Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) attends a session on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak response of the WHO Executive Board in Geneva, Switzerland, October 5, 2020. Christopher Black/WHO/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY
FILE - Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, attends a session on the coronavirus outbreak response of the WHO Executive Board in Geneva, Switzerland, Oct. 5, 2020. (Reuters)

The head of the World Health Organization says the agency is “extremely concerned” by a surge of coronavirus cases, particularity in Europe and North America.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters Monday at a regular briefing in Geneva that the case increases are pushing health workers to the “breaking point.”

Tedros returned to WHO headquarters Monday for the first time since self-quarantining for two weeks as a precaution after coming into contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

Tedros also hailed “encouraging news” about COVID-19 vaccines but warned that people should not be complacent, following Monday’s announcement by U.S.-based Moderna. The pharmaceutical company said its experimental vaccine is 94.5% effective against the infection, based on preliminary results from its third and final stage clinical trial.

The WHO’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, said Monday that she expected there to be "very limited" COVID-19 vaccine doses available in the first half of 2021 for the agency’s global distribution plans.

Vaccine hopes

In its Phase 3 study, Moderna tested its vaccine candidate using 30,000 volunteers. Some of the volunteers were injected with a placebo, while others received the vaccine.

University of Miami Miller School of Medicine phlebotomist Mayra Fernandez takes a blood sample from study participant Julio Li, Sept. 2, 2020, in Miami, Florida. Miami is one of 89 cities around the U.S. that's testing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

Moderna says in the first analysis, 90 of 95 volunteers who received a placebo came down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Separately, 11 of those volunteers came down with “serious” cases of the disease and all were in the placebo group.

“This positive interim analysis from our Phase 3 study has given us the first clinical validation that our vaccine can prevent COVID-19 disease, including severe disease,” said Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer of Moderna, in a news release.

“This milestone is only possible because of the hard work and sacrifices of so many. I want to thank the thousands of participants in our Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3 studies, and the staff at our clinical trial sites who have been on the front lines of the fight against the virus.”

The Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical giant developed the vaccine in collaboration with researchers with the U.S. government’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Peter Hotez, a pediatrician and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who was not involved in developing any of the COVID-19 vaccines, told USA Today that he was encouraged by Moderna’s results, but wanted to see them published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Moderna is now the second potential COVID-19 vaccine to achieve a successful effectiveness rate of more than 90%, coming just a week after U.S.-based Pfizer and German-based BioNTech became the first to announce a critical breakthrough. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.

President Donald Trump reacted to the news about Moderna on Twitter.

“Another Vaccine just announced. This time by Moderna, 95% effective. For those great “historians”, please remember that these great discoveries, which will end the China Plague, all took place on my watch!,” he said.

Projected election winner Joe Biden also responded.

“Today's news of a second vaccine is further reason to feel hopeful. What was true with the first vaccine remains true with the second: we are still months away. Until then, Americans need to continue to practice social-distancing and mask-wearing to get the virus under control,” he said on Twitter.

Moderna’s news also comes on the same day that a unit of U.S. pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson was beginning a third and final stage clinical trial of a potential vaccine in Britain. Janssen Pharmaceuticals will enlist 6,000 volunteers to receive the two-dose experimental vaccine, eventually expanding to 30,000 participants across several nations, including Belgium, Colombia, France, Germany, Spain and the United States.

Another experimental coronavirus vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson is currently in widespread Phase 3 global trials in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and the United States. The company briefly paused testing of the one-dose vaccine last month after a participant was diagnosed with an unexplained illness.

COVID symptoms

Meanwhile, younger people who recovered from COVID-19 but continued to experience symptoms suffered lingering damage to multiple organs, according to a new study from Britain.

Observations of more than 200 patients reveal that nearly 70% have damage in one or more organs as long as four months after their initial infection, including the heart and lungs.

Medical staff transport a patient affected with COVID-19 to be evacuated to another hospital, at Bron airport near Lyon, central France, Nov. 16, 2020.

The findings shed further light on the trend of “long COVID” symptoms suffered by COVID-19 victims, including fatigue, breathlessness, pain and so-called “brain fog,” even among those considered at low risk of infection. More than 60,000 people in Britain are believed to be suffering from long COVID symptoms.

But researchers caution that none of the patients was scanned before the initial COVID-19 diagnosis, meaning that some may have had pre-existing conditions.

In the United States, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said Monday he will reduce gathering limits because of a COVID-19 surge. He said indoor gatherings would be limited to 10 while outdoor gatherings would be capped at 150 people.

A healthcare worker takes a swab from a person sitting in a car at a drive-thru COVID-19 test center in Newark, New Jersey, Nov. 12, 2020.

Michigan and Washington state imposed new restrictions Sunday on gatherings, including stopping indoor restaurant service.

As of Monday, there have been a total of more than 54.6 million COVID-19 infections around the world, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, including more than 1.3 million deaths. The United States and several nations across Europe, including Britain, France, Germany and Spain, are experiencing an escalating surge of new infections, prompting national and even local governments to impose new restrictions to blunt the spread of the disease.

 

Special Section