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The coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 3 million lives, an almost unfathomable human toll. Now, new figures suggest that the true global Covid-19 death toll has been grossly undercounted.

Biden had promised to support such waivers as a candidate ahead of his election, but had for months agreed to keep them in place, under pressure from pharmaceutical companies, Kevin Liptak writes.

His government relented to pressure Wednesday as members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) discussed a proposal by India and South Africa from last October to waive patents for both Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. No decision was made but America’s backing could turn the tide on a WTO decision.

“The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai wrote in a statement.

Some experts say that even with patents waived, much of the developing world doesn’t necessarily have the means to produce vaccines at the scale needed. There is an urgent need to simply share more of the rich world’s vaccines and to transfer technology to help poorer countries manufacture shots further down the line.

While the United States powers ahead with its vaccination program – 32% of its population is now fully inoculated – many poorer nations are struggling to obtain vaccine doses for their elderly and most vulnerable through purchase agreements or COVAX, a global vaccine-sharing initiative, Laura Smith-Spark writes.

India, on the other hand, has fully vaccinated just over 2% of its population, or around 30 million people. It has administered more than 160 million Covid-19 vaccine doses since mid-January but doses are now in short supply for its nearly 1.4 billion people.

India has become the new epicenter of the pandemic, smashing daily records for infection numbers and deaths regularly. CNN’s Clarissa Ward witnessed the devastating impact on health care systems in India on the brink of collapse. Relatives are trying to resuscitate their loved ones in hospitals where overstretched doctors simply can’t give everyone the attention – or the oxygen and ventilators – that they need.

YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED.

Q: How can a parent be sure that Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine won’t affect their child?

A: People have been asking if vaccines could have an impact on fertility for as long as pediatrician Dr. Yvonne Maldonado – who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases – can remember.

“It’s not just a matter of intellectual property. It’s also the transfer of know-how,” Thomas Bollyky, director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN. “I don’t think there’s clear evidence that a waiver of an intellectual property is going to be the best way for that technology transfer to occur.”

That’s because waiving patents will not work in the same way for vaccines as it has done for drugs, Bollyky said. For example, with HIV drugs, manufacturers were more or less able to reverse-engineer them without much help from the original developer, whereas with vaccines, “it’s really a biological process as much as a product.”

The deal between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India is a successful example of such technology transfer, Bollyky said, where the licensing of intellectual property happened voluntarily. “The question is what can we do to facilitate more deals like the one between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India to have this transfer,” he said.

Still, waiving intellectual property rights will contribute to a global effort to ensure a sustainable, long-term vaccine supply, according to the World Health Organization’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, who said in March that it should be part of a global holistic approach to combating the virus. “We need to pull out all the stops,” he said.

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Meanwhile, financial services firms that have outsourced a huge number of information technology and operations jobs to India in recent decades are rushing assistance to workers and contractors there. In order to keep their operations online, banks are shifting work to other countries, encouraging staff to work from home, and extending project deadlines.

Vaccine-makers are trying to get out ahead of the new variants. The new mRNA technology used in the Moderna and Pfizer shots makes them easier to adapt to new variants. Here’s what we know.

Pfizer/BioNTech: A study from Qatar found an estimated 89.5% effectiveness against the UK variant of B.1.1.7 two weeks or more after a second dose, the researchers wrote in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine. It was 75% effective against B.1.351, the variant first identified in South Africa, which is good news, as early real-life data showed that some other vaccines weren’t working against it. Most importantly, the vaccine was more than 97% effective in preventing severe disease or death, they said.

Moderna: This vaccine revs up the immune response against B.1.351 and the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil, Moderna said in a statement. The genetic material used as the basis of the vaccines is made in a lab and the sequence is easily tweaked. Moderna tested booster doses of either its current vaccine or a version designed specifically against B.1.351 in 40 people who had already been vaccinated six to eight months before.

Blood tests showed half of these volunteers had a low antibody response against the B.1.351 and P.1 variants before they got the booster shot. Two weeks after the booster, their antibody levels had grown against the so-called wild-type coronavirus – the variant most common around the world – as well as B.1.351 and P.1, Moderna said in the statement.

Nepal’s cases are surging. There’s a worry it could soon mirror India.

Nepal is in the throes of a worrying second wave, with Covid-19 cases skyrocketing, hospitals overwhelmed and the country’s prime minister calling on other nations for assistance. The virus’ rapid spread has raised fears Nepal is teetering on the brink of a crisis just as devastating as India’s – if not worse, Asha Thapa, Julia Hollingsworth and Sophie Joeng report.

“What is happening in India right now is a horrifying preview of Nepal’s future if we cannot contain this latest Covid surge that is claiming more lives by the minute,” said Nepal’s Red Cross chairperson, Dr. Netra Prasad Timsina.

Daily infections in Nepal started rising in mid-April, several weeks after India’s second wave began. Now those cases are rising at an exponential rate, with a seven-fold increase on cases per 100,000 people in just two weeks. Last weekend, 44% of Nepal’s Covid tests came back positive, according to government figures, with more than 8,600 new cases on average being reported daily. Of particular concern is how Nepal’s fragile health system will cope, given it has fewer doctors per capita than India, and a lower vaccination rate than its neighbor.

Meanwhile, at least 19 climbers have been evacuated from an expedition to Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest peak in the world, after four people tested positive for Covid-19 at the base camp. And fears are growing that Covid-19 could complicate climbing season at Mt. Everest.

Some predicted a pandemic baby boom. In the US, it’s been a baby bust.

Americans just aren’t in the mood. The birth rate in the country fell significantly in the last quarter of 2020 – by more than 6% – compared with the same period the year before, in the first sign that the pandemic has been more bust than boom in the baby-making department.

December 2020 is the first month signs of a baby boom might have emerged, being around nine months after lockdowns came into effect. A more detailed breakdown of government birth data also shows the largest decline in births occurred in December, Catherine E. Shoichet writes.

India plows ahead with $1.8B construction plan while hospitals struggle to stay afloat

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Employees from an Indonesian pharmaceutical company have been accused of washing and repackaging nasal swab kits for passengers at the Kualanamu International Airport in Medan city.
  • The European Union took further legal action against AstraZeneca over delayed shipments of its Covid-19 vaccines on Tuesday, just weeks after the EU first announced it was suing the British-Swedish-British drugmaker over an alleged breach of its vaccine supply contract. The move marks a dramatic escalation of a months-long dispute.
  • The Biden administration is open to sharing coronavirus vaccines with North Korea, according to two sources familiar with internal discussions. Administration officials believe that the North Koreans won’t be ready to engage with the US until the threat from the pandemic has passed, which is one reason why sharing vaccines could grease the wheels for initial diplomatic engagement, current and former officials said.
  • China is setting up “a line of separation” at the summit of Mount Everest to prevent the mingling of climbers from Nepal and those ascending from the Tibetan side, which is in China, as a precautionary measure given Nepal’s surging cases.
  • Germany marked another grim milestone on Tuesday, reporting a total of 85,000 deaths from coronavirus, according to the country’s national agency for disease control and prevention.
  • China is experiencing a rural tourism boom amid the Covid-19 pandemic as city dwellers escape its rapidly expanding urban centers for small communities, farms and orchards for a taste of the simple life.

TODAY’S TOP TIP

In the US, researchers assessed calls and texts to the national child abuse hotline Childhelp from March to May 2020 and compared them to the same period in 2019. The team found a 13.75% increase in total inquiries to the hotline from 2019 to 2020, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics on Monday.

A lot of people are still feeling hesitant to take up a vaccine when one is offered, and some people are wary of the new mRNA technology used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna shots. So how can you help assure friends and family who are on the fence?