- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The second year of the coronavirus pandemic could be worse than the first, a top World Health Organization official said Wednesday, as fast-spreading variants complicate the response in the Americas, Europe and other regions.

Nearly 2 million people have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in China a year ago. Even as governments roll out vaccines, the U.S. and other nations are combatting highly contagious mutations in the new year.

“At the end of one year, going into a second year of this, it could even be tougher, given the transmission dynamics and some of the issues that we are seeing,” said Mike Ryan, director of emergencies for WHO. “We need to really focus on taking the positives, looking at what’s worked in each country and then transferring that knowledge to others.”

Mr. Ryan said WHO is seeing a spike in cases after a holiday-period lull that featured a drop in reporting.

“All regions, apart from the Southeast Asia region, are showing increases,” he said. “The region of the Americas is still accounting for over half of all diseases globally and 45% of new deaths.”

Europe is still seeing an uptick, but the rate of the increase has slowed of late, he said. It still accounts for one-third of newly reported infections.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the COVID-19 technical lead, said countries that managed to bring transmission under control cannot let up.

“If transmission has been brought low, do everything you can to keep it low,” she said. “Prevent any of those embers from becoming forest fires.”

The U.S. suffers from a high level of transmission, with nearly 250,000 new infections reported each day. The disease killed over 4,300 people in the U.S. on Tuesday, a record, as the overall death toll surpassed 380,000.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden is scheduled to outline his vaccine-rollout plans Thursday as the impeachment debate in Washington overshadows the COVID-19 crisis.

President Trump’s vaccine team preempted one of the president-elect’s big ideas — releasing all doses instead of holding back booster shots in the two-dose regimen — on Tuesday, with the Trump team saying that saying manufacturing had reached a sufficient level and stockpiling wasn’t necessary.

Elsewhere, Brazilian researchers said the Sinovac vaccine from China is only 50% effective against the coronavirus, potentially undercutting Indonesia and other countries that are using it to launch massive inoculation campaigns. 

The 50.4% efficacy reported by Brazil is high enough for licensure but it’s far lower than the 65-91% efficacy demonstrated in other countries’ trials.

Brazil researchers previously said the Sinovac shots were 78% effective, so the new results are disappointing and could complicate Beijing’s push to vaccinate millions of its citizens ahead of the Lunar New Year and use vaccines as a diplomatic tool.

Indonesia used data showing 65% efficacy in approving the vaccine, while Turkish regulators registered a whopping 91% efficacy. 

The confusion comes amid one of China’s biggest increases in COVID-19 cases in months. The communist nation largely returned to normal life after imposing draconian lockdowns and launching massive testing operations, though it reported over 100 cases Wednesday — mostly around Beijing, plus a smattering in a northeastern province. 

In response, China put over 20 million residents into a lockdown quarantine in and around Beijing in Hebei Province.

Multiple countries have ordered nearly 400 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine. Turkey registered the vaccine on Wednesday. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca received the shot in front of cameras.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo also received the vaccine on television on Wednesday to spur confidence but some of the 1.5 million health workers that are first in line told Reuters they’re not jazzed about the jabs.

“I’m not rejecting vaccines, I’m rejecting Sinovac’s,” Yusdeny Lanasakti, an East Java doctor, told the wire service. 

U.S. experts say they’d like to see more data from the Chinese company, which did not respond to an emailed request for comment on the varying trial results.

The U.S. is using two messenger-RNA vaccines, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, that demonstrated roughly 95% efficacy in trials.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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