As the session stretched into the evening in the United States, Mary Marovich, MD, director of vaccine research, AIDS division, with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institutes of Health, said while each of the government-funded vaccine studies has its own trial, there are standardized objectives for direct comparisons. The studies are being conducted within the same clinical trial networks, and collaborative laboratories apply the same immunoassays and define the infections in the same way. They are all randomized, placebo-controlled trials and all but one have a 30,000-volunteer sample size. She said that while a vaccine is the goal to end the pandemic, monoclonal antibodies, such as those in convalescent plasma, “may serve as a critical bridge.”
The good, the bad, and the ugly during COVID-19 in Latin America
Latin America and the Caribbean are currently the regions hardest hit by COVID-19. Gustavo D. Lopardo, of the Asociacion Panamericana de Infectologia, noted that even before the pandemic Latin America suffered from widespread poverty and inequality. While overcrowding and poverty are determining factors in the spread of the virus, diabetes and– both highly prevalent – are worsening COVID outcomes.
The countries of the region have dealt with asynchronous waves of transmission within their borders by implementing different containment strategies, with dissimilar results. The presenters covered the spectrum of the pandemic, from the “ugly” in Peru, which has the highest mortality rate in the region, to the “good” in Uruguay, where testing is “winning against COVID-19.” Paradoxically, Chile has both the highest cumulative incidence and the lowest case fatality rate of COVID-19 in the region.
In the social and political turmoil imposed by COVID-19, Clóvis Arns da Cunha, MD, president of the Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases and professor at the Federal University of Paraná, pointed out that “fake news [has become] a public health problem in Brazil” and elsewhere.
Diagnostics and therapeutics in Latin America
Eleven of the 15 countries with the highest death rate in the world are located in Latin America or the Caribbean. Dr. Arns de Cunha pointed out that tests are hard to come by and inadequate diagnostic testing is a major problem. Latin American countries have not been able to compete with the United States and Europe in purchasing polymerase chain reaction test kits from China and South Korea. The test is the best diagnostic tool in the first week of symptoms, but its scale-up has proved to be a challenge in Latin America.
Furthermore, the most sensitive serological markers, CLIA and ECLIA, which perform best after 2 weeks of symptom onset, are not widely available in Latin America where many patients do not have access to the public health system. The detection of silent hypoxemia in symptomatic patients with COVID-19 can save lives; hence, Arns da Cunha praised the program that distributed 100,000 digital oximeters to hundreds of cities in Brazil, targeting vulnerable populations.
The COVID-19 experience in Japan
Takuya Yamagishi, MD, PhD, chief of the Antimicrobial Resistance Research Center at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Japan, played an instrumental role in the epidemiological investigation that took place on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship in February 2020. That COVID-19 outbreak is the largest disease outbreak involving a cruise ship to date, with 712 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 13 deaths.
The ship-based quarantine prompted a massive public health response with unique challenges. In those early days, investigators uncovered important facts about COVID-19 epidemiology, generating hot debates regarding the public health strategy at the time. Notably, the majority of asymptomatically infected persons remained asymptomatic throughout the course of the infection, transmission from asymptomatic cases was almost as likely as transmission from symptomatic cases, and isolation of passengers in their cabins prevented inter-cabin transmission but not intra-cabin transmission.
Swift response in Asia Pacific region
Infectious-disease experts from Taiwan, Singapore, and Australia, who have been at the forefront of clinical care, research, and policy-making, spoke about their experiences.
Taiwan was one of the first countries to adopt a swift response to COVID-19, shortly after they recognized an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown etiology in China and long before the WHO declared a public health emergency, said Ping-Ing Lee, MD, PhD, from the National Taiwan University Children’s Hospital.
The country began onboard health checks on flights from Wuhan as early as Dec. 31, 2019. Dr. Lee attributed Taiwan’s success in prevention and control of COVID-19 to the rigorous use of face masks and environmental disinfection procedures. Regarding the country’s antilockdown stance, he said, “Lockdown may be effective; however, it is associated with a tremendous economic loss.”
In his presentation on remdesivir vs corticosteroids, David Lye, MBBS, said, “I think remdesivir as an antiviral seems to work well given early, but steroids will need to be studied further in terms of its conflicting evidence in multiple well-designed RCTs as well as [their] potential side effects.” He is director of the Infectious Disease Research and Training Office, National Centre for Infectious Diseases, Singapore.
Allen C. Cheng, MBBS, PhD, of Monash University in Melbourne, noted that “control is possible. We seemed to have controlled this twice at the moment with fairly draconian action, but every day does matter.”
China past the first wave
China has already passed the first wave, explained Lei Zhou, MD, of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but there are still some small-scale resurgences. So far a total of four waves have been identified. She also mentioned that contact tracing is intense and highlighted the case of Xinfadi Market in Beijing, the site of an outbreak in June 2020.
Gui-Qiang Wang, MD, from the Department of Infectious Disease, Peking University First Hospital, emphasized the importance of a chest CT for the diagnosis of COVID-19. “In the early stage of the disease, patients may not show any symptoms; however, on CT scan you can see pneumonia. Also, early intervention of high-risk groups and monitoring of warning indicators for disease progression is extremely important,” he said.
“Early antiviral therapy is expected to stop progression, but still needs evaluation,” he said. “Convalescent plasma is safe and effective, but its source is limited; steroid therapy needs to explore appropriate population and timing; and thymosin α is safe, and its effect on outcomes needs large-sample clinical trial.”
Time to Call for an ‘Arab CDC?’
The eastern Mediterranean is geographically, politically, economically, and religiously a very distinct and sensitive region, and “COVID-19 is an added insult to this already frail region of the world,” said Zaid Haddadin, MD, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tenn.
Poor healthcare and poor public health services are a consequence of weak and fragile governments and infrastructure, the result of war and regional conflicts in many countries. Millions of war refugees live in camps with high population densities and shared facilities, which makes social distancing and community mitigation very challenging. Moreover, the culture includes frequent large social gatherings. Millions of pilgrims visit holy sites in different cities in these countries. There is also movement due to trade and tourism. Travel restrictions are challenging, and there is limited comprehension of precautionary measures.
Najwa Khuri-Bulos, professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at the University of Jordan, was part of a task force headed by the country’s Ministry of Health. A lockdown was implemented, which helped flatten the curve, but the loosening of restrictions has led to a recent increase in cases. She said, “No country can succeed in controlling spread without the regional collaboration. Perhaps it is time to adopt the call for an Arab CDC.”