UN harassment, COVID-19 misinformation, and vaccine efficacy: This week in development

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COVID-19 vaccines from the Serum Institute of India arrive at an airport in Johannesburg. Photo by: GCIS / GovernmentZA / CC BY-ND

The United Nations still has a harassment problem, South Africa weighs vaccine efficacy worries, and Facebook cracks down on COVID-19 misinformation. This week in development:

Facebook will remove posts containing false claims about COVID-19 and all vaccines, the social media giant announced Monday. The move is not just about taking down misinformation but about positioning Facebook’s platform as a proactive source of accurate information on COVID-19 and public health measures, the company said.

  • Facebook previously “downranked” misinformation in an attempt to make it less visible without removing posts entirely. In response to criticism from public health experts and in consultation with the World Health Organization and others, Facebook began shifting its strategy in December.

  • “Facebook is running the largest worldwide campaign to promote authoritative COVID-19 vaccine information,” the company’s head of health, Kang-Xing Jin, told Devex on Monday.

  • Facebook must strike a difficult balance. If it is seen as suppressing legitimate debate about COVID-19, that could give rise to new conspiracy theories — as appeared to happen when an article by U.K. aid critic Ian Birrell, questioning WHO’s conclusion about the origins of COVID-19, was flagged as “False information.”

South Africa suspended its rollout of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford after a new study suggested a significant drop in efficacy against the new coronavirus variant that is currently predominant in the country. The news highlights that vaccination rollouts will be a constantly moving target as new strains of the virus evolve and spread.

  • Just one week after a plane carrying 1 million doses of the vaccine arrived in South Africa, preliminary data from a non-peer-reviewed study suggested the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is only 22% effective against mild to moderate COVID-19 infection involving the variant.

  • The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is seen as a key addition to the COVAX Facility for vaccine distribution to lower-income countries because it is more easily transported and stored, as well as less expensive, than the Pfizer and Moderna alternatives.

  • Despite the discouraging results, the World Health Organization this week urged countries to deploy the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, citing “indirect evidence” that it is still effective against severe cases of COVID-19. “Please take it. Don't compare and wait for something better to come along. A vaccine now is much better than waiting for something potentially that may come down the road,” WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan told health workers.

The United Nations has not followed through on commitments to address sexual harassment, according to current and former employees. In 2018, Purna Sen was appointed executive coordinator and spokesperson on addressing sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination at UN Women. Just over two years later, she left the job in frustration.

  • According to an internal, leaked staff survey conducted in 2018, 1 in 3 U.N. workers reported that they had been sexually harassed at some point over the previous two years. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed a task force to address the issue, and individual agencies enacted a variety of policy and procedural changes.

  • Despite these positive steps, there are still big gaps around leadership, anonymous reporting, and leave policies that Sen and other advocates did not succeed in reforming, raising concerns that attention has shifted to other issues.

  • “People feel suspicion in the investigative system and process. They don’t feel it is truly independent. And it’s very hard, if you know the people doing the investigations know your bosses and go out for drinks together — then any claims to independence, whether they have veracity or not, are hard to take in as genuine,” Sen said.

Fossil fuel-related air pollution kills more than 8 million people per year — accounting for nearly 1 out of 5 deaths globally — according to a major new study published in the journal Environmental Research on Tuesday. The figure is much higher than previously thought and reinforces the idea that cutting pollution can have significant public health benefits.

  • Burning fossil fuels releases particles that can aggravate respiratory conditions and lead to health problems such as lung cancer, heart disease, and strokes. The researchers found the worst health impacts in China, India, the eastern United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia.

  • The new study employed a 3D modeling approach that allowed for a detailed picture of atmospheric pollution at a more local level. Previous estimates put the number of pollution-related deaths at roughly half of what this research found.

  • A separate study recently published in The Lancet found that if countries align their policies with the Paris climate agreement and increase their focus on health and sustainability, they could save 6.4 million lives with improved diets, 1.6 million lives due to cleaner air, and 2.1 million lives due to increased exercise annually.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.