Germany, WHO to create new data hub to fight pandemics

A man sits in his car as he is vaccinated with AstraZeneca in a tent on the parking lot of a supermarket in Pforzheim, southern Germany, May 5, 2021. (MICHAEL PROBST / AP)

ADDIS ABABA / KIGALI / LONDON / LUSAKA / NAIROBI / BERLIN / RABAT / SAN FRANCISCO / SANTIAGO / TUNIS / HAVANA / RIO DE JANEIRO / LAGOS / BUENOS AIRES – German Health Minister Jens Spahn called on Wednesday for a "global reset" in the fight against pandemics as Germany and the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the creation of a new global hub in Berlin for gathering data on pandemics.

Speaking at a virtual news conference attended also by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the head of the WHO, Spahn said the world was still insufficiently prepared for pandemics.

The new hub in Berlin, bringing together governmental, academic and private sector institutions, aims to harness global data to predict, prevent and respond to pandemic and epidemic risks worldwide.

"There will be more viruses that will emerge with the potential of sparking pandemics," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the news conference.

Germany is set to ease COVID-19 restrictions on people who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from coronavirus, the country's Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection (BMJV) said here on Tuesday.

This is "an important step towards normality," said Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection Christine Lambrecht at a press conference, adding that "we had to restrict basic rights in the coronavirus crisis to protect life and health."

However, Lambrecht added that "basic rights must be allowed to be exercised again as soon as the justification for restricting those rights no longer exists."

Africa

New coronavirus variants have proliferated across southern and eastern Africa, exacerbating the challenge of bringing the pandemic under control, analysis of the genomics data shows.

A strain first detected in South Africa late last year is “completely dominating all infection in southern Africa and seems to be entering East Africa,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of Krisp, a genomics institute in the port city of Durban, which is leading a group that’s evaluating the data. “Another variant is completely dominating infections in Uganda and Rwanda, and is spreading through truck routes.”

Africa is the world’s least-vaccinated continent, with many countries’ inoculation programs dependent on COVAX – a global initiative that aims to ensure there is equitable access to the shots. The spread of variants has raised alarm because some of them appear to be more transmissible than the original virus and may be resistant to some inoculations. The longer populations go unvaccinated, the higher the risk that mutations will occur.

Krisp is working with authorities in more than 40 African countries to collect and analyze all available data so the prevalence of the South African strain and others identified in Nigeria and in travelers from Tanzania can be assessed.

A 'To Let' sign hangs in the window of a restaurant, which has moved from its own street-front premises to inside a local gallery, in Cape Town city centre, on April 23, 2021. Restaurants and similar businesses have suffered as a result of South Africa's fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (RODGER BOSCH / AFP)

Brazil

Brazil's former health minister told a parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday that President Jair Bolsonaro's right-wing government knew full well that the treatment they were advocating for COVID-19 patients had no scientific basis.

Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who was fired last April by Bolsonaro for not agreeing to push the malaria drug chloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, testified before a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 408,000 Brazilians.

The Senate investigation is expected to hurt the president politically 17 months ahead of elections by showing the country that his opposition to lockdowns and social distancing measures, his failure to secure vaccines and the touting of unproven treatments deepened the crisis Brazil is now in.

Antonio Barra Torres, president of Brazil's health regulator Anvisa who was also at the meeting, said that could not be done.

"The government was aware that it was prescribing chloroquine without any scientific evidence," Mandetta said.

Meanwhile, Brazil on Tuesday reported 2,966 new deaths from COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, taking the nationwide death toll to 411,588, according to its health ministry.

77,359 new cases were detected, bringing the accumulated caseload to 14,856,888.

Britain

The UK is setting up a COVID-19 testing center aimed at speeding up the deployment of vaccines tailored to tackle new coronavirus variants.

The government will invest 29.3 million pounds (US$40.6 million) in “state of the art” laboratories at the Porton Down military research facility to assess the effectiveness of existing and new vaccines against variants of concern, the Health Department said in an emailed statement.

The extra funding means scientists will be able to test 3,000 blood samples a week, up from 700 now, in order to measure the level of antibodies to COVID-19 generated by the vaccines.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that drinking alcohol after having a coronavirus jab would affect how it works, the British medicine regulator said.

The response by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) came following social media reports that people should abstain from drinking for up to two weeks after getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

"There is currently no evidence that drinking alcohol interferes with the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines," a spokeswoman for the MHRA told the PA news agency.

Canada

The Canadian province of Alberta reported its first death of a patient from a rare blood clot condition after receiving the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, its chief medical officer confirmed late Tuesday.

The Alberta case marks the second case of blood clots, and the only death after more than 253,000 doses of AstraZeneca were administered in the province, the statement added.

Last month, the province of Quebec reported Canada's first death of a patient after receiving the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. read more

Meanwhile, Alberta will increase restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 as a third wave of the pandemic threatens to overwhelm the hospital system within weeks, Premier Jason Kenney said on Tuesday.

Stricter measures include confining schools to online learning, ordering workplaces with COVID-19 outbreaks to close for 10 days, closing salons, allowing restaurants to offer takeout service only and reducing the number of people allowed at funerals and religious services.

Alberta, the center of Canada's energy industry, has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the country and follows Ontario and Quebec in beefing up restrictions.

United States

President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced a goal to vaccinate 70 percent of US adults with at least one COVID-19 shot by the July 4 Independence Day holiday and said the government would innoculate 12- to 15-year-olds as soon as allowed.

The president, who has made fighting the coronavirus a key priority of his administration, had previously announced July 4 as a target date for Americans to gather in small groups to celebrate the holiday and signal a return to greater normalcy in the middle of the pandemic.

Biden's new goal includes having 160 million adults fully vaccinated by the Fourth of July.

An administration official told reporters that 105 million Americans are fully vaccinated and more than 56 percent of US adults, or 147 million people, have received at least one shot.

Meanwhile, US San Francisco Mayor London Breed on Tuesday announced that starting May 6, the city will reopen and expand additional activities that are allowed by California state for counties with minimal COVID-19 transmission levels.

With this move, the city will expand almost all activities to 50 percent indoor capacity, unless the state requires more restrictive capacity limits, the announcement said.

The city will remove limits on the number of people participating in activities and loosen other operating restrictions. Live spectator events, festivals, meetings, receptions, and conventions will see significant expansions as well.

In addition to the expansion of activities, San Francisco is for the first time reopening businesses that have remained closed. 

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Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 154.38 million while the global death toll topped 3.22 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Greece

Falling COVID-19 case numbers and more vaccinations will permit Greece to open its vital tourism sector next week, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Wednesday, adding he was "very, very sure" the situation would be much better in a month's time.

On May 15 Greece plans to lift travel restrictions on foreign visitors who have been vaccinated or have negative test results. Tourism accounts for about a fifth of Greece's economy and jobs market, and after the worst year on record for the sector last year the country can ill afford another lost summer.

Mitsotakis said a combination of widespread testing, immunisation, and the fact that many activities would take place outdoors gave authorities confidence that tourists would be able to visit safely.

Cuba

Cuba surpassed 1,000 new daily COVID-19 infections, reporting 1,019 cases for a total of 110,644 cases, the Ministry of Public Health reported on Tuesday, adding that there were also 11 more deaths, bringing the death toll to 686.

May has started with very negative results, the ministry's director of hygiene and epidemiology Francisco Duran said in his daily report.

Havana had 658 COVID-19 cases in the last day, continuing to be the epicenter of the pandemic on the island, with an incidence rate of 448.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest in the country.

Chile

More than 6.8 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Chile after receiving their second dose, health authorities said on Tuesday.

In a statement, Minister of Health Enrique Paris said that 8,210,497 people have received their first vaccine dose, while 6,809,736 have been given their second dose.

To date, 15,020,233 doses have been administered throughout the country, according to ministry data, he added.

Vice President of Seychelles Ahmed Afif (left) receives the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Seychelles Hospital in Victoria on Jan 10, 2021. (RASSIN VANNIER / AFP)

Seychelles

Seychelles, which has fully vaccinated more of its population than any other country, has closed schools and canceled sporting activities for two weeks as infections surge.

The measures, which include bans on the intermingling of households and the early closure of bars, come even as the country has fully vaccinated more than 60 percent of its adult population with two doses of coronavirus vaccines. The curbs are similar to those last imposed at the end of 2020.

Tunisia

Tunisian Health Ministry reported 1,405 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, raising the caseload in the country to 314,152.

The death toll from the virus rose by 101 to 11,016 in Tunisia, the ministry said in a statement.

No case of infection with the coronavirus strain found in India has been detected in Tunisia so far, said Nissaf Ben Alaya, director-general of the National Observatory of New and Emerging Diseases.

Rwanda

The Rwandan economy is on the path of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic shock, which is strengthened by the country's effective control of the virus, Rwandan Minister of Finance and Economic Planning Uzziel Ndagijimana said Tuesday.

The economy is expected to grow at 5.1 percent in 2021, 7 percent in 2022 and at above 7.8 percent in 2023 and 2024, said Ndagijimana at the cross-listing event of mobile network operator MTN Rwanda in the capital city Kigali.

This outlook is an opportunity for investment and private sector development in the central African nation, said Ndagijimana, adding that the cross-listing is a testimony of the confidence in Rwanda's economy.

Rwanda's economy growth shrank to 2.3 percent for the financial year 2019-2020 from 8.8 percent recorded the year before, as the coronavirus outbreak dealt a huge blow to the country's economic activities.

Zambia

The Zambia government on Tuesday assured women in the country that there are no negative effects on their fertility if they take the COVID-19 vaccine, calling on them to disregard myths in this regard and be active in getting vaccinated instead.

Minister of Health Jonas Chanda said out of 51,784 people who have been vaccinated since the launch of the vaccination program last month, only 37 percent were women.

He appreciated people who have heeded the call to take the vaccine in order to protect their health and dispelled assertions that the second dose for those vaccinated in the first phase may not be available.

Meanwhile, the country's cumulative COVID-19 cases stand at 91,804 following 82 new cases recorded in the last 24 hours. The new cases were found from 4,998 tests done while 36 patients were discharged, bringing the total recoveries to 90,166.

The country recorded one death, bringing the total COVID-19-associated deaths to 1,254.

Morocco

Morocco's COVID-19 tally rose to 512,285 on Tuesday as 373 new cases were registered during the past 24 hours.

The death toll rose to 9,038 with six new fatalities during the last 24 hours, while 303 people are in intensive care units, according to a statement by the Ministry of Health.

The COVID-19 fatality rate in Morocco stands at 1.8 percent while the recovery rate is 97.4 percent.

Meanwhile, 5,177,964 people have received so far the first vaccine shot against COVID-19 in the country, and 4,303,826 people have received the second dose.

Nigeria

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, ran the risk of a third wave of COVID-19 infections as its vaccine coverage has well fallen behind the annual target, a local health official has warned.

In the state of Lagos, Nigeria's economic hub and COVID-19 epicenter, about 260,000 people have received the jabs, representing just 1 percent of the state population, said Akin Abayomi, health commissioner of Largos state, on Tuesday.

Nigeria kicked off mass vaccination with its first batch of 3.94 million AstraZeneca shots via COVAX program on March 5. By Tuesday, only about 1.2 million doses have been administered, according to the National Primary Health Care Development Agency.

To achieve herd immunity, Nigeria has aimed to inoculate 40 percent of its population of over 200 million by the end of 2021, and then 70 percent by 2022.

Italy

Sicily will start offering COVID-19 vaccines to people over 50 to speed up its inoculation programme which is being hampered by a reluctant older population who fear potentially severe side effects, the regional governor said on Tuesday.

Like many European countries, Italy briefly halted inoculations using the vaccine made by AstraZeneca in March when blood clot concerns surfaced. It has since resumed them for those aged 60 and above after EU regulators said the benefits outweighed the risks.

But in Sicily, where five people who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine died, the elderly are reluctant to be inoculated with the shot. No causal link has been established between the five deaths and the vaccine.

"Media articles linking deaths to vaccinations has resulted in an understandable but unjustified psychosis," Sicilian governor Nello Musumeci told reporters.

Musumeci said the shot would be offered to the over-50s age group from Wednesday in order not to waste any doses and to get Sicily's inoculation rate up.

Of Italy's 20 regions, Sicily is the worst performer in vaccinating over-70s and over-80s, data from Gimbe health institute shows.

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El Salvador

El Salvador's president Nayib Bukele said on Twitter on Tuesday night that the Central American nation has signed an agreement with Pfizer Inc for 4.4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses.

"With this purchase, we guarantee uninterrupted immunization for our entire target population," said Bukele.

Argentina

Argentina on Tuesday reported 412 more deaths from COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, raising the pandemic death toll to 65,202.

Meanwhile, 26,238 new infections were reported over the same period, bringing the national count to 3,047,417, the country's health ministry said.

The South American country has administered 8,327,751 doses of COVID-19 vaccines since the start of its vaccination campaign on Dec 29, 2020.

Tanzania

Kenya and Tanzania on Tuesday agreed to abolish barriers hindering the smooth flow of trade and people between the two neighboring countries.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and visiting Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan said a joint team of experts will be set up to address the disjointed enforcement of cross-border COVID-19 containment protocols, one of the most pronounced non-tariff trade barriers between the two nations.

The two leaders noted that the two countries need to develop modalities for mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results, noting that the lack of harmonized protocols has hampered free flow of goods and people.

Meanwhile, Tanzania joined other nations suspending flights from India indefinitely in a bid to reduce the risk of spreading the variant first detected in the Asian nation.