EU urged to review remdesivir supply deal after COVID trial results

By Francesco Guarascio

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union should renegotiate a 1 billion euro ($1.17 billion) contract it sealed last week with Gilead for a six-month supply of the COVID-19 drug remdesivir after it showed poor results in a large trial, experts said on Friday.

In a blow to one of the few drugs being used to treat people with COVID-19, the Solidarity Trial conducted by the World Health Organization showed on Friday that remdesivir appeared to have little or no effect on mortality or length of hospital stays among patients with the respiratory disease.

The trial results were disclosed a week after the EU’s executive Commission announced its largest contract to date with Gilead for the supply of 500,000 courses of the antiviral drug at a price of 2,070 euro per treatment, which Gilead said was the standard for wealthy nations.

The Commission “needs to present the reasons behind the rush to conclude the latest contract with Gilead and move to review it in light of the Solidarity Trial findings,” said Yannis Natsis, who represents patients’ organizations on the board of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the EU drug regulator.

The EU announced on Oct. 8 that it had signed the supply contract with the U.S. company on behalf of its 27 member states and 10 partner countries, including Britain.

Gilead had known about the results of Solidarity since Oct. 6, the WHO said, citing disclosure rules under the Solidarity Trial.

Gilead told Reuters it had received in late September an “heavily redacted manuscript” from the WHO which contained different information from the final document published on Friday.

“TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE”

The Commission’s decision was made after EU countries warned of shortages of remdesivir in their hospitals amid a new surge of COVID-19 infections across Europe.

The contract does not oblige countries to buy remdesivir, although it ties them to the agreed price.

Gilead did not comment on whether remdesivir’s price for wealthy countries could change after the WHO trial, and the company questioned its results.

“As time is of the essence – we are in a situation of a public health emergency – we have to not only invest up-front in vaccine development but also in access to therapeutics,” a spokesman for the European Commission said.

He added the EMA would look into the Solidarity results and data available from other studies on COVID treatments “to see if any changes are needed to the way these medicines are used”.

But the spokesman did not comment on whether the EU was aware of the Solidarity results before it signed the contract with Gilead. He also did not reply to questions on whether the price agreed with Gilead could be renegotiated.

“The EU should revisit the prices to be paid for Remdesivir. Why pay 1 billion euros for a drug with no effects on survival?” said Andrew Hill, a senior visiting research fellow in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Liverpool.

He said generic versions of the drug manufactured in India were sold at 200 euros per course.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; additional reporting by John Miller; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Countries turn to rapid antigen tests to contain second wave of COVID-19

By John Miller, Caroline Copley and Bart H. Meijer

ZURICH/BERLIN (Reuters) – Countries straining to contain a second wave of COVID-19 are turning to faster, cheaper but less accurate tests to avoid the delays and shortages that have plagued efforts to diagnose and trace those infected quickly.

Germany, where infections jumped by 4,122 on Tuesday to 329,453 total, has secured 9 million so-called antigen tests per month that can deliver a result in minutes and cost about 5 euros ($5.90) each. That would, in theory, cover more than 10% of the population.

The United States and Canada are also buying millions of tests, as is Italy, whose recent tender for 5 million tests attracted offers from 35 companies. Switzerland, where new COVID-19 cases are at record levels, is considering adding the tests to its nationwide screening strategy.

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) now recommends antigen tests to complement existing molecular PCR tests, which have become the standard for assessing active infections but which have also suffered shortages as the pandemic overwhelmed laboratories and outstripped manufacturers’ production capacity.

PCR tests detect genetic material in the virus while antigen tests detect proteins on the virus’s surface, though both are meant to pick up active infections. Another type of test, for antibodies the body produces in response to an infection, can help tell if somebody has had COVID-19 in the past.

Like PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, antigen tests require an uncomfortable nasal swab. They can also produce more “false negatives,” prompting some experts to recommend they only be used in a pinch.

Still, the alarming rise in new infections globally has health officials desperately pursuing more options as the winter influenza season looms.

The World Health Organization reported more than 2 million new cases last week, bringing the total worldwide to 37 million, with more than 1 million deaths from COVID-19.

“These point-of-care tests could make a big difference,” said Gerard Krause, epidemiology department director at Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research.

NO TEST NO FLIGHT

Krause said low-priority patients – those without symptoms – could initially be screened with antigen tests, leaving the more accurate PCR tests for those showing signs of the disease.

Antigen tests have already gained traction in the travel industry. Italian airline Alitalia offers Rome-Milan flights exclusively for passengers with negative tests and Germany’s Lufthansa has announced similar testing plans.

But the pandemic’s vast scale has strained the ability of countries to test all of their citizens, making it difficult to track the twisting paths of infection comprehensively and prevent a resurgence.

In the United States, for example, reliance on automated PCR machinery over the summer left many patients frustrated as they waited for a week or more for results.

Testing in Europe has also suffered glitches.

France does over a million tests a week but its free-for-all testing policy has led to long queues and delays in results, prompting French researchers to come up with a test they say can produce results in 40 minutes, without using a swab.

Italy does between 800,000 and 840,000 tests a week, more than double April’s levels, according to the Ministry of Health. But a government adviser, University of Padua microbiology professor Andrea Crisanti, said the country needs 2 million tests a week to really get on top of the virus.

In the Netherlands, where infection rates are among Europe’s highest, the government has been scrambling to expand weekly testing and lab capacity to 385,000 by next week from 280,000 now. The target is nearly half a million tests a week by December and just under 600,000 by February.

But people have been waiting days for a test. The authorities blame the overwhelming demand from those without clear symptoms for clogging up the system.

In response, the authorities have restricted rapid antigen tests to health workers and teachers, while others go on a waiting list.

‘GOLD STANDARD’

The various hitches highlight a conundrum for governments: how to get people back to work while tracing the virus within the population quickly – without running out of supplies.

Siemens Healthineers, which on Wednesday announced the launch of a rapid antigen test kit in Europe that can deliver a result in 15 minutes, said the volumes of such diagnostic tests being circulated globally now are “at the limits” of what manufacturers can supply.

Rivals including Abbott Laboratories and Becton Dickinson also offer numerous COVID-19 diagnostic tests, with more and more companies jumping in.

Swiss diagnostics maker Roche, announced plans on Tuesday to launch a new antigen test by the end of the year. Its fully automated systems can provide a test result in 18 minutes and a single lab machine can process 300 tests an hour.

By early 2021, the Basel-based company said it could make some 50 million of the new tests a month, on top of the rapid point-of-care tests it already sells.

Roche said the test could be deployed in places such as nursing homes or hospitals, where speedy results could thwart a potentially lethal outbreak.

“The primary use case is the testing of symptomatic patients,” a Roche spokeswoman said. “The secondary use case is the testing of individuals suspected of infection … which could also include asymptomatic patients.”

Expert opinion, however, on just how to use antigen tests is evolving and remains the subject of debate.

Switzerland, where reported new infections spiked to 2,823 cases on Wednesday from as low as three per day in June, is only now validating the accuracy of the rapid tests.

“Deployment of the rapid tests – where it makes sense – will be integrated into our testing strategy,” a spokesman for the Swiss federal health ministry said. “We’ll update our testing recommendations in November.”

Sandra Ciesek, director of the Institute of Medical Virology at the University Clinic in Frankfurt, Germany said rapid antigen tests could be an option for asymptomatic patients planning to visit elderly patients at nursing homes.

But people should refrain from using them as a definitive substitute to judge their infection status.

“The PCR test remains the gold standard,” Ciesek said. “An antigen test should only be used as an alternative if PCR is not possible in a timely manner.”

(Reporting by John Miller in Zurich, Caroline Copley in Berlin, Emilio Parodi and Giselda Vagnoni in Milan, Josephine Mason in London, Bart Meijer in Amsterdam and Matthias Blamont in Paris; Editing by David Clarke)

Humanitarian crisis feared as Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire buckles

By Nvard Hovhannisyan and Nailia Bagirova

YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) – Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other on Tuesday of violating a ceasefire agreed three days ago to quell fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, drawing warnings from international groups of a humanitarian crisis in the region.

The Russia-brokered truce is buckling despite mounting calls from world powers to halt the fighting, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Minsk Group security watchdog among those urging greater commitment to the ceasefire terms.

A Reuters cameraman witnessed shelling in the town of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but governed and populated by ethnic Armenians.

A Reuters television crew in Terter in Azerbaijan also said the city center was being shelled earlier on Tuesday.

Azerbaijan accused Armenian forces of “grossly violating the humanitarian truce”, which was agreed on Saturday to allow the sides to swap prisoners and bodies of those killed..

Defense ministry spokesman Vagif Dargiahly said Armenia was shelling the Azeri territories of Goranboy and Aghdam, as well as Terter. Azeri forces were not violating the truce, he added.

Armenian defense ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan denied the accusation. She said Azeri forces had resumed military operations after an overnight lull, “supported by active artillery fire in the southern, northern, northeastern and eastern directions”.

The fighting which erupted on Sept. 27, is the worst since a 1991-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh that killed about 30,000.

It is being closely watched abroad, not only due to its proximity to Azeri energy pipelines to Europe but also because of fears that Russia and Turkey could be drawn in.

Russia has a defense pact with Armenia and Turkey is allied with Azerbaijan.

“CATASTROPHIC CONSEQUENCES”

The Minsk Group called on the Armenian and Azeri leaders to immediately implement the ceasefire to prevent “catastrophic consequences for the region”.

The 11-member group includes both Russia and Turkey, but the latter is not involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested holding talks that would include Turkey.

Ceasefire demands were “reasonable,” according to Cavusoglu, but he said the international community should ask Armenia to withdraw from Azeri territory.

“Sadly no such call is being made,” he told reporters.

Influential Turkish politician Devlet Bahceli, whose party supports President Erdogan’s AKP in parliament, took a more belligerent note, telling Azerbaijan to secure Nagorno-Karabakh by “hitting Armenia over the head over and over again.”

While Turkey denies military involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian told Germany’s Bild newspaper Ankara’s behavior was worrying.

“I worry because, firstly, there is a third party involved. If it were only about Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, I would be much more hopeful that the conflict can be contained,” he said.

DEAD AND WOUNDED

The death toll has risen further, meanwhile. Nagorno-Karabakh officials said 542 servicemen had been killed so far, up 17 from Monday.

Azerbaijan has reported 42 Azeri civilian deaths and 206 wounded since Sept. 27. It has not disclosed military casualties.

Martin Schuepp, Eurasia regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said his organization was in “continuous discussions” to facilitate the handover of detainees or bodies of those killed.

But the security situation meant “it has not been possible for us to access all locations that might have been affected,” Schuepp said.

The conflict is also worsening the spread of COVID-19, World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told a United Nations briefing in Geneva.

Armenia’s new cases had doubled over the past 14 days as of Monday, while new infections were up approximately 80% over the past week in Azerbaijan, Jasarevic said. He warned of “direct disruption to health care and a further burden on health systems that are already stretched during the COVID pandemic.”

With tens of thousands of people potentially needing help in coming months, the ICRC is appealing for another 9.2 million Swiss francs ($10.10 million) to fund its humanitarian efforts in the region, Schuepp said.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Riham Alkousaa in Berlin, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Jonathan Spicer in Ankara; Writing by Sujata Rao; Editing by Giles Elgood, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases rise 11% last week, Midwest hard hit

(Reuters) – The number of new COVID-19 cases rose 11% in the United States last week compared to the previous seven days, with infections spreading rapidly in the Midwest, which reported some of the highest positive test rates, according to a Reuters analysis.

Deaths fell 3% to about 4,800 people for the week ended Oct. 11, according to the analysis of state and county reports. Since the pandemic started, nearly 215,000 people have died in the United States and over 7.7 million have become infected with the novel coronavirus.

Twenty-nine out of 50 states have seen cases rise for at least two weeks in a row, up from 21 states in the prior week. They include the entire Midwest except Illinois and Missouri, as well as new hot spots in the Northeast, South and West.

In Idaho, 23.5% of more than 17,000 tests came back positive for COVID-19 last week, the highest positive test rate in the country, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak. South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin also reported positive test rates above 20% last week.

For a third week in a row, testing set a record high in the country, with on average 976,000 tests conducted each day last week. The percentage of tests that came back positive for the virus rose to 5.0% from 4.6% the prior week.

The World Health Organization considers rates above 5% concerning because it suggests there are more cases in the community that have not yet been uncovered.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Graphic by Chris Canipe; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

COVID-19 vaccine may be ready by year-end: WHO’s Tedros

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – A vaccine against COVID-19 may be ready by year-end, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday, without elaborating.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for solidarity and political commitment by all leaders to ensure equal distribution of vaccines when they become available.

“We will need vaccines and there is hope that by the end of this year we may have a vaccine. There is hope,” Tedros said in closing remarks to the WHO’s Executive Board meeting that examined the global response to the pandemic.

The EU health regulator has launched a real-time review of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech, it said on Tuesday, following a similar announcement for rival AstraZeneca’s jab last week. The announcement by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) could speed up the process of approving a successful vaccine in the bloc.

Nine experimental vaccines are in the pipeline of the WHO-led COVAX global vaccine facility that aims to distribute 2 billion doses by the end of 2021.

So far some 168 countries have joined the COVAX facility, but neither China, the United States nor Russia are among them. The Trump administration has said it is relying instead on bilateral deals to secure supplies from vaccine makers.

“Especially for the vaccines and other products which are in the pipeline, the most important tool is political commitment from our leaders especially in the equitable distribution of the vaccines,” Tedros said.

“We need each other, we need solidarity and we need to use all the energy we have to fight the virus,” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Michael Shields and Alexandra Hudson)

One in 10 may have caught COVID, as world heads into ‘difficult period’: WHO

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – Roughly one in 10 people may have been infected with the coronavirus, leaving the vast majority of the world’s population vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease it causes, the World Health Organization said on Monday.

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency expert, was addressing the agency’s Executive Board, where the United States made a thinly veiled swipe at China for what it called a “failure” to provide accurate and timely information on the outbreak.

But Zhang Yang of China’s National Health Commission, said: “China has always been transparent and responsible to fulfill our international obligations.” China maintained close contacts with all levels of the U.N. health agency, she added.

Ryan said that outbreaks were surging in parts of southeast Asia and that cases and deaths were on the rise in parts of Europe and the eastern Mediterranean region.

“Our current best estimates tell us about 10% of the global population may have been infected by this virus. It varies depending on country, it varies from urban to rural, it varies depending on groups. But what it does mean is that the vast majority of the world remains at risk,” Ryan said.

“We are now heading into a difficult period. The disease continues to spread,” he said.

The WHO and other experts have said that the virus, believed to have emerged in a food market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, is of animal origin.

The WHO has submitted a list of experts to take part in an international mission to China to investigate the origin, for consideration by Chinese authorities, Ryan said, without giving details.

U.S. assistant health secretary Brett Giroir said that it was critical that WHO’s 194 member states receive “regular and timely updates, including the terms of reference for this panel or for any field missions, so that we can all engage with the process and be confident in the outcomes”.

Germany, speaking for the EU, said the expert mission should be deployed soon, with Australia also supporting a swift investigation.

Meanwhile, Alexandra Dronova, Russia’s deputy health minister, called for an evaluation of the legal and financial repercussions of the Trump administration announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO next July.

The United States will not pay some $80 million it owes the WHO and will instead redirect the money to help pay its U.N. bill in New York, a U.S. official said on Sept. 2.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alison Williams)

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)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases rise in 27 states for two straight weeks

(Reuters) – The number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen for two weeks in a row in 27 out of 50 states, with North Carolina and New Mexico both reporting increases above 50% last week, according to a Reuters analysis.

The United States recorded 316,000 new cases in the week ended Sept. 27, up 10% from the previous seven days and the highest in six weeks, according to the analysis of state and county data.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told ABC News that the country was “not in a good place.”

“There are states that are starting to show (an) uptick in cases and even some increases in hospitalizations in some states. And, I hope not, but we very well might start seeing increases in deaths,” he said, without naming the states.

North Carolina reported a 60% jump in new cases to 13,799 last week, while New Mexico saw new infections rise 55% to 1,265. Texas also reported a 60% jump in new cases to 49,559, though that included a backlog of several thousand cases.

Deaths from COVID-19 have generally declined for the past six weeks, though still stand at more than 5,000 lives lost a week. Deaths are a lagging indicator and generally rise weeks after a surge in cases.

Testing in the country set a record of over 880,000 tests a day, surpassing the previous high in July of 820,000.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for COVID-19 held steady at about 5%, well below a recent peak of nearly 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, 28 states have positive test rates above the 5% level that the World Health Organization considers concerning. The highest positive test rates are 26% in South Dakota, 21% in Idaho and 19% in Wisconsin.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Graphic by Chris Canipe; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

Poorer countries to get 120 million $5 coronavirus tests, WHO says

GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) – Some 120 million rapid diagnostic tests for coronavirus will be made available to low- and middle-income countries at a maximum of $5 per unit, the World Health Organization said on Monday.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the manufacturers Abbott and SD Biosensor had agreed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “make 120 million of these new, highly portable and easy-to-use rapid COVID-19 diagnostic tests available over a period of six months”.

He told a news conference in Geneva the tests were currently priced at a maximum of $5 each but were expected to become cheaper.

“This will enable the expansion of testing, particularly in hard-to-reach areas that do not have laboratory facilities or enough trained health workers to carry out tests,” Tedros said.

“This is a vital addition to the testing capacity and especially important in areas of high transmission.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Kevin Liffey)

COVID-19 death toll could double to two million before vaccine in wide use: WHO

GENEVA/ZURICH (Reuters) – The global death toll from COVID-19 could double to 2 million before a successful vaccine is widely used and could be even higher without concerted action to curb the pandemic, an official at the World Health Organization said on Friday.

“Unless we do it all, (2 million deaths) … is not only imaginable, but sadly very likely,” Mike Ryan, head of the U.N. agency’s emergencies program, told a briefing on Friday.

The number of deaths about nine months since the novel coronavirus was discovered in China is nearing 1 million

“We are not out of the woods anywhere, we are not out of the woods in Africa,” said Ryan.

He said young people should not be blamed for a recent increase in infections despite growing concerns that they are driving its spread after restrictions and lockdowns were eased around the world.

“I really hope we don’t get into finger wagging: it’s all because of the youth,” said Ryan. “The last thing a young person needs is an old person pontificating and wagging the finger.”

Rather, indoor gatherings of people of all ages were driving the epidemic, he said.

The WHO is continuing talks with China about its possible involvement in the COVAX financing scheme designed to guarantee fast and equitable access globally to COVID-19 vaccines, a week after the deadline for committing passed.

“We’re in discussions with China about the role they may play as we go forward,” said Bruce Aylward, WHO senior adviser and head of the ACT-Accelerator program to back vaccines, treatments and diagnostics against COVID-19.

He confirmed that Taiwan has signed up to the scheme, even though it is not a WHO member, bringing the total to 159 participants. Some 34 are still deciding.

Talks with China also include discussion of the world’s second-largest economy potentially supplying vaccines to the scheme, he said.

The UN agency published on Friday draft criteria for the assessment of emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines to help guide drugmakers as vaccine trials reach advanced stages, said WHO assistant director-general, Mariangela Simao.

The document will be available for public comment until Oct. 8, she said.

Earlier on Friday, a Chinese health official said the WHO had given its support for the country to start administering experimental coronavirus vaccines to people even while clinical trials were still underway.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebenay and Emma Farge in Geneva and Michael Shields in Zurich; Writing by Josephine Mason in London; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Timothy Heritage, Kirsten Donovan)