During his tenure US President Donald Trump had accused the Chinese of creating and unleashing the COVID-19 virus on an unsuspecting world, repeatedly calling it the “China virus” for good measure. Ironically, possibilities have now been raised of a US role in China’s virology research.
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has denied that it helped create the virus that sparked the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report in science.org (www.science.org/content/article/nih-says-grantee-failed-report-experiment-wuhan-created-bat-virus-made-mice-sicker? )
An ongoing controversy over what constitutes “dangerous” virology research—and whether the US government-funded studies in China that violated a policy barring funding for such risky research—has taken a new turn. While denying that it had helped create the virus that sparked the COVID-19 pandemic, the NIH revealed in a letter sent on 20 October to Republicans in Congress that experiments it funded through a U.S.-based non-profit in 2018 and 2019 at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China had the “unexpected result” of creating a coronavirus that was more infectious in mice.
NIH says the organisation holding the parent grant, the EcoHealth Alliance, failed to immediately report this result to the agency, as required. A newly-released progress report on that grant also shows that EcoHealth and WIV conducted experiments changing the virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which is raising additional questions.
The letter has given fuel to critics of NIH who say agency leaders have not been upfront with Congress about the work NIH was supporting in China, many of whom believe WIV could have created SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the current pandemic.
Along with its letter to Congress, NIH appended and also posted online a new analysis asserting that the viruses studied at WIV under the grant share no more than 96% to 97% of the SARS-CoV-2 sequence, which puts the viruses “decades” of evolution apart.
“The naturally occurring bat coronaviruses studied under the NIH grant are genetically far distant from SARS-CoV-2 and could not possibly have caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Any claims to the contrary are demonstrably false,” the agency said in a statement.
American chop-suey anyone?
The ultra-orthodox Taliban government of Afghanistan has given the green light for house-to-house polio vaccination to resume across the entire country on 8 November. The Taliban loosening up will have a three-fold impact:
1) It will take the fight against polio literally to the “final frontier;”
2) It will help rebuild a shattered public health system shattered by years of conflict;
3) It will provide much-needed employment to women under a regime that would rather make sure they’re neither seen nor heard.
The 18 October announcement is “huge,” says Hamid Jafari, who directs operations in the region for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). It will give the program access to 3.3 million Afghan children who have been out of reach for 3.5 years—and might bring the world closer to the ultimate goal of global polio eradication, science.org reports (www.science.org/content/article/house-house-polio-vaccination-resume-afghanistan)
At the end of a decades-long campaign against the disease, Afghanistan was one of just two countries, along with neighbouring Pakistan, to still harbour the wild poliovirus. The fight had been rendered null and void since 2018, when the then rebel Taliban, suspicious that vaccinators were helping the U.S. government target drone strikes, banned house-to-house vaccination in its stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Since then, roughly 85% of the country’s polio cases have occurred in areas that are off-limits to the vaccinators.
Now back in power over the whole country, the Taliban government’s decision comes at an opportune time, polio officials say. After years of struggle and wildly fluctuating case counts, only one case of wild polio has been detected this year in Afghanistan, and one in Pakistan. Cases resulting from vaccine-derived polioviruses are down, too.
Key discussions occurred in September, when WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, toured the country and met with senior Taliban leaders. In those talks, Taliban officials made clear that their first priority was to shore up the Sehatmandi Project, the backbone of Afghanistan’s health system. (Sehatmandi means “health” in Urdu.) Its major donors, including the World Bank, the European Union, and the US Agency for International Development, froze funds when the Taliban took over. The system was on “the brink of collapse,” Tedros and Al-Mandhari said in a 22 September statement, warning of “an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.”
Routine childhood immunization has fallen off and measles outbreaks are raging says Godwin Mindra, a senior immunization specialist and deputy polio team lead for UNICEF in Kabul, Afghanistan. Many COVID-19 hospitals are closed, and COVID-19 vaccine is sitting unused and near expiration. With local facilities closed, people are crowding into regional hospitals.
On 20 September, the Global Fund threw Afghanistan a lifeline: $15 million to support Sehatmandi for October. Two days later, the United Nations, through its Central Emergency Response Fund, kicked in with $45 million to carry Sehatmandi through January 2022. Then on 24 September, the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued licences that will allow organisations to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan without violating US sanctions.
The November polio campaign will target 10 million children. As usual, the vaccinators will be women—under Afghan custom, only women can enter a home. This time they must wear hijabs, but most do anyway, Jafari says.
Jafari says the program intends to help address other health needs, too. Polio vaccinators will also administer vitamin A, and the program hopes to help deliver measles and COVID-19 vaccines when feasible.
GPEI will conduct a second campaign in December, synchronized with one in Pakistan.
The US Food and Drug Administration authorised boosters on Wednesday for recipients of Moderna’s two-dose coronavirus vaccine and the roughly 15 million who got Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose shot.
More than 120 million Americans will become eligible for a booster in the coming months, Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said at a news conference on Friday,
The agency also updated its authorizations for all three types — Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech — to allow medical providers to give people a different vaccine as a booster shot, a strategy known as “mix and match,” thereby optimising vaccine usage, giving the booster jab from what’s available rather than wait for the original to turn up.
With the school year well underway and the holiday travel season approaching in the US, much of the country (and most parts of the world) has been waiting to see when younger children can receive their first dose.
This month, Pfizer and BioNTech asked the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to authorise emergency use of their vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds. A meeting to discuss the authorisation is set for Tuesday 26 October, and an FDA. ruling could come in the days after, possibly clearing a path for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to make recommendations on a paediatric dose in early November.
The campaign aims to fulfil the unique needs of 28 million people in the United States, largely still in elementary school, while absorbing the lessons from the rollout of vaccines to other age groups. The 5-to-11 range has far more members than the teenage cohort already approved to receive the vaccine.
India on Thursday celebrated having administered a billion doses of the Covid vaccine, drawing on local manufacturing after devastating early stumbles in its pandemic response.
Still, the country has some way to go in fully vaccinating its population: Just 30% of the 900 million people eligible for vaccination in India have received two doses.
The billion-dose milestone represented a turnaround in a vaccination drive that got off to a slow start, as India’s governing party prioritized elections and took up a lax attitude in tackling the virus, continuing to hold crowded political rallies and allowing religious festivals to take place even as cases surged.
More than 450,000 people have died from Covid in India, according to government data that many experts say greatly downplays the true toll. India’s second wave earlier this year led to a shortage of medical care, oxygen, and hospital beds.
But the worst of the pandemic seems to be over, with India reporting about 15,000 new cases daily, down from a recorded peak of more than 400,000.
While other countries have struggled to secure enough doses to vaccinate their populations, India’s gigantic vaccination drive was made possible by domestic manufacturing capacity. The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, has supplied more than 80% of the doses administered in the country.
The demand for vaccines in India after the devastating second wave was such that the Serum Institute fell short on its commitments to supply vaccines to poorer nations. But as India’s situation stabilizes, vaccine exports from India — seen as crucial to global efforts — have slowly resumed.