WHO: Teens at lower risk from virus, jabs should go to poor

This photo taken on March 30, 2021 shows an exterior view of the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. (CHEN JUNXIA / XINHUA)

GENEVA / PARIS / AMSTERDAM / BARCELONA / MEXICO CITY / PRAGUE / NEW YORK / BUDAPEST / STOCKHOLM / JOHANNESBURG – As children and adolescents are at lower risk of severe COVID-19 disease, countries should prioritize adults and sharing vaccine doses with the COVAX program to bring supplies to poorer countries, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday.

Some rare cases of heart inflammation called myocarditis have been reported in younger men who received vaccines based on mRNA technoloy – Pfizer BioNtech and Moderna – but these were generally mild and responded to treatment, it said.

Given vaccine supply constraints, immunisation programmes should focus on protecting groups at high risk of hospitalisation and death, the World Health Organization said

Although that risk had not been fully determined, it was less than the risk of myocarditis linked to SARS-CoV-2 infection, it said.

The WHO's interim guidance was issued as more regulatory agencies authorize certain vaccines for use in children, including the United States, European Union, India and Israel, and most recently Canada last week. 

"As children and adolescents tend to have milder disease compared to adults, unless they are in a group at higher risk of severe COVID-19, it is less urgent to vaccinate them than older people, those with chronic health conditions and health workers," the WHO said.

Children can experience "long COVID-19" with prolonged symptoms but this was still under investigation, it said.

Several risk factors for severe COVID-19 in children have been reported including older age, obesity and pre-existing conditions including type 2 diabetes, asthma and heart disease, it added.

Maintaining education for all school-aged children should be an important priority during the pandemic, although transmission mitigation measures might be needed in schools, the WHO said.

Given vaccine supply constraints, immunisation programmes should focus on protecting groups at high risk of hospitalisation and death, the WHO said.

"As many parts of the world face extreme vaccine shortages, countries with high coverage in at-risk populations should prioritize global sharing of COVID-19 vaccines before vaccinating children, adolescents," it said.

This photo shows a general view of the offices of British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca PLC in Macclesfield, Cheshire on July 21, 2020. (PAUL ELLIS / AFP)

AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca Plc will open labs for its COVID-19 products at a new UK research and development site this year as the drugmaker faces questions about the future of its vaccine in its home country.

The labs, which will be based at the R&D hub in Cambridge, England opened Tuesday, will house a unit for vaccines and will also focus on the company’s antibody cocktail, which is expected to receive US and UK authorization in the coming months. 

The UK ordered 100 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine last year, but ultimately limited its use to people over 40 after a very rare blood clotting side effect emerged. Britain is only relying on vaccines from Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc for its booster program, leaving Astra on the sidelines.

AstraZeneca Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said in an interview with the BBC earlier on Tuesday that its vaccine could be the reason the UK is faring better with COVID-19 hospitalizations than Europe. 

Still, he acknowledged more data is needed. While the UK gave it to the elderly, many European nations limited the use of the shot initially to younger people over questions related to its efficacy. 

“More time is needed to develop more insights into the durability of all of these vaccines,” Soriot said in an interview with Bloomberg TV when asked about his comments. “We can formulate hypotheses but essentially only clinical data will give us the answer.”

Europe

The World Health Organization said on Tuesday a further 700,000 people could die from COVID-19 in Europe by March, taking the total to above 2.2 million, as it urged people to get vaccinated and to have booster shots.

Total cumulative deaths from the respiratory disease in the 53 countries of the WHO's European region have already surpassed 1.5 million, it said, with the daily rate doubling from late September to 4,200 a day.

The WHO's European region also includes Russia and Eastern European countries as well as Turkey.

ALSO READ: WHO: Poorer nations to get virus antibody test tech for free

"Cumulative reported deaths are projected to reach over 2.2 million by spring next year, based on current trends," it said, adding that COVID-19 is now the top regional cause of death.

High or extreme stress on intensive care units is expected in 49 out of 53 countries by March 1, the WHO added.

The WHO said a high number of unvaccinated people as well as "reduced vaccine-induced protection" were among the factors stoking high transmission in Europe alongside the dominance of the Delta variant and the relaxation of hygiene measures.

WHO Europe director Hans Kluge urged people to get vaccinated and also to get a booster dose "if offered".


In this file photo taken on Feb 21, 2020 Czech Republic's Prime Minister Andrej Babis addresses media representatives as he arrives for the second day of a special European Council summit in Brussels. (ARIS OIKONOMOU / AFP)

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic may make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for people over the age of 60 as well as for some professions including health and social care workers, under plans now being drawn up, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Tuesday.

Faced with a record surge in COVID-19 infections that is straining hospitals, the government council for health risks backs the mandatory vaccination proposals, Babis said, adding that the health ministry would assess them next Tuesday.

"This age group (of over-60s) is the most at threat," Babis said.

From Monday only the vaccinated or those who have recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months are allowed to enter Czech restaurants, hotels, cinemas, and gyms or to access other services.

This file photo dated April 20, 2021 shows an exterior view of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. (PETER DEJONG / FILE / AP)

European Medicines Agency (EMA)

The European Union's drug regulator said on Tuesday it has started reviewing U.S. drugmaker Merck & Co Inc's experimental COVID-19 antiviral pill for adults following an application and could issue an opinion "within weeks."

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has already evaluated a substantial portion of the data during a rolling review that began in October.

Merck's pill Lagevrio has shown it can halve the chances of dying or being hospitalized for those most at risk of developing severe COVID-19 when given early in the illness.

It was developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and won approval from Britain earlier this month.

France

France recorded more than 30,000 new COVID-19 infections over 24 hours for the first time since August as the pace of infection sped up despite new social distancing measures and a drive to boost vaccinations.

The health ministry reported 30,454 new cases on Tuesday, pushing the cumulative total above 7.45 million and the seven-day moving average of new infections over 20,000 for the first time since Aug 24.

"Today, we will announce 30,000 cases over 24 hours. That is a very major increase in the infection rate, which shows that we really are, unfortunately, in a fifth wave of the epidemic," Health Minister Olivier Veran told lawmakers on Tuesday, flagging the surge ahead of publication of the numbers.

The daily new cases were up 54 percent compared with last Tuesday and the week-on-week increase in new cases has been well above or nearly at 50 percent for 11 days in a row.

The 30,454 new cases registered in France on Tuesday were the highest level since the 30,920 recorded on Aug 11. France saw an record of 86,852 new COVID-19 cases per day on Nov. 7, 2020.

The number of patients in intensive care units in France on Tuesday rose to 1,455, up by 49 from Monday, while new recorded COVID-19-related deaths rose by 84.

Germany

A leader of Germany's Greens, set to be part of a new government, expressed support on Wednesday for mandatory vaccinations as the number of infections jumped again.

Germany registered 66,884 new coronavirus infections and 335 more deaths related to the virus, bringing the total number of deaths close to 100,000, according to figures by the Robert-Koch-Institute of infectious diseases on Wednesday.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is preparing to hand over to a new government of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats, called in the leaders of these parties on Tuesday to discuss the pandemic.

Katrin Goering-Eckardt, the parliamentary leader of the Greens, said continual lockdowns and restrictions on social contact were a bigger imposition than demanding vaccination.

"This is a proposal not for right now," she told radio station Deutschlandfunk.

Initially, it would be about mandatory vaccinations for example in care facilities to protect particularly sensitive groups. Introducing a compulsory vaccination would not mean that this would be enforced by police, she added.

Germans have been waiting in line for hours to get vaccinated in recent days, with about 68 percent of the population fully vaccinated, below the average in western Europe.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 258.69 million while the global death toll topped 5.16 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Hungary

Hungary reported a record 12,637 new daily COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 1.045 million with 33,519 deaths, a government tally showed on Wednesday.

Wednesday's data showed 5.81 million people, or just under 60 percent of the population, have been fully vaccinated, while 2.04 million have received booster shots.

Hungary has made boosters mandatory for healthcare workers and mask wearing has again been required in most indoor places since Saturday. The changes fall short of the strict measures urged by Hungarian doctors.

The government has also allowed companies to make COVID-19 shots mandatory for their workers. Drug maker Richter and oil and gas group MOL have already said they will do so.

Handout picture released by the Mexican Presidency showing Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador during a press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City on Aug 11, 2021. (MEXICAN PRESIDENCY / AFP)

Mexico

Mexico will analyze administering booster vaccine doses against COVID-19, especially for older people, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Tuesday, softening his previous stance on the need for a third shot.

Less than two months ago, Lopez Obrador had rejected suggestions that Mexico should administer a third vaccine shot, saying experts deemed it to be unnecessary.

But his government has gradually opened the door to giving more people shots, including teenagers.

"The booster vaccine will be analyzed in some cases, especially for older adults, but that still has to be decided by the doctors, the specialists," he told a news conference.

Thousands take part in a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions in Amsterdam, Netherlands on Nov 20, 2021. (PETER DEJONG / AP)

Netherlands

The Netherlands started transporting COVID-19 patients across the border to Germany on Tuesday to ease pressure on Dutch hospitals, which are scaling back regular care to deal with a surge in coronavirus cases.

A patient was transferred by ambulance from Rotterdam to a hospital in Bochum, some 240 km east, on Tuesday morning, and another would follow later in the day, health authorities said.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Dutch hospitals has swelled to its highest level since May in recent weeks and is expected to increase further as infections jump to record levels.

On Tuesday the country registered some 23,000 new infections in 24 hours. Weekly numbers from the national health institute showed 153,957 new cases were registered in seven days, a 39 percent rise compared to the week before.

On Tuesday 488 of a total 1,050 intensive care beds in the Netherlands were being used for COVID-19 patients. Hospitals were already scaling back other procedures including cancer treatments and heart operations, to make room. read more

The Dutch health authority (NZA) on Tuesday said almost a third of all operating theatres in the Netherlands had been closed to limit the use of intensive care beds.

Deadlines for critical operations can't be met in about a fifth of all Dutch hospitals, the NZA said.

German hospitals in total have offered 20 beds for patients from the Netherlands, after treating dozens during previous waves of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, maintaining a distance of 1.5 meters will once again become mandatory in the Netherlands starting Wednesday as cases continue to rise. 

People were already encouraged to maintain social distancing, but the caretaker Dutch cabinet said in a statement on Tuesday that the rule is now mandatory and can be enforced by police.

ALSO READ: Merkel: COVID-19 spike 'worse than anything we've seen'

Poland

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Poland rose by 962 to 18,320, the Health Ministry reported on Tuesday, the biggest daily increase since April. The number of patients requiring ventilation rose by 35 to 1,551.

In this file photo taken on Aug 25, 2021, a man looks on 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. (PHOTO / AFP)

South Africa

South Africa has asked Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer to delay delivery of COVID-19 vaccines because it now has too much stock, health ministry officials said, as vaccine hesitancy slows an inoculation campaign.

About 35 percent of South Africans are fully vaccinated, higher than in most other African nations, but half the government's year-end target. It has averaged 106,000 doses a day in the past 15 days in a nation of 60 million people.

Nicholas Crisp, deputy director-general of the Health Department, told Reuters that South Africa had 16.8 million doses in stock and said deliveries had been deferred.

"We have 158 days' stock in the country at current use," a spokesman for the Health Ministry said. "We have deferred some deliveries."

Stavros Nicolaou, chief executive of Aspen Pharmacare, which is packaging 25 million doses a month of J&J vaccines in South Africa, said most of the vaccines bound for South Africa would now go to the rest of the continent.

Nicolaou, who is also chairman of public health at business lobby Business for South Africa (B4SA), said deliveries would likely be deferred until the first quarter of next year.

Vaccines packaged at Aspen's plant are part of the African Union's agreement to buy 220 million doses from J&J.

South Africa's government has been seeking to boost the rate of daily administered doses.

"There is a fair amount of apathy and hesitancy," said Shabir Madhi, who led the clinical study for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in South Africa.

Spain

Spain's Catalonia region plans to demand proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test for entry to bars, restaurants and stadiums, while other regions are pushing for similar restrictions to tame rising infection rates.

The latest wave of infections in Spain, which has fully vaccinated a hefty 79 percent of its population, remains well below levels seen in Austria and the Netherlands, but authorities see the risk of it spiralling rapidly out of control.

Catalan regional government spokesperson Patricia Plaja told reporters the administration would seek judicial approval for the COVID pass to "reduce the risk of infection and to avoid overloading the health system".

Catalonia, an affluent northeastern region, has a 14-day infection rate of 183 cases per 100,000 people, above the Spanish average of 132 and the 150 mark deemed as "high risk".

In Navarre, across the Pyrenees from coastal Catalonia, authorities said they would seek court approval on Wednesday for the COVID pass at restaurants and nightclubs during the Christmas holiday season.

After a court in the neighbouring Basque region rejected a petition for COVID-19 passes in restaurants, authorities said they could declare a health emergency if pressure on hospitals worsened.

If approved, the tighter restrictions could dampen Spain's hopes to lure millions of tourists for the holidays, but the government remains upbeat that tourism will reach 66 percent of pre-pandemic levels in the fourth quarter.

Sweden

Sweden will begin gradually rolling out COVID-19 vaccine booster shots to all adult Swedes following the surge in cases elsewhere in Europe, government and health officials said on Wednesday.

"We are faced with an uncertain winter," Health Minister Lena Hallengren told a news conference. "You can contribute by staying home if you're sick or by getting vaccinated if you haven't already, and taking your booster when you're offered it."

An exact timetable was not presented. Sweden's health agency said booster shots should be offered six months after the second shot, with a further rollout to risk groups and people aged 50 or above the priority before a gradual extension to all Swedes aged 18 or older.

Hallengren said the health agency had also been tasked with preparing for potential additional measures to curb the spread of the virus after Sweden introduces vaccine passes for indoor events with more than 100 people as of next month.

Anthony Fauci, US President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, responds to questions by Senator Rand Paul during the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 20, 2021. (J SCOTT APPLEWHITE / POOL / AFP)

United States

Top US infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Tuesday the vast majority of Americans who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 should receive a booster shot, and that an additional dose could eventually become the country's standard for determining who is fully vaccinated.

Fauci and other disease experts have said they expect that COVID-19 will transition this spring from a pandemic phase in the United States to an endemic disease, meaning that the virus will continue to circulate at a lower level, causing smaller, less disruptive but still significant outbreaks in the coming years. 

"We'd like to get as many people who were originally vaccinated with the first regimen boosted," Fauci said in an interview for the upcoming Reuters Next conference.

Asked to quantify, he said, the "overwhelming majority" of Americans who have been fully vaccinated should now receive a COVID-19 booster shot based on data showing they provide "substantial" protection beyond what is seen from the original inoculation.

"That's the reason why we're very keen on getting as many people who are originally vaccinated to get a booster … because they really do work," he said.