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UN Chief Calls for More Coordinated Global Efforts to Fight COVID

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said it was very unfortunate that the 20 major industrialized nations did not come together in March, as he suggested then, to establish a coordinated response to suppress COVID-19 worldwide.In an interview with the Associated Press, Guterres said he hopes that as the G-20 summit is coming next month, the international community understand “they need to be much more coordinated in fighting the virus.”Guterres said the U.N. will be “strongly advocating” for a coordinated response to the disease, in addition to seeking a “guarantee” that any developed vaccine be treated as “a global public good” and be made “available and affordable for everyone, everywhere.”Scores of researchers around the world are racing to develop a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19, which has killed more than 1.1 million people worldwide and sickened more than 41 million.Meanwhile, the number of countries with more than 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases has risen to seven, with France and Spain the latest nations to reach the mark.On Thursday, France extended curfews to about 65% of its population and Belgium’s foreign minister was hospitalized with COVID-19 and treated in the intensive care unit, as a second wave of the pandemic surged across Europe.However, according to data compiled by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, the United States remains the country with highest number of infections, more than 8.4 million total cases, followed by India, with 7.76 million; Brazil, with 5.32 million; Russia, with 1.45 million; and Argentina, which has 1,053,650. France is in sixth place with 1,041,991 cases, followed by Spain with 1,026,281.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revised its definition of close contact with a person infected with COVID-19.The agency had previously determined that close contact was spending 15 consecutive minutes within 2 meters of an infected individual. The revised changes announced Wednesday now defines a close contact as someone who spent a total of 15 minutes accumulated over a 24-hour period.The change by the CDC was prompted by a report of a prison officer in the northeastern U.S. state of Vermont who became infected with COVID-19 after more than 20 brief interactions with inmates who later tested positive for the virus. The brief visits added up to about 17 total minutes of exposure.

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During the Pandemic AFI Fest Adjusts to a Virtual Reality

AFI FEST, one of Hollywood’s most prestigious film festivals and part of the American Film Institute, was held virtually this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.  VOA’s Penelope Poulou spoke to the festival’s organizers and filmmakers about the challenges and advantages of the online platform. 
Camera:  Penelope Poulou   Producer: Penelope Poulou

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Many Successes, but Difficult Challenges Ahead in Ending Polio

At a time when growing numbers of people are shunning vaccines, the polio vaccine proves that they work. As VOA’s Carol Pearson reports, despite setbacks and a coronavirus pandemic, the world is making headway in eliminating the crippling disease.

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US Marks October As Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

October marks Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in the US. It’s a topic not often talked about but something many couples go through, as Anush Avetisyan reports in this story narrated by Anna Rice.
Camera: Anush Avetisyan

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FDA Approves First COVID-19 Drug: Antiviral Remdesivir 

U.S. regulators on Thursday approved the first drug to treat COVID-19: remdesivir, an antiviral medicine given to hospitalized patients through an IV.The drug, which California-based Gilead Sciences Inc. is calling Veklury, cut recovery time from 15 days to 10 on average in a large study led by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.It has been authorized for use on an emergency basis since spring, and it now becomes the first drug to win full Food and Drug Administration approval for treating COVID-19. President Donald Trump received it when he was diagnosed earlier this month with the disease caused by the coronavirus. Veklury is approved for people at least 12 years old and weighing at least 40 kilograms (88 pounds) who are hospitalized for a coronavirus infection. For patients younger than 12, the FDA will still allow the drug’s use in certain cases under its previous emergency authorization.The drug works by inhibiting a substance the virus uses to make copies of itself. Certain kidney and liver tests are required before starting patients on it to ensure it’s safe for them and to monitor for any possible side effects. And the label warns against using it with the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, because that can curb its effectiveness.”We now have enough knowledge and a growing set of tools to help fight COVID-19,” Gilead’s chief medical officer, Dr. Merdad Parsey, said in a statement.FILE – Vials of the drug remdesivir are seen at a hospital in Germany, April 8, 2020.The drug is either approved or has temporary authorization in about 50 countries, he noted.Its price has been controversial, given that no studies have found it improves survival. Last week, a large study led by the World Health Organization found the drug did not help hospitalized COVID-19 patients, but that study did not include a placebo group and was less rigorous than previous ones that found a benefit. The FDA’s approval statement noted that, besides the NIH-led study, two others found the drug beneficial.Gilead charges $2,340 for a typical treatment course for people covered by government health programs in the United States and other developed countries, and $3,120 for patients with private insurance. The amount that patients pay out of pocket depends on insurance, income and other factors.So far, only steroids such as dexamethasone have been shown to cut the risk of dying of COVID-19. The FDA also has given emergency authorization to using the blood of survivors, and two companies are currently seeking similar authorization for experimental antibody drugs.

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Blood of Recovered COVID-19 Patients Shows Little Benefit as Treatment, Study Finds

Using blood of recovered COVID-19 patients, the so-called convalescent plasma, as a potential treatment is of little benefit in helping hospitalized patients fight off the infection, according to results of a clinical trial in India.Published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) on Friday, the results show that convalescent plasma, which delivers antibodies from COVID-19 survivors to infected people, failed to reduce death rates or halt progression to severe disease.The findings, from a study of more than 400 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, are a setback for a treatment that U.S. President Donald Trump touted in August as a “historic breakthrough.” The United States and India have authorized convalescent plasma for emergency use.Other countries, including Britain, are collecting donated plasma so that it could be widely rolled out if shown to be effective.”The … trial was able to show a small effect on the rate at which patients were able to rid themselves of the virus, but this was not enough to improve their recovery from the disease,” said Simon Clarke, an expert in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading.”In simple terms, there were no clinical benefits to the patients,” he said.The Indian researchers enrolled 464 adults with confirmed moderate COVID-19 who were admitted to hospitals across India between April and July. They were randomly split into two groups, with one group receiving two transfusions of convalescent plasma, 24 hours apart, alongside best standard care, and the control group receiving best standard care only.After seven days, use of convalescent plasma seemed to improve some symptoms, such as shortness of breath and fatigue, the researchers said, and led to higher rates of something known as “negative conversion,” a sign that the virus is being neutralized by antibodies.But this did not translate into a reduction in deaths or progression to severe disease by 28 days.”The poor performance of convalescent plasma in this trial is disappointing but not entirely surprising,” said Ian Jones, a professor of virology, also at the University of Reading.He said the plasma is more likely to work if given very swiftly after someone contracts COVID-19.He urged these and other researchers to continue to conduct trials of convalescent plasma as a potential COVID-19 treatment, but to do so in newly diagnosed patients.”We still do not have enough treatments for the early stage of disease to prevent severe disease and until this becomes an option, avoiding being infected with the virus remains the key message,” he said.

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Theater World to Unite for Get-Out-The-Vote Event on Oct. 29

Playwright and “The Walking Dead” star Danai Gurira, Tony Award-winning director Stephen Daldry and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner playwright Lynn Nottage are spearheading a night of music and short monologues as part of a national get-out-the-vote effort.
The hourlong, nonpartisan “Act Out: Vote 2020” will be performed by Yvette Nicole Brown, Ryan J. Haddad, Brian Tyree Henry, Lloyd Knight, Sandra Oh and Ephraim Skyes. The event will be available to stream for free at ActOutVote2020 on Oct. 29 at 9 p.m. ET and then live on YouTube until Nov. 2.
“Voting matters for every election,” said Nottage in a statement, “but this Nov. 3 is even more important. We believe that if the entire theatrical community — a community that has been shut down for 6 months and will be shut down for a year more — voted, we could help make real, necessary change.”
In addition to Nottage and Gurira, the writers include Luis Alfaro, Ngozi Anyanwu, Will Arbery, Jocelyn Bioh, Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, Ryan J. Haddad, David Henry Hwang, Lisa Kron, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Martha Redbone, Heidi Schreck and Rhiana Yazzie.
Gurira, in a statement, said the effort “is our attempt to amplify American voices in this pivotal moment in history, and we implore everyone to make their voices heard and go out and vote!”
There are dozens of participating theaters, including the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Alley Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, Cleveland Playhouse, Dallas Theater Center, Guthrie Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Long Wharf Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Pittsburgh Public Theater, The Public Theater, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Each theater will provide voting information specific to their state, assisted by When We All Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization launched by Michelle Obama to increase participation in every election.

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Britain to Deliberately Infect Volunteers With Coronavirus

Healthy volunteers will be deliberately infected with the coronavirus to try to speed up the development of a vaccine, under plans announced by the British government this week.  The trial will involve healthy volunteers ages 18 to 30. Most coronavirus vaccine trials involve giving volunteers the potential vaccine or a placebo and then waiting until enough of them have been exposed to the virus through their everyday lives. That can take months or years. Britain announced this week it plans to begin the so-called “human challenge” trials in May 2021 to speed up the development of vaccines.  Several young people have already volunteered, among them Danica Marcos, 22, a recent university graduate from London. “So many people [are] struggling right now. I want this pandemic to be over,” Marcos told The Associated Press. “Every day that goes on, more cases are going on, more people are dying. And if this vaccine trial could mean that this period of trauma for the whole world will be over sooner, I want to help. I want to be a part of that.” People walk past a display featuring health advice in the shopping district in central Sheffield, south Yorkshire, Oct. 21, 2020. (AFP)Alastair Fraser-Urqhart, 18, from Stoke-on-Trent said he wanted to contribute to a vaccine.  “Personally, I can’t let this opportunity to do something, to really do something, pass me by when I’m at such low risk than other people,” he said. The British government plans to invest over $43.4 million in the challenge trial. The World Health Organization said it could be significant. “There is a very long history of this for development of a number of vaccines that has been part of what has gone on with, say, the development of the cholera vaccines and the typhoid vaccines,” said Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman for WHO. Harris also expressed some concerns. “What is critical is that if people are considering this, it must be overseen by an ethics committee, and the volunteers must have full consent, and they must select the volunteers in order to minimize their risk. Because you will be challenging people with a virus that we do not have a treatment for,” Harris said. “So, you must ensure that everybody involved understands exactly what is at stake, must be selected to minimize the risk. The volunteer and you must ensure that informed consent is rigorous, that they really do understand all the risks.” FILE – A passenger in a car receives a novel coronavirus test at a drive-in COVID-19 testing facility set up at the Chessington World of Adventures Resort, in Chessington, southwest of London, Oct. 20, 2020. (AFP)Infections, hospitalizations and deaths from the new coronavirus are rising sharply in many countries around the world. A vaccine remains the best hope of any return to some kind of normality, said Dr. Sterghios Moschos, a microbiologist at the University of Northumbria, who spoke to VOA in a recent interview. “At this point in time, we don’t have a way of stopping transmission,” Moschos said. “And we don’t even have the financial capacity to give multiple antibody treatments, steroids, et cetera, like Donald Trump received, to everybody in the population that needs treatment. The cost is quite large for these kinds of treatments. We don’t have a vaccine. And therefore, as a result, we need to contain the spread of this virus. Not just manage it, contain it.” The initial aim of the British research team will be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause a COVID-19 infection, using controlled doses of the virus. If approved by regulators and an ethics committee, it is hoped the full challenge trial could begin in May 2021.  

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