix of resignation and anger, despite Macron’s suggestion that France could begin envisioning a return to normalcy by mid-May.

“Lockdown, the sequel… and the end?” Le Figaro headlined its front page Thursday.

And Le Parisien said Macron was defending his strategy of “slowing without shutting down” even though “the situation has never been so dangerous or complicated”.

Travel bubble

As during the first lockdown last spring, parents are scrambling to make arrangements for another round of distance learning.

“It was absolutely necessary to close the schools, even if it will be complicated for parents, and especially young children, to manage this situation,” said Laure, a 44-year-old researcher with two young boys in Paris.

In Italy, Prime Minister Mario Draghi extended restrictions until April 30, including restaurant and business closures.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier received the first dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine on Thursday, just two days after authorities there recommended use of the jab only for people aged 60 and over.

German officials have been at pains to shore up public confidence in AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which has been on a rollercoaster ride in Europe.

Several other countries, including France, Spain and Canada, have also imposed age limits on the AstraZeneca shot over the occurrence of rare but severe blood clots in younger people.

The European medicines regulator said that experts probing links between the vaccine and blood clots have found no specific risk factors, though they are investigating further.

In a setback for another vaccine maker, about 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine were ruined in a factory error, The New York Times reported—a blow to the US company’s efforts to quickly boost production.

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Homelessness associated with increased HIV and HCV risk among people who inject drugs

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Homelessness and unstable housing are associated with a substantial increase in HIV and hepatitis C virus (HCV) acquisition risk among people who inject drugs, according to research led by the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioral Science and Evaluation at the University of Bristol.

The study, published in The Lancet Public Health today [26 March] found that, among people who inject drugs, recent homelessness and unstable housing were associated with a 55 percent and 65 percent increase in HIV and HCV acquisition risk, respectively.

The study is the first systematic review and meta-analysis (a statistical method used to combine the results of multiple studies) to assess whether homelessness or unstable housing increases HIV or HCV risk among people who inject drugs. The researchers extracted and pooled data from 45 previous studies providing 70 estimates (26 for HIV and 44 for HCV) to work out a more robust measure of the risks.

Globally, there are an estimated 15.6 million people who inject drugs; over one in six are infected with HIV and over half have been infected with HCV. People who inject drugs are at high risk of HIV and HCV infection through the sharing of needles, syringes and other injecting equipment and experience high levels of homelessness and unstable housing.

Globally, an estimated 22 percent of people who inject drugs reported experiencing homelessness or unstable housing in the past year, with this increasing to 42 percent in England (having increased from 28 percent in the last decade), and 50 percent in North America.

A high proportion of people in unstable housing have substance misuse problems, with 30 percent reporting they used heroin in the last month in the UK, highlighting the overlapping risks of drug use and homelessness.

Previous research also suggests that homeless or unstably housed drug users are less likely to access HIV and HCV treatment and use opioid substitution therapy and needle-syringe programs, two important HIV and HCV prevention interventions. They may also be more likely to engage in high-risk injecting and sexual behaviours and more likely to have been recently imprisoned, another factor associated with increased HIV and HCV acquisition risk.

Chiedozie Arum, lead author from the University of Bristol, said: “Our study highlights the overlapping bio-social problems that worsen health inequalities among homeless people who inject drugs. Expanding access to prevention and treatment services and improving housing provision for this population should be prioritized.”

Dr. Jack Stone, Senior Research Associate from the University of Bristol and joint senior author, said: “Our findings suggest housing instability is an important driver of HIV and HCV transmission among people who inject drugs. Further research is now needed to better understand how homelessness or unstable housing increases the risk of HIV and HCV acquisition, and what interventions could have most impact in reducing this risk.”

Peter Vickerman, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling from the University of Bristol and joint senior author, said “This research adds to the growing evidence on the damaging effect of housing instability on health and social outcomes. A comprehensive policy approach that not only provides housing but also addresses many of the interlinked health and social concerns of this population is necessary in order to reduce HIV and HCV risk.”

The study has important implications for policy and public health, including:

  • the need for housing interventions tailored to people who inject drugs that address their competing health and social concerns
  • the need for improved access to HIV and HCV prevention and treatment interventions among those who are homeless or unstably housed
  • the need for these interventions to be integrated within services that provide for the wide ranging health needs of these vulnerable populations
  • the need to reduce stigma towards homelessness and drug use that act as barriers to accessing care.

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WHO says not to use ivermectin on COVID-19 patients

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The World Health Organization said Wednesday that ivermectin—touted by some on social media as a COVID-19 “miracle cure”—should not be used to treat coronavirus patients.

In response to the swirl of claims around the cheap anti-parasite drug, the WHO issued guidelines saying ivermectin should only be used on COVID-19 patients in clinical trial settings.

The UN health agency said there was a “very low certainty of evidence” on ivermectin’s effects on mortality, hospital admission and getting rid of the virus from the body.

Facebook posts and articles endorsing ivermectin have proliferated in Brazil, France, South Africa and South Korea as governments around the world struggle with vaccination programmes.

The pandemic has prompted a surge in demand for the drug, particularly in Latin America.

But in an update to its guidelines on COVID-19 therapeutics, the WHO said: “We recommend not to use ivermectin in patients with COVID-19 except in the context of a clinical trial.

“This recommendation applies to patients with any disease severity and any duration of symptoms.”

‘Ongoing concerns’

The WHO looked at studies that compared ivermectin against a placebo and against other drugs, in 16 randomised control trials examining 2,400 patients.

“We currently lack persuasive evidence of a mechanism of action for ivermectin in COVID-19, and any observed clinical benefit would be unexplained,” it said.

The drug has long been used to treat parasites such as head lice and for river blindness in sub-Saharan Africa.

The WHO recommendation was triggered by “increased international attention” on ivermectin as a potential treatment for COVID-19.

But the guidance said: “The effects of ivermectin on mortality, mechanical ventilation, hospital admission, duration of hospitalisation and viral clearance remain uncertain because of very low certainty of evidence addressing each of these outcomes.”

WHO experts stressed that the guidelines were not rigid and could be updated over time if further evidence comes to light.

But for now, “the low cost and wide availability do not, in the panel’s view, mandate the use of a drug in which any benefit remains very uncertain and ongoing concerns regarding harms remain”.

WHO fighting ‘unproven therapies’

Ivermectin is one of a string of medications tested as a potential COVID-19 treatment since the pandemic began.

Like anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine—so far unproven by clinical trials—ivermectin is widely available and relatively cheap.

The recommendation is likely to provoke fury and scepticism among the drug’s social media champions.

Often the rhetoric doing the rounds on social media for ivermectin is the same as for hydroxychloroquine: that the authorities are deliberately ignoring it because it is not profitable for the pharmaceutical industry.

However, its claimed benefits in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic has not been proven in major clinical trials.

The WHO’s clinical management leader Janet Diaz told reporters: “We’ve been fighting this over-use of unproven therapies, especially some of the repurposed drugs in various parts of the world without evidence of efficacy.

“So it is always concerning because there can be more harm than any good.”

Furthermore, “It can take resources away from conditions that should be treated with these drugs.”

Diversion

Proponents of ivermectin, like those of hydroxychloroquine, often argue that it is already widely used—even for totally different purposes—therefore its use for COVID-19 is nothing to worry about.

However, Bram Rochwerg, methods chair of the Guideline Development Group (GDG) behind the WHO recommendation, told reporters that while ivermectin was a “relatively safe drug”, the dosing regimes used for other illnesses were not comparable.

“The other potential for harm… was a diversion of attention and resources from supportive care that we know works for COVID patients,” he added.

Without evidence of efficacy, the GDG felt “these other factors outweighed any potential for uncertain benefit”.

Last week, the EU’s medicines regulator likewise advised against using ivermectin for coronavirus outside clinical trials.

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WHO experts say Chinese jabs show ‘safety’, but data lacking

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WHO vaccine experts said Wednesday that an interim analysis of clinical trial data from two Chinese COVID-19 vaccines showed they demonstrated “safety and good efficacy”, but that more data was needed.

The Chinese firms Sinovac and Sinopharm, whose COVID jabs are already being used in several countries, have submitted data in applications for the World Health Organization’s emergency use listing (EUL) green light.

The UN health agency’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) said it had reviewed the data provided so far, and that both vaccines “demonstrated safety and good efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 disease”.

However, it warned, “both vaccines lacked data in older age groups and in persons with co-morbidities,” meaning other medical conditions.

“Post-introduction vaccine effectiveness and safety studies will be needed to address the impact on those sub-populations,” SAGE said in a list of highlights published after a meeting last week to discuss developments on vaccines against a range of diseases.

The two vaccines are among four homegrown jabs that have been approved by Chinese regulators so far, but SAGE pointed out that neither had yet received authorisation by what the WHO considers “a stringent regulatory authority”.

SAGE, which advises the WHO on immunisation policies, said it would hold off on issuing recommendations for how the two Chinese vaccines should best be used until after another expert panel rules on their EUL applications.

An emergency use listing by the WHO paves the way for countries worldwide to quickly approve and import a vaccine for distribution.

It also opens the door for the jabs to enter the Covax global vaccine-sharing scheme, which aims to provide equitable access to doses around the world and particularly in poorer countries.

“For now, we have information that these vaccines are safe, and that they are in the process of defining their final analysis to show the efficacy that will be used for the emergency use listing approval,” SAGE chair Alejandro Cravioto told reporters.

“Once that is in place we will be able to make the necessary recommendations for its use.”

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WHO report says animals likely source of COVID

WHO report says animals likely source of COVID

A joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal is the most likely scenario and that a lab leak is “extremely unlikely,” according to a draft copy obtained by The Associated Press.

The findings were largely as expected and left many questions unanswered, but the report provided in-depth detail on the reasoning behind the team’s conclusions. The researchers proposed further research in every area except the lab leak hypothesis.

The report’s release has been repeatedly delayed, raising questions about whether the Chinese side was trying to skew the conclusions to prevent blame for the pandemic falling on China. A World Health Organization official said late last week that he expected it would be ready for release “in the next few days.”

The AP received what appeared to be a near-final version on Monday from a Geneva-based diplomat from a WHO-member country. It wasn’t clear whether the report might still be changed prior to its release. The diplomat did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to release it ahead of publication.

The researchers listed four scenarios in order of likelihood for the emergence of the virus named SARS-CoV-2. Topping the list was transmission through a second animal, which they said was likely to very likely. They evaluated direct spread from bats to humans as likely, and said that spread through “cold-chain” food products was possible but not likely.

The closest relative of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in bats, which are known to carry coronaviruses. However, the report says that “the evolutionary distance between these bat viruses and SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to be several decades, suggesting a missing link.”

It said highly similar viruses have been found in pangolins, but also noted that mink and cats are susceptible to the COVID virus, which suggests they could be carriers.

The report is based largely on a visit by a WHO team of international experts to Wuhan, the Chinese city where COVID-19 was first detected, from mid-January to mid-February.

Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO expert who led the Wuhan mission, said Friday that the report had been finalized and was being fact-checked and translated.

“I expect that in the next few days, that whole process will be completed and we will be able to release it publicly,” he said.




The draft report is inconclusive on whether the outbreak started at a Wuhan seafood market that had one of the earliest clusters of cases in December 2019.

The discovery of other cases before the Huanan market outbreak suggests it may have started elsewhere. But the report notes there could have been milder cases that went undetected and that could be a link between the market and earlier cases.

“No firm conclusion therefore about the role of the Huanan market in the origin of the outbreak, or how the infection was introduced into the market, can currently be drawn,” the report says.

As the pandemic spread globally, China found samples of the virus on the packaging of frozen food coming into the country and, in some cases, have tracked localized outbreaks to them.

The report said that the cold chain, as it is known, can be a driver of long-distance virus spread but was skeptical it could have triggered the outbreak. The report says the risk is lower than through human-to-human respiratory infection, and most experts agree.

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Non-O blood type may increase stroke risk among women who smoke, take oral contraceptives

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Non-O blood type may increase the risk of stroke among women who smoke and take oral contraceptives, according to preliminary research to be presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2021.

According to the most recent comprehensive data (January 2020) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States and a major contributor to long-term disability. Some risk factors for stroke, such as older age and family history, cannot be controlled. Fortunately, several risk factors can be controlled, including not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, eating a healthy diet, being physically active, controlling high cholesterol and diabetes, and avoiding excessive alcohol use.

Oral contraceptives can also increase stroke risk in some women, especially those who smoke. Due to this risk, women who smoke and are older than 35 should not take oral contraceptives. Previous research has shown that blood types, specifically non-O, (A, B, or AB) also may increase the risk of stroke.

“We sought to determine whether blood group, specifically non-O blood group, increases the risk for stroke among oral contraceptive users,” said study lead author Steven J. Kittner, M.D., professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. “The results of our small study suggest that this might be the case, but more data from other studies are needed to support or refute our findings. We did find that smoking markedly increased the risk of stroke in young women, regardless of oral contraceptive use, and this finding has been supported by numerous other studies.”

Using information from another study of early-onset stroke, researchers compared the risk of stroke among women who smoked and used oral contraceptives, alongside a second analysis of women who only smoked or only took contraceptives. Study participants included 347 women who had experienced a stroke before the age of 50, and a comparison group of 383 women without a stroke. The average age in both groups was 42, and about half of the patients were African American, and half were white. All participants lived in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area and were enrolled in the Genetics of Early-onset Stroke study conducted at the University of Maryland School of Medicine between 1992-1996 or 2001-2003.

Researchers found:

  • Women who both smoked and took oral contraceptives were nearly five times as likely to have a stroke compared to women who did not smoke or take oral contraceptives.
  • Non-O blood type further increased the risk of early-onset stroke among women who both smoked and took oral contraceptives: compared to women with O type blood who did not smoke and did not take oral contraceptives, those with non-O type blood who did both were nearly twice as likely to have a stroke.
  • The findings persisted after adjusting for other factors, including race, age, high blood pressure, diabetes and migraine headaches.

Blood type did not significantly affect stroke risk among women who either smoked only or took oral contraceptives only:

  • Women who smoked only were three times more likely to have a stroke than those who did not smoke; and
  • women who took oral contraceptives only were nearly four times more likely to have a stroke compared to those who did not.

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WHO report on Wuhan, China mission due in mid-March: officials

FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured outside a building of the World Health Organization (WHO) during an executive board meeting on update on the coronavirus outbreak, in Geneva, Switzerland, February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) – The findings of a WHO-led mission to Wuhan, China to investigate the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are expected in mid-March, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.

“The current timing is the week of 14-15 March,” Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO expert who led the mission, told a news briefing.

Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergency expert, said. “To clarify, there was never a plan for an interim report, first of all. It was hoped we would get a summary report out…The director-general (Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus) will receive that report from the team in the near future and we will discuss the recommendations.”

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Celebs Who Hid Baby Bumps Amid Quarantine: Halsey and More

Under wraps! Pregnant celebrities, from Nicki Minaj to Lily Rabe, have hidden their baby bumps in quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The rapper hinted that she was pregnant with her and husband Kenneth Petty’s first child in May 2020 when she tweeted, “Lmao. No throwing up. But nausea and peeing non stop. Omg what do u think this means guys???? Lmaooooooooooo.”

The Grammy nominee added that she would share a photo of her budding belly “in a couple months,” explaining, “The world ain’t ready yet.”

True to her word, the “Good Form” rapper debuted her baby bump two months later. “#Preggers,” Minaj wrote via Instagram in July. “Love. Marriage. Baby carriage. Overflowing with excitement & gratitude. Thank you all for the well wishes.”

In the maternity shoot pictures, the Queen Radio host cradled her bare stomach. Later that same month, she showed her pregnancy progress while dancing to “Move Ya Hips” in an Instagram video.

Prior to her reveal, Minaj was vocal about her plans to become a mother. “[My biggest fear] is that I’ll become so consumed with work that I’ll forget to live my personal life to the fullest,” she told Complex in 2014. “If I’m done with my fifth album and I don’t have a child by then, no matter how much money I have, I would be disappointed, as a woman, because I feel like I was put here to be a mother. … I definitely will be married before I have my baby. I want to make sure I do it in that order. I’ve always felt like that since I was young; my mother always put that in my head.”

As for Rabe, the American Horror Story alum secretly welcomed her second child with boyfriend Hamish Linklater in June 2020 after keeping her pregnancy under wraps. The actress showed her baby bump in a throwback photo in August, writing via Instagram: “Looking back at a day in May. #wearamask.”

The New York native and Linklater have yet to share their little one’s name, in addition to their eldest daughter’s moniker. As for the Newsroom alum’s daughter with his ex-wife, Jessica Goldberg, the teenager’s name is Lucinda.

Keep scrolling to see how more celebrity parents kept their pregnancy news hidden during the COVID-19 spread, from How to Get Away With Murder’s Karla Souza to Ed Sheeran’s wife, Cherry Seaborn.

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Significant drop in Australians who will get COVID jab

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There has been a substantial increase in COVID-19 vaccine resistance and hesitancy among Australians, according to new analysis from the Australian National University (ANU).

The survey of more than 3,500 Australians is the only longitudinal study available tracking individuals from prior to the pandemic, and the only study that doesn’t rely solely on people volunteering to participate.

It is the most robust survey data available on whether or not someone expects to get vaccinated, finding a large decline in the number of people who are likely to take a vaccine once it becomes available.

The findings, based on Australia’s longest running study of Australians’ experiences of and attitudes to the coronavirus, come as Australia begins rolling out the first dosages of the Pfizer vaccine.

According to the study, more than one-in-five Australians (21.7 percent) said in January 2021 that they probably or definitely will not get a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine once health officials notify the public that one is available.

“This is a large and significant increase from the 12.7 percent of Australians who said the same thing in August 2020 when vaccines were still being developed and trialed,” study co-author Professor Nicholas Biddle said.

“We also found more than three-in-10 Australians, some 31.9 percent, became less willing to get a vaccine between August 2020 and January 2021.

“In contrast, less than one-in-10 Australians, 9.9 percent, became more willing to get vaccinated.”

The largest single change in willingness was the 19.7 percent of Australians who went from being ‘definitely willing’ to get a COVID vaccine to ‘probably wiling’ to get one.

Between August 2020 and January 2021, the number of Australians who said they won’t get the vaccine jumped from 5.5 percent to 8.4 percent.

The analysis shows the groups who became less willing to take a vaccine were females, Indigenous Australians, those who speak a language other than English at home and those who have not completed Year 12.

“These population groups are arguably the most urgent focus of any public health campaigns to improve willingness,” Professor Biddle said.

“This is because they have low willingness to start with, but also because there is the potential opportunity to bring their willingness back to what it was in August 2020 when there was a smaller gap with the rest of the Australian population.

“There is a real need to consider a significantly enhanced public health campaign in languages other than English.

“There is also a need to convey information to the general public in a way that is informative, reassuring and salient for those without a degree.

“We have been tracking Australians’ attitudes to getting a vaccine for months now, giving us powerful insights into what potential uptake will be like.

“Worryingly, as we get closer to administering a vaccine more Australians have cooled on the idea of getting one. The challenge now is to work out why and how we can address that.”

The study also provides key insights into why Australians say they won’t or are less likely to take a vaccine. These include people thinking too much is being made of COVID-19, low confidence in hospitals and those who are not optimistic about the next 12 months.

“Clearly our leaders, policymakers and health experts need to work out why more Australians are unlikely to get a vaccine, particularly as it is about to be administered across the country,” Professor Nicholas Biddle said.

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Surprise! Celebrities Who Secretly Welcomed Children

Jessica Chastain and Rashida Jones recently welcomed children under the radar, joining a long list of celebrities with “secret” babies. Scroll down to learn about their covert additions — and to get the skinny about other stars whose pregnancies went undetected.

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