WHO urges ‘massive effort’ to extend vaccine access in Africa

Workers load boxes of Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines, part of the the COVAX programme, which aims to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccinations, into a truck after they arrived by plane at the Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on May 8, 2021. (Mamyrael / AFP)

MEXICO CITY / WASHINGTON / BRASILIA / PARIS / OTTAWA / PRAGUE / BOGOTA / LISBON / SANTIAGO / HAVANA / MOSCOW / COPENHAGEN / BERLIN / ADDIS ABABA / BRUSSELS / SOFIA / NICOSIA / LUSAKA / NAIROBI / HARARE / CAPE TOWN / KAMPALA – African nations need to secure at least 225 million coronavirus vaccine doses by September to meet a global goal of inoculating at least 10 percent of the continent’s population, a World Health Organization official said.

“This will really require a massive effort as our early projections indicate that without a significant boost in the availability of vaccines, only seven African countries will achieve this goal,” WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said in an online briefing on Thursday.

Just 2 percent of Africa’s people have received a single COVID-19 vaccine so far, with most governments dependent on the COVAX initiative for supplies.

US President Joe Biden’s plans to purchase and donate half a billion Pfizer Inc vaccines to 92 low and lower-middle income countries and the African Union is a “monumental step forward,” Moeti said. She also welcomed the MasterCard Foundation’s announcement of a US$1.3 billion donation to support Africa’s inoculation program.

EU

The European Parliament urged the European Union to reverse its position and support a proposed temporary lifting of intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines, backing a push by many developing nations to allow more production.

EU lawmakers backed by 355 votes to 263 a resolution on accelerating the global roll-out of vaccines, the parliament announced on Thursday.

The resolution says only a fraction of the 11 billion shots needed to vaccinate 70 percent of the world's population has been produced and that relying on pledges of excess doses from richer nations is not enough.

The text says that international trade policy needs to play a role in facilitating trade and revisiting global IP rules.

The European Parliament resolution calls for support of "proactive, constructive and text-based negotiations" for the temporary waiver.

Also, the European Union (EU) decided not to take up an option to buy 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J)'s COVID-19 vaccine and is considering donating another 100 million optional shots, if ordered, European officials said.

The discussions show a drop in confidence in the one-dose shot, which was initially touted as crucial for a successful vaccination drive in Europe, but has been largely relegated to a back-up choice after safety and supply problems.

The EU at the end of March let the term to order 100 million extra doses lapse, three European officials with direct knowledge of contracts with vaccine makers told Reuters, revealing a confidential clause of the contract with J&J which had not been previously disclosed.

Under the contract, the EU ordered 200 million doses of the vaccine, and had options to buy another 200 million in two separate tranches.

The deadline for the second option for the remaining 100 million doses expires at the end of June but no decision has yet been made about whether to exercise it, the officials said.

UK

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday the Delta variant, first identified in India, accounts for 91 percent of new cases in the country.

Earlier, a UK study showed cases have more than doubled in the past week. The data comes less than a week before Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to decide whether to further ease lockdown rules. Cases are higher and increasing faster in the unvaccinated population, according to the study.

Also, Hancock rejected allegations by a former top aide of Johnson, saying there was never a national shortage of protective equipment and the government followed clinical guidance on care homes.

Johnson's former aide Dominic Cummings last month said Hancock had repeatedly lied in government meetings on COVID-19, and called for him to be sacked. Hancock has denied the allegations made by Cummings.

"It is telling that no evidence has been provided yet," Hancock said at a parliamentary select committee hearing on Thursday, adding he had never told Johnson anything he knew to be untrue.

The UK on Wednesday reported its highest daily COVID-19 tally since Feb 26 with 7,540 new cases, taking the cumulative tally to 4,535,754, according to the government’s data dashboard. 

The country also recorded another six coronavirus-related death, bringing the toll to 127,860.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 174.48 million while the global death toll topped 3.75 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

United States

US President Joe Biden plans to buy and donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to more than 90 countries, while calling on the world's democracies to do their part to help end the deadly pandemic, the White House said.

The announcement of the vaccine donation – the largest ever by a single country – comes ahead of Biden's meeting with leaders of the other Group of Seven advanced economies in Cornwall, England.

US drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech confirmed they will provide 200 million doses in 2021 and 300 million doses in the first half of 2022, which the US will then distribute to 92 lower-income countries and the African Union.

The United States will not seek favours in exchange for the 500 million Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines that it is donating to the 100 lowest income countries, a senior Biden administration official said on Thursday.

The United States will pay Pfizer about US$3.5 billion for the doses and the contract will be finalized in coming weeks, the official said.

The official described the gesture as a "major step forward that will supercharge the global effort" with the aim of "bringing hope to very corner of the world."

"We really want underscore that this is fundamentally about a singular objective of saving lives," the official said.

Meanwhile, Moderna Inc said the firm was interested in partnering with the US government on possibly providing additional doses of it vaccine to help address the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries.

Spokesman Ray Jordan said in an email that the company wouldn’t provide additional details about any particular talks.

Americas

If the spread of COVID-19 continues at current rates it will be years before the virus is controlled in the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the World Health Organization's regional office, said on Wednesday, as it called for countries to share excess vaccine doses.

There were almost 1.2 million new cases and 34,000 deaths in the region last week, and four of the five countries with the highest death counts worldwide are in the Americas, PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said during the organization's weekly news conference.

Infections are higher in many places in the region than at any other point during the pandemic, she said, and the emergence of new more easily transmitted variants has added new complexities to epidemiological surveillance.

Hospitalizations in Haiti are stretching oxygen supplies there, Etienne said.

Bolivia and Colombia are seeing a rise in cases and deaths and intensive care unit beds are near capacity in many Colombian cities, Etienne added.

Ahead of the kick-off of the Copa America soccer tournament in Brazil on Sunday, Ciro Ugarte, PAHO's Director of Health Emergencies, said countries hosting mass events should consider postponing if COVID-19 risks cannot be controlled.

Brazil

Brazil has had 85,748 new cases of coronavirus reported in the past 24 hours, and 2,723 deaths from COVID-19, the health ministry said on Wednesday.

The South American country has now registered 17,122,877 cases since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 479,515, according to ministry data.

Data in Brazil shows the virus continues to be transmitted at a high speed across the country, the Fiocruz health foundation warned. The combination of rising cases, despite a slight drop in deaths, and high levels of ICU bed occupancy is worrisome, Fiocruz said. The nation has 12 states where ICUs are 90 percent full or more, it added.

Meanwhile, Brazil's health regulator Anvisa on Wednesday authorized Phase 1 and 2 clinical tests to be carried out on volunteers for the Butanvac vaccine developed by Sao Paulo's Butantan Institute biomedical center.

The tests for the two-shot vaccine were initially authorized for 400 volunteers, but will later involve an expected total of 6,000 volunteers aged 18 and over, Anvisa said.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria plans to lift the compulsory wearing of face masks in gyms, hairdressing salons, small shops and offices where all workers are vaccinated as coronavirus infections decrease, Deputy Health Minister Alexander Zlatanov said on Thursday.

Bartenders in small restaurants and cafes will also be allowed to work without masks if fully vaccinated, he said.

The wearing of face masks will remain obligatory in big shops, large administrative buildings and public transport.

Bulgaria has reported a total of 419,990 coronavirus cases, including 17,872 deaths since the start of the pandemic. On Thursday it reported some 131 new infections cases.

The country has the lowest vaccination rate in the European Union, with only 665,000 people of its 7 million population fully vaccinated. 

Canada

Canada on Wednesday took a cautious first step toward easing COVID-19 border restrictions, saying it was prepared to relax quarantine protocols for fully vaccinated citizens returning home starting in early July.

The easing of restrictions will hinge on COVID-19 case numbers and vaccinations, Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters.

Asked about calls from businesses to lift restrictions starting on June 22, Hajdu said: "We do want to be cautious and careful on these next steps to be sure that we are not putting that recovery in jeopardy."

Hajdu also said Canada would take a "phased approach towards adjusting current border measures".

Canada is working on a certificate that can be presented at the border as proof of vaccination, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters.

Even if fully vaccinated, Canadians will be required to take a COVID-19 test before departure and upon arrival, and then quarantine until they receive a negative result, Hajdu said

Some 70 percent of eligible Canadians have received a first shot, Procurement Minister Anita Anand said, while about 10 percent are fully vaccinated.

Chile

Chile's weekly average of new cases of COVID-19 remains at more than 7,000, with 5,369 new cases reported in the last 24 hours, the Ministry of Health said on Wednesday.

The fresh cases pushed the country's total caseload to 1,445,770.

Another 37 newly reported deaths took the toll to 30,141.

On Thursday, 11 cities are set to enter total lockdowns, and the government has announced it will prolong the closure of the borders until the end of June.  

Cuba

Cuba reported on Wednesday 1,161 new COVID-19 cases and 12 more deaths in the last day, bringing the totals to 152,420 cases and 1,045 deaths, the Public Health Ministry said.

"Again we have a high number of confirmed cases, including in provinces that had maintained a good control of the pandemic," Francisco Duran, the ministry's director of hygiene and epidemiology, said during his daily report.

Havana recorded 393 infections in the last day, with an incidence rate of 319.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest on the island.

Czech Republic

The Czech health ministry recommended on Wednesday that only people over 60 years old should receive COVID-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson due to a potential risk of blood clots.

Scientists and US and European drug regulators have been searching for an explanation for what is causing rare but potentially deadly clots accompanied by low blood platelet counts, which have led some countries to halt or limit use of the AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines.

The ministry said it made the decision after responding to recommendations from the country's drug regulator SUKL and the Czech Vaccination Society.

ALSO READ: Pfizer launches late-stage trial of virus shots for those under 12

Denmark

Denmark will ditch the use of masks in most public spaces and allow 25,000 fans to attend European Championship matches in Copenhagen, the Danish government said on Thursday, after it struck a broader deal to ease existing lockdown rules.

However, the Danish Football Association DBU told broadcaster TV2 it was not ready for 25,000 fans at the national stadium when Denmark plays its first match against Finland on Saturday.

Masks will no longer be mandatory from June 14, except for standing passengers on public transport, the government said of the deal, which also allows for restaurants and bars to gradually extend their opening hours.

"The development in infections is at a stable level while the vaccinations of Danes run at a good pace," Justice Minister Nick Haekkerup said in a statement.

Europe

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday urged Europeans to travel responsibly during the summer holiday season and warned the continent was "by no means out of danger" in the battle against COVID-19 despite a steady decline of infection rates in recent weeks.

"With increasing social gatherings, greater population mobility, and large festivals and sports tournaments taking place in the coming days and weeks, WHO Europe calls for caution," the WHO's European head Hans Kluge said at a press briefing.

Over the last two months, new COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations have declined, prompting 36 out of 53 countries in the region to start easing restrictions.

The number of reported COVID-19 infections last week came in at 368,000, a fifth of weekly cases reported during a peak in April this year, Kluge said.

Kluge said the so-called Delta variant, which was first identified in India, was a matter of concern. This variant, he said, "shows increased transmissibility and some immune escape is poised to take hold in the region while many among vulnerable populations, above the age of 60, remain unprotected."

Ethiopia

Ethiopia registered 223 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 273,398 as of Wednesday evening, according to the health ministry.

The ministry said six more deaths were reported, bringing the death toll to 4,226.

The East African country has 20,885 active COVID-19 cases, of which 261 are considered serious, according to the ministry.

Visitors take a break outside the Louvre Museum courtyard in Paris, France, on June 9, 2021. (FRANCOIS MORI / AP)

France

"Here we are!" tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday morning, marking the start of a new phase in the country's easing of its coronavirus lockdown.

After seven months of closure, restaurants, bars and cafes throughout France were again able to host customers indoors, albeit still at half of their seating capacity and with tables limited to a maximum of six people.Outdoor seating areas of catering businesses are now back to full capacity.

Cultural venues can now increase their seating capacity to 65 percent compared to 35 percent allowed on May 19. Indoor gyms and covered swimming pools can reopen to the public at half capacity.

Working at home is no longer the rule and the restrictions on tourists' arrival are eased. The start of the night-time curfew is pushed back by two hours to 11 pm. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, France has had over 5.7 million confirmed cases. On Wednesday, 5,557 fresh cases were recorded against a daily average of about 40,000 at the peak of the third wave two months ago.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jean Castex is self-isolating for seven days after his wife tested positive to COVID-19, the prime minister’s office said on Wednesday. 

The prime minister, who had received his first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 19, tested negative to COVID Wednesday evening. However as a contact of a person who tested positive, he is self-isolating for seven days, his office said.

Germany

Germany's health ministry plans to crack down on fraud at test centers by implementing spot checks and reducing the amount the state reimburses for costs following media reports of over-billing by some providers.

It plans to cut the amount it reimburses per test to 12.50 euros (US$15.20) from 18 euros, of which 8 euros is for carrying out the tests and 4.50 euros for the material, according to a draft of new testing legislation circulated on Thursday which must now be approved by other departments.

In addition, private test centers will only be approved on an individual basis to ensure quality, while health insurers will be obliged to check the plausibility of billing and conduct random checks.

Germany on Thursday reported 3,187 new cases and 94 more deaths, taking the tally to 3,709,129 and the toll to 89,585, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed.

The seven-day virus incidence fell below 20 cases per 100,000.

Mexico

Mexico reported 3,855 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country and 253 more fatalities on Wednesday, bringing total infections to 2,441,866 and the death toll to 229,353, according to health ministry data.

Portugal

Most of Portugal will move to the next stage of lockdown easing next Monday but stricter rules will remain in place in the capital Lisbon due to a worrying rise in COVID-19 infections, the government said on Wednesday. 

Across most of the country, restaurants, cafes and pastry shops, which now must close at 10.30 pm, will be able to keep doors open until 1 am from June 14, and there are no more restrictions on stores' opening hours.

Cultural shows can go on until 1 am and venues for amateur sports activities will be able to welcome back people at reduced capacity. Remote work will no longer be mandatory but it is still recommended.

However, Lisbon and three other municipalities will not move to the next phase of the plan to ease the lockdown and the rules currently in place will remain unchanged until the COVID-19 situation improves.

Portugal has reported 854,522 cases and 17,037 deaths. It posted 890 new cases but no deaths on Wednesday, the biggest daily jump since early March. Most new cases were concentrated in and around Lisbon.

All companies with more than 150 workers must test their employees and tests will now be required to access some events, Cabinet Minister Mariana Vieira da Silva said.

READ MORE: WHO studies evidence of virus antibodies found in Italy in 2019

Russia

Russia on Thursday reported 11,699 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, its highest number of daily infections since late February, taking the national tally to 5,167,949 since the pandemic began.

The government's coronavirus task force said that another 383 people had died, pushing the death toll to 125,278. 

Authorities in Moscow said on Wednesday they would step up enforcement of rules requiring people to wear medical masks and gloves in indoor public spaces due to a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Russian capital.

"The epidemiological situation is worsening in Moscow, the number of cases is rising," RIA news agency quoted city official Yevgeny Danchikov as saying.

Muscovites are required to wear masks and gloves on public transport, in taxis and in places like shopping malls, but the rules are not strictly enforced. People without personal protective equipment can face fines.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on Wednesday the city of more than 12 million was not planning to impose a fresh lockdown.

A health worker vaccinates a retiree with the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine inside a tent, during a mass vaccination program for the elderly at the clinic outside Johannesburg, South Africa, May 24, 2021. (THEMBA HADEBE / AP)

South Africa

The number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa surged by 8,881 on June 9, the biggest jump in infections in about five months. 

The nation also reported a positivity rate of 16.5 percent on tests conducted, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases.

The commercial hub of Gauteng accounted for 58 percent of the new cases. 

South Africa is the worst-affected nation on the continent, with more than 57,000 deaths and 1.7 million confirmed infections.

ALSO READ: WTO to start vaccine supply talks amid clash on patents

Spain

Spain's health ministry on Wednesday scrapped a nationwide plan to gradually reopen nightlife just a week after introducing it, following widespread complaints from regional authorities who dismissed it as either too strict or too loose.

The plan, which would have allowed areas with low infection rates to open nightclubs until 3 am, drew the ire of several regions and a legal challenge from Madrid's conservative leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso.

After a week of tension, health chiefs from Spain's 17 regions unanimously approved a revised version of the document on Wednesday in which the rules are reduced to non-binding guidelines, Health Minister Carolina Darias told reporters.

"The measures for the hospitality sector are no longer included in the document, and those for nightlife…are now recommendations," she said at a news conference.

"It doesn't mean that (clubs) will open everywhere, but rather that each region, depending on its epidemiological situation, will decide how to open," she added.

Transmission has fallen steadily as vaccination rates have picked up, Darias said, adding that Spain's 14-day infection rate had fallen 5 percent over the week to 111.9 cases per 100,000 people.

Provisional data showed 24 percent of the population had received a full course of vaccine, while nearly 43 percent had at least one dose.

Tanzania

Tanzania needs to publish data on the spread of COVID-19 before getting approval for a US$574 million emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Washington-based lender said.

Reporting numbers on coronavirus infections and deaths would be an about turn for the government that hasn’t done so since May last year when then-President John Magufuli’s administration played down the threat from the disease. Since his death in March, new leader Samia Hassan has signaled a shift in policy by appointing an advisory team on how to tackle the pandemic and started a process to procure vaccines. 

“Publication of such data would be a precondition of moving ahead,” said Jens Reinke, the IMF’s resident representative in Tanzania. “In order to justify emergency financing in the context of the pandemic, you need to publish relevant public-health data.”

The government first asked the IMF for a loan under its Rapid Credit Facility in March last year, he said by phone. Negotiations never progressed, and the government said last month it had revived the request.

The government will make a statement on its coronavirus response once it has considered the advice from its COVID-19 technical committee, chief spokesman Gerson Msigwa said by phone.

Ukraine

Ukraine will not allow foreigners inoculated with the Russian COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik into the country if they do not also provide a negative test for the coronavirus, the border service said on Thursday.

Current border crossing rules require a negative COVID-19 test or documentary proof of inoculation with a vaccine approved by the World Health Organization.

"In the last two days, there have been cases of foreigners trying to enter from abroad at checkpoints across the state border of Ukraine with documents on immunization with the Sputnik V vaccine," the border service said in a statement.

"We emphasize that such a document does not give the right to enter Ukraine, as this vaccine is not included in the WHO list," it added.

Cyprus

Most remaining COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in Cyprus on Thursday, the Health Ministry said in a statement.

It added that the only restrictive measures which will continue to be applied relate to the maximum number of people attending social event dinners and receptions and the obligation to carry a SafePass to join indoor events.

A SafePass denotes that the holder has either received at least the first dose of a licensed vaccine for three weeks, or has recovered from COVID-19 infection in the past six months, or has a negative coronavirus test.

The statement said that the 1 am-5 am curfew come to an end and workers are no longer obliged to carry a certificate for work.

Moderna Inc

Moderna Inc filed for US emergency-use authorization of its COVID-19 vaccine in adolescents. If approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, it would be the second vaccine approved for this age group after Pfizer and BioNTech received authorization for use of their shot in teens in May.

Both vaccines are now being studied in younger children.

Zambia

Zambia on Thursday recorded 2,146 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours as the third wave takes its toll on the southern African nation's health system.

The isolation facilities, especially in highly densely populated areas, are receiving patients at an unprecedented rate in the last 24 hours, according to the health ministry.

The new cases were picked from 14,033 tests done during the period. They bring the cumulative cases to 105,909, while eight people died, bringing the total deaths to 1,332.

Zimbabwe 

Zimbabwe recorded its highest daily COVID-19 cases totaling 111 Wednesday as the country witnessed an upsurge in cases of infection over the past week.

According to the Ministry of Health and Child Care, the 111 cases were all through local transmission and pushed the country's seven-day rolling average for new cases to 57 from 46 Tuesday.

The country also saw five new deaths Wednesday.

"There has been an increase in cases over the last seven days with the highest peak of 111 cases reported today (Wednesday)," the Ministry said in an update Thursday morning.

Uganda

Uganda on Thursday allocated 560 billion shillings (US$160 million) in the 2021/2022 financial year budget for procurement of COVID-19 vaccines.

Amos Lugoloobi, designate minister of state for finance in charge of planning while presenting the country's budget estimates for the 2021/22 financial year said the vaccines will be used to vaccinate six million people to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. The 2021/22 financial year is slated to start on July 1.

"The immediate health need we are faced with is ensuring containment of the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial target is to vaccinate at least 6 million most vulnerable persons comprised of teachers, health workers, the elderly and persons with chronic ailments," said Lugoloobi.

Seychelles

A man who had received two doses of a version of AstraZeneca Plc’s vaccine died of the disease in Seychelles on Thursday, according to Jude Gedeon, the public health commissioner of the island nation.

The person didn’t have previous health conditions, Gedeon told reporters, without giving the patient’s age. The country has used Sinopharm and Covishield, a version of the AstraZeneca shot made under license in India, for almost all of its vaccinations. Covishield had been allocated to people over 60 years of age in Seychelles.