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Covid Chronicles III

By lockdown_exit - 15th Aug 2020, 12:00 am - Covid Chronicles

It's been a paradoxical week that's passed, as far as the pandemic is concerned. What could have been, and may still be, a source of joy has aroused fears and what was so far a ray of sunshine has come under a dark cloud.

Russia claimed on Tuesday that it had developed the world's first vaccine offering "sustainable immunity" against the coronavirus. President Vladimir Putin said the vaccine was safe and that one of his daughters had received the jab, dubbed "Sputnik" after the pioneering 1950s Soviet satellite. "I know that it is quite effective, that it gives sustainable immunity," Putin said of the vaccine developed by the Gamaleya research institute in coordination with Moscow's defence ministry.

The announcement has been met with considerable scepticism and even trepidation around the world, with experts pointing to the lack of data regarding the vaccine's efficacy and warning that an ineffective vaccine would make the situation worse.

Literally the global "face" of the fight against Covid-19, Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said, "If we wanted to take the chance of hurting a lot of people or giving them something that doesn't work , we could start doing this, you know, next week if we wanted to." "But that's not the way it works, " the infectious disease expert said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose ways often bear striking similarities with those of his Russian counterpart, was predictably enthusiastic as he welcomed a supply offer from Moscow that he expects will be free of charge. "I will tell President Putin that I have huge trust in your studies in combating Covis and I believe that the vaccine that you have produced is really good for humanity," he said, even before Putin's formal announcement. Duterte even offered to be "injected in public" with the vaccine to dispel fears. Russia has offered to supply or co-manufacture the vaccine in the Philippines which has among Asia's highest case numbers, rising by 2,987 to 139,538 on Tuesday.

The Brazilian state of Parana signed a deal on Wednesday to test and produce Russia's new vaccine, though officials stressed they would have to be sure of its safety and effectiveness first. The vaccine would have to receive Brazilian regulatory approval and complete Phase 3 clinical trials, or large-scale testing in humans, before being produced in Brazil, said officials from the southern state. Production, if it goes ahead, would likely only start in the second half of 2021, said Jorge Callado, head of the state-run Parana Technology Institute, which signed the deal with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF).

Literally on the other side of the globe, there were dark clouds over New Zealand that sees the sun rise earlier than virtually any other country. The discovery of four infected family members in Auckland led Prime Minister Jacinda Arden to swiftly impose tight restrictions in the country's largest city and social distancing measures across the entire country. The source of the outbreak baffled health officials, who had said they were confident there had been no local transmission of the virus in New Zealand for 102 days. However, none of the infected people had any history of international travel.

Meanwhile, Swedish researchers have found that in 36 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, world leaders ended up copying each other's lockdown measures such as school and border closures. The researchers said that the countries, including the UK, U.S. and New Zealand, showed startling similarities in their response measures, despite the differences in scale of the pandemic in each country or the preparedness of their health systems. By odd coincidence London and Stockholm show similar infection rates, despite vastly different strategies. A paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine suggest that 17% of the population in both London and Stockholm  were infected with the coronavirus in April, despite their countries following vastly different strategies. London was under full lockdown whereas Stockholm, following Sweden's herd immunity strategy, opted not to shut schools and kept bars and restaurants open, with only light restrictions on the size of crowds. In other words no one's quite sure how to tackle the contrarian virus that took about six months for the world to record the first 10 million cases and then a little over six weeks for that count to double to 20 million cases, with more than half the numbers being reported from the U.S., India and Brazil.

The U.S. has committed to buy 100m doses of the Covid-19 vaccine being developed by Moderna, Donald Trump has announced, even while the vaccine remains in an experimental stage. The U.S. President on Tuesday said his administration had agreed to buy 100m doses from the U.S. biotech group, with an option to buy another 400m, for which the company said it would be paid just over $1.5bn. The deal comes after the U.S. struck a similar agreement with Moderna's rival Pfizer to purchase 100m doses for a price of almost $2bn. Clinical trials on humans have begun in China for a potential coronavirus vaccine developed by German pharmaceutical group BioNTech with Chinese company Fosun Pharma, the companies said Wednesday. Seventy-two participants have already received their first dose following approval for the Phase 1 trial from Chinese regulatory authorities, Mainz-based BioNTech and Fosun Pharma said in a statement. The vaccine candidate, known as BNT162b1, is one of four based on BioNTech's proprietary mRNA technology.

The Japanese government has reached an agreement with British drug maker AstraZeneca Plc to receive a supply of 120 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine being developed with the University of Oxford, health minister Katsunobu Kato said Friday. The vaccine will be supplied to Japan from next year if put into practical use, with 30 million doses to be received by March. Japan has already agreed to receive a supply of 120 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine for 60 millions people by the end of June next year, from U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech SE, if they succeed in developing it.

Production of 400 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine for Latin America could begin early next year, an executive for pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said on Thursday, as the region's coronavirus death toll stands at 230,000. In partnership with the Mexican and Argentinian governments, AstraZeneca plans to initially produce 150 million doses, and eventually make at least 400 million for distribution throughout the region, said Sylvia Varela, head of AstraZeneca Mexico. Home to some 650 million people, Latin America has registered the world's highest tallies for coronavirus cases and deaths, with Brazil and Mexico trailing only the U.S. in terms of the record numbers of fatalities.

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