The EU disease agency ECDC on Thursday urged countries to prepare more stringent measures and speed up vaccine campaigns in the coming weeks because of the risks of more infectious variants of the novel coronavirus.
The European Centre Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in a new report that countries in the EU and European Economic Area “should expect increased numbers of COVID-19 cases due to the gradual spread and possible dominance of the variants with increased transmissibility.”
“The key message is to prepare for a rapid escalation of the stringency of response measures in the coming weeks to safeguard healthcare capacity and to accelerate vaccination campaigns,” the agency said.
According to the agency the “rate and scale” of the spread would depend on the level of prevention measures and adherence to those measures.
The ECDC said that some 16,800 cases of a new more infectious variant of the novel coronavirus had been identified in the UK, where it was first discovered and some 2,000 cases in 60 countries around the world as of Tuesday, of which 1,300 cases were in 23 countries in the EU and EEA area.
Around 570 cases of another variant, also more infectious, first discovered in South Africa have been detected in 23 countries, with 27 cases in 10 EU/EEA countries, in addition to the 349 cases confirmed in South Africa as of January 13.
The ECDC also urged members to monitor changes in transmission rates or infection severity to identify and assess the circulation and impact of variants, and also to prepare laboratories for increased testing.
It also said countries should increase the number of vaccination centres and vaccination staff to speed up the rollout of the Covid-19 jabs.
Even though many countries have already begun vaccinations and have strict measures in place the ECDC cautioned against relaxing measures, “since the population groups driving transmission will not be targeted with vaccination for some months.”
It said because of the evidence of higher transmissibility of the new variants, authorities should be ready to enforce even stricter measures, “communicating and engaging with the population to encourage compliance”.
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.
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.
More than 99,000 coronavirus cases were recorded in the United States in the past 24 hours, a new daily record, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
The country reported 99,660 new infections between 8:30 pm Tuesday and 8:30 pm Wednesday (0130 GMT), and 1,112 deaths, the tally by the Baltimore-based school showed a day after American’s went voted to choose their next president.
More than 9.4 million people have been infected and 233,000 have died in the US so far during the pandemic, by far the worst tolls in absolute terms globally.
Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State has called on northern traditional rulers not to relent in spearheading the campaigns to avoid the spread of coronavirus pandemic in the region, stressing that the cost of treating COVID-19 patients is very expensive.
The governor who made the call on Monday at the executive committee meeting of the traditional rulers chaired by the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar, noted that it costs about N400,000 to treat one COVID-19 patient.
While noting that traditional rulers have critical roles to play in ensuring that people at the grassroots adhere to government’s directives as part of measures to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus and other diseases, El-Rufai told the customary leader that treating the infected is digging a big hole in the government’s coffers.
He, however, said that the challenges in the treatment of the pandemic make it imperative that people desist from activities that will promote the spread of the virus in the northern region and the country at large.
Traditional rulers from the nineteen northern States met in Kaduna on Monday to discuss the security and socio-economic challenges confronting the region particularly in the southern part of the state.
The meeting was chaired by the Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar.
In his remarks, the Sultan of Sokoto while describing the killings in Southern Kaduna as total madness, said the time has come for all stakeholders including government and traditional rulers to rise up and find solutions to the lingering crises.
The National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) has embarked on a nationwide strike to press home its demand.
The union says the strike is coming on the heels of the inability of the Federal Government to meet its yearnings in June this year.
The demands by the doctors include a pay rise, better welfare, and adequate facilities, union leaders said.
The industrial action by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), which represents some 40 percent of doctors, is the latest in a string of stoppages by medics to hit Africa’s most populous nation as it struggles to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“We have kicked off the strike today,” NARD president Aliyu Sokomba told AFP, adding that medics treating virus cases would join the action this time around.
The United States on Sunday reached the extraordinary milestone of five million coronavirus cases as President Donald Trump was accused of flouting the constitution by unilaterally extending a virus relief package.
The US has been hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic, recording nearly 163,000 deaths — by far the highest of any country, ahead only of Brazil, which on Saturday became the second country to pass 100,000 deaths.
The global death toll is at least 727,288 since the novel coronavirus emerged in China last December, according to a running tally from official sources compiled by AFP.
Nearly 20 million cases have been registered worldwide — probably reflecting only a fraction of the actual number of infections.
As around much of the globe, the small African country of Malawi on Sunday imposed tight social restrictions to try to contain the disease, shutting all bars and churches, while hot weekend weather drew crowds in Europe to the beach.
In Washington, the new virus relief package — announced by Trump on Saturday after talks between Republican and Democrat lawmakers hit a wall — was “absurdly unconstitutional,” senior Democrat Nancy Pelosi told CNN.
Fellow Democrat and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, appearing on ABC, dismissed Trump’s unilateral measures as “unworkable, weak and far too narrow.”
But with the nation’s economy still struggling to dig itself out of an enormous hole, Democrats appeared skittish about any legal challenge to a relief package they see as seriously inadequate.
The four executive orders Trump signed Saturday at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey will, among other things, defer payroll taxes and provide some temporary unemployment benefits.
The president was seen as keen to show himself taking decisive action ahead of a November 3 election that could see him ousted from office, with polls showing a large majority of voters unhappy with his handling of the crisis.
On Sunday night, Trump blamed what he called Democratic stubbornness for his being forced to take executive action.
“The Democrats were unwilling to do anything,” Trump told reporters as he boarded Air Force One to return to Washington.
“It was time to act,” he said. “We have to get money out to the people.”
Democrats say the president’s orders infringe on Congress’s constitutional authority over the federal budget.
But Pelosi demurred when asked about possible legal action, saying, “Whether (it was) legal or not takes time to figure out.”
White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow defended the new measures.
“Maybe we’re going to go to court on them. We’re going to go ahead with our actions anyway,” he said.
Trump’s Democratic opponent in the presidential election, Joe Biden, tweeted that five million coronavirus cases was “a number that boggles the mind and breaks the heart.
“It shouldn’t have gotten this bad,” he said.
The US on Sunday had added 47,197 new cases in 24 hours, with 532 additional deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
US fatalities now total 162,913, and the number of infections is 5,041,473, the Baltimore-based university said.
Elsewhere, growing infections in and around Paris prompted French officials to make face masks compulsory outdoors in crowded areas and tourist hotspots in the city and surrounding areas from Monday.
The mask will be obligatory for all those aged 11 and over in “very crowded zones,” said a police statement, including the banks of the Seine River and more than 100 streets in the French capital.
As temperatures soared across western Europe, holidaymakers crowded beaches at the weekend despite warnings about the risk of infection.
Local authorities in Germany warned that some beaches and lakes would be closed if there were too many people.
Belgian police meanwhile arrested several people Saturday at the resort of Blankenberge after a brawl broke out on a beach between officers and youths they had told to leave for refusing to respect virus safety measures.
Around 5,000 people demonstrated in Vienna for increased financial support for nightlife and relaxing coronavirus regulations.
In Peru, indigenous people armed with spears and angry over what they consider government neglect of their communities in the pandemic assaulted a settlement for oil workers deep in the Amazon, triggering a clash with police that left three natives dead, the government said Sunday.
Back in the US, in another burst of defiance over health warnings, thousands of bikers converged on a town in South Dakota for what is billed as the largest cycle gathering in the world.
In past years, the 10-day rally in Sturgis has drawn hundreds of thousands of bikers to socialize, drink and party together — raising fears among some locals that this year’s version could be a superspreader event.
President Donald Trump on Thursday said that a vaccine may be produced ahead of the US presidential election on November 3 — a more optimistic timeline than given by his top infectious diseases doctor.
Asked by radio talk show host Geraldo Rivera whether a vaccine could come by the election, Trump said: “I think in some cases, yes, possible before. But right around that time.”
Trump said the vaccine would be ready “sooner than the end of the year. Could be much sooner.”
“We have a lot of vaccines under study by the way. We look like we’re going to be really good on vaccines and therapeutics also,” he said.
A more careful note was sounded on Wednesday by Dr Anthony Fauci, a lead government official on the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Fauci said he was “cautiously optimistic” of success and that “somewhere towards the end of the year, the beginning of 2021, we will know whether they have a safe and effective vaccine.”
The Trump administration is pouring federal funds into vaccine development, seen as the only way to stop the virus and end the mass shutdowns and social distancing that have crippled economies around the world.
Europe hit more than three million coronavirus cases on Thursday, while spiking infection numbers from Belgium to Tokyo and Melbourne led authorities to reimpose restrictions on citizens.
While EU lawmakers combed through a huge aid package for their economies, the UN called for a basic income for the world’s poorest to help slow the spread of the pandemic, and the Red Cross warned of “massive” new migration caused by the economic devastation.
The European continent now accounts for a fifth of the world’s more than 15 million cases and remains the hardest hit in terms of deaths, with 206,633 out of 627,307 worldwide.
A 750-billion-euro post-coronavirus recovery plan was hammered out at an EU summit this week, where fiscally-rigid nations butted heads with hard-hit countries like Spain and Italy that have called for huge aid grants.
EU chief Charles Michel said the total stimulus would eventually reach 1.8 trillion euros ($2.2 trillion).
“This moment, it’s my conviction, is pivotal in European history. We acted fast and with urgency,” Michel told the bloc’s parliament in Brussels.
“Europe’s response is greater than that of the United States or China,” he said.
Meanwhile, the UN warned that the world’s poorest also need help.
Funding of $199 billion per month would provide 2.7 billion people with a temporary basic income and the “means to buy food and pay for health and education expenses”, the UN Development Programme said.
“Bailouts and recovery plans cannot only focus on big markets and big business,” said UNDP administrator Achim Steiner.
UN projections have warned the virus could kill 1.67 million people in 30 low-income countries.
The knock-on effects will also be huge, warned Red Cross chief Jagan Chapagain.
“Many people who are losing livelihoods, once the borders start opening, will feel compelled to move,” he told AFP.
“We should not be surprised if there is a massive impact on migration in the coming months and years.”
– Plateaus and fresh spikes –
By far the worst-hit country in the world with close to four million cases and more than 143,000 deaths, the United States reported some stabilisation of its outbreak.
New cases appear to be plateauing in hotspots like Arizona and Florida, even if officials warn that current levels would continue to strain hospitals.
But as the Americas continue to be ravaged by the pandemic, Bolivia announced it was delaying its general election by six weeks to October.
Elsewhere, there were signs that the virus can quickly re-emerge when lockdown measures are lifted.
Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong and the Japanese capital Tokyo all had early successes in containing outbreaks, but are now facing an upsurge, prompting new restrictions.
Anyone venturing out in Australia’s second-biggest city Melbourne will have to wear a mask. The same will be true in Belgium’s outdoor markets and busy areas from Saturday.
“These measures are not advice, they are orders,” Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes said.
“Announcing a strengthening of the rules is a hard blow for our morale, but we’d prefer to take these measures today than to regret it tomorrow.”
South Africa’s Medical Research Council has reported a 60-percent increase in overall numbers of natural deaths in recent weeks, suggesting a much higher toll of coronavirus-related fatalities in Africa’s worst-hit nation.
– ‘Untrue, unacceptable’ –
The politics around the virus continued, with WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus rejecting an allegation by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he owed his position to a deal with China.
Tedros said the claim was “untrue and unacceptable” and warned against the “politicisation of the pandemic”.
Meanwhile in France, while the number of foreign tourists in Paris, the world’s most visited city, has dwindled during a two-month lockdown, there has been a noticeable increase in home-grown visitors.
“Most clients are clearly French, with lots of families,” said a spokesman for catering firm Sodexo, adding that the chic Jules Verne restaurant on the Eiffel tower was booked solid every night in July.
There was also good news for basketball fans in China, who will be allowed back into stadiums from Sunday.
The Chinese Basketball Association on June 20 became the first league to return to action in China following a nearly five-month stoppage.
The production of a vaccine is now seen as key to ensuring a return to something close to normality.
More than 200 candidate drugs are being developed, with 23 having progressed to clinical trials.