New virus variant found in S. Africa has concerning mutations

A healthcare worker checks the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 jabs which are ready to be administered inside a Transvaco vaccine train stationed at the Springs Train Station outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Aug 25, 2021. (PHILL MAGAKOE / AFP)

ADDIS ABABA / TUNIS / DAR ES SALAAM / ATHENS / BERLIN / RABAT / LONDON / HAVANA / NEW YORK / COPENHAGEN / MOSCOW / PRAGUE – South African scientists said they identified a new coronavirus variant that has a concerning number of mutations.

The so-called C.1.2. variant was first identified in May in the South African provinces of Mpumalanga and Gauteng, where Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, are situated, the scientists said in a research paper. It’s since been found in seven other countries in Africa, Oceania, Asia and Europe. 

The mutations on the virus “are associated with increased transmissibility” and an increased ability to evade antibodies, the scientists said. “It is important to highlight this lineage given its concerning constellation of mutations.”

Changes in the virus have driven successive waves of the coronavirus with the delta variant, first found in India, now pushing up infection rates across the world. Mutations are first classified as variants of interest by the World Health Organization. Once they are identified as being more severe or transmissible, they’re termed variants of concern. 

C.1.2. evolved from C.1., a lineage of the virus that dominated infections in the first wave of the virus in South Africa in mid-2020.

The research was published by South African groups including the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, known as Krisp, and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

South African scientists also discovered the beta variant in 2020, but have been keen to stress that the country’s advanced ability to sequence the genomes of the virus means that while new strains may be identified in the country, they could have originated elsewhere.

WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge meets with Russian Prime Minister in Moscow on Sept 23, 2020. (ALEXANDER ASTAFYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP)

WHO

An increase in COVID-19 transmission rates across Europe over the last two weeks combined with low levels of vaccination in some countries are "deeply worrying", the head of WHO in Europe, Hans Kluge, said on Monday.

Speaking at a press briefing, Kluge also said that a third-dose booster shot is a way to keep the most vulnerable safe and "not a luxury".

The WHO said earlier this month data did not indicate a need for booster shots, while topping up already fully vaccinated people would further increase vaccine inequity between rich and lower-income countries.

"We have to be a little bit careful with the booster shot, because there is not yet enough evidence," he said.

"But more and more studies show that a third dose keeps vulnerable people safe, and this is done by more and more countries in our region," he said.

Kluge urged European countries with excess vaccines to share them with other countries, particularly those in Eastern Europe and Africa.

Africa

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa reached 7,721,121 as of Sunday afternoon, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.

The Africa CDC, the specialized healthcare agency of the African Union, said the death toll from the pandemic across the continent stands at 194,160 and 6,854,726 patients across the continent have recovered from the disease so far.

Cuba

Cuba reported 6,277 COVID-19 cases and 77 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 5,144, and infections to 640,438, the Ministry of Public Health reported on Sunday.

"We have to perfect our actions so that in September we can reduce the high level of transmission," the ministry's national director of hygiene and epidemiology, Francisco Duran, said.

During his daily report, Duran reported that 38,391 Cubans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, the lowest figure since mid-July.

Czech Republic

The Czech government will offer a booster COVID-19 vaccine shot from Sept 20 to any previously vaccinated person, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said on Monday.

The Czech Republic, a country of 10.7 million, has been one of the countries worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic as measured by deaths per population, with over 30,400 victims.

Nearly 1.68 million Czechs have contracted the virus, and many more are estimated to have caught it without being tested. 

The government's coronavirus task force said on Twitter that the boosters were strongly recommended for people over 60 but would also be available for all who had completed previous vaccinations, either by a two-dose or single-dose schemes.

The government will use Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for the boosters for those who completed a regular vaccination at least eight months earlier, Vojtech said at a news conference shown live on television.

As of Monday, 5.73 million people have received at least one shot of a two-dose vaccine, mostly from Pfizer/BioNTech, and another 197,254 received the one-dose vaccine made by Johnson and Johnson.

Separately, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Czech Television the government will offer financial bonuses to general practitioners who convince more people over 65 to undergo initial vaccinations, to boost the vaccination rate among the oldest citizens.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia has registered 1,040 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 306,117 as of Sunday evening, the country's health ministry said.

Meanwhile, 13 new virus-related deaths and 1,062 more recoveries were reported, bringing the national death toll to 4,644 and total recoveries to 274,577, the ministry said.

Germany

Police tussled with protesters as thousands of people marched through Berlin on Saturday chanting slogans and waving banners against COVID-19 restrictions.

Some demonstrators tried to get past barricades to the government district around the Reichstag parliament building and clashed with officers, police said. Four officers were injured, the Berliner Zeitung reported.

About 50 people were detained, some for assaulting officers, the force said.

The marches came a month before a federal election. The leading candidates vying to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel have pledged there will be no return to the strict lockdowns of last year and earlier this year.

The country has reported more than 3.9 million coronavirus cases and is facing a fourth wave of infections. It reported 10,303 new cases and 22 fatalities on Saturday, bringing the death toll to 92,096.

To nudge more people to get vaccinated, the government has said it will stop offering free tests from Oct 11, except for those for whom vaccination is not recommended, such as children and pregnant women.

The government will require people to be vaccinated, test negative or have a recovery certificate to enter indoor restaurants, participate in religious ceremonies or do indoor sport.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 216.44 million while the global death toll topped 4.50 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Anti-vaccine protesters run to avoid tear gas during clashes at central Syntagma square, in Athens, Greece on Aug 29, 2021. Police used tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters opposing the government's plans for mandatory vaccination and new testing requirements and attendance restrictions on people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19. (YORGOS KARAHALIS / AP)

Greece

Greek police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a group of people who threw flares and other objects during a protest in central Athens on Sunday against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.

More than 7,000 people, some holding crosses, rallied outside the Greek parliament to protest against the inoculations. Similar protests in Athens last month also saw violence.

About 5.7 million people out of a total population of 11 million have been fully vaccinated, and polls have shown that most Greeks favour mandatory vaccination for certain groups such as healthcare workers and nursing home staff.

However, hundreds of Greek frontline workers protested on Thursday against a plan to make inoculations mandatory for the care sector on Sept 1.

Cases remain high in Greece, which has reported a total of 581,315 cases since the start of the pandemic last year and 13,636 deaths. There were 1,582 new daily cases on Sunday.

Italy

Italy’s health ministry may publish a bulletin with the number of citizens who haven’t been vaccinated for COVID-19, based on data gathered by local authorities, Il Messaggero reported, citing a ministry official close to the matter. 

The data would be published in addition to the daily infection numbers, it said.

The plan would improve the monitoring of infections and prevent the spread of false information about the number of vaccinated people in intensive care, the paper said.

A medical worker takes a swab sample from a man for a COVID-19 test in Tiflet, Morocco, on Aug 3, 2021. (CHADI / XINHUA)

Morocco

Morocco reported on Sunday 3,841 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total infections in the country to 853,373.

The death toll rose to 12,437 with 76 new fatalities during the last 24 hours, while 2,484 people are in intensive care units, according to a statement by the Ministry of Health.

ALSO READ: Previous COVID-19 patients prevent Delta better than Pfizer

Russia

Russia confirmed 18,325 new coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 6,901,152, the official monitoring and response center said Monday.

The nationwide death toll grew by 792 to 182,429. 

The number of recoveries increased by 14,180 to 6,162,430.

Moscow, Russia's worst-hit region, reported 1,424 new cases, taking its total to 1,566,376.

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin ordered all educational institutions in the country to ensure the safety of students by complying with COVID-19 measures in place, in light of the upcoming start of the academic year.

Tanzania

Authorities in Tanzania's Zanzibar on Sunday expressed concern over what they described as a slow pace in the vaccination against COVID-19.

Abdallah Suleiman Ali, the director general in the Ministry of Health, Social Welfare, Elderly, Gender and Children, said only 10,866 people have been vaccinated by Aug. 24 against 85,000 doses received in June and July.

Ali said previously the jabs were intended for frontline workers, including health workers, employees in the tourism industry and the elderly, but because of the poor response, authorities have allowed other members of the public to get the jabs before the vaccines expire.

Resident queue to be vaccinated with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Assad Iben El Fourat school in Oued Ellil, outside Tunis on Aug 15, 2021. (HASSENE DRIDI / AP)

Tunisia

Tunisia launched on Sunday the third national open day for vaccination against COVID-19 across the country's 24 provinces for citizens aged between 15 and 17 and those aged 40 and above.

The vaccination process started at 7 am local time and will continue until 7 pm.

This initiative was organized by the health ministry in coordination with the defense, interior and education ministries, and in cooperation with several departments and components of the civil society.

ALSO READ: J&J says COVID-19 booster shot triggered an antibody surge

UK

Scotland reported a record 7,113 new cases Sunday, only days after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that restrictions on movement and social interaction could be reimposed if infections don’t drop.

Cases have soared since most restrictions were lifted on Aug 9 and Scottish pupils returned to school. 

At the start of the month new cases were averaging less than 1,000 a day. The latest Scottish numbers don’t bode well for the rest of the UK, with the bulk of school pupils in England preparing to return early next month.

Medics transfer a patient on a stretcher from an ambulance outside of Emergency at Coral Gables Hospital where Coronavirus patients are treated in Coral Gables near Miami, on Aug 16, 2021. (CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)

United States

The number of COVID-19 pandemic related hospitalizations in the United States reached above 100,000 last week for the second time, overwhelming caregivers capacity in several states and spawning an urgency to vaccinate more of the eligible.

"Keeping ahead of demand is harder now than during earlier surges," reported The Washington Post on Sunday while quoting doctors, nurses and hospital executives.

"The demand is most acute in ICUs (Intensive Care Unit), which care for the most-critical patients and need highly trained medical staff," it added.

Regions with large populations unvaccinated against COVID-19 continue to be hit the hardest as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus continues spreading throughout the United States.

Data from USAFacts shows that there are nine states where less than 50 percent of the total population have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccines as of Wednesday.

The health care system in Mississippi, is close to buckling under the latest avalanche of cases triggered by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus, reported The New York Times on Sunday.

Mississippi, as of Friday, was averaging 108 new cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period, a crisis fueled by a dismal statewide vaccination rate of 37 percent and made worse by a shortage of professionals to care for the sick.

The southeastern Alabama's State Health Officer Scott Harris issued a dire warning about the state's battle against COVID-19 on Friday.

Patients are being treated in hospital hallways and on stretchers as the state has 40 more COVID-19 patients than available staffed ICU beds, Harris was quoted by Forbes as saying.

Vaccination has been now grabbing ever more attention in the United States, especially after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week that an unvaccinated elementary school teacher in California infected more than half of her students with COVID-19, ultimately resulting in a community-wide outbreak in Marin County.