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WHO hopeful COVID-19 vaccines could be available before end of this year

GENEVA: The World Health Organisation's chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, on Thursday said that the agency is optimistic and hopeful that the COVID-19 vaccines could be available before the end of this year.

Addressing a press briefing from Geneva on the latest coronavirus drug trial findings, the top WHO scientist also said that clinical trials have now definitively shown that anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine does not have an impact on preventing deaths from COVID-19.

In reference to a future vaccine against the deadly virus, she said there are about 10 candidates which are in human testing phase and at least three of them are entering the new promising phase-three stage which proves a vaccine's efficacy.

"I'm hopeful, I'm optimistic, but vaccine development is a complex undertaking and comes with a lot of uncertainty. The good thing is we have many different vaccine candidates and platforms," she said, adding that WHO's focus is also on accelerating and scaling up a potential vaccine.

"If we are lucky, there will be one or two successful candidates before the end of this year," she said.

Clarifying the WHO's position on hydroxychloroquine, famously called "game-changer" by US President Donald Trump in the fight against coronavirus, she said that separate clinical trials had shown the "futility" of carrying on testing the drug as a means to cut mortality rates from the deadly virus.

Dr Swaminathan said that further large trials are ongoing to establish the "last word" on whether hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) may have a role to play in prevention, either before or after exposure to coronavirus.

"What is clear now is hydroxychloroquine does not have an impact on the disease course on mortality in hospitalised COVID-19 patients," said Swaminathan, in response to a question about the anti-malarial drug.

"Where there is still a gap is: does it have any role at all in prevention or minimising the severity of the illness in early infection. We need to complete those large trials to have a definitive answer on that," she said.

The scientist explained that the WHO-led Solidarity clinical trial data safety monitoring committee looked at the interim data and found there was no mortality benefit in the patients receiving hydroxychloroquine.

Its move followed the UK's Randomised Evaluation of COVid-19 thERapY (RECOVERY) trial stopping their clinical tests of the drug earlier this month.

"The UK's RECOVERY trial and our Solidarity trial put together a large number of patients where there was no benefit. So, it was decided that there was no point in continuing, what we call 'futility', when we are convinced there is no benefit is one of the principles of clinical trials," explained Swaminathan.

She said the WHO's decision on hydroxychloroquine is limited to its use in the ongoing Solidarity trial and that treatment guidelines are made differently and based on a pooled analysis of wider consolidated data.

She added: "As a global community, we want clear answers. We want to conclude whether a drug reduces mortality or not, and if it doesn't, does it have any other beneficial effects such as reducing need for hospitalisation or the need for ventilation.

"As far as the use of hydroxychloroquine for prevention of COVID-19, either before or after exposure, the last word is not yet out. There are some big trials going on."

Asked if she sees the coronavirus pandemic as the most devastating outbreak in the last century, the scientist responded that "we are still in the middle of it".

"It's only been six months since it started. It certainly looks like it's one of the more serious challenges that we have had in global health in the last century. I don't think anybody alive today has lived through a true pandemic; none of us can afford to take it lightly," she said. Hydroxychloroquine is one of the oldest and best-known anti-malarial drugs. US President Trump had called hydroxychloroquine a "game-changer" drug in the fight against COVID-19.

Trump had on May 18 disclosed that he was taking hydroxychloroquine daily to ward off the deadly coronavirus.

Defending the drug, he had said that hydroxychloroquine was a "line of defence" against the coronavirus.

At Trump's request, India in April allowed the export of 50 million HCQ tablets to treat COVID-19 patients in America.

However, the US food and drug regulatory body on Monday withdrew its emergency use authorisation in the treatment of COVID-19 patients after concluding that it may not be effective to cure the virus infections and lead to greater risks than any potential benefits.

 

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