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UN chief urges global plan to reverse unfair vaccine access



UN chief urges global plan to reverse unfair vaccine access

UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sharply criticized the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of COVID-19 vaccines on Wednesday, saying 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all vaccinations and demanding a global effort to get all people in every nation vaccinated as soon as possible.

The U.N. chief told a high-level meeting of the U.N. Security Council that 130 countries have not received a single dose of vaccine and declared that “at this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community.”

Guterres called for an urgent Global Vaccination Plan to bring together those with the power to ensure equitable vaccine distribution — scientists, vaccine producers and those who can fund the effort.

And he called on the world’s major economic powers in the Group of 20 to establish an emergency task force to establish a plan and coordinate its implementation and financing. He said the task force should have the capacity “to mobilize the pharmaceutical companies and key industry and logistics actors.”

Guterres said Friday’s meeting of the Group of Seven major industrialized nations — the United States, Germany, Japan, Britain, France, Canada and Italy — “can create the momentum to mobilize the necessary financial resources.”

Thirteen ministers addressed the virtual council meeting organized by Britain on improving access to COVID-19 vaccinations, including in conflict areas.

The coronavirus has infected more than 109 million people and killed at least 2.4 million of them. As manufacturers struggle to ramp up production of vaccines, many countries complain of being left out and even rich nations are facing shortages and domestic complaints.

The World Health Organization’s COVAX program, an ambitious project to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people, has already missed its own goal of beginning coronavirus vaccinations in poor countries at the same time that shots were rolled out in rich countries. WHO says COVAX needs $5 billion in 2021.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the council the Biden administration “will work with our partners across the globe to expand manufacturing and distribution capacity and to increase access, including to marginalized populations.”

President Joe Biden has rejoined the WHO and Blinken announced that by the end of February the United States will pay over $200 million in previously assessed and current obligations to the U.N. agency, which Washington will seek to reform.

America’s top diplomat said the U.S. also plans to provide “significant financial support” to COVAX through the GAVI vaccine alliance, and will work to strengthen other multilateral initiatives involved in the global COVID-19 response. He gave no details.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized the growing “immunity divide” and called on the world to “come together to reject `vaccine nationalism,’ promote fair and equitable distribution of vaccines, and, in particular, make them accessible and affordable for developing countries, including those in conflict.”

At WHO’s request, he said, China will contribute 10 million doses of vaccines to COVAX “preliminarily.”

China has donated vaccines to 53 developing countries including Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan and Palestine, which is a U.N. observer state. It has also exported vaccines to 22 countries, he said, adding that Beijing has launched research and development cooperation on COVID-19 with more than 10 countries.

India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also called for a halt to “vaccine nationalism” and encouragement for internationalism. “Hoarding superfluous doses will defeat our efforts towards attaining collective health security,” he warned.

Jaishankar said India has been at the forefront of the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, initially providing medicine, ventilators and personal protective equipment and now directly sending made-in-India vaccines to 25 nations across the world, with 49 additional countries from Europe and Latin America to Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands slated to receive vaccines “in the coming days.”

Two vaccines, including one developed in India, have been granted emergency authorization, the minister said, and as many as 30 vaccine candidates are in various stages of development.

Jaishankar announced “a gift of 200,000 doses” of vaccine for about 90,000 U.N. peacekeepers serving in a dozen hotspots around the world.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, whose country is currently president of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, called for speeding up COVAX and stopping the ”undue hoarding” and “monopolization of vaccines.”

He urged that priority be given to countries with limited resources, saying “it’s been pointed out that these countries won’t have generalized access until the middle of 2023 if current trends persist.”

“What we are seeing is a huge gap,” Ebrard said. “In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a huge division affecting so many in such a short space of time. That is why it’s important to reverse this.”

He urged the international community not to establish mechanisms that could prevent the speedy delivery of vaccines but instead to strengthen supply chains “that will promote and guarantee universal access.”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, whose country holds the Security Council presidency this month and presided at the virtual meeting, urged the U.N.’s most powerful body to adopt a resolution calling for local cease-fires in conflict zones to allow the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Cease-fires have been used to vaccinate the most vulnerable communities in the past,” he said. “There’s no reason why we can’t… We have seen it in the past to deliver polio vaccines to children in Afghanistan, just to take one example.”

Britain says more than 160 million people are at risk of being excluded from coronavirus vaccinations because they live in countries engulfed in conflict and instability, including Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward said: “Humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies need the full backing of the council to be able to carry out the job we are asking them to do.”

Britain has drafted a Security Council resolution that the U.K. hopes will be adopted in the coming weeks, she said.

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Tourism groups in Thailand petition to reopen country to international travelers




Tourism groups in Thailand petition to reopen country to international travelers

Thailand’s tourism sector wants to reopen the country to visitors this summer. 

On Tuesday, tourism groups in Thailand launched the #OpenThailandSafely campaign, asking the country to allow travelers with proof of a COVID-19 vaccine into the country without quarantine requirements by July 1. 

“As Thailand is starting to vaccinate its most vulnerable and its healthcare workers, we believe that now is the time to announce a firm and irreversible date to reopen its borders,” a petition to the Thai government says. “This will give confidence to international travelers and encourage them to book a trip to Thailand.”

“Thai tourism operators, especially those reliant on international travel, would then be able to start business planning, accept forward bookings, start to rehire staff, and conduct training programs,” the petition adds. “Without a firm commitment to reopening made now, Thailand may lose all of 2021 as travelers will make plans for alternative destinations.”

The petition – which is seeking 100,000 signatures to be sent to the Thai Prime Minister, the Minister of Tourism and Sports and the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand – has 2,268 supporters as of Tuesday night.

According to a letter published with the campaign, Thailand tourism and related industries have been “decimated” by the closure of international travel into the country because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The financial, social, physical and psychological health of Thai people has been adversely affected,” the letter said. “The disruption of travel has not just impacted tourism, but also torn families apart and greatly reduced international trade.”

“The current situation is unsustainable,” the letter added.

Campaign organizers believe that by July 1, vaccines will be widely available “in many source markets,” according to the letter. 

Organizers also believe that if the government makes a commitment now to opening its borders for travelers by July 1, that will give people enough time to plan and book their travel, it will give tourism companies enough time to prepare to restart operations and it will give the Thai government enough time to vaccinated front line health care workers and vulnerable citizens.

“It will take Thailand at least a year, and maybe a lot longer, to return to the large numbers of international visitors that it had before the Covid-19 crisis,” the letter said.

In the letter, campaign organizers also suggested several potential “safeguards” that international travelers could be asked to follow in order to visit the country, including “showing officially recognized proof of a Covid-19 vaccination from their home country, purchasing health insurance, showing proof of a negative Covid test within 72 hours of departure, and so on,” the letter said.

“The 1 July reopening would be a strategic opportunity for Thailand to show a leadership role among Asian countries and prepare the way for a solid recovery of the Thai economy in 2022,” the letter added.

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US halts plasma study to treat mild COVID-19, citing ‘unlikely benefit’




US halts plasma study to treat mild COVID-19, citing ‘unlikely benefit’

The National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday it stopped a clinical trial testing convalescent plasma in mild to moderate COVID-19 patients after an independent board found no difference in hospitalizations, deaths or in preventing progression to severe illness.

An independent data and safety monitoring board convened on Feb. 25 to assess trial data, and concluded that while the plasma “caused no harm, it was unlikely to benefit this group of patients,” per a news release. The board recommended to stop enrolling new patients in the study, and this was done “immediately,” according to the release.

“The recent data analysis from the study indicated no significant difference in the proportion of participants who experienced any one of these outcomes [hospitalization, additional care or death within two weeks],” reads the release. “Even if enrollment continued, this trial was highly unlikely to demonstrate that COVID-19 convalescent plasma prevents progression from mild to severe illness in at-risk emergency department non-hospitalized participants.”

The study launched in August 2020, and aimed to reach 900 patients across 47 hospital emergency departments (EDs) in the US, but only enrolled 511 patients. These patients presented to the ED with mild to moderate COVID-19 and had at least one underlying condition that would heighten the risk for a severe course of COVID-19 disease, like heart disease or obesity. The patients had symptoms for several days to a week, but weren’t sick enough to require hospitalization.

The concept behind the treatment is that antibodies in the plasma from recovered patients could be infused into ill patients in a bid to improve conditions. Plasma was also used during the 1918 influenza pandemic, the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in 2003, and the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, the NIH says.

Trial participants received one unit of plasma or a placebo, and researchers studied whether patients went on to require hospital care, sought additional care or died within 15 days of starting the trial. 

The NIH noted over 100,000 people in the US have already been treated with plasma since the beginning of the pandemic, and the American Red Cross is actively seeking plasma donations. Some doctors voiced some cautious optimism over the treatment last spring, though they had uncertainties, specifically whether patients’ improved conditions were due to plasma or another factor.

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New poll shows 50% drop in fear of dying from COVID-19




New poll shows 50% drop in fear of dying from COVID-19

Americans are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new survey.

The national Harris Poll conducted over the weekend found a significant uptick in positive sentiment about the pandemic — and a drop in fears of the virus.

“The last year has certainly been difficult for many Americans and their families, but in the face of all the hardships and social distancing efforts, many have remained optimistic and resilient when it comes to their mental health,” John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, said in a statement.

More than half, or 52 percent, of the 2,000 adults surveyed said they are not afraid of dying as a result of catching COVID-19, the highest mark since July 2020.

For most of the year, the number of people who said they were frightened of being killed by the virus outnumbered the alternative.

More than 516,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, but both deaths and cases have recently been on the decline.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20 percent of the adult population is now vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The poll found a 15 percent increase in how many Americans approve of how the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed.

About 66 percent gave the nation’s inoculation efforts the thumbs up, compared to 51 percent just one month ago.

The findings came as President Biden on Tuesday said the US will have enough vaccines for every US adult by the end of May, two months earlier than previously anticipated.

Despite the stepped-up pace of vaccine production, the massive effort to get every American jabbed could extend well into the summer, officials said.

Biden said he hoped that the nation would be back to normal sometime before “this time next year.”

Still, when asked if they currently think there is light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic, nearly 6 in 10 respondents said yes, according to the poll.

They were also more optimistic about the effects of the pandemic, with 66 percent overall saying their mental health has been affected in a positive way.

About 30 percent of those respondents said they’ve found more things to be grateful for during the crisis; 28 percent said they’ve taken more “me time” to do things for themselves; and 25 percent said they’ve been praying more.

“While Americans remain vigilant over the pandemic,” Gerzema said, “it is an encouraging sign to see greater acceptance of the vaccine, a belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and a declining sentiment in fear of dying from the virus.”

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