World Health Assembly kicks off with pandemic issues at fore

Tedros on big screen
Tedros on big screen

UN Geneva, Jean Marc Ferré / Flickr cc

The World Health Assembly (WHA) annual meeting began today, virtually for the second year in a row, with ending the pandemic and preparing for the next one as the main themes.

In other developments, India's deaths are still at record highs, with black fungus cases reported across a broad swath of the country, and the United Kingdom released its latest investigation findings into the B1617.2 variant threat.

Tedros: No country out of the woods

In an address to the group today, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, warned the group that the world remains in a very dangerous situation and as of today, more COVID-19 deaths have been reported in 2021 than in all of 2020. "Since our Health Assembly started this morning, almost 1000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19. And in the time it takes me to make these remarks, a further 400 will die," he said.

Though global cases have dropped for the past 3 weeks, the world remains in a fragile situation, Tedros said.

Fortunately, none of the SARS-CoV-2 variants have significantly evaded vaccines, drugs, or tests, but there are no guarantees that that situation will remain, he said, noting that no country is out of the woods, even those with high vaccination levels.

The pandemic won't be over until the virus is controlled in every country, Tedros said, calling on countries to do more, repeating his call for high-income countries to share vaccine supplies. "There is no diplomatic way to say it: a small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world."

The WHA, made up of representatives from member countries, is the WHO's main decision-making body. It will receive three pandemic-related reports during the meeting, including the one from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which it requested last year, with the panel having recently released its findings and recommendations.

It will also receive an independent review of the WHO's health emergencies committee, as well as a review of how the International Health Regulations have performed during the pandemic. The WHA runs though Jun 1, and other infectious disease topics on the agenda include antimicrobial resistance and polio.

India deaths still at record high

Though India's daily COVID-19 cases have declined, the country today reported a single-day record for deaths, with 4,454 reported, according to the Washington Post. Deaths are often a lagging indicator. Also, India's overall COVID-19 deaths have now topped 300,000, making it the only country, behind the United States and Brazil, to pass that number.

Daily cases have dropped in New Delhi, one of the early hot spots in the country's massive second surge, and health officials will begin easing the city's strict lockdown next week if the illness level continues to slow, according to Reuters.

As the country continues to battle its devastating surge, the government asked farmers to cancel mass protests slated for May 26 due to fears of superspreading events, according to Reuters. The farmers are protesting the deregulation of agricultural markets.

In other developments, at least 8,848 black fungus (mucormycosis), a potentially fatal lung complication, have been reported, according to CNN. Gujarat and Maharashtra state have reported about half of the cases, but illnesses have been reported from 23 of the country's 36 states and union territories.

B1617.2 vaccine protection

In new reports on the B1617.2 variant over the weekend, Public Health England (PHE) said vaccines are a bit less effective than against the B117 variant, but protection is still high. Two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, scientists found 88% effectiveness against symptomatic B1617.2, compared with 93% against B117.

And after two doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, effectiveness was 60% against symptomatic B117 disease, compared with 66% against B117. For both vaccines, effectiveness against symptomatic illness 3 weeks after the first dose was 33% for B1617.2, compared with 50% for B117.

The findings for B1617.2 are based on 1,054 people across all ages and ethnic groups. PHE said the difference between the two vaccines may reflect later rollout of second AstraZeneca doses and data that suggest it takes longer to reach maximum effectiveness with that vaccine. It also added that even higher levels of effectiveness are likely for both vaccines against severe B1617.2 illness.

In a detailed technical report, PHE said though overall COVID-19 case levels are low, the proportion of B1617.2 cases continues to rise, especially in London, the North West, and the East. It said the secondary attack rates are higher for B1617.2 than for B117, with small numbers of reinfections that aren't unusual for any prevalent variant.

And in a separate risk assessment, PHE said it's likely that B1617.2 is more transmissible than B117, though the size of the difference isn't clear. Overall, it said the new variant continues to replace B117, but an increase in overall incidence has been seen only in a few places.

PHE said the high growth rate of the new variant could relate to several factors, including immune escape in those who have only received one vaccine dose.

More global headlines

  • In Japan, hospitals in Osaka, the country's second biggest city, are running low on beds and ventilators, according to the Washington Post. The head of Osaka's medical association said that about 10,000 people are isolating at home or waiting to be hospitalized and that hosting the Olympics this summer will be "extremely difficult."

  • China's health advisors are recommending a third COVID-19 vaccine dose for high-risk groups, noting that protection seems to decline after 6 months for some people.

  • Health officials in Australia's Victoria state are investigating the source of four COVID-19 cases, signaling the first community transmission in almost 3 months, according to Reuters. The cases involve an extended family in two households in a suburb of Melbourne.

  • The global total topped 167 million and is now at 167,163,500, with at least 3,462,200 deaths, according to the New York Times tracker.

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