Staff check customers’ temperatures at a shopping mall entrance in Yangon, Myanmar. (Man Yi/UN Photo)

WHO Estimates 18 Months Before First Vaccine for Coronavirus, Now Called COVID-19

Deaths from the coronavirus epidemic have surpassed 1,000, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed on Tuesday, as hundreds of health experts began meeting at its headquarters in Geneva to help halt the spread of the disease, now officially known as COVID-19.

“As of 6am Geneva time this morning, there were 42,708 confirmed cases reported in China and tragically we now have surpassed 1,000 deaths”, said Fadela Chaib, WHO spokesperson.

“To be precise, it’s 1, 017 people in China who have lost their lives to this outbreak. Outside China, we have 393 cases in 24 countries with one death; the one death is in the Philippines.”

As infections continue rising, since the novel coronavirus outbreak was declared in central China on 31 December, Ms. Chaib noted that this was likely owing to a “combination” of improved screening and detection measures.

“You are seeing more cases because we are detecting more cases and also because it’s a backlog of cases that are now being tested in labs,” she explained.

The development comes as some 300 scientists, public health agencies, ministries of health and research funders convened for a two-day meeting at WHO to share the latest information about the virus and decide how best to confront it.

Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against it and no proven therapeutics to treat those infected, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told those gathered at WHO headquarters for the Research and Innovation Forum on novel coronavirus 2019.

Appealing to participants for their scientific insight, Tedros also called for answers to many unknowns relating to the epidemic.

These include the virus’s “reservoirs”, Tedros said, as well as its transmission patterns and degree of infectiousness. Other issues include which samples are best used for diagnosis and monitoring, how to manage severe cases of infection and any ethical issues that may surface relating to research requirements.

“This is not a meeting about politics or money. This is a meeting about science,” he insisted.

“There is still so much we don’t know….We need your collective knowledge, insight and experience to answer the questions we don’t have answers to, and to identify the questions we may not even realize we need to ask.”

One of the hoped-for outcomes of the meeting is an agreed roadmap for research around which researchers and donors can align.

A key imperative was the sharing of samples and sequences of the coronavirus, Tedros said, before insisting that “to defeat this outbreak, we need open and equitable sharing, according to the principles of fairness and equity”.

He told reporters that it may be 18 months before the first vaccine is available, “so we have to do everything today, using available weapons.” He called on Member States to be “as aggressive as possible” and view the virus as “public enemy number one”, in terms of public health.

Following the West African Ebola outbreak, the UN health agency devised a strategy for developing drugs and vaccines before future epidemics, and for accelerating research and development activities during outbreaks.

In line with this protocol, an “R&D Blueprint” team at WHO began work in early January this year, to coordinate and facilitate information-sharing on research elements of the response, Tedros explained.

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