Half Of Europeans Vaccinated As Germany Warns On Rising COVID-19 Cases

Medical staff prepare Moderna coronavirus vaccines for use at the newly-opened mass vaccination centre in Tokyo on May 24, 2021. (Photo by Carl Court / POOL / AFP)

 

More than half of all European adults are now fully vaccinated, the EU said Thursday, as several countries across Europe and Asia battle fresh outbreaks blamed on the fast-spreading Delta variant.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said cases in her country were rising “exponentially”, while in Japan the delayed Olympics Games were set to open with almost no spectators and with a blanket of Covid rules in place.

And the spotlight once again turned to the virus’ origins after the WHO called for an audit of the Chinese lab at the heart of speculations about where the virus first emerged, sparking a fiery response from Beijing.

More than four million people have now died from the virus since it first emerged in December 2019, and though vaccines are picking up globally, Delta is fuelling a rise in infections and prompting governments to re-impose anti-virus measures to avoid dreaded new waves.

The EU said on Thursday that 200 million Europeans had been fully vaccinated, more than half of the adult population but still short of a 70 percent target set for the summer.

The fresh data came as Merkel urged more Germans to get vaccinated, sounding the alarm over a fresh spike in cases in Germany.

“The infection figures are rising again and with a clear and worrying dynamic,” Merkel told a press conference in Berlin.

“We are seeing exponential growth,” she said, adding that “every vaccination… is a small step towards a return to normality”.

Germany on Thursday recorded 1,890 new infections over the past 24 hours and an incidence rate of 12.2 new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days — more than double rates in early July.

“With a rising incidence rate, it could be that we need to introduce additional measures,” she said.

– Dominant Delta –

Germany joins a number of European nations that have seen cases climb in recent weeks.

The new outbreaks have been largely fuelled by the Delta variant, first detected in India, which is expected to become the dominant strain of the virus over the coming months, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Wednesday.

It has now been recorded in 124 territories — 13 more than last week — and already accounts for more than three-quarters of sequenced specimens in many major countries.

France this week rolled out new rules requiring a so-called health pass for all events or places with more than 50 people before being extended to restaurants, cafes and shopping centres in August.

People need to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain access, after the country reported a new surge — more 21,000 new cases on Wednesday, the highest level since early May.

Cases are also soaring in the UK, where most restrictions were lifted this week, and on Thursday British supermarkets warned of possible food shortages because staff were being forced to self-isolate.

Countries in Asia are seeing some of their worst outbreaks to date, with Indonesia becoming a new global hotspot as Vietnam and Thailand face new anti-virus rules.

In Tokyo, the Olympics were due to open Friday after a year-long pandemic delay, though it promised to be a Games like no other in history.

Spectators are mostly banned, and athletes, journalists and organisers are subject to strict virus measures during the event being held under a Covid cloud.

“It’s completely different from the last Games (in 1964) when the whole city was filled with festive mood,” said 80-year-old Tokyo resident Michiko Fukui.

– Psychological strain

With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, attention turned once again to the international probe origins of the virus.

The WHO said last week that a second stage of the probe should include audits of Chinese labs, as the US increases pressure for an investigation into a biotech lab in Wuhan.

Long dismissed as a right-wing conspiracy theory and vehemently rejected by Beijing, the idea that Covid-19 may have emerged from a lab leak has been gaining momentum.

But China’s vice health minister Zeng Yixin told reporters Thursday that he was “extremely surprised” by the WHO plan, which he said showed “disrespect for common sense and arrogance towards science”.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, the agency focused on another aspect of the pandemic: a mounting mental health crisis brought on by anxieties around catching the virus, the psychological impact of lockdowns and isolation, along with stresses linked to unemployment and financial worries.

“Everyone is affected in one way or another,” the WHO said in a statement at a meeting in Athens Thursday.

“The mental health impacts of the pandemic will be long term and far-reaching.”

AFP

Thailand Defends COVID-19 Vaccine ‘Mix-And-Match’ After WHO Warning

File Photo: Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP

 

Thailand on Tuesday defended mixing two different Covid-19 vaccines to battle a surge in infections, after the WHO’s top scientist warned it was a “dangerous trend” not backed by evidence.

The kingdom is struggling to contain its latest outbreak fuelled by the highly contagious Delta variant, with cases and deaths skyrocketing and the healthcare system stretched thin.

Authorities said they will mix a first dose of the Chinese-made Sinovac jab with a second dose of AstraZeneca to try and achieve a “booster” effect in six weeks instead of 12.

Thailand’s chief virologist Yong Poovorawan said this would be possible by combining an inactivated virus vaccine — Sinovac — with a viral vector vaccine such as AstraZeneca.

“We can’t wait 12 weeks (for a booster effect) in this outbreak where the disease is spreading fast,” he said.

“But in the future, if there are better, improved vaccines… we will find a better way to manage the situation.”

READ ALSO: New COVID-19 Rules Spark France Vaccination Rush And Online Backlash

His comments come a day after the World Health Organisation’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan called the strategy a “dangerous trend”.

“We are in a bit of a data-free, evidence-free zone as far as ‘mix-and-match'”, she said.

Thailand has reported more than 353,700 coronavirus cases and 2,847 deaths — the bulk of them detected since the latest wave kicked off in April from an upscale Bangkok nightlife district.

Healthcare workers were the first in line to receive Sinovac, but authorities said Sunday nearly 900 medical staff — most of them vaccinated with that shot — got Covid-19.

They will now also get an AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech booster shot, authorities said.

Virus hotspot Bangkok and nine other hard-hit provinces are now under tougher restrictions that include a night-time curfew and a ban of gatherings over five people.

AFP

Israel Launches Third Vaccine Jab For Most Vulnerable

File Photo: HAZEM BADER / AFP

 

Israel on Monday began administering a third shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to patients with compromised immune systems, as cases in the country rise, the health ministry said.

Those immediately eligible for a third shot include people who have had heart, lung and kidney transplants and some cancer patients.

“There is accumulating evidence that patients with immunosuppression do not develop an adequate antibody response after two doses of the vaccines,” a health ministry statement said.

It added that the decision to give a third dose was spurred by the rising daily case tally.

Israel’s initial vaccine rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab was among the world’s fastest, and it succeeded in bringing confirmed daily cases down to single digits last month.

With more than 85 percent of the its adult population fully inoculated, Israel had removed all its pandemic containment restrictions, restoring indoor dining and removing caps on large gatherings.

But the emergence of the Delta variant — first identified in India in April — has led to a surge in transmission, with several hundred new infections now recorded daily.

Experts have said there are clear signs the vaccine is less effective in preventing mild illness against the Delta variant.

Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv said it will give a third shot to several heart-transplant patients on Monday.

 

World Passes Three Billion COVID-19 Vaccine Mark

Medical staff prepare Moderna coronavirus vaccines for use at the newly-opened mass vaccination centre in Tokyo on May 24, 2021. (Photo by Carl Court / POOL / AFP)

 

More than three billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been given across the world, according to an AFP tally Tuesday from official sources.

The pace of vaccination has so quickened that while it took 20 weeks to give the first billion, it only took four to give the last one thousand million.

Some four of 10 of the jabs have been given in China (1.2 billion), with India (329 million) and the United States (324 million) also in the top three.

But it is a trio of Middle Eastern countries that leads the way in terms of coverage (when you exclude countries with populations of less than one million), with the United Arab Emirates having given 153 doses per 100 people, ahead of Bahrain and Israel on 124.

The three have nearly fully vaccinated 60 percent of their inhabitants.

Following them are Chile (118 doses per 100 people), the United Kingdom (113), Mongolia (111), Uruguay (110), Hungary (107), Qatar (107) and the US (98).

These countries have fully vaccinated around half of their populations (between 46 and 54 percent).

The European Union has given 357 millions shots to half of its population, with some 32 percent of the population having been fully covered.

Its smallest member Malta has completely covered seven out of 10 of its people; its biggest countries, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are hovering around a third fully vaccinated.

– Very unequal –

But globally the vaccination drive is still hugely unequal even if most poor countries have begun to vaccinate thanks to the Covax sharing scheme run by the World Health Organization, Gavi and the Cepi coalition.

While the world’s poorest countries have only been able to give one dose per 100 people, the richest have given one per 79 people.

And five countries have yet to start their campaigns — Tanzania, Burundi, Eritrea, Haiti and North Korea.

Despite the controversies around it, the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab is still the most used in the world, given in eight of 10 countries.

Then comes the Pfizer/BioNTech jab (used in 102 or 47 percent of countries that have started vaccinating), with Sinopharm and Moderna used in at least 48 countries, Russia’s Sputnik V (at least 41), Johnson & Johnson (31) and Sinovac in 24.

Qatar Seeks One Million COVID-19 Jabs For World Cup Fans

File: Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP

 

Qatar’s prime minister announced Doha is seeking to provide one million doses of a coronavirus vaccine to fans attending the 2022 World Cup in the country, state media reported Sunday.

The Gulf nation has been slowly opening up as it continues with its mass vaccination programme.

There is “the possibility that some countries will not be able to vaccinate all their citizens,” said Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani, according to the official Qatar News Agency.

“Qatar will not allow fans to enter stadiums without being fully vaccinated against the virus,” he said.

“That is why we are currently in negotiations with one of the companies to provide one million” doses of vaccine, he added, without naming any firm.

“Our main goal in vaccinating some of those coming to Qatar to attend the World Cup is to protect the public health of citizens and residents.”

Sheikh Khalid also said that approximately 72 percent of Qatar’s 2.75 million population “will have received at least one dose” of vaccine within the next week.

Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, said in April that Doha was in talks with coronavirus vaccine makers to ensure all fans attending the World Cup are inoculated.

Qatar has so far recorded 220,800 coronavirus cases, including 583 deaths.

AFP

Vietnam Begs Public For ‘Vaccine Fund’ Donations After COVID-19 Surge

A file photo of the Vietnam map.

 

Vietnam, once a model for its successful handling of the pandemic, has started asking for public donations to buy vaccines as it struggles to contain a new coronavirus wave.

The Southeast Asian country has vaccinated only about one percent of its population of nearly 100 million, and authorities have become increasingly alarmed by a recent spike in cases.

Since last week, mobile phone users have received up to three text messages urging them to contribute to a Covid-19 vaccine fund, while civil servants have been encouraged to part with a day’s pay.

Some residents, fearful of the virus’ impact on Vietnam’s economy — one of the few in the world to expand last year — told AFP they support the fundraising drive.

Nguyen Tuan Anh, a civil servant, told AFP he had sent around $50 via bank transfer and SMS payment, as vaccines would mean “Vietnam’s economy will be stable and develop again”.

Vietnam’s industrial northern provinces — home to key factories such as Samsung and Foxconn — have been particularly badly hit by the latest outbreak.

Across the country, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, according to state media, with bars and restaurants forced to close in major hubs such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and public gatherings cancelled.

Cases have more than tripled since April to reach almost 9,000. Although the number is low in comparison to most of its Southeast Asian neighbours, Vietnam’s vaccination rate per capita is the lowest in the region, and among the lowest in Asia, according to an AFP tally.

The communist government has said it aims to secure 150 million vaccine doses this year to cover 70 percent of its population — at a cost of $1.1 billion.

But only $630 million has been allocated to vaccine procurement in the budget.

A financial “contribution from the community and society” is needed to make a mass roll-out possible, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh told the nation on Saturday during a live broadcast to launch the campaign.

By Tuesday, more than 231,000 individuals and organisations had donated $181 million to the campaign.

Another $140 million has been promised by businesses, the Ministry of Finance said.

However, the campaign has been shunned by some who are concerned with how the money will be spent.

“I am not sure if the donated money will be used for the sole purpose of buying vaccines to inoculate every citizen…I don’t think I have enough trust to give them my money,” said office worker Pham Mai Chi.

AFP

Over One Million Europeans Have EU COVID-19 Certificate

File: (Photo by NARINDER NANU / AFP)

 

More than one million Europeans have received the new EU Covid health certificate being rolled out to unlock travel within the bloc, the European Commission said on Tuesday.

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders announced the figure to the European Parliament ahead of a vote to enshrine the document in law in time for the continent’s all-important summer tourism season.

It is expected to be passed by a big majority after agreement between MEPs and the EU’s 27 member states on details, with the vote result known early on Wednesday.

The certificate — showing the bearer’s immunity to Covid-19 either through vaccination or previous infection, or their negative test status — is to be used for intra-EU travel from July 1, obviating the need for quarantine or further testing for travellers.

But the commission wants as many EU countries as possible to start earlier.

“The more certificates we can already issue, the easier the process will be during the summer — otherwise, we risk a big bang on the first of July, which we cannot afford,” Reynders said.

– Nine countries –

As of Tuesday, nine EU countries were already issuing the documents — including the sunny tourist destinations of Greece, Spain and Croatia, as well as the bloc’s major source of tourists, Germany.

Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Lithuania and Poland were the others.

“More than a million citizens have already received such certificates, and many more will follow in the next weeks and months,” Reynders said.

The EU Digital Covid Certificate can be presented either in online form, on a smartphone for example, or printed out on paper.

It features a QR code for verification, which border officials and venue staff can use to check against digital signatures stored securely in Luxembourg servers.

Only minimal data of the bearer are included on the certificates, to prevent identity skimming, and the EU legislation surrounding their use is due to expire after a year, so that they do not become a fixture with potential Big Brother uses in the future.

EU lawmakers and capitals also agreed that, when it comes to proof of vaccinations, only the jabs authorised by the European Medicines Agency — so far those from BioNTech/Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — would be accepted in all EU countries.

But individual countries can also decide to accept, for their territory only, others, such as one produced by China, or Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

– Money and concessions –

To prevent discrimination against the unvaccinated — particularly younger Europeans who have not yet been able to access jabs given in priority to the elderly — much emphasis has also been put on testing.

The parliament failed to make Covid tests for travel free of charge, but extracted money and concessions from the European Commission to make them more affordable.

Reynders said work was ongoing to also expand the use of the EU Digital Covid Certificate so that it is accepted beyond Europe.

Talks have been under way with the United States, for some sort of mutual recognition of vaccination status.

But have run up against the problem that there is no single federally backed certificated in the US, only a myriad of state and private vaccination cards almost impossible to authenticate abroad.

AFP

COVID-19: Global Shortage Of Vaccines Remains A Huge Challenge, FG Laments

Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire, made an appearance on Channels Television's News At 10 on August 25, 2020.
File photo: Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire, made an appearance on Channels Television’s News At 10 on August 25, 2020.

 

The Federal Government says the unpredictability of vaccine supply as a result of global shortage remains a huge challenge.

The Minister of Health, Doctor Osagie Ehanire disclosed this during the weekly presidential media chat, saying Nigeria is looking to get a donation of the COVID-19 vaccine from the Covax facility and other countries that no longer have a need for their oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.

This donation Doctor Ehanire hopes will be gotten in August 2021 at the earliest.

READ ALSO: Obaseki Flags Off COVID-19 Second Dose Vaccination In Edo

He further explained that the local production of the COVID-19 vaccine is not yet feasible owing to the high cost of conducting clinical trials that run into millions of dollars.

The health minister indicated that there is no supplementary budget yet as he declined to disclose the country’s financial commitment towards procuring additional vaccines.

Although a budget is not yet in place, Doctor Ehanire highlighted that the country has begun putting strategies in place towards potentially becoming a vaccine production hub in Africa.

Canada Extends Shelf Life Of AstraZeneca Jab By One Month

Files: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

 

Canadian health authorities announced Saturday they were pushing back the expiration date on nearly 50,000 doses of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine by one month.

Health Canada said in a statement its approval to extend the shelf life of two lots of vaccine from May 31 to July 1 was supported by “scientific evidence.”

“This change will ensure that provinces and territories are able to use up their existing inventory and provide Canadians access to much needed doses of the vaccine,” the agency said.

A spokesperson for Health Canada said that as of May 22, there were about 49,000 doses of AstraZeneca in the country with an expiration date of May 31. CBC reported that most were in Ontario province.

Canadian health authorities had previously approved a six-month shelf life for AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine.

READ ALSO: France Threatens To Pull Troops Out Of Mali

But they said they received information from the company on May 27 including “product stability and mathematical modelling data” that showed the two lots could be safely and effectively used for an extra month.

Several provinces announced this month their decision to suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people receiving their first shot, due to rare instances of blood clots.

But Canadians who had received a first AstraZeneca dose were able to get their scheduled second dose.

Just over 55 percent of Canada’s 38 million people have received one dose of Covid-19 vaccine, and 5 percent have received two doses.

In addition to AstraZeneca, vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are approved for use in Canada.

AFP

Indonesia Arrests Four For Stealing Vaccines Meant For Prisoners

File photo: FAJRIN RAHARJO / AFP.

 

Four people have been arrested in Indonesia for allegedly stealing Covid-19 vaccines marked for prisoners and selling them to the public, authorities said Tuesday.

The suspects took more than 1,000 doses made by China’s Sinovac from the prisoners’ quota, offering them to buyers in the capital Jakarta and in North Sumatra’s Medan city for around 250,000 rupiah ($17) each.

The four arrested included a doctor at a prison in Medan and a local health official, police said. They could face a life sentence if convicted under Indonesia’s anti-corruption law.

“One of the suspects brought the vaccines to Jakarta where we also uncovered some locations providing the service,” North Sumatra police spokesman Hadi Wahyudi told AFP Tuesday.

READ ALSO: Australia To Close Embassy In Afghanistan Over Security Fears

Indonesia has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and it is rolling out a massive vaccination programme for many of its nearly 270 million people.

Citizens get shots at no cost.

But tens of millions are still waiting for their jabs, with limited supplies prioritised for frontline health workers and other high-risk groups — including the inmates at Indonesia’s overcrowded prisons.

The country’s prison system is notorious for poor conditions and rights groups have warned about the risk of coronavirus outbreaks in jails across the archipelago.

The arrests come after a separate vaccine scandal in North Sumatra this month, when police said they found health workers at Medan’s airport were recycling cotton swabs from Covid-19 tests by washing and repackaging them.

The scheme could have affected thousands of passengers tested at the airport, they said.

Indonesia has officially reported more than 1.7 million cases of coronavirus and nearly 50,000 deaths.

AFP

 

Hungary Opts Out Of New EU Vaccine Contract

File: Matyas BORSOS / AFP.

 

Hungary has opted out of the latest EU contract to purchase the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine after sealing early deals for supplies of jabs from Russia and China, a minister said Thursday.

“We do not wish to take part in the new European joint vaccine purchasing procedure,” said Gergely Gulyas, minister in Orban’s office.

He told reporters that half of Hungary’s 9.8 million-strong population had already received at least one anti-Covid-19 dose and the country still had plenty of vaccines in reserve.

“If we have to vaccinate the population again in the autumn, Hungary will be ready,” Gulyas added.

EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced the latest deal to buy up to 1.8 billion doses from US pharma giant Pfizer and German laboratory BioNTech in the name of all 27 EU members states on May 8.

“Only Hungary has requested that it will opt out and therefore will not be covered by the contract,” said EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides in Brussels on Thursday.

“We were informed about it,” she added.

“All other member states will have the opportunity to purchase vaccines under the new contract.”

The decision is the latest example of disunity between Budapest and its partners in the EU, where accusations of authoritarianism on the part of Viktor Orban’s government have raised tensions.

Budapest was quick to order Beijing’s Sinopharm and the Sputnik vaccine from Moscow, without waiting for EU approval.

Hungary has also been using the four EU-approved vaccines (Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson).

Since the pandemic struck, Hungary has registered 29,380 Covid-19 deaths — one of the highest mortality rates in the world, according to an AFP tally.

AFP

Austria To Phase Out AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine

File Photo: Ina FASSBENDER / AFP

 

Austria will phase out AstraZeneca from its Covid-19 immunisation programme because of delivery problems and wariness among the population following reports of the vaccine’s rare side effects, the health minister said.

Austria becomes the third European country to drop AstraZeneca, after Norway and Denmark ditched the vaccine over rare cases of severe blood clots in people receiving the jab.

“We will probably continue to do first shots with AstraZeneca until early June, and then that’s it… AstraZeneca will be discontinued,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein told private TV channel Puls 24 late Monday.

Mueckstein said those who received a first shot of AstraZeneca would still get a second shot of the vaccine, but officials would determine which other vaccine to use for any refresher jabs later.

Mueckstein, a doctor himself, insisted AstraZeneca was “safe” but said Austria had taken the decision to discontinue it because of “bad compliance among the population”, “bad press” and “delivery problems”.

The European Commission is suing the British-Swedish pharmaceutical group over its failure to deliver millions of doses of its vaccine.

A third of Austria’s nine million people has received at least one Covid-19 shot.

The European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization both recommend continued use of the vaccine, arguing that the benefits far outweigh the associated risks.

AFP