WHO: Urgent action needed as third virus wave sweeps Africa

A woman receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Kololo airstrip in Kampala, Uganda, May 31, 2021. (NICHOLAS BAMULANZEKI / AP)

BRUSSELS / LONDON / LUSAKA / BERLIN / RABAT / JOHANNESBURG / HAVANA / SANTIAGO / QUITO / ADDIS ABABA / LISBON / BOGOTA / ACCRA / SAO PAULO / BOGOTA / BUENOS AIRES / KYIV / MOSCOW / OSLO / COPENHAGEN / PARIS / WINDHOEK / NAIROBI / SOFIA / LUSAKA – African governments must act quickly to curb a third wave of coronavirus infections that is sweeping across the continent, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

COVID-19 cases rose by over 20 percent week-on-week in nearly two dozen African countries and progress on vaccinating Africans is proceeding slowly, with just 0.79 percent of people on the continent fully vaccinated, senior health officials said on Thursday.

Africa is in the midst of a full blown third wave…We’ve seen in India and elsewhere how quickly COVID-19 can rebound and overwhelm health systems.

Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa

"Africa is in the midst of a full blown third wave…We’ve seen in India and elsewhere how quickly COVID-19 can rebound and overwhelm health systems," Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said at a news conference. 

The spike in infections should push countries and governments into “urgent action” to expand vaccinations and inoculate priority groups, she said.

The number of new cases reported in the week has now exceeded half the second-wave peak of 224,000 in January, with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Namibia reporting the highest number of weekly cases since the pandemic began, according to WHO data.

New cases were up nearly 30 percent in the past week and deaths were up by 15 percent, she said, with five countries – South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia, Uganda and Namibia – accounting for 76 percent of the new cases.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC)'s chief, John Nkengasong, told reporters in a separate news conference on Thursday that amid quickly rising cases in many countries, progress on vaccination campaigns was generally slow.

As of Thursday, the number of confirmed cases in Africa stood at 5,108,890, along with 36,030 deaths and 4,558,435 recoveries, the Africa CDC said.

A senior official of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said Wednesday that West Africa needed to redouble efforts to emerge successfully from the impacts of the pandemic.

France

The French government plans to allow nightclubs to reopen in July, Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Thursday, allowing the industry to operate again for the first time since it was shut during the first COVID-19 lockdown ordered in March 2020.

Veran said the government was working on safety protocols for the reopening with details to be announced next week, after President Emmanuel Macron said earlier this month an update on nightclub operations would be made on June 21.

"In July, nightclubs are expected to reopen with specific requirements", Veran told France's BFM television. He gave no precise date.

Tanzania

Tanzania hopes to join the COVAX global vaccine-sharing facility, the WHO said on Thursday, the latest sign it has changed tack following the death in March of COVID-19- and vaccine-sceptic president John Magufuli.

A WHO official said vaccines could arrive in the country of 58 million people within two weeks.

The country is one of only four in Africa that have yet to start vaccination campaigns, according to the Africa CDC.

"We have received information that Tanzania is now formally working to join the COVAX facility," the WHO's regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said at a news conference.

Richard Mihigo of the WHO's Immunization and Vaccines Development Programme in Africa said Tanzania had taken the preliminary steps of submitting a vaccine request form to COVAX and starting to prepare a vaccine deployment plan.

Kenya

Kenya announced restrictions on movement into and out of 13 counties located in the western part of the country nearing Uganda.

The areas constitute 60 percent of the national caseload and the surge of infections in the region is further compounded by their proximity to Uganda, which has recorded a spike in cases, according to an emailed statement from Mutahi Kagwe, Kenya’s health secretary.

Bulgaria

Bulgarian authorities on Thursday said that the Delta variant that was first found in India has been detected for the first time in the country.

The COVID-19 variant was detected in a man in the age group 20 to 30 who was temporarily residing in the country, the health ministry said in a statement.

The news came amid a steady decline in the spread of COVID-19 in Bulgaria.

According to the country's COVID-19 information portal, the numbers of active cases and hospitalizations fell to 10,757 and 1,954, respectively, the lowest figures since last October.

Vaccinations are underway in the Balkan country, where nearly 1.620 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered. 

Namibia

Namibia recorded 33 COVID-19 deaths and 2,075 new cases on Wednesday, the highest daily count since the pandemic began in March last year, Minister of Health and Social Services Kalumbi Shangula said on Thursday.

Shangula attributed the spike in cases to a slow vaccination drive and the proliferation of fake news about vaccines.

"We have noted with dismay that proponents of Ivermectin have resorted to falsehood via social media to solicit support under false pretense. They assert that the number of new infections and deaths has increased following mass vaccination," said the minister.

"There is no shred of evidence to support this narrative," he stressed.

Shangula noted with concern that among those who died from COVID-19 was someone who had received one dose of vaccine.

Zambia

Zambia on Thursday reported 3,394 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases, as the third wave continued to take its toll on the southern African nation, its health ministry said.

The country's cumulative cases now stand at 122,244. 

Another 33 deaths were logged, bringing the toll to 1,525.

The country has secured US$1 million from the Global Fund for the medical oxygen needed for COVID-19 patients.

According to Kennedy Malama, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health in charge of Technical Services, the health facilities remained full to capacity while the country's medical oxygen supply was constrained.

Zambia on Wednesday announced measures to curb the spike in COVID-19 cases as the southern African nation recorded its highest daily tally.

United States

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) eased its warnings for cruises by a notch from the highest level that led to a sailing hiatus, and recommended only fully vaccinated people take trips when sailings resume from US ports in a few days.

The CDC also recommended that travelers get tested 1 to 3 days before their trips and 3 to 5 days after their trips.

The health regulator's updates, first posted on Wednesday, comes after two passengers on Royal Caribbean Group's Celebrity Millennium tested positive, and cases of infection among crew members aboard its Odyssey of the Seas, forcing delay of its first trip.

More than half of unvaccinated Americans would prefer to get a COVID-19 shot from their local doctor’s office than a pharmacy or large vaccination site, according to a nationwide poll of 12,000 people by the African American Research Collaborative and the Commonwealth Fund.

Over 40 percent of Latino, Black, and Native American people are still hesitant to get vaccinated, according to the survey. More than 70 percent of those communities say they face barriers when it comes to accessing the vaccines, such as transportation and difficulty getting off work.

Denmark

Denmark will offer COVID-19 vaccines for children aged 12-15 after the adult population has been inoculated to boost its overall immunity against the virus ahead of the winter, health authorities said on Thursday.

Initially, Denmark will only offer Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine for 12-15 year-olds, as it is the only vaccine approved by the EU's drug regulator for use in adolescents, the authorities said in a statement.

"An expansion of the target group to the 12-15-year-olds is necessary to ensure even greater immunity in the population, and thus ensure control of the epidemic in Denmark," the head of the Danish Health Authority, Soren Brostrom, said.

Vaccination of adolescents would begin after the last adults have been fully vaccinated in mid-September, Brostrom said at a press briefing.

In an optimal scenario, Brostrom estimated around 75 percent of Denmark's population will be immune against the virus after all adults have been inoculated. Vaccinating the adolescents would add another 4 percent to that number, he said.

This file photo dated Jan 7, 2021 shows the CureVac company headquarters in Tuebingen, Germany. The German vaccine maker said on June 16, 2021 that interim data from late-stage testing of its coronavirus shot show a comparatively low effectiveness in protecting people against COVID-19. (SEBASTIAN GOLLNOW / DPA VIA AP, FILE)

Germany

A failure of German biotech CureVac to meet its efficacy goal in a late-stage trial for its COVID-19 vaccine will not impact the speed of Germany’s vaccination rollout, the health ministry said on Thursday.

“The announcement does not have an impact on the speed of our vaccination rollout,” a health ministry spokesperson said, declining to comment on the study results.

CureVac said on Wednesday its COVID-19 vaccine was only 47 percent effective in a late-stage trial, missing the study’s main goal and throwing in doubt the potential delivery of hundreds of millions of doses to the European Union.

Germany will this week pass the threshold of vaccinating 50 percent of its population with at least one dose, Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

“We continue to set a very good pace, especially on second doses,” Spahn said at a news conference. “We are seeing with the delta variant in the UK that it’s above all the second dose that provides full protection and it’s therefore very, very important that it happens at the right time.”

Through Tuesday, 48.9 percent of the German population, or 40.7 million people, had received at least their first shot, and just under 28 percent were fully vaccinated. Spahn said Germany aims to inoculate 75 percent to 80 percent as not everyone will want to get immunized.

Meanwhile, many health apps in Germany, which became increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, had significant security flaws, according to the Digital Consumer Protection 2020 report published by Germany's Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) on Wednesday.

The report analyzed seven health applications for smartphones that were not subject to any particular regulations and whose costs were not covered by Germany's public health insurance. None of the apps fully met the security requirements of the BSI guideline for health apps.

As a significant proportion of examined apps as well as many of the involved providers were processing sensitive data, the situation had to be rated "at least as critical," according to BSI, which is also responsible for data security for the German government.

The COVID-19 warning app, which is officially supported by the government, also showed security flaws, according to the BSI report. Back in August, German hacker club Chaos Computer Club (CCC) revealed that it was possible to access contact-tracking records for 4.8 million people.

Uganda

Uganda received 175,200 AstraZenaca doses donated by France, shoring up depleting stocks as a spike in infections increases demand for inoculations.

The vaccines manufactured in Italy were donated under the COVAX initiative, according to Ministry of Health spokesman Emmanuel Ainebyoona. The delivery is the third since Uganda received 864,000 doses early March manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and a donation of 100,000 doses by the south Asian country.

Uganda had injected 806,129 people by June 16, while infections jumped 39 percent since the end of May to 65,631 cases. The government aims to inoculate 21.9 million people, starting with a priority 4.8 million comprising health workers, teachers, security personnel and the elderly, President Yoweri Museveni has said, without giving timelines.

United Kingdom

Britain is considering easing travel restrictions for double vaccinated people, a move which would placate airlines who are threatening legal action against the government's strict curbs on trips abroad.

Pressure is building in the aviation industry, with airlines desperate for restrictions to be relaxed in time for July and the peak season when they make most of their profits, but Britain sticking to quarantine requirements which deter travel.

Europe's biggest airline Ryanair is set to file papers on Thursday to launch legal action against Britain over its travel policy.

However, Britain has now indicated that a relaxation could be on the cards.

The country's Department for Transport said on Thursday that it was considering how vaccinations could be used for inbound travel. More than half of UK adults have received both doses of COVID-19 vaccine, putting it far ahead of Europe.

Reports in the Daily Telegraph said that Britain was looking to follow the European Union's move to allow fully vaccinated tourists to avoid COVID-19 tests and quarantine from July.

In another development, Britain's medicine regulator on Thursday extended the emergency use approval (EUA) for Innova's lateral flow COVID-19 tests, saying it was satisfied with a review of the tests after its US counterpart issued a warning about them. Innova's tests have been approved for asymptomatic testing as part of England's test and trace system.

The rapid spread of the Delta coronavirus variant has driven a 50 percent rise in infections in England since May, a large prevalence study led by Imperial College London found on Thursday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson delayed the end of restrictions.

The latest round of the REACT-1 prevalence survey, conducted between May 20 and June 7, found prevalence was 0.15 percent, compared to 0.10 percent in the last set of data from late April to early May.

"Prevalence is increasing exponentially, driven by younger ages… and it appears to be doubling every 11 days. Clearly, that is bad news," Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics, Imperial College London, told reporters.

On Wednesday, British health minister Matt Hancock said that it will be mandatory for care home workers in England to have coronavirus vaccinations, adding the government was considering whether the policy should be extended to healthcare workers too.

Britain has high take-up rates of COVID-19 vaccines, but has been examining making the shots compulsory for those working in care homes – whose residents are among the most vulnerable to the disease – to boost coverage further.

The new legislation will come into force from October, and there will be a 16-week grace period. The health ministry said 1.2 million social care workers had taken up the vaccine already, 78 percent of the total.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 177.06 million while the global death toll topped 3.83 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Pfizer

Pfizer Inc said on Wednesday its oral rheumatoid arthritis drug Xeljanz reduced death or respiratory failure in hospitalized COVID-19 patients with pneumonia in Brazil, meeting the study's main goal.

Results of the study, which tested the drug in 289 hospitalized adult patients with the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Pfizer said the incidence of death or respiratory failure was 18.1 percent for patients treated with the drug compared to 29 percent for placebo. Serious adverse events occurred in 20 patients treated with the drug compared to 17 patients on placebo.

Xeljanz, which belongs to a class of drugs called JAK inhibitors and also treats the autoimmune disease ulcerative colitis, has not been approved or authorized for use in any country for the treatment of COVID-19.

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Morocco

Morocco's COVID-19 tally rose to 524,975 on Wednesday as 500 new cases were registered during the past 24 hours.

According to a statement by the Ministry of Health, the death toll rose to 9,221 with four new fatalities during the last 24 hours, while 192 people are in intensive care units.

South Africa

Cases of the coronavirus in South Africa continued surging as 13,246 new cases were registered over the past 24 hours, the highest number since January this year, said the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) on Wednesday night.

The NICD, a division of the National Health Laboratory Service, said the percent testing positive increased to 21.7 percent nationally. Gauteng was again at the forefront of the growing number of cases, with 7,859 of the infections recorded there. The total number of laboratory-confirmed cases nationwide increased to 1,774,312.

The NICD also reported 77 in-hospital deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of fatalities to 58,118.

Cuba

Cuba reported 1,403 new COVID-19 infections and 12 more deaths in the last day, bringing the total number of cases to 161,997 and the death toll to 1,118, the Public Health Ministry said on Wednesday.

Of the new daily cases, 1,330 were from community transmission, while 7,625 patients remain in the active stage of the disease, the highest figure in 15 months, said the ministry.

Havana is showing a declining trend in terms of the number of cases, registering 339 in the last day, and in its incidence rate, which dropped to 290.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, although it's still the highest in the country.

Chile

Chile reported 4,347 new COVID-19 infections and 57 more deaths on Wednesday, to total 1,491,561 cases and 30,922 deaths.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health said that infections have dropped 10 percent nationally in the last seven days and 3 percent in the last 14 days.

It also pointed out that in 13 of the country's 16 regions, new COVID-19 cases have dropped over the last week.

Ecuador

Ecuador recorded 1,806 new COVID-19 infections and 85 more deaths in the last 24 hours, for a cumulative total of 441,180 cases and 15,575 deaths, the Ministry of Public Health said on Wednesday.

In its daily report, the ministry also reported another 5,578 deaths considered to be COVID-19 related, but not verified.

The province of Pichincha led the number of infections in the last day with 706, with 661 cases reported in the capital Quito, the epicenter of the pandemic in the South American country.

Currently, the people most affected by the virus are those between 20 and 49 years old, accounting for 60 percent of infections nationwide.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia registered 121 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the national tally to 274,601 as of Wednesday evening, according to the country's Ministry of Health.

The ministry said three new deaths and 571 more recoveries were reported, bringing the national counts to 4,260 and 252,451 respectively.

Portugal

Coronavirus cases in Portugal jumped by 1,350 in the past 24 hours, the biggest increase since late February, data from the national health authority DGS showed on Wednesday.

The new cases brought the total number of infections in Portugal, which faced a tough battle against the coronavirus in January that left the health system on the verge of collapsing, to 860,365.

Six deaths were reported on Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 17,055 since the start of the pandemic. The number of people in need of hospital care – both on wards and intensive care – has also slightly increased.

The jump in infections comes less than a month after tourism-dependent Portugal opened to visitors from the European Union and Britain after it started to ease strict lockdown rules in mid-March. Most businesses have already reopened.

Portugal also said on Wednesday it would allow US visitors into the country but added Nepal to a list of "red" nations amid worries about new coronavirus variants, scrambling to save its tourism sector.

Travellers from Japan, Australia, South Korea, China, Israel, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore and Thailand will also be able to travel to Portugal as long as their governments adopt equivalent reciprocal measures.

Although travel restrictions were eased, the rules can be reviewed whenever needed and reimposed depending on the pandemic situation in each country, the government warned.

A picture taken on June 16, 2021 in Brussels shows a passport behind a mobile phone whose screen bears a EU Digital COVID-19 certificate. The European health certificate, which Belgium began using on June 16, 2021, will become operational across the EU on July 1, 2021. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

European Union

More than half of the 27 member states of the European Union (EU) have started to use the EU Digital COVID-19 Certificate (EUDCC) as of Wednesday, preparing for the tourism boom in the summer.

All the 27 EU member states have to apply the certificate from July 1, and so far 15 of them have signed up, including Belgium, host country of the European Commission, according to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

In a video statement issued ahead of her tour of the bloc's capitals, von der Leyen called on the member states to sign up before July 1. "If you want to, as a member state, you can sign up early voluntarily," she said.

The regulation on the certificate was signed into law on Monday. The EUDCC will enable EU residents to travel safely during the summer within the borders of the bloc, without additional restrictions.

ALSO READ: Mexico says virus has affected a fourth of its population

Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)

The primary issue with lagging COVID-19 vaccinations in the Americas is access to doses, not acceptance of vaccine safety or efficacy, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday, urging donor countries to send shots as soon as possible.

The Group of Seven rich nations said on Sunday they will provide 1 billion vaccine doses over the next year to help poorer countries inoculate their populations.

"I want to be clear that the primary issue in the Americas is vaccine access, not vaccine acceptance," PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said during the organization's weekly news conference. "We're counting on our leaders and the support of the global community to ensure the Americas have the doses they need – as soon as possible – to save lives."

The G7 pledge offers fresh hope the region will overcome supply barriers, she said. But even with the donation the Americas remains a long way from protecting its population.

Over 1.1 million new cases of COVID-19 and 31,000 deaths were reported in the Americas last week, Etienne said, with particular upticks in six Mexican states, Belize, Guatemala, Panama and some places in the Caribbean.

Hospitals in Bolivia, Chile and Uruguay are largely seeing COVID-19 patients between the ages of 25 and 40 as the trend toward younger patients continued. In Brazil's Sao Paulo, 80 percent of intensive care units (ICU) occupants are COVID-19 patients.

Brazil

Brazil registered 2,997 more deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, bringing the national death toll to 493,693, the health ministry said Wednesday.

A total of 95,367 new infections were detected, raising the total caseload to 17,628,588, the ministry said.

Colombia

Colombia reported 595 more deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, raising the national death toll to 97,560, the country's ministry of health and social protection said Wednesday.

The ministry said 27,827 new infections were reported, bringing the national tally to 3,829,879.

Argentina

Argentina reported 25,878 new COVID-19 infections and 648 more deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the accumulated totals to 4,198,620 and 87,261 respectively on Wednesday.

A total of 17,105,539 vaccine doses against the disease have been administered nationwide to date, according to the public vaccination monitor.

Austria

Austria will end a daily curfew from July as its infections continue to drop. Sport and cultural events will be allowed at full capacity and the requirement to wear more protective FFP-2 masks in most public places will no longer stand, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters.

The nation of about 9 million people registered an average 188 new cases a day in the week through Wednesday, the least since August. Further lockdown easing steps may be announced later in July.

Ukraine

Ukraine, which has maintained lockdown restrictions though the number of new COVID-19 infections has fallen, has set a record for the daily number of coronavirus inoculations, the health ministry said on Thursday.

The ministry said 76,538 Ukrainians were vaccinated on Wednesday. That compared with the previous record of 73,376 shots on April 29.

The government has said the country is set to receive around 40 million doses of vaccines from various makers, and that 1,594,083 people have had their first shot as of June 16.

On Wednesday, the government extended COVID-19 lockdown measures until Aug 31, but eased some restrictions.

Ukraine, which has a population of 41 million, has been among the most-affected European countries, with around 2.23 million COVID-19 cases and 51,902 deaths as of June 17.

Russia

Russia on Thursday reported 14,057 new COVID-19 cases, including 6,195 in Moscow, pushing the national infection tally to 5,264,047 since the pandemic began.

The government coronavirus task force confirmed 416 coronavirus-related deaths in the past 24 hours, taking the death toll to 127,992. The state statistics agency, which keeps separate figures, has said that Russia recorded around 270,000 deaths related to COVID-19 from April 2020 to April 2021.

Norway

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg will hold a news conference on Friday regarding the post-pandemic reopening of Norwegian society, the government said in a statement on Thursday.

Solberg, who is lagging in the polls ahead of national elections in September, has so far implemented the first two stages of a four-step plan to remove social and economic restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.