Record deaths as global COVID-19 pace intensifies

With cases accelerating in many parts of the world due to a post-holiday bump and pushed by more transmissible virus variants in some locations, the world 2 days ago saw its deadliest day of the COVID-19 pandemic so far.

In other developments, China announced dates for an international joint mission to arrive to begin work on investigating the animal source of SARS-CoV-2 and Japan announced the identification of a variant in people who traveled from Brazil.

WHO joint mission cleared for China arrival

Chinese officials today said a joint mission led by the World Health Organization (WHO) will arrive in China on Jan 14, according to Reuters. Last week, the WHO said it was disappointed about a delay in getting experts to the country, based on an already-cleared schedule to probe the zoonotic source. Chinese officials called the travel problems a misunderstanding, but didn't detail the group's itinerary.

A 10-person international team mission, named in November, will take part in the mission, based on an outline that WHO officials fleshed out with China over the summer.

At a WHO briefing today, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, welcomed the new development and thanked the team members and their supporting countries. He said studies will begin in Wuhan and that scientific evidence will drive hypotheses, which will be the basis of longer-term studies. "We will share more news as we have it but let's give this team of scientists the space to work with their Chinese counterparts effectively and let's wish them all well," Tedros said.

Variant spreads in Europe

In the United Kingdom, battling which is experiencing its third and biggest COVID-19 spike alongside the wider spread of the more transmissible B117 variant, the country's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, CB, DSC, yesterday warned that the country is facing its most serious period of the pandemic. He added that the situation has deteriorated further since health officials last week recommended raising the nation's alert level to its highest level.

He warned that if the virus continues its current pattern, hospitals will be in difficult situations soon. Whitty also implored people to stay home except for work, exercise, and essential activities. "Vaccines and new treatments offer us hope and a clear way out. But we are not there yet, and should not act as if we are," he said.

In a related development over the weekend, UK researchers reported the first known case of a reinfection that involves the B117 variant as the cause of the second infection.

In a letter to Clinical Infectious Diseases, they said a 78-year-old man with multiple underlying health conditions was sick with COVID-19 for the first time in early April and recovered after a mild infection. Routine testing as part of the man's dialysis treatment showed negative nasal swabs between May and early December, and repeat antibody tests showed no evidence of antibody waning.

In the middle of December, he got sick and sought care for worsening shortness of breath. Genetic sequencing of a sample obtained on Dec 8 revealed that he was infected with the B1117 lineage, 8 months after his initial infection. They noted that antibody levels from the first infection raise questions about immune evasion by the new variant, but so far, it's difficult to draw conclusions based on the case.

The group also wrote that the man's second infection was life-threatening, which has been seen before in reinfections that don't involve variant strains.

Meanwhile, Ireland's Prime Minister Michael Martin said the incidence of the B117 variant is growing and now accounts for nearly half of recent positive tests, according to Reuters. He said the new variant accounts for 45%, compared to 25% for the week ending Jan 3 and 9% for the previous 2 weeks.

Japan probes Brazil variant

In other variant developments, Japan's heath ministry yesterday announced the detection of a new variant in four travelers from Brazil's Amazonas state, according to Reuters. It said more studies are under way into the virus and for now, there's no proof that it is more transmissible.

At today's WHO briefing, Tedros said that, over the weekend, Japan notified the WHO about a new variant and that it's critical to sequence the virus effectively to know how it's changing and how to respond.

He added that the WHO's research and development blueprint group meets this week to set research priorities for the year ahead, including on virus variants and sequencing.

WHO team assessing Chinese vaccines

Tedros said in the briefing that a separate WHO team is in China to work with producers of the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines to gauge compliance with international quality manufacturing practices ahead of potential emergency use listing by the WHO, a step that would allow the vaccine to be deployed to developing countries.

Also, Tedros said the WHO looks forward to the Serum Institute of India's submission of data for review of its AstraZeneca vaccine for international use.

Indonesia today became the first country outside of China to approve China's Sinovac vaccine for emergency use, according to Reuters. Indonesian regulators said late stage testing showed that the Sinovac vaccine was 65.3% effective, lower than what was reported from trials of the vaccine in Turkey and Brazil. The country's vaccine rollout begins with 3 million doses, of which 1.2 million have been sent to 34 provinces.

Elsewhere, the Palestinian Authority has approved Russia's Sputnik vaccine for emergency use, according to Reuters. The vaccine will be administered in limited Palestinian self-rule areas, with deliveries expected to be completed in the first quarter of the year, according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is marketing the vaccine outside of Russia.

In a related development, Russian scientists today began a study to determine if the Sputnik vaccine is protective with a single dose, a strategy that could help stretch the country's vaccine supplies, according to the New York Times.

In other global COVID-19 headlines:

  • China today reported 85 more local cases, including 82 from Hebei province where two cities are on lockdown, according to an update from the National Health Commission. The country yesterday completed mass testing of the province's 17 million population. In another development, a county in Heilongjiang province—on the border with Russia—is on lockdown after new cases were detected, according to CNN, which cited China's state TV.

  • Nigeria is the latest country to report a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, and the country's total passed 100,000 cases, the Washington Post reported.
  • Malaysia, with another surge that is stretching its health system, ordered a 2-week lockdown for its capital and five states, according to Reuters.

  • Over the weekend, the global total topped 90 million cases and is now at 90,695,701 with 1,940,593 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

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