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WHO eyes decision on monkeypox ’emergency’, Africa says it’s long overdue

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Test tubes labelled “Monkeypox virus positive and negative” are seen in this illustration taken May 23, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

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By Jennifer Rigby

LONDON (Reuters) -The World Health Organization will decide on Thursday whether to declare monkeypox a global health emergency, stirring criticism from leading African scientists who say it has been a crisis in their region for years.

The deliberations and scrutiny of the WHO’s response to the outbreak follows concerns over how the United Nations agency and governments worldwide handled COVID-19 in early 2020.

A “public health emergency of international concern” is WHO’s highest level of alert. The agency does not declare pandemics, but it did start using the term to describe COVID-19 in March 2020.

For many governments, that – rather than WHO’s earlier declaration of an emergency in January – was the moment they began to take real action to try to contain COVID, which proved to be too late to make a difference.

Monkeypox does not spread nearly as easily as COVID and there are vaccines and treatments available, unlike for the coronavirus when it emerged. But it has still raised alarm.

The case count from the current outbreak outside of Africa has topped 3,000 in more than 40 countries, according to a Reuters tally – largely among men who have sex with men – since it was first reported in May. There have been no reports of deaths.

The viral disease, which causes flu-like symptoms and skin lesions, is endemic in parts of Africa. The continent has registered just over 1,500 suspected cases since the start of 2022, of which 66 have been fatal, according to official data.

“When a disease affects developing countries, it is (apparently) not an emergency. It only becomes an emergency when developed countries are affected,” said Professor Emmanuel Nakoune, acting director of the Institut Pasteur in Bangui, Central African Republic, who is running a trial of a monkeypox treatment.

Still, Nakoune said that if the WHO declares an emergency in the case of monkeypox, it would still be an important step.

“If there is the political will to share equitably the means of response between developed and developing countries…, each country will be able to benefit,” he said.

At an online briefing with reporters on Thursday, the acting director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, said monkeypox case and death numbers were already at “emergency levels” on the continent.

The WHO will convene a closed meeting of experts at 12 p.m. (1000 GMT) in Geneva. It remains unclear when the decision will be announced.

The emergency committee meeting on Thursday includes experts from the most affected regions, who have also consulted with scientists including Nakoune. They will make a recommendation to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who makes the ultimate decision on whether to call the emergency.

The step mainly functions to sound the alarm, and can prompt further guidance from the WHO, as well as focus attention among member states. The WHO has already provided detailed guidance on the outbreak and said it is working on a mechanism for sharing treatments and vaccines.

Most experts agree monkeypox technically meets the criteria for the WHO definition of an emergency. It is a sudden and unusual event spreading internationally, and requires cross-country cooperation.

But the WHO is in a precarious position after COVID, according to Clare Wenham, a global health assistant professor at the London School of Economics.

If the WHO declares an emergency and countries do not act, it could undermine the agency’s role in controlling global disease, she said.

“They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t,” she added.

Coronavirus

U.S. appeals court vacates federal vaccine mandate pending additional hearing

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A resident over 50 years old and immunocompromised receives a second booster shot of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Waterford, Michigan, U.S., April 8, 2022. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court panel said on Monday it would convene a full panel to reconsider President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring civilian federal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and set aside the order pending that hearing.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is based in New Orleans, had reinstated the vaccine order in April by a 2-1 vote after it was blocked by a district court judge in January. [L2N2W530Z]

The court said on Monday that it would reconsider the case en banc, which means it will be heard by a larger panel of judges. No date was given for the hearing. Pending that hearing, the court said it would vacate the April ruling, which means that Biden’s order cannot be enforced.

Biden said in September he would require about 3.5 million government workers to get vaccinated by Nov. 22, barring a religious or medical accommodation, or face discipline or firing. Despite the legal fight, more than 90% of federal workers were vaccinated by December, the White House said last year.

The president’s vaccine and mask mandates have faced stiff opposition, led by Republicans, which have turned public safety measures endorsed by disease experts into a political and legal battle in the United States.

The United States passed the milestone of 1 million dead from the coronavirus in May. More than 250 people still die of the disease daily, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Coronavirus

Ottawa police call in Canada Day reinforcements for ‘freedom’ protests

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A man poses for a photo in front of the National War Memorial as truckers and supporters take part in a convoy to protest coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine mandates for cross-border truck drivers in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, January 29, 20

By Steve Scherer

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Ottawa officials said on Monday they are closing roads and calling in reinforcements to keep anti-government “freedom” protesters from disrupting Canada Day festivities, which are being held for the first time in three years on Friday.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the free concerts and other activities usually held on the July 1 national holiday, which celebrates the founding of the country, were canceled.

This year several groups that say they are protesting against a variety of things – including coronavirus vaccination mandates, globalization and government efforts to limit freedom in Canada – are planning marches and even a dance party.

Some of the same organizers were behind a truck convoy that blocked Ottawa’s downtown core around parliament for three weeks, snarling international travel and trade as well as resulting in dozens of arrests. Ottawa officials are still facing criticisms for their handling of the crisis.

Ottawa’s interim Police Chief Steve Bell said he expects hundreds of thousands of people to participate in the Ottawa celebrations, but does not know how many people plan on joining the protests.

“We won’t be intimidated by any group that plans to disrupt the celebrations,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said during a news conference. “We’re prepared, and we will not tolerate any illegal activity by anyone.”

Friday’s protests will include an alternative free concert in front of the Supreme Court, a march to city hall where speakers will address the public and finally a dance party in front of parliament.

Multiple police forces, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), are being brought in to help, Bell told reporters.

Already from Wednesday, access to the streets around parliament will be limited, and most of the streets in the downtown core will be closed on Friday. No vehicles will be allowed to park illegally and no structures, including tents, will be allowed, Bell said.

“We’re prepared to take decisive and lawful action to deal with threats, occupation attempts, and other unlawful behavior that we observe,” Bell said.

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Coronavirus

WHO says monkeypox is not yet a health emergency

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© Reuters. Test tubes labelled “Monkeypox virus positive” are seen in this illustration taken May 22, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

LONDON (Reuters) – Monkeypox is not yet a global health emergency, the World Health Organization (WHO) ruled on Saturday, although WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was deeply concerned about the outbreak.

“I am deeply concerned about the monkeypox outbreak, this is clearly an evolving health threat that my colleagues and I in the WHO Secretariat are following extremely closely,” Tedros said.

The “global emergency” label currently only applies to the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing efforts to eradicate polio, and the U.N. agency has stepped back from applying it to the monkeypox outbreak after advice from a meeting of international experts.

There have been more than 3,200 confirmed cases of monkeypox and one death reported in the last six weeks from 48 countries where it does not usually spread, according to WHO.

So far this year almost 1,500 cases and 70 deaths in central Africa, where the disease is more common, have also been reported, chiefly in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Monkeypox, a viral illness causing flu-like symptoms and skin lesions, has been spreading largely in men who have sex with men outside the countries where it is endemic.

It has two clades – the West African strain, which is believed to have a fatality rate of around 1% and which is the strain spreading in Europe and elsewhere, and the Congo Basin strain, which has a fatality rate closer to 10%, according to WHO.

There are vaccines and treatments available for monkeypox, although they are in limited supply.

The WHO decision is likely to be met with some criticism from global health experts, who said ahead of the meeting that the outbreak met the criteria to be called an emergency.

However, others pointed out that the WHO is in a difficult position after COVID-19. Its January 2020 declaration that the new coronavirus represented a public health emergency was largely ignored by many governments until around six weeks later, when the agency used the word “pandemic” and countries took action.

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