French parliament approves Macron’s vaccine pass

In this file photo taken on Dec 17, 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron looks on during a joint press conference with Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz (out of frame) during an EU summit at the European Council Building at the EU headquarters in Brussels. (JOHN THYS / POOL / AFP)

LONDON / JERUSALEM / BRASILIA / PANAMA CITY / NEW YORK / PARIS / WELLINGTON / HAVANA / ROME – France's parliament on Thursday approved President Emmanuel Macron's plans for a vaccine pass to help curb the spread of the Omicron variant after a tumultuous debate whipped up by Macron's comments that he wanted to "piss off" the unvaccinated.

Macron told Le Parisien newspaper earlier this week that he wanted to make the lives of those refusing the COVID-19 vaccine so complicated by squeezing them out of public places that they would end up getting jabbed. 

Lawmakers in the lower house passed draft legislation including the vaccine pass shortly after 5 am after an all-night session by a margin of 214 to 93

Macron's coarse language barely three months before a presidential election was widely seen as a politically calculated, tapping into an intensifying public frustration against the unvaccinated.

More than 90 percent of over-12s have received at least two doses, government data shows. Health Minister Olivier Veran said a record number of people since Oct 1 received a first shot on Wednesday after Macron's comments were published.

Lawmakers in the lower house passed draft legislation including the vaccine pass shortly after 5 am after an all-night session by a margin of 214 to 93. Many of those who voted against the bill were from the far-right or left-wingers.

The legislation will go to the Senate before a final vote in the National Assembly.

People in France have for several months had to show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter venues such as cinemas and cafes and use trains. But with Delta and Omicron variant infections surging, the government decided to drop the test option in the new bill.

The vaccine pass rules will apply to over-16s and not over-12 as the government had initially sought.

European countries have been grappling with whether to coerce citizens into getting vaccinated through mandates. Italy on Wednesday made COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for people from the age of 50, with teachers and public health workers already obliged to get the shot. 

Prime Minister Jean Castex said countries that had moved towards compulsory vaccinations such as Italy and Austria had lower vaccination rates than France.

Castex also said France was ready to move towards a fourth COVID shot when the time was right.

On Wednesday, France registered a record of more than 332,000 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, and a further 246 COVID deaths in hospitals, as the country. 

Brazil

Brazil's Health Ministry said on Wednesday that it will go ahead with the voluntary vaccination of children aged 5 to 11 years old against COVID-19 and dropped plans to require a doctor's prescription.

While vaccination will not be mandatory, state governments have the final word on public health decisions and could require that children be vaccinated to be able to attend school.

"Children have unfortunately died of COVID-19, not many, but every child's life is important," Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said in a news conference.

In this file photo taken on April 29, 2020,
a soldier from 2 Scots Royal Regiment of Scotland tests a key worker for the novel coronavirus COVID-19 at a drive-in testing centre at Glasgow Airport as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. (ANDREW MILLIGAN / POOL / AFP)

COVID-19 testing

Britain and Israel are overhauling their COVID-19 testing policies as governments seek to reduce the burden on laboratories and struggle with tight supplies of kits amid soaring infection rates fuelled by the Omicron variant.

This time last year, vaccines offered hope that the pandemic could be over by now. But Omicron has brought new challenges, including overloading public health systems, even if – as many scientists say – it leads to less severe illness than the earlier Delta variant.

A surge in demand for tests has led to issues in Italy and Britain

Demand for testing kits has squeezed supply. Last week, queues formed outside pharmacies in Spain's capital Madrid in what has become a common scene since Omicron began driving up infections. Madrid, whose conservative government has put supporting the hospitality sector at the top of its agenda, is opting for increased testing and no restrictions on socializing.

A surge in demand for tests has led to issues in Italy and Britain. The UK Health Security Agency said that 100,000 more PCR booking slots per day had been made available since mid-December and that capacity had been doubled to 900,000 PCR and LFD test kits a day.

People in England who test positive for COVID-19 on rapid lateral flow device tests will not need to confirm their results with a follow-up PCR test if they are not showing symptoms, the UKHSA said on Wednesday.

A record-high one in 15 people had COVID-19 in England in the week ending Dec 31, estimates published by the Office for National Statistics showed on Wednesday.

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"While cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, this tried-and-tested approach means that LFDs can be used confidently to indicate COVID-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation," said agency Chief Executive Dr Jenny Harries.

PCR tests are processed in a lab and can be used to determine which variant a person has, while a LFD can be used at home and gives an indication of infectivity within half an hour.

Virologists and experts said the move was logical given the incredibly high infection rates as long as LFD supplies were sufficient as they identify the majority of people who are at their most infectious and need to isolate.

Israel changed its quarantine and testing policy as part of efforts to save resources and ensure continued protection for vulnerable people

"There is really no need to confirm (a positive LFD test) with a PCR, a step that not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere," said John Edmunds, a professor of mathematical modeling of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

But the authorities will have less data about the spread of different variants as PCR swabs are used for genotyping and sequencing.

Israel changed its quarantine and testing policy as part of efforts to save resources and ensure continued protection for vulnerable people.

PCR tests will be earmarked for people aged 60 and over or with weak immune systems, while those at lower risk will be checked with rapid antigen tests, the health ministry said.

"This is a significant change intended to identify risk populations sooner, intervene and prevent severe disease," ministry director-general Nachman Ash told a news conference.

Until now, those exposed to confirmed COVID-19 carriers have been required to take official tests. If found to be positive, they must submit to police-enforced quarantine rules.

The agency had been pressured by health experts to institute a test requirement after it cut in half its guidance last week for people to isolate after a COVID-19 infection to five days from 10.

Spain, Portugal and Britain have also slashed the mandatory isolation period for people who test positive for COVID-19 amid fears that lengthy quarantines could paralyze economies.

Ireland will drop its requirement for vaccinated arrivals to have proof of a negative COVID-19 test and return to seeking proof of vaccination or recent infection upon entry, Prime Minister Micheál Martin said.

Cuba

Cuba on Wednesday tightened COVID-19 border control measures in a bid to stem the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The surge in cases follows the resumption of international flights in mid-November and Christmas season gatherings.

International travelers flying into Cuba will now be asked to show proof of vaccination, as well as negative PCR tests taken within 72 hours prior to arrival.

In addition, random PCR tests will be conducted at the country's airports, according to the Cuban Ministry of Public Health.

Children under 12 will not be required to show vaccination passports when visiting the Caribbean nation.

Visitors present their so-called "Green Pass" to be checked at the entrance to the Altare della Patria monument in Piazza Venezia on Dec 05, 2021 in Rome. (VINCENZO PINTO / AFP)

Italy

Italy on Wednesday further tightened anti-coronavirus measures, mainly making vaccination mandatory for people aged 50 and above, in an effort to curb surging COVID-19 cases fueled by the Omicron variant.

For non-working people, the latest measures will enter into force immediately after being published in the country's official gazette, and for public and private workers, the enforcement will start from Feb 15. The measures are valid until June 15.

The new package was unanimously approved by Prime Minister Mario Draghi's cabinet. It came only days after the introduction of more relaxed quarantine rules for vaccinated people and tighter restrictions for unvaccinated people.

Vaccination has so far been mandatory for some categories of workers, namely health care and school staff, police forces and military. University staff of all ages is the latest addition to the mandatory vaccination list.

New Zealand 

New Zealand reported 19 new cases of COVID-19 in the community on Thursday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country's current community outbreak to 11,022.

Among the new infections, six were recorded in the largest city of Auckland, five in nearby Waikato, five in Bay of Plenty, one in Northland, and two in Taranaki, according to the Ministry of Health.

A total of 38 cases are being treated in hospitals, including four in intensive care units or high dependency units, a ministry statement said.

The total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand stands at 14,092 currently, according to the health ministry.

Panama

Panama moved to require all public officials to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly coronavirus testing, the health minister said on Wednesday, as the Central American country grappled with a surge in coronavirus cases.

Health Minister Luis Francisco Sucre announced in a news conference that Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo had signed the decree, which mandated public functionaries receive three doses of a coronavirus vaccine or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test each Monday.

"If there is something that cannot be stopped, it is the government institutions that have to continue to function," Sucre said, adding the measure would take effect on Jan 28.

Panama registered 4,372 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday.

This file photo taken on Sept 9, 2021 shows Poland's President Andrzej Duda during a joint press conference with his Hungarian counterpart (not in picture) at the presidential palace in Budapest, Hungary. (ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

Poland

Polish President Andrzej Duda was infected with COVID-19, a senior official said on Wednesday.

The president is "fine" with "no severe symptoms and is under constant medical care," said Pawel Szrot, head of the president's cabinet, on his Twitter account.

Duda had taken two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, respectively in April and June 2021, and a third booster dose on Dec 17, Szrot said.

Duda had been infected with the novel coronavirus in October 2020.

A medical assistant prepares a syringe with the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for children at a vaccination centre set up at a car dealership in Iserlohn, western Germany, on Jan 5, 2022. (INA FASSBENDER / AFP)

Pfizer

Pfizer expects the latest results from a clinical trial for kids under the age of 5 of the COVID-19 vaccine it developed with Germany's BioNTech SE by April, a top company scientist said on Wednesday.

"The study has been amended to give a third dose to everybody who's less than five at least eight weeks after their last vaccination," Dr Alejandra Gurtman, a Pfizer vaccine researcher said at a meeting of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. She said the company aims to have data for the age group by the end of March or the beginning of April.

In December, Pfizer said it was changing the design of the trial because children between the ages of 2 and 4 who were given two 3-microgram doses of the vaccine did not have the same immune response that a larger dose of the vaccine generated in older children.

Gurtman also said the company was studying a third dose of its vaccine in children ages 5 to 11, six months after their second dose.

Five-year-old Noah is inoculated with the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for children at a vaccination centre set up at a car dealership in Iserlohn, western Germany on Jan 5, 2022. (NA FASSBENDER / AFP)

Studies on COVID-19

Coronavirus infection during pregnancy does not appear to affect infants' brain function, but the pandemic itself may be having an impact, a study published on Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics suggests.

Researchers in New York City tracked 255 full-term infants born during the pandemic, including 114 whose mothers had COVID-19 during pregnancy. When the babies were six months old, the researchers saw "absolutely no effect of maternal infection with SARS-CoV-2" on neurodevelopment, said Dr Dani Dumitriu of Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute. But overall, compared with 62 infants born before the pandemic, the babies born during the health crisis had slightly lower scores on tasks involving large muscles, tasks requiring small muscle movements, and personal interactions. The findings do not necessarily mean these infants will suffer long-term consequences, Dumitriu said. Assessments at six months are poor predictors of long-term outcomes, she added.

If additional research confirms that birth during the pandemic negatively impacts neurodevelopment, she said, "because this is such an early time point there are lots of opportunities to intervene and get these babies onto the right developmental trajectory."

Meanwhile, the coronavirus can directly damage the kidneys by initiating a cascade of molecular events that leads to scarring, new laboratory research found. The resulting scar tissue could have long-term impacts on survivors' kidney function, according to a report published in Cell Stem Cell.

The researchers exposed tiny replicas of kidneys to the SARS-CoV-2 virus in test tubes. They found the virus could infect multiple types of kidney cells and trigger "a molecular switch" that starts the scarring process. The findings suggest that high rates of kidney function decline seen in a separate study of more than 90,000 COVID-19 survivors might be due to scarring of the kidney by the virus, the researchers said.

A sign for COVID-19 testing is seen at a public school in Los Angeles, California on Jan 5, 2022. (ROBYN BECK / AFP)

US

Top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci warned on Wednesday against complacency about the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, saying the sheer number of cases could strain hospitals despite signs of lower severity.

The staggering pace of Omicron's spread has snarled life across the country, upending the restart of school after the holiday break, halting air travel, shuttering entertainment venues and throwing a monkey wrench into back-to-office plans.

The rolling seven-day average number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States hit 540,000, a new high for an eighth consecutive day on Tuesday. Hospitalizations of COVID patients have risen 45 percent in the past seven days and stand at over 111,000, a figure not seen since January 2021.

"(Omicron) could still stress our hospital system because a certain proportion of a large volume of cases, no matter what, are going to be severe," Fauci told reporters at a White House briefing.

Meanwhile, the American Medical Association on Wednesday criticized the government's guidelines on quarantine and isolation in the United States, saying the guidance was "confusing" and risked further spread of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped short of recommending a rapid antigen test for people seeking to end their COVID-19 isolation at five days.

"A negative test should be required for ending isolation after one tests positive for COVID-19. Re-emerging without knowing one's status unnecessarily risks further transmission of the virus," the AMA said.

The CDC last week reduced the recommended isolation period for people with asymptomatic COVID-19 to five days from 10, and on Tuesday backed that decision saying a review of 113 studies from 17 countries showed that most transmission occurs early in the course of infection.

The AMA said physicians are concerned that these recommendations put patients at risk and could further overwhelm the healthcare system.

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has spread rapidly across the United States, leading to a surge in hospitalizations and a shortage of test kits.

The AMA urged the US government to use all means to ramp up production and distribution of COVID-19 tests, adding that a "dearth of tests at the moment does not justify omitting a testing requirement to exit a now shortened isolation".