WHO calls for global governance against COVID-19 pandemic

A man wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus walks in downtown Belgrade, Serbia, Sept 7, 2021. (DARKO VOJINOVIC / AP)

WASHINGTON / MADRID / ROME / BRUSSELS / ADDIS ABABA / LONDON / RABAT / FRANKFURT / BERLIN / JOHANNESBURG – The Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) called for global governance and recommended the establishment of a Global Health Board "under the auspices of the G20".

The Commission made the remarks during a press conference at the WHO Regional Office in Copenhagen on Friday.

According to WHO, COVID-19 demonstrated how some governance structures failed to protect societies from the worst impacts of the pandemic, with some countries resorting to responses informed by politics rather than science.

"It is necessary to enhance the position of health policy in overall policy-making by governments and international organizations by setting up a Global Health and Finance Board at the G20, recognizing that health is a global public good," said Mario Monti, chair of the Commission.

The Commission called for regional bodies of governance, such as a Pan-European Network for Disease Control and a Pan-European Health Threats Council, to improve data-sharing and data-interoperability platforms across the vast Region.

Further recommendations include countries in the region being called upon to fight inequality and so "decrease polarization in society", as well as a call for greater investment and innovation in Europe's health systems which have "proved flawed and not fit for the purpose" during the pandemic.

The Commission noted in a press release that COVID-19 has shown that single-country solutions are not enough when it comes to the spread of communicable diseases in a hyper-connected, globalized world and such crises can only be tackled effectively through joint international action.

"We are calling for action at all levels of society on fixing fractured societies; on safeguarding planetary health; on innovation and investment in health systems; and on better European and global governance," said Hans Henri P. Kluge, regional director for WHO Europe.

"It's time to learn some important lessons, so we don't make the same mistakes again,"  Kluge said.

A woman is administered a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine dose at the Gaube comprehensive primary health care center in Kuje, Nigeria on Sept 1, 2021. (GBEMIGA OLAMIKAN / AP)

Africa

The proliferation of COVID-19 variants in Africa, partly attributed to the low rates of vaccination on the continent, could lead to vaccine-evading mutations that complicate attempts to end the pandemic, a group of 112 African and 25 international organizations said.

A study of genomes from 33 African nations and two “overseas territories,” published in the journal Science on Thursday, tracks the evolution of the pandemic across the continent and the emergence of a number of so-called Variants of Concern (VOCs) and Variants of Interest (VOIs). 

One of those, beta, spread around the globe earlier this year and rendered some vaccines partially ineffective.

The “slow rollout of vaccines in most African countries creates an environment in which the virus can replicate and evolve,”  the organizations said. “This will almost certainly produce additional VOCs, any of which could derail the global fight against COVID-19.”

While more than half of the population of the US and over 60 percent of people living in the European Union are fully vaccinated, just 3.2 percent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people have been fully dosed. That’s resulted in a severe third wave of infections in many countries and the emergence of a new variant in South Africa known as C.1.2.

The study showed that COVID-19 was introduced to most African nations from Europe, and in turn the continent has exported the variants it spawned back to European countries. 

Different strains of the virus spread around the continent mainly from South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya – three of the African countries with the strongest links to the wider world.

The beta variant, identified in South Africa in December, quickly raced as far north as the Democratic Republic of Congo, most likely along the road and rail routes that connect the country’s ports with the sub-continent, according to the study.

The research is the first major output by Africa’s leading scientists in an effort to increase the continent’s ability to produce and analyze genomic data. Two variants in West Africa and East Africa, known as B.1.525 and A.23.1, need to be contained, it said.

“There is strong evidence that both of these VOIs are rising in frequency in the regions where they have been detected, which suggests that they may possess higher fitness than other variants,” the scientists said. “Although more focused research on the biological properties of these VOIs is needed to confirm whether they should be considered VOCs, it would be prudent to assume the worst.”

The study was done in cooperation with the World Health Organization and the Africa Centres for Disease Control & Prevention (Africa CDC).

As of Friday morning, Africa has registered 7,990,337 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the Africa CDC said.

The death toll from the pandemic stood at 201,971 while some 7,241,169 patients in Africa have recovered from the disease, the Africa CDC said.

In this file photo taken on March 4, 2021, vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 are seen as elderly people are inoculated amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, at the Belisario Porras school San Francisco neighbourhood in Panama City. (LUIS ACOSTA / AFP)

BioNTech

BioNTech is set to request approval across the globe for use of its COVID-19 vaccine in children as young as five over the next few weeks and preparations for a launch are well on track, two of the biotech firm's top executives told Der Spiegel.

"Already over the next few weeks we will file the results of our trial in five to 11 year-olds with regulators across the world and will request approval of the vaccine in this age group, also here in Europe," Chief Medical Officer Oezlem Tuereci told the weekly magazine.

She added final production steps were being adjusted to bottle a lower-dose pediatric version of its established Comirnaty vaccine, jointly developed with Pfizer. It is currently approved for adults and children over 12.

The raw trial data was now being prepared for a regulatory filing and "things are looking good, everything is going according to plan," Chief Executive Ugur Sahin told Der Spiegel.

Bulgaria

The makeshift government in Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest state where vaccination against COVID-19 is the bloc’s lowest, is struggling to access billions of euros of pandemic aid from Brussels as it braces for a new wave of the virus.

Along with the Netherlands, the Balkan country of 7 million people is one of only two EU members not to have submitted a final plan for how to spend their share of the bloc’s more than 700 billion-euro (US$828 billion) recovery package.

At stake for the euro aspirant is 6.3 billion euros of assistance that’s becoming ever-more crucial as deaths – already the EU’s highest per capita – begin to tick up.

The problem for the interim cabinet in Sofia is that, with Bulgaria set for third general election in less than a year, it can’t rely on a divided parliament to help it meet demands from Brussels to revamp the judiciary and meet de-carbonization goals.

“It’s very difficult for a caretaker government with a two-to-four month horizon to settle such big issues, for example in the area of rule of law, that will require maybe a constitutional majority in a future parliament,” Atanas Pekanov, deputy prime minister in charge of EU funding management, said this week in an interview.

Ecuador

Ecuador registered an 85 percent decline in diagnosed COVID-19 cases as of the final week of August thanks to a public vaccination campaign that inoculated more than half of its people, the Health Ministry said in a statement.

Compared with a peak of 12,758 infections registered in May, cases in the last week of August fell to 1,872. Intensive care unit occupancy dropped to 12.5 percent from 100 percent in April.

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination center of CHEMPARK operator CURRENTA in Leverkusen, western Germany, on June 22, 2021. (INA FASSBENDER / AFP)

European Medicines Agency (EMA)

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said on Thursday that "the evidence is becoming clearer on the need to consider additional (COVID-19) vaccine doses" for immunosuppressed and elderly people and stressed the need to accelerate and complete the vaccination of the general population.

However, Marco Cavalieri, the EMA's head of biological health threats and vaccines strategy, said at a press conference that "it is not clear" when a booster dose should be administered to the general population because current evidence indicates that all vaccines offer a high degree of protection against hospitalization, death and severe COVID-19.

"As many people as possible should be fully vaccinated. The evidence is becoming clearer on the need to consider additional vaccine doses for people who may poorly respond to COVID-19 vaccination, such as those with severely weakened immune systems or some elderly patients," he said.

According to the EMA, over 528 million vaccine doses had been administered to people in the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EEA) by the beginning of September.

Cavalieri said the EMA is evaluating a request from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech to administer a booster dose of their vaccine at least six months after the second dose in people over 16 years of age. The European regulator expects to announce its conclusions from the data analysis "in the next few weeks."

Ethiopia

Ethiopia registered 1,352 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 320,453 as of Thursday evening, the country's health ministry said.

Meanwhile, 27 new virus-related deaths were reported, bringing the national death toll to 4,857, the ministry said.

ALSO READ: COVAX cuts 2021 vaccine supply forecast by 500m doses

Germany

Germany's vaccine oversight body on Friday recommended that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should be vaccinated against COVID-19 with an mRNA-based shot.

The Permanent Vaccination Commission (STIKO) advises that women should receive two shots from the second trimester of pregnancy, according to guidance posted on the website of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.

"In addition, STIKO expressly recommends vaccination against COVID-19 for those of child-bearing age who are not yet or incompletely vaccinated, to ensure very good protection against this disease before pregnancy," the guidance reads.

"Even pregnant and breastfeeding women now have a clear recommendation for vaccination," Health Minister Jens Spahn said. "My urgent request to all pregnant and breastfeeding women: Ask your doctor. Get vaccinated. You are protecting yourself and your child."

Germany has fully vaccinated 73 percent of adults, compared to 71 percent across the European Union as a whole, official figures show.

Meanwhile, Germany removed the Greek regions of Crete and the southern Aegean as well as the French regions of Corsica and Occitania from its list of regions where there is a high risk of contracting COVID-19, the public health agency said on Friday.

The Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases also removed the French overseas department of Reunion as well as Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Namibia, Oman, Paraguay and Peru from the high-risk list.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 223.23 million while the global death toll topped 4.60 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

A police officer checks for a Green Pass on a passenger's phone at Porta Garibaldi train station in Milan, Italy, Sept 2, 2021. (LUCA BRUNO / AP)

Italy

The Italian government ruled on Thursday that catering and cleaning staff in schools and nursing homes can only work if they have proof of COVID-19 immunity, extending mandatory vaccination and the use of the so-called "Green Pass" document.

The health pass was already required for teachers in Italy, while mandatory vaccination for health workers was introduced in March.

The government said on Thursday that under the new rules people working in schools in any capacity must have the health document, and that all nursing home staff will have to be vaccinated.

The Green Pass – a digital or paper certificate showing someone has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, tested negative or has recently recovered from the virus – was originally conceived to facilitate travel among EU states.

However, Italy was among a group of countries that also made it an internal requirement for people to access a range of cultural and leisure venues such as museums, gyms and indoor dining in restaurants.

From Sept 1 it became necessary for travel on inter-city transport Prime Minister Mario Draghi said it would be extended further, despite opposition from groups who say it tramples on freedoms and is a back-door way of making vaccination mandatory.

Several government officials have said the pass should become a requirement for all public sector workers and even private firms, but the right-wing League opposes this.

This week the League voted with a hard-right opposition party in parliament against the Green Pass requirement in restaurants.

Italy has the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe after Britain and the eighth-highest in the world.

Around 72 percent of Italy's 60-million-strong population have had at least one COVID-19 shot.

Mauritius

Mauritius, a tourism-dependent Indian Ocean island nation, has acquired an additional batch of 500,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine, bringing the total to 1.6 million, according to the Port Louis-based Government Information Service. 

The new batch will help in boosting the ongoing inoculation campaign, Health Minister Kailesh Jagutpal said. So far 773,909 people have completed the vaccination process, data from the Health ministry show.

Morocco

Morocco announced on Thursday 3,451 new COVID-19 cases, taking the tally of infections in the North African country to 896,913.

The death toll from the virus rose to 13,370 with 74 new fatalities, while 1,922 people were in intensive care units, according to the Moroccan Health Ministry.

ALSO READ: WHO chief urges joint efforts to prevent COVID-like pandemics

South Africa

China's Sinovac Biotech is in talks about setting up a vaccine production facility in South Africa to supply the African continent with shots against a range of diseases, the chief executive of its local partner said on Friday.

Numolux Group CEO Hilton Klein made the comments at the launch of the South African leg of a global Phase III trial of Sinovac's COVID-19 vaccine in children and adolescents.

"This clinical trial is a precursor to the establishment of a South African vaccine manufacturing facility partnered by Sinovac and Numolux Group that will cover the entire spectrum of vaccinations beyond just the COVID-19 response," Klein told a news conference.

"We are in talks with Sinovac to set up a vaccine manufacturing facility. A phase one where we will do bottling and labelling so that we can get vaccines out to the people of Africa as soon as possible," he added. "Vaccines in Africa for Africa."

Sinovac and Numolux are enrolling 2,000 participants in the South African leg of their study evaluating the efficacy, immunogenicity and safety of the CoronaVac vaccine against COVID-19 on children and adolescents aged 6 months to 17 years.

A health worker takes a swab sample collection for a COVID-19 Antigen test ahead of the Cruilla music festival in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, July 9, 2021. (JOAN MATEU / AP)

Spain

Spain's coronavirus incidence slipped below 150 cases per 100,000 people – a threshold the Health Ministry considers a "high risk" of contagion – for the first time in more than two months on Thursday.

The indicator, measured over the past 14 days, fell to around 140 cases from 150 the previous day, a dramatic change from a record 900 cases per 100,000 people at the end of January, health ministry data showed.

It added 4,763 cases to its tally of daily infections on Thursday which now stands at 4,903,021 since the start of the pandemic.

The total death toll increased by 71, to a total of 85,218.

The occupancy rate at intensive care units also slipped to 13.7 percent compared to 14.36 percent reported on Wednesday and 21.98 percent just a month ago.

With a fifth wave quickly receding and the full vaccination rate exceeding 70 percent of the population, central and regional authorities have agreed to increase occupancy in outdoor sports facilities, such as soccer stadiums, for September.

UK

The UK is preparing to begin administering a program of “mix and match” coronavirus vaccines as booster shots, FT reports, citing senior government figures.

Government figures told the FT that a different third booster vaccine to the first two would provide better protection against COVID-19. Government will make a final decision on the booster plan after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation makes a recommendation.

Separately, the Scottish Parliament approved plans to introduce vaccine certificates for entry into nightclubs, adult entertainment venues and some live events such as music concerts and soccer matches. 

The proposal was put forward by the Scottish National Party government, though was opposed by the opposition parties on the grounds that it would ultimately be unworkable.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said the move was designed to keep a lid on cases heading into winter and also to encourage younger people to get inoculated. It will come into effect on Oct 1 to give all over-18s the opportunity to get two shots. 

Scotland has emerged as Europe’s infection hot spot after restrictions on social distancing were lifted and schools reopened in mid-August.

President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room at the White House on Sept 9, 2021, in Washington. (ANDREW HARNIK / AP)

United States

President Joe Biden took aim on Thursday at vaccine resistance in America, announcing policies requiring most federal employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations and pushing large employers to have their workers inoculated or tested weekly.

The new measures, which Biden laid out in remarks from the White House, would apply to about two-thirds of all US employees, those who work for businesses with more than 100 workers.

"We've been patient," Biden told the tens of millions of Americans who have declined to get coronavirus shots. "But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us."

Taken together, the policies and speech represented Biden's most aggressive steps yet to prod Americans resistant to getting shots as the fast-spreading Delta variant sparks a new wave of sickness and death.

The surge has posed increased risk not just to the country but to a president who ran on promises to get control of the pandemic. Biden's approval ratings have sagged since he said in July the United States was "closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus."

Despite a full-throttled campaign by the Biden administration urging Americans to get the free and widely available vaccines, just over 62 percent of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a televised speech running a bit under half an hour, the Democratic president accused "a distinct minority of elected officials" who have resisted mask and vaccine mandates on freedom-of-choice and economic grounds as "making people sick."

The White House COVID-19 recovery plan was based on the vast majority of eligible Americans being vaccinated this year. But the public health issue has become politicized, with a vocal minority refusing the shots and mask mandates.

Administration medical officials have said over 97 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are not vaccinated, and those people account for an even higher share of deaths.

Under Biden's plan, the administration will also require vaccinations for more than 17 million healthcare workers at hospitals and other institutions that participate in Medicare and Medicaid social programs for poor, disabled and older Americans.

The administration is also calling on entertainment venues to require tests or shots and for states to adopt mandates for school employees. It is also multiplying the fines charged to people who fail to wear masks on airplanes, trains and buses.

Critics have said the Biden administration has not done enough on testing during its seven months in office. Still, the new demand for tests could tax already strained suppliers.

Administration officials believe the full recovery of the US economy depends on blunting the spread of the virus, the key focus of the president since entering office in January.