WHO warns of increasing risk of virus variants evading vaccines

A doctor vaccinates a student with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine as part of the vaccination campaign called '#HierWirdGeimpft', #Here We Vaccinate, during a visit of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (not in frame) at Ruth Cohn School in Berlin, Germany, Sept 13, 2021. (MARKUS SCHREIBER / AP)

JOHANNESBURG / WASHINGTON / MOSCOW / DAR ES SALAAM / LONDON / BELGRADE / ADDIS ABABA / LUANDA / KINSHASA – Variants that can eventually evade COVID-19 vaccines are increasingly likely with vast parts of the world unprotected, and rich countries should hold back on booster doses until others catch up, according to a special envoy to the World Health Organization (WHO)

“Variants that can beat the protection offered by vaccines are bound to emerge all over the world in the coming months and years,” David Nabarro, the WHO envoy, said in an interview Monday with Bloomberg Television. “This is an ongoing battle, and we need to work together.”

Nabarro issued the warning as some countries, such as the UK, prepare to give an extra dose to people already vaccinated. With thousands of COVID-19 deaths occurring each day 20 months into the pandemic, health advocates are urging governments and manufacturers to take action to narrow a glaring gap in access to shots. 

The envoy called for prioritizing global needs over national agendas. Rich countries could use up all the manufacturing capacity for their booster programs, leaving minimal supplies for the rest of the planet, he said. The WHO has said that while in most instances the variants of concern lead to a reduction in vaccine effectiveness of varying degrees, the shots mostly retain their ability to protect against severe disease. Nabarro said he worries about the threat rising as the virus continues to spread.

“This world is struggling with a dangerous virus that is constantly evolving and new variants are emerging, and there will be more,” he said. “I think this virus is most definitely here to stay for the foreseeable future.”

Vaccine boosters

COVID-19 vaccines work so well that most people don’t yet need a booster, an all-star panel of scientists from around the world said in a review that’s likely to fuel the debate over whether to use them. 

Governments would be better served to focus on immunizing the unvaccinated and to wait for more data on which boosters, and at what doses, would be most effective, the authors, who included two prominent US Food and Drug Administration experts, argued in the medical journal The Lancet. They based their assessment on a wide range of real-world observational studies as well as data from clinical trials before the vaccines were approved.

“None of the studies has provided credible evidence of substantially declining protection against severe disease,” the authors wrote. There could also be additional side-effect risks if boosters are introduced too soon or too broadly, they said. 

The review comes as most countries with ample vaccine supplies debate whether to allocate doses for booster shots to prop up immunity and potentially help stop the spread of the more infectious delta variant. The US plans to roll out booster shots starting Sept 20, though the plan still needs sign-off from the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among the scientists behind the conclusions were Marion Gruber, who leads the FDA’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review, and her deputy Philip Krause. Both have said they would step down later this year. Gruber and Krause were two of a group of FDA staff who last year pushed back against pressure by the Trump administration to speed up the authorization of the Covid vaccines, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The World Health Organization’s Soumya Swaminathan, Ana-Maria Henao-Restrepo and Mike Ryan also worked on the review. The WHO has pushed against broad use of boosters, saying it would make better public-health sense to focus on immunizing those who haven’t gotten any shots yet – whether because of anti-vaccine sentiment in countries with ample reserves, or because they live in places with little access to shots. 

“Even if boosting were eventually shown to decrease the medium-term risk of serious disease, current vaccine supplies could save more lives if used in previously unvaccinated populations,” the authors wrote. 

Across the observational studies done so far, vaccination has been an average of 95 percent effective against severe disease, including against more infectious variants such as delta, and more than 80 percent effective at preventing any infection, the review found. Even in countries with high vaccination rates, it’s unvaccinated people that are driving transmission of the virus – and who are at highest risk of becoming very ill, the study found.

Angola

Angolan Health Minister Silvia Lutucuta on Sunday expressed concern over the exponential increase in COVID-19 cases in the country's third pandemic wave. 

Lutucuta was speaking to the press in Luanda while receiving the 500,000 doses of Chinese Sinopharm vaccines purchased by the country's government.

As part of the new measures to combat and prevent COVID-19, all professionals in public and private services aged 18 and over must be vaccinated, Lutucuta said.

She added that international travelers, candidates to public tenders and those who travel internally are required to present proof of vaccination.

As of Sunday, Angola has reported 50,446 confirmed cases, with 1,339 deaths.

Congo

Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi has received his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the government said on Monday, after a six-month wait caused by his unwillingness to take the AstraZeneca shot.

Democratic Republic of Congo has officially reported 56,000 cases and 1,066 deaths from the coronavirus, though test rates are low in the country of 90 million. The virus has ripped through its ruling elite, killing prominent lawmakers and members of the president's entourage.

Help came in March with delivery of 1.7 million AstraZeneca doses from the COVAX vaccine sharing scheme co-run by the World Health Organization (WHO). But the government delayed the rollout after reports of rare blood clots, and exported about 75 percent of the vaccines to other countries.

Vaccinations in the Central African country have since gone at a snail's pace. It has administered just 110,000 shots, according to the WHO, one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccine rates in the world.

"Having lost several relatives and close friends, I am in a better position to testify on the devastation caused by this pandemic," Tshisekedi said following his inoculation on Sunday. 

"The vaccine remains the best indicated solution for the moment."

Ethiopia

Ethiopia registered 472 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 323,104 cases as of Sunday evening, the country's health ministry said.

Meanwhile, 22 new virus-related deaths and 762 more recoveries were reported, bringing the national death toll to 4,929 and total recoveries to 290,748, the ministry said.

Germany

Germany on Monday kicked off a vaccination “action week” to try to convince more people to get inoculated against COVID-19.

The nationwide drive aims to persuade people to get shots while they’re out shopping, at their sports clubs or at work, according to Health Minister Jens Spahn.

“With the Delta variant and the latest wave of infections there is a need to persuade more people so that we’re better prepared for the fall and winter,” Spahn said in an interview with WDR radio. 

As of Sunday, 62.2 percent of the population was fully vaccinated and 66.5 percent had received at least one shot.

Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to get vaccinated ahead of the winter months. Four million people in Germany have contracted the virus and more than 90,000 people have died from it, she said on Sunday in her regular podcast. 

The vast majority of patients treated in hospitals or intensive care units were unvaccinated, she said. 

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 224.70 million while the global death toll topped 4.63 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Pfizer

Scott Gottlieb, a board member of the Pfizer Inc and the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, said COVID-19 vaccines for kids could arrive as soon as Halloween this year.

Pfizer has said it will have data on COVID-19 vaccines for children by the end of Sept, and the FDA will take “weeks, not months,” to evaluate the data and make a decision, he said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.

“In a best-case scenario, given that timeline they’ve just laid out, you could potentially have a vaccine available to children age five to 11 by Halloween,” Gottlieb said. Parents should consult with pediatrician to decide the number of doses and dosage for vaccinating their kids, he added.

ALSO READ: WHO calls for global governance against COVID-19 pandemic

Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday so many people in his circle have come down with COVID-19 recently that he may be forced to self-quarantine, in a candid admission of the growing threat of a new wave of the epidemic.

“Even among my entourage there are problems with this COVID-19,” Putin said at a meeting with paralympic athletes and officials, few of whom wore masks, in a video published by Life News. “I probably will have to quarantine myself soon. We have a lot of people who are sick.”

Schools in Moscow reopened at the beginning of the month and vaccination rates remains relatively low, raising fears of another COVID-19 wave in the city

Meanwhile, Russia will resume passenger flights with Spain, Iraq, Kenya and Slovakia from Sept 21, the government said on Monday, and will increase the number of airports with flights to Turkey and Egypt.

Russia imposed wide-ranging travel restrictions at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, many of which remain in force, but has gradually expanded the list of countries for air travel.

Russia's coronavirus task force said it had decided flights could resume after it had assessed the epidemiological situation in those countries.

From Sept 21, there will be four return Moscow flights each week with Madrid, Barcelona and the Slovak capital Bratislava.

Moscow flights will also resume with Malaga and Alicante in Spain.

The government said the Moscow-Nairobi and Moscow-Baghdad routes would relaunch with two flights a week.

Routes and flights were also added between Russian cities and popular tourist destinations in Egypt and Turkey.

Russia confirmed 18,178 new coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 7,158,248, the official monitoring and response center said Monday.

The nationwide death toll grew by 719 to 193,468, while the number of recoveries increased by 12,469 to 6,402,126.

Moscow reported 2,022 new cases, taking its total to 1,588,195.

Serbia

China's transfering of its vaccine production technology is vital for Serbia, showing China's willingness to share its scientific achievements to help the world fight COVID-19, Serbian scientist Jelena Begovic told Xinhua on Saturday.

Begovic, director of the Institute of Molecular Genetics and Genetic Engineering of the University of Belgrade, said that Chinese vaccines will soon be produced in Serbia.

The construction of a brand-new production facility for Sinopharm vaccines started in Serbia on Thursday, and will be completed by the end of March 2022.

"I think that China gave a significant contribution… (China's) sharing helps Serbia make more progress in technology, science, and medicine," Begovic said.

"Global system so far includes only a limited number of players or vaccine producers, it turned out to be not so efficient, and we have to build a very strong network of production facilities all around the world," she added.

"So I'm definitely back the idea that big players in the pharmaceutical industry should help smaller countries, if we want to win this battle or at least control the situation," she noted.

Around a year ago, Begovic participated in the construction of two new Fire Eye laboratories for PCR testing and witnessed China's assistance to Serbia in medical supplies, expert advice and vaccines.

South Africa

South Africa will ease COVID-19 restrictions and shorten its nationwide curfew from Monday after a decline in infections, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised address.

Authorities will also extend the hours of alcohol sales, the president said, further relaxing restrictions introduced in June to combat a third wave of cases caused by the Delta variant.

"While the third wave is not yet over, we have seen a sustained decline in infections across the country over the last few weeks," Ramaphosa said.

Authorities reported 3,961 new cases on Sunday, compared with a peak of about 26,500 per day in early July.

The announcement will bring the country down one level in its five-tier system of restrictions, where five is the highest, to an 'adjusted level 2'.

The curfew will start one hour later at 11 pm but still last until 4 in the morning. Shops will be able to sell alcohol from Monday to Friday. All alcohol sales were banned in June, then allowed in shops from Monday to Thursday in July.

Bars and restaurants have been allowed to serve it during opening hours since July.

Ramaphosa appealed for more people to get vaccinated, saying there were enough doses for everyone, but only about 7 million people out of a population of more than 60 million were fully protected.

Health insurers have cited vaccine hesitancy as a key factor affecting the pace of the vaccination campaign.

Ramaphosa said the country was working hard to increase the number of people getting the shot, focusing on older or otherwise vulnerable individuals. He added that the country was also looking at vaccine passports and would provide more information on this later.

Switzerland

Switzerland, which has stood out among European neighbors for its generally more laissez-faire approach to the pandemic, is joining the ranks of countries now increasing pressure on the unvaccinated.

With hospitals filling up and inoculations lagging the rest of Western Europe, the government is doing what just a few weeks ago one of its members termed “bizarre” by requiring vaccine certificates for public activities.  

As of Monday, residents of one of the world’s wealthiest countries will have to show passes to enter restaurants, cinemas and fitness centers. They must attest to having been jabbed, tested or recovered from the virus. 

Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker shows 53 percent of the Swiss population is fully vaccinated compared with 71 percent next door in France and 62 percent in Germany. Meanwhile, cases have been spiking. The rural canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, which has seen the slowest take-up in the country, is now in the top 10 hot spots in Europe, World Health Organization data show.

Officials in Appenzell Innerrhoden are being inundated with requests for appointments, and expect to double the number of shots delivered each week, said Monika Ruegg Bless, who runs the local health department. “The increased use of vaccine certificates is definitely being felt,” she said. 

Demand in Zurich, the country’s biggest city and financial capital, has also increased. And as of this week, one of its trams will ply the streets to get vaccines to the public. 

A health worker administers a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against COVID-19 during a mass vaccination campaign, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on July 28, 2021. (STRINGER / AFP)

Tanzania

Tanzania has increased centers for COVID-19 vaccination from 550 to 1,548 to enable people to get the jabs en masse, a senior official said on Sunday.

Gerson Msigwa, Tanzania's government chief spokesperson, said preliminary reports indicated that more people were turning up in the vaccination centers to get the jabs.

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan launched the COVID-19 vaccination drive in July and assured citizens in the East African nation that the vaccines against the pandemic are safe.

Mass vaccinations against the pandemic started on August 3 in 550 centers initially set by the government in mainland Tanzania's 26 regions after the country received over one million COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX facility arrangement.

Addressing his weekly news conference in the capital Dodoma, Msigwa said at least 350,000 people have been vaccinated against the pandemic until now.

Msigwa said the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently approved 567.25 million US dollars in emergency financial assistance to support Tanzania's efforts in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by addressing the urgent health, humanitarian, and economic costs.

He said some of the funds will also be used to construct a plant for making vaccines, including vaccines for COVID-19.

Pedestrians wearing face masks cross Westminster Bridge with Elizabeth Tower in central London on July 26, 2021. (TOLGA AKMEN / AFP)

UK

Britain's top medical advisers on Monday recommended that all 12 to 15-year-olds receive a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, citing the benefit on avoiding disruption to education after a vaccination panel had said the decision was finely balanced.

The advice from the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) paves the way for the broad vaccination of children aged 12-15 in Britain, after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) earlier in the month decided against making the recommendation.

Meanwhile, at least 640 vaccinated English people died of coronavirus in the first half of the year.

That’s 1.2 percent of the total 51,281 COVID-19 deaths in England between Jan. 2 and July 2 recorded by the Office for National Statistics. Some of those who’d been vaccinated received a jab after they were infected.

The figures come as Prime Minister Boris Johnson scrapped plans for mandatory vaccine certificates in England and prepares the country for a mass booster vaccination program and potential shots for teenagers. The UK may also soon drop mandatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for returning travelers who are fully vaccinated.

Johnson is expected to hold a press conference Tuesday outlining how a beefed-up inoculation program will try to keep the virus under control over the high-risk period of autumn and winter.

Even as cases remain high in Britain, Johnson wants to mark a new stage in the pandemic – ditching the threat of lockdowns in favor of more individual freedoms.

The government will only introduce a new COVID-19 lockdown as a last resort, a spokesman for Johnson said on Monday, after the country's health minister signaled he did not expect to see them used again.

Some 29,173 new COVID-19 cases were reported in the UK on Sunday, along with 56 deaths. Scientists fear cases will rise in England in the coming weeks, as schools fully reopen and more people go back to work. A surge would be exacerbated by the colder weather, as people spend more time indoors and respiratory illnesses spread more easily.

Javid said he was “confident” that booster shots for older and vulnerable people would be rolled out this month, and he was awaiting final advice on the matter from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization.

He is also waiting for the UK’s chief medical officers to decide on whether 12 to 15 year-olds should be vaccinated, and if they approve: “We will be able to start within a week.”

In this file photo dated June 24, 2021, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses journalists during an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels. (JOHN THYS / POOL PHOTO VIA AP / FILE)

United Nations

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sunday called for deeper international cooperation to address global health crisis.

"We need deeper international cooperation to address the global health crisis, reduce poverty and inequality, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and avert climate catastrophe," the top UN official said in his video message on the UN Day for South-South Cooperation, which is celebrated globally on Sept 12 every year.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is the most complex immediate challenge facing our world and it is undermining hard won social, economic and environmental gains," said Guterres. "In such trying times, the solidarity that underpins South-South cooperation has once again proven vital for developing countries."

"Throughout the pandemic, countries of the Global South have shared their knowledge and resources to support response and recovery efforts," the secretary-general said.

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United States

US President Joe Biden will announce new steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 before the UN General Assembly meets, Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy said Sunday.

Murthy did not specify what those steps would be. The next session of the General Assembly opens Tuesday; the first day of general debate will be the following week.

Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Murthy defended Biden's efforts to expand vaccination in the United States.

"There will be more actions that we continue to work on, especially in the global front," he said.

Biden on Thursday said he would require federal workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and mandate that large employers either require their workers to be vaccinated or regularly tested.

Biden said the United States had donated 140 million vaccine doses to other countries. "That's American leadership on a global stage, and that's just the beginning," he said.

The United States has administered 380,241,903 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Sunday morning and distributed 456,755,755 doses, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Those figures are up from the 379,472,220 vaccine doses the CDC said had gone into arms by Sept. 11, out of 456,755,075 doses delivered.

The agency said 209,437,152 people had received at least one dose while 178,692,875 people are fully vaccinated as of 6 am ET on Sunday.