WHO tempers quick vaccine hopes

Covid-19 screening and testing programme.
Covid-19 screening and testing programme.
Sharon Seretlo, Gallo Images

The World Health Organization said Friday it did not expect widespread immunisation against the novel coronavirus until mid-2021, tempering hopes just as research revealed encouraging early results from a Russian vaccine.

The virus which has killed nearly 870 000 people worldwide continues to spread, with Italy's flamboyant former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi now in hospital after becoming the latest high-profile figure to test positive for Covid-19.

Across the world, governments are hoping to announce a vaccine as soon as possible against the virus, which has infected well over 26 million people, upended millions of lives and wreaked havoc on the global economy.

The UN health agency welcomed the fact that a "considerable number" of vaccine candidates had entered final stage trials, which typically involve tens of thousands of people.

But "in terms of realistic timelines, we are really not expecting to see widespread vaccination until the middle of next year," WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris said.

And WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the agency would not endorse a vaccine if it is not effective and safe.

'Trials too small' 

Russia has already approved a vaccine, and research published in The Lancet medical journal on Friday said patients involved in early tests developed antibodies with "no serious adverse events".

But scientists cautioned the trials were too small - just 76 participants - to prove safety and effectiveness.

Washington has also urged US states to get ready for a potential vaccine rollout by 1 November, sparking concerns President Donald Trump's administration is rushing to begin distributing a vaccine before the 3 November election.

Under normal procedures, test administrators must wait for months or years to verify that vaccine candidates are safe and efficacious.

But there has been massive pressure to roll out a vaccine quickly as the pandemic continues to take its toll.

Celebrities hit

Celebrities and prominent public figures have not been spared, with Berlusconi the latest to contract the coronavirus since it was first discovered in China in December last year.

The list also includes three Paris Saint-Germain footballers including Brazilian star Neymar.

Also on the list are movie stars Tom Hanks and more recently Robert Pattinson, whom Hollywood trade publications said contracted the disease while filming the latest Batman movie in Britain.

Berlusconi spent the night in a Milan hospital where he is being treated for a lung infection but where is condition is said to be "encouraging".

The 83-year-old billionaire tested positive earlier this week after returning from a holiday on Sardinia's jet-set Emerald Coast.

Workers avoiding office 

All over the world, businesses and individuals are counting the cost of the pandemic, as flare-ups continue to force governments into imposing lockdowns.

Even in areas where restrictions have eased, those who can work from home prefer to keep doing so rather than return to the office.

In London's normally bustling centre, eateries once packed with customers are suffering.

"People saw they can work from home... we can't serve someone from home," said Berat, the manager at a Turkish restaurant close to St Paul's Cathedral that only has 15 percent of its usual custom.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government is trying to encourage Britons to return to the office, but that is easier said than done.

Oil giant BP, which is slashing 10 000 jobs after the pandemic crushed energy demand and prices, is actively encouraging non-frontline staff to work from home.

At Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds banks, meanwhile, much of the staff is working remotely.

Tentative recovery 

It is not all bad news, though.

Both the US and Canadian economies added jobs in August, in a tentative sign of recovery from the pandemic.

And for businesses in specific sectors like personal protective equipment, Covid-19 has triggered such fierce demand that they are struggling to keep up.

Malaysian rubber glove manufacturer Top Glove said it is seeing orders for 11-12 billion a month, compared with 4.5 billion prior to the pandemic.

The downside? Customers must now wait nearly 600 days for their orders to be filled, compared with normal delivery of 30-40 days, said chief executive, Lim Wee Chai.

In addition, with raw materials in short supply, production costs are also rising

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