UK PM apologizes for staff joking about lockdown party

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, in London, Dec 8, 2021. (MATT DUNHAM/AP)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised on Wednesday after a video surfaced showing his staff laughing and joking about a party in Downing Street during a Christmas COVID-19 lockdown last year when such festivities were banned.

For more than a week, Johnson and his team have repeated that no rules were broken in late 2020 after the Mirror newspaper reported there had been several parties including a wine-fuelled gathering of 40 to 50 people to mark Christmas.

On Wednesday, he said he was furious over the video, which was shown by ITV late on Tuesday, but that he had been repeatedly assured there had not been a party.

It is the latest misstep by an administration which has been criticised over its handling of a sleaze scandal, the awarding of COVID contracts, the refurbishment of Johnson's Downing Street flat and the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan.Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson of "taking the public for fools", while Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party called for Johnson to resign. 

With reports that the government could implement tougher COVID-19 measures as early as Thursday to try to slow the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant of the coronavirus, it could also persuade many people to ignore any new rules. read more

"I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country and I apologise for the impression that it gives," he told parliament.

Disciplinary action would be taken if it was found that rules were broken, he said.

"But I repeat … that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged, that there was no party and that no COVID rules were broken." read more

He also pledged to "get on with the job", accusing the opposition for trying to "muddy the waters about events or non-events of a year ago". read more

Nearly 146,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United Kingdom and Johnson is weighing up whether to toughen curbs after the discovery of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

Brazil

Brazil will require that unvaccinated travelers entering the country go on a five-day quarantine followed by a COVID-19 test, its health minister said on Tuesday, after its president said he opposed the use of a vaccine passport.

President Jair Bolsonaro criticized Brazil's health regulator Anvisa for proposing the vaccination passport be required for arriving travelers to help prevent the spread of new coronavirus variants.

Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga, speaking after a Cabinet meeting later on Tuesday, said Brazil would not discriminate against people who are not vaccinated by adopting the passport.

He said, however, that Brazil will require unvaccinated travelers entering the country to quarantine and have a COVID-19 test. He did not give details on how that would be implemented.

EU

European Union regulators endorsed mixing two different COVID-19 shots for initial vaccine schedules and boosters, saying hybrid approaches can increase governments’ flexibility in responding to the new omicron variant. 

Combining viral vector vaccines like AstraZeneca Plc with mRNA jabs such as Pfizer Inc generates a good level of antibodies against COVID-19 and a higher T-cell response, another part of a person’s immune defense, compared to giving doses of the same shot, according to data analyzed by the European Medicines Agency and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. That’s true for first and second doses, as well as boosters, the agency said.

Meanwhile, Deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19 will continue to rise in Europe in the coming weeks as vaccination rates remain insufficient to counter the trends, a key European health agency warned Tuesday.

European countries have taken a varying set of measures to combat the spread of the virus, including lockdowns for the unvaccinated and early closing for restaurants and bars. But Andrea Ammon, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said the toll is still growing.

“In the coming weeks, there will be increasing parameters of cases, deaths, hospitalization and ICU admissions,” she told a meeting of EU health ministers in Brussels. “The omicron variant, that makes the whole situation even more worrying.”

Germany recorded the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 since February on Wednesday as it battles to stop a fourth wave of the pandemic.

A total of 69,601 new infections were reported, 2,415 more than the same time a week ago, and another 527 people died – the highest number since Feb 12 – to bring the total to 104,047, the German Robert Koch Institute for disease control said.

Germany

Germany recorded the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 since February on Wednesday as it battles to stop a fourth wave of the pandemic.

A total of 69,601 new infections were reported, 2,415 more than the same time a week ago, and another 527 people died – the highest number since Feb 12 – to bring the total to 104,047, the German Robert Koch Institute for disease control said.

A picture taken on Nov 26, 2021 shows a health official administering to a man a dose of Astrazeneca's Vaxzevria COVID-19 vaccine at Secretariat Community Central Mosque, Alausa, Ikeja in Lagos. (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Nigeria

Up to one million COVID-19 vaccines are estimated to have expired in Nigeria last month without being used, two sources told Reuters, one of the biggest single losses of doses that shows the difficulty African nations have getting shots in arms.

Governments on the continent of over one billion people have been pushing for more vaccine deliveries as inoculation rates lag richer regions, increasing the risk of new variants such as the Omicron coronavirus now spreading across South Africa.

In Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and home to more than 200 million people, fewer than 4 percent of adults have been fully vaccinated, according to the World Health Organization.

A recent surge in supply has caused a new problem, however: many African countries are finding they do not have the capacity to manage the shots, some of which come with a short shelf life.

The expired doses were made by AstraZeneca and delivered from Europe, the sources with direct knowledge of vaccine delivery and use told Reuters. They were supplied via COVAX, the dose-sharing facility led by the GAVI vaccine alliance and the WHO which is increasingly reliant on donations.

A third source with knowledge of the delivery said some of the doses arrived within four-to-six weeks of expiry and could not be used in time, despite efforts by health authorities.

A count of the expired doses is still underway and an official number is yet to be finalized, the sources said.

"Nigeria is doing everything it can. But it's struggling with short shelf life vaccines," one told Reuters. "Now (supply is) unpredictable and they're sending too much."

ALSO READ: S. Africa readies hospitals as Omicron drives new virus wave

A spokesperson for the National Primary Health Care Development Agency – the body responsible for vaccinations in Nigeria – said the number of vaccines received and used is still being tallied and it would share its findings in the coming days.

The WHO said doses had expired, but declined to give a figure. It said 800,000 additional doses that had been at risk of expiry in October were all used in time.

"Vaccine wastage is to be expected in any immunization program, and in the context of COVID-19 deployment is a global phenomenon," the WHO said in a statement responding to Reuters' questions. It said vaccines delivered with "very short" shelf lives were a problem.

Nigeria's vaccine loss appears to be one of the largest of its kind over such a short time period, even outstripping the total number of vaccines that some other countries in the region have received.

It is not alone in wasting vaccines, however.

Across Europe, countries including Germany and Switzerland have struggled to maximize the use of doses. In January, officials in Britain forecast wastage of about 10 percent of vaccines. In April, France's health minister told local media that 25 percent of AstraZeneca, 20 percent of Moderna and 7 percent of Pfizer vaccines were being wasted at the time.

High vaccination rates in Africa are vital to ending the COVID-19 pandemic globally, health experts say. Only 102 million people, or 7.5 percent of the Africa's population, are fully vaccinated, according to the WHO.

Shortages of staff, equipment and funds have hampered rollouts. An anticipated surge in supply, comprising millions of doses in the coming weeks, could expose those weaknesses further, experts warn.

ALSO READ: Will Omicron derail the global recovery?

Nigeria's underfunded health system lacks everyday supplies like cotton swabs. Spotty power supply means fridges holding vaccines need to be kept on expensive fuel generators. Millions of citizens live in areas racked by banditry or Islamist insurgencies that medics cannot reach.

"The foundation is not strong. And if you don't have a strong foundation, there's not much you can build on top," Health Minister Osagie Ehanire told a public forum last week.

The short shelf life of donated vaccines does not help African nations.

South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, both desperate for doses, had to send some back because they could not distribute them in time. Namibia warned last month it may have to destroy thousands of out-of-date doses.

The situation serves only to increase vaccine inequality, experts warn.

"More than 8 billion doses have now been administered – the largest vaccination campaign in history," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter on Monday, marking a year ago this week since COVID-19 vaccines were first administered.

"But we all know that this incredible achievement has been marred by horrific inequity."

A clinician prepares a dose of a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccination center set up inside St John's Church in west London on Dec 4, 2021. (DANIEL LEAL / AFP)

Omicron variant

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus can partially evade the protection from two doses of Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine, the research head of a laboratory at the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa said on Tuesday.

Still, the study showed that blood from people who had received two doses of the vaccine and had a prior infection were mostly able to neutralize the variant, suggesting that booster doses of the vaccine could help to fend off infection.

Alex Sigal, a professor at the Africa Health Research Institute, said on Twitter there was "a very large drop" in neutralization of the Omicron variant relative to an earlier strain of COVID-19.

The lab tested blood from 12 people who had been vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, according to a manuscript posted on the website for his lab. The preliminary data in the manuscript has not yet been peer reviewed.

Blood from five out of six people who had been vaccinated as well as previously infected with COVID-19 still neutralized the Omicron variant, the manuscript said.

"These results are better than I expected. The more antibodies you got, the more chance you'll be protected from Omicron," Sigal said on Twitter.

He said the lab had not tested the variant against blood from people who had received a booster dose, because they are not available in South Africa yet.

According to the manuscript, the lab observed a 41-fold decline in levels of neutralizing antibodies against the Omicron variant.

Sigal said on Twitter that figure is likely to be adjusted after his lab does more experiments.

While neutralizing antibodies are an indicator of the body's immune response, scientists believe other kinds of cells such as B-cells and T-cells also are stimulated by the vaccines and help protect against the effects of the coronavirus.

The preliminary data does not indicate that the vaccine is less able to prevent severe illness or death. While lab tests are under way, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said last week "we think it's likely that people will have substantial protection against severe disease caused by Omicron."

ALSO READ: Data shows GSK-Vir drug works against all Omicron mutations

Portugal

Portugal’s Directorate-General for Health said it recommends vaccination for children age 5 to 11, with the priority given to those with illnesses considered to be of risk for severe COVID-19. Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE’s vaccine will be used, the directorate-general said in an emailed statemen.

Slovakia

Slovakia’s ruling parties agreed on a lower-than-planned payment worth 300 euros ($337) to people age 60 and over for getting fully inoculated against COVID-19 to increase one of the European Union’s lowest vaccination rates.

The coalition also agreed to relax some coronavirus measures for the vaccinated, such as access to all shops, from Friday. Children attending sixth grade and higher will switch to online learning from Monday.

The nation of 5.5 million is now in a full lockdown, with one of the world’s worst rates of new infections per capita.

A healthcare worker conducts a PCR COVID-19 test at the Lancet laboratory in Johannesburg on Nov 30, 2021 (EMMANUEL CROSET / AFP)

South Africa

The reproductive number, an indicator of how fast the coronavirus spreads, almost doubled in South Africa last month as an outbreak of the omicron variant took hold.

The measure rose to 2.55 on Nov 27 from 1.37 on Nov 17, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a report on Wednesday. The number means each infected person on average transmitted the disease to another 2.55 people.

The gauge was at 3.06 in the commercial hub of Gauteng, the epicenter of the outbreak that’s home to Johannesburg and Pretoria. The number more than doubled to 1.63 in the Western Cape, where Cape Town is located, and rose to 2.18 from 1.23 in the northern province of Limpopo. The rate rose in eight of nine provinces, falling slightly in the sparsely populated Northern Cape.

South Africa announced the discovery of omicron on Nov 25 and daily infection numbers have since surged. International markets have been roiled and travel bans imposed on South Africa and its neighbors.

US

The Biden administration’s mandate for federal contractors’ employees to be vaccinated will be halted nationwide, amid a slew of challenges from states that say the president overstepped his authority in requiring the COVID-19 shots.

The mandate, which was set to take effect on Jan 4, applies to roughly a quarter of the US workforce and affects companies that do business with the federal government, including Lockheed Martin Corp, Microsoft Corp, Alphabet Inc’s Google and General Motors Co.

A federal judge in Georgia blocked the mandate on Tuesday. The latest order follows a Kentucky federal judge’s grant last week of a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit involving Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio.