LATEST SCIENCE AND RESEARCH
Covid-19 has forced the world to find ways to develop vaccines at the speed of light compressing research that normally takes years into months.
But for Africa’s almost four decades-long HIV pandemic, that hasn’t yet happened - and for good reasons. The biggest challenge with HIV is that our bodies haven’t yet figured out how to produce antibodies that can completely kill the virus.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, millions of people have recovered from the virus, so researchers can use the antibodies we produce naturally to guide them as to the type of antibodies and killer cells the vaccines they develop should generate. But no one has ever naturally recovered from HIV.
“There is still no conclusive research on what type of immune response an HIV vaccine should be trying to trigger,” says Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, a US-based HIV advocacy organisation.
“With HIV, you’re trying to do better than nature,” explains Warren.
“With a Covid-19 vaccine, the jab merely has to do what nature is doing already - in the form of an immune response - just faster. But with HIV, you’re trying to do better than nature because your body isn’t able to successfully fight off the virus.”
And then, HIV is a trickier virus than SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, to develop a vaccine for. Research so far has shown us that when HIV replicates, or makes copies of itself, the new viruses contain genetic changes - or mutations - which, after many generations of copies, make them different from the virus they originated from.
That is why we have two different strains of HIV - HIV-1 and HIV-2 - and it’s complicated to create a vaccine that works for both strains or even for variations, in the form of subtypes or clades, within each strain of the virus.
Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech said Tuesday they have asked the European Union to approve their Covid-19 vaccine, but that distribution is unlikely to start until January.
After submitting an application on Monday to the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the drugmakers said the EU regulator accepted the application on Tuesday, per the Wall Street Journal.
The EMA's scientific committee will decide whether data from trials — which suggest the vaccine is 95% effective —show that the vaccine is safe and effective enough on or before December 29, it said in a press release.
This means that distribution of the vaccine is unlikely to kick off by the end of 2020.
Pfizer didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The drugmakers submitted an application for conditional marketing authorization (CMA), which is a fast-track for approval. For this to be granted, data from the companies' trials must show that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh any potential risks.
If the EMA grants the vaccine a CMA, the drugmakers still have to provide more data from ongoing or new studies within a certain timeframe.
Pfizer and BioNTech's application to the EMA comes after the companies applied for authorization in the US on November 20 and the UK on November 23.
Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine candidate was 95% effective at protecting people against Covid-19 in its late-stage trial, the pharmaceutical giant announced November 18.
CORONAVIRUS CASES LATEST
The latest number of confirmed cases is 792 299.
According to the latest update, 21 644 deaths have been recorded in the country.
Global cases update:
For the latest global data, follow this interactive map from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.
Early on Wednesday morning, positive cases worldwide exceeded 63.5 million, while deaths were over 1.4 million.
The United States had the most cases in the world - more than 13.6 million, as well as the most deaths - close to 270 000.
WHAT'S HAPPENING IN SA
President Cyril Ramaphosa is on Wednesday expected to meet with the President's Coordinating Council (PCC) ahead of a planned announcement on restrictions to curb the resurgence of Covid-19.
"All I can confirm is that the council will be meeting [on Wednesday], but the agenda will be adopted at the meeting," Presidency spokesperson Tyrone Seale told News24 on Tuesday evening.
The PCC includes ministers, premiers and the leadership of the South African Local Government Association.
This followed a virtual meeting of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) on Tuesday to consider restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in areas across the country considered to be hotspots.
News24 reported that the NCCC meeting had been expected to debate whether it would first impose area-specific restrictions instead of countrywide measures.
Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said in a statement on Tuesday that they would argue against a lockdown being imposed on the province, in favour of targeted, local interventions based on scientific evidence.
"A lockdown would be disastrous for our economy, will cause major job losses, and indeed a humanitarian disaster, and must be prevented at all costs."
This coming festive season, the country's transport authorities will not only deal with the usual dangers of high volumes of traffic on the country's road, but also with the added perils of the Covid-19 pandemic and a spate of violent attacks on trucks.
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula told the National Assembly in a ministerial statement on Tuesday, the government would do everything in its power to ensure "that the transport sector is not counted among the superspreaders of the pandemic".
"We have vowed not to enable mobility of the Covid-19 pandemic through our public transport system. The measures we have put in place, since the lockdown was declared in March 2020, have gone a long way in containing the spread of the pandemic."
He said the current Level 1 restrictions were still in place to ensure the pandemic was stopped in its tracks.
"In keeping with our message of not allowing public transport toserve as a superspreader activity, our law enforcement officers at roadblocks will put measures in place to enforce the Covid-19 regulations and directions.
"Regulations and directions relating to 70% loading capacity forlong-distance public transport, keeping windows open by at least 5cm for short-distance taxis, wearing of masks by all occupants in public transport vehicles and sanitising, remain in force," Mbalula added.
He said unsafe conduct on the roads placed an increased burden on the social security system.
"Over two-thirds of road crashes are preceded by a violation of traffic laws, confirming that these crashes are in fact avoidable and preventable if only people can inculcate a culture of responsible behaviour and attitude when using the roads.
The Solidarity Fund, established earlier this year to respond to the health and social impacts of Covid-19, does not foresee having to continue its work beyond the second wave of the pandemic, members of Parliament heard.
Officials from the fund, established at the onset of the National State of Disaster in March, on Tuesday briefed the Standing Committee on Finance on its work. It has since raised over R3.2 billion from over 2 700 companies and more than 300 000 individuals.
Among those who contributed include Mary Oppenheimer, the daughter of the late mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer and her daughters contributed R1 billion to the fund.
Other major contributors to the fund include Naspers Group, which gave R500 million and government and the national lottery which jointly provided R150 million in seed funding.
Speaking during the briefing, Adi Enthoven of the fund, said that the highest amount of donations from individuals in provinces came the Free State and the North West.
This is mainly donations from R2 to R10, which individuals donated when shopping at Usave or Shoprite.
"We are a fund for all of South Africa and accountable to all of South Africans."
He explained the fund worked with sourcing personal protective equipment, ventilators, as well as humanitarian efforts in ensuring food security and responding to gender-based violence.
The fund also assisted in information and education campaigns on the virus, as well as efforts to encourage behavioral change. The fund mainly focused on reaching the most vulnerable communities in society. It partnered with a number of organisations to expand its reach.
Ahead of the vacation season, South Africans face a conundrum as some of the country’s most popular holiday hubs are also Covid-19 hotspots.
The Western Cape and Eastern Cape currently account for 80% of all new cases recorded in the country.
Popular holiday destinations along the Garden Route, including George, Mossel Bay, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay have recorded more than 2 100 active Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, accounting for 39% of the provincial total.
Active cases along the Garden Route were doubling every week, the Western Cape government recently warned. The situation in Mossel Bay and George has been labelled as especially concerning, with the latter municipality recently deciding to close all sports facilities and municipal halls. The Village on Sea subdistrict, situated along Mossel Bay’s southern coast, featured prominently in the province’s November case listing.
Plettenberg Bay and Knysna are also on high alert, registering more than 700 cases in the past week.
Additionally, the surge of infections in the Cape Metro, which has ballooned by more than 73% over the past week, has the potential to keep holidaymakers at bay. Breakouts have been confirmed in the City’s southern suburbs, including Rondebosch and Claremont.
The western district, including the City Centre and Atlantic Seaboard, have noted a 65% spike in cases over the past week.
Paarl, in the Cape Winelands district, has also recorded a worrying uptick in active cases, featuring in the City’s top-20 alert list by mid-November.
And the Eastern Cape, another popular December destination, currently accounts for more than 22% of the country’s total active caseload, with infections rising at a faster rate than anywhere else in South Africa.
Popular Eastern Cape destinations like Jeffreys Bay and Port Alfred fall in municipalities which are currently seeing a surge.
WHAT'S HAPPENING IN THE REST OF THE WORLD
A tranche of leaked documents has revealed that China's government significantly underreported the number of coronavirus cases in the early stages of the pandemic.
An extensive set of health data from Chinese health authorities leaked to CNN shows that health officials in the Hubei province, where the virus is believed to have originated, failed to report thousands of new daily cases in the early stages of the pandemic.
On February 10 — when China reported 2,478 new cases — officials privately recorded 5,918 new cases, more than double the published figure, per CNN.
The underreporting was exacerbated by a slow-turnaround in identifying cases. One of the leaked documents reveals that in early March the average time between an individual exhibiting symptoms and diagnosis was 23.3 days, CNN reported.
Experts have traced the origins of Covid-19 to China, and believe the virus almost certainly originated in Chinese bats before passing to humans. The virus appears to have been circulating in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December and January before the first large outbreak was reported in a wet market there.
The incomplete data set, leaked to CNN by a whistleblower who said they work inside the Chinese health system, provides a large amount of data for February 10 and March 7, two days early on in the coronavirus outbreak as it began to spread across the world.
By March 7, health officials also appeared to still be underreporting the death toll by a significant margin. Per CNN, the documents show that the total death toll in Hubei was 3,456, while published figures suggested it was 2,986.
The documents also reveal that the early stages of the pandemic coincided with a significant reported influenza outbreak in Hubei with cases 20 times higher than the previous year. The flu outbreak was first identified in Wuhan in December and in particular in the cities of Yichang and Xianning, CNN reported.
HEALTH TIPS (as recommended by the NICD and WHO)
• Maintain physical distancing – stay at least one metre away from somebody who is coughing or sneezing
• Practise frequent hand-washing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as your hands touch many surfaces and could potentially transfer the virus
• Practise respiratory hygiene – cover your mouth with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Remember to dispose the tissue immediately after use.
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