In a first, COVAX to send shots only to least covered nations

Workers load boxes of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines, provided through the COVAX program, into a truck after they arrived by plane at the Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on May 8, 2021. (MAMYRAEL / AFP)

ZAGREB / RABAT / HELSINKI / LONDON / MOGADISHU / ATHENS / CAIRO / ADDIS ABABA / CAPE TOWN / MOSCOW / LUANDA / ZURICH / BRUSSELS –  A global scheme designed to ensure fair access to COVID-19 vaccines will this month for the first time distribute shots only to countries with the lowest levels of coverage, the World Health Organization said.

Co-led by the WHO, COVAX has since January largely allocated doses proportionally among its 140-plus beneficiary states according to population size.

This made some richer nations that had already secured vaccines through separate deals with pharmaceutical firms eligible for COVAX doses alongside countries with no supplies at all.

With some nations administering booster shots while others are still giving first jabs to the most vulnerable, the WHO has now tweaked the rules.

"For the October supply we designed a different methodology, only covering participants with low sources of supply," Mariangela Simao, WHO Assistant Director General for Access to Vaccines, said in a recording of a conference presentation last week posted on the WHO's website.

The change comes 15 months after the launch of the COVAX program and as WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus seeks renomination.

About 75 million doses of Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Sinopharm vaccines will be distributed in October to 49 countries considered among the least covered, the slides showed, without indicating the recipient nations.

Africa

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa reached 8,316,168 as of Friday afternoon, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.

The death toll rose to 211,530, the Africa CDC said, adding that some 7,651,789 patients across the continent have recovered so far.

Angola

Angola on Thursday made it mandatory for citizens 18 years or older to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 15.

“All citizens over 18 years of age are required to go to the vaccination posts," Adao de Almeida, state minister and chief of staff of the president of the republic, said at a press conference.

It will be mandatory to present a vaccination certificate or a negative test to gain access to the workplace, said the minister.

Brazil

Brazilian biotech company Biomm SA has signed an exclusive deal to distribute Cansino Biologics' COVID-19 vaccine in Brazil, a securities filing showed on Friday.

Biomm said the agreement includes a potential production of the vaccine in its plant in Minas Gerais. The company will send Brazilian healthcare authority Anvisa a new requirement for the emergency use of Cansino's vaccine in Brazil.

Croatia

Croatia's Civil Protection Headquarters announced eight new decisions on Thursday, including the issuance of European Union (EU) digital COVID-19 certificates to those vaccinated with Chinese and Russian vaccines, despite the fact that these have yet to be approved by the EU.

Since the spring of this year, those who have been administered the Chinese and Russian vaccines could enter Croatia, and as of Thursday, no distinction is made between the vaccines registered in the EU and those used in China and the Russian Federation, the agency said.

All those who have received the Chinese vaccine can now get a COVID-19 certificate that allows them to enter and leave Croatia, it said.

Starting next Monday, all employees in the health and social care sectors will have to have a COVID-19 certificate to enter the country's health facilities. Those without a certificate will have to get tested twice a week.

Airport staff members unload the first batch of Chinese Sinovac vaccine raw materials from a plane at the Cairo International Airport in Cairo, Egypt, May 21, 2021. (SUI XIANKAI / XINHUA)

Egypt

Egypt on Thursday received 1.6 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer as a gift from the United States as part of the COVAX initiative, the first batch of a total of 5 million doses, the country's health ministry said in a statement.

Egypt has been quickly accumulating a stock of vaccines for its population of over 100 million, having already received vaccines produced by AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, Sputnik, Johnson & Johnson, as well as Sinovac, which it is also producing locally.

Germany supplied a total of 2.3 million doses to Egypt over two days last week, the Egyptian health ministry said.

The COVAX facility, backed by the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), has delivered over 301 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to 142 countries. 

ALSO RAD: World leaders return to UN with focus on pandemic, climate

Ethiopia

Ethiopia registered 1,352 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 345,674 as of Thursday evening, the country's Ministry of Health said.

The ministry reported 48 new COVID-19 induced deaths and 2,099 more recoveries during the same period, bringing the national death toll to 5,582 and total recoveries to 312,806.

Visitors take a COVID-19 test at the entrance of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, July 21, 2021. (DANIEL COLE / AP)

EU

The European Union's drug regulator said on Friday there is a possible link between rare cases of bloods clots in deep veins with Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine and recommended the condition be listed as a side-effect of the shot.

The European Medicines Agency also recommended immune thrombocytopenia (ITP), a bleeding disorder caused by the body mistakenly attacking platelets, be added as an adverse reaction with an unknown frequency to the J&J vaccine product information and to AstraZeneca's vaccine.

Meanwhile, European countries with lower vaccination rates could see a surge in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths over the next two months, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The EU agency, in its latest Rapid Risk Assessment, said the virus’s high level of circulation within the population puts poorly inoculated countries in the EU and European Economic Area at risk between now and the end of November.

The group also cited the concern that even vaccinated people can experience severe outcomes from infection.

“Forecasts show that a combination of high vaccination coverage and effective contact reduction is crucial for reducing the risk of high COVID-19 burden on the health care systems this autumn,” Andrea Ammon, director of the ECDC, said in a statement Thursday. 

Some 61 percent of people in the EU and EEA have been fully vaccinated, according to the ECDC, while only three countries – Malta, Portugal and Iceland – have inoculated more than 75 percent of their populations. 

Those countries with a higher vaccination rate face a lower risk unless there is a “rapid decline of vaccine effectiveness due to waning immunity,” the ECDC said.

The agency also anticipates that more COVID-19 infections among children will be reported in the next few months, with measures such as social distancing crucial to curb transmission in schools. 

Vaccination against the flu will also lessen the impact on both individuals and health care systems, the ECDC said.

Finland

The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) on Thursday made its recommendation on the use of face-masks discretionary except in public transit, as the number of commuters is expected to rise with the lifting of the national remote work recommendation in mid-October.

"The core message of THL is that masks should be used indoors when many people are present," said chief physician Otto Helve at a press conference.

The Finnish government has earlier tied a would-be lifting of national restrictions and recommendations to reaching at least 80 percent double-vaccination coverage in the over 12-year-old population.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 233.74 million while the global death toll topped 4.78 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

A man receives a dose of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, outside the church of the Virgin Mary, during a vaccination roll out, in the town of Archanes, on the island of Crete, Greece on Sept 6, 2021. (MICHAEL VARAKLAS / AP)

Greece

Greece will impose a nighttime curfew and ban music at bars, cafes and restaurants in Thessaloniki, its second biggest city, following an increase in COVID-19 cases, the government said on Thursday.

Infections have stabilized across the country but cases have surged in northern Greece.

The civil protection ministry said Thessaloniki city and its wider region and the neighbouring region of Halkidiki, along with the central city of Larissa will be moved into tier 4 restrictions for a week on Oct 1.

Greece got through the first phase of the pandemic last year in better shape than many other countries but saw a strong resurgence of the disease this year and has faced a rise in case numbers in recent weeks.

The country reported 2,232 new infections and 33 related deaths on Thursday, bringing the total number of infections since the pandemic began to 655,767 and the death toll to 14,828.

With a population of 11 million people, the country has so far administered more than 12 million first shots. About 58 percent of Greeks are fully vaccinated.

Merck

Merck & Co Inc's experimental oral drug for COVID-19, molnupiravir, reduced by around 50 percent the chance of hospitalization or death for patients at risk of severe disease, according to interim clinical trial results announced on Friday.

Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics plan to seek US emergency use authorization for the pill as soon as possible, and to submit applications to regulatory agencies worldwide. Due to the positive results, the Phase 3 trial is being stopped early at the recommendation of outside monitors.

If authorized, molnupiravir, which is designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the virus, would be the first oral antiviral medication for COVID-19.

A planned interim analysis of 775 patients in Merck's study found that 7.3 percent of those given molnupiravir were either hospitalized or had died by 29 days after treatment, compared with 14.1 percent of placebo patients. There were no deaths in the molnupiravir group, but there were eight deaths of placebo patients.

In the trial, which enrolled patients around the world, molnupiravir was taken every 12 hours for five days.

Merck said viral sequencing done so far shows molnupiravir is effective against all variants of the coronavirus, including highly transmissible Delta.

Merck said it expects to produce 10 million courses of the treatment by the end of 2021, with more doses coming next year.

Morocco

The total number of people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Morocco reached 19,069,557, the Moroccan Ministry of Health said on Thursday.

A total of 22,632,510 first doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Morocco, said the ministry in a statement.

The North African country launched a nationwide vaccination campaign on Jan. 28 after the arrival of the first shipment of China's Sinopharm vaccines.

Meanwhile, Morocco's tally of COVID-19 infections rose to 933,071 as 1,098 new cases were registered during the past 24 hours, while the total recoveries increased by 1,608 to 906,160, the statement said.

A member of the medical staff adjusts her gloves at the COVID-19 ICU unit of the Marius Nasta National Pneumology Institute in Bucharest, Romania on Sept 23, 2021. (ANDREEA ALEXANDRU / AP)

Romania

Seven people died on Friday when a fire broke out in a Romanian intensive care unit treating COVID-19 patients, officials said, the country's third deadly hospital fire in less than a year.

There were more than 12,500 COVID-19 patients, including 373 children, being treated in Romanian hospitals on Friday, including 1,391 in intensive care units.

The number of new COVID-19 infections in Romania reached 10,887 on Friday, and intensive care units across the country were running out of space. Romania has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the 27-nation European Union.

Romania's centrist minority government introduced new progressive restrictions late on Thursday to stem a rise in new coronavirus infections, including making mask wearing mandatory outside, but opted to keep schools open.

The number of new COVID-19 infections in Romania reached 12,032 on Thursday, a new record high, and intensive care units across the country were running out of space as the country has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the European Union.

The government made masks mandatory both in indoor and outdoor public spaces in places where the case incidence exceeds 6 per 1,000 people.

Access to restaurants, gyms, theatres, cinemas and other indoor spaces would be enabled at half of capacity and only for people who were fully vaccinated or have already been infected.

Weekend curfews will be introduced for those who are not vaccinated.

Schools have been uncoupled from the case incidence rate to enable them to remain open unless COVID-19 cases are reported in specific classrooms. School staff and students will undergo regular, non-invasive testing.

Romania is trailing European Union vaccination lists, with just over a third of its adult population fully vaccinated amid distrust in state institutions and misinformation campaigns. About 40 percent of medical and school staff are not vaccinated.

The country has started offering a third COVID-19 vaccine dose on Tuesday, highly recommending it to medical staff and at-risk people but leaving it open to anyone who received their second dose more than six months ago.

Russia

Russia reported 887 coronavirus-related deaths on Friday, the largest single-day death toll it has recorded since the pandemic began and the fourth day in a row it has set that record.

The government coronavirus task force also said it had recorded 24,522 new cases in the last 24 hours.

New oxygen cylinders are presented with new equipments during the inauguration of the first oxygen plant for public use, a capacity to fill more than a thousand cylinders per week, donated by Somalia’s Hormuud Salaam Foundation at Banaadir Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Sept 30, 2021. (ABDIRAHMAN YUSUF / AFP)

Somalia

Somalia's first public oxygen plant opened on Thursday, in a ray of hope for a country where a lifesaving treatment for the coronavirus has been largely unavailable to patients during the pandemic.

Global demand for medical oxygen has surged with the COVID-19 pandemic, and many countries have experienced desperate shortages.

This and a lack of other equipment mean Africans seriously ill from COVID-19 are more likely to die than patients elsewhere, according to a study published in May by medical journal The Lancet, which cited data from 64 hospitals in 10 countries.

The new plant in Mogadishu was purchased for 282,000 euro ($240,700) from Turkey by the Hormuud Salaam Foundation, established by the country's largest telecoms company, Hormuud.

"One cylinder of oxygen usually costs around $50 in Somalia but can reach up to $400 or $500 (at private hospitals) because of the shortage," said Abdullahi Nur Osman, CEO of Hormuud's foundation.

He said the oxygen will be distributed among the public hospitals in the capital Mogadishu free of charge.

As of Wednesday, Somalia had reported nearly 20,000 COVID-19 cases and 1,100 deaths, according to the World Health Organization, but figures could be far higher due to inadequate testing and unreported deaths.

Only 1 percent of Somalia's 15 million citizens are fully vaccinated, reflecting inequities in vaccine distribution that the World Health Organization warns will prolong the pandemic, which has already claimed nearly 5 million lives.

ALSO READ: Global capex booms as firms prepare for post-pandemic era

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers a speech during the launch of the African National Congress electoral manifesto in Pretoria, on Sept 27, 2021. (GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP)

South Africa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has eased restrictions aimed at combating the coronavirus pandemic to the country's lowest alert level, the second such loosening this month as the country looks to open up its economy ahead of the summer holiday season.

In a televised address, Ramaphosa announced the country would move down one level in a five-tier system of restrictions, where five is the highest, to an 'adjusted level 1' as South Africa emerges from its third wave dominated by the Delta variant of the virus.

In addition to relaxing a curfew, now in place from midnight to 4 am, Ramaphosa announced that the maximum number of people permitted to gather outdoors will increase to 2,000 from 500, while the maximum number of people allowed at funerals could double to 100.

However, with local government elections set for Nov 1, Ramaphosa urged people to get vaccinated to help prevent a resurgence of infections, as vaccine hesitancy crimped an inoculation program that has struggled to get out of the starting blocks.

"Campaign activities pose the greatest risk to a surge in new infections," he said, adding that should South Africa reach its target of vaccinating 70 percent of its adult population by December, an estimated 20,000 lives could be saved.

Thus far around 8.6 million people, or more than one-fifth of all adults, have been fully vaccinated, he said.

Switzerland

Switzerland is offering gift certificates to people who persuade others to be jabbed against COVID-19, the government said on Friday, part of efforts to increase the country's low vaccination rate.

Every newly vaccinated person will be asked to name one person who convinced them to be inoculated, the government said, with that person receiving a 50 Swiss franc ($53.68) gift token for their assistance.

Switzerland has one of the lowest vaccination rates in western Europe, with only 58 percent of the country's 8.7 million population fully vaccinated.

Although the number of coronavirus cases is declining in Switzerland, the government said the situation in intensive care wards remains tense.

Given the high number of non-immune individuals and the highly contagious Delta variant, there is still a significant risk of another wave of infection during autumn and winter months, which could place a heavy burden on hospitals, it added.

Switzerland and neighboring principality Liechtenstein have reported more than 840,000 cases of COVID-19, with 10,713 deaths.

A boy at COVID-19 test station as he entered his new secondary school for the first time at Wales High school, Sheffield, England, Sept 3, 2021. (RUI VIEIRA/AP)

UK

It is safe for people to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu shot at the same time and it does not negatively impact the immune response produced by either, a British study found on Thursday.

Britain and other northern hemisphere countries are bracing for a tough winter and the possibility of a surge in flu cases as COVID-19 restrictions are eased and social distancing measures relaxed.

Booster COVID-19 shots are being given to elderly and vulnerable people and to health workers in Britain, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has also promised the biggest flu vaccination program in history this year.

The study, led by the University of Bristol, found that reported side effects were usually mild to moderate in tests with three flu vaccines and either Pfizer or AstraZeneca's COVID-19 shot.

"This is a really positive step which could mean fewer appointments for those who require both vaccines," chief investigator Rajeka Lazarus said.

"The results of this study have been presented to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) for their consideration and will aid policy makers in planning the future of these important vaccination programs."

Shots were given on the same day, in opposite arms.

One group had a COVID-19 shot and a flu jab in a first visit, with a placebo given in a second visit, and another had a COVID-19 shot and a placebo given on the same day, followed by a flu vaccine on the second day.

The study found 97 percent of participants said they would be willing to have two vaccines at the same appointment in the future.

The study involved 679 volunteers at 12 sites across England and Wales, and was released as a pre-print, with full results due to be published in the Lancet.

United States

US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has tested positive for COVID-19, but has no symptoms, according to a court statement that said he would miss Friday's investiture ceremony for Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

New US cases slowed by a third this month, from a seven-day average of more than 161,000 on Sept 1 to about 107,000 on Tuesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Daily deaths, which peaked at more than 2,000 in mid-September, have declined 12 percent since then by the same measure. 

The number of patients hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 fell to about 73,000 from a peak in early September, a 22 percent decline, according to data on the CDC’s website.

While all US states except California are still listed as “high transmission” areas in a CDC update published Thursday, a majority showed a week-on-week decline in new cases. 

Alaska, Maine and North Dakota led the nation in the percentage increase in infections.