Dr Fauci says Covid metrics point sharply downward; South Africa registers 3,699 new cases

Dr Fauci says Covid metrics point sharply downward; South Africa registers 3,699 new cases
Dr Anthony Fauci, White House Chief Medical Adviser and director of the NIAID, removes his mask to give an opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to Covid-19 and emerging variants on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, US, on 11 January 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Greg Nash / POOL)

South Africa registered 3,699 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,648,968. A further 89 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 97,520. A total of 30,779,273 vaccines have been administered.

White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said at a briefing that the dynamics of the Covid-19 outbreak in the US are pointing sharply downward.

Europe is gradually leaving pandemic restrictions behind, with Germany and Greece poised to become the latest in the region to unwind regulations that have disrupted life for two years. Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands are planning similar steps. 

Children aged five to 11 in England will be offered Pfizer’s vaccine starting in April, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said. 

Hong Kong’s leader asked property developers to find 10,000 hotel rooms for isolating people who test positive, as the city’s outbreak challenges its zero-tolerance approach to the virus.

Key developments

  • Virus Tracker: Cases pass 415.7 million; deaths top 5.8 million
  • Vaccine Tracker: More than 10.4 billion doses administered
  • States break ranks on Covid rules despite scientific uncertainty
  • ‘Game-changer’ Pfizer pill easier to get as Omicron fades away
  • Hong Kong tries to end Covid without nightmare-scenario lockdown
  • BioNTech to send Covid vaccine production units to Africa

UK to offer Pfizer shot to children aged five to 11

Children aged five to 11 in England will be offered Covid-19 vaccinations to widen protection for the population as the government moves to scrap remaining pandemic restrictions.

The National Health Service will make shots available to children across that age group starting in April, so “parents can, if they want, take up the offer to increase protection against potential future waves of Covid-19”, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Wednesday. 

Greece to begin easing restrictions 

Greece will begin easing some key coronavirus measures following a recommendation by the government’s advisory committee, Health Minister Athanasios Plevris said in a written statement as he currently has the virus. 

From February 19, the ban on standing at entertainment venues will be lifted while the permitted capacity at stadiums will be increased to 50% from 10% now. Other measures include a lowering of the number of staff required to work at home in both the private and public sectors to 20% from 50% of the workforce. School trips will also be allowed to resume.

US retail in broad-based rebound 

US retail sales rebounded by more than forecast, illustrating resilient demand. The value of overall purchases rose 3.8% in January after a downwardly revised 2.5% drop in the prior month, Commerce Department figures showed on Wednesday. The figures aren’t adjusted for inflation.

While the Omicron variant and related surge in Covid-19 infections probably damped services spending in the month, an improving labour market has helped consumers continue to spend despite decades-high inflation and a collapse in confidence. 

Europe rolls back curbs 

Most of Germany’s Covid curbs will be rolled back in three stages by March 20, according to a proposal prepared by Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s office for a meeting with regional leaders on Wednesday. 

Switzerland will scrap almost all pandemic-related restrictions starting from Thursday, including a work-from-home recommendation and the need for Covid-documentation to enter the country. Austria announced similar steps on Wednesday, and the Netherlands will lift controls on people and businesses beginning on Friday.  

Hong Kong seeks hotel rooms for isolation 

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, asked major property developers to find 10,000 hotel rooms for isolating people who test positive for Covid-19, as the city’s biggest outbreak yet challenges its zero-tolerance approach to the virus.

On a video call on Wednesday, Lam urged members of the Real Estate Developers’ Association to make available hotels with at least 200 rooms to house preliminary positive patients, mostly with minor Covid symptoms, according to a person familiar with the talks, who asked not to be identified because the information is private. 

As part of its Covid-zero strategy, Hong Kong is still trying to separate all infected people and their close contacts from the wider community, despite the strain that it has placed on hospitals and other resources. While confirmed cases climbed to 4,285 on Wednesday, just 17 were critical.

Slovakia to ease pandemic measures 

The government will scrap restrictions for unvaccinated people, allowing them to use services like restaurants or hairdressers again from February 28. The country will also increase limits for attendance at low- and medium-risk events and abolish the requirement for students to self-isolate after contact with classmates who have tested positive for Covid-19.

Omicron subvariant not more severe in study 

A South African study showed that the risk of hospitalisation from the Omicron BA.2 subvariant is similar to that from the original strain, a senior scientist said.

The study in the country, where the BA.2 strain is now dominant, may not extrapolate to others as most of the immunity South Africans have is from prior infections rather than vaccinations, Cheryl Cohen, head of the Centre for Respiratory Diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said in an online press conference. Previous infections could give better protection, she added.

Hong Kong taxis to give Covid patients free rides 

Hong Kong’s transport and housing bureau together with the taxi industry have set up a fleet of cabs for free transport services between designated clinics and residences, according to a statement. The fleet will provide services from February 18, with about 300 taxis participating.

Singapore plans major easing of curbs 

Singapore plans to substantially ease travel and social restrictions once the current wave of infections peaks, amid mounting evidence that the Omicron variant is less threatening than its predecessors.

The government will restore and progressively raise quotas on so-called vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs), the Ministry of Health said on Wednesday. Visitors entering the city-state via these VTLs will not need to take a PCR test upon arrival and can take a supervised self-swab instead. 

Vietnam to lift curbs on tourists 

International tourists must test negative before boarding planes and meet all requirements from the health ministry on Covid-19 vaccinations, according to Tuoi Tre newspaper, which didn’t provide details. The new rules are reported to go into effect on March 15.

Rovi, Moderna expand mRNA vaccine pact 

Moderna and Spanish company Laboratorios Farmaceuticos Rovi will extend a long-term agreement to manufacture mRNA medicines, according to a regulatory filing. In addition to producing Moderna’s Covid shot, Rovi’s platform could also be used to service its future mRNA vaccine candidates.

Winter Olympics near zero cases 

The Beijing Winter Olympics are approaching zero positive cases of Covid-19 daily, a victory for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategy of preventing the virus from disrupting the event.   

Cases found at the city’s international airport and within the bubble have hovered in the single digits for the past five straight days, with only two reported on Wednesday. A total of 435 cases have been recorded since January 23 among athletes, coaches and stakeholders, according to a statement released by the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games.

Disneyland drops masks mandate for vaccinated 

Walt Disney is dropping a mask mandate for fully vaccinated guests to its theme parks in the US 

Face coverings will become optional for inoculated visitors in both outdoor and indoor locations from Thursday, according to a statement posted on the Disney World website. Masks will remain mandatory for those who are not fully vaccinated. 

The decision comes just days after Universal Orlando ditched its mask requirement. The Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals also said this week that they are dropping Covid requirements for the events, due to be held in April. Festival-goers won’t be required to be vaccinated. 

Europe may not approve Merck antiviral pill 

The European Medicines Agency is unlikely to grant conditional marketing authorization to Merck’s Covid-19 antiviral pill this month, the Financial Times reported, citing unidentified people familiar with the approval process.

It’s possible that oral coronavirus drug molnupiravir will not receive approval at all. The EMA declined to comment to the FT on its ongoing review.

Three-year-old dies in Hong Kong outbreak 

A three-year-old girl was the latest fatality in Hong Kong’s worsening coronavirus wave that’s seen case numbers balloon and overwhelm the health system. She died on Tuesday evening, the government said without disclosing if she had any pre-existing illnesses. 

Hong Kong’s total number of preliminary Covid cases and patients waiting to be hospitalised reached about 12,000 as of Tuesday, local media outlets including Hong Kong Economic Times and Now TV reported, citing unidentified people. Hong Kong would report at least 4,200 confirmed Covid cases on Wednesday, outlets said.

China biotech hub suffers Omicron flare-up 

China reported 51 domestic Covid-19 domestic infections, with eastern biotech hub Suzhou emerging as the latest flare-up driven by Omicron. A total of 19 infections were found there and infections started to spread to two other cities in the broader Jiangsu province near financial hub Shanghai. 

The mainland has also seen imported infections from Hong Kong, which has seen cases ballooning to thousands a day in its worst outbreak throughout the pandemic.

Beijing found a person testing positive after flying in from the Asia financial hub. Shenzhen also reported truck drivers returning from Hong Kong testing positive while central Chinese city Chenzhou also found two people infected after they travelled back from the region.

CDC to ease indoor masking guidelines 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to loosen its indoor masking guidelines as early as next week, NBC News reported, citing several people familiar with the matter. 

Senior administration officials have asked CDC Director Rochelle Walensky to provide an update on masks before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1, NBC said. DM/MC

– With assistance from Shirley Zhao, Daniel Hornak, Corinne Gretler, Antony Sguazzin and Paul Tugwell.


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