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World leaders call for pandemic treaty, but short on details

Associated Press

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World leaders call for pandemic treaty

More than 20 heads of government and global agencies called in a commentary published Tuesday for an international treaty for pandemic preparedness that they say will protect future generations in the wake of COVID-19.

But there were few details to explain how such an agreement might actually compel countries to act more cooperatively.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and leaders including Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, Premier Mario Draghi of Italy and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda proposed “a renewed collective commitment” to reinforce preparedness and response systems by leveraging the U.N. health agency’s constitution.

“The world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one,” Tedros said during a news conference. He said the treaty would provide “a framework for international cooperation and solidarity” and address issues like surveillance systems and responding to outbreaks.

International regulations governing health and implemented by WHO already exist — and can be disregarded by countries with few consequences. Despite an obligation for nations to share critical epidemic data and materials quickly with WHO, for example, China declined to do so when the coronavirus first broke out.

And with no enforcement powers, WHO officials had little means of compelling them to share details, an AP investigation last year found.

Steven Solomon, WHO’s principal legal officer, said the proposed pandemic treaty would need to be ratified by lawmakers in the participating countries.

“Specifics about enforcement will be up to member states to decide on,” Solomon said.

European Council President Charles Michel first laid out the idea of a pandemic treaty at the U.N. General Assembly in December. Joining Tedros at Tuesday’s briefing, Michel said the global community needs to “build a pandemic defense for future generations that extends far beyond today’s crisis. For this, we must translate the political will into concrete actions.”

Gian Luca Burci, a former WHO legal counsel who is now a professor at the Graduate Institute of international affairs in Geneva, described the proposal as an attempted “big fix” involving information sharing, preparedness and response, saying the concept is “like a Christmas tree, frankly.”

“But to me, the risk is that it diverts attention from the tool that we have” — WHO’s existing International Health Regulations, Burci said recently. He said his fear was those regulations would get short shrift and receive “cosmetic improvements, but fundamentally remain a weak instrument.”

Although the 25 signatories of the commentary called for “solidarity,” and greater “societal commitment,” there was no indication any country would soon change its own approach to responding to the pandemic. China, Russia and the United States didn’t join in signing the statement.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. has concerns about the current push for a new pandemic treaty.

“We do have some concerns, primarily about the timing and launching into negotiations for a new treaty right now, and we believe that could divert attention away from substantive issues regarding the response, preparedness for future pandemic threats,” Psaki said Tuesday. “That should be our focus currently.”

WHO legal officer Solomon said the pandemic treaty might also address issues such as the sharing of vaccine technology and vaccine supplies, but gave no indication how that might happen. Despite WHO’s calls for patents to be waived during the pandemic, rich countries have continued to oppose efforts by poor countries to compel them to share vaccine manufacturing technology.

Tedros pleaded with rich countries last week to immediately donate 10 million COVID-19 vaccines so that immunization campaigns could start in all countries within the first 100 days of the year. Not a single country has yet publicly offered to share its vaccines immediately. Of the more than 459 million vaccines administered globally, the majority have been in just 10 countries — and 28% in just one. WHO didn’t identify the countries.


LONDON (AP) — By MARIA CHENG.

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EU throws weight behind Pfizer-BioNTech and new technology

Associated Press

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EU throws weight behind Pfizer-BioNTech and new technology

In a stinging rebuke to pharma giant AstraZeneca Wednesday, the European Union announced plans to negotiate a massive contract extension for Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine insisting the 27-nation bloc had to go with companies that had shown their value in the pandemic.

“We need to focus on technologies that have proven their worth,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. She also announced that America’s Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech would provide the EU with an extra 50 million doses in the 2nd quarter of this year, making up for faltering deliveries of AstraZeneca.

In contrast to the oft-criticized Anglo-Swedish company, von der Leyen said Pfizer-BioNTech “has proven to be a reliable partner. It has delivered on its commitments, and it is responsive to our needs. This is to the immediate benefit of EU citizens.”

Exacerbating the problems for AstraZeneca, Denmark decided Wednesday not to resume use of its vaccine, after putting it on hold last month following reports of rare blood clots in some recipients. The bulk of the shots given in the Scandinavian country so far have been the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The Johnson & Johnson jab, which uses the same base technology as AstraZeneca, hit a snag this week when U.S. regulators recommended a “pause” in administering Johnson & Johnson shots. Deliveries in the EU have been suspended.

AstraZeneca was supposed to be the workhorse of the EU’s vaccine drive this year — a cheap and easy-to-transport shot to break the pandemic’s back. Yet, the EU said that out of 120 million doses promised for the 1st quarter, only 30 million were delivered, and, of the 180 million expected, now there are only 70 million set for delivery in the 2nd quarter.

Because of that shortfall, the EU has come under crushing pressure as, even though it it is a major producer and exporter of vaccines, it cannot get its vaccinations even close to the levels of the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Our World in Data site said 47.5% of people in the U.K. have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 36.6% in the U.S. and 16.4% in the EU.

Now, Pfizer-BioNTech could well become the key to beat the pandemic on the continent.

With 200 million doses already earmarked for the bloc this quarter from Pfizer-BioNTech. the 50 million additional deliveries will be especially welcomed by EU nations dealing with supply delays and concerns over rare blood clots potentially linked to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Von der Leyen said the EU will start negotiating to buy 1.8 billion doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine through 2023.

“It will entail that not only the production of the vaccines, but also all essential components, will be based in the EU,” von der Leyen said.

The European Commission currently has a portfolio of 2.3 billion doses from half a dozen companies and is negotiating more contracts.

Von der Leyen expressed full confidence in the technology used for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is different from that behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

The active ingredient in the Pfizer-BioNTech shot is messenger RNA, or mRNA, which contains the instructions for human cells to construct a harmless piece of the coronavirus called the spike protein. The human immune system recognizes the spike protein as foreign, allowing it to mount a response against the virus upon infection.

Astra Zeneca’s is made with a cold virus that sneaks the spike protein gene into the body. It’s a very different form of manufacturing: Living cells in giant bioreactors grow that cold virus, which is extracted and purified.

Von der Leyen said Europe needs to have a technology that can boost immunity, tackle new variants and produce shots quickly and massively. “mRNA vaccines are a clear case in point,” she said.

The planned negotiations with Pfizer left in the middle what the EU would do about any new contracts with AstraZeneca. “Other contracts, with other companies, may follow,” said von der Leyen.


BRUSSELS (AP) — By RAF CASERT Associated Press
Jan M. Olsen contributed from Copenhagen.

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MedTech

UK NHS Cancer backlog treated by digital tools, says report

Karim Hussami

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digital app

A report from ORCHA (The Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps), an NHS partner and a leading authority on health app trends and usage, says that MedTech digital tools can be part of the solution to the backlog in cancer services.

The report adds that patients must be supported by healthcare staff in their choice of apps and be extremely wary of poor-quality tools which could damage their health.

“There are excellent apps or digital tools supporting cancer patients. These have been developed with clinicians, rigorously reviewed and frequently updated. Apps such as these can be embedded into cancer services to provide tremendous support to patients and ease the healthcare system at a time of tremendous backlog,” former NHS clinician and founding CEO of ORCHA, Liz Ashall-Payne, said.

“For example, BELONG, Beating Cancer Together gives users access to oncologists, radiologists and doctors to answer questions and notifies users of available clinical trials around the world. Vinehealth Cancer Companion helps patients monitor their symptoms and track their medication,” he noted.

Around 40,000 fewer people started cancer treatment in 2020 due to COVID-19, putting potential pressure on services for years to come.

“We believe there is massive potential for intelligent apps such as these both to help patients and provide excellent returns on investment to the NHS,” Liz added.

According to ORCHA research, 3,603 digital tools in forms of apps to support cancer can be found in app stores. Worryingly, 74 percent of these have not been updated in the last 18 months. This means the vast majority have not kept pace with medical, data or usability guidelines.

Amongst the apps updated within 18 months, ORCHA reviewed 190 of the most downloaded, testing them against more than 350 health standards and measures including elements of the NICE framework. This diligence revealed that only 24.7 percent of the apps reviewed meet minimum quality thresholds.

Liz Ashall-Payne, said: “These statistics are deeply concerning, given how easy it is for vulnerable patients and care providers to search app stores and stumble across apps which may give poor or outdated advice or blatantly misuse their private data.”

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MedTech

Wearable tech start-up aims to tackle head injuries in sport

Karim Hussami

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Wearable tech start-up

An Edinburgh-based business recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help move into production of a technology to safeguard athletes against head injuries.

Based at the Edinburgh Business School (EBS) Incubator within Heriot-Watt University, the technology has been developed by start-up company HIT. The concept is wearable tech which measures and tracks head impact force in sport and recreational activities and is set to aid research and support informed decisions on the risk of brain injury.

Founder Euan Bowen, an avid rugby player, was inspired to develop the technology a teammate was injured. With brain injuries rarely reported, Bowen spotted a gap in the market for sportspeople to track brain health.

Bowen explained: “I found little technology available to monitor head impact, despite the severity of the issue across different sports.

“As a member of a rugby club in Edinburgh, I began researching and developing a project, working closely with the team to develop an initial prototype.”

Featuring a unique impact sensor, wearable across multiple sporting and activity applications, the device universally clips onto any helmet or halo headband, detecting g-force and recording impact via a companion app.

Using a traffic light system, the app records data and acts as an early warning notification for the user regarding the level of impact force recorded – highlighting the caution required in continued exercise.

“High impact sports are focusing increasingly on concussion mitigation with the Field – ‘Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk’ – study recently finding that former professionals are three and a half times more likely to die of dementia than the general population,” Bowen noted.

Kallum Russell, manager of the EBS Incubator said: “HIT Impact is a much-needed technology to track and support the current efforts to increase sports safety at a time when governing bodies across high impact sports are increasingly focused on minimizing head trauma.”

The current parliamentary inquiry into concussion recently heard evidence about the long-term implications of repetitive head trauma on sports people with MPs asking how sports could be made safer.

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