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CORONAVIRUS

Global Virus Update: US Cases Hit 4-Month Low; WHO Clears Astra Shot; SA registers 1,102 new cases

Global Virus Update: US Cases Hit 4-Month Low; WHO Clears Astra Shot; SA registers 1,102 new cases
(Photo: EPA-EFE / Giuseppe Lami)

South Africa registered a further 1,102 new Covid-19 cases on Sunday, bringing the cumulative total to 1,492,909. A further 195 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, bringing the total to 48,094 deaths.

The US recorded the lowest daily number of new coronavirus infections since 25 October, before a holiday season surge sent case numbers soaring.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is hoping to draw up plans to lift national pandemic restrictions on socialising, shopping and travelling to work, including possible target dates for when the curbs will be eased.

Germany tightened its borders to halt more infectious variants spreading, prompting Austria’s government to warn against “excessive” steps. Austria won’t reopen restaurants, bars, and cafes before the Easter holiday. In Italy, a health ministry adviser called for a new lockdown, citing the rise in virus cases linked to new strains.

New Zealand imposed a three-day shutdown on Auckland with the discovery of several local cases, bringing a halt to the country’s summer of unrestricted movement.

Key developments:

WHO clears Astra vaccine for emergency use 

The World Health Organisation cleared AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use, adding its official approval to a shot that’s expected to speed up inoculations in developing countries.

The WHO validated two versions of the vaccine, produced with SK Bioscience of South Korea and the Serum Institute of India.

The formal approval follows a recommendation by the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation to allow the vaccine to be administered to all adults over 18. That guidance differs from the approach taken by some European Union countries that have restricted its use in the elderly, citing insufficient trial data.

No deaths in Ireland — first time since 21 December

Ireland reported its first day without Covid-19 deaths in nearly two months, amid what officials called “very considerable progress” in suppressing the virus. There were 821 new cases on Monday, with no deaths, the first day without fatalities since 21 December.

The virus is “going in the right direction, but we’re not there yet,” Deputy Chief Medical Officer Ronan Glynn told reporters in Dublin.

Johnson aims to ease UK lockdown

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is hoping to draw up plans to lift national pandemic restrictions on socialising, shopping and travelling to work, including possible target dates for when the curbs will be eased.

“We want this lockdown to be the last,” he said at a news conference from 10 Downing Street on Monday. “We want progress to be cautious but irreversible.”

Johnson has confirmed his priority will be to try to reopen schools from 8 March, but no decision has yet been made on whether all age groups will return to classrooms at the same time. He said he would unveil the earliest potential dates for removing restrictions from other sectors, “if we possibly can”.

EU in talks for more Moderna doses

The European Union may secure an extra 150 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine produced by Moderna as the bloc seeks to accelerate inoculations, according to an EU official familiar with the matter.

The deal being arranged by the European Commission would bring to 310 million the total number of vaccine doses from Moderna for EU countries. The deliveries of the additional 150 million doses would be for the third quarter, according to the official, who added that negotiations are quite advanced.

US reports fewest cases since October

The US recorded 65,336 new infections on Sunday, the lowest daily number since 25 October, before a holiday surge sent case numbers soaring, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg.

UK cases drop

The UK reported 9,765 new cases of coronavirus, compared with a 7-day average of 13,200, the government said. The last time the UK reported fewer than 10,000 new cases was on 2 October.

Austria extends hospitality shutdown

Austria won’t reopen restaurants, bars and cafes before the Easter holiday as new mutations from the UK and South Africa render the situation “volatile,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.

Decisions about easing will be made in two weeks at the earliest, he said.

Portuguese premier gets jab

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa was given his first vaccine dose in Lisbon on Monday, the premier’s office said. Some leaders in Western Europe have shied away from being inoculated for fear of being accused of jumping the queue. Portugal aims to have 70% of its adult population vaccinated by the end of the summer.

UK’s reopening agenda

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will lay out plans to lift curbs, including where possible target dates for when the restrictions will be eased. The premier will detail his “road map” for ending lockdown in a statement on 22 February.

“What we want to see is progress that is cautious and irreversible,” Johnson said in a pooled interview with broadcasters. Johnson said his priority remained to reopen schools from 8 March.

German border worries

Travel restrictions at Germany’s border with the Czech Republic risk severing automotive supply lines that could spark a wave of production stoppages, according to Germany’s VDA automaker association. BMW AG and Volkswagen AG operate plants in Bavaria and Saxony that depend on car parts particularly from the Czech Republic. Traffic lines appeared at some border crossings, according to local media reports.

From Sunday, only German citizens and residents in the country are allowed to enter Germany from the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol region, two zones where more infectious variants of coronavirus are widespread. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg cautioned Germany against “excessive” steps.

On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman left open the possibility of further border closures with neighbouring countries as a last resort to combat the pandemic.

Danish vaccinations accelerate

All adult Danes can be vaccinated by June 27, a week earlier than previous estimates, because Pfizer can deliver more doses than expected, the nation’s health authority said. So far, about 4% of the population has received a first jab and just under 3% have received both shots.

Malaysia makes progress

Malaysia added 2,176 new coronavirus cases on Monday, the smallest number since 5 January. The country also expects the first batch of vaccines this week, Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa said.

EU to fast-track approval for adapted vaccine

European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides announced fast-track approval procedures for coronavirus vaccines that need to be adapted to protect against Covid-19 mutations, Germany’s Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper reported on Sunday, citing an interview.

“We have now decided that a vaccine that has been reworked by the manufacturer on the basis of the previous vaccine to combat new mutations no longer has to go through the entire approval process,” the paper quoted Kyriakides as saying.

Italy health adviser calls for new lockdown

Italian health ministry adviser Walter Ricciardi called over the weekend for a new lockdown, citing the rise in virus cases linked to new strains. The government of incoming Prime Minister Mario Draghi was forced to make a last-minute U-turn on the planned opening of ski lifts on Monday throughout the country, ruling that they will remain closed until at least 5 March. Politicians in the mountainous north denounced the decision, calling for an immediate shakeup of the country’s health-management team.

Thailand to get first vaccines by end of month

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said the nation’s first batch of Covid-19 vaccines would arrive in the last week of the month. The 200,000 shots from Sinovac Biotech should be approved by the nation’s Food and Drug Administration in time for the first vaccinations, which are expected to begin about three days after receiving the doses.

Thailand on Monday reported 143 new cases, which took the nation’s total infections to 24,714. It also had two new fatalities, resulting in 82 total deaths.

South Africa to start vaccine rollout on 17 February

South African healthcare workers will receive the first doses after regulators approved the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Business Day reported, citing Glenda Gray, president of the country’s Medical Research Council.

About 80,000 doses of J&J’s vaccine, which come from stock made for clinical trials, are expected to arrive from Belgium on Tuesday, according to Business Day. The rollout was hamstrung when the government failed to quickly secure doses and was then delayed further because some vaccines showed muted efficacy against a locally found variant.

Australia, New Zealand get vaccines

Australia’s first vaccines arrived in Sydney, with more than 142,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine landing at Sydney airport, Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Canberra. The nation is on track for the most vulnerable Australians to start receiving the vaccine from 22 February.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the first batch of shots had arrived, with about 60,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine delivered in Auckland. The inoculation of border workers will begin on 20 February, while a wider rollout to the general population won’t take place until the second half.

Japan to begin vaccinations on Wednesday

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Japan will begin vaccinations from Wednesday on medical personnel after the shot from Pfizer was approved over the weekend. The government has agreed to buy enough Pfizer doses for 72 million people this year, and the first batch arrived on Friday.

Suga told a parliamentary committee Japan needed to ensure that infections were falling before cancelling a state of emergency in effect for 10 regions including Tokyo and Osaka.

NZ has a reality check as Auckland locks down

New Zealand’s summer of unrestricted movement and social interaction has been brought to an abrupt halt by three new community cases of Covid-19.

After an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern placed largest city Auckland into a snap, three-day lockdown and reimposed physical distancing requirements for the rest of the country while authorities raced to find the source of the new infections. Genomic sequencing shows them to be the more virulent UK strain of the virus, the Ministry of Health said on Monday. DM

— With assistance by Mark Schoifet, Jerrold Colten, Nikos Chrysoloras, Peter Flanagan, and Corinne Gretler.

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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