Research on the prevention of treatment of COVID-19 in poor and developing nations is urgently needed to avert a "complete breakdown" of health services, a coalition of more than 70 scientific bodies said Friday. The pandemic is currently hitting Europe and the United States the hardest, straining even their health systems to the limit. But there are growing fears that widespread coronavirus outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia could prove even more catastrophic. While there are over 600 clinical trials focused on COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccines, there are virtually none planned in resource-poor countries. With hundreds of millions of people lacking easy access to clean water and sanitation and with many overcrowded urban settings unable to implement social distancing effectively, the stakes are huge. In addition, many health workers lack the necessary protective equipment and training in handling infectious diseases. "Disruption or complete breakdown of those healthcare systems would result in high direct and indirect mortality since care of all illness would be affected," said the authors of a letter published Friday in The Lancet. The COVID-19 Clinical Reserarch Coalition -- an unprecedented consortium of scientists, policymakers, public health experts and researchers -- is to make it easier for developing nations to access research data to help inform their response. It will also facilitate approvals for fast-tracked imports of medical supplies, and speed up ethical and regulatory reviews, as occurred during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. This will be accompanied by mass data sharing and dissemination of research before peer-review and publication. The fear of health experts is not just that COVID-19 will kill many people in poorer nations, but that it will also exacerbate existing problems such as poverty, poor infrastructure and other communicable diseases. The World Food Programme on Thursday warned that more than five million people in the Sahel region are facing hunger, as COVID-19 spreads among some of the poorest nations on Earth. "Our message to the world is clear -- look away now and the consequences will be no less than catastrophic," said Chris Nikoi, WFP's West Africa director. Many poorer nations still have confirmed case numbers in the dozens, but there's no way of knowing the true extent of infection widespread testing. The Democratic Republic of Congo, which has 123 confirmed cases, has the current capacity to test 50 people daily out of a population of some 80 million. Commenting on the research initiative, Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organization, said: "Although the epicentre is today elsewhere, we must prepare now for the consequences of this pandemic in more resource-constrained settings or we stand to lose many more lives."
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