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International update: Vaccine discussions continue as global Covid infections approach 140 million

15 Apr 2021 (Last Updated April 15th, 2021 10:09)

15 April

Global: The global Covid death toll has passed 2.97 million. Meanwhile, infections have passed 138 million world wide, according to analysts at Johns Hopkins University.

US: US Covid -19 infections exceed 31.4 million. Meanwhile, the US coronavirus death toll is more than 564,000 according to analysts at Johns Hopkins University.

US spy agencies have yet to determine the source of the virus that causes Covid-19, top intelligence officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday. Avril Haines, the director of National Intelligence, said analysts are still examining two theories: animal-to-human transmission, and the possibility of a laboratory accident. “The intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how Covid-19 virus was transmitted initially,” Haines said. CIA Director William Burns, echoed Haines’ assessment, adding that “the Chinese leadership has not been fully forthcoming or fully transparent” in working with the World Health Organization to pinpoint the origin of the coronavirus.

The risk of being exposed to the Covid-19 virus on an airline flight drop by as much as half when airlines keep middle seats open, a new study published by the US government concludes, a safety practice the carriers have abandoned. The study is the latest to roil the waters on a controversial topic: just how risky it is to travel during the pandemic. It didn’t attempt to estimate infection risks and was based on modelling done before the pandemic, so it didn’t consider rules that now require face masks on flights. The risk of coming in contact with the virus dropped by 23% to 57% if airlines limited passenger loads on both single-aisle and widebody jets, compared with full occupancy, according to research released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday.

India: India reported more than 200,000 new infections on Thursday – its highest one-day surge since the pandemic broke out – as a deadlier new wave grips the world’s second worst-hit country. With 200,739 new cases, the outbreak in the South Asian nation has gone past 14 million cases. Casualties rose to 173,123 while more than 114 million vaccine doses have been administered, according to latest data from India’s health ministry.

Turkey: Turkey recorded 62,797 new coronavirus cases and 279 deaths in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Wednesday, registering the highest daily death toll and rise in cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

Mexico: Mexico’s government reported 5,113 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 518 more fatalities, according to data from the health ministry on Wednesday. It brings the country’s total to 2,291,246 infections and 210,812 deaths, Reuters reports.

Singapore: Singapore’s latest community case of Covid-19 infection widened a new cluster in the city state to four patients, according to the health ministry. The lone reported community case that added to this cluster is a 44 year-old male Papua New Guinea citizen, with a short-term visit pass, who arrived from Australia on 25 March for a work project, the ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. The linked spread of Covid-19 is the first after the ministry’s announcement on 25 March that there were no open clusters of infections.

Vaccine news

Global: The pace of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine production is unlikely to speed up markedly in the next few months, though the drugmaker expects its manufacturing capacity to expand significantly by 2022, chief executive Stephane Bancel said during an investor call, Reuters reports.

Johnson & Johnson said it continues to believe in the positive benefit-risk profile of its Covid-19 vaccine. “The safety and well-being of the people who use our products is our number one priority, and we strongly support awareness of the signs and symptoms of this extremely rare event to ensure the correct diagnosis, appropriate treatment and expedited reporting by health care professionals,” Scientific Director Paul Stoffels said in a statement. The company plans to proactively delay the rollout of the vaccine in Europe and pause vaccinations in all Janssen Covid vaccine clinical trials while it updates guidance for investigators and participants.

EU: EU countries will receive 50 million Covid-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and BioNTech by the end of June, the head of the EU commission said on Wednesday, as deliveries expected at the end of the year will be brought forward.

US: A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel ended discussion about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine without taking a vote, leaving it unclear how long the distribution of the shot will remain paused in the US. Some panel members advocated for a month long pause, while others were concerned about the effects of not having the J&J vaccine available, especially to the communities it was being targeted toward. As a result, distribution of the vaccine will remain halted at least until the panel meets next, perhaps in a week to ten days.

Vaccine hesitancy in the US is shrinking, though 1 in 7 residents remain wary about getting a Covid-19 vaccine, largely because of concerns about side effects. That segment is younger and less educated than average, according to a tracker released Wednesday by the US Census Bureau that uses Household Pulse Survey data. Residents were surveyed before US regulators on Tuesday recommended pausing Johnson & Johnson vaccines because of concerns about rare blood clots.

Denmark: Denmark will permanently cease to administer AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, broadcaster TV 2 reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed sources.

South Africa: Johnson & Johnson will revise protocols on its Covid-19 vaccine study and exclude pregnant health workers from a trial in South Africa set to include 500,000 people. The move came after US regulators paused the shot’s rollout on concerns of a rare and severe blood-clotting side effect. While all studies are delayed, plans to run trials on children and pregnant women in South Africa have been set aside for now, said Glenda Gray, the co-lead of the South African studies, in an interview on Wednesday.

Canada: AstraZeneca’s vaccine may be linked to “very rare events of blood clots,” but the benefits of the shot outweigh its potential risk, Health Canada said in a statement following an assessment of scientific data. The federal agency has updated warnings about the possible side effects in product information and is providing information about potential symptoms as well as when to seek prompt medical attention following vaccination.

France: France will use Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine as planned despite its suspension in the US, a government spokesman said, adding France had received a first shipment of 200,000 doses.

Russia: The developers of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine said it hasn’t produced any instances of the dangerous blood-clotting that forced US officials to urge a pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.

Sputnik’s first dose uses the same human adenovirus as the Johnson & Johnson inoculation, but they have “significant differences in their structure” and it isn’t appropriate to extrapolate safety data from one to the other, the state-run Gamaleya Center said in a statement. Meanwhile, Russia has announced the start of production of its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in Serbia, the first European country outside Russia and Belarus to begin manufacturing the jab.

Sweden: Sweden’s Health Agency said it would pause plans to start vaccinations using Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine following reports of rare blood clots similar to those reported for the AstraZeneca shot.

New Zealand: New Zealand medicines regulator Medsafe said it has requested additional information from Janssen ahead of making a decision about whether to approve the company’s Covid-19 vaccine. Medsafe expects to provide an update on the Janssen approval process in the next two to three weeks.

UK: The Astra vaccine generated a stronger cellular immune response than the Pfizer and BioNTech shot in people over 80 years old, a study by UK researchers shows. Responses in T cells – a type of white blood cell that helps fight viruses – were seen in 31% of participants receiving the Astra vaccine and 12% of the Pfizer-BioNTech group, according to the University of Birmingham and UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium. Elderly people receiving a single dose of either vaccine showed equivalent antibody responses after five weeks. It’s unclear if the different levels of T cell responses observed will have any impact on clinical effectiveness, the researchers said.

An NHS trust in England is planning to make Covid-19 vaccinations part of staff contracts, it has been reported. A letter from the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Foundation Trust in London that is set to go out to staff is said to state: “We will be making Covid vaccination mandatory for all our employees and it will form part of the employment contract.”

Philippines: The Philippines said Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine suspension won’t affect ongoing supply negotiations, according to Philippine vaccine czar Carlito Galvez in a mobile-phone reply to questions. The Philippine government has signed an agreement for the supply of 10 million Sputnik V vaccine doses from Russia’s Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology, Galvez said.

Lockdown updates

Portugal: Portugal’s parliament extended on Wednesday a state of emergency for 15 days as health experts warned that a gradual relaxation of strict lockdown rules now underway could soon lead to a significant jump in coronavirus cases.

Japan: A senior official in Japan’s ruling party indicated that cancelling the Tokyo Olympics was an option, according to a media report, as the country struggles with a surge in coronavirus cases less than 100 days before the Games are due to begin. Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said that if it was determined to be impossible to hold the Games, they would have to be cancelled, according to local newswire Jiji. Earlier on Thursday, Taro Kono, Japan’s vaccine czar and administrative reform minister, signalled the possibility of holding the Olympics without spectators, according to Kyodo.

The Japanese government will consider designating Tokyo’s neighbouring prefectures Saitama and Kanagawa as areas needing stricter coronavirus measures if their governors seek application of a quasi-state of emergency, public broadcaster NHK reported, without attribution. The government is also considering adding Aichi prefecture, in central Japan, to the status, the report said.

Thailand: Thailand is considering imposing a partial lockdown in Bangkok and other provinces after coronavirus cases rose by a record this week, the Bangkok Post reported, citing Natthapon Nakpanich, secretary general of the National Security Council. The government’s commission will discuss with the health ministry the proposal for a partial lockdown along with other possible measures this Thursday, the report said. Thailand reported a record 1,335 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday.

Argentina: Stores in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area cannot open earlier than 9am and must close by 7pm local time for the next two weeks beginning 16 April, President Alberto Fernandez said in a televised statement. Argentina needs to restrict social gatherings due to Covid-19 spike in Buenos Aires metropolitan area, Fernandez said

US: Michigan health officials won’t issue new orders shutting down parts of the state economy in an attempt to combat the state’s surging Covid-19 cases, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday. Health officials in the state are concerned tighter restrictions might just lead to more noncompliance. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 7,955 new cases Wednesday as roughly two dozen Michigan hospitals neared in-patient capacity. About 18% of Michigan hospital beds are occupied by people with the virus, state officials said Wednesday.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo moved the curfew on bars and restaurants to midnight from 11 pm The closing time for catered events will shift to 1 am from midnight, he said in a briefing Wednesday. The changes will take effect Monday.

Switzerland: Switzerland will allow theatres, cinemas and outdoor dining at restaurants to open starting Monday, pursuing once again a more liberal course than many of its European neighbours.

Economy updates

Australia: Qantas Airways Ltd. said its passenger traffic in Australia has almost completely recovered, highlighting the potential for speedier travel rebounds than previously expected more than a year into the pandemic. Capacity on domestic routes will top 90% of pre-Covid levels this quarter, the airline said in a statement Thursday, up from its previous forecast of reaching 80%. Low-cost unit Jetstar will have even more capacity than before the pandemic. Qantas said it has seen “extremely strong” demand for leisure trips and a return of business travel, which is back to about 65% of normal.