African countries to receive US-donated virus vaccines ‘in days’

A woman receives a COVID-19 jab at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, on July 13, 2021. (TAFARA MUGWARA / XINHUA)

ADDIS ABABA / WINDHOEK / LONDON / RABAT / BRUSSELS / HAVANA / BUENOS AIRES / WASHINGTON / UNITED NATIONS / DUBLIN / ATHENS / TORONTO / BUDAPEST / BANJUL / LISBON / MOSCOW / MAPUTO / HARARE / PARIS / BERLIN / ZAGREB / TUNIS – Nearly 50 African countries are to receive 25 million COVID-19 vaccine doses donated by the United States, with the first shipments to Burkina Faso, Djibouti and Ethiopia in coming days, US officials and the Gavi vaccine alliance said on Friday.

"In partnership with the African Union and COVAX, the United States is proud to donate 25 million COVID-19 vaccines to 49 African countries. The Biden Administration is committed to leading the global response to the pandemic by providing safe and effective vaccines to the world,” Gayle Smith, the US State Department's coordinator for COVID-19 recovery and global health, said in the statement.

Nearly a million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be delivered to Burkina Faso, Djibouti and Ethiopia in coming days, according to the statement. The remainder will be shipped in coming weeks, it added.

Africa's COVID-19 tally reached 6,120,888 as of Friday noon, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.

The death toll stood at 155,502, the Africa CDC said, adding that a total of 5,320,688 poeple across the continent have recovered from the disease.

African countries need to get equal access to COVID-19 vaccines so they can start rebuilding their devastated tourism industries, Kenyan Tourism Minister Najib Balala said on Friday, noting that about 21 million jobs have been lost in the sector across the continent since the start of the pandemic.

Argentina

The US will send 3.5 million doses of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine to Argentina on Friday as part of growing donations from President Joe Biden’s administration to developing nations across Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The shipment will arrive Saturday following a bilateral deal by both nations, according to a White House official. The US donation is the largest so far to a Latin American nation and marks the first arrival of highly-effective mRNA vaccines to Argentina.

Argentina is facing large delays in its inoculation program against COVID-19, with experts cautioning for a change in strategy as virus deaths top 100,000.

The country of 45 million people has already given out 26 million of COVID-19 vaccine shots, but only about one out of 10 Argentines are fully vaccinated. That makes it the country with the largest gap between vaccine doses in Latin America, followed by Brazil and Mexico.

Argentina decided in March to delay the second jab by three months to reach as many people as possible with a first dose, but cases and deaths have continued to climb, with the country passing 100,000 deaths Wednesday. As concerns mount that the delta variant will become more prevalent, a top infectologist on the board that advises Alberto Fernandez’s government on COVID-19 strategy says the current plan needs to change.

“The one-dose strategy isn’t enough with the Delta variant,” doctor Eduardo Lopez said in a phone interview from Buenos Aires. “The March strategy was set based on variants where a single dose was efficient. Argentina needs to get out and get more vaccines.”

A national flag is wrapped around a cross on a gravesite in the COVID-19 section of the Chacarita cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 13, 2021. (VICTOR R. CAIVANO / AP)

Argentina also declared five days of national mourning on Thursday, after surpassing 100,000 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday.

From the town of Guernica, Argentine President Alberto Fernandez explained that the declaration is due to the fact that "we reached a number of deaths that deserves our recognition and our tribute," according to a press release from the Presidency.

The presidential decree declaring the five-day mourning period stated that there is "immense pain throughout society as a whole for each and every fatal (COVID-19) victim."

It added that the pandemic "is a real tragedy that has struck humanity" and that "Argentine society must and wishes to remember and pay tribute to those who have passed away during this painful time."

The government expressed its "most heartfelt condolences" to the families of the deceased, and said that the national flag will fly at half-mast in all public buildings during the five days.

The Health Ministry has reported 15 cases of delta from travelers coming from abroad.

The South American country confirmed a total of 4,702,657 COVID-19 cases and 100,250 deaths on Wednesday.

Canada

Canada may permit fully vaccinated travellers into the country by early September, the country's prime minister said on Thursday, if the current trend in vaccination rate and public health conditions continue.

Justin Trudeau made the remarks in a call with Canadian provincial leaders, according to a readout of the call released by his office.

Trudeau also said there were ongoing discussions with the United States to begin allowing fully vaccinated US citizens and permanent residents into Canada for non-essential travel by mid-August.

"The Prime Minister noted that, if our current positive path of vaccination rate and public health conditions continue, Canada would be in a position to welcome fully vaccinated travellers from all countries by early September," according to a statement.

Some 78 percent of people aged 12 years or older in Canada have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, health officials said recently. About 44 percent of people 12 years or older are fully vaccinated.

Croatia

Croatia's tourist industry called on Friday for better implementation of measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 amid concerns about a rise in infections in popular holiday areas along the Adriatic coast.

"The epidemiological measures currently in force in Croatia are good, but their implementation and control of it (the pandemic) are questionable," around a dozen local tourist associations said in a joint statement.

The European Union's Centre for Disease Prevention and Control marked Croatia's Adriatic coast on Thursday as amber areas, not green, meaning the number of infections in the last 14 days has risen above 50 per 100,000 inhabitants.

In their statement, the tourist associations warned of negative consequences if the situation deteriorates further and called for tougher penalties against those who fail to implement the existing measures adequately.

In the last seven days Croatia had 18 percent more infections than a week before. In the last 24 hours there were 139 new infections recorded.

Cuba

Cuba reported on Thursday 67 COVID-19 deaths in one day, a new daily record, bringing the total number of deaths to 1,726, the Ministry of Public Health reported, adding that there were also 6,479 new infections, to total 263,086 cases.

Of the total number of cases confirmed in the last day, 56 were imported cases, the ministry's director of hygiene and epidemiology Francisco Duran said.

On Thursday, new measures went into effect for Cubans arriving in the country through the international airports of Varadero and Cayo Coco. They will be required to quarantine for 14 days in government-approved hotels.

Meanwhile, the Center for State Control of Medicines, Equipment and Medical Devices gave the greenlight to the pediatric clinical trial with the Abdala vaccine, which will conclude in October, according to local media reports.

In this file photo dated Jan 4, 2021, frozen vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are taken out to thaw at the MontLegia CHC hospital in Liege, Belgium. (FRANCISCO SECO / AP)

Debate about booster shots

Most vaccinated Americans are unlikely to need COVID-19 booster shots for months, or even years, despite the rise of highly infectious variants and the continued spread of the virus, according to top scientists.

Pfizer Inc has been touting a plan to apply for clearance this summer for a third shot of its messenger RNA vaccine. But vaccine experts and health officials in both the US and Europe say that while a booster may eventually be needed, existing shots remain highly effective in preventing severe disease, including against all known variants.

“Right now there doesn’t seem a reason to need a booster,” said Sean O’Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado. “There are legitimate concerns about the motivations about Pfizer’s statement, given it’s in their financial interest to promote this concept. That doesn’t mean to say they’re wrong, but we need to follow the science.”

The debate follows July 8 comments by Pfizer research head Mikael Dolsten that the drugmaker plans to request US authorization in August for a third dose, based on early data showing it can increase immune protection.

US health officials aren’t alone in exploring the issue. In a joint statement Wednesday, the European Medicines Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control agreed there’s not enough data from vaccination campaigns or studies to confirm if booster shots will be needed.

The EMA, though, said it remains engaged with vaccine developers to coordinate the submission of data quickly if it becomes clear boosters are needed.

One reason for the ongoing debate is that the science behind COVID-19 boosters is unsettled. There are no agreed-upon blood measurements that scientists can use to confidently determine when protection has eroded.

So deciding when a third jab is needed will be a judgment call by public health officials, one that may differ from country to country. US authorities emphasize they won’t rely only on drug company data in making their decision.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia registered 125 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 277,443 as of Thursday evening, the country's Ministry of Health said.

The ministry said one new death was reported during the same period, bringing the national death toll to 4,350.

European Medicines Agency (EMA)

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has not received any application for authorization of the use of India's Covishield vaccine in the European Union (EU), Fergus Sweeney, head of the EMA's Clinical Studies and Manufacturing Task Force, confirmed on Thursday.

Covishield is a COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII) in cooperation with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. It is currently in the spotlight as – unlike its biologically identical version Vaxzevria – Covishield is not authorized for use in the EU.

As the EU slowly reopens, it grants access to international travelers with lighter restrictions upon presentation of proof of vaccination with one of the four vaccines approved by the EMA – those produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Janssen or AstraZeneca.

In the United Kingdom (UK), where AstraZeneca's are the most widely available vaccines, a certain part of the population has received the Indian-made Covishield jab and they will thus face challenges when traveling in the Schengen area.

"Of course, the Covishield manufacturer is always free to request the authorization of this vaccine, but for the time being it is not the case," said Stefan De Keersmaecker, the European Commission's spokesman for health issues, in early July.

EU member states have the right to accept travelers inoculated with vaccines approved by the World Health Organization — one which is Covishield.

ALSO READ: Dutch PM apologizes for easing virus curbs too soon as cases soar

France

Mask wearing would be mandatory in southern France's Pyrenees-Orientales, near the Spanish border, in a move to halt an alarming rise in coronavirus infections linked to the highly infectious Delta variant, regional authorities announced on Friday.

Etienne Stoskopf, prefect of the region, ordered citizens to wear a mask in all public places, except the beach and large natural spaces. The consumption of alcoholic beverages will be banned outdoors, he said in a statement. The mandate will go into effect on Saturday at 0600 local time (0400 GMT) and last till Aug 2. 

In another development, the Eiffel Tower reopened on Friday after an eight-month shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, its longest closure since World War II.

Because of lingering concerns about the virus, masks remain compulsory for anyone over 11 years of age, and each elevator car will only carry half the normal number of visitors.

France on Thursday logged 3,617 new COVID-19 cases, taking its tally to 5.83 million. Some 111,429 patients have succumbed to the illness, according to data from health authorities.  

From July 21, visitors will need to show a French government "health pass" to demonstrate they are either vaccinated or have had a recent negative test for COVID-19.

Gambia

All COVID-19 regulations passed in March will be fully implemented as of Saturday, the Gambian government announced Thursday as the third wave hits the country.

"Considering the worrisome trajectory of the third wave of COVID-19 pandemic in the country, the government of The Gambia hereby reminds the public of the order by the Minister of Health on social distancing and compulsory wearing of face masks passed on March 8 2021," said government spokesperson Ebrima G. Sankareh in a statement.

There is a 13-percent increase in new cases versus the preceding week, with a significant increase in hospital admissions, according to a report of the Ministry of Health.

The West African nation has so far registered 6,610 COVID-19 cases, including 5,991 recoveries and 188 deaths.

Germany

Germany has declared all of Greece a coronavirus risk area, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said on Friday, which means that tourists and returning German nationals need to present a negative test to avoid quarantine.

The RKI also listed all of the Netherlands, expect the overseas territories of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, Saba, Aruba and Curacao, as a risk area as well.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 1,456 to 3,741,781, RKI data showed earlier on Friday. 

The reported death toll rose by 18 to 91,337, the tally showed.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 188.95 million while the global death toll topped 4.06 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.  

Greece

Unvaccinated workers in restaurants and tourism companies on some of Greece's main holiday islands will be regularly tested for COVID-19 after the Delta variant fuelled a surge in infections, a minister said on Thursday.

Mykonos, Santorini, Ios, Paros and the cities of Rethymnon and Heraklion on the island of Crete have all seen rapid increases in cases in recent days, Deputy Citizen's Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias told a news conference.

The workers, as well as crew on ferries and cruise ships, will have to be tested twice a week from Saturday onwards if they haven't been vaccinated, he added.

The government has been hoping for at least a partial revival of its crucial tourist industry over the summer, but has tightened restrictions as cases have spread.

A doctor vaccinates a woman with a COVID-19 vaccine in Nagykata, Hungary, on Feb 24, 2021. (TIBOR ILLYES / MTI VIA XINHUA)

Hungary

Hungary will offer the option of taking a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine from Aug 1 and will make coronavirus vaccines mandatory for all healthcare workers, Prime Minister Viktor Orban told state radio on Friday.

Orban said doctors will decide which vaccine people should take as a third dose, and it should come at least 4 months after the second shot, unless doctors advise otherwise.

As of Thursday, Hungary had inoculated more than 5.55 million of its people, while the number of total cases rose to 808,661 with 30,013 deaths.

The vaccination drive has slowed in the past weeks. Orban has said that in the first days of September, before the school year start, vaccines will be offered to children aged 12 to 16 at all schools.

Ireland

Ireland on Thursday registered its highest daily number of COVID-19 infections since February, with the health ministry reporting 994 cases up from an average of under 500 cases per day last week.

Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar earlier on Thursday told journalists that an expected surge in infections from the Delta variant of COVID-19 was happening sooner than expected but that there was "no reason to catastrophize" or to delay the country's cautious reopening plans.

Morocco

Morocco's COVID-19 tally rose to 549,844 on Thursday as 2,571 new cases were registered during the past 24 hours.

The country's coronavirus death toll rose by 14 to 9,418, while 420 people were in intensive care units, said a statement by the Moroccan Ministry of Health.

ALSO READ: UK to track virus variants with genomic sequencing across world

Mozambique

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi has ordered tighter measures, including the suspension of classes and a curfew extension, to contain the surge of new COVID-19 infections as the country grapples with a third wave of the pandemic.

The country's health system is at risk of collapse, the president said in a televised speech on Thursday night. 

"Face-to-face class is suspended in all education systems for a period of 30 days in the cities of Maputo, Xai-Xai, Inhambane, Beira, Tete, Chimoio, Dondo, Greater Maputo and Manhica. The mandatory curfew takes effect from 21:00 to 04:00 in all cities, municipalities and towns," Nyusi said. The measures will come into force from Saturday

Gyms, theaters, swimming pools and casinos are prohibited, and the opening hours for public institutions, restaurants and markets are shortened, Nyusi said.

Meanwhile, Nyusi also announced the purchase of 11 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, which is expected to arrive in Mozambique by August.

Mozambique registered 1,034 new cases and 24 deaths on Thursday, the highest daily toll reported. The country now has 18,754 active cases while the toll reached 1,057.  

Namibia

Namibian President Hage Geingob on Thursday announced that the current health measure regulations will be extended, from midnight Thursday, for a period of 15 days until July 31.

Geingob announced this on the occasion of the 31st COVID-19 public briefing on national response.

According to Geingob, Namibia has exceeded 100,000 cumulative cases and over 2,000 deaths have been recorded due to COVID-19 and related illnesses.

"As of July 14, a total of 108,785 Namibians have at some point contracted and been infected with the COVID-19, over the course of the past 16 months. Encouragingly, 75 percent have recovered, while 24,670 are still infected," he added.

Geingob said the rate of transmission and positivity ratio remains high, averaging 41 percent over the past 2 weeks.

Nigeria

Nigeria approved emergency use of Moderna, AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines. The move comes amid heightened fears of a third wave of the pandemic, as many people are no longer following safety guidelines. Nigeria last week reported its first case of the delta strain.

Portugal

Portugal's National Authority for Medicines and Health Products (Infarmed) announced on Thursday that it had decided to continue using vaccines from Janssen Laboratory in Portugal after a reassessment, saying they met the European Union (EU) specifications.

On Wednesday, Infarmed said that it was investigating the quality of Janssen vaccines as users had passed out after being vaccinated.

"Tests were carried out on the physical-chemical characteristics of the vaccine. The conformity of all batches that are in the distribution circuit, in accordance with the approved specifications, has been proven," said Infarmed in a press release.

"No quality defects were detected" in these vaccines, said the national drug regulator, noting that about 20,000 doses were administered in the vaccination centers, "and no more cases of adverse reactions have been reported."

Russia

Russia on Friday reported 799 coronavirus-related deaths, the most in a single day since the pandemic began and the fourth day in a row it has set a record.

Russia is in the grip of a surge in cases that authorities have blamed on the contagious Delta variant and the slow rate of vaccinations. The coronavirus task force confirmed 25,704 new COVID-19 infections in the last 24 hours.

It said the official national COVID-19 case tally now stood at 5,907,999. It said the national death toll had risen to 146,868.

Two-thirds of coronavirus cases detected in Russia since the beginning of July were the Delta strain of the virus, the TASS news agency cited Anna Popova, consumer health watchdog head, as saying.

Moscow residents will no longer have to present a QR code demonstrating they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or have immunity in order to sit inside cafes, restaurants and bars from July 19, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on Friday.

Tunisia

Italy, Spain and Switzerland sent medical aid on Friday to Tunisia, which is facing its worst health crisis since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with a sharp rise in deaths, hospitals filled to capacity and a lack of oxygen supplies.

Deaths from COVID-19 exceeded 150 per day during the past week in Tunisia, prompting countries including Qatar, Algeria, the UAE, Morocco, Turkey and Kuwait to send aid. Egypt and Saudi Arabia opened an air bridge earlier this week, sending at least 8 planes of aid.

France said this week it also planned to send about one million vaccination doses and medical aid. 

Intensive care units and emergency departments are full in hospitals across Tunisia, officials said, and the authorities have begun installing field hospitals sent by Qatar and Morocco.

Doctors complained of exhaustion and a shortage of oxygen supplies.

Tunisia recorded 194 coronavirus deaths on Thursday, the highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic. In all, it has reported more than 17,000 deaths and more than 520,000 coronavirus infections since the pandemic began.

So far, Tunisia has vaccinated 830,000 people out of a total population of 11.6 million.

People wear face masks to curb the spread of coronavirus during the morning rush hour at Waterloo train station in London, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (MATT DUNHAM / AP)

UK

The UK held out the prospect of restoring some COVID-19 restrictions amid a surge in new cases, just three days before it plans to drop all remaining social distancing rules.

“Of course if we get into a situation where it’s unacceptable and we do need to put back further restrictions, then that of course is something the government will look at,” Lucy Frazer, a government minister, told Sky News on Friday.

The remarks from Frazer, the government’s solicitor general, are the most explicit yet that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s stated wish for the current unlocking to be “irreversible” may be confounded by the progression of the virus.

On Monday, the government will allow nightclubs to open for the first time in 16 months and drop remaining COVID-19 rules including limits on gatherings indoors and outdoors, the requirement to wear face masks in shops and on trains, and the guidance for people to work from home if able.

With infection rates rising amid the spread of the delta variant, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned that the UK isn’t “out of the woods yet” and said that “I don’t think we should underestimate that we could get into trouble again, surprisingly fast.”

Britain on Friday said there had been 36,800 new cases of the Delta variant in the week to July 14, compared to 54,268 new cases reported the previous week.

The total number of cases of the variant reported was 253,049, a 17 percent increase from last week.

United States

US President Joe Biden signaled progress toward lifting a ban on travel from Europe, raising hopes for a reopening of the almost US$40 billion North Atlantic air corridor 16 months after flights were grounded by COVID-19.

“It’s in process now,” Biden said at a news conference with Merkel following their meeting. “I’m waiting to hear from our folks, our Covid team, as to when that should be done.”

He said to expect an answer “within the next several days.”

In another development, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that Facebook was not doing enough to stop the spread of false claims about COVID-19 and vaccines.

Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, needs to work harder to remove inaccurate vaccine information from its platform, Psaki said.

She said 12 people were responsible for almost 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms. The finding was reported in May by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, but Facebook has disputed the methodology.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company has partnered with government experts, health authorities and researchers to take "aggressive action against misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines to protect public health".

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has hit a major milestone in its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, with more than a million people having receiving at least their first jab.

As of Thursday evening, a total of 1,036,252 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a daily update by the health ministry.

The southern African country has so far recorded 78,872 confirmed cases, including 49,774 recoveries and 2,418 deaths.