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As we continue our work in HIV, in COVID and among multiple pandemics in a changing global health architecture, we are delighted to expand our news brief to Pandemic Watch, a new, weekly round-up of pandemic-related news. Pandemic Watch folds COVID-19 news into a curated digest that expands beyond COVID to reflect the evolving field of pandemic prevention preparedness and response.
"The global struggle with COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, has challenged conventional thinking about biosafety and risks, casting a critical light on widely accepted practices such as prospecting for unknown viruses…. While the pandemic showcased the need for science to respond quickly to global crises, it also exposed major gaps in how high-stakes research is regulated, according to the interviews and a review of thousands of pages of biosafety documents."
-- David Willman and Joby Warrick in The Washington Post

Table of Contents

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted reevaluation of many procedures and protocols in public health and scientific research. The Washington Post (US) looks at a growing trend among scientists to reconsider research with exotic viruses. “Three years after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a…. Reckoning is underway among a growing number of scientists, biosecurity experts and policymakers. The global struggle with COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, has challenged conventional thinking about biosafety and risks, casting a critical light on widely accepted practices such as prospecting for unknown viruses…. While the pandemic showcased the need for science to respond quickly to global crises, it also exposed major gaps in how high-stakes research is regulated, according to the interviews and a review of thousands of pages of biosafety documents.” James Le Duc, an infectious-disease expert who led research for the US Army and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before directing a maximum-containment lab complex is quoted: “If you stand back and look at the big picture, the science is rapidly outpacing the policy and the guardrails. This is a national security concern, It’s a global public health concern.”

If You Are in a Hurry


WHO at 75: What’s Next?

A Nature (UK) editorial looks at WHO’s past, present and future and the agency turns 75 and emerges from the worst of the COVID-19 emergency. “The failure of COVAX, a scheme to provide vulnerable populations with COVID-19 vaccines, also prompted reflection on what is wrong with the architecture of global public health. COVAX struggled because governments in a small number of high-income countries over-ordered (and overpaid for) vaccines, leaving little for the rest of the world. But the tide could be turning. African countries are determined to establish vaccine manufacturing on the continent. Knowledge sharing and vaccine equity are also at the heart of the draft text for a pandemic treaty that is currently being negotiated at the WHO…. The WHO has come through the past few years bruised, but stronger and wiser. Member states must get back to prioritizing universal health and supporting nations less able to achieve this on their own. They must prioritize equity, access to knowledge and rediscovering their founding ideals, so the world is better prepared for the next emergency.”

What’s in a Name? A Lot it Turns Out.

Vanderbilt University Research News outlines a research article by Professor of Medical and Linguistic Anthropology T.S. Harvey about how the names of viruses and diseases affect perceptions of them. “In research recently published in a special issue of Pathogens, Harvey investigates the name COVID-19…. Medical communication research shows that when technical terms are used, the public tends to view ailments as more serious. However, the downside of using technical terms—jargon—in public health is that they can be harder to understand. Harvey’s research demonstrates that the disease name COVID-19 constitutes jargon. While it was clear among experts in virology, medicine and public health, it was not fully understood by the public—particularly in early stages of the pandemic. Harvey suggests that the WHO’s official name for the virus, “severe acute respiratory syndrome” (SARS coronavirus 2), as a phrase in its unabbreviated form, does a better job at communicating the public health risk of the disease than the descriptor “COVID-19.” Read Harvey’s research in Pagthogens.

COVID-19 Infections Tick Up in India

Fortune (US) reports, “A new COVID variant the World Health Organization has its eye on seems to be causing a new symptom in children rarely caused by other Omicron spawn. XBB.1.16, dubbed Arcturus by variant trackers, is fueling a new surge of cases in India, at a time when reported cases are down in much of the rest of the world. The country’s health ministry is holding mock drills to ensure that hospitals are prepared for rising COVID-19 cases, the BBC reported Monday, noting that some states have again made mask-wearing in public mandatory. Levels of the variant are also rising in the US, Singapore, and Australia, among others.”
Hindustan Times (India) reports, “With the rising cases of COVID-19 over the last few days triggers an alarming situation, several states have issued Covid guidelines and made masks mandatory again…. Union Health Minister Dr Mansukh Mandaviya on Friday chaired a review meeting with health ministers of all states and Union Territories and urged to conduct mock drills at public and private hospitals on April 10 and 11 to assess their preparedness in handling a surge in the COVID-19 cases.”
As cases also rise in Nepal, Kathmandu Post (Nepal) reports close to one million children over five in the country who were too young for a COVID-19 vaccine in the wave of vaccinations, are unvaccinated and at risk for COVID-19 infection: “tens of thousands of children, who reached five after the vaccination campaigns stopped, remain unvaccinated. Infectious disease experts as well as virologists have asked parents to take extra precautions to protect their children as the chances of Nepal getting pediatric vaccine doses in the midst of the ongoing new COVID-19  wave are slim…. Doctors say the ongoing rise in COVID-19 cases is a clear sign that a new virus variant has penetrated communities. As authorities concerned have not started active case findings, reported positive cases could be just the tip of the iceberg.”

Biden Signs Bill to End COVID-19 National Emergency

Politico (US) reports, “President Joe Biden on Monday signed a House bill immediately ending the COVID-19 national emergency, first enacted during the Trump administration in 2020. The White House initially announced plans to extend the COVID-19 national emergency, as well as the public health emergency, until May 11. But shortly after, House Republicans put forth bills to end both imminently. The bill that the president signed into law on Monday ended only the national emergency…. The law Biden signed Monday did not affect the public health emergency, which is still set to expire in May — along with the Trump-era Title 42 border policy.”

New Investments for Next-Gen COVID-19 Vaccines

The Washington Post (US) reports, “The Biden administration is launching a $5 billion-plus program to accelerate development of new coronavirus vaccines and treatments, seeking to better protect against a still-mutating virus, as well as other coronaviruses that might threaten us in the future. ‘Project Next Gen’ — the long-anticipated follow-up to “Operation Warp Speed,” the Trump-era program that sped coronavirus vaccines to patients in 2020 — would take a similar approach to partnering with private-sector companies to expedite development of vaccines and therapies. Scientists, public heath experts and politicians have called for the initiative, warning that existing therapies have steadily lost their effectiveness and that new ones are needed.”

Polio Eradication Plans

Devex (US) reports, “Following the detections of vaccine-derived poliovirus in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organization and its partners are planning vaccination campaigns to reach children who are unvaccinated or under vaccinated as their top priority for polio eradication…. In the 30 years leading up to 2020, progress toward polio eradication saw wild polio cases reduced by 99.9 percent. But the last steps to ending the disease are proving the most difficult, particularly with continuing outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses.”

Marburg Outbreak

CIDRAP (US) reports, “Equatorial Guinea's health ministry today on Twitter reported 1 more Marburg virus case, raising the outbreak total to 15 confirmed cases. Officials also reported 1 more death, putting the fatality count at 11…. The outbreak—the country's first—began in January. In the early part of the outbreak, 20 probable cases were reported, all of them fatal.”

Lingering Viruses

Hutch News from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center looks at the potential of viruses to linger in the body. “From Epstein-Barr to Zika, the list of virus-associated chronic ailments goes on. Millions of Americans infected by the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, are now dealing with its post-acute sequelae, or PASC, mostly known as long COVID, the latest long-term condition to stem from a virus. We know they’re common; we know they’re annoying, and we know that when it comes to the immunocompromised or the unlucky, they can be deadly. But three years after COVID-19 rocked the world, are we now learning viruses are more of a threat than we imagined? Do they all ‘go long’?” Fred Hutch researcher Jim Boonyaratanakornkit is quoted: “We’re beginning to realize increasingly the long-term impacts of viruses, the infections that they cause and the damage that our immune system can wreak on us as a result of those infections. As we continue in research, we’re finding more and more examples of the impact of these viruses on long-term health.”

COVID-19 and Pregnancy

CIDRAP (US) reports, “Pregnant women in the United States infected with COVID-19 at delivery early in the pandemic were nearly three times more likely to become severely ill—and 14 times more likely to die—than their uninfected peers, according to a national study published late last week in JAMA Network Open…. A multivariable analysis showed that the risk factors for COVID-19 infection were younger age, delivery in the later months of the study period, Black and Hispanic race, low income, obesity, underlying medical conditions, homelessness, Northeastern region, earlier gestational age, and admission to a large urban hospital.”

Mpox and Racial Disparities in the US

Health Day News via US News (US) reports, “In the early days of the mpox virus outbreak in the United States, vaccines got to the states that needed them but distribution was unequal across racial groups, new research reveals. Black and Hispanic patients had to travel significantly farther for doses than white people, according to researchers at Yale School of Medicine, in New Haven, Conn. ‘The correlation between vaccine distribution and cases suggests the public health infrastructure that responded to mpox was responsive and efficient,’ said the study’s lead author Peter Kahn….”

Lessons in Building Trust from the Favelas of Brazil

In an opinion piece in The New York Times (US), Amy Maxmen writes, “Lessons lie in Brazil’s favelas because, in the face of decades of government neglect, many have created internal systems to support one another. When COVID-19 began to spread and people were out of work, community leaders like Mr. Nascimento raised money to provide ‌food and face masks for those in need. In Jacarezinho, Mr. Nascimento co-founded a collective called LabJaca to report COVID-19 data because ‌he and others suspected that official counts ‌had underestimated ‌case loads. Journalists and community leaders in other favelas were attempting something similar, and soon LabJaca was one of several groups feeding data into a dashboard tracking the disease across 450 favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

COVID-19 and Traditional Values

A new study in Nature Scientific Reports (UK) looked at the link between traditionalism and response to COVID-19 mitigation strategies in 27 societies. “Across 27 societies (N = 7844), we find that, in a majority of countries, individuals’ endorsement of tradition positively correlates with their adherence to costly COVID-19-avoidance behaviors; accounting for some of the conflicts that arise between public health precautions and other objectives further strengthens this evidence that traditionalism is associated with greater attention to hazards.”
CIDRAP (US) summarizes the study, noting: “Worldwide, people who professed to have more traditional or socially conservative values were more likely to adhere to COVID-19 recommendations, but in the United States people with those values were more likely to dismiss such recommendations…. [The study was] conducted by anthropologists who surveyed nearly 8,000 people in 27 countries across North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Participants ranked their response to a number of statements about traditional values, then were also asked about how and if they took precautionary measures during the COVID-19 pandemic…. The authors suggest that in the United States, and to some effect Canada, those with traditional values perceived threats to the economy and personal liberty more strongly than the threat posed by COVID-19. Moreover, the US population in particular showed more distrust in scientists.”

Vaccine Mandates Aren’t Enough

Public Policy professor Katie Attwell writes in an opinion piece in MedPage Today (US)
That gains in the US in eradication of childhood diseases polio and measles and the near eradication of whooping cough have been undone: “by 2023, every one of these diseases had made a shocking comeback in the US. The risk of outbreaks of preventable childhood diseases that were virtually eradicated through vaccination is now at its highest point in 30 years, according to the Pan American Health Organization's Technical Advisory Group on vaccines…. The resurgence of these preventable diseases is not due to our scientific or technical inability to fight them. Rather, it is largely the result of the collective failure to successfully promote vaccination policies that protect the nation's children.” She argues, “America has relied too extensively on mandatory vaccinations to drive uptake…. We have the technology and the means to prevent future death and suffering. We just need to encourage our governments to tear down barriers so that hearts and minds will follow.”

Gates Warns on Lack of Funding for TB Vaccines

Reuters (UK) reports, “A lack of funding could delay late-stage trials of the first new vaccine against tuberculosis for more than a century, warned Bill Gates, whose foundation is backing the development of the shot. The Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist said there were a raft of promising innovations in the fight against TB, the world’s biggest infectious disease killer, but that more funding was essential. ‘The failure to fund these things…. Like we can’t go full speed ahead on these vaccine trials - that’s a huge mistake,’ he told Reuters.…”
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