United Nations’ agency the World Health Organization (WHO) said that at the moment there is a person dying every 17 seconds from COVID-19.
“Europe is once again the epicentre of the pandemic, together with the United States,” Hans Kluge, WHO’s Regional Director for Europe, told a news conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. “There is light at the end of the tunnel but it will be a tough six months.”
Kluge said on Thursday the 53 countries that make up WHO’s European region had recorded more than 15.7 million cases of COVID-19 – with four million cases this month – and nearly 355,000 deaths.
More than 80% of countries were reporting 14-day high incidence rates greater than 100 per 100,000 people, Kluge said, with nearly a third recording very high rates of greater than 700 per 100,000.
“As a result, we are seeing increasing signals related to overwhelmed health systems,” he said, noting that intensive care wards in France have been at 95%-plus capacity for 10 days and those in Switzerland are at full capacity.
Kluge said stricter measures, including lockdowns introduced in the UK and many parts of Europe, were beginning to work, with new weekly cases decreasing from over 2 million the week before last to roughly 1.8 million last week. “It’s a small signal, but it’s a signal nevertheless,” he said.
Recent progress on vaccines, such as those of Pfizer and BioNTech and Moderna, was promising, Kluge said, but did not yet represent “a silver bullet” because “we know the supply will be limited, particularly in the beginning”.
In the meantime, social distancing and wearing a mask remained the best ways to mitigate the spread of the virus, he said.
“Lockdowns are avoidable. I stand by my position that lockdowns are a last-resort measure,” Kluge said. “Mask use is by no means a panacea, and needs to be done in combination with other measures. However, if mask use reached 95%, lockdowns would not be needed.”
The largest number of recorded COVID-19 deaths are in the US where 253,000 people have died, followed by Brazil (168,000), India (132,000) and Mexico (99,500).
In order to continue to prevent the spread of COVID, the US, Mexico, & Canada will extend the restrictions on non-essential travel through Dec 21. We are working closely with Mexico & Canada to keep essential trade & travel open while also protecting our citizens from the virus.
— Acting Secretary Chad Wolf (@DHS_Wolf) November 19, 2020
Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a virtual discussion with The Hastings Center on Thursday, said the eventual vaccine or vaccines are meant to protect the individual from getting sick from COVID-19 but may not prevent that person from spreading the virus to others.
Fauci, when discussing Pfizer and Moderna’s results in clinical trials, explained that the vaccines are being evaluated to see if they prevent clinically apparent disease in the individual, and also to see if it prevents severe disease in a person who was inoculated. However, it is not yet clear what impact the vaccines may have on transmission.
“The issue is that you’re not going to be completely protected against a degree of infection that you might not even notice that you might be able to spread to others,” he said. “Which is the reason why the message you may have heard me say over the last couple weeks in the media is that getting vaccinated with a highly efficacious vaccine does not mean that you’re going to abandon completely public health measures.”
Fauci also criticised US President-elect Joe Biden and his Democrat colleagues for creating a distrust of a coronavirus vaccine under President Donald Trump.
“We need to put to rest any concept that this was rushed in any inappropriate way. This is really solid,” Fauci said of the vaccine trials.
Fauci projects Americans could expect their first doses of an approved vaccine against COVID-19 as early as April. Frontline health care workers are expected to get their first doses by the end of December or early January. After prioritising people at risk of infection or severe disease, the healthy general population can expect first doses of a vaccine starting in April and through July if all continues on track.
In other vaccine news, Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s vaccine, ChAdOx1 nCov-2019, has been found to produce a good immune response, even in people aged over 70 who are most at risk from contracting COVID-19. No serious adverse health events related to the vaccine were seen in the participants, and older people were found to have fewer side effects, such as fatigue and muscle ache, than younger participants, a report published in The Lancet medical journal on Thursday stated.
Professor Sarah Gilbert, the lead researcher of Oxford University’s vaccine development programme, said the team had already been in contact with several regulators to speed up the usual approval process.
“What we are doing to assist the regulators, in being able to come to their decision as early as they possibly could, is what’s called a rolling review,” she said. “We’re not waiting until we have the last piece of information that we need to apply for use of the vaccine and then providing it to the regulators.
“Instead, we’re providing the information available now so that they can already start to look at that and assess it. That process has already started with multiple regulators with the aim of being able to speed up the final process of the licence application once we have the final clinical data set, and we hope that that should come in before Christmas.”
US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Pfizer and BioNTech would seek Emergency Use Authorization on Friday from the US Food and Drug Administration. The application and clinical trial data will be reviewed by an independent board of scientists before approval is granted.
“Hope and help are on the way,” Azar said.
Pfizer and BioNTech say the vaccine is 95% effective.