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Covid Chronicles XX

By lockdown_exit - 18th Dec 2020, 12:00 am - Covid Chronicles

French President Emmanuel Macron tested positive for the coronavirus, his office said Thursday, causing disquiet in a country that has been among Europe's hardest hit by the pandemic. The 42 year-old was tested after showing symptoms of Covid-19, the Elysee Palace said, adding that he would isolate for seven days while continuing to work. Macron's test result immediately rippled across Europe, affecting the activities of a number of leaders who have recently been in contact with him.

With Covid-19 vaccines beginning to abound, the battle against the pandemic predictably enough has been focused entirely on the West. A week after the first vaccine was administered to a 90 year-old English nurse, the U.S. became the second country in the world to launch its vaccination drive. Sandra Lindsay, a New York City intensive care unit nurse, on Monday became the first person in the United States to receive a coronavirus vaccine, calling it a sign that "healing is coming", as the nation's Covid-19 death toll crossed a staggering 300,000. Lindsay was inoculated at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in the New York City borough of Queens, an early epicentre of the country's coronavirus outbreak, receiving applause on a livestream with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

President-elect Joe Biden will get the coronavirus vaccine as soon as next week, transition officials said on Wednesday, as U.S. authorities try to build public confidence in a measure that promises to stanch the deadly pandemic. Vice President Mike Pence will get the vaccine on Friday, the White House said. Both men will receive the shot publicly in a effort to boost confidence in the safety of the vaccine, which will become widely available to the public next year. "I don't want to get ahead of the line, but I want to make sure that we demonstrate to the American people that it is safe to take," Biden said earlier on Wednesday. Biden, 78, is in a high risk category for the coronavirus because of his age. 

And to nearly complete Western monopoly over vaccine usage, the EU's 27 member countries aim to start Covid-19 vaccinations "on the same day" in a sign of unity, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has said. "To get to the end of the pandemic, we will need up to 70% of the population vaccinated. This is a huge task, a big task. So, let's start as soon as possible with the vaccination together, as 27, with a start at the same day," Ms von der Leyen told MEPs. 

The European Union could give final approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine as early as December 23rd, a senior Commission official said on Wednesday, only two days after a possible green light from the bloc's regulator. Under EU rules, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommends the approval of new medicines and vaccines, but the final decision to allow them onto the market is made by the EU executive Commission after consultation with EU governments. The EMA said on Tuesday it could issue a recommendation on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shortly.

Meanwhile, more vaccines are in the offing raising hopes of countries and people that have been left out of the "feeding frenzy" so far. In a curious role reversal, a coronavirus vaccine being developed by cigarette giant British American Tobacco (BAT) is launching human trials after receiving regulatory approval. The UK-based manufacturer of Benson & Hedges and Lucky Strike said America's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the green light for clinical tests involving 180 adult volunteers, with results expected in the middle of 2021. The vaccine has been developed by BAT's biotechnology division, Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), which has previously worked on a treatment for Ebola and is also developing a seasonal flu vaccine. Presumably the vaccine as and when it is developed and cleared will not carry the usual "health warning" in BAT's main brands so far!

Clinical trials have begun in the UK for a new Covid-19 vaccine being developed in Scotland. The UK government has pre-ordered 60 million doses of the Valneva candidate, which is being developed at the French biotech's facility in Livingston, West Lothian.

CureVac has begun a phase 2b/3 clinical trial of its Covid-19 vaccine candidate CVnCoV. The study will enroll 36,500 participants in Europe and Latin America with a view to generating data to support approval of the mRNA vaccine next year. 

India's indigenous coronavirus vaccine, Covaxin, has shown to generate a robust immune response in its first phase clinical trials. Covaxin, jointly developed by Bharat Biotech and ICMR, has been found to be safe, generating no serious adverse effects in people of all dose groups as per the results of the first phase clinical trials. ICMR has informed that the vaccine can be stored between 2-degree and 8-degree centigrade temperatures which also makes it compatible with the National Immunization plan. Covaxin is currently in its third and last phase of clinical trials with nearly 26,000 volunteers in the age group of 18 to 55.

As of now there are simply not enough vaccines to go around and the Western world seems to have cornered the entire initial lot. Therapeutic care, therefore, assumes great importance. The medical fraternity has ensured that fewer and fewer people are dying than before, even as the infection rate continues to soar. Meanwhile, antibody drugs, hailed as a crucial stopgap treatment since the pandemic's early days, are scarce, thanks to federal manufacturing missteps earlier this year. But the U.S. government has the power to ratchet up production of Covid-19 antibody therapies - a move it should pursue if it hopes to snare an 'insurance policy' against the pandemic in 2021, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., wrote in The Wall Street Journal. The two antibodies sporting an emergency nod in the U.S. - Regeneron's cocktail REGN-COV2 and Eli Lilly's bamlanivimab - aren't that difficult to make, but supplies are tight because the government failed to lockdown sufficient manufacturing space in the spring, Gottlieb said.

And, at the end, the moral dilemma continues. On Thursday, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director John Nkengasong warned: "It will be extremely terrible to see" wealthy nations obtaining vaccines and African countries missing out, as he called on for an extraordinary United Nations session to discuss this "moral issue" and avoid a "North-South distrust in respect to vaccines, which is a common good".

Lalita Panicker is Consulting Editor, Views, Hindustan Times, New Delhi