The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 168 million on Thursday, as China hit back at President Joe Biden’s push to have U.S. intelligence investigate the origins of the coronavirus, amid renewed concerns it may have come from a laboratory in Wuhan.
Biden said Wednesday he has asked intelligence agencies to redouble efforts to determine the exact cause of the pandemic and report to him in 90 days. In a statement, Biden said intelligence has coalesced around two likely scenarios, but hasn’t reached a definitive conclusion.
Biden also said the U.S. would work with allies “to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence.” The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China.
China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian lashed back at a briefing on Thursday, accusing the U.S. of playing politics and calling on it “to do the same as China and immediately cooperate with the World Health Organization on origin tracing research in a scientific manner,” the Associated Press reported.
Lijian said Biden’s order showed the U.S. “does not care about facts and truth, nor is it interested in serious scientific origin tracing.”
A World Health Organization delegation traveled to China earlier this year to determine the cause of the outbreak but was unable to reach a definitive conclusion. Other theories include that the virus came from an animal at a wet market in Wuhan, possibly a bat. The virus has caused the deaths of 3.5 million people worldwide, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
There was a flurry of news on treatments and vaccines on Thursday. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to an antibody developed by GlaxoSmithKline PLC /zigman2/quotes/209463850/composite GSK +3.60% /zigman2/quotes/200381158/delayed UK:GSK -0.62% and Vir Biotechnology Inc. /zigman2/quotes/214486077/composite VIR -3.25% in mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in adults and pediatric patients who are at high risk of severe illness, including hospitalization or death.
Vir Chief Executive George Scangos said an interim analysis of data produced in a laboratory found the antibody treatment showed an 85% reduction in all-cause hospitalizations or death and is effective against all known variants of concern, including the emerging variant from India.
Separately, Glaxo and French drug company Sanofi /zigman2/quotes/201967021/composite SNY +3.00% /zigman2/quotes/206928357/delayed FR:SAN -0.14% said they began global Phase 3 efficacy studies of their jointly produced COVID-19 candidate. The randomized, double-blind placebo controlled study will involve more than 35,000 volunteers aged 18 and older from the U.S., Africa, Asia and Latin America. In a two-stage approach, the study will first look at how effective the vaccine is against the original D.614 (Wuhan) virus, and then see how it works against the B.1.351 South African variant.
The U.S. vaccine program has now fully inoculated 39.7% of the population, while 49.7% has received at least one dose. Among American adults aged 18 and over, 50.3% of the population is fully vaccinated. In the 65-years and older group, 74% are fully vaccinated, the CDC ‘s vaccine tracker shows.
U.S. case numbers, fatalities and hospitalizations are all improving. The seven-day average of new cases stood at about 23,000 on Wednesday, according to a New York Times tracker, down 37% from two weeks ago. Daily deaths are averaging 517 a day, down from more than 3,300 at the January peak.
Elsewhere, however, vaccines are still in short supply. The following chart highlights the inequity in vaccine distribution that has been repeatedly called out by the WHO and other public agencies. Sudan, for example, has vaccinated just 0.2% of its population.
The WHO said Africa needs at least 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the next six weeks to get second doses to people who have received a first dose within the recommended 8 to 12 week interval.
Outside of that urgent need, Africa needs another 200 million doses of any COVID-19 vaccine available to enable the continent to vaccinate 10% of its population by September, a goal expressed by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for all countries at the start of the agency’s annual meeting this week.
So far, only 28 million vaccine doses have been administered in Afrida, equal to less than two per 100 people.
“As supplies dry up, dose-sharing is an urgent, critical and short-term solution to ensuring that Africans at the greatest risk of COVID-19 get the much-needed protection,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, in a statement. “Africa needs vaccines now. Any pause in our vaccination campaigns will lead to lost lives and lost hope.”
In other news:
• CureVac’s /zigman2/quotes/219999729/composite CVAC -6.13% CEO said the company’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine can still play an important role in the pandemic fight given the “rapid spread” of concerning variants, MarketWatch’s Callum Keown reported. Franz-Werner Haas said the German company’s shot, called CVnCoV, was in the final stages of development and had benefited from the diverse range of virus variants included in its trials. He noted that new strains emerging in recent months had superseded the original strain, which spread across the world last year.
• The head of the Japan Doctors Union warned of the possible emergence of an “Olympic strain” of the coronavirus if the games are held as planned in two months, the Washington Post reported. Naoto Ueyama has consistently urged that the games be canceled given the state of the pandemic, with cases still rising and the healthcare systems showing signs of stress. “It is dangerous to hold the Olympics here in Tokyo this July,” he warned in a news conference, saying that with people coming into Japan from over 200 nations around the world, “all of the different mutant strains of the virus that exist in different places will be concentrated and gathered here in Tokyo.”
• Melbourne, capital of Australia’s second most populous state Victoria, is entering a 7-day lockdown to counter a fresh wave of infections, the BBC reported. The lockdown is scheduled to begin at midnight Thursday. Melbourne has recorded 26 cases and identified 150 sites where people may been exposed. The city is mostly finding the strain first detected in India, which is far more contagious than the original virus.
• Roughly two weeks after a ransomware attack on the Irish national health service, hospitals are still struggling to get IT systems working, disrupting healthcare across the country of 4.9 million, according to media reports. The attack was conducted by a ransomware gang called Conti, that last week gave Ireland a tool to help reverse the damage, but is still threatening to leak stolen data unless the country pays a ransom, Beckers Health IT reported earlier this week. The clinical head of cancer services for the UL Hospitals Group has said the cyberattack on the HSE’s computer systems has had a “devastating” impact on his team’s ability to treat and manage patients, particularly those awaiting investigative procedures , the Irish Times reported.