WHO Nears $675 Million ‘Goal’ For COVID-19 Response – $622 Million Pledged
WHO team of technical experts conclude a COVID-19 support mission to Egypt.

The World Health Organization has received more than US $622 million of a US $675 million ask to fund WHO’s first Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.

 “We continue to be encouraged by the signs of global solidarity to confront and overcome this common threat,” said Dr Tedros, speaking at an afternoon press briefing. 

In a parallel development, Norway is leading an initiative to establish a multi-donor fund for the global COVID-19 response to assist developing countries, coordinating with the United Nations to launch the initiative within the next few days.

“A multi-donor fund under UN auspices will provide predictability for our partners and help to make the efforts more effective,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide in a press release.

‘Experience from other crises shows that the earlier you start long-term response planning, the more precise and successful the effort becomes.”

Unlike the UN Solidarity Fund, which is soliciting donations from individuals and private donors for the response, this fund will collate resources from major bilateral donors and international agencies, similar to the UN Ebola Response Fund set up in 2014 to address the emergency in West Africa. The fund will provide both immediate emergency aid to developing countries, and aid for longer term development initiatives to prop up weak health systems to prepare for future pandemics.

In another meeting Monday with Ministers of Trade from the Group of 20 (G20) richest countries in the world, Dr Tedros also called on G20 countries to significantly their increase production of personal protective equipment (PPE), and ensure its equitable distribution of equipment around the world. 

“Specific attention should be given to low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America,” said Dr Tedros in a statement. “We call on countries to work with companies to increase production; to ensure the free movement of essential health products; and to ensure equitable distribution of those products, based on need.”

However, hoarding and misappropriation of donated PPE equipment also may loom as a thorny problems that donors need to resolve. At the China-Uganda Friendship Referral Hospital near Kampala, one of three Ugandan reference hospitals for COVID-19 cases, health workers taking throat swabs from suspected COVID-19 patients and managing an isolation ward, lack basic protective gear except gloves, Health Policy Watch learned.  N-95 masks must be purchased by the doctors and nurses out of pocket, and protective gowns and face shields are unavavilable.

Gloves were provided by the hospital after workers threatened to strike, but when supplies run low, patients have to pay for those themselves before they are examined.  WHO did not comment on the report.

154 NGOs Submit Open Letter Calling For Gilead To Retract Remdesivir Patent Applications

Some 154 NGOs released an open letter Monday calling for Gilead Sciences to rescind its patent applications for remdesivir in 70 countries that could grant the company market exclusivity until 2031 on the experiemental drug, a promising potential COVID-19 treatment.

The campaign, coordinated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), aligns closely with a growing movement within the medicines access community to push for mandatory “pooled” rights for COVID-19 technologies. 

In an unusual move, Gilead already asked the US FDA to rescind special “orphan drug” status for remdesivir last week after facing an intense public backlash, just days after recieving the designation. Orphan drug status would have granted Gilead an addition 7 years of market exclusivity. However, according to the MSF statement, the company still has pending patent applications for remdesivir in at least 70 other countries. 

“It is unacceptable for Gilead’s remdesivir to be put under the company’s exclusive control, taking into account that the drug was developed with considerable public funding for both early-stage research and clinical trials; the extraordinary efforts and personal risks that both healthcare workers and patients have faced in using the medicine in clinical trial settings; and the unprecedented disaster all countries are facing for their people, their healthcare systems, and their economies” said Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in a statement today.

In the open letter, Gilead was urged to take immediate action in the public interest by declaring that it will drop all exclusive rights on patents, regulatory and trial data, as well as making all data required for development of generic drug versions publically available to enable their production and supply. Finally, Gilead was requested to improve its transparency by disclosing its existing supply and manufacturing capacity.

“There is a further step to take, as a voluntary pool may not be sufficient, especially when the crisis intensity cools and public approbation for actions like Gilead’s Orphan designation abates,” said Paul Fehlner, President & CEO of reVision Therapeutics, in an interview with Health Policy Watch.

An entity dedicated to the public interest could obtain consequential legal exclusivities (Orphan drug designation, data and market exclusivity) and prevent opportunistic third parties from getting them”.

According to Fehlner, creating a “pool” of rights would take minimum efforts, only requiring a willing coordinator to “aggregate data from ongoing trials worldwide and submit formal applications to health authorities.”

“This crisis presents an immediate and urgent opportunity to wield the tools of exclusivity to promote access to medical products that may combat COVID-19,” said Fehlner.

COVID-19 Trends 

As the United States now leads the world in coronavirus cases with 143,055 confirmed cases and 2,513 deaths according to the Johns Hopkins tracking database, President Trump extended the U.S. social distancing guidelines until the end of April, rescinding his earlier predictions that the lockdown would end by mid-April’s Easter holiday.   

Meanwhile, the UN donated 250,000 protective face masks to the USA from its New York headquarters to help combat the outbreak’s epicenter in New York. 

As the US is faced with rapidly increasing cases, inefficiencies from failed coronavirus tests, and shortage of ventilators, STATNews reports that the Genomics Institute led by Jennifer Doudna, the pioneer of CRISPR gene editing technology, will start running coronavirus tests in order to increase the turnaround time of testings in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Over the weekend, Italy and Spain bolster efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus and flatten the curve.  Italy, numbers 97,689 cases and 10,779 deaths, and Spain, numbers 85,195 cases and 7,340 deaths, have overtaken China’s 82,198 cases and 3,308 deaths according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracking database. As infection increases, Italy has decided to extend its national lockdown beyond the April 3rd date while Spain tightens the national lockdown for all citizens, except for the workers in the essential sectors until April 9th. 

As the rate of infection within countries intensified, European countries began to depart from longstanding WHO guidance against the wearing of masks by the general public. Notably, Austria made masks obligatory for clients in supermarkets mandatory to curb airborne spread of the coronavirus amongst customers. Crowded supermarkets have been identified in a number of countries as nexus points for virus spread.  However, until now, universal masking has only been practiced in Asia, while WHO repeatedly said the measure was unecessary elsewhere. 

The Hungarian Parliament, meanwhile, awarded wide-ranging powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orban for an indefinite period, to fight the pandemic, including curtailing free speech and other democratic rights.  

South-East and Western Asia 

In South-East Asia, the coronavirus was increasingly disrupting the lives of those living on the socioeconomic margins. After Prime Minister Modi’s surprise lockdown announcement, India’s daily wage earners struggle under the nationwide lockdown as many are stranded in cities without food, housing, and means of getting back home, particularly vulnerable are the Muslim minority who have been victims of recent riots over amendments to the naional citizenship bill. The challenges faced by the rural Indian migrants in the megacities post-lockdown has initiated one of the largest exodus of people back into the rural areas. 

Meanwhile, in the Western Pacific Region, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postpones the Tokyo Summer Olympics to July 23rd, 2021 to August 8th, 2021. 

Online debates also continued to swirl around the degree of China’s influence on the WHO. On Sunday, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu tweeted a complaint referring a senior WHO official’s response to a question from a Hong Kong journalist, about whether WHO would reconsider Taiwan application for member state status. “Wow, can’t even utter ‘Taiwan’ in the WHO? You should set politics aside in dealing with a pandemic,” Wu wrote. Taiwan has accused WHO of ignoring its early warnings about the appearance of a novel coronavirus in mainland China, as well as brushing aside subsequent criticism that China repressed early news about the virus spread, which delayed a more systematic public health response.

Overall, Europe continued to lead with half or more of the now active COVID-19 cases worldwide, followed by the United States.  There were some 30,000 active cases in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, including heavily hit Iran.  South-East Asia was reporting nearly 3,600 active cases, and in WHO’s Africa region, there were more than 3,300 infections reported.  In the Western Pacific Region, there were some 18,095 active cases, but only about 3,000 of those were in mainland China.

Total cases of COVID-19 as of 8 p.m CET, with active case distribution globally. Numbers change rapidly.

-Tsering Lhamo contributed to this report.

Image Credits: WHO EMRO.