Inside Covid-19: Meet two remarkable SA women in the spotlight for putting others first

In this episode of Inside Covid-19, we look at two SA success stories as the world fights the biggest global health crisis in living memory. BizNews journalist Linda van Tilburg looks at an entrepreneurial Cape company that has developed a rapid Covid-19 test from a cousin of the tobacco plant. The company is one of five attracting investment from the University Technology Fund, a South African vehicle aimed at commercialising technologies and innovations developed at home. We speak to Cape Bio Pharms founder Belinda Shaw. Also coming up on this programme, we hear from Ruth Lewin, Discovery’s head of Corporate Sustainability. Ruth has been appointed to lead the International Association of Volunteer Effort, based in the US. We speak to her about this prestigious role and what it means for volunteer work at Discovery, in SA and Africa. Ruth shares her inspiration for a career putting other people first. Also coming up, the Covid Resilience Ranking – an index that lists SA at 35 on a list of 53 – reveals which countries are coping the best with the pandemic.  – Jackie Cameron & Jarryd Neves

Inside Covid-19 headlines

  • The UK became the first western country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine, with its regulator clearing Pfizer and BioNTech’s shot ahead of decisions in the US and European Union, reports Bloomberg. The emergency authorisation clears the way for the deployment of a vaccine that Pfizer and its German partner have said is 95% effective in preventing illness. The shot will be available in Britain from next week, according to a government statement Wednesday. “We can see the way out and we can see that by the spring we are going to be through this,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sky News.
  • Moderna shares fell after Merck & Co. said it sold its stake in the biotechnology company that’s in the midst of developing a Covid-19 vaccine. Merck sold its direct equity investment in Moderna during the first half of the fourth quarter, according to a statement from the U.S. drugmaker on Wednesday. No terms of the sale of the holdings were given. Shares of Moderna fell 4% in trading before the U.S. market opened, a modest pullback following the stock’s more-than-sevenfold surge so far this year. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Moderna is developing one of the fastest-moving potential coronavirus vaccines. The shot is slated for review by U.S. regulators in the coming weeks Merck was an early investor in Moderna, which sold shares to the public for the first time in Dec. 2018. The U.S. drug giant said it had seen a large increase in the value of its investment since it first put money into the company in 2015.
  • Zimbabweans travelling home for the holidays need a negative Covid-19 certificate in both directions, reports GroundUp. The certificate costs at least R850 in South Africa and about R920 in Zimbabwe, and some say they cannot afford it, says the news service. Home Affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi says the rule will be strictly enforced. For many Zimbabweans, the cost of the Covid-19 tests necessary to cross the border will make the annual return home unaffordable.
  • The British media has moved quickly to debunk false claims about vaccinations. The fear that a vaccine will somehow change your DNA is one aired regularly on social media. The BBC asked three independent scientists about this. They said that the coronavirus vaccine would not alter human DNA. Some of the newly created vaccines, including the one now approved in the UK developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, use a fragment of the virus’s genetic material – or messenger RNA. “Injecting RNA into a person doesn’t do anything to the DNA of a human cell,” Prof Jeffrey Almond of Oxford University is quoted as saying. The vaccine works by giving the body instructions to produce a protein which is present on the surface of the coronavirus. The immune system then learns to recognise and produce antibodies against the protein.
  • Tesco has announced that it is repaying the £585m worth of business rates relief that it received as support during the coronavirus pandemic, says the BBC.  The move comes after Tesco was criticised for paying dividends to shareholders.
  • TUI AG, the world’s biggest tour operator, will receive 1.8 billion euros ($2.2 billion) in bailout funds after securing a third tranche of aid from the German government, together with cash from private investors, says Bloomberg. The funding will comprise 1.3 billion euros from the state, via federal rescue fund WSF and state run KfW bank, together with 500 million euros through a capital increase, Hanover-based TUI said in a statement Wednesday. TUI appealed for additional aid after a new wave of virus lockdowns in Europe wiped out a hoped-for surge in late summer travel while stunting bookings for winter getaways and ski breaks. The bailout, which extends rescue funds to 4.8 billion euros, was delayed by a debate over what conditions the state should attach, especially in relation to 8,000 planned job cuts. TUI was already Germany’s second-biggest coronavirus-bailout recipient, topped only by Deutsche Lufthansa AG. Companies spanning sportswear producer Adidas AG to forklift maker Kion Group AG have already paid back aid or are in the process of doing so. While the imminent start of Covid-19 vaccine distribution is positive for TUI, people are booking far later for vacations in response to ever-changing travel curbs, delaying revenue flows. It has also re-booked many customers from the summer just gone, from whom it won’t be getting extra cash.
  • Ryanair Holdings Plc is near an agreement to order more Boeing Co. 737 Max aircraft, giving the U.S. planemaker a shot in the arm as the single-aisle jet comes off an unprecedented 20-month grounding, says Bloomberg. An announcement could come as early as Thursday, according to the people, who asked not to be named before a deal is finalized. Ryanair, Europe’s biggest discount airline, has 135 Max jets on order and options to bring the total to 200 or more. A significant order from a marquee customer like Ryanair would bolster confidence in the Max, and help repnlenish a Boeing backlog that’s been depleted since the start of the Covid-19 crisis. The Max’s prolonged grounding exacerbated the impact of the air-travel slump on the U.S. planemaker by giving cash-strapped airlines and leasing firms negotiating leverage to cancel orders rather than just defer them. For Ryanair, an added Max order would position the Irish carrier to expand over the medium-term as passenger traffic returns and financially weaker competitors nurse their balance sheets back to health. Chief Executive Officer Michael O’Leary has called the Max a game-changer that will allow the airline to add capacity while reducing fuel burn. The Max was grounded worldwide in March 2019, after two fatal crashes that killed a total of 346 people. It was cleared to fly again by the Federal Aviation Administration last month, and European regulators expect to allow the plane to fly in the region by mid-January.
  • Vaccine developers were whiplashed in US trading on Wednesday after the U.K. became the first Western country to clear a preventative shot for Covid-19, sending its makers Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE higher, says Bloomberg.
  • Interpol issued a global warning to law enforcement to prepare for organized crime to target Covid-19 vaccines, saying authorities should expect “an onslaught of all types of criminal activity” linked to the shot. The organisation said there are already examples of criminals advertising, selling and administering fake vaccines, and said ensuring the safety of the supply chain and identifying illicit websites offering fake products will be essential.
  • The Italian government is set to tighten restrictions during the Christmas and New Year holiday season, says Bloomberg. Health Minister Roberto Speranza told the Rome Senate that a new decree, due to come into force on Friday, will prolong a three-tier system that tailors restrictions to regional contagion levels. With cabinet members divided on how tight the new curbs should be, measures under consideration include banning travel between regions, closing hotels in mountain areas and ski-lifts, and keeping a 10 p.m. curfew in force, according to officials who asked not to be identified discussing confidential talks.
  • People should wear masks indoors and outdoors where physical distancing of at least 1 meter can’t be maintained, especially in areas with community or cluster transmission, the World Health Organisation said in its updated guidance for mask use., reports Bloomberg. At home, people should wear a mask when receiving visitors in case of crowding or poor ventilation. The WHO recommended against wearing a mask during vigorous workouts, as well as against the use of valved masks. Face shields provide a level of eye protection only and are inferior to masks with respect to droplet transmission and prevention.
  • The Philippines, which has the second-worst outbreak in Southeast Asia, expects to start administering coronavirus vaccines as early as the first quarter of next year, pinning its hopes on China and Russia as its own procurement policies hamper efforts for early access. Bloomberg reports: he best-case scenario is to start inoculations next quarter using shots from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and Russia’s Sputnik V, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said at a virtual briefing. Policies like a ban on advance orders and a law requiring Phase IV trials before procurement are constraining efforts to secure shots, Galvez said, adding President Rodrigo Duterte may soon issue orders to remove the roadblocks.
  • South Africa is hosting three trials, including for Johnson & Johnson and a partnership between AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford, yet hasn’t announced a firm strategy to immunise a population that’s bracing for a potential resurgence of the pandemic, says Bloomberg. Almost 22,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the nation, the 14th-highest worldwide. The Covid-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech prevented more than 95% of symptomatic infections in a study of 44 000 volunteers, says the news service. The two companies expect to provide up to 1.3 billion vaccines globally next year. Moderna said its Covid-19 vaccine was 94.5% effective in a preliminary analysis of 30 000 people. Moderna also has fewer logistical challenges than Pfizer, with its vaccine stable at normal refrigerator temperatures for 30 days compared to Pfizer’s five days at a specific temperature. Moderna received $955m from the US Operation Warp Speed. The Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine is 70% effective after 1 shot and may be 90% effective after a second shot. This vaccine can be kept in a normal fridge and is far cheaper than the first two. AstraZeneca plans to distribute the vaccine at cost until the pandemic is over. However, further testing is required following questions about the vaccine’s level of protection.

Also read:

Inside Covid-19: Great Barrington Declaration: good, bad? Can vaccines save us? Discovery Vitality points

Lockdown: biggest health policy mistake in living memory – medical expert; where South Africans stand in queue for Covid-19 vaccines

Covid-19 vaccines coming soon, but ‘Tis the season to be cautious’ everywhere – expert explains

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