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Tracing the source of COVID 19

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More than 11 million people worldwide have contracted COVID-19 and nearly 550,000 deaths are linked to the novel coronavirus. While we are battling the pandemic - and prepare for future ones - scientists believe it is wise to trace back the steps the virus has been taking. But there is still huge disagreement on the origins of the virus with China recently rejecting a World Health Organization plan for a second phase of an investigation into how the worst health pandemic in living memory started, writes Colin Stevens.

The WHO probe includes the hypothesis it could have escaped from a Chinese laboratory  but, on August 2, over 300 political parties, social societies and think tanks in over 100 countries and districts opposed what they called “politicizing virus origins-tracing”.

They issued a statement which added: “The origin-tracing is the shared obligation of all countries and it is a serious scientific issue that must be studied by scientists and medical experts around the world through cooperation. Any attempt of politicization, geographical labeling and stigmatization will only hinder the origin-tracing work and global effort on anti-epidemic."

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The demand, which came in a joint statement sent to the World Health Organization WHO secretariat,appears to give tacit support to China’s position.

Even so, the origins of the virus remains contested among experts.

The first known cases emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. The virus was believed to have jumped to humans from animals being sold for food at a city market.

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The 2 August letter to WHO came in the wake of the organization’s recent proposal of a second phase of a study into the origin of coronavirus.

China, opposing the move, says it has already taken the lead in cooperating with the WHO and experts, who carried out an on-site investigation and came to the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely for the virus to have been leaked from a Chinese lab.

Following a month-long fact-finding mission in China, a WHO team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic concluded that the virus probably originated in bats and passed to people through an intermediate animal.

Even so, fundamental questions remain about when, where and how SARS-CoV-2 first infected people.

From the EU side, the European Commission’s Research and Innovation Commissioner Mariya Gabriel has given her backing to a group of scientific experts and government representatives from the U.S., Australia and Japan who called on the Chinese government to “reconsider its decision to not engage in the World Health Organization's proposal for the next phase of the COVID-19 origins study.”

A spokesman at China’s mission to the EU in Brussels said: “China has always taken a scientific, professional, serious and responsible attitude in tracing the origins of the virus, and has twice invited WHO experts to China for origins tracing.”

Further comment on the thorny issue as to how the crisis originated comes from Jeffrey Sachs, a professor of economics at Columbia University in New York and head of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission.

Sachs said the only legitimate goal of the novel coronavirus origins tracing should be "to understand SARS-CoV-2 and work co-operatively together to end the pandemic and to prevent future pandemics”.

Sachs, like China, believes that the origins tracing should not become a geopolitical issue and he also suggests that the US "be transparent about the kinds of research underway on dangerous viruses in order to assess biosafety standards and to protect against laboratory-related spillovers".

There has been considerable research in both the US and China on SARS-like viruses, and it is argued  by Sachs that this research, much of which was US-funded with US-Chinese collaboration, should be examined to see what light it sheds on the origins of the spillover.

Elsewhere, Dutch virologist and a WHO team member Marion Koopmans, says that species more susceptible to the virus -- including bamboo rats, badgers and rabbits -- were sold at Wuhan's Huanan market, the site of an early virus cluster, and could be an entry point for trace-back investigations. 

British zoologist Daszak, a colleague of Koopmans, also said that new bat viruses discovered in Thailand and Cambodia, "shifts our focus to south-east Asia".

She noted: "I think one day we'll find it (the source). It might take some time but it will be out there without a doubt.”

Danish epidemiologist and another WHO team member, Thea Kolsen Fischer, said that the WHO team had not been given raw data, but instead relied on earlier analysis by Chinese scientists.

The British ambassador in Geneva, Simon Manley, said the first phase study was “always meant to be the beginning of the process, not the end”.

“We call for a timely, transparent, evidence-based, and expert-led phase two study, including in the People’s Republic of China, as recommended by the experts’ report,” he said.

Every time there is a major disease outbreak, one of the first questions scientists and the public ask is: “Where did this come from?”

Of course, in order to predict and prevent future pandemics like COVID-19, researchers need to find the origin of the viruses that cause them. This is not a trivial task and, clearly, it will be an easy task either.

For example, scientists still don’t know the origin of Ebola, even though it has caused periodic epidemics since the 1970s.

Marilyn  Roossinck, a professor of plant pathology in the United States and an expert on viral ecology, said: “I am often asked how scientists trace the origins of a virus. In my work, I have found many new viruses and some well-known pathogens that infect wild plants  without causing any disease. Plant, animal or human, the methods are largely the same.”

She concludesd: “Tracking down the origins of a virus involves a combination of extensive fieldwork, thorough lab testing and quite a bit of luck.”

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US-EU agenda for beating the global pandemic: Vaccinating the world, saving lives now, and building back better health security

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Vaccination is the most effective response to the COVID pandemic. The United States and the EU are technological leaders in advanced vaccine platforms, given decades of investments in research and development.

It is vital that we aggressively pursue an agenda to vaccinate the world. Co-ordinated US and EU leadership will help expand supply, deliver in a more coordinated and efficient manner, and manage constraints to supply chains. This will showcase the force of a Transatlantic partnership in facilitating global vaccination while enabling more progress by multilateral and regional initiatives.

Building on the outcome of the May 2021 G20 Global Health Summit, the G7 and US-EU Summits in June, and on the upcoming G20 Summit, the US and the EU will expand cooperation for global action toward vaccinating the world, saving lives now, and building better health security.  

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Pillar I: A Joint EU/US Vaccine Sharing Commitment: the United States and the EU will share doses globally to enhance vaccination rates, with a priority on sharing through COVAX and improving vaccination rates urgently in low and lower-middle income countries. The United States is donating over 1.1 billion doses, and the EU will donate over 500 million doses. This is in addition to the doses we have financed through COVAX.

We call for nations that are able to vaccinate their populations to double their dose-sharing commitments or to make meaningful contributions to vaccine readiness. They will place a premium on predictable and effective dose-sharing to maximize sustainability and minimize waste.

Pillar II: A Joint EU/US Commitment to Vaccine Readiness: the United States and the EU will both support and coordinate with relevant organisations for vaccine delivery, cold chain, logistics, and immunization programs to translate doses in vials into shots in arms. They will share lessons learned from dose sharing, including delivery via COVAX, and promote equitable distribution of vaccines.

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Pillar III: A Joint EU/US partnership on bolstering global vaccine supply and therapeutics: the EU and the United States will leverage their newly launched Joint COVID-19 Manufacturing and Supply Chain Taskforce to support vaccine and therapeutic manufacturing and distribution and overcome supply chain challenges. Collaborative efforts, outlined below, will include monitoring global supply chains, assessing global demand against the supply of ingredients and production materials, and identifying and addressing in real time bottlenecks and other disruptive factors for global vaccine and therapeutics production, as well as coordinating potential solutions and initiatives to boost global production of vaccines, critical inputs, and ancillary supplies.

Pillar IV: A Joint EU/US Proposal to achieve Global Health Security. The United States and the EU will support the establishment of a Financial Intermediary Fund (FIF) by the end of 2021 and will support its sustainable capitalization.  The EU and United States will also support global pandemic surveillance, including the concept of a global pandemic radar. The EU and the United States, through HERA and the Department of Health and Human Services Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, respectively, will cooperate in line with our G7 commitment to expedite the development of new vaccines and make recommendations on enhancing the world's capacity to deliver these vaccines in real time. 

We call on partners to join in establishing and financing the FIF to support to prepare countries for COVID-19 and future biological threats.

Pillar V: A Joint EU/US/Partners Roadmap for regional vaccine production. The EU and the United States will coordinate investments in regional manufacturing capacity with low and lower-middle income countries, as well as targeted efforts to enhance capacity for medical countermeasures under the Build Back and Better World infrastructure and the newly established Global Gateway partnership. The EU and the United States will align efforts to bolster local vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa and forge ahead on discussions on expanding the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments and ensure their equitable access.

We call on partners to join in supporting coordinated investments to expand global and regional manufacturing, including for mRNA, viral vector, and/or protein subunit COVID-19 vaccines.

More information

Joint statement on the launch of the joint COVID-19 Manufacturing and Supply Chain Taskforce

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Coronavirus: 200th EU disinfection robot delivered to European hospital, a further 100 confirmed

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On 21 September, the Commission delivered the 200th disinfection robot – to Consorci Corporació Sanitària Parc Taulí hospital in Barcelona. The robots, donated by the Commission, help sanitize COVID-19 patient rooms and are part of the Commission's action to supply hospitals across the EU to help them cope with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Further to these initial 200 robots announced in November last year, the Commission secured the purchase an additional 100, bringing the total donations to 300.

A Europe fit for the Digital Age Executive Vice President for Margrethe Vestager, said: “Assisting member states overcome the challenges of the pandemic continues to be a number one priority and these donations – a very tangible form of support – are a prime example of what can be achieved. This is European solidarity in action and I am pleased to see the Commission can go the extra mile in donating an additional 100 disinfection robots to hospitals in need.”

Twenty-five disinfection robots have already been working night and day across Spain since February to help tackle the spread of the coronavirus. Nearly every EU Member State has now received at least one disinfection robot, which disinfects a standard patient room in under 15 minutes, alleviating hospital staff and offering them and their patients greater protection against potential infection. This action is made possible through the Emergency Support Instrument and the devices are supplied by Danish company UVD robots, which won an emergency procurement tender.

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Coronavirus: Commission signs contract for the supply of a monoclonal antibody treatment

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The Commission has signed a joint procurement framework contract with the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly for the supply of a monoclonal antibody treatment for coronavirus patients. This marks the latest development in this first portfolio of five promising therapeutics announced by the Commission under the EU COVID-19 Therapeutics Strategy in June 2021. The medicine is currently under rolling review by the European Medicines Agency. 18 member states have signed up to the joint procurement for the purchase of up to 220,000 treatments.

Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “Over 73% of the EU adult population is now fully vaccinated, and this rate will still increase. But vaccines cannot be our only response to COVID-19. People still continue to be infected and fall ill. We need to continue our work to prevent illness with vaccines and at the same time ensure that we can treat it with therapeutics. With today's signature, we conclude our third procurement and deliver on our commitment under the EU Therapeutics Strategy to facilitate access to state-of-the-art medicines for COVID-19 patients.”

While vaccination remains the strongest asset both against the virus and its variants, therapeutics play a critical role in the COVID-19 response. They help to save lives, speed up recovery time, reduce the length of hospitalisation and ultimately ease the burden of health care systems.

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The product from Eli Lilly is a combination of two monoclonal antibodies (bamlanivimab and etesevimab) for the treatment of coronavirus patients who do not require oxygen but are at high risk of severe COVID-19. Monoclonal antibodies are proteins conceived in the laboratory that mimic the immune system's ability to fight the coronavirus. They fuse to the spike protein and thus block the virus's attachment to the human cells.

Under the EU Joint Procurement Agreement, the European Commission has concluded until now nearly 200 contracts for different medical countermeasures with a cumulative value of over €12 billion. Under the joint procurement framework contract concluded with Eli Lilly, member states can purchase the combination product bamlanivimab and etesevimab if and when needed, once it has received either a conditional marketing authorisation at EU level from the European Medicines Agency or an emergency use authorisation in the member state concerned.

Background

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Today's joint procurement contract follows the contract signed with Roche for the product REGN-COV2, a combination of Casirivimab and Imdevimab, on 31 March 2021 and the contract with Glaxo Smith Kline on 27 July 2021 for the supply of sotrovimab (VIR-7831), developed in collaboration with VIR biotechnology.

The EU Strategy on COVID-19 Therapeutics, adopted on 6 May 2021, aims to build a broad portfolio of COVID-19 therapeutics with the goal of having three new therapeutics available by October 2021 and possibly two more by the end of the year. It covers the full lifecycle of medicines from research, development, selection of promising candidates, fast regulatory approval, manufacturing and deployment to final use. It will also coordinate, scale-up and ensure that the EU acts together in ensuring access to therapeutics via joint procurements.

The Strategy forms part of a strong European Health Union, using a coordinated EU approach to better protect the health of our citizens, equip the EU and its Member States to better prevent and address future pandemics, and improve resilience of Europe's health systems. Focusing on the treatment of patients with COVID-19, the Strategy works alongside the successful EU Vaccines Strategy, through which safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19 have been authorised for use in the EU to prevent and reduce transmission of cases, as well as hospitalisation rates and deaths caused by the disease.

On 29 June 2021, the strategy delivered its first outcome, with the announcement of five candidate therapeutics that could soon be available to treat patients across the EU. The five products are in an advanced stage of development and have a high potential to be among the three new COVID-19 therapeutics to receive authorization by October 2021, the target set under the strategy, provided the final data demonstrate their safety, quality and efficacy.

Global co-operation on therapeutics is crucial and a key component of our strategy. The Commission is committed to working together with international partners on COVID-19 therapeutics and make them available globally. The Commission is also exploring how to support the enabling environment for manufacturing health products, while strengthening research capacity in partner countries around the globe.

More information

EU Therapeutics Strategy

Coronavirus response

Safe COVID-19 vaccines for Europeans

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