Humankind totally not ready for global pandemic, emergency preparedness group warns

A sudden lethal pandemic could wipe out tens of millions of people, destroy the world’s economies, and leave humanity in chaos, according to a new report from an emergency preparedness body that isn’t alarmist in the slightest.

Citing a reactionary “cycle of panic and neglect” in which health emergencies are dealt with as they arise, rather than before they start, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board – an entity formed last year by the World Bank and the World Health Organization – has called for immediate and massive investment in emergency preparedness systems in its first-ever report, titled “A World At Risk.”

“The world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic,” the report, posted on Tuesday, warns, claiming that such a crisis would kill off 50 to 80 million people – 2.8 percent of the population – ravage the global economy and trade, and “destabilize national security.” Countries must “be prepared for the worst,” if they want to avoid getting crushed by the next pandemic.

The other six “urgent actions” governments are advised to take mostly consist of throwing money at the problem, according to the report. “Heads of government must commit and invest,” “countries and regional organizations must lead by example” (so that reluctant and/or poor countries are persuaded to commit and invest), “all countries must build strong systems” with those investments, “financial institutions must link preparedness with financial risk planning” i.e. budget for spending lots of money on preparedness, “development assistance funders must create incentives and increase funding for preparedness,” and “the UN must strengthen coordination mechanisms” so the money gets to the right place.

The report repeatedly reminds countries that they’ve adopted the International Health Regulations, a binding 2005 agreement that already requires them to report any “public health emergency of international concern” to the WHO and step up their domestic preparedness infrastructure, and lambastes them for not implementing those regulations to satisfaction. Epidemics, it reminds these wayward nations, have a nasty tendency to exceed national borders – especially when “countries, terrorist groups, or scientifically advanced individuals create or obtain and then use biological weapons that have the characteristics of a novel, high-impact respiratory pathogen.”

Amid all this fearmongering, the report still finds time to lament that “trust in institutions is eroding,” thanks to “misinformation that can hinder disease control communicated quickly and widely via social media.”

On the bright side, “preparedness is not a very costly investment,” Dr. Alexander Ross, director of the GPMB secretariat, told the Telegraph, adding that such an investment “is immediate and has additional benefits of increasing trust.”

The GPMB was devised following the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the deadliest outbreak of that disease in history and one in which sluggish action by the WHO played a major part in the high death toll. In the midst of another such epidemic, Ross has called for a “shift in paradigm in how we think about preparedness,” pointing out that even with a vaccine and new drugs to treat Ebola, the outbreak is not under control.

WHO splurges more on posh travel than it spends on fighting AIDS & malaria – report

The UN’s World Health Organization ponies up some $200 million a year for luxury travel, including first-class tickets and posh hotels – much more than it spends on combatting AIDS, tuberculosis, or malaria, the AP has revealed.

According to internal files obtained by the news agency, since 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) has allocated $803 million for travel – approximately $200 million per year. The WHO’s two-billion-dollar annual budget is made up of contributions made by 194 member countries, of which the US is the largest sponsor.

© RT

Last year, the WHO allocated just over $60 million to tackling malaria and $59 million to containing the spread of tuberculosis, while $71 million was spent on fighting AIDS and hepatitis. Programs aimed at containing certain diseases, such as polio, do get considerably larger funding, however, with $450 million allocated annually.

Though the organization has been struggling to achieve its goals, while at the same time appealing for more financing, its employees and top brass apparently do not shy away from booking first-class airline tickets and rooms in luxurious five-star hotels.

In particular, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan and Executive Director Bruce Aylward are first and second on the list of the agency’s top spenders, according to a confidential 25-page analysis of the WHO’s expenses seen by AP.

When Chan recently went to Guinea following a successful effort to stop an outbreak of Ebola there, she stayed in the biggest presidential suite at the Palm Camayenne hotel in Conakry, with the price per night amounting to €900 ($1,008). To avoid bumpy roads, Aylward opted to use a chopper to reach clinics on several occasions. 

During the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, the WHO allocated $234 million to employee travel. Some experts told AP the agency should have sent more money to the poor region – where authorities couldn’t even afford protective gear or soap for medical staff or body bags for the victims – rather than deploy its own staff at such a high cost.

Reuters/Charles Platiau

“There’s a huge inequality between the people at the top who are getting helicopters and business class and everyone else who just has to make do,” said Sophie Harman, a global health politics expert at London-based Queen Mary University.

The UN agency admits that its budget policy had allowed for the director-general to fly first class until February, but said the spending rules have been changed and the first-class option has been effectively eliminated.

However, the organization’s own findings suggest that traveling in comfort is widespread among employees. One internal memorandum sent to WHO executives reported that compliance with a rule requiring all travel to be booked in advance was “very low.” An internal analysis accessed by the AP stated that only two of seven WHO departments at the Geneva headquarters had met their budget targets.

Interestingly, other aid agencies spend less on travel. For instance, Doctors Without Borders explicitly forbids its staff from traveling business class, and even its president flies economy class, a spokeswoman told AP.

Employing about 37,000 aid workers, Doctors Without Borders spends about $43 million a year on travel. In addition, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it does not normally allow staffers to book business class flights and only sanctions it in special cases, such as medical emergencies.

  • Published in World

Genetically engineering disease-fighting cells

The human body produces T cells to recognize and fight disease. Each T cell has a unique T cell receptor (or TCR) on its surface that surveils small fragments of proteins presented by other cells. Upon detecting evidence of cancer or infection, a subset of T cells binds the diseased cells and orchestrates their elimination. When tumors and infections cannot be eradicated naturally, researchers employ immunotherapies to boost the immune system's effectiveness.

By inserting genes encoding a tumor-specific TCR into a patient's T cells, researchers can engineer a large population of T cells to target tumor cells. This approach, called TCR gene therapy, has yielded clinical successes where conventional cancer treatments have failed. However, TCR gene therapy is not without risk. The introduced receptor can become tangled with the resident receptor in each engineered T cell, causing some of these cells to attack healthy cells. A new technique developed by Caltech researchers prevents this from happening, increasing the safety of TCR gene therapy.

The technique, called domain swapping, was developed in the laboratory of David Baltimore, president emeritus and the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology. A paper describing the findings appears in the November 8 issue of the journal eLife.

The specificity of the TCR in each T cell results from the pairing of two protein chains -- called an alpha chain and a beta chain -- each of which has constant domains (shared between all TCRs) and variable domains (unique to each T cell). Normally, each T cell encodes only one alpha chain and one beta chain, which pair to form a single TCR. In TCR gene therapy, the introduction of genes encoding a tumor-reactive TCR results in T cells that express two alpha chains and two beta chains, with four possible pairings. This non-physiological situation poses a risk of autoimmunity.

"As T cells are produced, the immune system 'auditions' them, eliminating those that react to healthy cells and selecting those with potential to recognize diseased cells," says Michael Bethune, senior postdoctoral scholar in biology and biological engineering, and lead author on the study. "However, in T cells engineered to express a second TCR, the introduced chains can mispair with the resident chains, resulting in TCRs with unintended and unpredictable specificity. These mispaired TCRs are not auditioned by the immune system, and some will target healthy cells causing autoimmunity." Indeed, up to 90 percent of mice administered TCR-engineered T cells develop autoimmune disease, and cultured human T cells that are engineered to express two TCRs also react with healthy cells.

The group's solution was to generate hybrid genes encoding TCR chains with their alpha and beta constant domains swapped in a compensatory fashion. When correctly paired, these domain-swapped TCRs retain all of the domains necessary to function. Indeed, the group found that domain-swapped TCRs and unmodified TCRs both function in human T cells, and they prevented tumor growth in mice to a similar extent. However, whereas unmodified TCRs mispaired with resident TCR chains in both mouse and human T cells, and caused autoimmunity in mice, domain-swapped TCRs did not.

"Mispairing between domain-swapped chains and resident chains results in TCRs that lack domains needed for functional assembly of the TCR complex," Bethune says. "This ensures that only correctly paired domain-swapped TCRs function at the surface of the cell."

In addition to preventing mispairing, domain-swapped TCRs highlight a surprising robustness to the function of the TCR complex. The Caltech group teamed with Mike Kuhns at the University of Arizona to determine that domain-swapped TCRs assemble in a similar manner to unmodified TCRs despite significant structural rearrangement of the constituent protein chains. Domain-swapped TCRs may be useful tools for further study of the structure and function of the TCR complex.

Finally, in collaboration with Wolfgang Uckert at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, the researchers showed that domain-swapped TCRs were expressed at higher levels on the T cell surface when the resident TCR genes were silenced.

"Our paper focuses on the increased safety afforded by domain-swapping, but combining these two solutions may result in a therapy with improved safety and efficacy compared to current practice," Bethune says.

New Treatment for Parasitic Diseases Tested

A new treatment can be effective against parasitic diseases, which cause more than 50,000 fatalities a year worldwide, said sources today.

Developed by researchers at the Novartis Genomics Institute in the United States, the drug has proven its positive effect in mice against Chagas disease, leishmaniasis and African trypanosomiasis, which affect 20 million people in the world.

Specialists, after testing some three million candidates, found an effective compound, called GNF6702, able to selectively block the actions of parasites, said the research published by the journal Nature.

Jeremy, one of the authors, said that it is a step forward in understanding the parasites that cause those three diseases and, potentially, it will provide the cure for them.

According to the source, the project is at an early stage and the team will advance to the toxicological tests before testing in humans.

  • Published in World
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