Global officials urge rich countries to donate excess COVID-19 vaccine doses, money

By Stephanie Nebehay and Michelle Nichols

GENEVA/NEW YORK (Reuters) -Top U.N., financial and vaccine officials on Thursday urged rich countries to donate excess COVID-19 vaccine doses to an international effort to supply low and middle income countries in a bid to get the global economy back on track.

At a virtual event by the Gavi Vaccine Alliance to boost support for the COVAX equitable vaccine sharing initiative, the officials also appealed for another $2 billion by June for the program, which is aiming to buy up to 1.8 billion doses in 2021. So far, COVAX has shipped more than 38 million vaccine doses to 111 countries.

“Global supply is incredibly tight right now. But we also know that many high income countries have ordered more vaccines than they need,” said Gavi Chief Executive Seth Berkley.

He urged them to share excess doses “as soon as possible to cover the high risk populations during this supply constrained period.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a donation of enough vaccine doses for more than 800,000 people to COVAX, which is run by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Vaccine Alliance Gavi, the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden all pledged new funds to COVAX on Thursday.

“Many countries now have dollars available to spend on doses, but rapid deliveries aren’t available. I would like to underline here the importance for countries that have the prospect of excess vaccine supplies to release them as soon as possible,” said World Bank President David Malpass.

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said some countries who had signed up to COVAX had not received any doses, none had received enough and some were not receiving their second-round vaccine allocations on time.

“There remains a shocking and expanding disparity in the global distribution of vaccines,” he warned at the Gavi event.

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore called on wealthier countries to invest generously in COVAX and donate surplus doses because it was the only way to end the pandemic and get “the global economy back on track.”

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said another $22 billion was needed for the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which includes COVAX and also supports treatments and testing.

“These numbers may seem high, but they are small compared to the global economic loss if this crisis continues. The new virus strains make it clear that we need to move faster,” she said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Coronavirus pandemic ‘a long way from over’, WHO’s Tedros says

GENEVA (Reuters) -Confusion and complacency in addressing COVID-19 means the pandemic is a long way from over, but it can be brought under control in months with proven public health measures, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.

“We too want to see societies and economies reopening, and travel and trade resuming,” Tedros told a news briefing.

“But right now, intensive care units in many countries are overflowing and people are dying – and it’s totally avoidable.”

“The COVID19 pandemic is a long way from over. But we have many reasons for optimism. The decline in cases and deaths during the first two months of the year shows that this virus and its variants can be stopped,” he added, saying transmission was being driven by “confusion, complacency and inconsistency in public health measures.”

India has overtaken Brazil to become the nation with the second highest number of infections worldwide after the United States, as it battles a massive second wave, having given about 105 million vaccine doses among a population of 1.4 billion.

WHO team leader on COVID-19 Maria van Kerkove told the news briefing the pandemic was growing exponentially, with a 9% increase in cases last week, the seventh consecutive week of increases, and a 5% rise in deaths.

Tedros said that in some countries, despite continuing transmission, restaurants and nightclubs were full and markets were open and crowded with few people taking precautions.

“Some people appear to be taking the approach that if they’re relatively young, it doesn’t matter if they get COVID-19,” he said.

(Reporting by Silke Koltrowitz and Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

WHO warns on Brazil COVID-19 outbreak as Bolsonaro blasts Senate inquiry

By Eduardo Simões

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday blasted a pending Senate inquiry on his handling of a record-breaking COVID-19 outbreak, which global health officials compared to a “raging inferno.”

Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso ruled late on Thursday that enough senators had signed on to a proposed inquiry on the government’s pandemic response to launch the probe despite stalling by Senate leadership.

“It’s a stitch-up between Barroso and the leftists in the Senate to wear out the government,” Bolsonaro told supporters outside his residence, accusing the judge of “politicking.”

A Senate investigation represents the most severe political consequence to date for Bolsonaro’s approach to the coronavirus, which he compared to a “little flu” last year as he ignored health experts calling for mask wearing and social distance.

Bolsonaro has backed off his criticism of COVID-19 vaccines, but he continues to attack governors attempting lockdowns and even milder measures, accusing them without proof of killing more with those restrictions than the virus itself.

COVID-19 has taken more than 345,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States. One in four deaths from the pandemic this week were in Brazil, where a brutal wave is overwhelming hospitals and setting records of more than 4,000 deaths per day.

“What you are dealing with here is a raging inferno of an outbreak,” said Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization, in a public briefing.

Yet fatigue and political pressure from Bolsonaro have pushed some governors to ease restrictions despite record deaths.

The state of Sao Paulo, whose governor has been a critic of the president, announced that it was loosening some restrictions next week even as its hospitals struggle to manage case loads.

Sao Paulo officials said a downtick in hospitalizations had justified the decision to restart soccer matches without spectators, reopen stores selling building materials and resume take-out service at restaurants.

(Reporting by Eduardo Simoes; Additional reporting by Tatiana Bautzer; Editing by Brad Haynes and Dan Grebler)

Scientists call for new probe into COVID-19 origins: with or without China

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – A joint China-World Health Organization (WHO) study into COVID-19 has provided no credible answers about how the pandemic began, and more rigorous investigations are required – with or without Beijing’s involvement, a group of international scientists and researchers said on Wednesday.

The joint study, released last week, said the likeliest transmission route for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, involved bats and other wildlife in China and southeast Asia. It all but ruled out the possibility it had leaked from a laboratory.

In an open letter, 24 scientists and researchers from Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan said the study was tainted by politics.

“Their starting point was, let’s have as much compromise as is required to get some minimal cooperation from China,” said Jamie Metzl, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, who drafted the letter.

The letter said the study’s conclusions were based on unpublished Chinese research, while critical records and biological samples “remain inaccessible”.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus said last week China had withheld data.

Liang Wannian, China’s senior COVID-19 expert, denied this and appeared to rule out any further joint investigations in China, saying the focus should shift to other countries.

Metzl said the world might have to “revert to Plan B” and conduct an investigation “in the most systematic way possible” without China’s involvement.

China has rejected allegations that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a research laboratory in Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 was first identified.

The joint China-WHO study said the lab leak was “extremely unlikely”, saying there was “no record” that any laboratory had kept SARS-CoV-2-related viruses. Tedros said more research was required to “reach more robust conclusions”.

Metzl said China should disclose information that would allow the lab hypothesis to be disproved.

“China has databases of what viruses were being held… there are lab notes of the work that was being done,” he said, “There are all kinds of scientists who are actually doing the work and we don’t have access to any of those resources, or any of those people.”

(Reporting by David Stanway, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

WHO does not back vaccination passports for now – spokeswoman

By Reuters Staff

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization does not back requiring vaccination passports for travel due to uncertainty over whether inoculation prevents transmission of the virus, as well as equity concerns, a spokeswoman said on Tuesday.

“We as WHO are saying at this stage we would not like to see the vaccination passport as a requirement for entry or exit because we are not certain at this stage that the vaccine prevents transmission,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said.

“There are all those other questions, apart from the question of discrimination against the people who are not able to have the vaccine for one reason or another,” she told a U.N. news briefing.

The WHO now expects to review China’s COVID-19 vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac for possible emergency use listing around the end of April, Harris said.

“It’s not coming as quickly as we had hoped because we need more data,” she said, declining to provide more information, citing confidentiality.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appealed last month to countries with excess vaccine supplies to donate 10 million doses urgently to the COVAX facility which it runs with the GAVI vaccine alliance. Export restrictions by India left the vaccine-sharing program short of supplies of AstraZeneca’s vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India.

Harris said she had no update on any countries stepping forward, adding: “We are very much looking for more vaccine”.

Chinese scientist says Beijing did share COVID-19 data with investigators

By Gabriel Crossley

BEIJING (Reuters) -A top Chinese medical expert said on Wednesday there was no factual basis to accusations that China did not share data with international researchers appointed by the World Health Organization to look into the origins of COVID-19.

Following the publication of the joint study into the origins of COVID-19 by China and the WHO on Tuesday, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said China had withheld data from the international investigators.

But Liang Wannian, who was co-leader of the joint study, told reporters that researchers from both sides had access to the same data throughout the investigation and that the assertions about lack of access were not accurate.

“Of course, according to Chinese law, some data cannot be taken away or photographed, but when we were analyzing it together in Wuhan, everyone could see the database, the materials – it was all done together,” he said.

Responding to allegations that the expert panel did not have access to complete datasets and samples, Liang said no scientist ever had perfect information.

He also rejected complaints that the publication of the report had been repeatedly delayed, noting that “every sentence, every conclusion, every piece of data” needed to be verified by both sides before it could be released.

“Throughout we always upheld the principle of ‘quality comes first,'” said Liang, who is the head of a committee of experts on COVID-19 set up by China’s National Health Commission.

The joint study concluded that the most likely origin of COVID-19 was in animals, and probably passed through an intermediary species before it entered humans.

It also said more efforts were needed to see if COVID-19 could be traced back to wildlife farms in both China and southeast Asia.

Liang said China would continue to try to trace the origins of COVID-19, but the Chinese part of the joint research had been completed, and attention should now turn to other countries.

Tracing the origins of COVID-19 couldn’t be achieved overnight, he said.

“There are lots of diseases that have circulated for a long time and we still haven’t found their origins,” he said. “It still needs a lot of time.”

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley; Writing by David Stanway; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Heavens)

Data withheld from WHO team probing COVID-19 origins in China: Tedros

By Stephanie Nebehay and John Miller

GENEVA/ZURICH (Reuters) – Data was withheld from World Health Organization investigators who travelled to China to research the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday.

The United States, the European Union and other Western countries immediately called for China to give “full access” to independent experts to all data about the original outbreak in late 2019.

In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” as a cause.

One of the team’s investigators has already said China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to the WHO-led team, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the global pandemic began.

“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” Tedros said. “I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”

The inability of the WHO mission to conclude yet where or how the virus began spreading in people means that tensions will continue over how the pandemic started – and whether China has helped efforts to find out or, as the United States has alleged, hindered them.

“The international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples,” Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Korea, Slovenia, Britain, the United States and the European Union said in a joint statement.

“NOT EXTENSIVE ENOUGH”

Although the team concluded that a leak from a Wuhan laboratory was the least likely hypothesis for the virus that causes COVID-19, Tedros said the issue required further investigation, potentially with more missions to China.

“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he told member states in remarks released by the WHO. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

The WHO team’s leader, Peter Ben Embarek, told a press briefing it was “perfectly possible” the virus had been circulating in November or October 2019 around Wuhan, and so potentially spreading abroad earlier than documented so far.

“We got access to quite a lot of data in many different areas, but of course there were areas where we had difficulties getting down to the raw data and there are many good reasons for that,” he said, citing privacy laws and other restrictions.

Second phase studies were required, Ben Embarek added.

He said the team had felt political pressure, including from outside China, but that he had never been pressed to remove anything from its final report.

Dominic Dwyer, an Australian expert on the mission, said he was satisfied there was “no obvious evidence” of a problem at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The European Union called the study “an important first step” but renewed criticisms that the origin study had begun too late, that experts had been kept out of China for too long, and that access to data and early samples had fallen short.

In a statement, Walter Stevens, EU ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, called for further study with “timely access to relevant locations and to all relevant human, animal and environmental data available”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, John Miller and Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Kevin Liffey)

U.S. says hopes WHO report on virus origins is ‘based on science’

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States expects the World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic to require further study, perhaps including a return visit to China, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.

Marc Cassayre, charge d’affaires at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in Geneva, also voiced hope that the WHO-led mission to the central city of Wuhan in Jan.-Feb. had access to the raw data and to the people required to make an independent assessment.

The lengthy report by the team – composed of international experts and their Chinese counterparts – is expected to be issued this week, the WHO says.

“We are hopeful that it will be based on science and be a real step forward for the world understanding the origins of the virus so we can better prepare for future pandemics,” Cassayre told a news briefing.

U.S. officials expected further work would be needed to identify the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, he said. “That would probably require, as we would presume, further studies of the team, maybe travel to China or further discussions.”

The probe was plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between Beijing and Washington, which under former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak.

Some team members have said China was reluctant to share vital data that could show the virus was circulating months earlier than first recognized in late 2019.

Ben Embarek, a WHO official leading the mission, said at a press briefing marking the end of the visit that the virus probably originated in bats, although it was not certain how it reached humans. He also effectively ruled out a lab leak.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later said that “all hypotheses remain open” and pledged full transparency.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

COVID-19 surging dangerously in Brazil, WHO Americas branch warns

BRASILIA (Reuters) – The coronavirus is surging “dangerously” across Brazil, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional director for the Americas, Carissa Etienne, warned on Tuesday, urging all Brazilians to adopt preventive measures to stop the spread.

“Unfortunately, the dire situation in Brazil is also affecting neighboring countries,” Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), said in a briefing.

Cases have risen in Venezuela’s Bolivar and Amazonas states, and in border regions of Peru and Bolivia, she said.

“The COVID-19 virus is not receding, nor is the pandemic starting to go away,” Etienne said.

In the Southern Cone, cases continue to spike in Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, according to PAHO.

In Paraguay, a majority of intensive care unit (ICU) beds are occupied, and the health system is buckling under the pressure. Uruguay has reported more than 1,000 cases per day several times in the past few weeks, an alarming number given the size of the country.

In Central America, cases have declined in Panama, but in Guatemala the rise in hospitalizations is straining ICU bed capacity.

“Vaccines are coming but they are still several months away for most people in our region.” Etienne said.

The COVAX facility led by WHO and the Gavi coalition to provide equitable access to vaccines has delivered 2,161,800 doses to the region so far, including more than 1 million doses to Brazil last weekend.

PAHO expects over 100,000 vaccine doses to be delivered this week to El Salvador, Belize and Suriname, and 1.2 million additional doses have already been procured.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Keep using AstraZeneca vaccine, WHO urges world

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) exhorted the world to keep administering AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shots on Friday, adding its endorsement to that of European and British regulators after concerns over blood clotting.

“We urge countries to continue using this important COVID-19 vaccine,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva.

He was speaking after the global health body’s vaccine safety panel said available data about the AstraZeneca shot did not point to any overall increase in clotting conditions.

European and British regulators also said this week that the benefits of AstraZeneca’s shot outweighed the risks, prompting various nations to lift their suspensions.

“The AstraZeneca vaccine is especially important because it accounts for more than 90% of the vaccines being distributed through COVAX,” Tedros added, referring to a WHO-led global vaccine-sharing scheme.

“There is no question. COVID-19 is a deadly disease, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can prevent it. It’s also important to remember that COVID-19 itself can cause blood clots and low platelets.”

The WHO’s global advisory committee on vaccine safety said in a statement that the AstraZeneca vaccine had a “positive benefit-risk profile” and “tremendous potential” to prevent infections and reduce deaths.

The WHO panel of 12 independent experts, who met virtually on Tuesday and on Thursday, reviewed safety data from Europe, the United Kingdom, India, and WHO’s global database.

“While very rare and unique thromboembolic events in combination with thrombocytopenia, such as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), have also been reported following vaccination with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Europe, it is not certain that they have been caused by vaccination,” it said.

(Reporting by Michael Shields, Emma Farge and Stephanie Nebehay; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Hugh Lawson)