‘Pingdemic’ grips Britain as fears of food shortages grow

Shoppers choose products from partially filled shelves in a supermarket at Nine Elms, south London on July 22, 2021. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

WASHINGTON / GENEVA / JOHANNESBURG / MOSCOW / SANTIAGO / PARIS / BERLIN / OSLO / BOGOTA / MEXICO CITY / LONDON / DUBLIN / BUENOS AIRES / HAVANA / RABAT / ADDIS ABABA / RIO DE JANEIRO / NAIROBI / BRUSSELS – British supermarkets said on Thursday that some products were in short supply and petrol stations had been forced to close after the official health app told hundreds of thousands of workers to isolate following contact with someone with COVID-19.

British newspapers carried front-page pictures of empty shelves in supermarkets, declaring a "pingdemic".

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News the government was "very concerned" about the situation but that he did not recognise the network's characterisation of "bare"supermarket shelves.

With cases rising to nearly 50,000 day in the United Kingdom, hundreds of thousands of people have been advised – or "pinged" – by the National Health Service's contact-tracing app to isolate for 10 days

With cases rising to nearly 50,000 day in the United Kingdom, hundreds of thousands of people have been advised – or "pinged" – by the National Health Service's contact-tracing app to isolate for 10 days.

The drastic reduction in staffing that has resulted has sown chaos through sectors as diverse as food supplies, haulage, supermarkets, hospitality, manufacturing and media. To avoid disruption, many people have deleted the app from their phones.

Sainsbury's, Britain's second largest grocer, said customers may not be able to find the exact product they want.

"Large quantities of products are being delivered to stores daily and our colleagues are focused on getting them onto the shelves as quickly as they can," a spokesperson said.

Retailer Iceland said it had closed a number of stores due to staff shortages. BP said it had to temporarily close a handful of petrol stations due to a lack of fuel, with a shortage of HGV drivers exacerbated by COVID-19 isolations.

Reuters reporters found plenty of food in shops, though there were some shortages of specific products such as bottled water, soft drinks, salad and meat.

One meat industry body said on Wednesday that food supply chains were "right on the edge of failing" as absences related to COVID-19 had aggravated an already-critical shortage of labour. read more

Official data showed the app had told nearly 620,000 people to isolate in England and Wales in the week up to July 14.

WHO

While previous months saw a decreasing number of COVID-19 worldwide, the trend has changed this month with last week witnessing a 12 percent increase in infections, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported Wednesday, adding that deaths and spread of variants were also on the rise.

A total of 3.4 million new cases had been confirmed last week, during which an approximate average of 490,000 cases were identified each day, compared with 400,000 cases the week before. This confirms that the coronavirus is spreading faster in the world, the WHO said in its weekly update.

Last week, Indonesia, the United Kingdom and Brazil were the most affected places with 350,273, 296,447 and 287,610 cases, respectively, the WHO said.

If the virus continues to spread at this rate, the global number of COVID-19 cases could reach 200 million in the next three weeks, the WHO warned.

Furthermore, new deaths are also increasing, with 57,000 deaths reported last week as the death toll of the coronavirus has reached well over four million people.

Variants are continuing their progression, as the Alpha variant was seen in 180 countries, territories or areas, and 13 new countries, territories or areas reported cases of the Delta variant.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide exceeded 192 million while the global death toll topped 4.12 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

A man gets a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Santa Maria Eugenia neighborhood in the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay, July 19, 2021. (MATILDE CAMPODONICO / AP)

Americas

The Americas are facing a pandemic of the unvaccinated, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the WHO's regional arm, said on Wednesday, as it warned that countries with low inoculation rates are seeing increases in COVID-19 and repeated a call for vaccine donations.

"We face a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and the only way to stop it is to expand vaccination," PAHO director Carissa Etienne said at a weekly briefing. "Vaccines are critical, even if no vaccine is 100 percent effective."

Just 15 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated, she said, adding that figure obscures that some countries like Honduras and Haiti have yet to reach even 1 percent inoculation.

The COVAX mechanism will send 3.7 million more vaccine doses to countries in the region through the end of July, PAHO subdirector Jarbas Barbosa said.

The Americas reported 967,000 new cases and 22,000 deaths last week, Etienne said, a slight weekly decrease.

Cases are accelerating in much of Central America and on smaller Caribbean islands, she said, while cases and deaths are spiking in Cuba and hot spots persist in Amazonian regions of Colombia and Peru.

Africa

Africa will start to receive the first batch of 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from Johnson & Johnson next week, the African Union's special envoy on COVID-19 said on Thursday.

The doses will be used to immunise half of the estimated 800 million people in need of the vaccine on the continent, Strive Masiyiwa, who is also the head of the AU's taskforce on vaccine acquisition, said at an online news conference.

ALSO READ: Pfizer inks deal to produce 100m shot doses for Africa

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa reached 6,281,998 as of Wednesday afternoon, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.

The death toll stood at 159,719 while the number of recoveries reached 5,513,426, the Africa CDC said.

EU

European Union (EU) countries have so far donated just a tiny portion of excess COVID-19 vaccines to poor nations, mostly AstraZeneca shots, less than 3 percent of the 160 million doses they plan to give away in total to help tame the global pandemic, an EU document shows.

EU states, with a combined adult population of 365 million, have so far received about 500 million doses from drugmakers and expect nearly a billion by the end of September.

But as of July 13, they had donated less than four million shots, the internal document, compiled by the European Commission and reviewed by Reuters, shows.

In total, it says EU countries have committed to sharing about 160 million doses, mostly without preference about their destination. The tally of shipments and pledged total have not been reported before.

Brussels has previously said EU nations plan to donate at least 100 million doses by the end of the year. There is no timeline for the target listed in the document.

South Africa

National excess deaths, seen as a more precise way of measuring total fatalities from the coronavirus, rose to 203,000 during the coronavirus pandemic, the South African Medical Research Council said.

The number of excess deaths, which is measured against a historical average, recorded between May 3, 2020 and July 17 this year, the SAMRC said in a report Wednesday. Thats about triple the official death toll of about 68,000 from the disease.

The number of excess deaths rose for a fifth week in South Africa to 10,000 in the week to July 17 as a third wave of infections continues to take hold in the country. That exceeded the peak of a first wave of infections in July last year but was below the 15,926 recorded at the peak of the second in January.

Officially South Africa is the nation worst-hit by the coronavirus on the continent, with over 2.3 million confirmed infections. Still, with 5.83 million doses administered, it’s also vaccinated more people than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa. On Wednesday a record 257,492 shots were administered.

South Africa aims to have given at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine to 35 million of its 60 million people by Christmas, a senior health official said on Wednesday.

The Department of Health's Nicholas Crisp added during a briefing to a parliamentary committee that roughly 25,000 vaccine doses had been either stolen or destroyed during riots last week.

In another development, Pfizer and BioNTech have struck a deal for South Africa's Biovac Institute to help manufacture around 100 million doses a year of their COVID-19 vaccine for the African Union, the firms said on Wednesday.

READ MORE: Global quest underway to speed COVID-19 vaccine trials

Russia

The Gamma variant of the novel coronavirus, first found in Brazil, has been detected in small quantities in Russia, the Interfax news agency cited the developer behind Russia's EpiVacCorona vaccine as saying on Thursday.

Russia faces a surge in coronavirus cases that authorities have blamed on the Delta variant and the slow rate of vaccinations. On Thursday, Russia reported 24,471 new COVID-19 cases and 796 deaths related to coronavirus in the last 24 hours.

EpiVacCorona, Russia's second of four vaccines to be registered, was developed by the Vector Institute in Siberia. Sputnik V is Russia's flagship vaccine.

"The Delta variant is widespread on the territory of the Russian Federation, with isolated cases of the Gamma variant detected," Interfax cited the institute as saying.

The institute said the Delta and Gamma variants were categorised as "causing concern" because they spread more easily and can reduce the effectiveness of antibodies.

Chile

Chile expects to start offering COVID-19 vaccinations to children under the age of 12 by September, as the nation presses ahead with one of the world’s fastest inoculation campaigns.

The government’s procurement plans include shots for youth in that age range, Vice-Minister of Trade Rodrigo Yanez said in a Bloomberg TV interview. 

Jabs from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. are a candidate for when the inoculation drive expands, given their efficacy against the virus and safety record, he said.

Meanwhile, Chile's Institute of Public Health approved emergency use of the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine against COVID-19, joining the country's already massive inoculation program, the institute said in a statement.

Chile on Wednesday reported 989 new cases and 42 more deaths, bringing the tally to 1,602,854 and the toll to 34,611, Health Minister Enrique Paris said.

France

Hundreds of people protested in Paris on Wednesday against the introduction of a health pass for some activities and against compulsory vaccinations for health workers as the government seeks to curb a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections in France.

From Wednesday visitors heading to museums, cinemas or swimming pools in France will be denied entry if they cannot produce the health pass showing that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or have had a recent negative test.

The health pass, previously only required for large-scale festivals or to go clubbing, will also be needed from the start of August to enter restaurants and bars and for long-distance train and plane journeys.

With the highly contagious Delta variant now dominant in France, tougher measures are essential and new lockdowns cannot be ruled out, Prime Minister Jean Castex told TF1 television, adding that vaccination was the only way out of the crisis.

READ MORE: France opens doors to vaccinated travellers, restricts others

Castex said the major steps taken to tackle fourth wave of infections in the country have been settled upon by a cabinet meeting of the government.

Some 96 percent of those who tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday had not been vaccinated, Castex said, adding that he hoped the number of people receiving their first shot would hit 50 million by the end of August, in a total population of 67 million. The figure stood at about 38.1 million as of Tuesday.Visitors take a COVID-19 test at the entrance of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, July 21, 2021. (DANIEL COLE / AP)

Germany

Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday the rise in coronavirus cases in Germany was worrying and she urged people to get vaccinated.

"We all want our normality back," Merkel told reporters. "The more we are vaccinated, the freer we will be."

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 1,890 to 3,750,503, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Thursday. The reported death toll rose by 42 to 91,458.

The number of infections per 100,000 people over seven days in Germany will reach more than 400 in September if case numbers keep rising at their current pace, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Wednesday.

After more than two months of steady decline, Germany's 7-day incidence, at 11.4 per 100,000 on Wednesday, has risen since early July due to the spread of the more infectious Delta variant.

More than 50 million people in Germany – 60 percent of the population – have received at least one shot of vaccine against the virus, Spahn said. Around 47 percent are fully vaccinated.

The German cabinet on Wednesday extended COVID-19 quarantine regulations for incoming travelers from higher-risk areas until mid-September. It also approved further details of a plan to build up its reserves against future pandemics.

Norway, Lithuania

Norway on Wednesday signed a deal to swap 100,000 doses of its unused shots made by Johnson & Johnson with Lithuania in return for an equal number of doses from Pfizer in a move to speed up inoculations.

Norway, which is not using the J&J shot, known as Janssen, in its national vaccination program due to concerns about rare blood clotting issues, will lend 100,000 doses to Lithuania, the government said.

In return, Lithuania will loan 100,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Norway, with the delivery scheduled for Thursday.

Demand in Lithuania is high for the single-dose Janssen vaccine, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said.

Pfizer-AstraZeneca vaccines

Two doses of Pfizer or AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine are nearly as effective against the highly transmissible Delta coronavirus variant as they are against the previously dominant Alpha variant, a study published on Wednesday showed.

Officials say vaccines are highly effective against the Delta variant, now the dominant variant worldwide, though the study reiterated that one shot of the vaccines is not enough for high protection.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, confirms headline findings given by Public Health England in May about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca, based on real-world data.

Wednesday's study found that two doses of Pfizer's shot was 88 percent effective at preventing symptomatic disease from the Delta variant, compared to 93.7 percent against the Alpha variant, broadly the same as previously reported.

Two shots of AstraZeneca vaccine were 67 percent effective against the Delta variant, up from 60 percent originally reported, and 74.5 percent effective against the Alpha variant, compared to an original estimate of 66 percent effectiveness.

"Only modest differences in vaccine effectiveness were noted with the Delta variant as compared with the Alpha variant after the receipt of two vaccine doses," Public Health England researchers wrote in the study.

Mexico

Mexico on Wednesday reported its biggest jump in new confirmed cases of COVID-19 since January, with 15,198 registered infections and 397 additional deaths, bringing its total to 2,693,495 infections and 237,207 fatalities, according to health ministry data.

Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that the Delta COVID-19 variant and an increase in virus cases has complicated a reopening of the US-Mexico land border to non-essential travel.

Meanwhile, Mexican authorities said they were in talks with Italian health authorities and Italian biotech firm ReiThera about the possibility of producing the GRAd-COV2 COVID-19 vaccine in Mexico.

Deputy Foreign Minister Martha Delgado traveled to Italy to speak with Francesco Vaia, director of the Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute of Infectious Diseases, and ReiThera executives to discuss the option of producing the vaccine in Mexico, the Mexican Foreign Ministry said.

The ministry reiterated Mexico's plan to participate in GRAd-COV2's Phase III trials, which will require 6,000 volunteers in the country, but did not specify a timeline.

Peru

Peruvian police said on Wednesday they had dismantled an alleged criminal ring that had charged as much US$21,000 per bed for seriously ill COVID-19 patients in a state-run hospital, aggravating care in a country hit by one of the world's deadliest outbreaks of the virus.

Authorities arrested nine people in an early morning raid on Wednesday, including the administrators of Lima's Guillermo Almenara Irigoyen public hospital, according to prosecutor Reynaldo Abia.

The scam was uncovered after police received a complaint from the brother of a man suffering from COVID-19 who had been asked for 82,000 soles (US$20,783) to obtain an intensive care (ICU) bed and treatment at the hospital, said Abia.

Health Minister Óscar Ugarte told reporters the scam warranted immediate repercussions. "This is totally reprehensible," he said. "We cannot be negotiating with people's lives."

Argentina

Argentina recorded on Wednesday 14,632 new COVID-19 infections and 438 more deaths in one day, bringing the total to 4,798,851 cases and 102,818 deaths, the Ministry of Health said.

According to the official report, there were 264,162 active cases while 4,431,871 people have recovered from the disease.

"For the first time, this week we do not have any urban agglomerations within the (epidemiological) alarm classification. The vast majority are in decline, in low or medium risk," Health Minister Carla Vizzotti said, according to state news agency Telam.

Ireland

Ireland's daily cases of COVID-19 surged to a record high since Feburary of this year, according to official figures released on Wednesday.

The Irish Department of Health said in a statement 1,378 newly confirmed cases were reported in the country on Wednesday.

It is the highest daily figure recorded in Ireland since Jan 31 when 1,414 cases were reported, according to data from the World Health Organization.

"Disease incidence in Ireland is continuing to increase," said Ronan Glynn, deputy chief medical officer with the Irish Department of Health, on Twitter.

The five-day moving average of cases in the country has increased from 300 to 1,182 cases per day over the past month, he said.

Greek police fire tear gas to disperse anti-vaccine protesters during a rally at Syntagma square in central Athens, Greece, on July 21, 2021. (YORGOS KARAHALIS / AP)

Greece

Police fired tear gas and water canon to disperse crowds protesting against coronavirus vaccinations in Athens on Wednesday.

About 1,500 people took part in the protest outside parliament, the second in a week against Greece's COVID-19 inoculation drive. 

The protests were prompted by a government decision earlier in July ordering the mandatory vaccination of healthcare workers and nursing home staff. The government has suggested other groups, such as teachers, may need to be vaccinated in the fall.

Infections in Greece have been rising in recent weeks, and authorities reported almost 3,000 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 463,473 people. More than 12,800 have died.

Cuba

Cuba reported on Wednesday 6,405 new COVID-19 cases and 53 more deaths in the past day, bringing the total to 300,854 cases and 2,072 deaths.

Francisco Duran, director of hygiene and epidemiology of the Ministry of Public Health, warned of the high rate of infections in the country.

The western province of Matanzas, the epicenter of the pandemic on the island, reported 1,794 cases in the last day, followed by Havana with 815.

Morocco

Morocco reported on Wednesday 3,940 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections in the country to 566,356.

The death toll rose by 12 to 9,498 while the total number of recoveries increased by 1,812 to 536,626, according to a statement by the Ministry of Health.

A total of 11,555,970 people have received one COVID-19 shot while 9,736,641 people have received both doses.

Brazil

YouTube said on Wednesday it had removed videos from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's channel for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus outbreak, becoming the latest tech giant to pull his pandemic pronouncements.

YouTube said in a press release the decision was taken "after careful review" and without consideration for Bolsonaro's job or political ideology. 

"Our rules do not allow content that states that hydroxychloroquine and/or ivermectin are effective in treating or preventing COVID-19, that states there is a cure for the disease, or says that masks do not work to prevent the spread of the virus," it said in a statement.

The president's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brazil registered 54,517 new coronavirus cases and 1,424 additional COVID-19 deaths in the last 24 hours, the health ministry said on Wednesday.

Zambia

Zambia on Wednesday took delivery of 151,200 doses of the Johnson and Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine from the US through the WHO-backed COVAX Facility.

The single-dose vaccine is the third to be used in the southern African nation, after it earlier began inoculations using AstraZeneca and Sinopharm shots.

Zambia has reported 188,573 cumulative coronavirus cases and 3,162 deaths.

Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast plans to buy 3.5 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines by December.

Ivory Coast is purchasing the doses through the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust set up by the African Union to secure additional vaccines so the continent can attain a target immunization of 60 percent, government spokesman Amadou Coulibaly told Bloomberg Wednesday.

Burkina Faso

The US government gave Burkina Faso about 150,000 out of an expected 300,000 free Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 shots Wednesday, Burkinabe Health Minister Charlemagne Ouedraogo told journalists in the capital, Ouagadougou.

Masked students wait to be taken to their classrooms at Enrique S. Camarena Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, July 21, 2021. (DENIS POROY / AP)

US

The US government on Wednesday extended the closure of land borders with Canada and Mexico to non-essential travel such as tourism through Aug 21 even as officials debate whether to require visitors to have received a COVID-19 vaccine.

The latest 30-day extension by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) came after Canada said on Monday it would start allowing in fully vaccinated US visitors on Aug 9 for non-essential travel after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a 16-month ban that many businesses have called crippling.

"We rely on the guidance of our health and medical experts, not on the actions of other countries," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, declining to offer any timetable for when the administration might ease travel restrictions that bar much of the world from the United States.

More than 4 million children in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, according to a latest report of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Children's Hospital Association.

As of July 15, almost 4.09 million children have been infected with COVID-19. After decreases in weekly reported cases over the past couple of months, the country began to see increases in cases in July, according to the report.

Children represented 14.2 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the country, and 0 to 0.26 percent of all COVID-19 deaths, according to the report.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths were all up double digits in recent weeks as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads across the US.

US President Joe Biden said the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is likely to advise that kids who haven't been vaccinated should wear masks when they return from summer holidays to school in the fall.