'COVID-19 vaccine in development, will hit trials soon'

Coronavirus vaccine in development, should hit trials in a few weeks: WHO's Tarik Jašarević

World Health Organisation (WHO) spokesperson Tarik Jašarević

It’s more than three months since the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) swept across the globe, infecting more than one lakh people, killing over 3,500 and wreaking havoc on the world economy. Still, there is much that’s unknown about the disease, and there is no cure yet. DH’s Kalyan Ray spoke to World Health Organisation (WHO) spokesperson Tarik Jašarević at Geneva on the latest pandemic.

Q. After nearly three months, is there some clarity on the source of COVID-19? Anything more specific than “seafood market at Wuhan” and a “bat species”?

A. Increasing evidences demonstrate the link between COVID-19 and other known coronaviruses circulating in bats, and more specifically those of the Rhinolophus bat sub-species. However, the route of transmission to humans at the start of this event remains unclear. The current, most likely hypothesis is that an intermediary host animal has played a role in the transmission. Both Chinese and external expert groups are trying to identify the animal source of this new virus.

Q. Initially, the disease was spreading through international travel. Now, local transmission is happening. What challenges does that throw up for public health administration?

A. WHO’s message is that containment must remain the top priority for all countries. Every country must be ready for the “three Cs” scenarios – first case, first cluster, first evidence of community transmission, and for dealing with sustained community transmission. With public health measures, countries can slow or stop transmission and save lives. There are three priorities for country readiness: 1) protect health workers; 2) engage communities to protect people who are most at risk; 3) protect countries that are the most vulnerable.

Q. Why it is affecting children the least? What is protecting children from COVID-19?

A. This is an evolving epidemic and there are still many unknowns. We see children are less affected indeed and that is something that we need further study on. We know transmission is occurring amongst close contacts, mostly between families. That is something that has been confirmed through the data received from China and that we are closely investigating.

Q. Why is the fatality ratio more in Iran than in China?

A. All countries are at risk but the potential spread of the virus to countries with weaker health systems is one of our biggest concerns and Iran is one of them. The outbreak is still active in China, but the evidence shows that with early containment measures, other countries can stop transmission and save lives.

Q. What are the most baffling things about this virus? How is it different from SARS and MERS?

A. This virus is not SARS-CoV or MERS-CoV. What we know about COVID-19 is:

Genomic features: thanks to the rapid sharing of the genomic sequence, countries have been able to diagnose and treat their patients quickly.

Transmission: spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. The main driver of transmission are the people with symptoms.

Severity: Most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough and shortness of breath. 81% of cases are mild, 14% progress to severe and some 5% are critical, with 2% fatal. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems are the most at risk.

What we don’t know is:

Source: The route of transmission to humans at the start of this event remains unclear.

Vaccines and treatments: No treatment and vaccine exist yet.

Researchers have been encouraged to focus their research on eight priority areas to better support countries to prepare and respond to the outbreak.

Q. Do you think the way India is handling the outbreak is correct? There is panic and scaremongering, which may be inevitable in a pandemic situation, but aren’t there ways to counter such rumours and fear?

A. We are deeply concerned about the increasing number of countries reporting cases, especially those with weaker health systems. However, this epidemic is a threat for every country, rich and poor. As we have said before, even high-income countries should expect surprises. The solution is aggressive preparedness.

We’re concerned that some countries have either not taken this seriously enough or have decided there’s nothing they can do. We are concerned that in some countries, the level of political commitment and the actions that demonstrate that commitment do not match the level of the threat we all face.

Fear can be managed and moderated with accurate information. If you feel overwhelmed by fear, reach out to those around you. Find out what your community’s emergency response plans are, how you fit in and how you can help.

There’s still a lot we don’t know, but every day, we’re learning more and we’re working round the clock to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

Q. How far are we from having a vaccine against COVID-19?

A. It usually takes years to have a vaccine ready. More than 20 vaccines are in development globally, and several therapeutics are in clinical trials. We expect the initial results within a few weeks.

Q. And finally, there are lots of conspiracy theories, including the pandemic being a case of a biological agent gone wrong. Is there any truth behind such theories?

A. Our collective focus needs to be on facts, not fear. Part of the “infodemic” of falsehoods on social media and in the media involves spurious theories about the origin of the virus. As a science-based organization, WHO encourages researchers around the world to join forces to understand COVID-19’s origins. Many researchers have been able to look at its genomic features -- and they have found that the evidence does not support the idea that the underlying virus is a laboratory construct.

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