European Union’s medicines agency suggested Thursday that a vaccine for the coronavirus could be ready in year, even as the World Health Organization warned that the disease may never go away.
The pandemic has caused massive social and economic upheaval across the planet and while some nations have begun easing punishing lockdowns, fears of a second wave have kept many businesses shuttered and people confined to their homes.
World leaders past and present have insisted that any eventual vaccines and treatments should be made available to everyone free of charge, with the global death toll from the disease nearing 300,000.
Washington ratcheted up tensions over the crisis by accusing China of trying to steal research, and US President Donald Trump upped the rhetoric with a colourful phrase that was likely to infuriate Beijing.
“We just made a great Trade Deal, the ink was barely dry, and the World was hit by the Plague from China. 100 Trade Deals wouldn’t make up the difference — and all those innocent lives lost!” Trump tweeted.
– ‘Best-case scenario’ –
With the race to find a vaccine gathering pace, the European Medicines Agency said one could possibly be ready in a year based on data from trials under way.
Announcing the forecast at a video news conference, Marco Cavaleri, the EMA’s head of biological health threats and vaccines strategy, stressed that it was a “best-case scenario”.
“We know also that there may be delays,” he said, voicing scepticism over reports a vaccine could be ready as early as September.
And world leaders were among 140 signatories to a letter published Thursday saying any vaccine should not be patented and that the science should be shared among nations.
“Governments and international partners must unite around a global guarantee which ensures that, when a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it is produced rapidly at scale and made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge,” it said.
A vaccine could allow countries to fully reopen from shutdowns that have battered economies and thrown millions of people out of work.
But the WHO cautioned Wednesday that the virus may never be wiped out entirely.
“This virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities and this virus may never go away,” said Michael Ryan, the global health body’s emergencies director.
“HIV has not gone away — but we have come to terms with the virus.”
The UN also warned that the outbreak risked a major mental health crisis and called for urgent action to address psychological suffering.
– ‘Smearing’ –
The prospect of the disease hanging around leaves governments facing a delicate balancing act between suppressing the pathogen and getting economies up and running.
And with more gloomy forecasts emerging from the US, Trump has increasingly looked to pin the blame on China, where the virus first emerged in December.
US security agencies accused Chinese hackers of attempting to steal intellectual property related to treatments.
“China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to COVID-19,” the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said, without giving evidence to support the allegations.
Beijing reacted with fury to the “smearing” and claimed China was leading the world in COVID-19 vaccine research and treatment so had no need to conduct cyber espionage.
Trump has been pushing for a swift resumption of economic activity in the US, often against the advice of health officials, as he tries to jumpstart the world’s largest economy before a November election.
The United States is the country hardest-hit by COVID-19, logging a total of more than 84,000 deaths.
– ‘Wave of bankruptcies’ –
Top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci has said reopening too soon risks triggering uncontrollable outbreaks, but Trump dismissed the call for caution as “not acceptable”.
The tensions between health and the economy were thrown into sharp relief Wednesday when Federal Reserve chief Jay Powell warned of a potential “wave of bankruptcies” that could cause lasting harm.
Further signs of the damage to businesses emerged Thursday when Lloyd’s of London forecast the pandemic will cost the global insurance industry about $203 billion.
And Australia released figures showing almost 600,000 people lost their jobs as the country’s virus shutdown took hold in April, the steepest monthly drop in employment since records began more than 40 years ago.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the number “terribly shocking”.
But the reopening of economies continued in earnest across Europe, where the EU has set out proposals for a phased restart of travel and the eventual lifting of border controls.
Elsewhere, Japan — the world’s third largest economy — lifted a state of emergency across most of the country except for Tokyo and Osaka.
New Zealanders mingled with friends and hit the shopping malls for the first time in seven weeks as a national lockdown ended and businesses faced a “new normal” minimising the constant threat of coronavirus.
Children were back to school in Finland, while in France some beaches reopened — but only for fishing and swimming, and people in England were allowed to leave their homes more freely.
However, in Latin America the virus continued to surge, with a 60 percent leap in cases in the Chilean capital of Santiago, prompting authorities to impose a total lockdown on the city.
“It should have come a month before, about 20 days before, because there are many infected people,” said Juana Vergara, a retiree.
In Argentina, officials were watching Buenos Aires warily after one of its poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods showed a spike in infections.
But there were also bright spots. Mauritius declared temporary victory against the virus, saying it had “zero” patients and had not documented a single new case in 17 days.
“We have won the battle thanks to the cooperation of the public,” said Health minister Kailesh Jagutpal. “But we have not yet won the war.”