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Pfizer sets sights on elimination of blinding disease trachoma by 2030

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Image provided by the International Trachoma Initiative of antibiotics being distributed in Mozambique to fight trachoma, an infectious disease that can cause blindness
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Pfizer on Thursday said it would extend until 2030 a drug donation programme aimed at eliminating trachoma, an eye disease responsible for blinding or visually impairing nearly two million people worldwide.

The US pharmaceutical company co-founded the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) in 1998, and has already donated nearly a billion doses of the antibiotic Azithromycin, contributing to a 90 percent reduction in the number of people impacted.

“We are so close to getting where we need to be with the elimination of this disease that we couldn’t give up now,” Pfizer chief sustainability officer and senior vice president Caroline Roan told AFP.

The announcement was made in Kigali, Rwanda at the Summit on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Trachoma is caused by infection with the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, and is spread through personal contact (such as through hands, clothes or bedding), and by flies that have been in contact with discharge from the eyes or nose of an infected person, according to the World Health Organization. 

Africa is the most affected continent, and women are blinded up to four times more often than men, likely as a result of greater contact with infants. Repeated infections draw the eyelashes inward where they rub against the eye, causing pain and permanent damage to the cornea, says the WHO.

Some 136 million people live in trachoma-endemic areas and are at risk.

The ITI had initially hoped to eliminate the disease by 2020, but is now setting its sights on 2030. Thanks to the progress already made, trachoma no longer represents a public health problem in 13 countries (including China, Morocco, Ghana and elsewhere). 

Individual districts are assessed and if more than 5 percent of the children are infected, then the antibiotic is offered to the entire local population, once a year, for both treatment and prevention.

“Some of the campaigns will literally treat 10 million people in a week, and that really knocks down that infectious reservoir,” ITI director Paul Emerson told AFP.

The challenge today is to reach isolated populations, including nomadic people, as well as combining the drug with the promotion of hygiene measures such as frequent washing of the face in areas where water may be scarce. 

Today, the disease persists in 44 countries.

“Conflicts are a big factor,” said Emerson. “In a perfect world, where there was no interruption in available funds, and there was no war, we probably could have eliminated trachoma by 2020.”

Of the new 2030 goal, Roan said: “We think it is realistic and ambitious.”

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Germany raises gas alert level after Russia cuts supply

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Germany, like a number of other European countries, is highly reliant on Russian energy imports to meet its needs
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Germany moved closer to rationing gas on Thursday as it raised the alert level under an emergency plan after Russia slashed supplies to the country.

“Gas is now a scarce commodity in Germany,” Economy Minister Robert Habeck told reporters at a press conference.

Triggering the second “alarm” level under its action plan brings Germany a step closer to the third and final stage that could see gas rationing in Europe’s top economy.

The development reflected a “significant deterioration of the gas supply situation”, Habeck said.

Germany, like a number of other European countries, is highly reliant on Russian energy imports to meet its needs.

Russian energy giant Gazprom last week reduced supplies to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline by 60 percent due to what the company said was a delayed repair.

But Germany has brushed aside the technical justification for the move, instead calling it a “political decision”.

Russia was using gas “as a weapon” against Germany in retaliation for the West’s support for Ukraine following Moscow’s invasion, Habeck said, with the aim of “destroying” European unity.

– Shortage scenario –

Gazprom has already stopped deliveries to a number of European countries, including Poland, Bulgaria, Finland and the Netherlands.

Supplies of gas to Europe’s largest economy were “secure” as it stood, with energy companies still in a position to “manage” the crisis, Habeck said.

The higher alert level would lead above all to increased monitoring of the supply situation but action was still required to prepare for the winter ahead.

“If we do nothing now, things will get worse,” Habeck said.

In April, Germany mandated gas storage facilities be filled to 90 percent by the beginning of December to mitigate the risks from a supply cut. 

Currently, the country’s stores stand just under 60 percent full, above the average level of previous years.

The targets would, however, be hard to hit if exports onwards to other countries — hard to justify within Europe — were not limited.

Were these to return to the level they were at before the most recent supply squeeze, Germany could face an acute gas shortage in February 2023, while a further reduction in supplies via the Nord Stream pipeline could make the situation even worse. 

Already, the German government expects supply to stop between July 11 and July 25 for maintenance on the pipeline.

If deliveries do not resume after the service period, Germany could face a shortage of gas as soon as “mid December”.

– Households and industry –

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Germany has managed to reduce the share of its natural gas supplied by Russia from 55 percent to around 35 percent.

The government has found new sources of supply, accelerated plans to import gas in the form of LNG by sea, and put aside 15 billion euros ($15.8 billion) to buy gas to fill storage facilities.

Germany also decided to reactivate mothballed coal-fired power plants to take the burden for electricity generation off gas.

In contrast, the government shrugged off calls to extend the operational lifetime of its nuclear power plants.

Prolonging the use of the final reactors set to be taken off the grid at the end of the year was “not an option”, it said Wednesday.

Germany had to look to see what the “energy saving potential” existed, Habeck said Thursday. 

Households could “make a difference” by conserving energy, after Germany launched a campaign to encourage fuel-saving measures, he said, while industry could also make a further contribution.

The economy faced “significant challenges”, said Wolfgang Grosse Entrup, head of the German chemical industry lobby.

The burden between companies needed to be “shared fairly”, said Entrup, whose sector is highly reliant on gas to power production.

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Inflation ‘shock’ punishes Eurozone economy in June: survey

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The eurozone economy has slowed down due to a "cost-of-living shock", according to S&P Global
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Economic growth in the eurozone plummeted in June, a key survey showed on Thursday, as high prices took the wind out the strong recovery from the deep lows of the coronavirus pandemic.

The closely-watched monthly purchase managers’ index (PMI) by S&P Global fell from 54.8 in May to 51.9. A figure above 50 indicates growth.

The slowdown, caused by a “cost-of-living shock”, is “the most abrupt recorded by the survey since the height of the global financial crisis in November 2008”, excluding the pandemic lockdown, said Chris Williamson, Chief Business Economist at S&P Global.

Since the beginning of the year, the European economy has recovered strongly from the lifting of restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, which revived tourism to countries like Spain and Greece as well as transport. 

It also benefited from household spending, as consumers burned through savings accumulated during many months of confinement, offsetting the negative impact of the war in Ukraine. 

But in June, the “tailwind” of this pent-up demand “is already fading”, Williamson warned.

The latest data “is now consistent with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of just 0.2 percent for the second quarter, compared to quarterly growth of 0.6 percent at the start of the year”, he said.

“The situation is likely to deteriorate in the second half of the year”, he added, raising the spectre of negative growth and recession.

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Monkeypox vaccine maker Bavarian Nordic ready to meet demand

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A picture made available by the UK Health Security Agency showing a range of monkeypox lesions
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As the lone laboratory manufacturing a licensed vaccine against monkeypox, Danish company Bavarian Nordic has seen its order book fill up as the usually rare disease spreads around the world. 

“The approval we got in 2019, when we only sold maybe a few hundred doses, all of a sudden became very, very relevant for international health,” the company’s vice president Rolf Sass Sorensen says with a smile at the biotech company’s headquarters in Copenhagen’s harbour.

Bavarian Nordic was caught by surprise by the disease’s sudden spread earlier this year to dozens of countries outside West and Central Africa where it had previously been generally confined.

But Sorensen says he is confident the company can meet global demand even though it only has one production facility.

“With the current demand we can easily supply the global market. We have a couple of million doses in bulk that we can put into vials and make sure that the current outbreak is handled,” he told AFP in an interview.

Bavarian Nordic has an annual production capacity of 30 million vaccine doses.

The Danish company’s smallpox vaccine, marketed as Imvanex in Europe, Jynneos in the US and Imvamune in Canada, is a third-generation serum (a live vaccine that does not replicate in the human body).

It has been licensed in Europe since 2013.

It was designed against smallpox in adults, a disease considered eradicated some 40 years ago, and requires two doses for inoculation.

– World clamouring for vaccine –

According to Sorensen, the vaccine is in stock “in many countries” and can also be used against monkeypox, both before and after exposure to the virus.

“If you are vaccinated a few days after you are exposed, you can also be protected”, he explained.

After getting the green light from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) three years ago to use its smallpox vaccine against monkeypox, Bavarian Nordic is now applying to do the same in Europe.

The European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), created by the European Commission during the Covid-19 pandemic, has already bought more than 100,000 doses for the 27 EU countries as well as Norway and Iceland.

The first deliveries are due at the end of June for those countries deemed a priority.

The United States has also filled up their stocks with an order for 500,000 doses, in addition to 100 million doses of an older smallpox vaccine previously made by France’s Sanofi but which is known to have some side effects. 

Canada and Denmark have also placed orders with Bavarian Nordic.

Other than these announcements made by the countries themselves, Bavarian Nordic — which also makes vaccines against tick-borne encephalitis, rabies, Ebola, Covid-19 and the RS respiratory virus — does not disclose which countries have placed orders.

“But I can say we have procurement requests from all over the world. We have procurement requests from the US, European countries, Middle Eastern countries, Asian countries”, Sorensen said.

The value of the contracts hasn’t been disclosed either, but for Bavarian Nordic it has clearly been a windfall: it raised its 2022 full-year outlook four times in three weeks.

– Rarely fatal –

Despite the rise in monkeypox cases worldwide, the World Health Organization has not recommended that countries mass vaccinate their populations at this stage.

The United States has so far recommended the vaccination of people who have been in close contact with an infected person, while France has recommended a single dose for contact cases in risk groups who were vaccinated for smallpox before 1980.

The European Medicines Agency approved a smallpox medication, Tecovirimat, for treatment of monkeypox earlier this year, but it is not yet widely available.

Most people recover from monkeypox within several weeks and the disease has only been fatal in rare cases.

Symptoms include lesions, eruptions on the face, palms or soles, scabs, fever, muscle ache and chills.

From January 1 to June 15, the WHO registered more than 2,103 cases and one death in 42 countries. 

Europe has been the epicentre of the outbreak, with 1,773 confirmed cases, or 84 percent of the global total.

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