Posted on Aug 31, 2021
As the EU is promising more humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, another tragedy is unfolding in the EU’s neighbourhood: Georgian doctors struggling to cope with record highs of Covid-19 hospitalisations and fatalities have issued a plea to the government in Tbilisi to intervene more effectively in what they are calling a “life or death situation”.
As the highly contagious Delta variant tears through the Caucasus region – with countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan experiencing new record levels of infections – the unfolding crisis in Georgia is a particularly worrying example of what is happening on the ground.
At a time when the EU has finally reached its vaccination target of 70 percent of Europeans 18 years and older, Georgia is being hit by its worst wave yet, with infections increasing by 90% over two weeks. With 1% of the country suffering from the disease at the same time, the country now has one of the highest caseloads per one million people on the planet, let alone in the region—making it five times worse off than India, relative to its population.
Vaccines in scarce supply:
After the economic blow dealt to the region by the pandemic in 2020 - with Georgian inflation hitting a ten-year high, unemployment nearing 20% and an economic contraction of 6.2% - the government in Tbilisi decided against shuttering shops and offices again. Rather than imposing another lockdown, lawmakers settled for a two-week ban on public transport and a late-night curfew. The credibility of these measures was somewhat damaged, though, when Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili issued an amnesty for hundreds of thousands of Georgians caught disregarding Covid restrictions such as mask wearing and quarantining during previous lockdowns.
This is despite the fact that in many countries in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia, the vast majorities of populations have yet to be vaccinated. Despite the government’s vaccination campaign, for example, a mere 14.3% of the Georgian population of 3.9 million has received both jabs, and progress is stalling. This is partly because of rife vaccine hesitancy, as evidenced by the 45% of respondents to an August poll stating they will turn down a Covid-19 vaccine when offered. In response to persistent anti-vaccine sentiment, PM Garibashvili is set to mandate compulsory inoculation for some categories come September.
However, Georgia’s vaccine rollout has been plagued by supply chain issues. Many of those who signed up for AstraZeneca shots in June were turned away owing to lack of stock. These limitations have forced Tbilisi to backtrack on their initial rejection of Chinese vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac. 62% of vaccine doses administered in the country are now Chinese, despite increased uncertainty surrounding their lower efficacy.
Partner Therapeutics and EXO-CD24: New Covid treatments promise relief:
Georgia was initially hailed as a coronavirus success story internationally, but the government’s prioritisation of the nation’s economic health, with an eye on the upcoming October election, means record numbers of Georgians are ending up in hospital. In the absence of a solid preventative response to the ongoing pandemic, Georgia’s frontline doctors are now inundated with Covid patients. Two newly inaugurated field hospitals in the capital have increased capacity by 500 and 200 beds respectively, but effective medications for Covid-19 patients remain crucial to expedite recovery times and save as many lives as possible.
As a matter of fact, medical treatments for the novel coronavirus are constantly improving as knowledge of the virus improves. One such promising new therapy is the existing drug sargramostim (known commercially as Leukine), from Partner Therapeutics.
In February, the University Hospital Ghent ran a randomised trial across five hospitals in Belgium which found that inhaled Leukine greatly improved oxygenation by at least 33% in more than half of Covid-19 patients suffering acute hypoxic respiratory failure and requiring supplemental oxygen, as well as stimulating the expansion of T-Cells targeting the coronavirus. A second randomized trial, carried out across 11 American hospitals with support from the U.S. Department of Defense, confirmed that Leukine therapy was well-tolerated by Covid patients and achieved a statistically significant improvement in lung function over patients treated with standard of care alone.
Georgian healthcare workers have specifically flagged another inhaled treatment named EXO-CD24 to government officials. This experimental therapy was developed by Israel in Tel Aviv's Ichilov Medical Center and is described by its inventor as a “precision medicine” and enabled 29 out of 30 moderate to severe Covid-19 patients to recover within 5 days. The recently published results of the Phase II clinical trials in Greece raise hopes that the drug will prove effective as a therapy for acute coronavirus infections.
A good prognosis for Georgia?
The timely approval and distribution of treatments such as Leukine and EXO-CD24 in coming months could prevent further loss of life in regions where vaccination numbers are low. The currently overrun hospitals and overworked healthcare staff in the region cause delays to screening and treatment for other life-threatening diseases, not to mention that the mental and physical cost of widespread illness and death is incalculably large. As the temperature drops and the school year resumes, the inevitable further rise in infections is projected to send hospital admissions even higher, as was the case last winter.
What this means is that Brussels must not forget about its commitments to the Caucasus at such a crucial time. As part of its “Team Europe” initiative, the EU has been providing financial and medical support to a variety of countries along the EU’s Eastern periphery, including Georgia, and this help should extend to procuring not only more vaccines but treatments, once they become available, as well.
Indeed, Georgia's neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan - where hospitalisations are also on the increase - should take heed from Georgia’s rapid decline. With the hospitals pushed to breaking point this August, Georgia’s politicians must rethink the balance between financial and public health, heeding the beleaguered doctors’ recent call to prioritise the preservation of life.
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