COVID-19 travel tests probed by UK competition watchdog

A worker cleans surfaces as a precaution against coronavirus, in the arrivals area of Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London, Aug 2, 2021. (MATT DURHAM / AP)

ADDIS ABABA / NAIROBI / TUNIS / MOGADISHU / LONDON / HAVANA / RIO DE JANEIRO / PARIS / BERLIN / MEXICO CITY / CHICAGO / MOSCOW / KAMPALA / ZURICH / ROME / CAIRO – The UK’s competition watchdog is investigating the cost of COVID-19 tests for travelers, after Health Secretary Sajid Javid asked it to help stamp out any “exploitative behavior” by rogue firms.

The Competition and Markets Authority said it was aware of coCAIROncerns about the “evolving markets” for the tests and would issue advice to the government on how to ensure they are “affordable and reliable.”

The government has faced a series of complaints over the proliferation of firms offering polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for travel, with critics warning that regulation is far too lax and the market is a “complete Wild West.”

Some customers have complained of never receiving their results, damaged test kits and nobody answering the phone or emails. Some firms have advertised low prices that don’t exist when you click on their website.

In another development, the Department of Health and Social Care has dialed back requirements for staff to begin returning to the office next month, the Guardian newspaper reported. Staff were told this week that the department had scrapped plans requiring them to be in the office at least four to eight days per month from September.

Separately, many of the top universities in the country have refused to bring back full face-to-face teaching in the autumn, despite government advice that they can lift all COVID-19 restrictions, local media reported Sunday.

According to The Sunday Times report, 20 of the leading 24 Russell Group universities said a proportion of undergraduate teaching will continue to be held online, which means they will offer blended learning to mix the online and face-to-face teaching for classes, seminars and lectures.

Two-thirds of the 65 universities polled by the Times Higher Education magazine confirmed that most lectures would remain online for the coming academic year, but that they planned as much in-person teaching as possible.

Britain on Sunday reported 27,429 new COVID-19 cases and 39 more deaths, bringing the tally to 6,069,362 and the toll to 130,320, according to the latest official data.

A man receives a dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine against COVID-19 at the Medium Correctional Center in Johannesburg, on July 20, 2021. (LUCA SOLA / AFP)

Africa

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa surpassed the 7 million mark on Sunday amid rising number of new cases across the continent.

In an update, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said that as of Sunday afternoon, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had reached 7,015,907 as the death toll from the pandemic hit 176,900, while the number of recoveries stood at 6,119,091.

As Africa is grappling with a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the continent registered an increase of 1 million cases within only about three weeks since July 14.

Ahmed Ogwell, deputy director of the Africa CDC, said in a recent interview with Xinhua that the rapid spike in new cases is mainly attributed to the third wave of COVID-19 infections, which further exacerbated the infection rate.

"Africa is certainly in the process of the third-wave. Many countries are experiencing many more cases, new cases being reported on a daily basis. This is a concern for us at the Africa CDC," he said.

According to the Africa CDC, some 32 African countries, accounting for 58 percent of African countries, are experiencing the third wave COVID-19 infections; while three African countries that are Algeria, Kenya and Tunisia are presently experiencing the fourth wave infections.

Brazil

Brazil registered 399 more COVID-19 deaths in the past 24 hours, raising its national death toll to 563,151, the health ministry said on Sunday.

The total caseload rose to 20,165,672 after 13,893 new cases were detected.

Coronavirus variants

The continued spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has spawned a Greek alphabet of variants – a naming system used by the World Health Organization to track concerning new mutations of the virus that causes COVID-19. Some have equipped the virus with better ways of infecting humans or evading vaccine protection.

Scientists remain focused on Delta, now the dominant variant rising rapidly around the world, but are tracking others to see what may one day take its place.

The Delta variant first detected in India remains the most worrisome. It is striking unvaccinated populations in many countries and has proven capable of infecting a higher proportion of vaccinated people than its predecessors.

While the original coronavirus took up to seven days to cause symptoms, Delta can cause symptoms two to three days faster, giving the immune system less time to respond and mount a defense. Delta also appears to be mutating further, with reports emerging of a "Delta Plus" variant, a sub-lineage that carries an additional mutation that has been shown to evade immune protection.

The Lambda variant has attracted attention as a potential new threat. But this version of the coronavirus, first identified in Peru in December, may be receding, several infectious disease experts told Reuters.

This undated handout photo by the  National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the US National Institutes of Health, obtained on Aug 1, 2021, shows a transmission electron color-enhanced micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles isolated from a patient. (NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH / NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES / AFP)

Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, said the percentage of new Lambda cases reported to GISAID, a database that tracks SARS-CoV-2 variants, has been dropping, a sign that the variant is waning.

The B.1.621 variant, which first arose in Colombia in January, where it caused a major outbreak, has yet to earn a Greek letter name. So far, there have been 37 likely and confirmed cases in the UK, according to a recent government report, and the variant has been identified in a number of patients in Florida.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's chief medical adviser, recently warned that the United States could be in trouble unless more Americans get vaccinated, as a large pool of unvaccinated people give the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate into new variants.

Even so, a key issue is that the current vaccines block severe disease but do not prevent infection, said Dr. Gregory Poland, a vaccine scientist at the Mayo Clinic. That is because the virus is still capable of replicating in the nose, even among vaccinated people, who can then transmit the disease through tiny, aerosolized droplets.

To defeat SARS-CoV-2, he said, will likely require a new generation of vaccines that also block transmission. Until then, the world will remain vulnerable to the rise of new coronavirus variants, according to Poland and other experts.

Cuba

Cuba registered 9,427 new cases and 83 deaths from COVID-19 on Sunday, the Ministry of Public Health (Minsap) reported.

The new figures bring the total number of cases to 458,219 and the death toll to 3,438.

Egypt

Egypt on Monday received its first shipment of one-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines, obtaining 261,600 doses in cooperation with the African Union, the health ministry said.

The J&J vaccines will be distributed to 126 vaccination centers specifically for those who want to travel abroad, Khaled Megahed, assistant health minister for media and ministry spokesman, said in a statement.

Egypt recently began locally producing Sinovac's COVID-19 vaccines, through a deal between the Chinese company and Egypt's Holding Company for Biological Products and Vaccines (VACSERA).

The country has also received shipments of the Sputnik, Sinopharm and Oxford-AstraZeneca shots, including via COVAX.

Egypt has reported 284,641 infections and 16,566 coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began.

The prime minister said in June the government's aim was to vaccinate 40 percent of the population of more than 100 million against COVID-19 by the end of this year.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia registered 424 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 284,091 as of Sunday evening, the country's health ministry said.

Five new virus-related deaths and 305 more recoveries were reported, bringing the national death toll to 4,426 and total recoveries to 264,617, the ministry said.

A medical staff takes care of a COVID-19 patient at the intensive care unit of the hospital Les Abymes (Centre hospitalier universitaire) in Pointe-a-Pitre, on the French Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe, on Aug 6, 2021. (CEDRICK ISHAM CALVADOS / AFP)

France

France's health minister on Sunday appealed for volunteer doctors and nurses to travel to the overseas territories of Guadalupe and Martinique as a wave of COVID-19 infections overwhelms hospitals on the two Caribbean islands.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said the first medical staff would fly out on Tuesday, as health authorities race to administer COVID-19 shots but come up against a deep-rooted culture of vaccine-hesitancy.

Only 21 percent of the populations of Guadalupe and Martinique have received a first dose of a vaccine, according to the independent COVIDTracker website citing Aug 5 data, compared with two thirds of all French people having received one dose and 55 percent being fully vaccinated.

Hospitals on the islands are buckling under pressure with intensive care bed occupancy on Martinique alone at 200 percent of normal capacity.

In an appeal launched on social media, Veran said Martinique and Guadalupe were facing "an intense wave of infections" that was hitting a population where vaccination levels were too low.

On Monday, mainland France will extend its health pass scheme to include bars, restaurants and cafes, as well as long distance trains, to help contain a fourth wave of infections.

Germany

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 1,183 to 3,791,949, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Monday. 

The reported death toll rose by two to 91,784, the tally showed.

Rapid antigen tests missed about four in 10 cases of COVID-19 detected by PCR tests in a German study, with the results suggesting the rapid tests may be less accurate for virus variants. 

The rapid tests were most reliable for people carrying very high quantities of virus, researchers from the Universities of Heidelberg and Graz said.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 202.78 million while the global death toll topped 4.29 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

A health worker administers a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (Janssen) against the coronavirus, on Aug 5, 2021 at the Ambreck pharmacy, in Milan, during a vaccination campaign on people over 60 years. (MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP)

Italy

Italy plans to create a fast lane for people aged beween 12 and 19 to get a jab without booking, the country’s COVID-19 emergency czar was quoted as saying by Il Corriere della Sera. 

More than 4.4 million of the over-50s aren’t yet immunized, while about 2 million people aged between 20 and 29 are still waiting to get their first dose. Italy aims to reach an 80 percent immunization rate by September, the Italian daily reported.

In another development, Italian police on Monday blocked several groups on mobile messaging app Telegram where users could buy fake COVID-19 health passes required to access an array of services and leisure activities.

Police said in a statement they had shut down 32 Telegram groups operating around the country, offering fake passes to thousands of subscribers for up to 500 euros (US$588) in cryptocurrency or online shopping vouchers.

Four people were placed under investigation on suspicion of fraud and forgery.

Kenya

Kenya's COVID-19 cases have been on a rising trajectory in recent days, squashing any hopes of defeating the disease in totality.

The surging positivity rate is now threatening to trigger yet another wave of infections, just when Kenyans thought the pandemic was over following modest confirmed cases in the preceding months.

The ministry of health last week raised the alarm on rising cases painting a grim picture of fully occupied intensive care unit (ICU) beds in major hospitals in the county of Nairobi.

"As today (Aug 6) Nairobi hospitals are stretched to a limit and the truth of the matter is that if you fall sick today within this county, you are very unlikely to get a bed. Unless we can contain the transmission at this level our health care systems may be overwhelmed," said Mutahi Kagwe, Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Health.

After a lull of a month or so since its last wave, positive cases climbed swiftly in August with the ministry recording upwards of 1,000 cases every single day. In July, positive cases were oscillating between 300-500 for the first week.

The virulent Delta variant which is now the dominant mutant in the county has been singled out by the ministry of health as one fueling the new cases.

In its war against the disease, the country is on course with vaccine deployment having administered over one million first doses of AstraZeneca vaccine.

A man smiles after getting his shot of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine during a vaccination drive at University Stadium in Mexico City on July 23, 2021. (FERNANDO LLANO / AP)

Mexico

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will discuss COVID-19 vaccines with US Vice-President Kamala Harris on Monday, amid recent caseload spikes in both nations driven by highly contagious new variants of the coronavirus.

In a speech, the Mexican leader did not provide further details on other subjects he and Harris will discuss on the Monday phone call.

“We’re going to talk on Monday in order to keep working on our joint agenda of collaboration,” said Lopez Obrador.

Harris, a former senator from California, was tapped earlier this year by US President Joe Biden to lead diplomatic efforts with Mexico and several Central American nations focusing in particular on regional migration and economic development.

Lopez Obrador appeared to preview additional US vaccine donations.

The president said Mexico is expecting a shipment of 1.35 million additional doses.

Mexico registered 7,573 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 172 additional fatalities, bringing the country’s totals to 2,971,817 infections and 244,420 deaths, according to Health Ministry data released on Sunday.

The government has said the real number of cases is likely significantly higher, and separate data published earlier this year suggested the actual death toll is at least 60 percent above the confirmed figure. 

People wait in line for a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Gostinny Dvor, a huge exhibition place in Moscow, Russia, July 12, 2021. (PAVEL GOLOVKIN / AP)

Russia

Russia reported 22,160 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, including 2,150 in Moscow, taking the official national tally since the pandemic began to 6,469,910.

The government coronavirus task force said 769 people had died of coronavirus-linked causes in the past 24 hours, pushing the national death toll to 165,650.

The federal statistics agency has kept a separate count and has said Russia recorded about 315,000 deaths related to COVID-19 from April 2020 to June 2021.

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Somalia

Somalia on Sunday received 108,000 additional doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to help intensify the fight against the pandemic in the country.

The vaccines were donated by the French government through the COVAX Facility in continued efforts to protect Somalia's population from COVID-19.

Fawziya Abikar Nur, Somali Minister of Health and Human Services said the arrival of the new batch of COVID-19 vaccines comes at a critical time as cases in Somalia are on the rise.

An estimated 186,094 people in Somalia have to date received their first dose of the vaccine and 92,792 have received their second, the health ministry said.

Owing to low vaccination coverage in the country where less than 1 percent of the country's population is fully vaccinated, the country faces the dual challenge of improving the uptake amongst its general population as well as ensuring an equitable and predictable supply of COVID-19 vaccines to support an effective rollout of mass vaccination.

Switzerland

Swissmedic has approved the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for 12- to 17-year-olds, the Swiss agency said on Monday.

"Swissmedic has carefully examined the application from Moderna Switzerland GmbH for the indication extension and has extended the temporary authorisation for the Spikevax COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna for the prevention of the coronavirus disease in adolescents aged 12 to 17," it said on its website.

Tunisians wait for their turn to receive a COVID-19 veccine at an inoculation center in Ariana governorate near the capital Tunis on Aug 8, 2021. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

Tunisia

More than half a million Tunisians received vaccinations on Sunday as part of a national campaign to control the outbreak of COVID-19 after the country received more than 6 million vaccine doses from Western and Arab countries.

Five months after the start of vaccinations in the North African country, 1.3 million Tunisians have received two doses.

In an effort to speed up the vaccination schedule,Tunisia on Sunday kicked off national vaccination against COVID-19 as 335 centers across 24 provinces started to vaccinate citizens aged 40 and above.

The health ministry said 551,00 people received a vaccination on Sunday.

Intensive care units and emergency departments are full in hospitals across Tunisia. Doctors have complained of exhaustion and a shortage of oxygen supplies.

The ministry reported Sunday 2,546 new COVID-19 cases, raising the tally to 610,660. Deaths rose by 122 to 20,931. 

Tunisia seeks to vaccinate 50 percent of its 11.6 million people by mid-October.

Doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine are displayed during the launch of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign at Mulago Specialized Women and Neonatal Hospital in Kampala, Uganda, March 10, 2021. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Uganda

Uganda on Monday resumed its COVID-19 vaccination exercise after weeks of stock-out, an official said here on Monday.

"Please reach out to the nearest vaccination center for your second COVID-19 jab of the AstraZeneca vaccine. It is free, safe and effective," Emmanuel Ainebyoona, spokesperson for the ministry of health, said via Twitter.

After running out of vaccines last month, the country received donations of AstraZeneca vaccine doses from Norway and Sinovac vaccine doses from the government of China.

The east African country, according to the health ministry, expects to receive at least 12.3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by early 2022.

Uganda aims at vaccinating about 22 million people, or nearly half the population as a measure to put the pandemic at bay. According to data from the ministry, about 1.1 million people have been vaccinated since the exercise started in March this year.

United States

COVID-19 vaccinations should be required for US teachers to protect students who are too young to be inoculated, the head of the nation's second-largest teachers' union said on Sunday, shifting course to back mandated shots as more children fall ill.

"The circumstances have changed," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told NBC News' "Meet the Press" program. "It weighs really heavily on me that kids under 12 can't get vaccinated."

The United States has administered 351,400,930 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Sunday morning and distributed 407,561,705 doses, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The number of children hospitalized with COVID is rising across the country, a trend health experts attribute to the Delta variant being more likely to infect children than the original Alpha strain.

Almost 90 percent of educators and school staff are vaccinated, according to a White House statement echoed by Weingarten in other television interviews last week.

Becky Pringle, president of the largest US teachers' union, the National Education Association, told the New York Times last week that any vaccine mandate should be negotiated at the local level.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official, said it was critical to surround children with vaccinated and masked people in schools and elsewhere until shots are approved for them.

The US South remains the epicenter of the latest outbreak, with Florida reporting a record of nearly 24,000 new cases on Saturday, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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