WHO urges global coordination of vaccine rollout, notes COVID in Caribbean

As the global COVID-19 total today neared 22 million cases, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned about "vaccine nationalism" and previewed a basic strategy for deploying vaccine, once available, that not only protects those at greatest risk, but also helps reduce the threat for all countries.

In another development, the WHO's Americas regional office said Caribbean countries are now reporting case rises. The current pandemic total is at 21,974,393 cases, with 776,154 deaths according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

Global vaccine coordination

At a media briefing today, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, reviewed earlier logistical challenges in rolling out diagnostic tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) and said a key lesson learned was that though people want to protect their countries first, the response has to be a collective one.

"This is not charity, we have learned the hard way that the fastest way to end this pandemic and to reopen economies is to start by protecting the highest risk populations everywhere, rather than the entire populations of just some countries," he said, adding that sharing supplies strategically and globally is in each country's interest. "No one is safe until everyone is safe."

Once a vaccine is available, the WHO's strategic group of advisors will make recommendations, which will likely cover two phases. In phase 1, doses will be allocated proportionally to reduce overall risk, covering about 20% of the population to include high-risk groups in an effort to stabilize health systems and rebuild economies. For phase 2, considerations will be based on a country's threat and vulnerability.

Tedros spoke of the interconnectedness of the push to develop and produce vaccines, which he said will require goods and materials from many different countries, which will require elite planning now. "Like an orchestra, we need all instruments to be played in harmony to create music that everyone enjoys," he said.

Cases rise in Caribbean countries

At a separate media briefing today, Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa Etienne, said the Americas region still carries the world's highest COVID-19 burden and accounted for 55% of the world's cases last week. Though the United States and Brazil are still the region's biggest drivers of COVID-19 activity, some countries are reporting rises in cases, including some that had been stable for several weeks, such as those in the Caribbean.

Those reporting increases include Peru, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago, she said. "This virus is unrelenting and requires the same from us: we must stay vigilant and keep transmission under control."

Etienne also drew attention to the mental health challenges the pandemic is contributing to in the region. Surveys from high burden countries such as the United States, Brazil, and Mexico suggest that half of adults are stressed by the pandemic, with early data showing that many are coping by using drugs and alcohol, which can exacerbate mental health issues.

She said pandemic restrictions can put mental health treatment out of reach for people, a concern, not only for patients but for caregivers, including healthcare workers who are working long hours and risking their lives as health facilities struggle to maintain adequate supplies of PPE.

Domestic violence is another concern amid lockdown conditions, posing a risk to women, children, and other marginalized groups, Etienne said, noting that, for example, calls to a women's help line in Argentina increased by one-third, and calls to a family violence helpline in Colombia rose dramatically early in the pandemic. She urged countries to take innovative steps to expand mental health care.

In other Latin America developments, Brazilian regulators today cleared the way for human clinicals to begin for Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine, making it the fourth to be tested. Also, medical advisors to opposition leaders in Venezuela have warned that the country's pace of infections may soon overwhelm its testing capacity, which could lead to an artificial flattening of the nation's epidemic curve.

South Korea spike continues

South Korea today reported 246 new cases, marking the fifth day in a row of triple-digit daily totals, Reuters reported, based on information from Korea Centers for Disease Control. The country was one of the first outside of China to experience a large outbreak, but it has suffered recurrences, such as one in May linked to nightclub clusters.

Much of the latest activity is related to another large church outbreak in Seoul, and the country, which already imposed some new curbs, expanded them today to include the port city Incheon and closed nightclubs, buffets, and cyber cafes. It also banned in-person church services and limited indoor gatherings to 50 or fewer people and outdoor gatherings to 100 or fewer people. So far, 457 cases have been linked to the Sarang Jeil Church outbreak, with efforts still underway to get church members tested and quarantined, if needed.

Elsewhere, other countries that had success containing the virus are working to tamp down flare-ups. Australia today reported 226 cases, its lowest in a month, raising hopes that the lockdown in Victoria state is having an impact. In a related development, health officials in Victoria state who investigated the recent outbreak said more than 90% of cases are linked to a family cluster of four people who returned to Australia in the middle of May, the Guardian reported. The family members were sick and quarantined in a hotel, where staff workers a few weeks later tested positive for the virus.

New Zealand today reported 13 more cases, 12 with confirmed links to a recent cluster that triggered a bigger outbreak and 1 with suspected links, according to the health ministry.

In another development, the ministry said genetic analysis linked a 5-person family cluster to the existing cluster, providing reassurance that there aren't two separate clusters. It also said there is one cases not linked to the cluster, with partial sequencing suggesting that the virus that infected a maintenance worker at a quarantine hotel in Auckland is related to that of someone who recently got sick during quarantine after travel to the United States.

In other global developments:

  • United Kingdom announced that in the wake of COVID-19 challenges it is replacing Public Health England with a body known as the National Institute for Health Protection, which will be headed by the current head of the country's contact tracing system.

  • The Philippines today reported 4,836 new cases, marking the 7th day in a row of reporting more than 3,000 cases.

  • In Africa, cases in South Africa appear to be decreasing, but trends should be interpreted carefully due to targeted testing, and the situation in Cameroon, though stable, is concerning due to the high attack rate and high numbers of infected healthcare workers, the WHO's African regional office said today in its weekly outbreaks and health emergencies report.

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