Measles surging as COVID-19 curbs disrupt vaccinations

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Measles surged to infect almost 870,000 people across the world in 2019, the worst figures in almost a quarter of a century as vaccination levels fell below critical levels, a report said on Thursday.

Millions of children are at risk of the disease again this year as restrictions imposed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic further disrupt immunization programs, the report co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

Measles is one of the most contagious known diseases – more so than COVID-19, Ebola, tuberculosis or flu.

More than 207,000 people died of it last year alone, the report found. With immunization coverage below the critical 95% needed for community protection, infections rose in all WHO regions last year to the worst levels since 1996, it said.

“These data send a clear message that we are failing to protect children from measles in every region of the world,” the WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a statement.

The surge in fatal cases means global measles deaths have risen nearly 50% since 2016.

The report, co-led by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cited a collective failure to fully immunize children on time with two doses of measles vaccine as the main driver of the deadly increases.

Looking ahead to 2020, the report warned that disruptions to vaccination due to the COVID-19 pandemic have crippled efforts to curb measles outbreaks.

As of this month, more than 94 million people were at risk of missing measles vaccinations due to paused immunization campaigns in 26 countries, it said.

“COVID-19 has resulted in dangerous declines in immunization coverage,” Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI global vaccine alliance, said.

He described the “alarming” measles report was “a warning that, with the COVID-19 pandemic occupying health systems across the world, we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball.”

After steady downward progress from 2010 to 2016, measles cases began rising again from 2017. The report said there were a total of 869,770 measles cases, with 207,500 deaths, in 2019.

WHO and the UN children’s fund UNICEF urged governments last week to act now to prevent epidemics of measles, polio and other infectious diseases.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.N. chief: time for national plans to help fund global COVID-19 vaccine effort

By Michelle Nichols and Stephanie Nebehay

NEW YORK/GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N. chief Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday it is time for countries to start using money from their national COVID-19 response to help fund a global vaccine plan as the World Bank warned that “broad, rapid and affordable access” to those doses will be at the core of a resilient global economic recovery.

The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and its COVAX facility – led by the World Health Organization and GAVI vaccine alliance – has received $3 billion, but needs another $35 billion. It aims to deliver 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021, 245 million treatments and 500 million tests.

At a high-level virtual U.N. event on the program, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the financing gap was less than 1% of what the world’s 20 largest economies (G20) had committed to domestic stimulus packages and “it’s roughly equivalent to what the world spends on cigarettes every two weeks.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged $100 million to GAVI to help poorer countries gain access to a vaccine and Johnson & Johnson Chief Executive Alex Gorsky committed 500 million vaccine doses for low-income countries with delivery starting in mid-2021.

“Having access to lifesaving COVID diagnostics, therapeutics or vaccines … shouldn’t depend on where you live, whether you’re rich or poor,” said Gorsky, adding that while Johnson & Johnson is “acting at an unprecedented scale and speed, but we are not for a minute cutting corners on safety.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that a vaccine against the virus might be ready before the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election, raising questions about whether political pressure might result in the deployment of a vaccine before it is safe.

“We remain 100 percent committed to high ethical and scientific principles,” Gorsky said.

GAVI Chief Executive Seth Berkley said that so far 168 countries, including 76 self-financing states, have joined the COVAX global vaccines facility. Tedros said this represented 70% of the world’s population, adding: “The list is growing every day.”

China, Russia and the United States have not joined the facility, although WHO officials have said they are still holding talks with China about signing up. The United States has reached its own deals with vaccine developers.

‘LONG HAUL’

World Bank President David Malpass said the pandemic could push 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021 and the “negative impact on human capital will be deep and may last decades.”

“Broad, rapid and affordable access to COVID vaccines will be at the core of a resilient global economic recovery that lifts everyone,” he said.

Guterres said that the ACT-Accelerator was the only safe and certain way to reopen the global economy quickly.

But he warned that the program needed an immediate injection of $15 billion to “avoid losing the window of opportunity” for advance purchase and production, to build stocks in parallel with licensing, boost research, and help countries prepare.

“We cannot allow a lag in access to further widen already vast inequalities,” Guterres said.

“But let’s be clear: We will not get there with donors simply allocating resources only from the Official Development Assistance budget,” he said. “It is time for countries to draw funding from their own response and recovery programs.”

U.N. Secretary-General Guterres called on all countries to step up significantly in the next three months.

Billionaire Bill Gates told the U.N. event that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had signed an agreement with 16 pharmaceutical companies on Wednesday.

“In this agreement the companies commit to, among other things, scaling up manufacturing, at an unprecedented speed, and making sure that approved vaccines reach broad distribution as early as possible,” Gates said.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – a co-host of the meeting along with Guterres, the WHO and South Africa – urged other countries to join the global effort, saying the ACT-Accelerator is the best hope of bringing the pandemic under control.

Said Merkel: “We’re in for the long haul and we need more support.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis)

Latin American nations seek more time to join WHO vaccine plan

By Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Several Latin American countries have informed the World Health Organization (WHO) they intend to request more time to sign up for its global COVID-19 vaccine allocation plan known as COVAX, an official at the WHO’s regional branch said on Thursday.

Countries have until midnight on Friday to formalize legally binding commitments to COVAX, a mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of eventual vaccines.

A representative for the GAVI Alliance, the COVAX secretariat, said by email that details of which nations have joined COVAX will only be made public after the deadline.

Health officials in Mexico, which has the worst outbreak in Latin America after Brazil, said their country would sign the commitment on time. Brazil, which has the world’s most severe outbreak outside the United States and India, was still studying what to do, a ministry spokesperson said.

More than 170 countries have joined the global vaccine plan to help buy and distribute immunization shots for COVID-19 fairly around the world, WHO’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday.

Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan-American Health Organization, said in a briefing on Wednesday that Latin American countries were having trouble meeting the deadline and some wanted to push back the date.

Barbosa said all countries in the Americas except the United States had expressed interest in the vaccine facility, even those that have separate agreements with vaccine makers, because it gives them an added guarantee of access to doses.

Ten Latin American countries are among 90 poor nations in the world that will not have to pay for the vaccine, while the others in the region will pay an “accessible” price through COVAX, Barbosa said.

Colombian President Ivan Duque confirmed on Wednesday that his government was joining COVAX and Paraguay’s health ministry said it has already signed, even as it plans to buy the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca PLC and Oxford University.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia, Diego Ore in Mexico City, Julia Cobb in Bogotá, Daniela Desantis in Asunción; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Chizu Nomiyama)

WHO’s Tedros says ‘vaccine nationalism’ would prolong pandemic

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday that “vaccine nationalism” would only slow the effort to quash the pandemic and called for vaccines to be used fairly and effectively.

Tedros said 78 high-income countries had now joined the “COVAX” global vaccine allocation plan, bringing the total to 170 countries, and the “number is growing”. He urged others to join by the Sept. 18 deadline for binding commitments.

Joining the plan guaranteed those countries access to the world’s largest portfolio of vaccines, with nine candidates currently in the pipeline, he said, adding that a further four were “promising”.

The WHO and the GAVI vaccine alliance are leading the COVAX facility, aimed at helping buy and distribute vaccination shots fairly around the world.

But some countries that have secured their own supplies through bilateral deals, including the United States, have said they will not join COVAX.

“Vaccine nationalism will prolong the pandemic, not shorten it,” Tedros told a WHO briefing in Geneva, without mentioning any specific countries.

“If and when we have an effective vaccine, we must also use it effectively … In other words, the first priority must be to vaccinate some people in all countries, rather than all people in some countries,” he said, adding that priority should be given to healthcare workers, the elderly and those with underlying conditions.

Tedros thanked Germany, Japan, Norway and the European Commission for joining COVAX during the last week.

“Certainly by the middle of 2021 we should start to see some vaccines actually moving into countries and populations,” said WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan, reiterating earlier comments.

Noting that there were 13 experimental vaccines currently in clinical trails, Swaminathan called it an “optimistic scenario” since the typical success rate of 10% could mean several vaccines are approved.

But Swaminathan said that no vaccine should be approved for a worldwide rollout until it had undergone sufficient scrutiny.

“No vaccine is going to be mass-deployed until regulators are confident, governments are confident, and the WHO is confident it has met the minimum standard of safety and efficacy,” she said.

Results were expected from some of the candidates already in phase 3 trials, each involving thousands of participants, by the end of the year or early 2021, Swaminathan said.

“We are not going to have enough for the whole world right at the beginning,” she said adding that scaling up of manufacturing would take time.

“Eventually there will be enough for everyone but it will mean prioritization,” she said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Editing by Alison Williams and Giles Elgood)

Widespread COVID-19 vaccinations not expected until mid-2021, WHO says

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization does not expect widespread vaccinations against COVID-19 until the middle of next year, a spokeswoman said on Friday, stressing the importance of rigorous checks on their effectiveness and safety.

None of the candidate vaccines in advanced clinical trials so far has demonstrated a “clear signal” of efficacy at the level of at least 50% sought by the WHO, spokeswoman Margaret Harris said.

Russia granted regulatory approval to a COVID-19 vaccine in August after less than two months of human testing, prompting some Western experts to question its safety and efficacy.

U.S. public health officials and Pfizer Inc said on Thursday a vaccine could be ready for distribution as soon as late October. That would be just ahead of the U.S. election on Nov. 3 in which the pandemic is likely to be a major factor among voters deciding whether President Donald Trump wins a second term.

“We are really not expecting to see widespread vaccination until the middle of next year,” Harris told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“This phase 3 must take longer because we need to see how truly protective the vaccine is and we also need to see how safe it is,” she added. This referred to the phase in vaccine research where large clinical trials among people are conducted. Harris did not refer to any specific vaccine candidate.

All data from trials must be shared and compared, Harris said. “A lot of people have been vaccinated and what we don’t know is whether the vaccine works…at this stage we do not have the clear signal of whether or not it has the level of worthwhile efficacy and safety…,” she added.

The WHO and GAVI vaccine alliance are leading a global vaccine allocation plan known as COVAX that aims to help buy and distribute shots fairly. The focus is on first vaccinating the most high-risk people in every country such as healthcare workers.

COVAX aims to procure and deliver 2 billion doses of approved vaccines by the end of 2021, but some countries that have secured their own supplies through bilateral deals, including the United States, have said they will not join.

“Essentially, the door is open. We are open. What the COVAX is about is making sure everybody on the planet will get access to the vaccines,” Harris said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Exclusive: Vaccine group says 76 rich countries now committed to ‘COVAX’ access plan

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Seventy-six wealthy nations are now committed to joining a global COVID-19 vaccine allocation plan co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) that aims to help buy and fairly distribute the shots, the project’s co-lead said on Wednesday.

Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI vaccines alliance, said the plan, known as COVAX, now has Japan, Germany, Norway and more than 70 other nations signed up, agreeing in principle to procure COVID-19 vaccines through the facility for their populations.

“We have, as of right now, 76 upper middle income and high income countries that have submitted confirmations of intent to participate – and we expect that number to go up,” Berkley told Reuters in an interview.

“This is good news. It shows that the COVAX facility is open for business and is attracting the type of interest across the world we had hoped it would.”. COVAX coordinators are in talks with China about whether it might also join, Berkley said.

“We had a discussion yesterday with the (Chinese) government. We don’t have any signed agreement with them yet,” but Beijing had given “a positive signal”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a briefing on Wednesday that China “supports COVAX and has been in communication with WHO and other parties” about it.

COVAX is co-led by GAVI, the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). It is designed to discourage national governments from hoarding COVID-19 vaccines and to focus on first vaccinating the most high-risk people in every country.

Its backers say this strategy should lead to lower vaccine costs for everyone and a swifter end to the pandemic that has claimed some 860,000 lives globally.

Wealthy countries that join COVAX will finance the vaccine purchases from their national budgets, and will partner with 92 poorer nations supported through voluntary donations to the plan to ensure vaccines are delivered equitably, Berkley said.

Participating wealthy countries are also free to procure vaccines through bilateral deals and other plans.

The United States said on Tuesday it would not join COVAX due to the Trump administration’s objection to WHO involvement, a move described by some critics as “disappointing.” Berkley said he was not surprised by the U.S. decision, but would seek to continue talks with Washington.

In what appeared to be a change of position on Wednesday, the European Union said its member states could buy potential COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX.

COVAX coordinators sought to add flexibility to joining agreements to encourage greater participation, Berkley said.

The WHO describes COVAX as an “invaluable insurance policy” for all countries to secure access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines when they are developed and approved. The plan’s coordinators have set a deadline of Sept. 18 for countries signing up to make binding commitments.

Asked to comment on the U.S. decision not to join COVAX, and on talks with China, a WHO spokesperson said: “Countries have until Sept. 18 to sign binding agreements…, so we’ll have more to say on countries that have joined then.”

COVAX’s objective is to procure and deliver 2 billion doses of approved vaccines by the end of 2021. It currently has nine COVID-19 vaccine candidates in its portfolio employing a range of different technologies and scientific approaches.

A handful are already in late-stage clinical trials and could have data available by year end.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Mark Heinrich)