COVID-19 cases exceed 5 M; doubt raised over vaccines
AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - May 23, 2020 - 12:00am

With a single-day record increase of 106,000 last Wednesday, the world’s total reported COVID-19 infections have exceeded five million confirmed cases, with the death toll nearing 330,000. Earlier, World Health Organization emergencies program head Mike Ryan had remarked that reaching five million cases would be a “tragic milestone.”

“We still have a long way to go in this pandemic,” acknowledged WHO director general Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus, adding: “We are very concerned about rising cases in low- and middle-income countries.”A surge in infection cases in Latin American countries has been particularly noted, with Brazil registering the third highest number globally, while steady increases occurred in Peru, Mexico, and Chile.

In Europe where a number of rich nations have begun opening up from lockdowns to re-energize their battered economies and enable people to go out of their homes, Andrea Ammon, director of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control since 2017, warned about a second wave of infections.

“Looking at the characteristics of the virus… what emerges from the different countries in terms of population immunity (after the peak of infections on May 2),” Ammon said, “was between 2 percent and 14 percent.” “That leaves still 85 percent to 90 percent of the population susceptible,” she pointed out.The virus is still very much around, she noted, “circulating much more than in January and February.” Disdaining to draw a “doomsday picture,” she nevertheless urged, “We have to be realistic… it’s not the time now to completely relax.”

Ammon also believes the battle against COVID-19 would be a long haul.She told the Guardian: “I don’t know whether it’s forever, but I don’t think it will go away very quickly.It seems to be very well adapted to humans.”

Meantime, as every country ravaged by COVID-19 has been desperately hoping that in a year or two a vaccine that could be made available, comes this cautionary advice from a leading epidemiologist.

“Do not listen to politicians who say we’re going to have one (vaccine) by the time my reelection comes around (an oblique jab at US President Trump),” said William Heseltine, an American scientist described by the Guardian as the groundbreaking researcher for cancer, HIV/AIDS, and human genome. “Maybe we will, but I’m just saying it’s not a slam-dunk case by any means,” he added. Why so? “Because every time people have tried to make a vaccine for SARS and MERS, it hasn’t actually protected.”

Heseltine explained that vaccines previously developed for other types of coronavirus had failed to protect mucous membranes in the nose, through which the COVID-19 virus typically enters the body.

Ergo, he counseled, that while a vaccine could be developed, “I wouldn’t count on it.” Instead, he advised governments and health authorities that the best approach to the pandemic is to manage the disease through careful tracing of infections and strict isolation measures whenever it begins to spread out.Moreover, Heseltine gave the standard advice to people:wear masks, wash hands often, clean surfaces, and keep a distance.

Observing the different approaches to the pandemic as carried out by various countries, Heseltine praised the efforts of China, South Korea, and Taiwan in curbing infections, while referring to the United States, Russia, and Brazil as ranking first, second, and third, respectively, in providing the worst responses.The US, he added, hasn’t done enough to “forcibly isolate” people who have been exposed to the virus.   

There’s another interesting development related to the uncertainty of an anti-COVID-19 vaccine becoming available soon, vis-a-vis the urgent need of providing further protection against infection to the healthcare workers in the frontlines worldwide. 

In Britain, the University of Oxford and the Wellcome Trust, in cooperation with Brighton and Sussex University hospitals, have initiated a major trial to see whether the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine can help prevent healthcare workers from contracting COVID-19.The project would involve 40,000 participants from the UK and other European countries, and from Africa, Asia, and South America. 

The study is supported by the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok (Thailand), where hydroxychloroquine and its other form, chloroquine, have been used in the past 60 years to treat malaria.

Brighton and Sussex University hospitals and Oxford’s John Radcliffe hospital have begun enrolling healthcare workers volunteering to participate.Hospitals in Italy, Portugal, Thailand, and in Africa and South America have reportedly been preparing to join in the study.As planned, some volunteers will be given a placebo, while others will be given hydroxychloroquine (in Europe and Africa) and choloroquine (in Asia).

Oxford University professor Sir Nicholas White, one of the joint leaders of the trial, explained:

“COVID-19 is a major risk for frontline healthcare workers around the world. We really do not know if chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine are beneficial or harmful against COVID-19.”  The best way to find out, he said, is in a randomized clinical trial. 

His co-joint leader, Brighton and Sussex medical school professor Martin Llewelyn added: “Even though the lockdown has brought the rate of infection right down in the UK, healthcare workers will continue to be at risk of COVID-19. They remain vulnerable, especially as restrictive measures are relaxed.”

“A widely available, safe and effective vaccine may be a long way off,” Llewelyn emphasized.  He thus welcomed such use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, on the chance that these could reduce the risk that healthcare workers may catch COVID-19.

Hydroxychloroquine has drawn wide interest after President Trump disclosed he had been taking the drug to protect himself from COVID-19 (which may explain why he refuses to don a protective mask).His disclosure provoked widespread outcry from doctors, who warned that the drug could have dangerous side effects, particularly irregular heartbeats – which can lead to fainting, hearing loss, drowning, or sudden death. 

The US Food and Drug Administration has strongly disapproved of Trump’s use of the drug. Uncharacteristically, Trump announced on Wednesday that he would stop using hydroxychloroquine starting yesterday, May 22.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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