Inside Covid-19: world experts on vaccine roll out in SA, elsewhere; medical breakthroughs; tough restrictions

With economies being hammered around the globe amid shutdown restrictions to contain the spread of Covid-19, it is critical for vaccines to be rolled out as soon as possible. In this episode of Inside Covid-19, we focus on vaccine roll out in Africa and elsewhere. We hear from Professor Shabir Madhi, Executive Director of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research at the University of the Witwatersrand and  Chief Executive Officer of AstraZeneca, Pascal Soriot, who says supply partners have been engaged to produce hundreds of millions of doses of their vaccine. Nobel Laureate Michael Kremer shares insights with the International Monetary Fund on his research into how to expedite the production and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines immediately following successful medical trials. And, we share highlights from the first BizNews Great Debate, which featured Panda’s Nick Hudson and health policy expert Professor Alan Whiteside exploring the pros and cons of lockdowns to curb the spread of Covid-19. – Jackie Cameron & Jarryd Neves

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Inside Covid-19 headlines

  • As of this weekend, just under 62m people worldwide have tested positive for Covid-19 and the number of deaths is approaching 1.5m.
  • Just under 13m people have tested positive in the United States, the country hardest hit by the coronavirus. 264,000 people are reported as having died of the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre.
  • South Africa is number 14 on the list of the world’s countries with the highest number of Covid-19 deaths, at just about 21,300.
  • U.S. stocks edged higher Friday, as gains across shares of technology and health-care companies pushed the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite toward new closing records, says The Wall Street Journal. The broad S&P 500 added 0.3% shortly after the opening bell, while the Nasdaq advanced 0.7%, putting both benchmarks on pace to top their previous closing highs set earlier this week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was also trading higher, gaining 105 points to 29977, but fell short of hitting a new milestone. Markets have been largely buoyant this week despite rising coronavirus infection levels across the U.S. and economic data pointing to a halting recovery that may curb consumer confidence. Investors appear to be looking ahead to next year, betting that Covid-19 vaccines will curb the pandemic and allow social and business activity to return to normal. “The hopefuls are leading the realists: they believe that the economy will return to an equilibrium with a high growth rate. They are looking beyond the shock,” said Sebastien Galy, a macro strategist at Nordea Asset Management. “It’s a matter of time though: there are still deep underlying issues with Covid spiking in the U.S.”
  • The number of people hospitalized in the U.S. due to coronavirus surpassed 90,000 for the first time. More than 110,000 new cases were reported around the nation Thursday, sharply lower than totals in recent days. But infection levels are likely to rise again because of large gatherings and reunions for the Thanksgiving Day celebrations.
  • Mass vaccination against Covid-19 is unlikely to start in Africa until midway through next year and keeping vaccines cold could be a big challenge, the continent’s disease control group is quoted by Reuters as saying on Thursday. Some European countries expect to start rolling out vaccination campaigns as early as January. But health campaigners are worried that Africa will find itself near the back of the queue for Covid-19 vaccines after wealthier nations signed a raft of bilateral vaccine supply deals with pharmaceutical companies. “We are very concerned as a continent that we will not have access to vaccines in a timely fashion,” said John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, an African Union agency. “It will not be, in my view, up to (the) middle of next year before we truly start to get vaccination into Africa,” he told a news conference. He said there were also logistical problems to overcome in Africa, a hot continent with perennial challenges supplying electricity. The continent of 1.3 billion people has recorded more than 2.1 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally, though it has had a lower death rate than other continents. It has recorded only 50,000 deaths, because African countries have imposed strict lockdowns and have generally younger populations. Many African nations have expressed interest in taking part in the COVAX global vaccine distribution scheme co-led by the World Health Organization. It is expected – but not certain – that less wealthy countries will receive vaccines at low or no cost via COVAX next year. Nkengasong said his agency’s aim was for 60% of the continent’s population to be vaccinated eventually. He said so far the AstraZeneca vaccine candidate offered “the best possibility for distribution in Africa” because its temperature storage conditions were less strict than others. Shots being trialled by Pfizer and Moderna have to be kept at extremely cold temperatures.
  • South Africa has paid Covax R500m to ensure that it has adequate Covid-19 vaccine supplies. Finance minister Tito Mboweni says he will find R4.5bn in the country’s budget to ensure that South Africa is at the front of the queue when vaccines are rolled out.
  • With a number of vaccines on the way, there is now light at the end of the tunnel in the Covid-19 pandemic, reports Medical News Today. Although the introduction of an effective vaccine may allow life to return largely to normal, the eradication of SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely. Humanity is probably going to have to live with the virus, which may eventually become seasonal. Therefore, treatments will still be necessary in cases where people do contract the virus and develop Covid-19. Treatments are also important in concert with vaccine development, as no vaccine is 100% effective.Although there are not yet any approved medications that can cure or even prevent Covid-19, several treatments have been under investigation, including the experimental Ebola drug remdesivir. A new study that researchers at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany, led has shown that the anti-bleeding drug aprotinin (Trasylol) can stop SARS-CoV-2 from entering host cells. The authors say that aprotinin could prevent Covid-19 from progressing to a severe, systemic disease. The findings appear in the journal Cells.
  • Covid-19 has produced ‘alarming’ increase in loneliness. A survey finds that the coronavirus pandemic is having a troubling effect on the psychological health of young adults. “Addressing mental health and substance use problems in young adults, both during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, is an imperative,” says Viviana Horigian from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. Her statement is in response to her new study investigating the psychological impact of the coronavirus pandemic on young adults. The study found an “alarming” increase in loneliness since the arrival of Covid-19. In the survey of 1,008 people aged 18–35, 80% of participants reported “significant depressive symptoms” during the pandemic. “These young adults are the future of our nation’s social fabric,” says Horigian, lead author of the study. “They need to be given access to psychological help, coupled with the development and dissemination of brief online contact-based interventions that encourage healthy lifestyles.” The research appears in the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
  • Without a coronavirus vaccine, this airline won’t let you fly. On Monday, Qantas Airlines announced that it would be amending its terms and conditions to include a mandate that international travelers get a Covid-19 vaccine before flying — once one becomes available.“Whether you need that domestically, we’ll have to see what happens with Covid-19 in the market, but certainly for international visitors coming out and people leaving the country, we think that’s a necessity,” CEO Alan Joyce told the Australian news program A Current Affair.
  • UK outbreaks of Covid-19 have stopped spreading exponentially, reports Bloomberg. Government scientists estimate Britain’s nationwide transmission rate for the outbreak, or ‘R’ number, has fallen to 0.9-1.0. The measure is below 1 for first time since Sept. 4, which would mean the virus is no longer spreading exponentially. “The estimated growth rate means the number of new infections is shrinking by between 0% and 2% every day,” the government said in a statement.
  • Austria will share the vaccine doses it gets under the European Union’s joint procurement with the nearby countries of the Western Balkan, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said. The country is entitled to 2% of the EU’s vaccine order, which is probably more than needed domestically.
  • Russia hopes to start supplying vaccines next month to Hungary, the first European country that received samples and documents of the Russian treatment. Russia also invited Hungarian doctors to observe testing and production in its local laboratories, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said after meeting Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto in Budapest.
  • Malaysia is to Give Pfizer Shot to 20% of Population. HKMalaysia signed an agreement with Pfizer Inc. to obtain its Covid-19 vaccine for 20% of the population, or about 6.4 million people, Science Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said. The country’s National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency will evaluate the vaccine for its safety and efficacy before it’s administered starting next year, the minister said in a Facebook post.
  • U.K. researchers will begin testing a commonly available anti-inflammatory drug as part of a key trial by the University of Oxford. Colchicine will be administered to at least 2,500 Covid-19 patients in the Recovery trial, and be analyzed for its potential to reduce mortality when compared with standard of care. The trial, which has enrolled 18,000 patients so far, is expected to take several months to complete.
  • India’s Hetero Gets Russian Vaccine Contract Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is involved in developing Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus, announced an accord with Hetero under which Indian company will produce 100 million doses a year of the inoculation. Separately, India’s Zydus Cadila’s vaccine is likely to enter phase III trials next month and a launch is expected by March if things go according to the plan, The Economic Times reported.
  • U.K. Moves to Get Vaccine Approved Before EU. Health Secretary Matt Hancock asked the U.K. medical regulator to potentially bypass its European Union counterpart and approve the supply of AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid vaccine to speed its deployment.
  • AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid-19 vaccine looks like it’s headed for an additional global trial as the drugmaker tries to clear up uncertainty and confusion surrounding favorable results in its current study. The company wants the new test to confirm the 90% efficacy rate that the shot showed in a portion of an existing trial, Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said. It’s favoring that option rather than adding an arm to a separate study that’s already underway in the U.S.
  • The state at the centre of Australia’s worst coronavirus outbreak has gone 28 days with no new cases of the virus, an enviable record as the U.S. and many European countries grapple with surging infections or renewed lockdowns. Pedestrians with and without protective masks outside Flinders Street railway station in Melbourne, Australia, on Nov 25. One of the world’s strictest and longest stay-at-home orders enabled Victoria to crush community transmission after a daily peak of about 700 cases in early August. The success means Australia will be among a handful of western nations that can look forward to Christmas with limited restrictions on family gatherings and what authorities are calling a Covid-normal summer.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Argentines took to the streets of Buenos Aires to mourn Wednesday’s death of soccer icon Diego Maradona, upending the nation’s strict Covid restrictions.
  • France’s hospitalizations and virus patients in intensive care continued to fall from their Nov. 16 peak on Thursday, with the number of severely ill patients in ICU at the lowest in more than three weeks, dropping 130 to 4,018. Health authorities reported 13,563 new confirmed cases, with the seven-day average falling to 13,910, the lowest since early October. France is on track for new infections to drop to an average of 5,000 a day in the second week of December, the target set by the government as one of the conditions for lifting lockdown measures, Health Minister Olivier Veran said.
  • The total number of coronavirus cases in Germany topped 1 million for the first time Thursday, one day after the government extended a partial shutdown until just before Christmas.
  • The number of patients in Italy’s intensive-care units fell to 3,846, the first decline in seven weeks, and new infections dropped 20% from a week ago, adding to signs that the virus is spreading more slowly in the country.
  • Numbers in New York show no sign of letting up. Hospitalizations in the state topped 3,000 to their highest level since June 1, while new infections hit 6,933, the highest tally for seven months.

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