REVIEW - COVID-19 Days Away From Becoming Official Pandemic Given Rapid Spread, Lack Of Vaccine

REVIEW - COVID-19 Days Away From Becoming Official Pandemic Given Rapid Spread, Lack of Vaccine

BRUSSELS (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 26th February, 2020) The coronavirus disease, officially named COVID-19, has all chances to be officially recognized as a pandemic in the wake of the fast spreading rate and the current lack of a vaccine, creation of which could take more than a year.

Scientists warn that the disease could be fatal not only for older people, as it was previously thought, while existing capabilities of health facilities could not be enough in case of the further spread of the virus.

"Coronavirus kills people in good health at the age of 40, and not only more fragile people over 65 years old. The proportion is not high about 1 percent but it is a dangerous virus that could saturate hospital's response capabilities," Marius Gilbert, a virologist from the University of Brussels, told Sputnik.

Experts also note that a longer incubation period than 14 days could have been seen in some patients, or that people apparently in good health could transmit the virus. Another concern is a possible mutation of the virus that could suddenly make it more deadly. And finally, there is a fear that the developing trade between China and Africa could bring the disease to very poor nations incapable of tackling the epidemic.

"What could be much more worrying than the current development of the epidemic in Asia, Iran, the Gulf, Italy and Europe, is the scenario when the infection is observed in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Congo, Kinshasa in countries that do not have the human, economic or financial means to efficiently fight against the coronavirus disease," Etienne de Callatay, an economist at Orcadia Asset Management in Luxemburg, told Sputnik.

The new coronavirus does not kill more people than the ordinary flu, while being much more contagious. The concerns over the coronavirus disease do not relate as much to the number of deaths, but rather to the impact on the health services which may be unprepared for the fast spread of the virus.

Until last week, France could only produce a few hundreds of tests aimed at detecting the virus per day. The production capacities were ramped up to 1,000 items, but hundreds of thousands would be needed in case of a rapid spread of the virus. Moreover, the capacity of an already strained hospital network to cope with the growing number of cases is also questioned.

Marc van Ranst, a virologist at Rega Institute for Medical Research in Belgium who is in a team working on a vaccine against COVID-19, told Sputnik that there was a high possibility that the infection would reach Belgium.

"There is a big chance of a coronavirus outbreak in our country as well. The situation is completely different from one that was a month ago, when the virus only caused casualties in China. Now the virus is in Italy. Now our government needs to let the population know that there is a plan B and that it will do its best to ensure that there will be as few sick and dead as possible when the virus comes. But whatever the number of sick people, that is not the fault of the government," the expert stated.

On Monday, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said at a press conference in Geneva that "the outbreak of the new coronavirus has not yet reached the level of a pandemic," calling on the international community to contribute to the prevention of the pandemic. The WHO is particularly concerned about the new confirmed cases in Italy, Iran and South Korea.

VACCINE IS MORE THAN A YEAR AWAY

According to experts from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a COVID-19 vaccine is approximately 18 months away, so that it might be ready only after the epidemic will pass its peak. The number of new cases is decreasing across China, except Wuhan province, which is the epicenter of the epidemic.

The UK multinational pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), for example, has entered into a research collaboration with China's Clover Biopharmaceuticals to develop a protein-based coronavirus vaccine candidate, COVID-19 S-Trimer. GSK has announced plans to provide Clover with its pandemic adjuvant system for further assessment of vaccine candidate during pre-clinical studies.

According to GSK, China's Clover has one of the largest in-house bioproduction capacities and could potentially produce large quantities of a vaccine.

Researchers at the Catholic University of Leuven are also working on a vaccine against the coronavirus disease. Professor Johan Neyts and his team of around 40 people have launched the research on January 12 after the Chinese authorities shared the complete coronavirus genome sequence. The team's work is based on a revolutionary DNA platform that uses the genetic code of viral proteins that elicit an immune response. However, tests on mice will only start in a few weeks.

EU IS CLOSELY FOLLOWING THE SITUATION

On Monday, the European Commission announced an additional 232 million Euros ($252.4 million) in aid to fight the epidemic of COVID-19.

A spokesperson for the European Commission told Sputnik that this fund allocation was planned in advance, adding that there would be a series of meetings between health authorities in Brussels.

"The decision to unblock more funds had been taken in anticipation, before the present outbreak in northern Italy. The EU's Health Security Committee has met on Monday with Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, and the Italian health authorities met this Tuesday with their counterparts in neighboring countries: France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia, but also Germany and Croatia," the spokesperson said, adding that a joint mission of the WHO and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control was recently deployed in Italy.

Brussels is also funding research on prevention, treatment and containment of the disease, and has reserved funds for repatriating EU citizens from Wuhan and other Chinese cities.

Janez Lenarcic, the EU commissioner for crisis management, is also looking at plans to close borders and adjust the Schengen legislation in case of further appearance of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Currently, the European Commission does not think that member states should suspend the Schengen free travel zone to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. Such a decision must be based on credible risk analysis and scientific evidence, according to Lenarcic. The commissioner also stressed the importance of coordination between EU member states.

According to de Callatay, the COVID-19 outbreak will definitely affect the global economy, as Beijing alone accounts for a large share of the world GDP, and disruption of production in China would affect businesses in many developed countries.

"China is the first or second economy in the world, along with the United States, and accounts for about 15 percent of the world GDP. China is the workshop of the world. This means that all over the world assembly units for example automobiles or telephones receive components from China. If these components are not delivered, the whole production chain stops. In the current liberal economic model, we live in great interdependence. The companies have chosen to divide the economic activities and to delegate production to specialized subcontractors," the expert said.

The crisis that would be possibly caused by the outbreak could also lead to a "rebalancing" of the world economy, de Callatay added.

"It should also be noted that this crisis could become an occasion for a great rebalancing of the world economy, a kind of big 'reset.' The current model of hyper-concentration of activities could give way to a more decentralized, more resilient system," he said.

At least 95 people in Iran have been infected with the virus, while the official death toll has risen to 15. The virus has now also been recorded in neighboring Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, but also in Iraq and Afghanistan where the health systems might not be ready to deal with the epidemic.

In Europe, a COVID-19 cluster emerged in northern Italy. Earlier on Tuesday, media reported that up to 1,000 people in a hotel on the Spanish island of Tenerife were placed under quarantine after one of the guests an Italian doctor over the age of 60 was confirmed to be infected. The man is from Lombardy, the worst-affected area in Italy. Fears are growing that the virus would spread in the rest of Europe via tourists who had been traveling in Italy.

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