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Russian Scientists Detect World’s 1st Case of H5N8 Avian Flu in Humans, Alert WHO

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News 18 Afternoon Digest: PM Modi Attends Strategy Session Before Elections in 5 States; Maha Govt May Impose Night Curfew If Infections Continue to Spike and Other Stories


Russia said Saturday that its scientists had detected the world’s first case of transmission of the H5N8 strain of avian flu from birds to humans and had alerted the World Health Organization.

In televised remarks, the head of Russia’s health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, Anna Popova, said scientists at the Vektor laboratory had isolated the strain’s genetic material from seven workers at a poultry farm in southern Russia, where an outbreak was recorded among the birds in December.

The workers did not suffer any serious health consequences, she added. They are believed to have caught the virus from poultry on the farm.

“Information about the world’s first case of transmission of the avian flu (H5N8) to humans has already been sent to the World Health Organization,” Popova said.

There are different subtypes of avian influenza viruses.

While the highly contagious strain H5N8 is lethal for birds, it had never before been reported to have spread to humans.

Popova praised “the important scientific discovery”, saying “time will tell” if the virus can further mutate. “The discovery of these mutations when the virus has not still acquired an ability to transmit from human to human gives us all, the entire world, time to prepare for possible mutations and react in an adequate and timely fashion,” Popova said.

The WHO confirmed on Saturday that it had been notified by Russia about the development. “We are in discussion with national authorities to gather more information and assess the public health impact of this event,” a spokesperson said.

“If confirmed, this would be the first time H5N8 infects people.”

WHO stressed that the Russian workers were “asymptomatic” and no onward human-to-human transmission had been reported.

People can get infected with avian and swine influenza viruses, such as bird flu subtypes A(H5N1) and A(H7N9) and swine flu subtypes such as A(H1N1).

According to the WHO, people usually get infected through direct contact with animals or contaminated environments, and there is no sustained transmission among humans.

H5N1 in people can cause severe illness and has a 60 percent mortality rate.

Gwenael Vourc’h, head of research at France’s National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment, said that influenza viruses are known to evolve “quite quickly” and that there might have been other cases besides those reported in Russia.

“This is probably the tip of the iceberg,” she told AFP.

Francois Renaud, a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said however that he was “not particularly worried” at this stage.

He added that the coronavirus pandemic had taught countries to react quickly to potential health threats. “Draconian measures will be taken to immediately stop the outbreak,” he said.

Avian flu has raged in several European countries including France, where hundreds of thousands of birds have been culled to stop the infection.

Russia’s Vektor State Virology and Biotechnology Center, which detected the transmission to the poultry farm workers, also developed one of the country’s several coronavirus vaccines.

In the Soviet era the lab, located in Koltsovo outside the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, conducted secret biological weapons research.

It still stockpiles viruses ranging from Ebola to smallpox.

In televised remarks, Vektor chief Rinat Maksyutov said the lab was ready to begin developing test kits that would help detect potential cases of H5N8 in humans and to begin work on a vaccine.

The Soviet Union was a scientific powerhouse and Russia has sought to reclaim a leadership role in vaccine research under President Vladimir Putin.

Russia registered coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V in August, months before Western competitors and even before large-scale clinical trials.

After initial scepticism in the West, the Lancet journal this month published results showing the Russian vaccine — named after the Soviet-era satellite — to be safe and effective.



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Bharat Biotech completes phase 3 trial of Covaxin, reports 81% efficacy

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Bharat Biotech announced today that the Phase 3 trials of its COVID-19 vaccine known as Covaxin, India’s indigenous vaccine, demonstrated an almost 81% efficacy rate. The Phase 3 trials, made up of 25,800 subjects, were the largest ever clinical trials conducted in India in partnership with the Indian Council of Medical Research.

This comes after PM Modi kicked off Phase 2 of the COVID-19 vaccination drive by getting vaccinated himself with the Covaxin vaccine.

The data from the Phase 3 trials reveals that vaccines and placebos were given to the subjects in a 1:1 ratio and that the vaccine was well tolerated by the subjects receiving it, the company said. “Trials will continue to the final analysis of 130 confirmed cases in order to gather more data and evaluate the efficacy of the vaccine”, the company further added. 

“Today is an important milestone in vaccine discovery, for science and our fight against coronavirus. With today’s results from our Phase 3 clinical trials, we have now reported data on our COVID-19 vaccine from Phase 1, 2, and 3 trials involving around 27,000 participants,” Bharat Biotech head Krishna Ella said

The efficacy rate of the vaccine was determined through a first interim analysis of 43 cases of COVID-19. 36 of these cases belonged to the placebo group of the vaccine trial, meaning that out of the individuals given the vaccine, 7 contracted COVID-19, resulting in the estimate of 80.6% efficacy rate. Covaxin is one of the two vaccines approved by the Indian Government to be included in the Government vaccination drive, of which the first phase commenced on 16th January. However, Covaxin is India’s only indigenous COVID-19 vaccine.

A National Institute of Virology analysis claims that the Covaxin can potentially neutralize more effective and virulent strains of COVID-19 like the U.K. Strain. “Analysis from the National Institute of Virology indicates that vaccine-induced antibodies can neutralise the UK variant strains and other heterologous strains”, the company stated. 

“Bharat Biotech expects to share further details of the trial results as additional data become available. An additional interim analysis is planned for 87 cases, and the final analysis is planned for 130 cases. All data from the second interim and final analyses will be shared via pre-publication servers as well as submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication,” the company statement read.

Bharat Biotech expects to supply its Covaxin to other countries, with at least 40 countries expressing interest in it. Recently, Bharat Biotech confirmed that the company has signed an agreement with Brazil for the supply of 20 million doses of Covaxin.



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