Welcome to our weekly roundup of developments in the coronavirus pandemic that continues to sweep around the world. As more vaccine trials swung into action and the unequal burden of deaths became clear, governments came under fresh fire to rekindle their ailing economies.
More vaccine trials start as drug hope fades
The first shots of an experimental vaccine from Oxford University were administered to volunteers. The safety trial will run for a month before more participants are recruited to assess the vaccine’s efficacy. The team hopes to complete the trials in record time, but as UK infections fall under lockdown, it will become harder to amass the necessary data without expanding into other countries. Elsewhere, German authorities approved a trial of a potential vaccine developed by BioNTech, while the Netherlands and Australia launched a trial of the BCG tuberculosis vaccine in the hope it may protect against Covid-19. A far more controversial approach to vaccine testing known as a challenge trial won support from more than 1,000 volunteers. Challenge trials raise ethical issues because people who receive the test vaccine are deliberately infected to assess whether it has worked: it’s risky, but can deliver results fast.
Among potential antiviral drugs, Gilead’s remdesivir has been considered a frontrunner. But a draft report posted accidentally on the World Health Organization’s clinical trials site revealed the drug did not help patients. The failure came days after Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, warned there was only an “incredibly small” chance of a vaccine or treatment being ready this year.
In the last edition of Science Weekly, Hannah Devlin speaks to Dr Miraz Rahman about how to find drugs to treat a new disease like Covid-19, and discusses repurposing old drugs such as the anti-malaria medicine hydroxychloroquine
In the US, President Donald Trump’s dangerous musings on injecting people with disinfectant left medical practitioners gobsmacked. “Trump’s briefings are actively endangering the public’s health,” said Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “Listen to the experts. And please don’t drink disinfectant.”
World faces deep recession
More grim warnings came from financial bodies as the enormity of the economic disaster hit home. The ratings agency Fitch said the world was on track for a recession of “unprecedented depth in the post-war period” with global GDP set to tumble 3.9% this year, making it twice as severe as the 2009 financial crash. Christine Lagarde, the president of the European Central Bank, said eurozone output could fall by 9% in a middle-case scenario and a staggering 15% in the worst case. The Bank of England added its own miserable forecast, with policymaker Jan Vlieghe warning Britain faced a slump that was “faster and deeper than anything we have seen in the past century, or possibly several centuries”.
As planes remained grounded, the multibillionaire owner of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, who has paid no personal income tax since moving to the tax-free British Virgin Islands 14 years ago, pleaded with the government for a £500m loan to help save Virgin Atlantic, in the “unprecedented crisis”.
Britain edges towards an exit strategy
Tories ramped up the pressure on the government to explain how the country will emerge from lockdown, warning that businesses needed transparency to weather the crisis. But ministers refused to be drawn as scientific advisers cautioned that while cases had peaked, loosening the lockdown risked infections taking off again. Prof Whitty said physical distancing would need to be in place until at least the end of the year.
After a belated push, the UK’s virus testing capacity reached more than 50,000 a day, but that still leaves the health secretary, Matt Hancock, only one week to achieve his much-publicised target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. With more tests available, about 10 million “essential workers” and their families can now book virus tests if they have symptoms, he announced. Meanwhile, 18,000 people are being recruited and trained for contact tracing duties, leading Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, to declare: “We have a clear exit route from the current lockdown.”
The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was more forthcoming on exit strategies in a 26-page framework for coping with the “new normal”. It warns that if new outbreaks spring up, further lockdowns may be triggered at short notice. Group gatherings in pubs and at public events may be off the cards for months, while schools and workplaces could be redesigned to allow physical distancing, she said. The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, set out seven key questions that will determine when stay-at-home restrictions can be lifted there.
Unequal burden of deaths revealed
The World Health Organization said residents in care homes accounted for up to half of all coronavirus deaths in Europe. Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said personal protective equipment and testing must be prioritised in care homes where deaths amounted to an “unimaginable human tragedy”. Despite the high proportion of deaths among older people, new research from scientists in Scotland challenged the idea that most of those who have died from coronavirus may have died soon of other health issues. Their study found that victims of the disease typically died 12 years sooner than expected.
Meanwhile, an analysis by the Guardian revealed ethnic minorities in England are dying in disproportionately high numbers compared with white people. Prof Nishi Chaturvedi, the director of the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at University College London, told the Guardian: “Ultimately, this is about health inequalities, about deprivation and affluence and how important socioeconomic status is in determining health outcomes.”