The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that coronavirus variants are moving faster than the global vaccine rollout, urging leaders to increase the pace or risk being overwhelmed.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, noted that the highly-contagious Delta variant, first identified in India, is “outpacing” vaccinations, the Guardian reported.
“The Delta variant is dangerous and is continuing to evolve and mutate, which requires constant evaluation and careful adjustment of the public health response,” Ghebreyesus said, according to the Guardian.
“Delta has been detected in at least 98 countries and is spreading quickly in countries with low and high vaccination coverage.”
He also said that by July 2022, 70% of people in every country should be vaccinated, the Guardian reported.
Some developed countries are around that threshold already, but most of the world is nowhere near. Experts worry that the longer large groups of people go unvaccinated, the more likely the virus is to mutate into still-worse variants.
Widespread vaccination is “the best way to slow the pandemic, save lives and drive a truly global economic recovery, and along the way prevent further dangerous variants from getting the upper hand,” Ghebreyesus concluded.
Daily new case numbers are climbing sharply in countries like Portugal, Russia, and the UK.
British health officials said this week that cases of the Delta variant had increased fourfold in less than a month, according to Sky News. Confirmed cases on Friday were up 46% on the previous week.
The Delta variant is also widespread in the US and has been detected in all 50 states, CNN reported. Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, Nevada, and Utah are the states that are most vulnerable to the variant, Insider reported.
No coronavirus variant spotted so far is more concerning than Delta, the strain first identified in India in February. World Health Organization officials on Monday said Delta is the “fittest” variant to date, since it spreads even more easily than other variants and may lead to more severe cases among unvaccinated people.
“Delta is a superspreader variant, the worst version of the virus we’ve seen,” Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, tweeted last week.
But it’s possible that Delta is the worst the coronavirus is going to throw at us – that the virus, in other words, has reached what epidemiologists call “peak fitness.”
Topol and Italian virologist Roberto Burioni explore that scenario in a letter published in the journal Nature on Monday. The virus, they wrote, is likely to hit a point after which it no longer mutates to become more infectious. In that case, they said, “a “‘final’ variant will prevail and become the dominant strain, experiencing only occasional, minimal variations.”
It’s too soon to know whether that’s happened, since Delta isn’t yet dominant worldwide. But it likely will be soon -Delta has been detected in more than 80 countries so far and is already dominant in India and the UK.
“Delta is absolutely going up the fitness peak – whether it’s at the top, I think that’s very hard to say until we just don’t see any further change,” Andrew Read, who studies the evolution of infectious diseases at Pennsylvania State University, told Insider.
“If Delta takes over the world and nothing changes,” he added, “then we’ll know in a while – a year or two – that it is the most fit.”
The fittest variants are the best at spreading
The coronavirus is constantly mutating in relatively harmless ways, but every once in a while, a mutation turns the virus into a more menacing threat. A new variant develops that can evade antibodies generated in response to a vaccine or prior infection, results in more serious illness, or spreads more easily.
Emerging research indicates that Delta checks at least two of those boxes.
Public Health England found that Delta is associated with a 60% increased risk of household coronavirus transmission compared to Alpha, the variant discovered in the UK. Alpha is already around 50% more transmissible than the original strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers in Scotland also found that getting infected with Delta doubles the risk of hospital admission relative to Alpha. (Previous studies have suggested that Alpha may be 30% to 70% deadlier than the original strain.)
What’s more, emerging research indicates that a single vaccine dose doesn’t hold up as well against Delta as it does against other coronavirus strains. Recent Public Health England analyses found that two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine were 88% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 from Delta, while a single shot was just 33% effective. That’s compared to 95% efficacy against the original strain, with 52% after one shot.
The best way for the coronavirus to achieve peak fitness, Topol and Burioni wrote in their letter, is to become more contagious. If a variant is already spreading quickly, there’s no urgent need for it to evade the body’s immune response; it can simply jump to another person.
“Increasing rate of transmission from person to person is what we’re looking for,” Read said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the coronavirus has reached maximum transmission, though.
Read said Delta could still acquire combinations of mutations that make it even better at spreading (what he called a “Delta-plus” variant). It’s also possible that two separate variants – Delta and Alpha, for instance – could combine mutations to produce an even more infectious strain. Under a third scenario, Read said, an entirely new lineage might replace Delta as the dominant variant.
“The biggest concern at the moment is just the sheer number of people that have the virus and therefore the sheer number of variants that are being generated,” Read said. “Some of those might be the jackpot which are even fitter than Delta.”
Still, vaccines will likely provide at least some protection against whatever strain represents the coronavirus’ peak fitness.
“No human vaccine has ever been undermined by a variant to the point where the vaccine was completely useless,” Read said.
Facebook will no longer remove posts claiming that COVID-19 is a “man-made” virus, it said Wednesday.
In February, the tech giant said it would take down “debunked” claims that COVID-19 was created by people, but it has reversed its policy amid renewed interest in the virus’ origins from scientists and politicians.
“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps,” a Facebook spokesperson told Insider in an emailed statement.
“We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”
President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he had asked the intelligence community to “redouble their efforts” to find a definitive answer to the virus’ origins. He gave investigators 90 days to report back.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that three scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) – which studies coronaviruses in bats – were hospitalized in November 2019 with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and other seasonal illnesses. The report cited a US intelligence report viewed by The Journal.
The first documented cases of COVID-19 were in Wuhan, a city in central China, in December 2019. So far, the dominant theory has been that the virus passed from bats to humans through an intermediary animal host. But some still question whether the virus escaped from the WIV in an accidental lab leak.
Claims that COVID-19 is “man-made,” or was created deliberately as a bioweapon, are very different to the lab-leak theory. These claims will now be allowed to circulate on Facebook.
COVAX is an alliance run by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Gavi, and the World Health Organization, with UNICEF providing vaccination services on the ground.
In a statement released Monday, UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said the COVAX scheme was far behind where it needed to be due to the situation in India, and that rich countries needed to do more.
“Soaring domestic demand has meant that 140 million doses intended for distribution to low-and middle-income countries through the end of May cannot be accessed by COVAX,” she wrote.
“Another 50 million doses are likely to be missed in June,” she said. “This, added to vaccine nationalism, limited production capacity and lack of funding, is why the roll-out of COVID vaccines is so behind schedule.”
Fore said that between the EU and the group of G7 nations, around 153 million vaccine doses could be found to replace the shortage if each country “gave 20% of their available supply over June, July, and August.”
Gian Gandhi, UNICEF’s COVAX coordinator for supply, told the BBC: “Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where we just don’t know when the next set of doses will materialise.”
“Our hope is, things will get back on track, but the situation in India is uncertain … and a huge concern,” he said.
Dr Richard Mihigo, the head of the WHO’s immunization and vaccine development programme in Africa, told the BBC that the continent is heavily reliant on Indian vaccine producers.
“We really do sympathize with the situation in India,” he said. “Most of our COVAX doses so far have come from India.
As of this spring, many wealthy countries around the world have vaccinated significant parts of their populations, while most of the world’s poorest nations have not yet administered a single dose.
Researchers took data from more than 2,300 surveys conducted between 1970 to 2018 to estimate the proportion of people exposed to long working hours in different countries, and combined this with meta analyses showing the relative risk of developing heart disease and stroke.
The total number of deaths attributable to longer working hours were then calculated using the WHO Global Health Estimates data, which recorded causes of death among the global population between 2000 and 2016.
Deaths related to longer working hours usually occurred later in life, sometimes decades after people had retired, researchers said.
Nearly three quarters of people who died were men who were middle-aged and older. People living in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, a region that includes China, Japan and Australia, were the most at risk of dying from heart disease and stroke associated with working long hours, researchers said.
“Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said in a statement. “In addition, many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and people who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours.”
The report, by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, said that the resources and know-how to control the coronavirus existed all along, but world leaders failed to use them properly.
For months after the WHO declared the pandemic an emergency, too many countries adopted a “wait-and-see” approach, which seemed less costly, instead of aggressively containing the virus, the report said.
The report analysed the response from 28 countries.
It found that countries that recognized the threat of COVID-19 early did much better that those who waited.
Countries that “devalued science, denied the potential impact of the pandemic, delayed comprehensive action, and allowed distrust to undermine efforts” had the poorest results, the experts said in the report.
The panel also admonished the International Health Regulations, the only legally binding set of rules to direct how countries respond to an international crisis.
These “served to constrain rather than facilitate rapid action,” the report says.
At least 1 million people have died from COVID-19 in Europe, a top official from the World Health Organization said.
While speaking about the deaths in Europe, WHO Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge told reporters in Greece that the COVID-19 remains a “serious” issue even as more people get vaccinated against the virus, according to the Associated Press.
The Americas have been hardest hit by the virus – with Brazil, Mexico, and the United States collectively recording more than 1.1 million deaths – but the 53-country European region that stretches into parts of Asia, is close behind.
The World Health Organization urged people to stop playing fast and loose with the pandemic as COVID-19 cases rise across the globe.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said cases have been rising for seven weeks with 4.4 million new cases recorded last week. A year ago, only 500,000 cases were being recorded in a week.
“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic where we have proven control measures,” Van Kerkhove said. “It is time right now where everyone has to take stock and have a reality check about what we need to be doing.”
Worldwide there have been over 136.4 million COVID-19 cases recorded so far, with more than 2.9 million deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Officials said that while vaccinations were speeding up in parts of the world, many countries, specifically poorer ones have vaccinated very few people.
The Los Angeles Times reported that as many as 60 countries are seeing their vaccination efforts stalled as shipments from Covax, the global initiative to provide vaccines to countries who can’t get them on their own, were halted.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday slammed the imbalance of COVID-19 distribution saying while rich countries like the US and UK have seen one in four people get a dose, in poorer countries only one in 500 people had gotten a dose.
“Vaccines and vaccinations are coming online, but they’re not here yet in every part of the world where they need to be,” Van Kerkhove said.
Ghebreyesus urged people to continue maintaining safety measures like social distancing, wearing masks, and testing, all of which help curb the pandemic and save lives.
“But confusion, complacency, and inconsistency in public health measures and their application are driving transmission and costing lives,” he said.
COVID-19 passports have been hailed as the key to opening up the global economy, but some privacy and health experts doubt they’ll ever be widely accepted.
Plans to require COVID-19 passports for international travel or even entry to large venues or work offices may fumble, as critics say there’s a wide range of issues – from privacy and inequity, to continuity and longevity – standing in the way. But airlines, which took a trillion-dollar hit because of the pandemic, are banking on some kind of digital credential to get people flying internationally again.
The most likely outcome, said Bryan Del Monte, president of the Aviation Agency and a former director at the US Department of Defense, is that health passports will likely be needed only if you plan to travel internationally, but they won’t be “as big a deal as everyone thinks.”
But by the time a system is agreed upon and created, this could be a “moot” point, he told Insider.
“The vaccine passport could wind up being irrelevant because by the time everyone gets inoculated, do you really need one?” he said, noting that travelers don’t provide proof of vaccination against measles or rubella upon entering a foreign country.
Even so, these health passports have begun rolling out as proposals or beta tests, and some have even gone live in various markets across the globe.
The European Union proposed the “Digital Green Certificate,” a vaccine passport which would allow travel to 27 member countries, if approved. China, Israel, the UAE, and the Philippines are among other countries that have launched versions of their own, as well.
In the US, the White House is reportedly working on a vaccination passport that could require proof of immunization prior to traveling or entering crowded venues. And New York was the first state to launch one that would show a person’s proof of vaccination before entering large gatherings, like a basketball game or a wedding.
Nobody is talking about the ‘politics that go into this’
The World Health Organization, and even airlines, have advocated against requiring vaccination for travel. The main reasons are data on how effective vaccines are at preventing transmission plus the limited global supply, according to the WHO.
“If access to vaccine is (unequal), then inequity and unfairness can be further branded into the system,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme executive director, said on March 8.
In February, the WHO said wealthy countries with just 16% of the world’s population bought up 60% of the available COVID-19 vaccine supply. It flagged the inequality in the global immunization effort, but also said the imbalance could cause the virus to continue spreading and mutating to more dangerous variants.
In the US alone, the vaccine rollout has been disproportionate among minorities and poorer populations, who have received fewer doses of the COVID-19 vaccine despite often being at greater risk for contracting the disease.
Some have also said international COVID-19 passports becoming standardized and globally adoptedcould be too big a task to accomplish.
“The technology to make this happen is very difficult, but the even more difficult part that no one’s talking about is the politics that go into this,” said Bryce Conway, consumer advocate and founder at 10xTravel, a company that helps more than 70,000 travelers navigate loyalty programs and credit card points.
In the US, for example, some Republican lawmakers have dubbed the concept of vaccine passports as dystopian.
“We can’t even agree how to row the boat in this country,” Del Monte said. “This is not going to roll out quickly.”
Internationally, if countries approve certain vaccines and not others, some immunized travelers may still be barred from entering. China, for example, has said travelers receiving its vaccine will have an easier time entering the country, and many countries have said Russia’s shot isn’t effective enough to qualify.
Conway said the most likely scenario, if a COVID-19 passport is adopted, is that various groups of countries will agree on how to accept travelers from one another.
“I don’t think you’re going to have a multinational, huge system where everyone’s on it and that’s the one standard that’s used,” he said
But Laura Hoffner, chief of staff at risk consulting firm Concentric, said the secret to creating a COVID-19 passport is getting the US to lay out protocols. Because once that happens, “the world will most likely follow suit,” she said.
On March 12, Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said the private sector and others have already begun working on how to prove vaccination.
“Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” he said.
Still, the airline industry has asked the White House for specific guidelines on a health passport, so people can get back to flying, as international travel has plummeted 85% because of the pandemic, according to Perry Flint, head of the International Air Transport Association’s US corporate communications.
“We’re ready to get going again,” Flint said.
In a statement to Business Insider, the White House said it is “leading an interagency effort regarding vaccine verification,” but didn’t give any details on a timeline or how a passport would work.
‘We can do all of this with little pieces of paper’
Airline trade groups such as IATA and Airlines for America are advocating for a digital passport that either verifies someone’s immunization to COVID-19 or a negative test result, as they say outright mandating the vaccine could discriminate against those who can’t or refuse to get the vaccine.
While waiting for guidance from the government, IATA has begun testing its own digital passport, called the Travel Pass. Doctors can send test results or proof of vaccination to a person, who can link that information to the Travel Pass app prior to flying. Then travelers show the app to an agent, along with their actual passport and ticket.
These digital passports come with another hurdle, though: maintaining privacy.
Immunity passport apps are fraught with privacy flaws and pose big ethical problems, according to a report from security research company Top10VPN, which analyzed 65 digital health certificate apps operating around the world and found 82% had inadequate privacy policies.
Jon Callas at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the high-tech solution comes with too high a price tag and too high a risk for invasion of privacy. “We can do all of this with little pieces of paper,” he said.
Checking thousands of vaccination papers or test results would be a bottleneck to international travel, Flint said, saying the world shouldn’t use a “20th Century standard” when many things, such as tickets, have already gone digital.
For years, some countries have already taken on the task of checking proof-of-vaccination papers against yellow fever. This has become known as the “yellow paper,” and could be as easily applied to COVID-19, said Callas.
But the yellow card is “not safe; it’s not easy,” Caryn Seidman-Becker, chief executive officer of CLEAR, said at the Economic Club of New York on March 30. CLEAR, a biometric identity platform used at airports, has created its own “digital health credential,” called Health Pass that Seidman-Becker said will make travel “frictionless.”
But with regard to digital credentials, Callas said, “I don’t see why a paper form isn’t good enough. Every immigration form that I do, I sign it at the bottom, and say under penalty of perjury I assert this is true, and I don’t see why, ‘I got my COVID-19 vaccine’ isn’t just another box to tick.”
“They’re trying to sell digital passports,” he said “The people who are advocating this are the ones who want the rest of us to pay for that.”
China on Wednesday accused the US of “political manipulation” as Beijing faces criticism over a World Health Organization report on the origins of COVID-19.
“We have repeatedly emphasized that origin tracing is a scientific issue, and it should be carried out cooperatively by global scientists and cannot be politicized, which is also the consensus of most countries,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said during a briefing, per CNN.
“The politicization of origin tracing is extremely immoral and unpopular, which only hinders global cooperation and [the] global fight against the virus,” Hua said, accusing countries like the US of disrespecting science and “political manipulation.”
After the release of the WHO report, the US and 13 other governments issued a joint statement expressing concerns regarding lack of “access to complete, original data and samples.”
“It is critical for independent experts to have full access to all pertinent human, animal, and environmental data, research, and personnel involved in the early stages of the outbreak relevant to determining how this pandemic emerged,” the statement said. “With all data in hand, the international community may independently assess COVID-19 origins, learn valuable lessons from this pandemic, and prevent future devastating consequences from outbreaks of disease.”
The WHO report, released on Tuesday, listed the possible origins of COVID-19. It said the virus likely jumped from bats to humans via another animal. At a press conference on Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he does “not believe that this assessment was extensive enough.”
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jen Psaki discussed the report at Tuesday’s press briefing, saying that President Joe Biden “believes the American people, the global community, the medical experts, the doctors – all of the people who have been working to save lives, the families who have lost loved ones – all deserve greater transparency.”
“They deserve better information. They deserve steps that are taken by the global community to provide that,” Psaki added. “The report lacks crucial data, information, and access. It represents a partial and incomplete picture.”
China has frequently been criticized by the US and its allies over a lack of transparency surrounding COVID-19, which was first detected in Wuhan, China. Along these lines, then-President Donald Trump accused the WHO of being too subservient to Beijing and announced he was pulling the US from the UN health agency. But in one of his first executive orders as president, Biden reversed Trump’s move to withdraw from the WHO.