Vaccine studies offer new hope as WHO warns on Africa

LONDON (AFP) – Two studies offered new hope of a potential vaccine for the novel coronavirus on Monday, as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned about a possible acceleration of the disease in Africa.

Seven months after COVID-19 was first identified in China and has since killed more than 600,000 people worldwide and battered economies, there is growing alarm over fresh outbreaks of the disease.

Until recently, Africa had remained relatively unscathed by the pandemic compared to other parts of the world. But the situation has become increasingly worrying, particularly in South Africa.

Its death toll passed 5,000 mark and the number of infections reached 350,000 at the weekend. And the WHO’s Emergencies Chief Michael Ryan told a virtual news conference in Geneva that the situation in South Africa could be seen as “a warning” for what the rest of the continent might have in store.

“I am very concerned right now that we are beginning to see an acceleration of disease in Africa,” he said.

Meanwhile, as European leaders in Brussels struggled to salvage a EUR 750 billion coronavirus aid package for the European Union (EU), two studies published in The Lancet medical journal appear to show progress towards a vaccine.

One trial among more than 1,000 adults in Britain found that a vaccine induced “strong antibody and T cell immune responses” against the coronavirus.

A separate trial in China involving more than 500 people showed most had developed widespread antibody immune response.

“If our vaccine is effective it is a promising option as these types of vaccine can be manufactured at large scale,” said co-author Sarah Gilbert from the University of Oxford.

British biotech firm Synairgen also said on Monday a randomised trial of an aerosol-based treatment shows it could drastically reduce the number of new coronavirus patients dying of the disease or requiring intensive care.

Europe has been the worst-hit continent by the pandemic with more than 200,000 deaths, but European Union leaders remain bitterly split on how to help member countries like Italy and Spain, which have suffered the highest death tolls, but which have the heaviest debt burdens.

On a fourth day of a summit marked by furious rows between the 27 countries, EU Council Chief Charles Michel said on Monday he believed a deal was in reach.

“I know that the last steps are always the most difficult, but I’m confident,” Michel told reporters. “I think that even if it is difficult, even if it will be important to continue to work, I think and I am convinced that an agreement is possible.”

In the United States (US) – the worst-hit country with more than 60,000 new cases reported daily for six days – US President Donald Trump, who for months refused to encourage mask wearing as a way to combat the coronavirus, tweeted a picture of himself with his face covered and touted his patriotism.

“We are United in our effort to defeat the virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance,” Trump wrote.

“There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favourite President!”