Euro 2020 crowds driving rise in virus infections, says WHO

England's forward Harry Kane celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA EURO 2020 round of 16 football match between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium in London on June 29, 2021. (FRANK AUGSTEIN / POOL / AFP)

BRASILIA / LONDON / PARIS / LISBON / ZURICH / BERLIN / WASHINGTON / QUITO / BUENOS AIRES / GABORONE / TUNIS / MAPUTO / SANTIAGO / WINDHOEK / MEXICO CITY / MOSCOW / COPENHAGEN – The Euro 2020 soccer tournament was on Thursday blamed for a surge in coronavirus cases as fans have flocked to stadiums, bars and spectator zones across Europe to watch the action while the pandemic still raged.

Germany’s interior minister called European soccer’s governing body UEFA “utterly irresponsible” for allowing big crowds at the tournament.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the mixing of crowds in Euro 2020 host cities, travel and easing of social restrictions had driven up the number of new cases rose by 10 percent.

A 10-week decline in new infections across Europe had come to an end and a new wave is inevitable if football fans and others drop their guard, WHO senior emergency officer Catherine Smallwood said in Copenhagen.

“We need to look much beyond just the stadiums themselves,” Smallwood told reporters. “We need to look at how people get there, are they travelling in large crowded convoys of buses? And when they leave the stadiums, are they going into crowded bars and pubs to watch the matches?

These events were driving the spread of the virus, she said.

With COVID-19 restrictions varying from nation to nation, crowd sizes have ranged from completely full, such as 60,000 in Budapest, to 25-45 percent capacity in other venues where there have often been around 10-15,000 spectators.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide exceeded 182.21 million while the global death toll topped 3.94 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

UK

Britain is starting to plan for a COVID-19 vaccine booster campaign starting later this year after top vaccine advisers said it might be necessary to give third shots to the elderly and most vulnerable from September.

The government said that a final decision on whether a vaccine booster campaign was needed had not been made, but officials had advised that preparations should begin on a precautionary basis.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advised that there should be a plan to offer COVID-19 booster vaccines from September, starting with people 70 years old, care home residents and those who are immunosuppressed or vulnerable.

Britain has given 85 percent of adults a first COVID-19 shot, with more than 60 percent receiving two doses.

Britain reported 20,479 new coronavirus cases and 23 more deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the cumulative tally to 4,775,301 with 128,126 deaths, according to official figures released Tuesday.

It was highest daily tally since Jan 29, and the third consecutive day that Britain posted more than 20,000 daily cases. 

ALSO READ: 'Sputnik V shot around 90% effective against Delta variant'

Eastern Europe

In the eastern corner of the European Union, two countries are desperately trying to avoid wasting a precious commodity: COVID-19 vaccines.

Demand for inoculations has plunged in Romania and Bulgaria, leaving stockpiles of shots that officials need to use fast before their expiry dates. The alternative would be to destroy them, which would be a depressing outcome given the shortage of shots elsewhere, such as in poorer African nations.

With spares doses piling up, shots are being sold or donated to other countries, governments want deliveries delayed, and Bulgaria’s hotel industry is pushing to have free vaccinations given to foreign visitors. 

In Romania, just 24 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, and Bulgaria’s figure is half that.

Romania’s situation is more pressing, with 35,000 of its Astra doses expired as of Wednesday. (Manufacturers are testing to see if shelf life can be extended.)

Bulgaria has about 20,000 with an end-July deadline, though it hopes to use many as second doses before then. But both want to delay more deliveries to avoid oversupply; in Romania’s case, 4.4 million due in the next two months.

With demand dropping in Bulgaria, the government plans to donate 150,000 doses – mostly Astra – to neighboring countries in the Balkans. The country’s tourism lobby wants foreign visitors to get jabs for free.

In Romania, the government is shifting its focus from cities to rural areas in a bid to rescue its faltering inoculation campaign. It’s counting on local doctors who have close ties with local communities to help convince people of the benefits.

France

France decided on Wednesday to delay the unwinding of COVID-19 restrictions in a southwestern region of the country.

French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the high presence of the Delta variant in the Landes region of southwest France meant France would delay until July 6 an unwinding of COVID restrictions set up in that area.

"We have all the cards in hand to avoid a fourth wave of the epidemic," added Attal, referring to how the virus could be kept at bay if more and more people got COVID vaccinations.

Earlier in the day, the government's leading scientific adviser said earlier in the a fourth wave of the virus was likely to the emergence of the Delta variant.

French health authorities reported 2,457 new COVID cases on Wednesday, the highest total since 11 days, and the seven day moving average of daily new infections has now gone up for the third day running, at 1,854.

Portugal

Coronavirus cases in Portugal jumped by 2,362 in the past 24 hours, the biggest increase since mid-February, official data showed on Wednesday, as authorities scrambled to stop the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

The first cases of the Delta variant were registered in Portugal in April and now it accounts for more than half of cases in the country, which has the European Union's second highest seven-day rolling average of cases per capita.

In total, Portugal, which has fully vaccinated around 31 percent of its population, has recorded 879,557 cases and 17,096 deaths since the pandemic began. Most new cases are in Lisbon.

Authorities are speeding up vaccinations and have imposed new restrictions in a few municipalities, including in the Lisbon area.

Switzerland

Switzerland will give 4 million doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine that it has reserved to the COVAX Facility, the government said on Wednesday, to help address a massive discrepancy in shots for the developing world.

The 4-million-dose donation exceeds the 3 million Switzerland had previously announced it was considering giving to COVAX.

"Through the unequal distribution of vaccines we can expect that the pandemic will continue for a long time to come," the government said in a statement.

J&J

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) expects to start studying its one-dose vaccine in children 12 to 17 years old this fall, a company official said at a Johns Hopkins University virtual event. 

The drugmaker plans to sign up at least 4,500 adolescents and will check their progress a year later, according to J&J’s Macaya Douoguih. The company plans four studies in minors, she said.

Germany

Germany expects the Delta variant of COVID-19 to account for up to 80 percent of infections this month, meaning it could ease travel restrictions from countries like Portugal and Britain where it already dominates, the German health minister said on Thursday.

Jens Spahn said at a news conference that Germany could reduce the current 14-day quarantine requirement that it imposes on travelers from countries with high levels of the Delta variant once it is sure that vaccinated people are protected.

New studies suggest that people who have received two doses of vaccine are well protected against the Delta variant, which could mean that the rules could be reassessed soon, Spahn said, without saying when that may happen.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 892 to 3,729,033, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Thursday. The reported death toll rose by 63 to 90,938, the tally showed.

Spahn reiterated the importance of speeding up vaccinations, noting that 37 percent of Germany's population has now received two shots, while 55 percent has had their first dose.

Germany plans to spend 3.9 billion euros on 204 million vaccine doses for next year, far more than the two each needed for its 84 million population, to guard against production bottlenecks and have ample provision for any new COVID-19 variants that might emerge or the need for booster shots.

Of the planned expansion, nearly 85 million doses of BionTech-Pfizer's mRNA vaccine are already contracted for via the EU’s procurement scheme, according to a health ministry paper seen by Reuters.

A further 31.8 million doses will be in the form of Moderna's mRNA vaccine. J&J's vector vaccine will contribute 18.3 million doses, and a total 70 million doses of vaccines from Sanofi, Novavax and Valneva will contribute the rest.

READ MORE: Germany catches up with US in vaccination drive

A health worker collects a swab sample from an elderly woman for COVID-19 testing in El Alto, Bolivia, June 30, 2021. (JUAN KARITA / AP)

Americas

Cases of COVID-19 may be declining in North America but in most of Latin America and the Caribbean the end to the coronavirus pandemic "remains a distant future", the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the World Health Organization (WHO)’s regional arm, said on Wednesday.

While infections in the United States, Canada and Mexico are falling, in Latin America and the Caribbean cases are rising and vaccination is lagging badly. Only one in ten people have been fully vaccinated, which PAHO director Carissa Etienne called "an unacceptable situation”.

PAHO discouraged summer holiday travel in the Americas now that movement restrictions are being lifted as more people are vaccinated in the Northern Hemisphere and travel destinations, such as the Caribbean, reopen for tourists.

Even people who have been vaccinated can become sick and spread COVID-19, Etienne said in a weekly briefing.

The highly transmissible Delta variant has already been detected in a dozen countries in the Americas, but so far community transmission has been limited, said PAHO viral disease advisor Jairo Mendez.

However, it has been found in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Peru, the United States and Mexico, where it has spread in Mexico City, according to PAHO.

Given the presence of such variants, countries in the region should step up vigilance and consider the need to limit travel or even close borders, PAHO health emergencies director Ciro Ugarte said.

ALSO READ: Concerns rise over Delta Plus variant

CureVac

CureVac said its COVID-19 vaccine was 48 percent effective in the final analysis of its pivotal mass trial, only marginally better than the 47 percent reported after an initial read-out two weeks ago.

The German biotech firm said that efficacy, measured by preventing symptomatic disease, was slightly better at 53 percent when excluding trial participants older than 60 years, an age group that is by far the most severely affected.

CureVac said it had sent the data to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) as part of an ongoing dialogue with the EU drugs regulator.

CureVac previously said that the regulatory hurdle was 50 percent efficacy in principle but that various other considerations would come into play.

Colombia

The US plans to ship 2.5 million doses of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine to Colombia, the White House said Wednesday.

The Colombian president's office said Monday that US President Joe Biden told President Ivan Duque of the donation in a call.

COVAX: World prepared for ‘wrong pandemic’

The world was somewhat prepared for a pandemic before COVID-19 struck, but it anticipated the wrong kind, said Aurelia Nguyen, managing director of the COVAX Facility for the nonprofit Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

“A lot of the focus had been on influenza,” Nguyen said Wednesday at the Bloomberg New Economy Catalyst virtual event. “We had the machinery in place thanks to seasonal flu vaccines, but we were not prepared for a coronavirus.”

Now that COVID-19 vaccines have been developed, the next step is to get them to countries worldwide – the mission of COVAX – and ensure that vaccines are available to poorer nations when the next pandemic inevitably hits, she said.

US

With the highly transmissible Delta variant accounting for more than a quarter of new COVID-19 cases, US officials are reconsidering mask guidance for the public.

There is still a lot of virus circulating in the United States, and close to 300 people are still dying daily from the coronavirus, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said in an interview with CNN, citing data from recent weeks.

Spikes in coronavirus cases are "entirely avoidable, entirely preventable" with vaccination, said Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical advisor.

Experts and officials are concerned that coronavirus variants, especially the highly transmissible Delta variant, will continue to drive up new cases.

With half the US population still not fully vaccinated, experts warned it could cause a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall. 

Bulgaria

Bulgaria, which has had its borders open to visitors from most countries, will introduce a color-code system from July 1, the health ministry said in a statement. 

The criteria for the three categories – red, yellow and green – will include rates of new cases and positivity of tests, identification of worrying new variants in the countries, as well as the lack of enough information. 

The government in the Balkan country, which has the EU’s lowest vaccination rate, is preparing for a new wave in the fall amid the spread of the Delta variant in Europe and slow inoculation.

Ecuador

Ecuador on Wednesday reported 1,015 new COVID-19 infections and 13 deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the tally to 458,504 and the toll to 15,900.

The province of Pichincha led in the new case with 420 fresh infections, and the capital Quito, located in Pichincha, remained as the epicenter of the pandemic in the South American country, having registered 377 new cases in the past 24 hours.

Public hospitals continue to be overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, mainly in intensive care units, health authorities said.

Argentina

Argentina on Wednesday reported 22,673 new cases of COVID-19 and 638 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the caseload to 4,470,374 with 94,304 fatalities.

The Ministry of Health said active cases have amounted to 299,149 with 6,308 patients in intensive care units (ICUs), while some 4,076,921 people have recovered from the disease.

Argentina has focused on preventing the emergence of the Delta variant, and has begun, as of this week, limiting the entry of residents from abroad by issuing entry permits for 600 people per day coming via Ezeiza International Airport.

The health minister of Buenos Aires, Daniel Gollan, said Wednesday that the restriction was adopted because many travelers did not comply with mandatory home isolation after returning from abroad.

A young boy walks past a mural promoting vaccination for COVID-19 in Duduza township, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, June 23, 2021. (THEMBA HADEBE / AP)

South Africa

Excess deaths, seen as a more precise way of measuring total fatalities from the coronavirus, rose to their highest level in the South African commercial hub of Gauteng since the pandemic began.

In the week to June 20, a total of 2,242 more deaths than normal were recorded in the province that includes Johannesburg, the biggest city, and Pretoria, the capital, according to a report from the South African Medical Research Council. That compares with the 475 deaths officially attributed to COVID-19.

The National Institute of Communicable Diseases has attributed the rapid climb in cases and deaths to the emergence in the country of the delta variant, first identified in India. 

Overall 32,974 excess deaths have been recorded in Gauteng and 176,700 nationally over the course of the pandemic, according to the SAMRC. That compares with an official total of 60,647 attributed to COVID-19. 

Nationally 3,907 excess deaths were recorded in the week to June 20, with 1,188 of those were officially attributed to Covid-19.

In another development, the World Bank and a trio of western government agencies announced Wednesday a financing package for production of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) coronavirus vaccine in South Africa, part of an effort to scale global production and meet demand for billions of doses.

The 600 million euro (US$712 million) deal will support Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. in producing 500 million doses of the shots through 2022. Of that amount, 30 million will be produced for use in South Africa in 2021, out of a total of 250 million due by the end of the year.

J&J will provide the drug substance, which is the main ingredient, and Aspen – which is based in the South African port city of Durban – will conduct the fill-finish process, or the last stage in production, the officials said.

Botswana

Botswana will vaccinate 80 percent of those aged 55 and above in the southern African country by the end of July, the Ministry of Health and Wellness said Wednesday.

The estimation was made following the arrival of a batch of Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine on June 24, Christopher Nyanga, the ministry's spokesperson, said in a press release.

"The ministry will continue the vaccination exercise for those taking their first dose on July 5 and the targeted group is 55 years and above category," said Nyanga.

After that, the roll-out program will transition to phase two, in which those aged 30-54 will be inoculated, he said.

Mexico

COVID-19-related deaths in Mexico likely exceed the confirmed toll by about 60 percent, health ministry data released on Wednesday showed.

Authorities have said previously that fatalities likely far exceed the official count, and the latest figure is in line with data published in March.

Mexico registered 351,376 excess deaths associated with COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic through the 20th week of this year, which would be May 23, latest data shows.

The country had recorded 221,647 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 by that date, meaning the additional deaths recorded by the health ministry based on a search of death certificates represented a 58.5 percent increase. 

Mexico's official number of COVID-19 infections stands at 2,519,269 and its death toll at 233,047, after the ministry on Wednesday reported 6,105 new infections and 244 more deaths.

Tunisia

Tunisia’s health ministry on Wednesday reported 5,921 new COVID-19 cases, raising the total number of cases in the North African country to 420,103.

The death toll rose by 116 to 14,959 while the total number of recoveries reached 354,441, the ministry said in a statement.

Chile

Chile reported on Wednesday 2,148 new COVID-19 infections and 56 more deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the totals to 1,555,902 cases and 32,545 deaths.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health reported that new cases have fallen by 25 percent in the last seven days, while the number of new patients have declined in all 16 regions of the country.

The southern region of Los Rios had the highest incidence rate per 100,000 inhabitants in the past day, followed by Atacama, Arica and Parinacota, and Aysen.

The ministry highlighted a drop in COVID-19 infections in the last few days, which has led to the lifting of quarantines in about 50 municipalities nationwide this week, in addition to the opening of local businesses and educational facilities.

However, specialists warned that the Delta variant could lead to new cases in the coming weeks and even cause another wave of infections. 

People wait in line to get a coronavirus vaccine at an inoculation site in Gorky Park in Moscow, Russia, June 30, 2021. (ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO / AP)

Russia

Health clinics in Moscow will begin offering booster vaccine shots against COVID-19 on Thursday, the city's mayor said, as Russian officials scramble to contain a surge in cases blamed on the highly infectious Delta variant.

The health ministry issued new regulations for the national inoculation program on Wednesday, recommending clinics begin administering booster doses to people vaccinated six months ago or more, making Russia one of the first countries globally to begin re-vaccination.

The health ministry said the campaign was an emergency measure as coronavirus cases in Russia rise sharply and vaccination rates remain low.

Russia reported 672 coronavirus-related deaths on Thursday, the highest official death toll in a single day since the pandemic began. 

The government coronavirus task force also confirmed 23,543 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, the most since Jan 17, including 7,597 in Moscow. That pushed the national caseload to 5,538,142. The death toll now stands at 135,886. 

Russia has inoculated just 16 percent of its population. The health ministry said it would be pursuing "emergency" vaccination and recommending booster doses for vaccinated people every six months until at least 60 percent of the adult population is vaccinated.

Mozambique

Mozambique on Wednesday received 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine purchased by the country's private sector in coordination with the government.

The procurement of the 500,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine is part of the local initiative "United for the vaccine against COVID-19" (UNIVAX), of which 139,000 doses will be offered to the government.

Speaking about the vaccination plan at a reception ceremony, Minister of Health Armindo Tiago said the 500,000 doses will contribute to the immunization of around 240,000 people and accelerate the implementation of the national vaccination plan.

The country is to receive another 1.5 million doses in the coming weeks, said Tiago.

Namibia

Namibian President Hage Geingob on Wednesday announced a decision to tighten COVID-19 regulations by locking down the whole country and banning inter-regional travel starting Thursday to prevent the spread of the virus.

Geingob also said a limit of a maximum of 10 people at public gatherings will remain in force, and the curfew from 10 pm to 4 am will be changed to 9 pm to 4 am.

Namibia is now recording 1,798 daily cases on average, with a positivity rate 41 percent, while 513 people had succumbed to COVID-19 in the past 15 days, he said.

Hungary

Hungary, which has suffered the second-highest COVID-19-related deaths per capita since the pandemic’s outbreak, reported no daily virus-related fatalities for the first time since early September, according to data published on Thursday.

The government plans to scrap most remaining virus curbs this week when 5.5 million people, or about 56 percent of the population, will have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The improvement in Hungary contrasts with some other countries in Europe and elsewhere that are experiencing fresh outbreaks connected to the delta variant.

The easing of curbs in Hungary will extend to masks, which will no longer be mandatory indoors, including on public transportation. Vaccination certificates won’t be required for eating inside restaurants or for hotel stays, though proof of inoculation will still be needed to attend some larger sports and music events.