A member of the WHO mission to China exploring the origins of the coronavirus pandemic took a swipe Wednesday at US intelligence on the issue, after the State Department cast doubt on the transparency of their probe.
President Joe Biden “has to look tough on China”, expert Peter Daszak said in a tweet as the mission ended, adding: “Please don’t rely too much on US intel: increasingly disengaged under Trump & frankly wrong on many aspects.”
The Presidential Task Force (PTF) Chairman and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr Boss Mustapha, has said that a COVID-19 testing laboratory will soon be established at the State House Clinic.
Mustapha said this on Tuesday in Abuja during the commissioning of State House Clinic Special Care Centre (COVID-19 Isolation Centre).
According to the SGF, the Buhari administration is using the challenges posed by the pandemic as an opportunity to change Nigeria’s health infrastructure.
He commended President Muhammadu Buhari for approving resources for new health infrastructure, noting that through the PTF the 2021 budget made provision for the establishment of at least one oxygen production plant in all the States of the Federation, as well as a 10-bed Intensive Care Unit (ICU) facility.
‘‘From just two molecular laboratories for the testing of COVID-19 in Nigeria, we now have over 100 molecular laboratories, public and private, across the 36 States of the Federation
‘‘I want to commend the Chief of Staff to the President, Prof Ibrahim Gambari, the Permanent Secretary, Mr Tijjani Umar and the State House management under whose leadership this beautiful edifice is being commissioned.
‘‘I am confident that when the Minister of Health visits, whatever he decides, I can give you my word that we will put a laboratory for testing or a PCR facility in State House Clinic. This is supposed to be our priority.
‘‘I will also speak to the Director-General of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, who has the primary responsibility of resourcing, setting up and accrediting laboratories because we need it here,” he said.
On the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines to be procured for Nigeria, Mustapha said the Federal Government will continue to encourage Nigerians to get vaccinated, when the time comes, because ‘‘the vaccines are safe, effective and for our benefit.’’
According to him, ‘‘We will appeal and explain to our people that if you do not take the vaccine, the danger of falling terribly sick and eventually dying is there.
‘‘We will be blunt to them that if you don’t take the COVID-19 vaccine, you may not be able to go anywhere in the world, very soon. Even when you want to go and perform your spiritual obligation, that will be subjected to your COVID-19 status.’’
The PTF Chairman also dismissed conspiracy theories concerning the vaccines, saying ‘‘I don’t believe anyone will spend billions of dollars in manufacturing vaccines in order to kill us in Africa.’’
In his remarks, Prof. Gambari, who described the Permanent Secretary, State House as ‘‘indefatigable,’’ noted that the idea for the special centre was conceived and completed within 10 weeks.
‘‘This is the State House Clinic and in many ways it should be the Centre of Excellence and people should be able to get the best from this facility,’’ he said.
Prof. Gambari appealed to Nigerians to comply with COVID-19 non-pharmaceutical interventions, including the wearing of face masks, washing of hands, social distancing, avoidance of large congregations and non-essential travels.
‘‘It may interest you to know that since my appointment into this position in May 2020, I have not been to Ilorin, Kwara State, my hometown.
‘‘Unfortunately, the non-pharmaceutical intervention is not being taken seriously there. The people in Ilorin and upwards think COVID-19 is a rich-man and powerful-people disease.
‘‘But as Mr President often says, COVID-19 is a respecter of nobody. Rich and poor, powerful or weak, all of us must respond to this very effectively.
‘‘For me who sees the President many times in a day, I have to take responsibility and if that involves giving up going to the town of my birth, so be it.’’
The Chief of Staff also urged Nigerians to embrace the COVID-19 vaccine, adding that Nigerians must do whatever it takes to protect themselves.
‘‘The Latin says mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body. To keep your body healthy, you have to have a healthy mind and a healthy mind is what is necessary to keep you and your family safe,’’ he said.
In his remarks, the Permanent Secretary thanked the SGF and the Chief of Staff for the support towards upgrading the standard of the clinic.
‘‘The first responsibility of the State House Clinic is to give medical service to our number one principal, the President and Commander-in-Chief and his family, the Vice President and his family and this we have been striving to do,’’ he said.
He added that since the outbreak of the second wave of the pandemic, the State House has ensured regular testing of all staff including, media, protocol, security and other civil servants.
Making a case for testing centre in the State House Clinic, Umar said: ‘‘I understand how our staff has been running from pillar to post, going to Gwagwalada and Asokoro trying to get tested. If we do it here, it will be more convenient, confidential and a lot easier for all of us.’’
Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot Covid-19 vaccine has an overall efficacy of 66 percent, the company announced Friday, following results from a phase 3 trial of almost 44,000 people across many countries.
The figure however was as high as 72 percent in the United States but went down to 57 percent in South Africa, where a more transmissible variant is dominant.
The company added that the vaccine was 85 percent effective in preventing severe Covid-19 across all geographical regions.
“We’re proud to have reached this critical milestone and our commitment to address this global health crisis continues with urgency for everyone, everywhere,” the company’s CEO Alex Gorsky said.
The company is quickly expected to apply for a US emergency authorization, and could therefore soon be the third vaccine available in the world’s hardest-hit country.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were the first to be authorized in the US, and both have efficacies of around 95 percent.
But the comparisons are not considered like-for-like, because those trials reported results before newer, more transmissible mutations of the virus became dominant in some parts of the world.
These variants, such as B.1.135 in South Africa and P.1 in Brazil, elude some of the blocking action of antibodies triggered from vaccines made against the common strain of the coronavirus.
The fact that the J&J vaccine requires only one shot, and can be stored for up to three months at 2-8 degrees Celsius, give it major logistical advantages over the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. These two are based on mRNA technology and require deep freezing.
More than 200 people were hurt in the Lebanese city of Tripoli during a third night of clashes Wednesday between security forces and demonstrators angered by a coronavirus lockdown and severe economic crisis.
Protesters threw petrol bombs and stones towards security forces, who responded with tear gas, an AFP correspondent said.
The National News Agency said 226 people had been injured in the evening — 102 of them treated by the Lebanese Red Cross and another 124 by the Islamic Medical Association.
At least 66 people had been hospitalised.
On Twitter, the security forces reported nine injured among their ranks.
“We are here to demand food. People are hungry,” said 20-year-old protester Mohammed Ezzedine. “It’s time for people to take to the streets.”
Tripoli was already one of Lebanon’s poorest areas before the coronavirus pandemic piled new misery onto a chronic economic crisis.
Many of its residents have been left without an income since Lebanon imposed a full lockdown earlier this month in a bid to stem a surge in Covid-19 cases and prevent its hospitals from being overwhelmed.
A round-the-clock curfew is in force nationwide and grocery shopping is restricted to home deliveries, which are often unavailable in poorer areas.
Authorities have extended the lockdown by two weeks to February 8.
Protesters tried to enter a government building, while others gathered in the city’s central Al-Nour Square, the scene of mass demonstrations against the political class that began in late 2019.
Gunfire was heard near the protest site, the AFP correspondent said, while demonstrators set fire to the entrance of a police building.
“We have made the decision to continue our action, whatever the cost… because we have nothing left to lose,” said a 25-year-old protester wearing a balaclava.
“We live in wretched conditions. I’ve knocked on every door but can’t find work,” he said.
After several hours of clashes, security forces deployed reinforcements to disperse the demonstrators and prevent them from storming the governorate’s headquarters.
But protesters remained in the neighbouring alleyways, where the clashes continued late into the night.
Demonstrators in other parts of the country also blocked major roads on Tuesday and Wednesday night.
In the capital Beirut, protesters burned tyres near the parliament, while others blocked the road to the sports stadium with dumpsters and more flaming tyres, the National News Agency said.
Night-time clashes in Tripoli between security forces and demonstrators had already injured at least 45 people on Tuesday and 30 on Monday, the Lebanese Red Cross said.
The army said 31 soldiers were hurt in Tuesday night’s exchange. It was not immediately clear how many soldiers were included in the Red Cross toll.
Lebanon has recorded over 289,000 Covid-19 cases and more than 2,500 deaths since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The surge in infections comes on top of the country’s worst economic crisis since its 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
Half of Lebanon’s population is now poor, and almost a quarter live in extreme poverty, the United Nations says.
Around half of the workforce lives off daily wages, the labour ministry estimates.
Authorities say they have started disbursing monthly payments of 400,000 Lebanese pounds (around $50 at the market rate) to some 230,000 families.
But caretaker social affairs minister Ramzi Musharrafieh acknowledged Tuesday that three-quarters of the population of more than six million needs financial assistance.
Coming after months of political crisis and mass anti-government demonstrations, the country’s Covid-19 response is being overseen by a caretaker administration.
The previous government had resigned after a massive explosion of ammonium nitrate fertiliser at Beirut’s port last summer killed 200 people, injured thousands and ravaged large parts of the capital.
US President-elect Joe Biden will receive his second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine on Monday, his office announced, three weeks after his first injection was broadcast live on TV to boost public confidence in the jab.
Biden, 78, told Americans “there’s nothing to worry about” when he got his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at the Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware on December 21.
His team said that his second jab would also be done in front of the media, without giving further details.
More than 374,000 people have died from the coronavirus in America, and Biden on Friday slammed President Donald Trump’s administration’s troubled distribution of vaccines as a “travesty.”
About 6.7 million Americans have so far received their first shot — far short of the target of 20 million by the end of 2020.
But 22.1 million doses have been distributed nationwide, underlining the logistical challenge of getting the injections administered to the elderly and health workers who are the priority.
Both vaccines currently authorized in the US, developed by Pfizer and Moderna, require recipients to receive booster shots after three and four weeks, respectively.
Biden, who will be inaugurated on January 20, plans to release every available dose of vaccine, rather than holding back half to make sure people receive their booster shots on time as is the current protocol.
The number of fatalities in Belgium from the new coronavirus crossed 20,000 on Sunday, health officials said, with more than half the deaths from retirement care homes.
The country, with a population of 11.5 million, has recorded 662,694 cases and 20,038 deaths since the pandemic broke out, the Sciensano public health institute said.
Belgium counts all deaths of people who have had a positive Covid-19 test among virus fatalities, giving it one of the world’s highest death rates with 1,725 per 100,000 people, according to an AFP tally.
During the first wave of the pandemic, Belgium also included people who died and may have had the virus but did not necessarily have a test.
Covid-19 vaccinations began in Belgium on January 5.
Virus deaths in retirement homes reached 10,270 on December 18, the authorities said. Amnesty International had the previous month alleged the authorities had “abandoned” care homes.
During the first wave of the pandemic, Sciensano reported more than 250 deaths a day with a peak of 322 on April 8.
The figures improved during summer but began rising again in October with 218 daily deaths recorded on November 10. The average number of deaths reported last week was 58 a day with about 1,780 infections.
More than 1.9 million people worldwide have now died from the virus, with new variants adding to soaring cases and prompting the re-introduction of restrictions on movement across the globe.
President Donald Trump faced a growing chorus of calls Thursday to be removed from office under the 25th Amendment for inciting the mob violence that swept through the US Capitol one day earlier.
Adopted in 1967, the 25th Amendment lays out the provisions for a transfer of power from a US president who dies, resigns, is removed from office or for other reasons is unable to fulfill his or her duties.
So far it has only been invoked for presidents undergoing a surgical procedure so that power could be shifted temporarily to the vice president.
In October of last year, there was talk of Trump possibly invoking the amendment when he became ill with Covid-19, but in the end, he took no such action.
Now, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer is leading appeals for Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the amendment in the waning days of Trump’s term, which ends January 20.
Schumer and others in and out of government are speaking out after Wednesday’s shocking scenes in which an angry and armed mob egged on by Trump overran security at the US Capitol, rampaging for hours and disrupting a proceeding in which Congress ultimately certified that Joe Biden beat Trump in the November 3 election and will be America’s next president.
“What happened at the US Capitol yesterday was an insurrection against the United States, incited by the president,” Schumer said in a statement. “This president should not hold office one day longer.”
“If the Vice President and the Cabinet refuse to stand up, Congress should reconvene to impeach the president,” Schumer said.
US lawmakers had begun to address the question of power transfer from the chief executive in the late 1950s amid the ill health of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It took on added urgency following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the 25th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1965 and ratified by the required three-fourths of the 50 US states two years later.
Section 3 of the 25th Amendment addresses the transfer of presidential powers to the vice president when the chief executive declares that he or she is unable to fulfill the powers and duties of the office.
Section 4 addresses a situation in which the vice president and a majority of the cabinet determine that the president is no longer able to discharge their duties. This section has never been invoked.
Invoked on three occasions
Section 3 has been invoked three times.
The first was in July 1985 when President Ronald Reagan underwent surgery under general anesthesia for removal of a cancerous polyp from his large intestine.
Vice President George H.W. Bush was made acting president for about eight hours while Reagan was in surgery.
President George W. Bush temporarily transferred power to Vice President Dick Cheney in June 2002 and in July 2007 while he underwent routine colonoscopies under anesthesia.
Following Reagan’s serious wounding in a 1981 assassination attempt, a letter invoking Section 3 was drafted but it was never sent.
Under Section 3, the president informs the president pro tempore, or presiding officer, of the Senate — currently Republican Chuck Grassley — and the speaker of the House of Representatives, currently Democrat Nancy Pelosi — in writing that he is unable to discharge the duties of the office and is temporarily transferring power to the vice president.
Under Section 4, the vice president and a majority of the members of the cabinet inform the leaders of the Senate and House that the president is incapable of discharging his duties and the vice president becomes acting president.
“It’s time to evoke the 25th Amendment and end this nightmare,” Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said after Wednesday’s mayhem in Washington.
“The president is unfit. And the president is unwell,” he added.
If a president contests the determination that he or she is unable to fulfill their duties, it is up to Congress to make the decision.
A two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate would be needed to declare the president unfit to remain in office.
Former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe has claimed that former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein raised the possibility of invoking Section 4 against Trump after he abruptly fired FBI director James Comey in May 2017.
US officials on Sunday rejected Donald Trump’s claim that the national Covid-19 death toll of more than 350,000 has been exaggerated, but defended the stumbling campaign to vaccinate millions of Americans.
Some 4.2 million people in the US have received initial doses of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna — far below official predictions of 20 million by the new year.
The president blamed local authorities for the delays, tweeting that “the vaccines are being delivered to the states by the Federal Government far faster than they can be administered!”
He also claimed that the number of cases and deaths was “far exaggerated” because of a “ridiculous method of determination,” accusing the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of a policy of “When in doubt, call it Covid.”
In response, top US scientist Anthony Fauci said on ABC that “those are real numbers, real people and real deaths.”
Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who was nominated by Trump, told CNN that he saw no reason to question the numbers from the federal CDC.
More than 13 million vaccine doses have been distributed nationwide, but efforts to vaccinate health workers and vulnerable people have been hampered by logistical problems and overstretched hospitals and clinics.
“There have been a couple of glitches, that’s understandable,” Fauci said, adding it was a challenge “trying to get a massive vaccine program started and getting off on the right foot.”
Part of the problem, Adams said, was that “a lot of the local capacity to be able to vaccinate was being used for testing and responding to surges.”
Fauci said he saw “some little glimmer of hope” in the fact that 500,000 people are now being inoculated a day, a far better number than when the program started last month, and “I think we can get there if we really accelerate, get some momentum going.”
Adams said he, too, expects vaccinations to “rapidly ramp up in the new year.”
‘We need to improve’
Troubling reports have emerged of vaccines going bad due to poor organization, lack of healthcare professionals to administer them or, in one isolated case, sabotage.
Some people have also waited in line for hours only to be turned away.
In Tennessee, elder citizens, some with walkers, were reported standing along a busy highway while waiting for their vaccinations.
Moncef Slaoui, the chief advisor to Operation Warp Speed, the military-led US vaccine effort, told CBS there was an “assumption” that states had plans in place to administer the vaccine.
“We need to improve,” he said. “We will do the best we can, as we have done over the last eight months, to make (certain) these vaccines indeed make it into the arms of people.”
Another alternative is being explored for the Moderna vaccine, he said: administer half-doses, twice. “We know it induces identical immune response,” he explained, saying officials are in discussions with Moderna and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the possibility.
The hardest-hit country in the world by the pandemic, the US has recorded 20.6 million cases overall and 351,452 deaths as of 8:30 pm Sunday (0130 GMT Monday).
The numbers of cases and deaths are expected to soar further after the holidays.
Health experts and government officials on Thursday featured as guests on a special end of the year programme on Channels Television.
The programme, entitled 2020 Year Of The Pandemic aims to review the events of the outgoing year, especially as it relates to COVID-19 which disrupted daily lives in many countries of the world.
For many, 2020 has been challenging in more ways and lots of people are still grappling with the existing circumstances.
The first human cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus and subsequently named SARS-COV-2, were first reported by officials in Wuhan City in China in December 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.
While some of the earliest known cases had a link to a wholesale food market in Wuhan, some did not and a majority of the initial patients were either stall owners, market employees, or regular visitors to the market.
The United Nations health agency noted that environmental samples taken from the market in December 2019 tested positive for SARS-COV-2, further suggesting that the market in Wuhan city was the source of the outbreak or played a role in the initial amplification of the outbreak.
This led to the closure of the market on January 1, 2020.
Amid the denial of its potential danger, it took Dr Li Wenliang, who later died of the virus to take the lid off the secret as he announced to the world that China was dealing with a dangerous infectious disease – the coronavirus.
Before then, the virus had already begun to cross borders, killing thousands of people in the wake of the spread.
By January, nations began to shut their borders and lock down cities and eventually, entire countries were shut down, as the UN declared the spread of the deadly virus a pandemic and officially named it COVID-19.
On February 27, Nigeria’s progression of COVID-19 cases indicated that two cases were found in Ogun State and almost immediately, cases in Lagos surged to the top of the log.
The Federal Capital Territory was not spared either while states, including Kano which at some point overtook Abuja and then Oyo, Gombe.
As at 6:30pm on Thursday, Nigeria has tested 948,048 samples out of which 86,576 cases have been confirmed, 11,976 are active, 73,322 have been discharged, and 1,278 deaths recorded.
This is according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
A researcher who identified a novel coronavirus variant in Nigeria has cautioned against automatic assumptions that it poses similar risks to strains that have emerged elsewhere.
The new strain was uncovered last week by scientists at the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) in southeastern Nigeria.
ACEGID director Christian Happi said the variant was found in two out of 200 samples of virus collected from patients between August 3 and October 9.
The two samples were taken from the same state in Nigeria at different times.
They show a variant “different to the one that has been circulating in Nigeria, different from the one in South Africa and different from the one in the UK,” he said in an interview with AFP.
Britain tightened restrictions after finding a new strain there that it said was more contagious than initial forms of the virus.
South Africa says a new strain detected there could explain the rapid spread of a second wave that has especially affected younger people.
Happi stressed that scientists were racing to unlock knowledge about the Nigeria strain and urged people not to “extrapolate.”
“We have no idea, no evidence to say that this variant is linked to the spike we are seeing in Nigeria or not,” said Happi, explaining that samples from the latest cases were being analysed for an answer.
Nigeria has recorded more than 82,000 cases of Covid-19, of which 1,246 were fatal.
Compared to the country’s population of some 200 million people, this number is tiny.
However, the tally of cases has been rising by several hundred a day since the start of December. There has been a major increase in Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, prompting the authorities there to reinstate a curfew and gatherings of more than 50 people.
But the number of deaths in Nigeria has not experienced a proportionate surge.
Happi, a Cameroon-raised, Harvard-trained professor of molecular biology, works in a state-of-the-art lab in Ede, southeastern Nigeria.
It is one of only 12 in Africa designed to sequence viral genetic code and track mutations — telltale changes that can be used to build a family tree of the microbe.
From this, the scientists at Ede believe the variant evolved “within Nigeria, I don’t think it was imported from anywhere,” said Happi.
“When changes occur, what matters most, what we’re focusing on, is the spike protein,” he said, referring to the prong-like protein by which coronavirus latches onto a cell and infects it.
Happi said there was a “tendency to extrapolate” after a discovery of this kind.
But he cautioned strongly against automatically assuming that what happened in one population setting would also happen elsewhere.
“A lot of the models drawn at the onset of the pandemic, all got it wrong,” he said.
“They were saying by now that a third of the African population would be dead. So people need to think,” he said.
“It is very wrong to assume models based on knowledge that are not accurate or on assumptions that are dependent on data obtained from Europe or the US and transpose it to a continent like Africa — we are genetically different, we are immunologically different.”
All of Africa has recorded 2.4 million cases, according to an AFP tally — just 3.6 percent of the global tally, although testing is also far less widespread. The continent’s death toll of 57,000 is less than a fifth of that of the United States.
John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the African Union’s health agency, also urged patience as scientists worked to understand the Nigerian variant.
“Give us some time,” he said in a videoconference from Addis Ababa. “It’s still very early.”
Nkengasong appealed to Africans not to let down their guard, warning of the danger of a second wave of infection.
President Buhari stated that developing a viable strategy for the nation’s primary and tertiary healthcare systems would go a long way, as well as re-aligning institutional mandates and functions within the health sector for effectiveness and efficiency.
He stressed the need to distinguish policy and coordination from implementation responsibilities, as well as strengthen the statutory and regulatory capacities within the health sector.
According to the President, recent reports indicate that Nigeria is now facing a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases across the country.
“New epicentres have been identified and the nation cannot afford to lose the gains of the last nine months.
“I have critically evaluated the situation and remain convinced that urgent measures have to be taken to halt the spread and the attendant fatalities,” he said.
He added, “Closely associated with the foregoing is the need to speedily and strategically access and administer the COVID-19 vaccine in a safe, effective, and timely manner.
“This is an important obligation that we owe Nigerians as we go into the year 2021 and it must be carried out through an efficient machinery.”
For indoor festivities, the WHO said limiting the number of guests and ensuring good ventilation were key to reducing the risk of infection.
“It may feel awkward to wear masks and practise physical distancing when around friends and family, but doing so contributes significantly to ensuring that everyone remains safe and healthy,” the health agency said.
The WHO’s European Region comprises 53 countries and includes Russia and several countries in Central Asia, a region that has registered more than 22 million cases of the new coronavirus and close to 500,000 deaths.