Spy phones ‘in gangsters’ back pockets’ betray hundreds to police

By Colin Packham and Toby Sterling

CANBERRA/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -A global sting in which organized crime gangs were sold encrypted phones that law enforcement officials could monitor has led to more than 800 arrests and the confiscation of drugs, weapons, cash and luxury cars, officials said on Tuesday.

The operation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Australian and European police ensnared suspects in Australia, Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East involved in the global narcotics trade, the officials said.

Millions of dollars in cash were seized in raids around the world, along with 30 tonnes of drugs including more than eight tonnes of cocaine.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation had “struck a heavy blow against organized crime – not just in this country, but … around the world”.

Operation Greenlight/Trojan Shield, conceived by Australian police and the FBI in 2018, was one of the biggest infiltrations and takeovers of a specialized encrypted network.

It began when U.S. officials paid a convicted drug trafficker to give them access to a smartphone that he had customized, on which he was installing ANOM, also styled An0m, a secure encrypted messaging app. The phones were then sold to organized crime networks through underworld distributors.

The FBI helped to infiltrate 12,000 devices into 300 criminal groups in more than 100 countries, Calvin Shivers of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division told reporters in The Hague.

COCAINE IN FRUIT

In a pattern repeated elsewhere, one Australian underworld figure began distributing phones containing the app to his associates, believing their communications were secure because the phones had been rebuilt to remove all capabilities, including voice and camera functions, apart from ANOM.

As a result, there was no attempt to conceal or code the details of the messages – which police were reading.

“It was there to be seen, including ‘we’ll have a speedboat meet you at this point’, ‘this is who will do this’ and so on,” Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said.

“We have been in the back pockets of organized crime … All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered.”

The phones were such a hit that Italian mafiosi, Asian triads, biker gangs and transnational drug syndicates all began using them, providing the FBI and its partner forces around the world with a trove of 27 million messages.

Shivers said the FBI had been able to see photographs of “hundreds of tons of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit”.

PRINTERS FOR GUN PARTS

Australian police said they had arrested 224 people, including members of outlawed motorcycle gangs, and disrupted 21 murder plots.

On Monday alone, they seized 104 firearms, including a military-grade sniper rifle, as well as almost A$45 million ($35 million) in cash, including A$7 million from a safe buried under a garden shed in a suburb of Sydney.

In Europe, there were 49 arrests in the Netherlands, 75 in Sweden and over 60 in Germany, where authorities seized hundreds of kilograms of drugs, more than 20 weapons and over 30 luxury cars and cash.

Finnish police not only detained almost 100 suspects and seized 500 kg of narcotics but also found a warehouse with 3-D printers used to manufacture gun parts.

The operation also revealed that gangs were being tipped off about police actions, which prompted “numerous high-level public corruption cases in several countries,” according to an affidavit from an FBI agent.

Kershaw said the Australian underworld figure, who had absconded, had “essentially set up his own colleagues” by distributing the phones, and was now a marked man.

“The sooner he hands himself in, the better for him and his family.” ($1 = 1.2893 Australian dollars)

(Additional reporting by Joseph Menn, Tom Allard, Jonathan Barrett, Essi Lehto, Riham Alkousaa and Caroline Copley; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Stephen Coates and Kevin Liffey)

Blinken warns China against ‘coercion and aggression’ on first Asia trip

By Humeyra Pamuk, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Ju-min Park

TOKYO (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China on Tuesday against using “coercion and aggression” as he sought to use his first trip abroad to shore up Asian alliances in the face of growing assertiveness by Beijing.

China’s extensive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas have become a priority issue in an increasingly testy Sino-U.S. relationship and are an important security concern for Japan.

“We will push back, if necessary, when China uses coercion and aggression to get its way,” Blinken said.

His visit to Tokyo with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is the first overseas visit by top members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet. It follows last week’s summit of the leaders of the Quad grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India.

Blinken’s comments come ahead of meetings in Alaska on Thursday that will bring together for the first time senior Biden administration officials and their Chinese counterparts to discuss frayed ties between the world’s top two economies.

Washington has criticized what it called Beijing’s attempts to bully neighbors with competing interests. China has denounced what it called U.S. efforts to foment unrest in the region and interfere in what it calls its internal affairs.

In the statement issued with their Japanese counterparts, Blinken and Austin said, “China’s behavior, where inconsistent with the existing international order, presents political, economic, military and technological challenges to the alliance and to the international community.”

The two countries committed themselves to opposing coercion and destabilizing behavior towards others in the region that undermines the rules-based international system, they added.

The meeting was held in the “2+2” format with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi as hosts.

North Korea was in sharp focus after the White House said Pyongyang had rebuffed efforts at dialogue.

The isolated nation, which has pursued nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, warned the Biden administration against “causing a stink” if it wanted peace, state media said on Tuesday.

Blinken underscored the importance of working closely with Japan and South Korea on the denuclearization of North Korea.

“We have no greater strategic advantage when it comes to North Korea than this alliance,” he said. “We approach that challenge as an alliance and we’ve got to do that if we are going to be effective.”

‘UNWAVERING COMMITMENT’

The ministers also discussed Washington’s “unwavering commitment” to defend Japan in its dispute with China over islets in the East China Sea and repeated their opposition to China’s “unlawful” maritime claims in the South China Sea.

They also shared concerns over developments such as the law China passed in January allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels.

China has sent coast guard vessels to chase away fishing vessels from countries with which it has disputes in regional waters, sometimes resulting in their sinking.

Motegi said China-related issues took up the majority of his two-way talks with Blinken, and expressed strong opposition to the neighbor’s “unilateral attempt” to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular news briefing that U.S.-Japan ties “shouldn’t target or undermine the interests of any third party,” and should boost “peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific”.

Blinken expressed concern over the Myanmar military’s attempt to overturn the results of a democratic election, and its crackdown on peaceful protesters.

He also reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to human rights, adding, “China uses coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abusing human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet.”

Motegi said Blinken expressed support during the meeting for the staging of the Tokyo Olympics, set to run from July 23 to Aug. 8 after being postponed from last year because of the coronavirus crisis.

But Blinken sounded non-committal in his remarks to Tokyo-based U.S. diplomats, saying the summer Games involved planning for several different scenarios. But he added, “Whenever and however Team USA ends up competing, it will be because of you.”

The U.S. officials ended the visit with a courtesy call on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is set to visit the White House in April as the first foreign leader to meet Biden.

Both will leave Tokyo for Seoul on Wednesday for talks in the South Korean capital until Thursday.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Ju-min Park, Antoni Slodkowski, Elaine Lies, Chang-Ran Kim, Ritsuko Ando and David Dolan; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez)

Israel hopes for rapprochement with fifth Muslim country

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel is working towards formalizing relations with a fifth Muslim country, possibly in Asia, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Wednesday.

The White House has brokered rapprochements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco this year. Rabat hosted an Israeli-U.S. delegation on Tuesday to flesh out the upgrade in relations.

Asked if a fifth country could sign up, Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis told Israel’s Ynet TV: “We are working in that direction.”

“I believe … there will be an American announcement about another country that is going public with the normalization of relations with Israel and, in essence, with the infrastructure for an accord – a peace accord,” he said.

Administration officials have said they are trying to get more countries to recognize Israel or warm existing ties to it.

Akunis said there were two main candidate countries to become the next to move towards normal ties with Israel.

He did not name either but said one is in the Gulf and could be Oman but would not be Saudi Arabia. The other, further to the east, is a “Muslim country that is not small” but is not Pakistan, Akunis said.

Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, said last week it would not recognize Israel as long as Palestinian statehood demands remain unmet. Malaysia has signaled a similar policy.

“Malaysia’s firm stance on the Palestinian issue will not change,” Deputy Foreign Minister Kamarudin Jaffar told the country’s senate on Wednesday, adding that Kuala Lumpur would not interfere in other nations’ decisions on Israel.

In Dhaka, a foreign ministry official said Bangladesh was not interested in establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. “Our position remains the same,” he told Reuters.

Oman has praised the U.S.-brokered diplomatic drive but has not commented on its own prospects of forging Israel ties.

The Palestinians, whose negotiations with Israel stalled in 2014, fear being sidelined by the normalization process.

(Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur and Rula Paul in Dhaka; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

WHO vaccine scheme risks failure, leaving poor countries no COVID shots until 2024

By Francesco Guarascio

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The global scheme to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries faces a “very high” risk of failure, potentially leaving nations home to billions of people with no access to vaccines until as late as 2024, internal documents say.

The World Health Organization’s COVAX program is the main global scheme to vaccinate people in poor and middle income countries around the world against the coronavirus. It aims to deliver at least 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021 to cover 20% of the most vulnerable people in 91 poor and middle-income countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

But in internal documents reviewed by Reuters, the scheme’s promoters say the program is struggling from a lack of funds, supply risks and complex contractual arrangements which could make it impossible to achieve its goals.

“The risk of a failure to establish a successful COVAX Facility is very high,” says an internal report to the board of Gavi, an alliance of governments, drug companies, charities and international organizations that arranges global vaccination campaigns. Gavi co-leads COVAX alongside the WHO.

The report and other documents prepared by Gavi are being discussed at Gavi’s board meetings on Dec. 15-17.

The failure of the facility could leave people in poor nations without any access to COVID-19 vaccines until 2024, one of the documents says.

The risk of failure is higher because the scheme was set up so quickly, operating in “uncharted territory”, the report says.

“Current risk exposure is deemed outside of risk appetite until there is full clarity on the size of risks and possibilities to mitigate them,” it says. “It therefore requires intensive mitigation efforts to bring the risk within risk appetite.”

Gavi hired Citigroup last month to provide advice on how to mitigate financial risks.

In one Nov. 25 memo included in the documents submitted to the Gavi board, Citi advisors said the biggest risk to the program was from clauses in supply contracts that allow countries not to buy vaccines booked through COVAX.

A potential mismatch between vaccine supply and demand “is not a commercial risk efficiently mitigated by the market or the MDBs,” the Citi advisors wrote, referring to multilateral development banks such as the World Bank.

“Therefore it must either be mitigated through contract negotiation or through a Gavi risk absorption layer that is carefully managed by a management and governance structure.”

Asked about the documents, a Gavi spokesman said the body remains confident it can achieve its goals.

“It would be irresponsible not to assess the risks inherent to such a massive and complex undertaking, and to build policies and instruments to mitigate those risks,” he added.

The WHO did not respond to a request for comment. In the past it has let Gavi take the lead in public comments about the COVAX program.

Citibank said in a statement: “As a financial advisor, we are responsible for helping Gavi plan for a range of scenarios related to the COVAX facility and supporting their efforts to mitigate potential risks.”

SUPPLY DEALS

COVAX’s plans rely on cheaper vaccines that have so far yet to receive approval, rather than vaccines from frontrunners Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna that use more expensive new mRNA technology. The Pfizer vaccine has already been approved for emergency use in several countries and deployed in Britain and the United States, and the Moderna vaccine is expected to be similarly approved soon.

COVAX has so far reached non-binding supply agreements with AstraZeneca, Novavax and Sanofi for a total of 400 million doses, with options to order several hundred million additional shots, one of the Gavi documents says.

But the three companies have all faced delays in their trials that could push back some possible regulatory approvals to the second half of 2021 or later.

This could also increase COVAX’s financial needs. Its financial assumptions are based on an average cost of $5.20 per dose, one of the documents says.

Pfizer’s vaccines costs about $18.40-$19.50 per dose, while Moderna’s costs $25-$37. COVAX has no supply deals with either of those firms. Nor is it prioritizing investment in ultra-cold distribution chains in poor countries, necessary for the Pfizer vaccine, as it still expects to use mostly shots which require more conventional cold storage, one of the Gavi documents says.

On Tuesday a WHO senior official said the agency was in talks with Pfizer and Moderna to include their COVID-19 vaccines as part of an early global rollout at a cost for poor countries possibly lower than current market prices.

Other shots are being developed worldwide and COVAX wants to expand its portfolio to include vaccines from other companies.

Rich countries, which have booked most of the currently available stocks of COVID-19 vaccines, are also planning to donate some excess doses to poor countries, although is not clear whether that would be through COVAX.

FINANCIAL PRESSURE

To meet its target of vaccinating at least 20% of people in poor countries next year, COVAX says it needs $4.9 billion in addition to $2.1 billion it has already raised.

If vaccine prices are higher than forecast, supply is delayed or the additional funds are not fully collected, the facility faces the prospect of failure, the documents say.

So far Britain and European Union countries are the main donors to COVAX, while the United States and China have made no financial commitments. The World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions are offering cheap loans to poor countries to help them buy and deploy vaccines through COVAX.

The facility is issuing vaccine bonds which could raise as much as $1.5 billion next year if donors agreed to cover the costs, one of the Gavi documents says. COVAX is also receiving funds from private donors, mainly the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But even under the best financial conditions, COVAX could still face failure, because of disproportionate financial risks caused by its complex deal-making process.

COVAX signs advance purchase contracts with companies on vaccine supplies that need to be paid for by donors or receiving countries that have the means to afford them.

But under clauses included in COVAX contracts, countries could still refuse to buy pre-ordered volumes if they prefer other vaccines, or if they manage to acquire them through other schemes, either faster or at better prices.

The facility could also face losses if countries were not able to pay for their orders, or even if herd immunity were developed too quickly, making vaccines no longer necessary, the Citigroup report said. It proposed a strategy to mitigate these risks including through changes in supply contracts.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by Peter Graff)

COVID-19 again? Reinfection cases raise concerns over immunity

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – The case of a man in the United States infected twice with COVID-19 shows there is much yet to learn about immune responses and also raises questions over vaccination, scientists said on Tuesday.

The 25-year old from Reno, Nevada, tested positive in April after showing mild symptoms, then got sick again in late May with a more serious bout, according to a case report in the Lancet Infectious Diseases medical journal.

Scientists said that while known incidences of reinfection appear rare – and the Nevada man has now recovered – cases like his were worrying. Other isolated cases of reinfection have been reported around the world, including in Asia and Europe.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that reinfections are possible, but we can’t yet know how common this will be,” said Simon Clarke, a microbiology expert at Britain’s Reading University.

“If people can be reinfected easily, it could also have implications for vaccination programs as well as our understanding of when and how the pandemic will end.”

‘STILL DON’T KNOW ENOUGH’

The Nevada patient’s doctors, who first reported the case in a non peer-reviewed paper in August, said sophisticated testing showed that the virus strains associated with each bout of infection were genetically different.

“These findings reinforce the point that we still do not know enough about the immune response to this infection,” said Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

Brendan Wren, a professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the Nevada case was the fifth confirmed example of reinfection worldwide.

“The demonstration that it is possible to be reinfected by SARS-CoV-2 may suggest that a COVID-19 vaccine may not be totally protective,” he said. “However, given the (more than) 40 million cases worldwide, these small examples of reinfection are tiny and should not deter efforts to develop vaccines.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

One in 10 may have caught COVID, as world heads into ‘difficult period’: WHO

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – Roughly one in 10 people may have been infected with the coronavirus, leaving the vast majority of the world’s population vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease it causes, the World Health Organization said on Monday.

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency expert, was addressing the agency’s Executive Board, where the United States made a thinly veiled swipe at China for what it called a “failure” to provide accurate and timely information on the outbreak.

But Zhang Yang of China’s National Health Commission, said: “China has always been transparent and responsible to fulfill our international obligations.” China maintained close contacts with all levels of the U.N. health agency, she added.

Ryan said that outbreaks were surging in parts of southeast Asia and that cases and deaths were on the rise in parts of Europe and the eastern Mediterranean region.

“Our current best estimates tell us about 10% of the global population may have been infected by this virus. It varies depending on country, it varies from urban to rural, it varies depending on groups. But what it does mean is that the vast majority of the world remains at risk,” Ryan said.

“We are now heading into a difficult period. The disease continues to spread,” he said.

The WHO and other experts have said that the virus, believed to have emerged in a food market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, is of animal origin.

The WHO has submitted a list of experts to take part in an international mission to China to investigate the origin, for consideration by Chinese authorities, Ryan said, without giving details.

U.S. assistant health secretary Brett Giroir said that it was critical that WHO’s 194 member states receive “regular and timely updates, including the terms of reference for this panel or for any field missions, so that we can all engage with the process and be confident in the outcomes”.

Germany, speaking for the EU, said the expert mission should be deployed soon, with Australia also supporting a swift investigation.

Meanwhile, Alexandra Dronova, Russia’s deputy health minister, called for an evaluation of the legal and financial repercussions of the Trump administration announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO next July.

The United States will not pay some $80 million it owes the WHO and will instead redirect the money to help pay its U.N. bill in New York, a U.S. official said on Sept. 2.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alison Williams)

Exclusive: New global lab network will compare COVID-19 vaccines head-to-head

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A major non-profit health emergencies group has set up a global laboratory network to assess data from potential COVID-19 vaccines, allowing scientists and drugmakers to compare them and speed up selection of the most effective shots.

Speaking to Reuters ahead of announcing the labs involved, Melanie Saville, director of vaccine R&D at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said the idea was to “compare apples with apples” as drugmakers race to develop an effective shot to help control the COVID-19 pandemic.

The centralized network is the first of its kind to be set up in response to a pandemic.

In a network spanning Europe, Asia and North America, the labs will centralize analysis of samples from trials of COVID-19 candidates “as though vaccines are all being tested under one roof”, Saville said, aiming to minimize the risk of variation in results.

“When you start off (with developing potential new vaccines) especially with a new disease, everyone develops their own assays, they all use different protocols and different reagents – so while you get a readout, the ability to compare between different candidates is very difficult,” she told Reuters.

“By taking the centralized lab approach … it will give us a chance to really make sure we are comparing apples with apples.”

The CEPI network will initially involve six labs, one each in Canada, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Bangladesh and India, Saville said.

Hundreds of potential COVID-19 vaccines are in various stages of development around the world, with shots developed in Russia and China already being deployed before full efficacy trials have been done, and front-runners from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca likely to have final-stage trial results before year-end.

Typically, the immunogenicity of potential vaccines is assessed in individual lab analyses, which aim to see whether biomarkers of immune response – such as antibodies and T-cell responses – are produced after clinical trial volunteers receive a dose, or doses, of the vaccine candidate.

But with more than 320 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in the works, Saville said, the many differences in data collection and evaluation methods are an issue.

As well as potential variations in markers of immunity, there are differences in how and where samples are collected, transported and stored – all of which can impact the quality and usefulness of the data produced, and make comparisons tricky.

And with a range of different vaccine technologies being explored – from viral vector vaccines to ones based on messenger RNA – standard evaluation of their true potential “becomes very complex”, she said.

“With hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines in development … it’s essential that we have a system that can reliably evaluate and compare the immune response of candidates currently undergoing testing,” she said.

By centralizing the analysis in a lab network, much of what Saville called the “inter-laboratory variability” can be removed, allowing for head-to-head comparisons.

CEPI says all developers of potential COVID-19 vaccines can use the centralized lab network for free to assess their candidates against a common protocol. For now, the network will assess samples from early-stage vaccine candidate testing and first and second stage human trials, but CEPI said it hoped to expand its capacity to late stage (Phase III) trial data in the coming months.

Results produced by the network will be sent back to the developer, with neither CEPI nor the network owning the data.

CEPI itself is co-funding nine of the potential COVID-19 vaccines in development, including candidates from Moderna, AstraZeneca, Novavax and CureVac.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Mark Potter)

Delivering super-cooled COVID-19 vaccine a daunting challenge for some countries

By Matthias Inverardi and Ludwig Burger

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Getting a coronavirus vaccine from manufacturing sites to some parts of the world with rural populations and unreliable electricity supply will be an immense challenge, given the need to store some vials at temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius (-112 Fahrenheit), Deutsche Post warned on Tuesday.

The German logistics firm said that distribution of an eventual vaccine across large parts of Africa, South America and Asia would require extraordinary measures to keep deliveries of so-called mRNA vaccines refrigerated at Antarctic-level temperatures.

Companies developing vaccines requiring exceptional cold storage, such as Moderna and CureVac, are working hard to make their injections last longer in transit.

The novel class of mRNA vaccines is among the furthest advanced in a field of 33 immunization shots currently being tested on humans globally, but they may need to be cooled at minus 80 degrees Celsius.

But upgrading cold storage infrastructure in regions outside the 25 most advanced countries, home to one third of the global population, will pose an immense challenge, said Deutsche Post in its study, conducted with consultancy firm McKinsey.

Vaccine developers Translate Bio and Moderna said in June they are working to produce evidence in time for the roll-out that their respective products can be shipped and stored at less extreme temperatures.

A spokesman for CureVac said its vaccine candidate is based on an experimental rabies vaccine which has already been shown to keep its molecular structure when stored in a regular fridge for months. Tests are underway to show the COVID-19 product has the same durability and the company is confident the data will be “competitive”, he added.

Deutsche Post said that even if the vaccine cold chain requires temperatures of only minus 8 degrees Celsius the share of the world’s population with reliable access to it increases only to about 70%, with substantial parts of Africa at risk of missing out.

“We anticipate 10 billion vaccine doses will have to be distributed across the world, and that includes regions that don’t have motorway access every five miles,” Katja Busch, Chief Commercial Officer of Deutsche Post’s DHL global forwarding unit, told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein, editing by Louise Heavens)

Pandemic pace slows worldwide except for southeast Asia, eastern Mediterranean: WHO

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic is still expanding, but the rise in cases and deaths has slowed globally, except for southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

In its latest epidemiological update, issued on Monday night, it said that the Americas remains the hardest-hit region, accounting for half of newly reported cases and 62% of the 39,240 deaths worldwide in the past week.

More than 23.65 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and 811,895​ have died, according to a Reuters tally on Tuesday.

“Over 1.7 million new COVID-19 cases and 39,000 new deaths were reported to WHO for the week ending 23 August, a 4% decrease in the number of cases and (a 12% decrease) in the number of deaths compared to the previous week,” the WHO said.

Southeast Asia, the second most affected region, reported a jump accounting for 28% of new cases and 15% of deaths, it said. India continues to report the majority of cases, but the virus is also spreading rapidly in Nepal.

In WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region, the number of reported cases rose by 4%, but the number of reported deaths has consistently dropped over the last six weeks, the WHO said. Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan reported the highest increase in cases compared to the previous week.

The number of cases and deaths reported across Africa decreased by 8% and 11% respectively in the past week, “primarily due to a decrease in cases reported in Algeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa”, it said.

“In the European region, the number of cases reported has consistently increased over the last three weeks,” it said. “However, only a slight decrease (1%) was reported in the most recent week, and the number of deaths have continued to decrease across the region.”

In WHO’s western Pacific region, the number of new cases dropped by 5%, driven by less spread in Japan, Australia, Singapore, China and Vietnam. South Korea reported an 180% jump in cases, “mainly due to an increase in cases associated with religious gatherings”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Coronavirus spikes in Asia spur warnings against complacency

By Colin Packham and Alasdair Pal

SYDNEY/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Spikes in novel coronavirus infections in Asia have dispelled any notion the region may be over the worst, with Australia, India and Hong Kong reporting record daily cases, Vietnam testing thousands and North Korea urging vigilance.

Asian governments had largely prided themselves on rapidly containing initial outbreaks after the virus emerged in central China late last year, but flare-ups this month have shown the danger of complacency.

“We’ve got to be careful not to slip into some idea that there’s some golden immunity that Australia has in relation to this virus,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters.

Australia recorded its deadliest day with at least 13 deaths and more than 700 new infections, mostly in the second-most populous state of Victoria, where the government ordered all residents to wear face-coverings outside.

The country has confirmed a total of 16,298 cases since the pandemic began, with 189 fatalities, more than half in Victoria and its capital Melbourne, which is under a new lockdown.

Victoria’s new infections have seeded outbreaks in other areas, including Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, which reported 18 new cases.

Further restrictions on movement would deal a blow to the economy, already in its first recession for 30 years, but failure to control the outbreaks would do more economic harm in the long run, Morrison said.

‘FULL FORCE TO TEST’

Vietnam, virus-free for months, has also had a harsh reminder of the dangers with a new surge spreading to six cities and provinces in six days, linked to an outbreak in the central city of Danang.

Authorities told tens of thousands of people who visited Danang to report to disease control centres, as nine new cases were confirmed, taking total infections to 42 since the virus resurfaced at the weekend.

Cases have also appeared in the capital, Hanoi, the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City and in the Central Highlands.

Thanks to a centralised quarantine programme and aggressive contact-tracing, Vietnam has registered a total of only 459 cases, with no deaths.

But now more than 81,000 people are in quarantine and authorities in Hanoi said the more than 20,000 residents who recently returned from Danang, a holiday getaway that has been a big draw since restrictions were eased, would be tested.

Hanoi also banned big gatherings and ordered bars closed while its chairman, Nguyen Duc Chung, declared the city must “act now and act fast”.

“We have to use full force to test all 21,063 returnees,” Chung said. “All must be done in three days.”

India reported more than 52,000 new cases over the previous 24 hours, its highest in a single day and taking its tally to almost 1.6 million.

India has the third highest number of infections globally, and while its major cities like New Delhi and Mumbai have seen their case-loads ease, infections are increasing sharply in rural areas.

Hong Kong also reported a daily record with 149 new cases, including 145 that were locally transmitted, as authorities warned that the global financial hub faced a critical period.

The Chinese territory reported 118 new cases on Wednesday. More than 3,000 people have been infected in Hong Kong, 24 of whom have died.

NORTH KOREAN WARNING

China reported 105 new coronavirus cases on the mainland, up from 101 the previous day, with 96 of them in the far western region of Xinjiang, five in the northeastern province of Liaoning, one was in Beijing and three imported cases.

As of Wednesday, China had 84,165 confirmed cases, with 4,634 deaths.

Isolated North Korea was on alert after a defector suspected of having the virus sneaked back in from South Korea.

North Korea, which says it has had no domestic cases, imposed strict quarantine and screening in Kaesong, just north of the border with South Korea, where the suspected infection was reported in a 24-year-old man who defected to South Korea in 2017 and slipped back in to the North this month.

North Korea has not confirmed the man tested positive for the virus but said he was showing symptoms.

The Rodong Sinmun newspaper, a ruling Workers’ Party mouthpiece, warned against carelessness.

“A moment of inattention could cause a fatal crisis,” it said.

(Reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney, Phuong Nguyen in Hanoi, Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, Huizhong Wu and Judy Hua in Beijing and Alasdair Pal in New Delhi; Writing by Robert Birsel, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Edwina Gibbs)