Sweden to remove most remaining virus curbs this month

In this March 4, 2021 photo, police officers patrol the city of Vetlanda, Sweden. (Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

ROME / SANTIAGO / LONDON / ADDIS ABABA / ZAGREB / YAOUNDE / LISBON / RABAT / TUNIS / HELSINKI / DUBLIN / NEW YORK / HAVANA  / LIMA / MEXICO CITY / BRASILIA / YENAGOA, Nigeria – Sweden will push ahead with easing COVID-19 restrictions at the end of this month, removing most curbs and limits on public venues such as restaurants, theatres and stadiums, the government said on Tuesday.

With most adults vaccinated, Sweden has gradually eased some restrictions during a summer lull in the pandemic. While it has seen infections mount in recent weeks amid the rapid spread of the more contagious Delta variant, deaths from the disease have remained low.

Sweden has been an outlier in aspects of its handling of the disease, shunning hard lockdowns throughout the pandemic and relying heavily on voluntary recommendations regarding issues such as social distancing and hygiene.

However, public gatherings such as concerts, sporting events and venues such as bars and restaurants have operated under tight crowd limits, curbs that are now set to be removed on Sept 29, along with a recommendation to work from home.

"The important message is that we now take further steps in the return to normal everyday life," Health and Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren told a news conference.

"Our view has all the time been that restrictions should be lifted as soon as possible."

Hallengren said the government was also looking into the possible use of vaccination certificates for some activities, though it hoped these would not be necessary to impose in a country with a long history of high vaccination rates.

About 70 percent of Swedes aged 16 and above are fully vaccinated.

Sweden has suffered many times more COVID-19 deaths per capita than its Nordic neighbours, which opted for tighter curbs during the initial waves of the pandemic, but less than many larger European countries that employed hard lockdowns.

A military personnel inoculate a dose of SinoVac vaccine to a citizen at a mobile clinic in Emganwini township, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on 3 Aug 2021. (ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP)

Brazil

Brazil recorded 87,822 new confirmed cases of coronavirus in the past 24 hours, along with 2,131 deaths from COVID-19, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday.

Brazil has registered more than 18 million cases since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 504,717, according to ministry data.

Cameroon

Cameroon's primary and secondary schools reopened on Monday amid continued and strict anti-COVID-19 measures.

"Since last year, we have taken anti-COVID-19 measures that were effective in schools. We have reinforced these measures. We have imported more anti-COVID-19 material including face masks and despatched (them) to all regions of the country," Minister of Basic Education, Laurent Serge Etoundi Ngoa told reporters in the capital, Yaounde, at the start of the new school year.

"We are asking parents to get vaccinated. Though vaccination is not obligatory, teachers and school administrative personnel also need to be vaccinated in order to protect school children and to reduce the transmission rate," Ngoa added.

He also said the government will intensify sensitization campaign against COVID-19 in schools.

Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)

COVID-19 vaccine makers ought to make their approved shots available for trials to help speed the development of more vaccines, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) said on Tuesday.

CEPI was launched in 2017 to fund epidemic vaccine development and is funded by countries across the globe as well as by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Major vaccine studies have so far examined COVID-19 infection rates comparing the prospective vaccine with a placebo.

Such trials may no longer be considered ethical in countries where an effective vaccine is widely available.

Instead, new vaccines would need to be tested in comparison to an established shot, involving two groups of trial volunteers, CEPI said.

A rate of protection or blood analysis measuring so-called immunogenicity that is comparable to or better than the established product would lead to approval, it said.

CEPI said incumbent shots are often not made available, hindering the development of a wider variety of vaccines.

"Lack of access to comparator vaccines is already stalling the development of promising vaccine candidates, and the potential impact on COVID-19 vaccine development and supply is huge," Melanie Saville, director of vaccine research and development at CEPI, said in a statement posted on the organization's website.

Established vaccine manufacturers have committed production capacity to serve immunization campaigns in various nations but those supply contracts do not foresee any use in clinical trials, according to CEPI.

"Thus far, vaccine manufacturers have been reluctant to change this arrangement, threatening to bring vital COVID-19 vaccine R&D to a standstill," CEPI's Saville said.

"Companies that have a big market advantage or are selling lots of doses are not very motivated to participate in a trial in which another vaccine might be seen to be comparable or potentially even more immunogenic," Nicole Lurie, CEPI's US director and strategic adviser to the CEO, told Reuters.

She added countries also need to re-negotiate their procurement contracts with manufacturers to free them to transfer doses for use in trials.

Volumes in the tens of thousands of doses would already make a huge difference for trials, which is small compared to the hundreds of millions being delivered, she added.

A senior gets a third shot of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine during a campaign to give booster shots to the elderly over the age of 86, at the Bicentenario stadium in Santiago, Chile, Aug 11, 2021. (ESTEBAN FELIX / AP)

Chile

The Chilean health regulator on Monday approved the COVID-19 vaccine produced by China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd for use in children over 6 years of age, allowing more people to be included in the country's rapid inoculation campaign.

The South American country has already approved the use of the Pfizer Inc/BioNTech vaccine for children over 12, with 654,053 receiving at least one dose since May.

Sinovac's CoronaVac has formed the backbone, however, of Chile's vaccination campaign, which has seen more than 13 million of the country's 19 million inhabitants fully inoculated so far and 19.49 million CoronaVac doses issued in total.

"This is great news for school-age children and those that were not included in previous vaccination plans," said Health Minister Enrique Paris.

Five of the experts on the evaluation panel convened by the Institute of Public Health (ISP) voted in favor of applying the shot to children over 6, while two voted in favor of issuing it only to those over 12, and one voted against issuing it to children.

Croatia

Some 460,000 children went back to school in Croatia on Monday, as the country eased measures introduced to tackle COVID-19.

Students of different grades will be able to socialize with each other, and do sports together. Masks are still mandatory for students of above grade five if the distance between them in classrooms is less than 1.5 to 2 metres, and parents should take their children's temperature before going to school.

Teachers who are vaccinated will be able to work without masks, but those who are unvaccinated will have to wear one. Only vaccinated parents will be allowed to attend parents' meetings.

According to the Croatian Institute of Public Health, 184 infections and five deaths have been recorded in Croatia in the past 24 hours. So far, over 48 percent of the Croatian population has completed their vaccination program against COVID-19.

A girl gets a dose of the Cuban made Soberana-02 vaccine for COVID-19 in Havana, Cuba, Aug 24, 2021. (RAMON ESPINOSA / AP)

Cuba

Cuba is set to relax pandemic border control measures for international passengers starting Nov 15, the island's Ministry of Tourism (Mintur) announced Monday on its website.

"The Caribbean nation will relax COVID-19 hygiene and sanitary protocols for incoming travelers," the ministry said, adding new measures will focus on monitoring symptomatic patients and temperature checks.

Cuba will no longer demand a PCR test upon arrival and COVID-19 vaccination certificates issued abroad will be accepted by customs authorities, Mintur said.

ALSO READ: UK lawmakers: Pandemic may fade but high costs will linger

Additionally, the domestic tourism market will gradually reopen depending on the evolution of the pandemic in each region.

The decision to spur international tourism was made on the grounds that "more than 90 percent of the country's population is expected to be fully vaccinated by November," the ministry said.

Cuba on Monday registered 7,230 new confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 85 related deaths in 24 hours, bringing the national total to 696,904 cases and 5,788 deaths, respectively.

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic reported 391 new cases, the highest daily figure since the beginning of June. 

Health Minister Adam Vojtech said social distancing measures will be scrapped when 75 percent of adults are vaccinated, up from 66 percent currently.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia on Monday received the first shipment of 108,000 Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine doses from the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) mechanism.

The vaccine doses were handed over to Ethiopia at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport by the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) together with other AVAT partners as well as international financial partners such as the World Bank.

"Today's additional doses of vaccines for Ethiopia will really play a huge role in accelerating our efforts to vaccinate our population, especially the priority population that is vulnerable to this pandemic," Ethiopia's Minister of Health, Lia Tadesse, said during the event.

Finland

The government of Finland plans to lift COVID-19 restrictions once 80 percent of the population aged 12 and over has been fully vaccinated. Prime Minister Sanna Marin said here on Monday that the aim is to remove "all restrictions."

On Monday, the percentage of fully vaccinated residents (two doses) stood at 53.2, and 72.4 percent have received one dose. The government estimated that the 80 percent vaccination rate could be reached by mid-October.

Krista Kiuru, minister for family affairs and social services, said at the press conference that the focus would now be on vaccination.

The new system would include an "emergency brake" should a serious setback be detected. In such a situation, nationwide COVID-19 restrictions could be reactivated, "but the threshold for that must be very high," Kiuru said.

France

The number of weekly vaccines administrated in France decreased to 2.5 million in the week starting Aug 30 from 3 million in the two previous weeks, according to the health ministry. 

The decline reflects shrinking demand as more people get vaccinated, it said in a video conference with journalists. France has so far fully vaccinated 45.6 million people above the age of 11, the equivalent of 67.7 percent of its total population.

Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza meets the media following the Health Ministers G20, in Rome on Sept 6, 2021. (ROBERTO MONALDO / LAPRESSE VIA AP)

G20

The group of 20 rich countries said on Monday more efforts were needed to help poor countries vaccinate their populations against COVID-19, but steered clear of making new numerical or financial commitments.

Italy, which holds the G20 presidency this year, said after the gathering that the "Pact of Rome," where the meeting was held on Sunday and Monday, included a political agreement to increase support for poor nations and send them more vaccines.

"The level of (vaccine) inequality is too high and is not sustainable," Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza told reporters.

"If we leave part of the world without vaccines we risk new variants which will hurt all of us…Our message is very clear: no one must be left behind in the vaccination campaign."

Vaccines are being shipped to poor countries through the international COVAX facility, backed by the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI).

However, richer nations have come under fire for allegedly stockpiling COVID-19 jabs as many underdeveloped countries with low inoculation rates and rising infections struggle to get supplies.

"The strongest countries…are committed to investing significant resources and sending vaccines to the most fragile…We should strengthen this system bilaterally and through international platforms starting from COVAX," Speranza said.

However, asked whether the G20 had made any new concrete financial commitments, he warned such pledges risked being a "straitjacket," and the important thing was a "political goal" of global vaccination.

A 11-page declaration released after the meeting made no new financial pledges, but Speranza said these may be delivered at a joint meeting of G20 health and finance ministers in October.

That will be "a decisive occasion to find the resources to finance the instruments we have put on the table", he said.

A little over 230 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been delivered to 139 countries under COVAX, GAVI data shows, against a target to secure 2 billion doses for lower-income countries by the end of 2021.

Speranza stressed that poor countries must also be helped to produce vaccines at home. "Transferring doses is not enough. We have to make other areas of the world capable of producing, sharing methodologies and procedures," he said.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 221.15 million while the global death toll topped 4.57 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Parents and their children queue in rain outside the Citywest vaccination center, in Dublin on Aug 14, 2021. (DAMIEN STORAN / PA VIA AP)

Ireland

Nearly 70 percent of the population in Ireland has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the figures released by Irish Health Minister Stephen Donnelly on Monday.

The figures revealed by the minister on his Twitter account showed that over 6.92 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Ireland, and 69.1 percent of the population have been fully vaccinated.

The figures also showed that 89.3 percent of the adults aged over 18 in Ireland have been fully vaccinated, while 82.6 percent of the population aged 12 and older have been fully vaccinated.

"This week the seven millionth COVID-19 vaccine dose will be administered here," Donnelly tweeted, describing this as "an amazing achievement" for Ireland.

Mexico

Mexico's health ministry on Saturday reported 6,561 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country and 779 fatalities, bringing its total to 2,125,866 infections and 190,357 deaths.

Officials have been frustrated by bottlenecks in the vaccine supply and raised concerns that wealthy countries are hoarding vaccines against COVID-19.

Health officials have said the real number of infected people and deaths in Mexico is likely significantly higher than the official count.

Morocco

Morocco announced on Monday 1,923 new COVID-19 cases, taking the tally of infections in the North African country to 886,008.

The death toll rose to 13,145 with 72 new fatalities, while 2,146 people are in intensive care units.

Nigeria

The governor of Rivers State in Nigeria's oil-producing Delta region said he may be forced to reimpose COVID-19 lockdown measures if residents did not comply with prevention protocols amid a rise in cases.

Governor Nyesom Wike implored residents to get vaccinated and comply with safety and social distancing rules amid a consistent rise in COVID-19 infections over the past two weeks.

"We may be constrained to re-impose the suspended COVID-19 lockdown measures across the state if the transmission of the disease continues to increase beyond tolerable limits," Wike said in an address on Monday. Wike shared a copy of the speech with Reuters on Tuesday.

Rivers state capital Port Harcourt is the gateway to the Delta region. Movement restrictions last year impinged on oil companies' ability to move workers around the region and forced some to delay or curtail maintenance.

The state's 10,809 confirmed COVID-19 cases make it the third worst-hit state in Africa's most populous country, after Lagos and the federal capital territory of Abuja.

On August 26, the state recorded 263 cases – the highest daily count since March 2020. The state has also recorded a total of 137 deaths.

Wike also appealed to religious leaders and churches to encourage their members to get vaccinated and comply with the COVID-19 protocols.

Nigeria, Africa's largest economy, is battling a third wave of COVID-19 infections. The country began its vaccination campaign in March with nearly 4 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca shots provided via the COVAX scheme, and has since received millions more doses of AstraZeneca and Moderna shots. However it has also struggled with vaccine hesitancy.

Peru

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo said on Monday that the government has reached an agreement with Russia to install a plant to produce the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.

Castillo did not provide further information on the timeline for the installation or production targets during a speech broadcast on national television, but added that the health minister would provide further information. Peru signed a contract to buy 20 million doses of Sputnik V in July.

Portugal

Portugal had registered 14,447 adverse reactions out of a total of 14,664,616 doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered up to Aug. 31, said a report released by the Portuguese National Authority of Medicines and Health Products (Infarmed) on Monday.

According to the bulletin, most reactions occurred to the Pfizer/BioNTech Comirnaty vaccine, followed by AstraZeneca's Vaxzevria, Moderna's Spikevax and Janssen.

According to the report, adverse reactions were "infrequent," occurring about once in every thousand inoculations, which qualifies as "a stable value over time."

A man reacts as he receives a jab of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine from a healthcare worker inside the Transvaco COVID-19 vaccine train stationed at the Springs Train Station outside of Johannesburg, on Aug 25 2021. (PHILL MAGAKOE / AFP)

South Africa

South African scientists said a new variant, with a concerning number of mutations, spread at a slower rate last month than in July. 

The so-called C.1.2 variant accounted for just 1.5 percent of all virus samples sequenced in the country in August compared with 2.2 percent in July, according to the Network for Genomic Surveillance South Africa. 

The variant, first identified in South Africa, has been found in a number of countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritius, Portugal, New Zealand and Switzerland.

The slowing of the spread of the variant could indicate that it’s unlikely to become dominant in the manner that previous mutations such as the beta and delta variants have become. 

Tunisia

Tunisian Ministry of Health reported on Monday 1,144 new COVID-19 cases, raising the total number of cases in the North African country to 675,191.

The death toll from the virus rose by eight to 23,846 in Tunisia, the ministry said in a statement.

UK

Britain has recorded more than 7 million COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest official data released on Monday.

The country reported another 41,192 coronavirus cases in the latest 24-hour period, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 7,018,921, official figures showed.

Meanwhile, the country will set aside a further 5.4 billion pounds (US$7.5 billion) over the next six months to help its National Health Service cover additional costs from the COVID-19 pandemic and to tackle the huge treatment backlog.

Record-breaking waiting lists for routine hospital treatment and an unprecedented summer demand for emergency services are heaping pressure on the health service in England.

"The NHS was there for us during the pandemic – but treating COVID patients has created huge backlogs," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.

"This funding will go straight to the frontline, to provide more patients with the treatments they need but aren’t getting quickly enough."

The NHS Confederation, which represents organizations across the healthcare sector, warned last week that the health service will need about 10 billion pounds more a year to reduce the COVID-19 backlog and cover additional costs from the pandemic.

The extra funding announced by the government includes 1 billion pounds to help tackle the backlog and 2.8 billion pounds to cover related costs such as enhanced infection control measures to keep staff and patients safe from the virus.

A volunteer administers her COVID-19 vaccine at the City of Brownsville's Department of Public Health's popup COVID-19 vaccine clinic on Aug 28, 2021, in Brownsville, Texas. (DENISE CATHEY / THE BROWNSVILLE HERALD VIA AP)

United States

The total number of COVID-19 cases in the United States topped 40 million on Monday, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University.

US COVID-19 case count rose to 40,003,101, with a total of 648,935 deaths, as of 3:21 pm local time (1921 GMT), showed the data.

California topped the state-level caseload list, with 4,421,247 cases. Texas confirmed the second most cases of 3,706,980, followed by Florida with 3,352,451 cases, New York with 2,304,955 cases, and Illinois with more than 1.5 million cases.

Other states with over 1 million cases include Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, New Jersey, Tennessee, Michigan and Arizona, according to the university's tally.

The United States remains the nation worst hit by the pandemic, with the world's most cases and deaths, making up more than 18 percent of the global caseload and nearly 14 percent of the global deaths.

ALSO READ: US divisions prove fatal in pandemic

A military personnel inoculate a dose of SinoVac vaccine to a citizen at a mobile clinic in Emganwini township, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on 3 Aug 2021. (ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP)

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s government ordered state employees who are unwilling to be vaccinated to resign to reduce the risk of them spreading the virus to others.

“If you are now working for us, we are now saying get vaccinated,” Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said in an interview Tuesday with privately owned radio station ZiFM Stereo.

“You can enjoy your rights in the streets or at your home, we are not forcing you to be vaccinated,” Ziyambi said. “But if you are a government employee, for the protection of others and the people you are serving, get vaccinated. But if you want to enjoy your rights which are in the constitution, you can resign.”

While the government is encouraging the nation’s teachers to be vaccinated, “there will come a time when we don’t want any teacher who is not vaccinated,” the minister said.

Zimbabwe has 125,671 confirmed coronavirus cases and has recorded 4,493 deaths from the disease, according to Health Ministry data.