Vaccines, vaccines, vaccines!

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

On Wednesday 25th November there were just under 60 million confirmed Covid-19 cases globally. There have been 1.4 million deaths. This pandemic is not under control. Despite the numbers, the last week has brought encouraging news both on medical and political fronts.

In the USA, the process of transition from the Trump presidency to Joe Biden’s has finally begun. The General Services Administrator Emily Murphy felt able to send the letter to Biden on Monday 23rd November saying he could begin the transition and giving him the requisite resources.1 This came as it was clear Trump’s lawsuits challenging the election result were going to fail. What this delay will mean for national security and the Covid-19 morbidity and mortality remains to be seen. The US will sign up to the Paris agreement (again) to address global climate change. They will rejoin the World Health Organisation (WHO), especially welcome as they are the largest bilateral funder.

There are now promising vaccines in Phase Three trials and that is the focus of this communique. I will try to make sense of this and produce a summary table of what is available. The science has leapt forward, and this includes advances in treatments not covered here. As mentioned before, the lens through which I report is most influenced by western news sources and, even narrower, I am most aware of what is going on in the UK and the USA.

I participated in a one-hour debate on BizNews radio2 with South African actuary Nick Hudson. He was one of the movers behind the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). The moderator suggested that there might be fireworks because, as the publicity noted, I had been uncomplimentary about the GBD. It is a great pity when positions become polarised and I made a mental note to not ‘shoot from the hip’. Nick is a member of Pandemics ~ Data & Analytics (PANDA).3 Disagreement can be healthy, especially in the case of a new disease when there is much to learn. We concurred Covid-19 is a serious new illness, where we part is on how to respond, in particular the value of lockdowns.

My scars are from the Thabo Mbeki years, with the denial of the AIDS epidemic, and unwillingness to roll out treatment. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of premature deaths. With fellow scientists in South Africa, we faced a phalanx of denialists of various categories. Some argued that there was absolutely no such thing as HIV; others, that HIV was a harmless ‘passenger virus’; a third group suggested that whilst HIV existed, the drugs were the real cause of morbidity and mortality, (there was a subtext here of HIV being exploited by the global pharmaceutical industry); finally, in their ranks, were several who were so incoherent we never knew exactly what they stood for.

I write from the UK. We are approaching the end of our third week of our second lockdown, it is supposed to end on 2nd December, in time for Christmas shopping. I am extremely concerned about the impact this will have as millions flock to the streets to buy presents for friends and family. The tier system will be reintroduced and continue to be opaque.
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Covid-19 Watch: Great Progress in Vaccines?

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

England is halfway through four weeks of renewed lockdown. There are some differences from the first round, the main one being educational establishments, particularly schools, remain open. This week we learnt Prime Minister Boris Johnson is self-isolating again. He was in contact with an MP who subsequently tested positive for Covid-19. I note that he does not look particularly well. In the past week he has faced political turmoil, with key advisers being forced out of Downing Street. They were not particularly impressive individuals, one, Dominic Cummings is best known for his driving ‘to test my eyes’ during the last lockdown. It is a sign of turmoil and continued lack of leadership.

In the United States Donald Trump is refusing to concede the election and allow the new administration, under Joe Biden, to begin the transition. This extends to the Coronavirus response. It is effectively dead in the water at the federal level, although states can respond independently. The number of new cases reached a record high on 13 November. In South Africa most of the restrictions on daily life have been lifted although travel to and from the country remains difficult. This is not necessarily because of South Africa’s rules but those of destination and originating countries.

When I began this blog in March the first posting asked what the virus meant for us individually. I am going to return to this theme. The constant bombardment of data, opinions, contradictory information, and rumour means that there is confusion and weariness. This week’s guest column is by Graham Hayes, a South African academic and psychologist with years of experience in clinical practice. I asked him to reflect on the mental health implications of Covid-19. It is no surprise this epidemic is detrimental to our individual and collective states of mind. The Lancet of 14th November 2020 reviews the book ‘How to stay sane in an age of division’ by Elif Shafak.1 I have it on order! From a scientific point of view there has been more good news with at least two and possibly more vaccines waiting for testing and approval.

Last week I promised to talk about the pros and cons of lockdowns. On Monday 23rd I am taking part in a debate with Nick Hudson of Pandemic Data and Analytics (PANDA), the head of a South African group of actuaries who question the lockdown policy. This is being organised by BizNews2 as a special episode of their noontime webinar. It will be interesting; I suspect we agree on more than we disagree on. You can register to view the webinar here.
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Covid-19 Watch: Great Progress in Vaccines?

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

Last week I promised to talk about the pros and cons of lockdowns. That is not going to happen as there is too much else to report. The presidential election in the United States was last Tuesday. We had to wait until Saturday for the result to be definitively called. Democrat Joe Biden was clearly the winner. It remains to be seen what additional damage Trump and his Republican confederacy will do over the next few weeks. The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC on Sunday mornings does a review of the British papers. This brought to our attention the headline in the Ayrshire Daily News, a small regional Scottish paper. It was: “South Ayrshire golf club owner loses 2020 presidential election”.1

The blog is published on 11 November, Armistice Day. It is the day we remember those killed in armed conflicts around the world. This year it is particularly poignant, as the Second World War ended 75 years ago. There are still veterans who, in the absence Covid-19, would have joined a shrinking band of fellow servicemen to mark the event. Next year there will be fewer. Two years ago, I trudged through snow to the service at the cenotaph in Waterloo. It was the Centenary of the end of the First World War. It was particularly moving for me; my father ran away from school aged 15 and joined up. He survived the trenches with minor wounds and lived to 90.

Today humankind is engaged in numerous battles for survival. Covid-19 is the immediate one, with the vaccine news and ‘The Biden-Harris plan to beat COVID-19’.2 At the same time, the urgent challenges of climate change and environmental degradation remain. Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, spread from animals to humans. The news of an outbreak of a mutated Covid-19 transmitted on mink farms in Denmark is extremely concerning. According to the World Health Organisation “Since June 2020 214 human cases have been identified in Denmark with SARS-CoV-2 variants associated with farmed mink.”3 The WHO suggests the mink were infected by humans, and acted as a reservoir before re-infecting humans with a mutated version. The Danish response is to cull. Seventeen million animals will be slaughtered. The only reason these animals are farmed is for their fur. Unbelievable!
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Covid-19 Watch: Bleak and Bleaker

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

This blog is posted on Tuesday 3 November, the day US citizens go to the polls, as people will be focussed elsewhere on Wednesday. The election’s outcome is crucially important globally. I am desperately hoping for a change in the presidency. This would result in, hopefully, a sea change in the Covid response, reducing the shocking mortality, and give rationality and science a chance.

There are few silver linings on the dark clouds. Boris Johnson announced his new restrictions in a press conference on Saturday 31st October.1 The nation was told his address would be at 5 pm. This timeslot came and went. Eventually he appeared at the podium just before 7 pm. The journalists, especially on the 24-hour news channels, were desperately filling time, turning to the various ‘experts’ who were lined up, and filibustering. Remember, Boris speaks only for England. Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland can make, and enforce, their own regulations.

As we waited impatiently, I suggested we phone Boris and ask about the delay. My sister called up an old BBC report of Radio 5 Live presenter Chris Warburton interviewing Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office. Warburton asked what the chance was of Boris Johnson agreeing to an interview by Andrew Neil.2 He pressed Gove to give odds: something between one and ten. Gove responded,

“I think the number would be 020 7930 4433, that is the Downing Street number and if you ring the Prime Minister’s diary secretary he or she will know what the Prime Minister is going to do, I’m not the Prime Minister’s diary secretary.”3

This is the Downing Street number. We called, and to our amazement got through to the switchboard. If you phone from outside the UK the country code is +44. Dial +44 2079304433. Good luck. But remember you will get through to a person with no control over government’s decisions.

What do we know? A great deal about the science and epidemiology, but much less about the politics, economics, and psychology. On Sunday 1st November the BBC showed a two-hour, recently-released documentary Totally Under Control.4 This is the story of the outbreak and the administration’s response to it, from the first cases to the point when Trump announced he had Covid-19. It is in the style of the classic book ‘And the band played on’ that chronicled the early years of AIDS.5 The documentary interviewed experts actively engaged with the American epidemic. Tellingly some public health doctors, whose mandate is just that – protect the health of the public – teared up. They watched the epidemic unfold, had a plan, and were ignored.

I include a guest column by Kristof Decoster, a colleague from Antwerp. He tries to make sense of the mass of information we receive daily. This blog will not have much analysis. The crucial question of lockdowns is touched on, but will be discussed next week. The references are worth a look.
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Covid-19 Watch: Ups and Downs (Mostly Downs)

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

For people who rely only on the media as their source of information the situation looks very bleak. It is worth remembering it’s bad news and names that sell papers. It is hard to be optimistic: confusion reigns in the UK; the USA has a nightmare conjunction of an ill-tempered election and Covid-19; in many European countries the numbers are rising and lockdowns are being reimposed. But there are still glimmers of good news.

In the Australian province of Victoria, the premier announced that Melbourne’s months-long lockdown would end:

“From midnight on Tuesday cafes, restaurants, bars and beauty services will reopen, subject to patron limits, and people will be able to leave their home for any reason”.

There were cheers and tears.1 Jacinda Ardern, recently re-elected Prime Minister of New Zealand, and her government have managed to control, but not entirely prevent, epidemic spread. The collection and presentation of data in New Zealand is exceptional.2 China is managing to go for periods with virtually no new cases, although this week they reported 137 asymptomatic cases in the north-western region of Xinjiang, the first new local cases for 10 days. These cases were linked to a garment factory.3 It is encouraging how quickly they are dealt with.

The impact of the virus and our response is dramatic, and indeed much of what I write about reflects this. We know there are massive impacts on peoples’ lives and plans. The episode of the British investigative programme Panorama on the 26th October was entitled ‘Has Covid Stolen My Future?’. The interviews with a series of young people were heartbreaking. Globally people are mobile, moving to work, learn, join family members, and seek new lives. Young people are generally flexible. Canada is a migrant accepting country and the economy and society need the skills and ideas of the migrants. This movement has almost ground to a halt, as this week’s guest writer, Canadian immigration expert Chris Daw, reflects.
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Covid-19 Watch: Shocks

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

This has been another bad week for high income countries, some Gulf States, a number of Latin American countries, South Africa and India. The number of new Covid-19 cases is rising rapidly and there is a sense, in some jurisdictions, that the epidemic is out of control again. My caveat, that needs repeating, is that I focus on Europe, North America and South Africa. Readers who want other data can find it on websites: The Johns Hopkins website and Our World in Data to name but two.1

We also need to remember how the data are gathered and presented. To be counted as a confirmed case a person has to test positive for Covid-19. As the numbers of tests have increased rapidly so the number of recorded cases has risen. Most infected people will have no or only mild symptoms, and indeed the only way to know they have been infected is through a test. An antigen test will show those currently infected, and antibody tests will show who has been infected. Rising numbers of cases alone do not indicate a crisis. What we need to know is what percentage of those being tested are infected: the incidence of new cases. If that is rising, we have cause for concern.

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Covid-19 Watch: Taking Stock

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

The rules in the UK were confused. Then on Monday Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the opportunity to clarify and strengthen them. I am still, and now even more, confused. I feared the situation regarding restaurants might change, so we went for dinner on Saturday at Stower Grange. If you are in, or need to be in, Norwich check it out. In fact the situation is that we can still go out for dinner. This may change with the introduction of a ‘circuit breaker’.

On Monday the South African newspaper Maverick Citizen carried an opinion-editorial piece by Nina Overton-de Klerk and Caroline Azionya: “The world is drowning in Covid-19 communication but isn’t much smarter for it”.1 The authors point out in 1968 a pandemic

“caused by an influenza A (H3N2) virus … (was) first noted in the United States … The estimated number of deaths was 1 million worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States. Most excess deaths were in people 65 years and older”.2

They report a (recent)

“WhatsApp message did the rounds with a picture of a rock guitarist playing to thousands of waving people. It read: “In 1969 the Hong Kong virus (H3N2) killed over one million people worldwide and over 100,000 Americans. Instead of shutting everything down and ruining people’s lives, they held Woodstock.””3

This deserves thinking about.

Vaccines probably offer us the only way out of this crisis. This week’s guest section is by Mitchell Warren, the Executive Director of AVAC. This is a non-profit organization that seeks to accelerate ethical development and global delivery of HIV prevention options. He became a friend, and a fellow traveller in search of global development and truth, more years ago than I care to recall in Durban. Mitchell tackles vaccines and his measured informative input is well worth reading.
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Covid-19 Watch: Schadenfreude

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

The past two weekends have seen heavy rain and strong wind in the UK. This meant every last walnut on the tree was gone in 24 hours. I blame the squirrels as I simply could not find any windfall nuts. I think they watched the forecast and then had a very busy few hours. Hopefully, most of the nuts are safe and dry in the drey, and not buried around the garden. In addition, because of the gales, a roof tile had come loose. It was within an ace of falling through the conservatory roof. That was dealt with by an amazing roofer in about 20 minutes, who responded in record time. Thank you, Richard Bartram of Hellesdon Roofing who simply climbed onto the roof, replaced the tile and dealt with a second that we had not seen, not to mention fixing a leak in the fibreglass!

The Covid-19 epidemic continues to pass milestones: there have been over 35 million cases globally and over a million people have died. While the cumulative number of cases continues to rise, the number of active cases is falling as people recover, and the daily increase seems to be stabilising. The situation in the UK is bleak with unclear messaging and many issues. Large parts of the country are under lockdown, but many are up in arms about the totalitarian way it is being done. There is more on this in the section on the UK. Last Wednesday I downloaded the Trump/Biden debate and listened to it over a few walks and cycle rides. Trump was beyond ghastly, but Biden was not inspiring. Oh dear, this left me with a sense of foreboding for global politics. Then, on Friday, Trump was taken to hospital with Covid-19. This is covered in the section on the USA.

The looming issue is how we are going to deal with the economic, social and psychological effect of the pandemic. How do we deal with the terrible sense felt by so many young people that their futures have been stolen? What happens to imprisoned, isolated and lonely elderly people.
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Covid-19 Watch: Confusion

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

On Tuesday, the global death toll attributed to the coronavirus topped one million people. The largest share, by an order of magnitude, was reported from the USA. This bleak milestone has been extensively covered by the worlds’ media. However, in terms of the daily number of confirmed cases there seems to be a plateau, or at the very least, the numbers are not rising as rapidly. To put Covid-19 into perspective, in 2017 there were 620,000 deaths from malaria, 794,000 from suicide and 954,000 from HIV and AIDS.1 This is the greatest death toll from a pandemic for centuries.

In this blog I want to turn to, and revisit, some fundamental issues:

  • How many coronavirus cases have there been?
  • How many of the cases matter and how much?
  • What does excess mortality look like?
  • One major concern has been the link between HIV and Covid-19. It seems there is some clarity on this – and good news, as discussed in a special section.
  • Finally, in the conclusion, I ask what is the impact of the virus?

The reason for this revisit is because of the way data are portrayed. Each evening in the UK we are informed by newsreaders of the number of new cases and the number of deaths. One graph shows the new cases recorded since the epidemic began. At first sight is deeply concerning, there are far more new cases reported at present than there were in April at the height of the pandemic. On the 25th September there were 6,878 new cases, well above the previous peak of 5,505 on the 22nd April. It should be noted this is data for the United Kingdom, it can be disaggregated for the four nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This pattern is seen in several other European countries. How concerned should we be? There is a sense of real worry because the northern hemisphere is entering the winter, and no one is quite sure what this means. Normally there will be many respiratory illnesses and indeed with schools having reopened and students returned to university, (where many students are now, unbelievably, locked in)2 there is a sense that there will be an inevitable increase in cases. At the same time, the number of deaths and hospitalisations has fallen dramatically and may well remain low.

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Covid-19 Watch: Gloom

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

The few days in the run up to the publication of this blog have been glorious. The days have been warm and sunny while the nights are starting to turn chilly. On Sunday we took advantage of the weather to visit the beach and have a long walk. The national restrictions meant that we had to eat lunch outside of the little café, but that was fine. Driving through the beautiful Norfolk countryside, it would have been hard to know that the UK is wracked by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The news is generally not good, although, as you read this week’s blog, remember that there are countries where the epidemic is under control or has not rebounded. The situation in China and other Asian countries seems under control. Australia saw two spikes, but the number of Covid cases have since fallen dramatically. In most African countries (apart from South Africa) the numbers remain low, while there is under reporting, the epidemic is not as serious as was initially feared.

This week I focus on the situation in the UK as the situation is rapidly evolving here. The bulk of the blog was written in the early part of the week, but I finalised it on Wednesday. The number of cases has been climbing rapidly and the leadership is beginning to panic. On Monday there was a special broadcast by Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England and the UK government’s Chief Medical Adviser. The presentation was given without any politicians present. It was a simple statement of current position and where the country could be without effective intervention.

Vallance and Whitty are responsible for providing scientific advice to the Prime Minister and members of cabinet; advising the government on policy on science and technology; ensuring and improving the quality and use of scientific evidence and advice; and supporting analysis and evidenced-based decision-making. The ultimate responsibility for decisions rests with the politicians.

On Tuesday Boris Johnson addressed Parliament, and in the evening spoke to the nation. The upshot of this is new restrictions that are pretty uniform across the UK. The nation was warned of a tough winter ahead and the possibility of a second national lockdown. The restrictions include a 10pm closing time for pubs and restaurants, bans on indoor team sports, and stricter rules on mask-wearing. There are even stricter local lockdowns. An indication of the government’s flailing response was the suggestion “freedom-loving” Britons will be blamed for more draconian restrictions.1
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