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Global Virus Update: South Africa variant found in Unit...



Global Virus Update: South Africa variant found in United States; New York City vaccine shortage eases

(Photo: Adobe Stock)
By Bloomberg
28 Jan 2021 0

South Africa on Thursday registered a further 7,150 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 1,437,798. A further 555 Covid-19 related deaths were reported. This brings the total to 43,105 deaths.

The coronavirus variant identified in South Africa has reached the US with two cases diagnosed in South Carolina, the state reported. The cases were not related, and neither person had a known history of travel.

New York City is starting to see the logjam on vaccines ease up slightly, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. 

New York may have had twice as many coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes than the official count of more than 8,700 reflects, state Attorney-General Letitia James said.

Germany cast doubt on the effectiveness of AstraZeneca’s shot for the elderly. The European Union is poised to tighten rules on the export of vaccines, risking a major escalation in the global battle to secure access to the life-saving shots. Irish officials said the UK variant isn’t more deadly than other strains.

Key developments:

  • Global Tracker: Cases exceed 101 million; deaths pass 2.1 million
  • Vaccine Tracker: More than 82.5 million shots given worldwide
  • Covid-19 pandemic added $19.5-trillion to global debt
  • EU poised to tighten rules on the export of Covid-19 vaccines
  • Biden’s new CDC director takes over institution in crisis
  • How vaccine nationalism flares over scarce supplies: QuickTake
  • Why vaccines might not be able to eliminate Covid-19: QuickTake
  • US hotspots: Cases drop most in West but relief may be brief

Irish officials say UK variant isn’t more deadly

Irish officials are not convinced the so-called UK variant of the virus is more deadly than other strains, with no sign that it is more threatening so far.

While the variant is more transmissible, there is “no signal in the Irish data that the increasing prevalence of the UK variant, the B117 variant, was associated with any increase in mortality”, health ministry adviser Philip Nolan told reporters in Dublin.

Ireland reported 1,466 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, with 47 deaths. The so-called reproduction number is now between 0.4 and 0.7, Nolan said.

Warren slams $5.2m bonus after nursing-home Covid deaths 

Senator Elizabeth Warren is fuming over the “inexplicable and unseemly decision” to pay a $5.2-million “retention bonus” to a nursing home industry CEO after more than 2,800 residents died from Covid-19 in the company’s facilities.

In a letter to Genesis HealthCare released on Thursday, the Massachusetts Democrat said the company approved “exorbitant” bonuses to former CEO George V Hager Jr and other top executives after receiving more than $300-million in state and federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to help keep the struggling company afloat.

EU ramps up vaccine battle

The European Union is poised to tighten rules on the export of Covid-19 vaccines, risking a major escalation in the global battle to secure access to the life-saving shots.

With EU governments under fire over the shortfall in deliveries from drugmakers including AstraZeneca, the EU’s executive arm will on Friday require companies seeking to ship the inoculations outside the bloc to obtain prior authorisation.

European Council President Charles Michel has also raised the prospect of effectively seizing control of vaccine production if those measures fail to get the programme back on track, a European official said.

Denmark extends lockdown

Denmark is extending restrictions after registering an increase in more contagious strains of the coronavirus. The country’s lockdown will stretch until February 28, three weeks longer than previously planned, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said on Thursday.

“The mutations have changed the rules of the game,” she said.

Portugal reports record cases

Portugal said it will introduce limits for citizens wanting to travel abroad as it tries to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The government will limit departures by air and land, with some exceptions, during the next 15 days, Home Affairs Minister Eduardo Cabrita said in Parliament.

The country is currently facing one of the world’s worst outbreaks and on Thursday reported the highest number of new confirmed coronavirus cases in a day since the start of the pandemic.

South Africa variant identified in US

South Carolina reported two cases of the coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa – the first cases found in the US, the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) reported.

The department said the infected people had no known history of travel, and there was no connection between the two cases.

“The arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 variant in our state is an important reminder to all South Carolinians that the fight against this deadly virus is far from over,” said Dr Brannon Traxler, DHEC interim public health director. 

“While more Covid-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognising that we are all on the front lines now. We are all in this together.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Infection said it has no evidence that the variant causes more severe disease. It said, however, that preliminary data suggests the variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants.

Italy cases slow

Italy reported 14,372 cases on Thursday, down from 15,204 a day earlier, when the country reached 2.5 million total cases. The test positivity rate was unchanged at 5.2% while Covid-19-related deaths rose to 492 from 467 a day earlier. Hospitalised patients fell by 447 to 23,066, the lowest since November 2.

Separately, a study by Bambino Gesu hospital on vaccinated health workers there showed that 99% of vaccinated staff developed antibodies 21 days after the first shot, according to a press release.

New York may have undercounted nursing-home deaths

New York state may have had twice as many coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes than the official count of more than 8,700 reflects, state Attorney-General Letitia James said.

The Attorney-General’s Office released a report on Thursday saying the state Health Department erred in counting Covid-19 fatalities and detailed a lack of compliance with infection-control policies at many nursing homes.

The report comes as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration faces intense scrutiny for not releasing complete nursing-home death data months after the initial wave of the pandemic.

New York City vaccine shortage easing, De Blasio says

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is starting to see the logjam on vaccines ease up slightly. New York state freed up an additional 18,000 vaccine doses that were being reserved for administration at nursing homes. Governor Andrew Cuomo said only 44% of nursing home staff have been vaccinated, as some employees have refused the vaccine. About three-quarters of nursing home residents statewide have been vaccinated.

New York City, which has administered nearly 700,000 doses since it began its inoculation drive in December, says it will now reopen 15 vaccination hubs it closed due to vaccine shortages.

Cases and hospitalisations in the city are also declining from their all-time highs in January, following the winter holidays. The seven-day average of new cases dropped to 4,561 on Tuesday, dipping below 5,000 for the first time since January 3.

Almost 20% of UK workforce furloughed

Almost one in five of the UK workforce was on furlough leave as a third national lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus got under way, according to figures published on Thursday.

The report will raise concerns that removing government lifelines for jobs could wreak havoc on the economy following the worst slump in three centuries last year. Pulling the plug would threaten to decimate consumer spending, the engine of growth.

The figures come a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson put England on notice that the national lockdown will continue for at least another six weeks.

Germany recommends Astra Covid shot only for people under 65

Germany’s immunisation commission recommended that AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine be authorised only for people between the ages of 18 and 64, saying there was insufficient information on the shot’s effectiveness for people over 65 years old, according to a draft assessment released on Thursday by the country’s health ministry.

The recommendation comes a day before the European Union’s drug regulator is expected to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine, which would be the third shot cleared for use in the bloc. The EU has struggled to scale up its vaccine programme, with the UK administering three times as many doses per capita as the most advanced country on the continent, Denmark.

While the panel’s recommendations aren’t legally binding, they’re the basis for Germany’s state and federal vaccination guidelines. AstraZeneca shares traded 2.2% lower at 1:10pm in London.

Hungary eases vaccine approval

Hungary simplified the process to get vaccines approved as the government seeks speedier alternatives to the European Union’s joint procurement programme.

Any vaccine that’s been used on more than one million people can get emergency approval according to a decree, Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyas said at a briefing on Thursday. The government considers it “very important” to quickly rubberstamp the Sinopharm vaccine from China, he said.

UK offers help to EU

The UK signalled it may provide assistance to the European Union as the bloc weighs options to safeguard Covid-19 vaccine supplies amid a severe disruption from AstraZeneca.

“We will want to talk to and with our friends in Europe to see how we can help,” UK Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said on Thursday on ITV. “But the really important thing is to make sure our own vaccination programme proceeds precisely as planned,” he added.

The potential UK offer comes after the EU failed to convince the drugmaker at a meeting on Wednesday to divert doses from Britain to make up for a production glitch in the continent.

Novartis seeks to make Covid vaccines or drugs

Novartis is in talks to help produce other companies’ Covid-19 vaccines or treatments, potentially adding another pharma giant’s resources to boost supply as fights over access intensify.

The company is “in conversations with a range of different players”, Chief Executive Officer Vas Narasimhan said on Bloomberg TV, with an agreement possible in the coming days or weeks.

German incidence rate falls to three-month low

Germany’s seven-day incidence rate fell below 100 for the first time since October 29 on Thursday, suggesting lockdown restrictions in place since early November are working. The rate dropped to 98 but it remains almost double the level the government has deemed to be manageable.

The number of Covid-infected patients in intensive care units has been falling since the turn of the year and is currently at a six-week low.

China says WHO members to start site visits

WHO’s team investigating the roots of the coronavirus pandemic ended quarantine on Thursday and will begin site visits, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular briefing in Beijing. The experts will conduct joint studies, field visits and seminars, Zhao said.

South Africa deaths may have peaked

The number of people dying in South Africa from Covid-19 during a resurgence of the disease may have peaked, according to a report on excess deaths published by the South African Medical Research Council. The number of excess deaths fell to 13,374 in the week ending January 23 from a crest of 15,486 the week earlier.

Earlier, South Africa announced that the first vaccines will arrive on February 1, signalling the start of an inoculation programme that has been criticised for its tardiness. The first million of 1.5 million doses of the shot developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford and produced by the Serum Institute of India will be ready for distribution 10 to 14 days later.

Studies show Pfizer vaccine effective against variants

Pfizer and BioNTech said results of studies indicate their vaccine is effective against both the UK and South Africa variants.

Research found that neutralisation against the virus with key mutations present in the South African variant was slightly lower compared to neutralisation of virus containing other mutations. But the companies believe the small difference is unlikely to lead to a significant reduction in the effectiveness of the vaccine. DM

With assistance by Ian Fisher, Antony Sguazzin, Francois De Beaupuy, Andrew Blackman, Rudy Ruitenberg, Rachel Chang, Hugo Miller, Charles Daly, Teaganne Finn, Henry Goldman, Marco Bertacche, Joao Lima, and Souhail Karam


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