Experts blast early pandemic failures as India deaths top 250,000.

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COVID

An expert panel on Wednesday blamed bad coordination as well as dithering by national governments and international organisations for the failure to tackle COVID-19 before it became a full-blown pandemic, as India’s death toll topped 250,000.

With a record 4,205 deaths in the past 24 hours in India, the variant stoking the country’s surge has now been detected in dozens of other countries across the globe.

Looking back to the earliest days of the pandemic, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR) blamed a “toxic cocktail” of dithering and poor coordination for the more than 3.3 million deaths so far and untold economic damage.

Latest figures gathered by AFP from official sources showed almost 160 million confirmed cases worldwide by 1000 GMT Wednesday.

Early responses to the outbreak detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019 “lacked urgency”, with February 2020 a costly “lost month” as countries failed to heed the alarm, said the panel, convened at World Health Organization (WHO) members’ request.

Led by former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, the body insisted that rich countries should provide one billion vaccines to the world’s poorest nations by September 1.

Deadly inequalities

Vaccinations have helped to ease the pandemic crisis in the United States and Europe.

The European Commission on Wednesday upgraded its economic growth forecast for this year and 2022, to 4.2 and 4.4 percent, in part thanks to faster inoculations.

Vaccine frontrunner Britain reported a 2.1-percent jump in GDP in March as it gradually emerges from lockdown, while Spain said it was hoping to welcome 45 million tourists this year as the sector opens up.

Meanwhile many less well-off countries remain starved of vaccine doses.

Pointing to “unwillingness to tackle inequalities” as a key factor worsening the pandemic, the IPPPR said intellectual property rights for the shots should be waived if doses are not delivered by September.

US President Joe Biden on Tuesday said almost half of world leaders had called Washington for vaccination help, after the country’s inoculation drive helped throttle an outbreak that has killed more than 500,000 Americans.

“Every country in the world is now looking at us to provide for their lack of capacity to produce and/or have vaccines,” Biden told a virtual meeting with US state governors.

“We’re going to try.”

Biden pledged last month to distribute 60 million AstraZeneca doses, with India expected to be a recipient.

Undercounted deaths

For now India is struggling even to count the dead, with many experts saying official figures—254,197 killed so far—must be an underestimate.

“Even three to four times would be an underestimate,” Anant Bhan, an independent health policy and bioethics researcher, told AFP.

India’s underfunded health system has left hospitals and crematoriums overwhelmed, and many COVID-19 deaths are not properly recorded.

Bodies being burnt in car parks and other public places have highlighted the scale of the crisis.

Bodies have also been seen floating down the holy Ganges river—71 in northern state Bihar alone—stoking concerns that the virus is now raging in India’s vast rural hinterland where two-thirds of people live, and where health care is patchy.

Huge political rallies and religious events that attracted millions of people over recent months are two key factors being blamed for India’s crisis.

A variant of the virus called B.1.617, which was first detected in India in October, is another.

Many nations have shut their borders to travellers from India in a bid to stop the variant from reaching their shores.

But it has spread to at least 44 nations, the WHO said Tuesday, with Britain detecting the most cases of he variant outside India.

The organisation this week declared the strain a “variant of concern”, placing it alongside three others that were first detected in Britain, Brazil and South Africa.

AstraZeneca woes

Meanwhile reports of rare blood clots have continued to hobble rollouts of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with some Brazilian states suspending its use in pregnant women after a reported death.

Slovakia, as well as Canada’s most populous province Ontario, also suspended its use for first doses, citing new data showing increased risks of blood clots.

The EU executive also announced it was suing AstraZeneca to force the British-Swedish pharmaceutical group to deliver 90 million more doses of the vaccine before July, after a bitter row over delivery shortfalls.

In contrast to the supply problems in Europe, the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru announced it had become the first country to have vaccinated its entire adult population—albeit fewer than 8,000 people.

It used AstraZeneca doses supplied as part of the global Covax programme aimed at boosting immunisation in poorer nations.

Meanwhile Japan said it would vaccinate all its Olympic athletes ahead of the Tokyo Games, leapfrogging the general population, in a reverse of earlier promises.

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