CORONAVIRUS

Global Virus Update: New York City gets first J&J shots; Italy blocks vaccines; South Africa reports 96 deaths — total at 50,462

By Bloomberg 4 March 2021

Health workers receive a Covid-19 vaccine at George Mukhari Hospital in Pretoria. (Photo: Gallo Images / Lefty Shivambu)

South Africa registered 1,404 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 1,517,666. A further 96 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, bringing the total to 50,462 deaths.

New York City has received its first delivery of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. Vaccine manufacturers face a global shortage of raw materials, the head of the world’s biggest vaccine maker and the World Health Organisation said.

Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine that was destined for Australia. 

The European Union’s health regulator started a rolling review of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, the first major step in gaining approval for the shot’s use in the region.

Countries where more than half of adults are overweight have recorded Covid-19 mortality rates more than 10 times higher than other nations.

Key developments:

Kuwait imposes curfew

Kuwait has imposed a partial curfew as daily cases jumped to the highest on record. The curfew comes into force from March 7 between 5am and 5pm for a month, the Council of Ministers said in a statement. The Gulf nation reported 1,716 new cases on Thursday, taking the total to 196,497 with 1,105 deaths.

Alabama to lift mask rule in April

Governor Kay Ivey said she’ll let Alabama’s mask mandate expire on April 9, as she announced immediate easing of other restrictions. “Folks, we’re not there yet, but we’re getting close,” she tweeted. She said the mask mandate has been “in place for more than a generous amount of time because it has helped”. She said businesses that wish to continue requiring masks will have until then to devise policies.

This week, Texas and neighbouring Mississippi ended their mask mandates. 

After cases and hospitalisations plunged, Alabama’s new changes lift limits on the number of people allowed at tables in bars and restaurants and allow two visitors at a time to nursing homes instead of one.

Fraud in Colorado jobless claims

An estimated 1.1 million fraudulent claims for unemployment insurance have been filed in Colorado since the start of the pandemic, exceeding the number of legitimate claims, Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said at a Thursday news conference. 

Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, the state was investigating just 90 fraudulent claims, Barela said. The state has launched a task force to crack down on the fraud, Colorado Attorney-General Phil Weiser said. There’s no evidence state labour department computers were hacked, officials said.

‘Gentlemen’s club’ loses PPP bid

A western New York “gentlemen’s club” lost its bid for a court-ordered PPP loan guarantee, with the Second Circuit holding the business is unlikely to succeed in challenging regulations that bar such establishments from receiving government-backed relief loans.

Pharaohs GC is challenging Small Business Administration regulations that prevent bar businesses presenting “live performances of a prurient sexual nature” from being eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program loans. 

The club alleges the restriction violates the Administrative Procedure Act and went against the First and Fifth Amendments, stating that nude dancing is a protected form of expression.

New York City gets first J&J shots

New York City has received 16,300 Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses, its first delivery of the one-shot vaccine, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. The city will use the J&J shots to begin vaccinating home-bound seniors, the mayor said in a Thursday briefing. De Blasio said when he becomes eligible to get the vaccine, he hopes to get the J&J shot. 

The city surpassed two million vaccinations this week and the city’s health commissioner has said vaccines may be available to all residents by late April.

Zimbabwe approves Indian vaccine

Zimbabwe has become the first African country to authorise the use of India’s only homegrown coronavirus vaccine, which the developers this week said showed strong efficacy.

The first batch of Covaxin, which was co-developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech International and the Indian Council of Medical Research is due to arrive shortly, the Indian embassy in the southern African nation said on its Twitter account.

Italy blocks export of Astra vaccine

Italy has blocked a shipment of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to Australia, using a recently introduced European Union regulation, in a move that risks triggering a global backlash.

The move comes after Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called during an EU summit last week for a tougher approach against companies that don’t respect their delivery commitments. Officials in Brussels and Rome confirmed the news of the export ban of 250,000 doses of the shots, which was first reported by the Financial Times.

Vaccine maker warns of delays

The head of the world’s biggest vaccine maker and the World Health Organisation’s chief scientist said manufacturers of coronavirus shots face a global shortage of the raw materials needed to churn out the inoculations.

Adar Poonawalla, the chief executive officer of the Serum Institute of India – which is licensed to produce hundreds of millions of Covid-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca and Novavax – told a World Bank panel on Thursday that a US law blocking the export of certain key items, including bags and filters, will likely cause serious bottlenecks. 

Soumya Swaminathan from the WHO added that there were shortfalls of vials, glass, plastic and stoppers required by those companies.

Covid probe controversy heats up 

The controversy over the investigation by the World Health Organisation and China into the origins of Covid-19 heated up as a group of scientists called for an independent probe to consider all hypotheses and nail down whether the virus came from an animal.

A group of more than 20 signatories said in an open letter published by the Wall Street Journal that the existing mission isn’t independent enough and demanded a new probe to consider all possibilities over the origin. Half of the joint team are Chinese citizens whose scientific independence may be limited, they said.

The criticism comes as the mission considers delaying an interim report, which was expected soon. The investigators may instead publish that summary statement on the same day as the full report, a WHO spokesman said.

Germany will lift debt spending

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said Germany will need to increase debt spending this year to help tackle the impact of the coronavirus crisis on Europe’s largest economy.

“We will do extra activities, yes, this is true, and we are able to do so,” Scholz said in an interview on Thursday with Bloomberg TV.

He declined to provide a specific figure when asked about a Bloomberg report last month that the government is weighing as much as €50-billion in additional debt spending for 2021.

Marriott to pay workers for getting vaccines

Marriott International, the world’s largest lodging company, is offering a financial incentive to hotel workers who receive vaccines. The company will provide the equivalent of four hours pay to employees at hotels it manages in the US and Canada once the workers have completed the vaccination course, according to a statement on Thursday.

Germany, Sweden clear Astra shot for elderly

Germany has joined countries widening guidelines for AstraZeneca’s vaccine, based on incoming data that support giving the shot to the elderly.

Germany’s immunisation commission is recommending the shot vaccine for people aged 65 and older, Health Minister Jens Spahn said in an emailed statement. That expands on a ruling that initially limited it to adults between the ages of 18 and 64.

Sweden has lifted its recommendation against using AstraZeneca’s vaccine for people older than 65, Public Health Agency Official Sara Byfors told reporters.

Novartis signs vaccine pact with CureVac

Novartis agreed to produce CureVac’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate in a deal that will boost the potential supply of the shot by as much as 250 million doses over the course of this year and next.

The Swiss pharmaceutical giant could make as many as 50 million doses this year and 200 million doses in 2022, the partners said in a statement. Once the final agreement is signed, Novartis plans to start production in the second quarter and ship the first deliveries to CureVac this summer.

Milan tightens curbs on surging cases

Almost one year after Milan became the first European region to enter into a hard lockdown, the Italian financial capital is again facing major restrictions.

All schools will be closed until March 14 and no person will be able to leave town if not for business and health reasons. Milan citizens won’t be allowed to reach their holiday houses, with bars and restaurants remaining closed while shops can stay open.

The Lombardy region around Milan will be put under the “reinforced orange” alert from midnight, according to a statement. Italy has a three-tier system in place that classifies regions by low, medium and high-risk based on the numbers of cases. Daily coronavirus infections in the country reached a two-month high on Wednesday.

Hungary approves new lockdown

Hungary’s government approved a lockdown as authorities seek to stem the spread of the virus. Steps include closing kindergartens and primary schools until April 7 and shutting most shops and banning all services except for healthcare from March 8 to March 22, Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyas said in a televised briefing on Thursday.

Deaths surge where obesity is high

Countries where more than half of adults are overweight have recorded Covid-19 mortality rates in excess of 10 times those in other nations, according to a report by the World Obesity Federation.

Of the 2.5 million pandemic deaths reported by the end of February, 2.2 million were in countries above the 50% threshold, the study showed, suggesting obese people should be included in priority groups for testing and vaccinations.

UK to fast-track approval of modified shots

UK health regulators said authorised Covid-19 vaccines that are modified for new variants of the disease will be fast-tracked through the approval system.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency issued guidance – in step with partners in Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland – that will reduce the time taken for the new vaccines to be ready for use, according to a statement on Thursday.

Vaccine manufacturers will need to provide robust evidence that the modified vaccine produces an immune response, but time-consuming clinical trials will not be needed. Instead, a small trial will be used to assess the main adverse effects which could take a few weeks rather than months.

EMA to start review for Sputnik V vaccine

The European Medicines Agency said it has started a rolling review of Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine to test compliance with safety and quality standards, the first major step in gaining approval for use in the European Union.

“The rolling review will continue until enough evidence is available for formal marketing authorisation application,” the agency said in a statement on Thursday. 

“While EMA cannot predict the overall timeline, it should take less time than normal to evaluate an eventual application because of the work done during the rolling review.”

The review doesn’t mean the vaccine will be included in the EU’s vaccine portfolio. “There are currently no talks ongoing” for an advance purchase agreement, Commission spokesman Eric Mamer told journalists in Brussels.

Finland hospitals under strain

The pandemic is starting to burden Finland’s hospitals as the weekly number of confirmed infections hit a record, with more patients expected to need treatment in hospitals and intensive care units in the coming week, the health ministry warned.

ICUs continue to have capacity, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health said on Thursday. The government is set to invoke emergency powers on Friday, which would allow non-urgent care to be delayed as the pandemic spreads.

According to the current estimates, an infected person passes the virus on average to about 1.15 to 1.35 others, as the more infectious UK strain circulates. Just under 60,000 people in Finland have tested positive for the coronavirus and 759 people have died.

Top Chinese lawmakers get vaccinated

More than 5,000 lawmakers and political advisers in Beijing for the annual parliamentary session this month have received doses of the vaccine developed by state-owned Sinopharm, the head of the pharmaceutical giant’s drug distributing unit told local media on Thursday.

China is ramping up inoculation in the capital to avoid a potential virus outbreak among senior leaders and lawmakers at the National People’s Congress.

Germany lays out plan for opening up

German Chancellor Angela Merkel set out a plan to gradually unwind restrictions on Europe’s largest economy, bowing to pressure from the pandemic-weary public.

After hairdressers resumed operations on Monday, the next step will start on March 8, the German leader said late on Wednesday after more than nine hours of tense talks with regional officials. Remaining restrictions – including the closure of hotels, restaurants and non-essential retail outlets – will continue with further easing steps tied to local contagion rates. An “emergency brake” was set up to react to hot spots. DM/MC

— With assistance by Ian Fisher, Shelly Banjo, Vincent Del Giudice, and Zaid Sabah.

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