Global COVID-19 wrap: Death toll crosses 1 million in Europe, says WHO; Brazilian variant detected in Kansas

Denmark is examining options for sharing AstraZeneca's vaccines with poorer nations after it halted use of the shots over concerns over rare blood clots, the World Health Organization Europe head said on Thursday.

A top official from the World Health Organisation said Europe has surpassed 1 million deaths from COVID-19 and the situation remains “serious,” with about 1.6 million new cases reported each week in the region. Addressing recent concerns about vaccines, Dr Hans Kluge also said the risk of people suffering blood clots is far higher for people with COVID-19 than people who receive AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Greece, Kluge did point to “early signs that transmission may be slowing across several countries” and cited “declining incidence” among the oldest people. He said the proportion of COVID-19 deaths among people over 80, who have been prioritized for vaccines, had dropped to nearly 30% – the lowest level in the pandemic.

“For now, the risk of suffering blood clots is much higher for someone with COVID-19 than for someone who has taken the AstraZeneca vaccine,” he said. “Let there be no doubt about it, the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective in reducing COVID-19 hospitalization and preventing deaths,” he added, saying WHO recommends its use for all eligible adults.

Ages 16 to 29 can now get inoculated in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is expanding its vaccination drive to include residents below 30, as it seeks to boost the city’s slower-than-expected uptake of COVID-19 vaccines. Residents between 16 and 29 will be able to register to get inoculated beginning April 23, according to Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip.

The expansion of the vaccination program comes amid widespread hesitancy among residents towards getting inoculated and a deepening mistrust in its government following the deaths of several chronically-ill patients after they received the vaccines, as well as reports of residents getting the wrong jab.

As of Wednesday, only about 84 of residents in the city of 75 million have received vaccines. Currently, Hong Kong is offering residents the choice of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine known as BioNTech in the city.

Serbia to manufacture Sputnik V

Serbia has announced that it will begin packing and later producing Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, which would make it the first European state outside Russia and Belarus to begin manufacturing the jab. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Thursday visited an institute in the Serbian capital Belgrade, where he said the Russian vaccine will be manufactured in a few months. He said for now, the vaccine will be packed in Belgrade after receiving its components from Russia.

Although the European Union drug regulator EMA has not yet approved Sputnik V, the vaccine has been registered for use in dozens of countries worldwide.

Serbia has one of the highest inoculation rates in Europe mainly thanks to the government’s large purchases of the Sinopharm vaccine from China and the Sputnik V vaccine. The country also is administering the vaccines developed by PfizerBioNTech and OxfordAstraZeneca. Serbia also plans to start producing the Sinopharm vaccine.

France to cross 1 lakh deaths since outbreak

France is expected Thursday to pass the grim milestone of 1,00,000 COVID-19 deaths after a year of hospital tensions, on-and-off lockdowns and personal loss that have left families nation-wide grieving the pandemic’s unending devastating toll. The country of 67 million will be the eighth in the world to reach the symbolic mark and the third in Europe after the United Kingdom and Italy.

The cumulative death toll since the start of the epidemic totaled 99,777 on Wednesday evening. In recent days, French health authorities have been reporting about 300 new daily deaths from COVID-19.

Lionel Petitpas, president of the association “Victims of COVID-19” told the Associated Press that the number of 1,00,000 deaths is an important threshold. “After months of people getting accustomed to the virus, the figure is piercing a lot of minds. It is a figure we thought would never be reached”, he said

French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal suggested it is too soon to set a specific date to honor those who died as the country is now fighting another rapid rise in confirmed cases. “There will be an homage for sure, a national mourning for the victims of COVID-19”, Attal said Wednesday. “That time will come.”

Experts say the 1,00,000 mark is an underestimate by at least several thousands. Analysis of death certificates shows that some COVID-19 cases are not reported when people die at home or in places like psychiatric units and chronic care facilities, they stress.

France is the country that has reported the largest number of confirmed infections in Europe – more than 51 million.

Denmark examining options to share vaccines with poorer nations

Denmark is examining options for sharing AstraZeneca’s vaccines with poorer nations after it halted use of the shots over concerns over rare blood clots, the World Health Organization Europe head said on Thursday.

Denmark this week became the first country to stop using AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine altogether, as European officials continue to investigate dozens of reports of very rare blood clots combined with low platelet counts that have arisen in the bloc, as well as Britain.

The lion’s share of vaccines distributed globally, so far, have gone to wealthier nations. “I did have this conversation with Dr. Soren Brostrom, director general of the Danish (Health Authority) yesterday and I understand that the ministry of foreign affairs of Denmark is ready to, or looking already into options, for sharing AstraZeneca vaccines with poorer countries,” WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge told reporters.

Denmark’s Brostrom said his country had come far in inoculating the elderly population most at risk of contracting a serious form of COVID-19, and that younger groups were at lower risk of complications from the disease. That had to be weighed against the possible vaccine side effects, he said.

Hope India will lift export restrictions on vaccines soon: Africa CDC director

Africa’s CDC director said he hopes India will lift export restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible, warning that India is not an island. John Nkengasong spoke as the African continent of 13 billion people doesn’t know when second doses of key vaccines will arrive and India sees a resurgence in infections. The country is a major vaccine producer and a critical supplier to the UN-backed COVAX initiative that aims to bring shots to some of the world’s poorest countries.

“If you finish vaccinating your people before Africa or other parts of the world, you have not done yourself any justice because variants will emerge and undermine your own vaccination efforts” Nkengasong said. He said the uncertainty around the arrival of second doses puts the African continent in a very dicey situation.

African officials aim to vaccinate 750 million people over the next two years but just under 14 million vaccine doses have been administered across the 54 countries.

Cases in Thailand cross 1500

Thailand’s coronavirus cases surpassed 1500 on Thursday to set another record, sparking concerns the country’s outbreak may spiral out of hand. More than 8000 cases have been recorded since April 1 in a fresh outbreak linked to nightclubs and bars in central Bangkok. The 1543 new cases pushes the country’s tally to 37,543 with 97 deaths.

Dr Chawetsan Namwat from the Department of Disease Control said the outbreak appeared to have spread beyond entertainment venues, with new cases now linked to seminars office meetings and student field trips. He said the National Infection Control Committee will meet later Thursday to discuss new measures. Up to 6000 hospital beds will be added in Bangkok.

The outbreak has added pressure on the government to speed up its slow vaccination drive which has seen less than 1 of its population inoculated.

California Guv urges schools in state to reopen

California Governor Gavin Newsom is urging all schools in the state to reopen, saying there are no health barriers to getting children back into classrooms and ending distance learning. Speaking on Wednesday, he said, “Money is not an object now. It’s an excuse.”

His wishes remain an expectation rather than a mandate because California’s decentralized education system lets the 1200 school districts govern themselves. Some of the largest school districts are reopening including Los Angeles and San Diego.

Newsom said more than 9000 of California’s 11,000 schools have reopened or have set plans to reopen but that is misleading because there is no uniformity in what it means for a school to be open. Some are offering one or two days of in-person instruction mixed with distance learning on other days.

Hawaii lawmakers move to delay pay raises owing to economic damage amid pandemic

State lawmakers in Hawaii are moving to delay pay raises scheduled for themselves, the governor and judges because of the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic. Pay raises of 10 were scheduled to take effect for state legislators from July 1 as recommended by the state Salary Commission. Instead, a bill that the House initially approved Tuesday will defer the raises until January 2023.

Governor David Ige said he supports suspending the pay raises. He said he already told his Cabinet that he wouldn’t accept his raise.

Albuquerque to include students in vaccination drive

The public school system in Albuquerque (New Mexico) is ramping up its efforts to get vaccines to students. Operations chief Gabriella Duran Blakey said 50 students were included in a vaccine clinic Wednesday as part of a partnership between the school district and city health workers.

Next week, the school district said it will use the reach of its mailing lists and social media to encourage students to register for the vaccines being offered in New Mexico. As soon as next Wednesday, students could be eligible for vaccine clinics aimed specifically at them. Parents are required to attend in order to sign release forms.

Turkey records over 62,000 confirmed cases

Turkey posted another record of 62,797 confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday. The ministry also reported 279 deaths in the past 24 hours – the highest since the start of Turkey’s outbreak.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday announced a partial lockdown during the first two weeks of the Muslim month of Ramadan in a bid to curb the infection rate. He also warned of more measures to come if the number of cases fail to decrease. The measures include bans on inter-city travel, a return to online education, closing sports and leisure centers and expanding the length of night-time curfews.

The health ministry said Turkey is going through its third peak in infections and about 85 of the cases in the country can be traced to the variant first detected in Britain. Turkey has registered more than 4 million cases, seventh highest in the world. Confirmed deaths stand at more than 34,000.

Kansas detects Covid variant from Brazil

Kansas health officials said the coronavirus variant from Brazil has been detected for the first time in the state. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s announcement said the P1 variant has been detected in Sedgwick County.

The agency said it is investigating how the person became infected and whether others may have been exposed. The state now has all three of the most widely spread variants.

This month, the South African variant was identified for the first time in Kansas in someone from Finney County. Another variant first identified in Britain was found in several Kansas counties.

Nearly 4000 people to be revaccinated in Colorado

Colorado health officials said nearly 4000 people who received COVID-19 vaccinations at a medical spa need to be re-vaccinated because they can’t verify the doses were properly stored. The department announced Tuesday that it had stopped vaccinations at Dr Moma Health and Wellness Clinic in Colorado Springs on Friday, after county health officials observed problems in vaccine storage.

The department said the shots given at the clinic are considered invalid and those who got one shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine there need to start the two-shot vaccination process over again. It said those who got two shots should get one more.

Hungary in talks to make up for vaccine shortfall

Hungary’s government is in talks with all possible suppliers to make up for an expected shortfall of half a million vaccine doses against COVID-19, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff said on Thursday.

Hungary has been at the forefront of the European Union’s inoculation drive, while its death rates have also been among the highest in the world. As of Thursday, it had vaccinated 3.1 million people, or nearly a third of its population.

“Inoculations require vaccines and we know that another one of the shots ordered by Brussels will be missing, the (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine will not arrive. That means half a million fewer shots,” Gergely Gulyas told an online briefing.

Gulyas said all shots used in Hungary, including those of AstraZeneca and China’s Sinopharm, were safe and effective. He was responding to local media reports that some people had still fallen ill or were not sufficiently immunised after being inoculated with the Chinese vaccine.

“If we can make up for the shortfall in Johnson & Johnson shots, then we can inoculate everyone (registered) by the end of May, then we will have more vaccines than the number of people registered,” Gulyas said.

J&J clotting probe: US officials weighing next steps

US health officials are weighing the next steps as they investigate a handful of unusual blood clots in women who received Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine. The reports are exceedingly rare – so far six cases out of more than 7 million inoculations. And it’s not clear if they are linked to the JJ vaccine.

European regulators have declared such blood clots a rare but possible risk, with the similarly-made AstraZeneca vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US will debate in a public meeting Wednesday how to handle the JJ vaccine while authorities investigate.

“Right now, we believe these events to be extremely rare but we are also not yet certain. We have heard about all possible cases as this syndrome may not be easily recognized”, said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky before the meeting.

Malaysian health ministry proposes ban on inter-state travel during Eid

Malaysia’s health ministry has proposed retaining a ban on interstate travel throughout the Eid festive season, state news agency Bernama reported on Thursday, as the number of COVID-19 infections in the country jumped to a five-week high. Muslim-majority Malaysia has gradually eased movement curbs since embarking on a nationwide vaccination programme in February, though the government has yet to decide on whether to allow interstate travel ahead of the Eid al-Fitr festival on May 13.

“As daily cases are still rising and not yet stable, this interstate travel needs to be postponed,” Health Minister Adham Baba was quoted as saying by Bernama.

Separately, Director-General of Health Noor Hisham Abdullah said in a statement authorities had identified two more cases of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant first discovered in Britain. The variant, also known as B.1.1.7, was found in two Malaysians who had travelled to Poland last month and tested positive for the coronavirus upon their return on March 30, Noor Hisham said.

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