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A look at WHO Director Tedros Adhanom’s work, challenges facing the organisation
3 March 2021, 10:47 PM

At the beginning of the year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) set a target to vaccinate health workers and vulnerable groups against COVID-19 in 100 days.

And at the helm of the commitment is the Ethiopian biologist, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the General Director of WHO now faced with the challenge to save the world from a pandemic.

When he assumed the top WHO post in 2017 Dr. Tedros Andhanom, backed by the African Union had a vision. “Together, we will save and improve the lives of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters, this is my most solemn commitment.”

Dr. Tedros Andhanom served in the Ethiopian government as the minister of health from 2005 to 2012 and later as foreign affairs minister until 2016. He is recognised for leading Ethiopia in the fight against HIV infections, reducing child mortality, malaria mortality, and deaths from tuberculosis.

His vision, as the WHO leader, was to face perhaps his biggest challenge, when COVID-19 began. “We are deeply concerned both by the alarming level of spread and severity and the alarming levels of infection. We have therefore made an assessment that COVID -19 can be characterised as a pandemic.”

Since February last year, Dr. Adhanom has had a daunting task marred by criticism. Former US President Donald Trump blamed him for allegedly supporting China in delaying to declare COVID-19, a global health emergency. This was followed by a decision by the US government to stop funding the WHO from May this year.

There was more criticism of Dr. Adhanom’s organisation following the findings presented by the WHO team that visited China this year to investigate the possible origin of the virus. Their findings, that the virus was not processed in a lab and could have jumped from a human to animals, were not fully welcomed globally.

But the WHO boss insists now that the vaccines are being manufactured, the focus should be more on ensuring the pandemic is controlled.

“Vaccine equity is especially important for fragile and vulnerable groups and for small island states like those in the pacific and the Caribbean with small populations, who can miss out on vaccines because they have less bargaining power than bigger countries… everywhere means everywhere,  nowhere should be left behind.”

Dr. Adhanom’s team worked closely with the African Union under the leadership of South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa, to ensure that African countries are well prepared to face the pandemic and benefit from the WHO supported COVAX facility and vaccines that will ensure at least 20% of the population in Africa is immunised have started arriving.

The WHO director generals serve a 5-year term, which is re-electable, and Dr. Tedros Adhanom hopes his tenure that he began in 2017, will have a desirable impact on people’s health by the time it ends.

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SA records 1 447 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday
3 March 2021, 9:56 PM

The number of coronavirus cases in South Africa has increased to 1 516 262 after the country identified 1 447 new cases since the last report.

In a statement, the Department of Health has also reported a further 95 COVID-19 related deaths. “Eastern Cape 5, Free State 19, Gauteng 30, Kwa-Zulu Natal 8, Limpopo 0, Mpumalanga 7, North West 0, Northern Cape 1 and Western Cape 25.” This brings the total to 50 366 deaths.

The recoveries now stand at 1 434 772, representing a recovery rate of 94,6%.

The number of health care workers vaccinated under the Sisonke Protocol is 83 570 as of 6.30 pm, 3 March 2021.

“We are very encouraged that our first target of exhausting the first batch of 80 000 vaccines from Johnson & Johnson in two weeks has been achieved and exceeded. We have taken every opportunity to learn from this process and continue to refine the programme in preparation for the rollout to the larger community in the subsequent phases,” says the Health Department.

Below are the latest coronavirus stats: 

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Vaccine rollout phase I 

Receiving his vaccination at the George Mukhari Academic hospital vaccination centre in Pretoria, on Wednesday, Deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the current Johnson and Johnson vaccination process in the country is part of phase one of the vaccine rollout.

The number of vaccination sites has been increased from 17 to 49.

Dr Phaahla says the actual phase one rollout programme will commence before the end of this month.

Antibodies

Head of the KwaZulu-Natal Research, Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) Professor Tulio De Oliviera says scientists are monitoring other variants of the coronavirus that are not yet of concern.

KRISP has been conducting research into the variant found in South Africa. Part of the research found that persons infected with the variant found in South Africa have developed antibodies to guard against re-infection from other variants of the coronavirus.

KRISP’s Tulio De Oliveira explains:

International community to stop what is unfolding in Myanmar: Special Envoy
3 March 2021, 9:44 PM

Every tool available needs to be used by the international community to stop the unfolding situation in Myanmar. That is the message from the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General to that country who reported that more than 50 people had died with more than 1 200 detained since the army overthrew the elected civilian government led by Nobel Peace Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Reports from the region point to a dramatic escalation from security forces with more than 30 deaths reported countrywide on Wednesday alone.

With large protests continuing unabated since the February 1 coup, the security apparatus has swung into high gear to counter the resistance as diplomatic efforts make little progress in dislodging the military’s power grab.

“I saw today very disturbing video clips. One was a police beating a volunteer medical crew, they were not armed. Another video clip showed a protestor taken away from police and they shoot him from very near, maybe only one metre. He didn’t resist his arrest and it seems that he died on the street. Altogether we have around 1 200 who people are now detained and many families don’t know where members of their families are detained if they are healthy or not. So how can we watch this situation longer,” says Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener.

Burgener explained that she has struggled to gain access to the country with the military saying she was welcome only once their investigations into dubious claims of “election fraud” were completed and only when they had quelled protests described as “a disobedience movement.”

“We know that several countries have taken bilateral sanctions but it’s clearly up to the member to decide what kind of measures they will take further and we know. I have discussions with the army and I warned them that member states and the Security Council might take huge, strong measures and the answer was – ‘We are used to sanctions and we survived those sanctions in the past’. When I also warned that they will go in isolation, the answer was ‘We have to learn to walk with only few friends’,” Special Envoy explained.

She is due to brief the Security Council on Friday in closed consultations and Russia and China will be in the room. “I hope that they recognise that it’s not only an internal affair, it hits the stability of the region because if we know that the ethnic armed organisations are determined not to allow this coup to continue and they also say that they suspend the dialog with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) and if both sides will start to use violence then we have a situation of a real war in Myanmar which is nobody’s interest, not for the people in Myanmar but also for the region. So I hope that China will realise that it will be important to work together but also for Russia. So, I really hope that this unity will be upheld on Friday.”

Any coordinated action from the Council is highly unlikely given the divisions with bilateral punitive measures, including sanctions, more realistic in the immediate term.

Vaccination of healthcare workers continues at Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital
3 March 2021, 8:33 PM

Deputy Health Minister, Dr Joe Phaahla, has been vaccinated at the Doctor George Mukhari Academic Hospital, north of Pretoria. The vaccination centre at the hospital is the second one besides the one at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg.

Both centres were opened on Tuesday.

The number of vaccination sites has been increased from 17 to 49 in order to give more healthcare workers access to them.

Healthcare workers that have received the vaccination include Rehette Greyling who works in a COVID ward at the George Mukhari Academic Hospital.

Greyling says she will now carry out her responsibilities with the confidence that she is protected against the coronavirus.

“I am very happy that I got it finally. Very happy and it’s fine. I am in COVID ICU. So, it’s just for that extra protection, so that we know we are a little bit protected in treating our patients.”

Students to work with healthcare workers 

The Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University is a partner in running the vaccination centre at the Doctor George Mukhari Academic Hospital. The university’s Acting Vice-Chancellor, Eunice Seekoe, says they will assist by providing students to work with healthcare workers in administering doses of the vaccine.

“Because we are a Health Sciences University, we’ve got students in different fields of professions. So, our students can be trained because from second year, students are already trained in health sciences. They understand the issues of the virus. They understand the vaccine and they are also trained on how to give injection and how to manage situations like this. So, about a thousand to 2 000 students can be prepared and so that they can contribute to becoming vaccinators.”

George Mukhari Academic Hospital Chief Executive Officer, Dr Richard Lebethe, says there is no hesitation on healthcare workers that are being vaccinated.

“So, as we speak now, the majority of the staff here have grown towards the vaccination and there are those that still need to understand and find their way around it and we’ll give them that space to make decisions. It’s more so that we are still in the research phase. So, they still have time to decide on where they need to fit.”

Healthcare workers urged to make appointments 

Meanwhile, Gauteng Health MEC, Dr Nomathemba Mokgethi, has called on healthcare workers to refrain from arriving at vaccination centres without appointments and demand to be vaccinated. She says this puts unnecessary pressure on the system.

Dr Mokgethi’s call comes after some healthcare workers arrived at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital and randomly demanded to be vaccinated.

“We want to allay the health workers’ anxiety that you will be vaccinated and it will depend on how many doses that we will be getting, but as Gauteng, we will try as much as possible to make sure that we vaccinate as quickly as possible. For those provinces that are having a low uptake, we will take their doses and come and vaccinate in Gauteng.”

Phase I of vaccination rollout

Deputy Minister Phaahla says the current vaccination process in the country is a subsection of Phase 1 of the vaccine rollout programme. He says the rollout of the actual phase one programme will start before the end of this month.

“In terms of Johnson and Johnson and others, including Pfizer, which is already registered and the others, we are talking now in terms of signing agreements to bring millions of doses, so that somewhere before the end of this month we will now be receiving the actual contracted doses. These ones, which we are using here, we are actually receiving them for free from Johnson and Johnson, because they are part of what remained in their final studies.”

Dr. Phaahla further says South Africa is negotiating with China, Russia, and other countries where their vaccines have been approved to assist the country.

New research shows people infected with 501Y.V2 develop antibody against variants
3 March 2021, 8:07 PM

New research from the country’s top medical scientists shows that people infected with the variant of the coronavirus found in South Africa have developed a level of immunity against that variant and possibly other mutations of the coronavirus as well. That is according to the KwaZulu-Natal Research, Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp).

Krisp on Wednesday held a joint online media briefing with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), the National Health Laboratory Services, the Health Department, and the Department of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation.

The new variant, which was initially detected in South Africa, is now found in 48 countries.

Here is an explanation about the variant: 

The 501Y.V2  strain has nine different mutations.

Through a joint effort between Krisp, NICD, and universities across the country, laboratories submitted samples from patients that were infected with both the initial variant and the 501Y.V2 strain.

The tests measured the neutralisation of 44 people that were infected in both the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has found that the 501Y.V2 variant was able to neutralise itself from other variants, including the variant which circulated in the first wave, thus providing a level of immunity to itself and other variants.

We saw a substantial loss of neutralisation, a mindful reduction in average data, which is essentially a measure of how well neutralising antibodies can prevent a virus from infecting a cell. What this means is that neutralising antibodies elicited by the new variant are somehow different in their ability to recognise, not only their own virus but other viruses. This is potentially good news. Unlike the antibodies that were triggered by the initial variant, these antibodies have a little bit more breadth,” says NICD’s Professor Penny Moore.

Scientists say COVID-19 variant found in SA offers immunity: Tulio De Oliveira:

Research to help fight new variants

A genomics team, led by Krisp, was responsible for detecting the 501Y.V2 variant last year. This variant has claimed the bulk of the more than 50 000 COVID-19 deaths that have been recorded in South Africa.

Krisp Director, Professor Tulio de Oliveira, says this information is key to fighting new variants.

Genomic surveillance is a critical component of the epidemic response. One thing that is shown in the new results, the plasma collected from people infected with the new variant had good neutralising activity against itself and also against the first wave virus and other variants of concern. It means that people infected (have) some immunity against the variant and other lineages. We know that immunity can decrease over time. In no way, are we saying that these people should not vaccinate. We should increase vaccination to avoid rapid death wave.”

Briefing on latest scientific results on COVID-19 variant in SA: 

Findings to help develop a vaccine

Chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Council, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, says that the groundbreaking findings can be used to develop a vaccine to protect against the 501Y.V2 and other future strains.

“When we say that this new variant is able to generate immunity, that it’s quite potent against itself and against other variants that we have been able to test, that is fundamentally saying, if a vaccine is built on this new variant’s strain capabilities, we can expect that there is a good chance that, that vaccine will elicit good immune responses that will protect people from getting 501Y.V2. Such a vaccine has already been made by Moderna, Pfizer is doing similarly, AstraZeneca is doing the same and Johnson and Johnson.”

Scientists have warned that COVID-19 will continue to mutate.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira says that South Africa has the tools to detect new variants and that the government has given Krisp R25-million for further genomic research on the characteristics of variants.

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