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Panel suggests WHO should have more power to stop pandemics

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A panel of independent experts who reviewed the World Health Organization’s response to the coronavirus pandemic says the U.N. health agency should be granted “guaranteed rights of access” in countries to investigate emerging outbreaks, a contentious idea that would give it more powers and require member states to give up some of theirs.

In a report released Wednesday, the panel faulted countries worldwide for their sluggish response to COVID-19, saying most waited to see how the virus was spreading until it was too late to contain it, leading to catastrophic results. The group also slammed the lack of global leadership and restrictive international health laws that “hindered” WHO’s response to the pandemic.

Some experts criticized the panel for failing to hold WHO and others accountable for their actions during COVID-19, describing that as “an abdication of responsibility.”

Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University said the panel “fails to call out bad actors like China, perpetuating the dysfunctional WHO tradition of diplomacy over frankness, transparency and accountability.”

The panel was led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who were tapped by WHO last year to examine the U.N. agency’s response to COVID-19 after bowing to a request from member countries.

“The situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented,” Johnson Sirleaf said.

Beyond the call to boost WHO’s ability to investigate outbreaks, the panel made an array of recommendations, such as urging the health agency and the World Trade Organization to convene a meeting of vaccine-producing countries and manufacturers to quickly reach deals about voluntary licensing and technology transfer, in an effort to boost the world’s global supply of coronavirus shots.

The panel also suggested that WHO’s director-general — currently Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia — should be limited to a single seven-year term. As it stands, the WHO chief is elected to a five-year term that can be renewed once.

The suggestion to limit the tenure of WHO’s top leader appeared in part designed to ease the intense political pressure that WHO director-generals can face. Last year, the Trump administration repeatedly inveighed against the agency’s handling of the pandemic — taking aim at WHO’s alleged collusion with China.

An Associated Press investigation in June found WHO repeatedly lauded China in public while officials privately complained that Chinese officials stalled on sharing critical epidemic information with them, including the new virus’ genetic sequence.

Clark said the global diseases surveillance system needed to be overhauled — with WHO’s role strengthened.

“WHO should have the powers necessary to investigate outbreaks of concern, speedily guaranteed rights of access, and with the ability to publish information without waiting for member state approval,” she said.

Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London, said the panel’s recommendations were unlikely to be entirely welcomed by WHO’s member countries, and thus, unlikely to be implemented.

“Which states would actually allow WHO in to investigate an outbreak without their permission?” she asked.

Many doctors fatigued after treating COVID-19 patients said any reform of WHO should include an evaluation of its ability to properly assess the science of an emerging health threat.

David Tomlinson, a British physician who has been campaigning for health workers during the pandemic in the U.K., said WHO “failed on the most fundamental aspect” in its scientific leadership of COVID-19. He said WHO’s failure to acknowledge that much coronavirus transmission happens in the air has “amplified the pandemic.”

WHO has said coronavirus spread can happen in limited circumstances in the air but recommended against mask-wearing for the general public until last June.

Clare Wenham, a professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, said the report overall was good, but questioned its support for the U.N.-backed program for coronavirus vaccines called COVAX, which relies on a “donation” model. Of the millions of COVID-19 vaccines administered to date, developing countries have received just 7%, WHO said this week.

“(COVAX) is not addressing one of the main problems, which is we need to rapidly ramp up production of the vaccines and distribution of vaccines,” she said. “And it’s still working on the model of a finite number that’s only able be produced by a certain few manufacturing locations.”

Overall, she suggested politicians needed to budge more than technical institutions like WHO.

“The problems aren’t technical. The problems are political. The problems are about like: How do you get governments to behave and think about things beyond their own borders?” Wenham said. “I don’t think that has been resolved.”


GENEVA (AP) — By MARIA CHENG and JAMEY KEATEN Associated Press.

AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng reported from London.

MedTech

Vista Equity invests $300 million in telehealth software firm TigerConnect- sources

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Healthcare communications software provider TigerConnect has raised $300 million in growth investment from private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Monday.

The valuation of TigerConnect wasn’t known. It last raised $45 million at a valuation of $370 million in September 2020, according to PitchBook data, counting HealthQuest Capital and New Leaf Ventures as its backers. Some of the early investors have exited through Vista’s investment, one of the sources said.

Santa Monica, California-based TigerConnect delivers cloud-based clinical communication and collaboration solutions, including telehealth, to over 7,000 healthcare organizations and 700,000 caregivers.

In an interview, Brad Brooks, TigerConnect’s co-founder and chief executive confirmed the partnership with Vista, but declined to comment on the amount or valuation.

He said the company plans to use the proceeds to invest in its product to meet the growing need for clinical collaborations, as well as looking for acquisition opportunities.

The number of users on TigerConnect’s platform more than doubled during the past year as hospitals try to improve efficiency and the experience for patients during the pandemic, Brooks added.

“There had really been a dramatic lack of efforts around clinical workflow communication. We’re almost like a Slack for healthcare, putting in a common communication network so that everyone can reach everyone,” said Brooks.

The company, founded in 2010, sells subscription-based software solutions, including collaboration, communication, scheduling and patient engagement. It also plans to utilize AI and machine learning technology to provide smart solutions based on the platform data.

Vista has over $86 billion in assets under management and specializes in investing in enterprise software, data and technology companies. Last week, it invested an undisclosed amount in BlueConic, a Boston-based customer data platform.

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MedTech

AstraZeneca booster shot is effective against Omicron variant

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A study from an Oxford University lab published on Thursday revealed that a three-dose course of AstraZeneca booster shot is efficient in controlling the fast spread of the Omicron variant.

The Pharmaceutical company said in its statement that the results – while they have yet to be released in a peer-reviewed medical journal – are relatively identical to those of its rivals, including Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. They also uncovered that their booster vaccines effectively fight the latest Coronavirus variant.

After receiving the third dose of AstraZeneca, the study highlighted that the shot had a neutralizing effect against the virus, which had an almost identical result to the two shots against its previous variant, Delta.

“As we better understand Omicron, we believe we will find T-cell response provides durable protection against severe disease and hospitalizations,” the head of AstraZeneca’s biopharmaceutical R&D, Mene Pangalos, said when referring to a significant element of the immune system that fights infection.

After taking the Vaxzervria – the third booster shot – antibody levels marked a much higher rate than antibodies in patients who had already caught the virus and naturally regained health, the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker said.

On Tuesday, the pharmaceutical firm announced that it is already working with its partner, Oxford University, to develop a vaccine exclusively directed towards fighting the Omicron variant, mirroring other MedTech companies’ attempts.

The university’s study incorporated 41 samples from individuals who had already taken the first two shots of AstraZeneca and others who took the booster one. The lab examined and analyzed blood samples from people infected with the virus and others vaccinated with the two dozes, the third booster shot, and finally, those who had already caught one of the coronavirus variants.

It is worth mentioning that AstraZeneca stated that while the Oxford University lab results support its booster shot, the study was completely independent of researchers who had previously joint efforts with the London-based firm on the vaccine.

The world is looking to halt back from the detrimental effect the pandemic is spreading, with governments and scientists seeking to heighten fortifications in their health sectors against the Omicron.

Even since its emergence on the scene, the latest COVID-19 variant proved to be one of the most dominant variants to date. Governments are worried it might become globally spread after the holidays if they fail to curb the infections rate.

Earlier this month, the UK endorsed third shots after discovering that boosters have a vital role in restoring protection against other diseases triggered by the Omicron. 

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Moderna, unfazed by Omicron, prepares for 2022 vaccination campaign

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Moderna, unfazed by Omicron, prepares for the 2022 vaccination campaign

Covid-19 vaccine-making veteran Moderna seems unfazed by the emergence of the Omicron variant, saying that they can begin work on developing a booster short within a couple of weeks, according to Chief Executive Stephane Bancel.

“It only needs minor adjustments for Omicron, I don’t expect any problems,” said Bancel in an interview with the Swiss newspaper TagesAnzeiger.

Though hoping to begin clinical trials in early 2022, for the time being, they will be relying on the booster dose of their mRNA-1273 vaccine to counter the fast-spreading coronavirus variant. 

The company is now awaiting vital information on the new variant to begin vaccine development, which could take up to one or two weeks.

Bancel says that it will take another few months to produce 500 million doses after all the regulatory requirements have been met, citing that their capabilities and experience as a company today have increased compared to one year ago.

In 2021, Moderna managed to create around 700 million to 800 million vaccine doses. In 2022, they expect to escalate production capacity from 100 million doses per month to 150 million per month. 

Deals were also made with Swiss-based drug manufacturer Lonza to boost production further and plan to fire up their factory lines in the first quarter of 2022.

The company is currently discussing a future ‘vaccine subscription’ service with Switzerland that works to ensure a steady supply. This move helps improve ties with the country, which Moderna is keen to proceed with after signing parliamentary agreements with Canada and Australia.

“We have a number of new vaccines in development, for example against influenza or against the RS virus, which causes a respiratory disease that is fatal in the elderly and young children,” Bancel added.

“We can combine these three mRNA vaccines into one dose and propose to governments to secure supplies for a certain amount for several years and then invest in a production facility in that country,” he added.

With this, the company can designate certain countries as having priority should another pandemic occur in the future.

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