Caribbean falling behind in COVID-19 fight, PAHO warns

A girl gets a dose of the Cuban made Soberana-02 vaccine for COVID-19 in Havana, Cuba, Aug 24, 2021. (RAMON ESPINOSA / AP)

PARIS / ZURICH / ROME / PRAGUE / COPENHAGEN / MEXICO CITY / WARSAW / BUCHAREST – The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warned on Wednesday that the Caribbean was falling behind in its effort to fight COVID-19 as only 63 percent of its eligible population was vaccinated and large regional discrepancies persist.

Out of 13 countries and territories in the Americas that have not yet reached the World Health Organization's goal of 40 percent coverage, 10 are in the Caribbean, PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said.

The region registered 2.2 million new COVID-19 cases last week, down 28 percent compared with the previous week.

"And, after six consecutive weeks of increases, we saw deaths fall for the first time since the beginning of the Omicron wave, to 29,000 new deaths reported in our region, a drop of 9 percent," Etienne said in prepared remarks.

She cautioned that while cases and deaths are dropping, the improvements have not been uniform across all the countries and territories in the region.

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

AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca plc signed an agreement with Canada for 100,000 doses of its antibody therapy for prevention of COVID-19 in some high-risk patients, the country's government said on Wednesday.

AstraZeneca's Evusheld is under review by Health Canada for use as a preventive treatment against the disease in those who are immunocompromised.

"While vaccines provide excellent protection, people who are immunocompromised may need additional protection against COVID-19," said Canadian health minister Jean-Yves Duclos.

Initial deliveries of the antibody are expected to arrive in Canada within a month of authorization, the government said.

The company said doses of Evusheld will be delivered this year.

A picture taken on Feb 6, 2020 shows the logo of the GSK Vaccines pharmaceutical company at its headquarters in Wavre, Belgium. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

GSK and Sanofi

French drugmaker Sanofi and its British partner GlaxoSmithKline are seeking regulatory approval for their COVID-19 vaccine to be used as a booster, as well as a standalone two-dose shot, after several setbacks.

The companies said on Wednesday they intended to submit data to regulators from a late-stage trial of the vaccine, and another testing it as a booster, with full results for both studies expected to be published "later this year."

Sanofi is hoping for a comeback after falling behind in the race for COVID-19 shots, while GSK, the world's biggest vaccine maker by sales, has not developed its own candidate and is instead supplying its adjuvant technology to developers.

Sanofi-GSK's shot relies on a conventional protein-based approach, compared with the newer mRNA technology used in established COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

In this photo Nov 30, 2020 file photo, the logo of French drug maker Sanofi is picture at the company's headquarters in Paris. (THIBAULT CAMUS / AP)

It is similar in technology to one of Sanofi's seasonal influenza vaccines, and is coupled with GSK's adjuvant, a substance that boosts the effectiveness of a shot. It is also easier to store and transport than some rival shots.

The companies said final analysis of the booster trial, which included participants previously given shots based on mRNA technology or adenovirus viral vectors, showed it could increase neutralizing antibodies by 18 to 30 times.

Early data from the late-stage trial of the vaccine as a standalone two-dose shot showed it was 100 percent effective against severe COVID-19 and hospitalization, with 75 percent efficacy against moderate or severe disease.

The companies said they were in discussions for approval of their shot with regulators including the US Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency.

People wearing face masks walk in the Smaralind shopping center in Reykjavik, Iceland on Feb 11, 2021 amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (HALLDOR KOLBEINS / AFP)

Iceland

Iceland will lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions on Friday, including a 200-person indoor gathering limit and restricted opening hours for bars, the Ministry of Health said on Wednesday.

"Widespread societal resistance to COVID-19 is the main route out of the epidemic," the ministry said in a statement, citing infectious disease authorities.

"To achieve this, as many people as possible need to be infected with the virus as the vaccines are not enough, even though they provide good protection against serious illness," it added.

All border restrictions would also be lifted, it said.

Iceland, with a population of some 368,000 people, has registered between 2,100 and 2,800 daily infections recently. More than 115,000 infections have been logged throughout the epidemic and 60 have died due to COVID-19.

A medical staffer takes a nasal swab for a COVID-19 rapid test at a testing site in Rome on Dec 30, 2021. (ANDREW MEDICHINI / AP)

Italy

The Italian government will end the COVID-19 state of emergency on March 31, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Wednesday, promising a gradual return to normal after more than two years of the health crisis.

Coronavirus cases and deaths have receded in recent weeks and the government has come under pressure from businesses and some political parties to roll back the restrictions that have been progressively introduced since early 2020.

The state of emergency, which allows officials to bypass bureaucracy and impose rules via decrees, was established on Jan 31, 2020. The measure is due to expire at the end of next month and Draghi said it would not be renewed.

The so-called enhanced green health pass, which shows proof of vaccination or recent recovery from COVID and is needed to access many places, will be progressively phased out, starting with outdoor activities, Draghi said.

This photo shows a box of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in a refrigerator at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic in Toppenish, Washington, March 25, 2021. (TED S. WARREN / AP)

Johnson & Johnson

US drugmaker Johnson & Johnson is close to a vaccine licensing deal with South African group Aspen Pharmacare, a senior J&J executive told a conference in Nigeria on Wednesday.

"We are at the advanced stages of a potential licensing agreement with Aspen and we are really hopeful it will be finalized," said Stacy Meyer, J&J's Vice-President Global Public Health, Operations and Partnerships. She gave no further details.

In November, Aspen signed non-binding terms with subsidiaries of J&J, saying this was a step towards a licensing deal for Aspen to package and sell J&J's's COVID-19 vaccine in Africa.

This file photo taken on Nov 17, 2020 shows vials with COVID-19 Vaccine stickers attached and syringes with the logo of US biotech company Novavax. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

Novavax

Novavax Inc said on Wednesday it had started shipping doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to European Union member states, with France, Austria and Germany expected to be the first to receive the shots in the coming days.

Shipments of Nuvaxovid to additional EU member states from the company's Netherlands distribution center are expected to quickly follow, adding to the stockpile of the region as it struggles with a surge in infections due to the Omicron variant.

Novavax's recombinant protein vaccine uses a more established technology than mRNA, the novel method behind the two most commonly used COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.

The initial doses of Nuvaxovid were manufactured by Novavax' partner the Serum Institute of India, company said.

"Today's announcement paves the way for vaccination with Nuvaxovid to begin in Europe within the coming days. The Novavax COVID-19 vaccine provides a differentiated option to bolster vaccination rates across Europe," Chief Executive Officer Stanley Erck said.

The European Union authorized the use of Novavax's vaccine in people 18 years and older in December and has ordered 27 million doses for the first quarter of this year, as part of a contract for 100 million vaccines and another 100 million optional.

A woman receives a vaccination certificate after receiving a booster shot against COVID-19, in Warsaw, Poland on Dec 7, 2021.  (CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI / AP)

Poland

The Polish government announced on Wednesday that it will lift most COVID-19 related restrictions from March, except for mask-wearing in indoor public spaces and quarantine requirements.

"After observing the trends for the Omicron variant abroad, we can now recommend far-reaching changes," Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said during a press conference.

From March 1, all economic restrictions will be lifted, including limits on the number of people allowed in shopping centers, restaurants, hotels and recreational facilities.

However, mask-wearing in public spaces, including on public transport and in shops, will be required. Quarantine requirements for those infected with coronavirus and their household members will also remain in place after March 1.

A member of the medical staff adjusts her gloves at the COVID-19 ICU unit of the Marius Nasta National Pneumology Institute in Bucharest, Romania on Sept 23, 2021. (ANDREEA ALEXANDRU / AP)

Romania

Romania will donate 1.1 million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria and Libya, the health ministry said on Wednesday.

Romania is the European Union's second-least vaccinated country after Bulgaria, with roughly 42 percent of the population fully inoculated, reflecting mistrust in state institutions and poor vaccine education.

With supplies far outstripping demand for COVID-19 shots, the Bucharest government has sold or donated excess shots before their expiry date.

Valeriu Gheorghita, a doctor in charge of coordinating Romania's vaccination campaign said earlier this month that some 900,000 expired AstraZeneca doses were set to be destroyed.

Romania reported 11,477 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, far off record highs registered at the start of this month at the peak of the Omicron coronavirus variant wave. Although Romania has shortened quarantine periods, most restrictions to combat COVID contagion remain in place.

A No Entry sign is placed inside a toy store, now serving takeaway, at a shopping center in Bratislava, Slovakia on Nov 25, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (PAVOL ZACHAR /TASR VIA AP)

Slovakia

Slovakia will lift most COVID-19 restrictions over the next month, beginning with loosening measures for the unvaccinated before cancelling crowd limits in a later phase, according to plans approved by the government on Wednesday.

The first phase of the loosening will begin on Feb 26, material on the government's website showed. A second phase will follow on March 26 to end limits on crowds and opening hours.

People queue at a COVID-19 test center installed in a street of Swiss capital Bern on Sept 17, 2021. (FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)

Switzerland

Switzerland will donate up to 15 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to other countries by the middle of this year, having secured more than enough to cover its own population of around 8.7 million, the government said on Wednesday.

Around 34 million doses of vaccine will be available to Switzerland in 2022 – 20 million in the first half of the year and 14 million in the second, the cabinet said.

The country has already lifted almost all coronavirus pandemic restrictions as fears waned that a spike in infections fuelled by the Omicron variant would overwhelm the health care system.

"The priority is for the donation of vaccines that are surplus to requirements to run via the multilateral mechanism of the COVAX Initiative," the government added in a statement.

A person receives a COVID-19 test out of a mobile testing van on Jan 5, 2022 in New York City. (ANGELA WEISS / AFP)

United States

Extending the interval between the first two doses of the most widely used COVID-19 vaccines in the country to eight weeks for young men can reduce the rare risk of heart inflammation, US health officials said.

The side effect, which has been linked to both Pfizer and Moderna's COVID-19 vaccines, is higher in 12- to 39-year-old men, and therefore the eight-week interval could be optimal for some people aged 12 years and older, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday.

The recommended interval between the first two shots will remain three weeks for Pfizer's vaccine and four weeks for Moderna's vaccine in other population groups, the CDC said.

Myocarditis is a rare side effect seen with mRNA vaccines – the technology behind both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna shots. It appears to be more common among young men.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, talks to the media regarding the coronavirus and global health priorities in 2022, during a press conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on Dec 20, 2021. (SALVATORE DI NOLFI/KEYSTONE VIA AP)

World Health Organization

The World Health Organization said on Wednesday it has set up a hub in South Korea to train low- and middle-income countries to produce their own vaccines and therapies, and is expanding its COVID-19 vaccine project to a further five nations.

The new training hub comes after the UN agency set up a technology transfer hub in Cape Town, South Africa, last year to give companies from poor and middle-income countries the know-how to produce COVID-19 vaccines based on mRNA technology.

The new hub outside Seoul will provide workforce training to all countries wishing to produce products such as vaccines, insulin, monoclonal antibodies, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press briefing.

"Currently, bio-manufacturing training facilities are located mainly in high income countries…, putting them out of reach for many lower income countries," he said.

The facility in South Korea is already carrying out training for companies based in the country and will now accommodate trainees from other countries, the WHO said.

The WHO also said five more countries – Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Serbia and Vietnam – will receive support from its mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa.

The countries have been vetted by a group of experts and proved to have the capacity to move to production stage relatively quickly, the WHO said.

Last week, six African countries – Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia – signed up as the first on the continent to receive the technology to manufacture mRNA vaccines at scale and according to international standards.