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August 17, 2021

International update: Covid origin debate rumbles on as US deaths soar

By Paul Dennis

17 August

Global: The global Covid death toll has passed the grim milestone of 4 million, with a figure of 4,371,736 according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, infections have passed 207 million world wide.

The origin story of Covid-19 remains a mystery mired in contentious geopolitical debate. But a research paper that languished in publishing limbo for a year and a half contains meticulously collected data and photographic evidence supporting scientists’ initial hypothesis—that the outbreak stemmed from infected wild animals—which prevailed until speculation that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a nearby lab gained traction.

The former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who was in the post at the beginning of the pandemic, has said the hypothesis that Covid was manipulated or “taught” to infect humans must be investigated further. He said he believes the virus “was most likely uncontained in a laboratory where it was being worked on, and that it escaped unintentionally”.

US: Covid -19 infections have passed 36.8 million. Meanwhile, the US coronavirus death toll has passed 622,000 according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The number of US people dying with Covid-19 in hospitals is hitting previous highs in some hot-spot states with low-to-average vaccination rates, upending hopes the virus has become less lethal. In Florida, an average of about 203 people a day are dying in the hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, matching the state’s November 2020 peak, according to US Department of Health and Human Services data. That’s a daily average of about nine per million residents, the data shows. Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri have also seen deaths among patients with Covid-19 soar in the past two weeks.

New Zealand: New Zealand officials are investigating a new community case of Covid-19 in largest city Auckland. The case was identified early Tuesday afternoon, the Ministry of Health said. New Zealand has run a successful elimination strategy, defined as having zero tolerance for new cases, which has limited the South Pacific nation to fewer than 2,600 confirmed cases and just 26 deaths. The last case of community transmission was in February. Health officials today said ministers will meet this afternoon once additional information is gathered to confirm a response. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to hold a press conference at 6 p.m. in Wellington, news website Stuff reported.

Australia: Australia’s delta outbreak continues to spread despite more than half the nation’s 26 million people being placed into lockdown. New South Wales state recorded 452 new cases on Tuesday, down from the record of 478 set the previous day, with the vast bulk of those infections detected in Sydney. Melbourne and national capital Canberra are also enforcing stay-at-home orders, and on Tuesday recorded 24 and 17 new cases respectively. Authorities are increasingly concerned that the outbreak’s spreading into the continent’s interior is threatening vulnerable Indigenous populations. On Monday, the tropical city of Darwin was placed into a snap lockdown, while on Tuesday it was confirmed the virus had reached the Outback town of Broken Hill.

China: Covid cases in China are dwindling amid an intense slew of curbs authorities have put in place to slow delta’s spread. Only six symptomatic infections were reported on Tuesday, down from 90 a week ago. Meanwhile, Beijing Communist Party chief Cai Qi told the city’s officials to take detailed and customized measures to prevent spread of coronavirus at 2022 Winter Olympics venues, Beijing Daily reported.

Indonesia: The country reported 17,384 confirmed infections on Monday, the least since June 23. One in five people tested were found to have the virus, a sign of insufficient testing. Indonesia continues to top the world’s tally of daily deaths, with 1,245 fatalities reported on Monday.

Thailand: On Tuesday, the country reported a daily record 239 Covid deaths and 20,128 new cases. Thai police again used water cannon and teargas to disperse protesters near the office of the prime minister, as opposition parties moved to censure him in parliament over his handling of the pandemic. Hundreds marched on government house to demand his resignation.

Vaccine news

Global: People vaccinated with CoronaVac face a small increased chance of developing a temporary facial paralysis known as Bell’s palsy, according to scientists, but the benefits of getting the shot still outweigh the risks. Nearly 5 in 100,000 more people may experience Bell’s palsy after the CoronaVac jab produced by Sinovac Biotech Ltd. than you would expect to see in the population, according to a study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal. The study, conducted in Hong Kong, compared Bell’s palsy rates reported within 42 days of either receiving the CoronaVac or the locally-produced Pfizer Inc. vaccine. The study found two more people per 100,000 were likely to suffer from the side effect than normal after the Pfizer shot, though cautioned more research was needed. The authors of the study led by Ian Chi Kei Wong, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, recommended its continued use in protecting people against Covid-19 noting that “Bell’s palsy remains a rare, mostly temporary, adverse event.”

India: India administered a record 8.8 million vaccine shots in a day, the country’s record for doses administered in a single day, according to a government statement Tuesday. India has given 554.7 million vaccine doses so far, but only 8.9% of the country’s population is fully inoculated against the virus, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. India added 25,166 cases while deaths rose by 437 to 432,079, according to data released Tuesday.

US: The US government is poised to offer coronavirus booster shots as soon as next month, with the country facing a renewed wave of infections fueled by the delta variant. Biden administration officials are finalizing a plan expected to recommend booster shots eight months after people received their second dose, according to two people familiar with the deliberations who asked not to be identified. The plan is not yet finalized but an announcement could come as soon as this week, they said.

Meanwhile, Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE said they have submitted Phase 1 trial data to the US Food and Drug Administration for a third dose of their Covid-19 vaccine. The companies said in a statement that people who received a third dose of their mRNA vaccine showed “a favorable safety profile and robust immune responses.”

Several major California law enforcement agencies are reporting Covid-19 vaccination rates that are significantly lower than those of the general population, and seven state prisons have disclosed that less than a third of their officers are vaccinated.

Taiwan: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will be among the first people to get the first domestically developed Covid-19 vaccine next week. Tsai signed up to get the Medigen shot on 23 August, the first day it’s available to the public, according to a Presidential Office spokesman. Around 42,000 Taiwanese have registered for Medigen vaccines via the government website since Monday, local media reported. Promoting self-produced vaccines has been a crucial step in the government’s Covid-fighting strategy as Taiwan faced difficulties in acquiring enough foreign doses. As of now, over 39% of Taiwan’s total population has received at least one Covid-19 vaccine injection.

Philippines: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte asked for more vaccine doses from the US In a taped briefing televised Monday night, he said the government is ready to pay for more supply. In the same briefing, the official leading the vaccine procurement, Carlito Galvez, said they expect 6 million shots to arrive this week after receiving 8.7 million shots in the previous two weeks. The government has so far administered 7.33 million shots this month, compared with a target for 15 million.

UK: The UK’s health regulator said Covid-19 vaccines did not raise the risk of miscarriage, and that it had not found any link between the shots and changes to menstrual periods. It came after Europe’s drugs regulator said it had so far not found a causal link between Covid-19 vaccines and menstrual disorders.

Lockdown updates

Singapore: Singapore plans to set up pilot programs next month to allow vaccinated business travelers from some countries to enter on carefully controlled itineraries as it takes steps to reopen its borders. Singapore is in talks with Germany, Australia, Canada and South Korea to be the first batch of countries for such arrangements, though it is also looking at the possibility of leisure travel, trade minister Gan Kim Yong told Bloomberg News in an interview Tuesday. He said factors like infections, vaccination rates and the ability to control outbreaks will be considered in these discussions.

Hong Kong: Hong Kong will end a short-lived rule that allowed travelers from most parts of the world to spend just one week quarantined in a hotel, provided they had an antibody test proving they were vaccinated against Covid-19.

Japan: Japan plans to expand its current virus emergency now in place for Tokyo and other areas to seven more prefectures as well as extend it to 12 September, trying to stem a delta variant-fueled surge that has sent infections to records. Covid-19 czar and Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told an advisory panel Tuesday the government planned to add seven prefectures to the emergency, bringing the total to 13 areas. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was expected to make the decision official later Tuesday, local media including Kyodo News reported. Suga’s office said he will hold a news conference at 9 pm to discuss the virus situation.

Indonesia: Indonesia will also allow some export-oriented companies to operate with 100% workforce on site using two shifts and strict health protocol, in a bid to find a way to reopen the economy without worsening its coronavirus outbreak. That program will involve 390,000 workers. The government is preparing roadmaps to reopen other sectors, including education and tourism, as it gears up to live with the virus for a few more years. It will focus on accelerating vaccination, stepping up testing and tracing, while enforcing mask mandates. Indonesia aims to administer 100 million total vaccine doses as of the end of the month, from 83 million so far. Indonesia will also lower the maximum price for real-time polymerase chain reaction testing.

US: MGM Resorts International, the largest casino operator on the Las Vegas Strip, is now mandating Covid-19 vaccinations for all of its salaried employees. Staff that work exclusively at home are exempt. The company is working on ways to vaccinate more of its hourly staffers: housekeepers, bartenders and dealers who are typically represented by unions.

New York City plans to require visitors to its museums and other cultural institutions to be vaccinated, the New York Times reported, citing an unidentified city official.

The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, will temporarily be allowed to enforce an order banning mask mandates, the state supreme court ruled. However, the ultimate fate of mask mandates in Texas is far from clear, as school districts and localities fight to maintain control of public health orders.

Ireland: A troubling divide in Irish schools looks likely to emerge as unvaccinated children would have to take up to two weeks out of school if they were a close contact of a Covid-positive peer, but vaccinated children would not – despite still being able to contract and transmit the virus.

Economy updates

New Zealand: The New Zealand dollar fell more than half a US cent on the health ministry’s statement of a new case of Covid. It bought 69.62 US cents at 3:28 p.m. in Wellington. Investors now see a 72% chance of the RBNZ raising rates on Wednesday, down from more than 100% yesterday, swaps data show.

China: UBS Group AG lowered its projection for China’s full year GDP forecasts for 2021 and 2022 as well as for 3Q 2021 on the impact of the latest virus outbreak and slow infrastructure investment. Third-quarter GDP forecast was cut to 5.8% y/y from 6.3% y/y, while 2022 forecast was lowered to 5.8% from 6.2%. Tighter mobility restrictions and cautious consumer sentiment will likely linger even after the latest virus outbreak is contained, UBS economists led by Wang Tao wrote in a report late Monday.

Thailand: Thailand’s central bank governor called for an additional 1 trillion baht ($30 billion) in government spending to counter coronavirus, saying the blow to the economy from the pandemic is greater than from the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Meanwhile, Thailand will extend the closure of non-essential businesses and movement controls in its virus hotspots, including the capital Bangkok, until the Covid outbreak shows clear signs of easing.

US: Pfizer Inc. is tapping the US investment-grade market with a sustainability bond that will help fund Covid-19 vaccine expenses, according to a person familiar with the matter. The note, due in 2031, may yield 0.75 percentage points above Treasuries, said the person, who asked not to be identified as the details are private. Proceeds from the sale are marked for research and development expenses and the manufacturing and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. The New York-based pharmaceutical company sees the vaccine bringing in $33.5 billion of revenue this year, which would make it one of the top-selling medicines ever.

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