By Thalif Deen*
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 15 2020 (IPS) – President Donald Trump’s threat to abruptly cut all US funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) has been described as ‘reckless and deadly”—particularly at a time when the Geneva-based UN agency was engaged in an uphill battle against the spreading coronavirus.
The US president, who has dismissed WHO as “China-centric”, has also been accused of playing politics with human lives—while he, in turn, blames the agency for mishandling the coronavirus outbreak and not supporting his earlier decision to bar Chinese from entering the US.
“The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable,” he told reporters at a White House briefing April 14, “So much death has been caused by their mistakes”, he said, as he continues to exaggerate his charges, as he is usually prone to in his daily life.
In a six-column spread, the New York Times said April 15 that Trump, seeing his popularity poll numbers drop, is blaming WHO for his virus mistakes.
“Recent polls show that more Americans disapprove of Mr Trump’s handling of the virus, than approve,” the Times said.
Asked if Trump was playing politics with human lives during a global health emergency, Abby Maxman, President & CEO of Oxfam America, told IPS: “Now more than ever, the Trump administration should prioritize the health and well-being of the American people, and the most vulnerable people around the globe, over politics.”
“This is a time when we need to put politics and blame aside and work together to save lives and recover from this global pandemic together”.
Asked if other donors will step in to fill the shortfall, if and when US cuts funding, Maxman said that WHO and other crucial agencies leading the response to this global health crisis must have the proper resources.
“We hope to see donors step up, and do whatever they can to ensure that WHO can continue its vital work.”
Asked how feasible is this considering the global economic meltdown triggered by the coronavirus crisis, she said the global economy has taken an historically devastating blow, but nations must prioritize funding core agencies and measures, which include the World Health Organization.
“This is something we simply must find the funds for,” she declared.
Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights warned that by halting funding to the WHO, President Trump is endangering the lives of millions of people around the world, particularly those most at risk during this historic pandemic.
“A global health emergency demands a global response,” she said.
The World Health Organization provides vital international assistance and coordination. That President Trump would halt funding to WHO in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic is reckless and risks contributing to widespread death and suffering, McKay said.
“This move comes at precisely the wrong time. The pandemic is beginning to spread from high-income countries to countries with weak health systems. We urgently need more concerted, coordinated, and effective action from the global community, not less. And we need global leadership that understands and embraces coordination and collaboration,” she declared.
When Trump first singled out WHO for criticism, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was blunt in his response, (even though he did not mention the US president by name): “If you don’t want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicizing it.”
Hitting back at Trump, without naming him, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the WHO, with thousands of its staff, is on the front lines, supporting Member States and their societies, especially the most vulnerable among them, with guidance, training, equipment and concrete life-saving services as they fight the virus.
“It is my belief that the World Health Organization must be supported, as it is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19.”
This virus, he pointed out,“is unprecedented in our lifetime and requires an unprecedented response.”
“Obviously, in such conditions, it is possible that the same facts have had different readings by different entities. Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis”.
The lessons learned will be essential to effectively address similar challenges, as they may arise in the future.
But now is not that time, he cautioned.
And it is also not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus, said Guterres.
In statement released April 14, Maxmansaid picking a fight with the World Health Organization during a pandemic is shortsighted, to say the least.
“Instead of bringing us together through this global crisis, President Trump has attacked leaders and agencies around the world, seeking to deflect blame for his own administration’s failings.”
“With this latest move to hold back funding from the WHO, President Trump is crippling any hopes for the responsible international cooperation and solidarity that is critical to save lives and restore the global economy,” warned Maxman.
“Withholding funding and blame-shifting means wasted time and needless death, misery, and poverty. And it gets the US and the world no closer to an end to this disaster.
“As we at Oxfam scale up efforts to respond to the crisis in more than 50 countries around the world, we see firsthand that strong coordination and funding is vital to save lives on the ground.
“No one individual, community, or country can deal with this crisis alone. We must work together, in our communities and across borders, with dignity and compassion. No one is safe until everyone is safe. President Trump must immediately reverse course and act like the global leader the world expects.”
The WHO’s total programme budget for 2018-2019 was $4.4 billion, increasing to $4.8 billion for 2020-2021.
WHO has two primary sources of revenue: assessed contributions (paid by member states and based on each country’s income and population) and voluntary contributions (additional funds provided by member states, private organizations and individuals.)
The US pays 22 percent of the budget, as it does with the United Nations.
McKay said while the WHO’s COVID-19 response has been imperfect, the idea of ending U.S. funding for this vital UN body defies logic and imperils millions.
For one, leading U.S. and international researchers are collaborating on global vaccine trials through WHO, which is a hub of such essential research.
“President Trump appears to be looking for a scapegoat for the pandemic. He is trying to deflect attention from the devastating U.S. death toll and his own repeated failures to respond promptly and coherently to the pandemic,” she noted.
McKay said: “Rather than attack the professionals at the WHO, President Trump should get health workers the personal protective equipment that they are dying without. He should collaborate with states and cities on a coordinated national response guided by science and human rights, not ideology and xenophobia. He must listen to medical experts at this time of great national and global peril.”
“All institutions responding to COVID-19, be it at a local, national, or global level, should be transparent and accountable. But eviscerating the capacity of the world’s essential health institution at a time like this is a profound mistake,” she declared.
*UN Bureau Chief and Regional Director IPS North America, has been covering the U.N. since the late 1970s. A former deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka Daily News, he was a senior editorial writer on the Hong Kong daily, The Standard. He can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol. Thalif Deen is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services (DMS); Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group.
Five months on, what scientists now know about the coronavirus
By Robin McKie* – The Guardian
Medical researchers have been studying everything we know about Covid-19. What have they learned – and is it enough to halt the pandemic?
Coronaviruses have been causing problems for humanity for a long time. Several versions are known to trigger common colds and more recently two types have set off outbreaks of deadly illnesses: severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers).
But their impact has been mild compared with the global havoc unleashed by the coronavirus that is causing the Covid-19 pandemic. In only a few months it has triggered lockdowns in dozens of nations and claimed more than 100,000 lives. And the disease continues to spread.
That is an extraordinary achievement for a spiky ball of genetic material coated in fatty chemicals called lipids, and which measures 80 billionths of a metre in diameter. Humanity has been brought low by a very humble assailant.
On the other hand, our knowledge about the Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is also remarkable. This was an organism unknown to science five months ago. Today it is the subject of study on an unprecedented scale. Vaccines projects proliferate, antiviral drug trials have been launched and new diagnostic tests are appearing.
The questions are therefore straightforward: what have we learned over the past five months and how might that knowledge put an end to this pandemic?
Where did it come from and how did it first infect humans?
The Sars-CoV-2 virus almost certainly originated in bats, which have evolved fierce immune responses to viruses, researchers have discovered. These defences drive viruses to replicate faster so that they can get past bats’ immune defences. In turn, that transforms the bat into a reservoir of rapidly reproducing and highly transmissible viruses. Then when these bat viruses move into other mammals, creatures that lack a fast-response immune system, the viruses quickly spread into their new hosts. Most evidence suggests that Sars-CoV-2 started infecting humans via an intermediary species, such as pangolins.
Coronavirus statistics: what can we trust and what should we ignore?
“This virus probably jumped from a bat into another animal, and that other animal was probably near a human, maybe in a market,” says virologist Professor Edward Holmes of Sydney University. “And so if that wildlife animal has a virus it’s picked up from a bat and we’re interacting with it, there’s a good chance that the virus will then spread to the person handling the animal. Then that person will go home and spread it to someone else and we have an outbreak.”
As to the transmission of Sars-CoV-2, that occurs when droplets of water containing the virus are expelled by an infected person in a cough or sneeze.
How does the virus spread and how does it affect people?
Virus-ridden particles are inhaled by others and come into contact with cells lining the throat and larynx. These cells have large numbers of receptors – known as Ace-2 receptors – on their surfaces. (Cell receptors play a key role in passing chemicals into cells and in triggering signals between cells.) “This virus has a surface protein that is primed to lock on that receptor and slip its RNA into the cell,” says virologist Professor Jonathan Ball of Nottingham University.
Once inside, that RNA inserts itself into the cell’s own replication machinery and makes multiple copies of the virus. These burst out of the cell, and the infection spreads. Antibodies generated by the body’s immune system eventually target the virus and in most cases halt its progress.
“A Covid-19 infection is generally mild, and that really is the secret of the virus’s success,” adds Ball. “Many people don’t even notice they have got an infection and so go around their work, homes and supermarkets infecting others.”
By contrast, Sars – which is also caused by a coronavirus – makes patients much sicker and kills about one in 10 of those infected. In most cases, these patients are hospitalised and that stops them infecting others – by cutting the transmission chain. Milder Covid-19 avoids that issue.
Why does the virus sometimes cause death?
Occasionally, however, the virus can cause severe problems. This happens when it moves down the respiratory tract and infects the lungs, which are even richer in cells with Ace-2 receptors. Many of these cells are destroyed, and lungs become congested with bits of broken cell. In these cases, patients will require treatment in intensive care.
Even worse, in some cases, a person’s immune system goes into overdrive, attracting cells to the lungs in order to attack the virus, resulting in inflammation. This process can run out of control, more immune cells pour in, and the inflammation gets worse. This is known as a cytokine storm. (In Greek, “cyto” means cell and “kino” means movement.) In some cases, this can kill the patient.
Just why cytokine storms occur in some patients but not in the vast majority is unclear. One possibility is that some people have versions of Ace-2 receptors that are slightly more vulnerable to attacks from the coronavirus than are those of most people.
Are we protected for life if we get infected?
Doctors examining patients recovering from a Covid-19 infection are finding fairly high levels of neutralising antibodies in their blood. These antibodies are made by the immune system, and they coat an invading virus at specific points, blocking its ability to break into cells.
“It is clear that immune responses are being mounted against Covid-19 in infected people,” says virologist Mike Skinner of Imperial College London. “And the antibodies created by that response will provide protection against future infections – but we should note that it is unlikely this protection will be for life.”
Instead, most virologists believe that immunity against Covid-19 will last only a year or two. “That is in line with other coronaviruses that infect humans,” says Skinner. “That means that even if most people do eventually become exposed to the virus, it is still likely to become endemic – which means we would see seasonal peaks of infection of this disease. We will have reached a steady state with regard to Covid-19.”
The virus will be with us for some time, in short. But could it change its virulence? Some researchers have suggested that it could become less deadly. Others have argued that it could mutate to become more lethal. Skinner is doubtful. “We have got to consider this pandemic from the virus’s position,” he says. “It is spreading round the world very nicely. It is doing OK. Change brings it no benefit.”
In the end, it will be the development and roll-out of an effective vaccine that will free us from the threat of Covid-19, Skinner says.
When will we get a vaccine?
On Friday, the journal Nature reported that 78 vaccine projects had been launched round the globe – with a further 37 in development. Among the projects that are under way is a vaccine programme that is now in phase-one trials at Oxford University, two others at US biotechnology corporations and three more at Chinese scientific groups. Many other vaccine developers say they plan to start human testing this year.
This remarkable response raises hopes that a Covid-19 vaccine could be developed in a fairly short time. However, vaccines require large-scale safety and efficacy studies. Thousands of people would receive either the vaccine itself or a placebo to determine if the former were effective at preventing infection from the virus which they would have encountered naturally. That, inevitably, is a lengthy process.
As a result, some scientists have proposed a way to speed up the process – by deliberately exposing volunteers to the virus to determine a vaccine’s efficacy. “This approach is not without risks but has the potential to expedite candidate vaccine testing by many months,” says Nir Eyal, a professor of bioethics at Rutgers University.
Volunteers would have to be young and healthy, he stresses: “Their health would also be closely monitored, and they would have access to intensive care and any available medicines.” The result could be a vaccine that would save millions of lives by being ready for use in a much shorter time than one that went through standard phase three trials.
But deliberately infecting people – in particular volunteers who would be given a placebo vaccine as part of the trial – is controversial. “This will have to be thought through very carefully,” says Professor Adam Finn of Bristol University. “Young people might jump at the opportunity to join such a trial but this is a virus that does kill the odd young person. We don’t know why yet. However, phase-three trials are still some way off, so we have time to consider the idea carefully.”
This article was amended on 12 April 2020. The original version incorrectly described the Covid-19 virus as measuring “an 80-billionth of a metre”, when it should have said “80 billionths of a metre”. A quote from Mike Skinner, responding to whether Covid-19’s virulence could change, was also corrected.Due to the unprecedented and ongoing nature of the coronavirus outbreak, this article is being regularly updated to ensure that it reflects the current situation as best as possible. Any significant corrections made to this or previous versions of the article will continue to be footnoted in line with Guardian editorial policy. Wed 15 Apr 2020 14.36 BST. Last modified on Wed 15 Apr 2020 15.02 BST
* Robin McKie is science and environment editor for the Observer