From Our Bureau               

23RD JULY 2020    

The Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic situation remained grim globally, with the confirmed cases across the world soaring to 1,50,12,731 and the death toll rising to  6,19,150 in the 216 affected countries and territories, according to the latest update from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Globally, American region continued to be the worst-hit with 79,48,513 confirmed cases and 3,17,962 deaths. Europe came next with 31,47,860 confirmed cases and 2,08,970 deaths. South-East Asia region’s tally stood at 15,71,317 confirmed cases and 37,203 deaths.

Eastern Mediterranean region reported 14,29,084 confirmed cases and 36,118 deaths. African region registered 6,42,387 confirmed cases and 10,789 deaths. Western Pacific region recorded 2,72,829 confirmed cases and 8,095 deaths. WHO Risk Assessment at global level remained very high.

In a joint effort to enhance research and development related to the use of traditional medicines for COVID-19 in Africa, the WHO Regional Office for Africa and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) have launched an expert advisory committee to provide independent scientific advice and support to countries on the safety, efficacy and quality of traditional medicine therapies.

WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge has signed an agreement for a new centre of excellence and visited Gaziantep, marking 60 years of cooperation with Turkey. Dr Kluge and Dr Fahrettin Koca, Turkey’s Minister of Health, also discussed Turkey’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as improving the pandemic situation in Turkey with the country’s Scientific Advisory Board for COVID-19.

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is one of the few countries where there have not been any COVID-19 cases reported. Since early January, the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific has been working with the government and partners to support FSM to prepare for COVID-19 with a special focus on empowering local communities.

WHO, UNDP, UNAIDS and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, have jointly launched an initiative called COVID-19 Law Lab. The COVID-19 Law Lab gathers and shares legal documents related to COVID-19 from over 190 countries across the world to help countries establish and implement strong legal frameworks to manage the pandemic.

Subject in Focus: Working group on SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence evolution

Genomic sequencing in early January 2020 in China supported the identification of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. The sharing of the genomic sequence on an accessible database enabled the rapid development, validation and distribution of SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic assays in January, which are now routinely used to diagnose COVID-19.

The number of genomic sequences generated and shared during the pandemic has occurred at an unprecedented speed, largely through different genetic sequencing platforms, including the GISAID Initiative. As of 23rd July 2020, over 70,000 sequences are available on GISAID.

Genomic sequence data, in combination with epidemiological and clinical data, aids the pandemic response and informs the public health and social measures to be used to counter the spread of the virus. The sharing of genetic sequencing data is also important because it enables the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 to be studied over time.

Tracking genetic sequence evolution allows scientists to identify changes, called mutations, that may occur in the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These changes are expected as viruses naturally change over time. However, it is critical to understand if any mutations may result in changes in the behavior of the virus, specifically changes in transmissibility, severity and/or the effectiveness of counter-measures, such as future vaccines or therapeutics. In addition, changes need to be monitored for their impact on diagnostic tests.

One such mutation that is currently of interest is called the “D614G” mutation, which was first observed in February 2020 in a number of countries, and is now present in SARS-CoV-2 viruses that are widely distributed around the world. This variant has an amino acid change from Aspartate (D) to Glycine (G) in the spike protein.

The spike protein is critical to the attachment and entry of the virus into human cells by attaching to the ACE2 receptor. It has been suggested that the “D614G” mutation might make the virus more transmissible and research is currently ongoing to assess this.

To coordinate efforts to identify and understand mutations in SARS-CoV-2 in a timely manner, WHO has established a working group on SARS-CoV-2 evolution as part of the WHO COVID-19 Reference Laboratory Expert Network.

This working group will advise and support WHO in the timely detection and evaluation of potentially relevant mutations in SARS-CoV-2, and where needed, advise on possible strategies to reduce their impact. The first meeting of the WHO Working group on SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence evolution was held in June 2020 and the working group continues to meet via teleconference.

At the media briefing today, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said:“More than 15 million cases of COVID-19 have now been reported to WHO, and almost 620 thousand deaths.  Although all countries have been affected, we continue to see intense transmission in a relatively small group of countries. Almost 10 million cases, or two-thirds of all cases globally, are from 10 countries, and almost half of all cases reported so far are from just three countries.”

“As we have said previously, political leadership and community engagement are the two vital pillars of the response. One of the tools governments can use is the law – not to coerce, but to protect health while protecting human rights,” he observed.

Yesterday, WHO, the United Nations Development Programme and Georgetown University launched the COVID-19 Law Lab, a database of laws that countries have implemented in response to the pandemic. It includes state of emergency declarations, quarantine measures, disease surveillance, legal measures relating to mask-wearing, physical distancing, and access to medication and vaccines.

“Well-designed laws can help to build strong health systems; evaluate and approve safe and effective drugs and vaccines; and enforce actions to create healthier and safer public spaces and workplaces. However, laws that are poorly designed, implemented or enforced can harm marginalized populations, entrench stigma and discrimination, and hinder efforts to end the pandemic,” Dr Tedros pointed out.

“The database will continue to grow as more countries and themes are added. But even more powerful than the law is giving people the information they need to protect themselves and others. The best way to suppress transmission and save lives is by engaging individuals and communities to manage their own risk and take evidence-based decisions to protect their own health and that of those around them.

“The pandemic has disrupted the lives of billions of people. Many have been at home for months. It’s completely understandable that people want to get on with their lives. But we will not be going back to the ‘old normal.’ The pandemic has already changed the way we live our lives. Part of adjusting to the ‘new normal’ is finding ways to live our lives safely. It can be done, but how to do it will depend on where you live and your circumstances.

“It’s all about making good choices. We’re asking everyone to treat the decisions about where they go, what they do and who they meet with as life-and-death decisions – because they are. It may not be your life, but your choices could be the difference between life and death for someone you love, or for a complete stranger.

“In recent weeks, we have seen outbreaks associated with nightclubs and other social gatherings, even in places where transmission had been suppressed. We must remember that most people are still susceptible to this virus. As long as it’s circulating, everyone is at risk. Just because cases might be at a low level where you live, that doesn’t make it safe to let down your guard.

“Don’t expect someone else to keep you safe. We all have a part to play in protecting ourselves and one another. First, know your situation. Do you know how many cases were reported where you live yesterday? Do you know where to find that information? Second, do you know how to minimize your exposure? Are you being careful to keep at least 1 meter from others? Are you still cleaning your hands regularly? Are you following the advice of your local authorities?

“No matter where you live or how old you are, you can be a leader in your community, not just to defeat the pandemic, but to build back better. In recent years, we’ve seen young people leading grassroots movements for climate change and racial equality. Now we need young people to start a global movement for health – for a world in which health is a human right, not a privilege,” the WHO Director-General said. (eom)

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