WTO to start vaccine supply talks amid clash on patents

A nurse prepares a syringe of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, in Garlan, western France, on May 31, 2021. (FRED TANNEAU / AFP)

MEXICO CITY / JOHANNESBURG / WASHINGTON / MADRID / BUENOS AIRES / SANTIAGO / NAIROBI / MAPUTO / LONDON / BERLIN / ADDIS ABABA – World Trade Organization members agreed on Wednesday to start formal negotiations on a plan to boost COVID-19 vaccine supply to developing countries, but face rival proposals – one with and one without a waiver of intellectual property rights.

South Africa and India, backed by many emerging nations, have been pushing for eight months for a temporary waiver of IP rights on vaccines and other treatments. This could allow local manufacturers to produce the shots, something the proponents say is essential to redress "staggering" inequity of supply.

Developed nations, many home to large pharmaceutical companies, have resisted, arguing that a waiver would not boost production and could undermine future research and development on vaccines and therapeutics.

The European Union presented a plan, backed by Britain, Switzerland and South Korea, that it argues would more effectively broaden supply. Existing WTO rules, it says, already allow countries to grant licences to manufacturers even without the patent-holder's consent.

WTO members agreed to begin discussions on June 17 to determine the format of negotiations and to produce a report outlining their progress on the vaccine supply plan by July 21-22, when the WTO's general council convenes, a Geneva trade official said.

"This is a major breakthrough – after eight months of stalling," said Leena Menghany, global IP adviser for medical aid group MSF, which backs a waiver.

Meanwhile, the European Union and the United States are set to agree at a summit on Tuesday to reduce export restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines and drugs, a draft joint text says, arguing that voluntary sharing of technology is the key to boosting output.

The document, seen by Reuters and still subject to changes, makes no mention of mandatory waivers on vaccine patents, which US President Joe Biden has endorsed as a temporary solution to the global shortage of COVID-19 shots.

Denmark

Denmark’s COVID-19 infections slowed for the first time in almost four months, helped by the roll-out of vaccinations and seasonal factors, the country’s health minister said.

The infection rate for the week through May 30 was 0.8, meaning that each infected Dane passed the virus on to fewer than one person, on average, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said in a tweet on Wednesday. The last time the rate was below 1 was in early February.

Ukraine

Ukraine's health ministry will propose that the government maintains lockdown restrictions for the summer despite a fall in new coronavirus infections in the country, minister Viktor Lyashko said on Wednesday.

On Monday, Ukraine registered 535 new COVID-19 cases, the lowest daily number of infections over the previous 24 hours for nearly a year and the ministry said infection rates declined for eight consecutive weeks. However, it reported 1,385 new cases as of June 9 and 77 deaths. 

"Despite the improvement in the situation, it should not be forgotten that COVID-19 has not been overcome," Lyashko told a televised government meeting.

"None of the European countries in which the situation with infections and vaccinations has improved have completely abolished restrictive anti-epidemic measures," he said, adding though that the government may soften some restrictions.

Global tally

The number of coronavirus cases recorded worldwide has surpassed 174.07 million while the global death toll topped 3.74 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

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WHO

The delta variant of the coronavirus that first arose in India appears markedly easier to transmit and more virulent than previous mutations, including the alpha strain that emerged last year in the UK, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s weekly update.

People infected with the delta variant were 2.6 times more likely to land in the hospital. They were also more likely to spread the virus to others, the WHO said. 

Two studies suggest COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against the delta strain, which is now found in 74 countries, up by about a dozen from a week ago.

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

Africa

The Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) will leverage strategic partnerships with industry, lenders and philanthropic groups to boost COVID-19 vaccination in the continent, said John Nkengasong, director of Africa CDC, on Tuesday.

Nkengasong said the continent's ability to achieve a 60 percent inoculation target against COVID-19 by 2022 hinges on harnessing resources and expertise from the private sector and foundations.

"We need partnerships to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines in Africa," Nkengasong said during the virtual launch of a partnership between African Union (AU), Africa CDC and Mastercard Foundation aiming at ramping up inoculation against the virus in the continent.

The Saving Lives and Livelihoods Initiative, funded by Mastercard Foundation to the tune of US$1.3 billion, will help bridge the COVID-19 vaccination gap in the continent linked to the global supply crunch. It will support the inoculation of at least 50 million people in Africa besides facilitating seamless delivery of vaccine doses through capacity building for healthcare workers, said Nkengasong, stressing that partnerships between African governments, the private sector, lenders and foundations are required to address financial and logistical bottlenecks derailing immunization against the virus in Africa.

Statistics from Africa CDC indicate the continent has inoculated less than 2 percent of its population against COVID-19 amid a shortage of vaccine doses linked to global supply challenges as well as technical hiccups.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa reached 4,951,177 as of Wednesday afternoon, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.

The Africa CDC, the specialized healthcare agency of the African Union, said the death toll from the pandemic stands at 133,174.

READ MORE: G7 urged to vaccinate world by end of 2022

People sunbathe on a beach in Barcelona, Spain, June 8, 2021. Spain is jumpstarting its summer tourism season by welcoming vaccinated visitors from most countries as well as European visitors who can prove they are not infected with coronavirus. (EMILIO MORENATTI / AP)

Argentina

Argentine President Alberto Fernandez on Tuesday expressed his concern about the "tremendous voracity" of COVID-19 in parts of the country.

The government is looking at measures so that the coronavirus variant that was first identified in India "does not enter Argentina and does not ruin all the work we have done so far," said Fernandez.

"We are concerned about the pandemic in the interior of the country, where it is exhibiting tremendous voracity," he added.

Argentina has registered 4,008,771 confirmed cases of infection and 82,667 deaths, of which 46.98 percent correspond to interior provinces, and the rest to the province of Buenos Aires and the capital city.

The country has so far administered more than 14.66 million doses. 

Brazil

Brazil will receive a first batch of 3 million doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson (J&J)'s vaccine against COVID-19 in the next few days, Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said on Thursday.

Queiroga said export of the vaccines, developed by J&J's Janssen subsidiary, from the United States still requires authorization by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"Of course, if the FDA's decision is delayed, these 3 million doses may no longer be useful for us, due to the short time," he said testifying before a Senate commission of inquiry into the Brazilian governments handling of the pandemic.

This batch of vaccines expires on June 27. Queiroga said they would have to be administered "very fast" in Brazil's national immunization program before they expire.

Brazil registered 2,378 more deaths from COVID-19 and 52,911 new cases in the last 24 hours, bringing the toll to 476,792 and the cumulative caseload to 17,037,129, the health ministry said Tuesday.

Canada

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, under pressure to lift COVID-19-related restrictions along the US border, said on Tuesday that Ottawa would disclose in coming weeks how some measures could be relaxed for fully vaccinated people.

The two countries banned non-essential travel across the border in March 2020 and have extended the limitation every month since.

Trudeau did not mention what measures could be taken for Americans who had received two doses, saying only that restrictions would remain until more people had received their second jabs

Chile

Chile reported on Tuesday 5,568 new COVID-19 cases and 46 more deaths in the last day, bringing the totals to 1,440,417 cases and 30,104 deaths.

According to the health ministry's daily report, 1,362,431 people have recovered while there were still 46,874 active cases.

Chile has fully vaccinated 56.2 percent of its inoculation campaign's target population, or over 8.54 million people, the ministry said.

In addition, 74 percent of the target population has received their first vaccine dose.

Cuba

Cuba reported on Tuesday 1,156 new COVID-19 cases and eight more deaths in the last day, bringing the totals to 151,259 cases and 1,033 deaths, the Ministry of Public Health said.

Of the new cases, 1,104 were spread through community transmission, according to Francisco Duran, the ministry's director of hygiene and epidemiology.

Havana, with the highest incidence rate on the island at 327.6 per 100,000 inhabitants, registered 449 new cases in the last 24 hours.

Ecuador

Ecuador has secured US$550 million in financing to carry out its coronavirus vaccination, an essential step to begin reviving its pandemic-hit economy, Economy Minister Simon Cueva said on Tuesday.

President Guillermo Lasso, who took office on May 24, has pledged to vaccinate nine million of Ecuador's population of 17.5 million in the first 100 days of his government, and is seeking to accelerate negotiations to buy more vaccine doses.

Cueva said the financing was being provided by various multilateral organizations, without giving more detail.

The government expects to finish negotiations for vaccine purchases from China and Russia in the coming weeks.

Ecuador registered 246 new COVID-19 cases and 10 more deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the tally and toll to 432,985 and 15,303, respectively, the Ministry of Public Health said on Tuesday.

According to the ministry, the highest number of daily cases was reported in Pichincha province, where the capital Quito is located, with 70 cases.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia registered 151 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 273,175 as of Tuesday evening, according to the Ministry of Health.

The ministry said seven more deaths and 619 new recoveries were reported, bringing the death toll to 4,220 and the total recoveries to 247,502.

Germany

Germany will approve changes to travel rules this week that mean people accredited for the European soccer championship won’t have to quarantine even if they arrive from areas affected by mutations.

“The European football championship is a major sporting event that the whole world is watching and Germany will do its part to make it a success,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said in an emailed statement, adding that strict hygiene rules will still apply. The tournament starts on Friday.

Germany’s launch of a digital vaccine certificate could be imminent, with Handelsblatt reporting that IBM will probably activate the technical infrastructure on Wednesday. 

The German newspaper cited a letter from the head of digital at the Federal Ministry of Health. 

Digital certificates will be available for citizens at “many” regular pharmacies starting June 14, according to a separate release by the ABDA Federal Union of German Associations of Pharmacists on Tuesday.

Germany's coronavirus tally on Wednesday increased by 3,254 to 3,705,942, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed. The reported death toll rose by 107 to 89,491.

EU

The European Parliament has approved the introduction of mutually recognizable certificates that will allow quarantine-free travel within the bloc. As a final step, the certificates need to be approved by the EU governments.

They should be operating across all 27 EU member states by July 1 and will offer proof their holders have been inoculated against the coronavirus, have recovered from the illness or have a recent negative test.

In another development, Europe’s drug regulator said on Tuesday it expects to give a verdict on the use of Moderna Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine in 12- to 17-year olds next month, following an application by the drugmaker.

A European Medicines Agency (EMA) committee would speed up assessment of data submitted with the application, the regulator said, adding that a delay would happen if the EMA required any additional information.

If approved, Moderna’s vaccine would become the second shot okayed for use in teenagers in the EU after Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine was given the greenlight last month.

Italy

Italy may allow discos to gradually reopen from early July, Health undersecretary Andrea Costa said in a TV interview with SkyTG24. 

“Club owners will be asked to follow a national protocol, but I believe that target is reachable,” Costa said. “We are talking about a sector which provides work for over 100,000 people.”

Italy reported 102 coronavirus-related deaths and 1,896 new cases on Tuesday, taking the toll to 126,690 and the total caseload to 4.24 million.

Mexico

Mexico reported 3,449 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country and 262 more fatalities on Tuesday, bringing total infections to 2,438,011 and the death toll to 229,100, according to health ministry data.

Morocco

Morocco's COVID-19 tally rose to 522,003 on Tuesday as 473 new cases were registered during the past 24 hours.

The death toll went up by six to 9,187 while the total number of recoveries increased by 383 to 509,660, according to a statement by the Ministry of Health.

There were 214 people in intensive care units, according to the statement.

Mozambique

At least 350 Mozambican private companies have expressed their willingness to purchase 500,000 doses of vaccine against COVID-19, of which 120,000 are expected to be channeled to the government, said Health Minister Armindo Tiago on Tuesday.

The government decided to create a common platform involving the private sector, "for the collective acquisition of vaccines,” Tiago said at a press conference.

"All the contribution deposited in the accounts of the Bank of Mozambique allows us to purchase around 500,000 doses. And eventually from these doses, 120,000 doses are to be used by the government and the rest to be used by the private sector," said Tiago.

The variant that was detected in India has not yet been detected in Mozambique, the minister said, urging the public to strengthen the prevention measures against COVID-19, given the threat of a possible third wave.

A passenger walks past signage displaying the way to a COVID-19 test center in Terminal 5 of Heathrow airport in London on June 3, 2021. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

Portugal

Portugal will allow vaccinated US tourists into the country, which is trying to salvage its summer holiday season that has been badly affected by the pandemic.

"We are in a position to approve the opening of non-essential travel and flights to people from the US to Portugal as long as they have a vaccination certificate," Economy Minister Pedro Siza Vieira, cited by Portuguese radio Renascenca, said on Tuesday.

Tourists from the US wanting to travel to Portugal should have received final doses of one of the vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency at least 14 days before their trip, Siza Vieira said.

"I believe that next week we will be able to have this up and running," he said during a trip to the Algarve region. He did not give an exact date for when US tourists would be allowed in.

Russia

New cases of COVID-19 in Russia surged over 10,000 on Wednesday to the highest in more than three months.

Russia’s seven-day average of new infections is at the highest since March 22. There were 10,407 cases announced Wednesday, down from a peak of nearly 30,000 a day in late December.

The trend was most pronounced in Moscow, Russia’s capital and the city hardest hit by the pandemic. It had 4,124 new cases, the most since mid-January.

In total, Russia has reported 5,156,250 confirmed cases since the pandemic began.

The government coronavirus task force said that another 399 deaths were logged, pushing the toll to 124,895. 

South Africa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa put his health minister, Zweli Mkhize, on special leave on Tuesday, after allegations that his department irregularly awarded COVID-19-related contracts to a communications company controlled by his former associates.

Before Ramaphosa’s statement, the minister apologised for the public rage over the allegations, the latest in a series linked to coronavirus-related tenders that have angered a public suffering pandemic-induced economic hardship. Mkhize has denied any personal wrongdoing.

Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane will serve as acting minister of health until further notice, Ramaphosa’s office said.

Spain

Spain said on Tuesday it would scrap new restrictions imposed on travelers crossing the land border from Portugal and apologized for any confusion caused by the sudden change.

Lisbon had complained late on Monday over Madrid’s decision that people would now need to present a negative PCR test result to cross the land border from Portugal into Spain.

“No additional test will be required, no additional protocols beyond those already in place,” Spanish government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero said.

“Effectively, what it implies is that travel, transport by land with Portugal is going to return to how it was,” she said after a weekly cabinet meeting.

Uganda

The Uganda Prisons Service on Tuesday suspended prison visits for six weeks due to an increase in COVID-19 cases amid the second wave of the virus in the country.

"All visitations to prisons are suspended with immediate effect, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status or testing certificate," said Johnson Byabashaija, commissioner general of prisons.

He said the admissions of new prisoners will continue at the current new reception centers, and new inmates will be reintegrated after 14 days of mandatory quarantine.

"The current court procedures will continue and in addition, prisoners will be taken to court on Tuesdays and Thursdays only. Further guidelines will be provided," said Byabashaija.

As of Tuesday, Uganda had registered 54,669 COVID-19 cases, along with 47,760 recoveries and 388 deaths.

UK

Eight in 10 adults in England now have antibodies protecting them against COVID-19 as the government forges ahead with its vaccination program. 

The estimate from the Office for National Statistics comes at a critical time with ministers due to announce Monday whether the final phase of the reopening of the economy will go ahead on June 21. 

Around 8 percent of adults reported coronavirus vaccine hesitancy in London – a higher percentage than most other regions in England, a survey by the British Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed Wednesday.

About 72 percent of care staff in London had been vaccinated, compared to an average of 81 percent across England, said the ONS.

Based on adults in Britain, the survey found more than 94 percent adults reported positive sentiment toward a coronavirus vaccine, while 6 percent report vaccine hesitancy.

Around 13 percent of those aged 16 to 29 years reported vaccine hesitancy, the highest of all age groups, said the ONS.

Britain reported another 6,048 COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, bringing the tally to 4,528,442, according to official figures released Tuesday.

The country also recorded another 13 coronavirus-related death, bringing the toll to 127,854. 

The latest data were published as Health Secretary Matt Hancock told lawmakers that Greater Manchester and Lancashire were to receive a "strengthened package of support" to tackle a rise in the Delta coronavirus variant first identified in India, with residents told to minimize travel.

More than 40.5 million people, or more than three-quarters of adults in Britain, have received the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine while more than 28.2 million people have been fully vaccinated, according to latest data.

Uruguay

Uruguay on Tuesday released real-world data on the impact of Sinovac Biotech's COVID-19 vaccine among its population that showed it was over 90 percent effective in preventing intensive care admissions and deaths.

The shot reduced deaths by 95 percent and intensive care admissions by 92 percent, and also showed 61 percent efficacy in cutting coronavirus infections, the government said.

The government also studied the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine among 162,047 health workers and people over 80 years old. The shot was 94 percent effective at preventing intensive care unit admissions and deaths, and reduced infections by 78 percent, the government said in a report.

Overall, intensive care hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 dropped by more than 90 percent among Uruguayans who were fully-inoculated, the data showed.

A family walks towards the baggage claim area at Miami International Airport, in the United States, on May 28, 2021. (MARTA LAVANDIER / AP)

US

The Biden administration is forming expert working groups with Canada, Mexico, the European Union and the United Kingdom to determine how best to safely restart travel after 15 months of pandemic restrictions, a White House official said on Tuesday.

Another US official said the administration will not move quickly to lift orders that bar people from much of the world from entering the US because of the time it will take for the groups to do their work. The White House informed airlines and others in the travel industry about the groups, the official said.

"While we are not reopening travel today, we hope that these expert working groups will help us use our collective expertise to chart a path forward, with a goal of reopening international travel with our key partners when it is determined that it is safe to do so," the White House official said, adding "any decisions will be fully guided by the objective analysis and recommendations by public health and medical experts."

The groups will be led by the White House COVID Response Team and the National Security Council and include the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other US agencies.

The CDC said on Tuesday it was easing travel recommendations on 110 countries and territories, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Africa and Iran, but has declined to lift any COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The State Department said it had updated its recommendations to reflect the recent methodology update, but noted not all ratings were revised because of other factors including “ commercial flight availability,  restrictions  on US citizen entry, and impediments to obtaining COVID-19 test results within three calendar days.”

In another development, Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, said in a recent interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) that the US was unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and should do more to get ready for the next pandemic.

"We have a lot of work to do in terms of the workforce, the data, the laboratory, the community outreach," said the senior official.

In a separate matter, a Wisconsin man was sentenced Tuesday to three years in prison for tampering with vaccine doses at the hospital where he worked, the US Justice Department said in a statement.

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe will take delivery on Wednesday of 50,000 Sputnik vaccines that were donated by Alrosa PJSC, Russia’s largest diamond mining company, to help bolster the southern African nation’s inoculation program, the state-owned Zimpapers Television Network reported on Tuesday. A

lrosa, which has operations in Zimbabwe and Angola, first announced its plans to provide the shots – which have been shipped to more than 30 countries – to the two nations in February. 

Zimbabwe is set to receive another 500,000 vaccines on June 15, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa told reporters on Tuesday. She didn’t provide the suppliers’ details.

Haiti

For more than a year, Haiti escaped the worst ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting few cases and fatalities – a rare break for the poorest country in the Americas, which has so often been beset by misfortune.

COVID-19 treatment centers closed for lack of patients, Haitians resumed life as normal, and the government hesitated to even accept its allotment of free AstraZeneca vaccines through the UN-backed COVAX mechanism due to safety and logistical concerns.

Now, though, as some countries are already moving into a post-pandemic phase thanks to vaccination campaigns, Haiti is grappling with its first serious outbreak.

And it is one of only a handful of countries worldwide that has yet to administer a single shot of coronavirus vaccine.

Last month, infections and fatalities rose more than fivefold following the arrival of new variants, in what the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) called a "cautionary tale in just how quickly things can change with this virus."

Officially, Haiti had recorded 15,895 infections and 333 deaths from COVID-19 as of June 5 among its 11 million people – relatively low case numbers compared to elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Yet data is limited due to low testing rates and doctors say the real numbers are likely much higher. Every day comes news of deaths from COVID-19 of well-known figures, like a former senator or the head of the pension agency.