AstraZeneca woes grow as Australia, Philippines, African Union curb COVID shots

By Reuters Staff

(Reuters) – Australia and the Philippines limited use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, while the Africa Union dropped plans to buy the shot, dealing further blows to the company’s hopes to deliver a vaccine for the world.

The vaccine – developed with Oxford University and considered a frontrunner in the global vaccine race – has been plagued by safety concerns and supply problems since Phase III trial results were published in December, with Indonesia the latest country forced to seek doses from other vaccine developers.

The Philippines suspended the use of AstraZeneca shots for people below 60 after Europe’s regulator said on Wednesday it found rare cases of blood clots among some adult recipients although the vaccine’s advantages still outweighed its risks.

Australia recommended people under 50 should get Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in preference to AstraZeneca’s, a policy shift that it warned would hold up its inoculation campaign.

The African Union is exploring options with Johnson & Johnson having dropped plans to buy AstraZeneca’s vaccine from India’s Serum Institute, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters.

AstraZeneca’s shot is sold at cost, for a few dollars a dose. It is by far the cheapest and most high-volume launched so far, and has none of the extreme refrigeration requirements of some other COVID-19 vaccines, making it likely to be the mainstay of many vaccination programs in the developing world.

But more than a dozen countries have at one time suspended or partially suspended use of the shot, first on concerns about efficacy in older people, and now on worries about rare side effects in younger people.

That, coupled with production setbacks, will delay the rollout of vaccines across the globe as governments scramble to find alternatives to tame the pandemic which has killed more than 3 million.

‘EXTREMELY RARE’

Italy joined France, the Netherlands, Germany and others in recommending a minimum age for recipients of AstraZeneca’s shot on Wednesday and Britain said people under 30 should get an alternative. South Korea also suspended use of the vaccine in people under 60 this week, while approving Johnson & Johnson’s shot.

AstraZeneca has said it is working with the British and European regulators to list possible brain blood clots as “an extremely rare potential side-effect”.

South Africa also paused AstraZeneca vaccinations last month because of a small trial showing the shot offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness caused by the dominant local coronavirus variant.

AstraZeneca is grappling with production issues that have led to shortfalls of its shot in several countries.

Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said on Thursday the country was in talks with China on getting as many as 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to plug a gap in deliveries after delays in the arrivals of AstraZeneca shots.

India has put a temporary hold on all major exports of AstraZeneca’s shot made by the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine-maker, as domestic infections rise.

That has affected supplies to the GAVI/WHO-backed global COVAX vaccine-sharing facility through which 64 poorer countries are supposed to get doses from the SII, the program’s procurement and distributing partner UNICEF told Reuters last month.

Britain is slowing its vaccine rollout due to a shipment delay from India and is at loggerheads with the EU over exports. Australia has also blamed delays in its immunization campaign on supply issues in Europe.

AstraZeneca has cited reduced yields at a European factory behind the supply shortfall to the European Union.

Exclusive: EU denies blocking 3.1 million AstraZeneca shots to Australia

By Colin Packham

CANBERRA/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union on Tuesday denied blocking shipments of 3.1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine to Australia, as the bloc steps up scrutiny of vaccine exports to address shortages.

An Australian government source told Reuters that the EU had blocked 3.1 million shots and the country had little hope of getting the remaining 400,000 doses it has been promised on time.

The dispute underscores massive shortfalls of the AstraZeneca shot across the EU and complicates Australia’s inoculation campaign, which is more than 80% behind its original schedule.

“We cannot confirm any new decision to block vaccine exports to Australia or to any other country,” a European Commission spokesman told a news conference.

A Commission spokeswoman said the bloc had rejected only one of 491 COVID-19 vaccine export requests since it enhanced export transparency in late January, but added that seven requests were currently being reviewed – and therefore shipments were on hold until a decision was made.

She declined to say whether a new shipment to Australia was among those being reviewed. But an EU official said there was no request for export to Australia under review.

The only rejected request out of nearly 500 received has been so far a shipment of 250,000 doses to Australia in March. From Jan 30 to March 24, the EU exported 1 million doses to Australia, the Commission said in a press release.

The EU has repeatedly said that AstraZeneca may not be allowed to export from the EU until it fulfils its contractual obligations towards the bloc, a position that has led the company to refrain from submitting some export requests.

AstraZeneca did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Tuesday.

With inoculation rollouts running far behind those of Britain and the United States, the EU tightened its oversight of vaccine exports last month, giving it greater scope to block shipments. “They’ve blocked 3.1 million shots so far,” said the Australian government source, adding that it had only received 300,000 doses and a further 400,000 doses were scheduled to arrive by the end of April.

“We haven’t given up hope but we’ve stopped counting them in our expected supplies,” the source said. The person declined to be named because he is not authorized to talk about the matter.

WELL BEHIND SCHEDULE

Australia had until Tuesday only confirmed the block of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses from the EU, which Canberra said then would not delay its inoculation timetable.

An EU official said it was not responsible for AstraZeneca’s failure in upholding commitments to other countries. The drug maker aims to deliver only 100 million doses to the bloc by the end of June out of 300 million it had pledged.

It is unclear whether Australia plans to ask Britain or the United States to ship AstraZeneca doses.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday the missing shipments were responsible for it not meeting its inoculation schedule. “In early January, we anticipated we would have the 3.1 million vaccines. Those vaccines were not supplied to Australia,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “That is the reason.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine arriving from Europe were to underpin the early stages of Australia’s vaccine drive, supplementing 50 million shots of the vaccine that will be produced locally by CSL Ltd.

Australia has recorded just 909 coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began and said on Tuesday it would launch a quarantine and COVID-testing free travel bubble with New Zealand this month after effectively eradicating the virus by closing borders last year.

Australia’s vaccine program is running well behind schedule, having started much later than some other countries due to the low case numbers, and the AstraZeneca blockages leave it struggling to step up the pace.

Only about 670,000 people have been inoculated against an initial target of 4 million by end-March.

While the government blamed the slow rollout for supply issues from Europe, Australian state governments have also complained about slower-than-expected distribution and a lack of certainty on supplies.

(Reporting by Colin Packham and Renju Jose; Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Miyoung Kim, Nick Macfie and John Stonestreet)

Australia urges EU to send 1 million COVID-19 vaccines for PNG amid fresh outbreak

By Colin Packham

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia said on Wednesday it will ask the European Union to release 1 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to help Papua New Guinea (PNG) battle a dangerous outbreak that authorities fear could spread to other parts of the region.

The request could inflame existing tensions between Canberra and Brussels amid claims of vaccine nationalism after the EU recently blocked an Australia-bound shipment of the doses.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said the vaccines were contracted to Australia and were now badly needed to contain a surge in coronavirus cases in the Pacific island nation, parts of which are just a short boat ride from Australian territory.

“We’ve contracted them. We’ve paid for them and we want to see those vaccines come here so we can support our nearest neighbor, PNG, to deal with their urgent needs in our region,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

“They’re our family, they’re our friends. They’re our neighbors. They’re our partners… This is in Australia’s interests, and is in our region’s interests.”

“We confirm that the President of the European Commission has received a letter from the Australian Prime Minister on this topic and we will reply in due time,” a spokeswoman for the EU executive said on Wednesday.

Australia will donate 8,000 locally produced COVID-19 vaccines to PNG as an immediate response to the outbreak, and would make a million doses available as soon as they arrived from Europe, he said.

Earlier this month, the EU, at Italy’s request, blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine to Australia, citing vaccine shortages in Europe.

It later denied Australia’s request to review the blockage, the first such refusal since Brussels established a mechanism to monitor vaccine flows in late January.

PNG has officially recorded over 2,300 cases since the pandemic began, a figure experts say vastly underestimates the true outbreak.

Prime Minister James Marape earlier this week said COVID-19 had “broken loose” as he warned local hospitals would soon be overwhelmed.

Marape has urged people to avoid unnecessary travel but his warning came as thousands of people gathered to mourn the death of Michael Somare, PNG’s first prime minister after independence from Australia.

Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the limited coronavirus testing being done in PNG was showing alarming results.

“When people are being admitted into hospital in Port Moresby, half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive,” Kelly told reporters in Canberra.

Morrison warned an “uncontrolled” outbreak could produce a new variant of the virus that would affect not only PNG but the wider region.

Canberra will suspend all travel to and from PNG from Wednesday midnight, he added.

Australia said in a statement on Wednesday it has approached the United States, Japan and India, members of the so-called Quad group of Asia Pacific nations, to seek additional help for PNG.

FIGHTING CHANCE

A senior Australian government source said while the EU had justified blocking the shipment to Australia due to Canberra’s success in containing the virus, that rationale would not hold with PNG.

Aid agencies echoed the desperate need for vaccines in the impoverished country of almost nine million people.

“PNG needs a fighting chance to beat this, and frontline doctors and nurses could be the difference between keeping this under control or utter catastrophe for PNG’s health system,” said Marc Purcell, chief executive of The Australian Council for International Development, which represents aid agencies.

The government source said Canberra would lodge its request with the EU this week and an answer was likely within days. He declined to be named as he is not authorized to talk to media.

(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney and Colin Packahm in Canberra; additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Stephen Coates, Christopher Cushing and Sam Holmes)

U.S., India, Japan and Australia agree to provide a billion vaccine doses in Asia

By David Brunnstrom, Michael Martina and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden and the leaders of Australia, India and Japan agreed in a summit on Friday to cooperate in providing up to a billion coronavirus vaccine doses to developing countries in the Indo-Pacific by the end of 2022, a move to counter China’s widening vaccine diplomacy.

Biden, hosting the first leader-level meeting of a group central to his efforts to counter China’s growing military and economic power, said a free and open Indo-Pacific region was “essential” to all four countries.

“The United States is committed to working with you, our partners, and all our allies in the region, to achieve stability,” he said.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the leaders addressed key regional issues at the virtual meeting, “including freedom of navigation and freedom from coercion” in the South and East China Sea, the North Korean nuclear issue, and the coup and violent repression in Myanmar.

Sullivan told a news briefing the meeting discussed the challenges posed by China, although this was not the focus. He said that among the issues discussed were recent cyberattacks and semi-conductor supply-chain issues.

The Quad leaders committed to delivering up to one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Southeast Asia by the end of 2022, Sullivan said .

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he wanted the four “to forge strongly ahead toward the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific” and that Japan had agreed to cooperate in providing vaccine-related support to developing countries.

He also told reporters he had expressed strong opposition to attempts by China to change the status quo in the region and that the four leaders had agreed to cooperate on the issue.

India and Australia also emphasized the importance of regional security cooperation, which has been enhanced by previous lower-level Quad meetings.

India Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said the meeting had agreed U.S. vaccines would be manufactured in India, something New Delhi has called for to counter Beijing’s widening vaccine diplomacy.

In a joint statement the leaders pledged to work closely on COVID-19 vaccine distribution, climate issues and security.

“We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic  values, and unconstrained by coercion,” they added, without mentioning China by name.

The meeting also agreed to set up a group of experts to help distribute vaccines, as well as working groups for cooperation on climate change, technology standards, and joint development of emerging technologies.

The leaders agreed to hold an in-person meeting later this year.

India, Australia and Japan have all faced security challenges from China, strengthening their interest in the Quad. Quad cooperation dates back to their joint response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004.

The Quad was revived under the Trump administration, which saw it as a vehicle to push back against China. The United States hosted a foreign ministers’ meeting in 2019, which was followed by another in Japan last year and a virtual session in February.

Friday’s meeting coincided with a major U.S. diplomatic drive to solidify alliances in Asia and Europe to counter China, including visits next week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Japan and South Korea.

Blinken will also meet in Alaska with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and State Councillor Wang Yi – the first high-level in-person contact between the world’s two largest economies under the Biden administration.

Washington has said it will not hold back in its criticism of Beijing over issues ranging from Taiwan to Hong Kong and the genocide it says China is committing against minority Muslims.

Modi told the session the Quad had “come of age” and would “now remain an important pillar of stability in the region.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the meeting “a whole new level of cooperation to create a new anchor for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”

A fact sheet issued after the meeting said the United States, through its International Development Finance Corp, would work to finance Indian drugmaker Biological E Ltd to produce at least 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses by end of 2022.

It also said Japan was in discussions to provide concessional yen loans for India to expand manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines for export.

The Biden administration told Reuters on Tuesday the United States and Japan would help fund Indian firms manufacturing vaccines for U.S. drugmakers Novavax Inc and J&J.

However, Indian government sources say U.S. curbs on exports of critical materials could hamper that effort and those to start large-scale distribution to Southeast Asia.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Michael Martina, Jeff Mason and Doina Chiacu; additonal reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alistair Bell)

India sees early vaccine launch as AstraZeneca deliveries run late

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India raced ahead with work on its coronavirus vaccine while Britain’s AstraZeneca said its deliveries were running “a little bit late” as countries around the world sought to conquer the pandemic and rescue their economies.

A vaccine is seen as the world’s best bet for taming a virus that has infected more than 48 million people, led to more than 1.2 million deaths, roiled economies and disrupted billions of lives since it was first identified in China in December.

Australia is beefing up its prospective arsenal against the pandemic to 135 million doses of various vaccine candidates.

“We aren’t putting all our eggs in one basket,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday.

Some 45 vaccine candidates are in human trials worldwide, with Pfizer Inc saying it could file in late November for U.S. authorization, opening up the possibility of a vaccine being available in the United States by the end of the year.

Moderna and AstraZeneca are close behind the largest U.S. drugmaker and are likely to have early data on their vaccine candidates before the end of the year.

An Indian government-backed vaccine could be launched as early as February – months earlier than expected – as last-stage trials begin this month and studies have so far showed it is safe and effective, a senior government scientist told Reuters.

Bharat Biotech, a private company that is developing COVAXIN with the government-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), had earlier hoped to launch it only in the second quarter of next year.

“The vaccine has shown good efficacy,” senior ICMR scientist Rajni Kant, who is also a member of its COVID-19 task force, said at the research body’s New Delhi headquarters.

“It is expected that by the beginning of next year, February or March, something would be available.”

Bharat Biotech could not immediately be contacted.

A launch in February would make COVAXIN the first India-made vaccine to be rolled out.

VACCINE KEPT FROZEN

AstraZeneca has signed multiple deals to supply more than three billion doses of its candidate to countries around the world.

But a summer dip in British coronavirus infections had pushed back test results, leading the drugmaker to delay deliveries of shots to the government.

Britain’s vaccines chief said on Wednesday it would receive just 4 million doses of the potential vaccine this year, against initial estimates for 30 million by Sept. 30.

AstraZeneca said on Thursday it was holding back deliveries while it awaits the data from late-stage clinical trials in order to maximize the shelf-life of supplies.

“We are a little bit late in deliveries, which is why the vaccine has been kept in frozen form,” CEO Pascal Soriot said on a conference call.

AstraZeneca and its partner on the project, the University of Oxford, said that data from late-stage trials should land this year.

The United States leads the world in both the number of COVID deaths and infections and the pandemic was a polarizing issue in Tuesday’s presidential election in which votes were still being counted.

Australia’s Morrison said the government would buy 40 million vaccine doses from Novavax and 10 million from Pfizer and BioNTech.

That adds to the 85 million doses Australia has already committed to buy from AstraZeneca and CSL Ltd should trials prove successful.

Among other vaccine candidates around the world, a growing number of Russians are unwilling to be inoculated once a vaccine becomes widely available, the Levada Centre, Russia’s only major independent pollster, said this week.

Russia, raising eyebrows in the West, is rolling out its “Sputnik V” vaccine for domestic use despite the fact that late-stage trials have not yet finished.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

As America counts, the world holds its breath for U.S. election outcome

By Luke Baker, Libby George and Daria Sito-Sucic

LONDON/LAGOS/SARAJEVO (Reuters) – A day after Americans voted in a bitterly contested election, the rest of the world was none the wiser on Wednesday, with millions of votes still to count, the race too close to call and a mounting risk of days or even weeks of legal uncertainty.

Donald Trump’s pre-emptive declaration of victory at the White House was condemned by some U.S. political commentators and civil rights groups, who warned about the trampling of long-standing democratic norms.

Most world leaders and foreign ministers sat on their hands, trying not to add any fuel to the electoral fire.

“Let’s wait and see what the outcome is,” said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. “There’s obviously a significant amount of uncertainty. It’s much closer than I think many had expected.”

But while Raab and others urged caution, the Slovenian prime minister broke ranks, congratulating Trump and the Republican party via Twitter.

“It’s pretty clear that American people have elected @realDonaldTrump and @Mike_Pence for #4moreyears,” wrote Janez Jansa, one of several east European leaders, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who are fervent Trump allies. “Congratulations @GOP for strong results across the #US.”

The latest vote tally showed Democrat challenger Joe Biden with a lead in the Electoral College – 224 votes to 213, with 270 needed for victory – but with counting still be completed in at least five major ‘battleground’ states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Georgia.

In 2000, the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore hinged on Florida. It was ultimately decided in Bush’s favor by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling five weeks after the vote.

In his comments, Trump suggested the Supreme Court – to which he has nominated three of the nine justices – would have to decide the winner again.

On Twitter, the hashtags #Trump, #Biden and #USElections2020 were trending from Russia to Pakistan, Malaysia to Kenya and across Europe and Latin America, underscoring how much every region of the world sees the outcome as pivotal.

In Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies have accused of trying to interfere in the election, there was no official reaction.

But Pro-Kremlin lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov, the grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister, advised Russians to stock up on popcorn to watch the show he predicted was about to unfold, saying U.S. society was fatally split.

“The result of the elections is the worst outcome for America,” Nikonov, who welcomed Trump’s 2016 win, wrote on Facebook. “Whoever wins the legal battles half of Americans will not consider them the lawful president. Let’s stock up on large quantities of popcorn.”

‘IT AFFECTS US ALL’

In Australia, crowds watched the results roll in while drinking beer in an American bar in Sydney.

“The news is so much better when Trump is in,” said Glen Roberts, wearing a red ‘Make Europe Great Again’ baseball cap. “You never know what he said, it’s so good. I think it’ll be less interesting if Trump loses.”

Others were quick to underline the ramifications of the U.S. vote worldwide. “I think it affects us all, what happens over there really matters for the next four years over here,” said Sydney resident Luke Heinrich.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading civil rights groups, warned about the need to reserve judgment on the results until every vote is counted. With a very high number of mail-in ballots this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, full tallies are expected to take days in some states.

Executive director Kenneth Roth said premature declarations of victory were dangerous.

“Autocrats might be perfectly happy to undermine democracy in the United States by welcoming a premature declaration of victory,” he said.

China, whose relations with the United States have sunk to their worst in decades under Trump, said the election was a domestic affair and it had “no position on it”.

Chinese social media users, however, were quick to mock the failure of the U.S. electoral system to deliver a quick and clear result.

“Whether he wins or loses, his final mission is to destroy the appearance of American democracy,” one user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform wrote on Wednesday.

“Let Trump be re-elected and take the U.S. downhill,” another wrote.

In Nigeria, one leading politician, Senator Shehu Sani, said the uncertainty in the United States was reminiscent of Africa.

“Africa used to learn American democracy, America is now learning African democracy,” he tweeted to his 1.6 million followers.

(Reporting by Luke Baker in London, Libby George in Lagos and Daria Sito-Sucic; Additional reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva, Crispian Balmer in Rome, Justyna Pawlak in Warsaw, Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Tony Munroe and Gao Liangping in Beijing; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Factbox: Latest on the worldwide spread of coronavirus

(Reuters) – Coronavirus infections slowed in Australia and New Zealand, while Britain said it was at a “tipping point” on COVID-19 as European countries mulled tightening restrictions to curb a sharp resurgence in cases.

EUROPE

* Britain is at a tipping point on COVID-19, health minister Matt Hancock said, warning that a second national lockdown could be imposed if people don’t follow government rules designed to stop the spread of the virus.

* The Czech government could declare a state of emergency if a recent spike in cases continues in the coming days, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said.

* Protesters in some poorer areas of Madrid that are facing a lockdown to stem a soaring infection rate took to the streets on Sunday to call for better health provisions, complaining of discrimination by the authorities.

* Russia reported 6,148 new cases on Sunday, the second straight day when the daily number of cases exceeded 6,000.

* French health authorities reported 10,569 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Sunday, down from the previous day’s record increase of 13,498.

ASIA-PACIFIC

* Schools in Seoul and nearby areas resumed in-person classes for the first time in almost a month after daily cases dropped to the lowest levels since mid-August.

* Australia’s coronavirus hotspot of Victoria reported on Monday its lowest daily rise in infections in three months, although state Premier Daniel Andrews said there were no plans yet to ease restrictions sooner than expected.

* New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern lifted all coronavirus restrictions across the country, except in second-wave hotspot Auckland, as the number of new infections slowed to a trickle.

AMERICAS

* The United States set a one-day record with over 1 million coronavirus diagnostic tests being performed, but the country needs 6 million to 10 million a day to bring outbreaks under control, according to various experts.

* Brazil and Argentina, Latin American nations seeking more time to commit to the global COVID-19 vaccine facility known as COVAX, said they intend to do so as soon as possible after missing Friday’s deadline.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

* Morocco signed a deal with Russia’s R-Pharm to buy a COVID-19 vaccine produced under a license from Britain’s AstraZeneca, the health ministry said, as its total number of cases approached 100,000.

* Israel entered a second nationwide lockdown at the onset of the Jewish high-holiday season, forcing residents to stay mostly at home amid a resurgence in new cases.

MEDICAL DEVELOPMENTS

* Moderna Inc said it was on track to produce 20 million doses of its experimental coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year, while maintaining its goal of readying 500 million to 1 billion doses in 2021.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

* British manufacturers see no evidence of a ‘V’-shaped recovery from the pandemic underway and many are planning to slash investment, a business survey showed.

(Compiled by Devika Syamnath and Alex Richardson; Edited by Shounak Dasgupta)

Global coronavirus cases surpass 30 million: Reuters tally

By Jane Wardell

(Reuters) – Global coronavirus cases exceeded 30 million on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally, with the pandemic showing no signs of slowing.

India was firmly in focus as the latest epicenter, although North and South America combined still accounted for almost half of the global cases.

Global new daily case numbers reached record levels in recent days and deaths neared 1 million as the international race to develop and market a vaccine heated up.

The official number of global coronavirus cases is now more than five times the number of severe influenza illnesses recorded annually, according to World Health Organization data.

Around the world, there have been almost 1 million deaths, considered a lagging indicator given the two-week incubation period of the virus. That has well exceeded the upper range of 290,000 to 650,000 annual deaths linked to influenza.

India this week became only the second country in the world, after the United States, to record more than 5 million cases. On Thursday, it reported another record daily rise in cases of almost 98,000.

The south Asian nation, the world’s second most populous country, has been reporting more new daily cases than the United States since mid-August and accounts for just over 16% of global known cases.

Reported deaths in India have been relatively low so far but are showing an uptick, and the country has recorded more than 1,000 deaths every day for the last two weeks.

The United States has about 20% of all global cases, although it has just 4% of the world’s population. Brazil, the third worst-hit country, accounts for roughly 15% of global cases.

It took 18 days for global cases to surge from 25 million to more than 30 million. It took 20 days for the world to go from 20 million to 25 million and 19 days to go from 15 million to 20 million.

The global rate of new daily cases is slowing, reflecting progress in constraining the disease in many countries, despite a few big surges.

Australia on Thursday reported its lowest single-day case rise since June as strict lockdown measures in its second largest city of Melbourne, the center of the country’s second wave, appeared to pay off.

Health experts stress that official data almost certainly under-reports both infections and deaths, particularly in countries with limited testing capacity.

The race to develop and bring to market a novel coronavirus vaccine has grown increasingly frenetic in recent weeks with about 200 candidates in development globally.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said his country could have a vaccine ready for distribution before the U.S. election on Nov. 3, while a Chinese health official this week said China may have a vaccine ready for public use as early as November.

While the trajectory of the coronavirus still falls far short of the 1918 Spanish flu, which infected an estimated 500 million people, killing at least 10% of them, experts worry the available data is underplaying the true impact of the pandemic.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell; editing by Robert Birsel and Lisa Shumaker)

Girl power in the deep blue sea: World’s largest fish are female

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Male and female whale sharks – filter-feeding marine behemoths – grow at different rates, with females doing so more slowly but getting much larger than the guys, according to research that offers deeper insight into the biology of Earth’s largest fish.

Researchers said on Wednesday they had tracked the growth of 54 whale sharks over a 10-year period in the vast Ningaloo Reef off Australia’s west coast, where hundreds of these slow-swimming endangered fish migrate annually.

Whale sharks of both sexes were found to have their fastest growth as juveniles, about 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) annually.

Overall, males were found to grow slightly more quickly than females, plateauing at around 26 feet (8 meters) long after reaching sexual maturity at about 30 years old. Females plateaued at around 14 meters (46 feet) when they reached sexual maturity at about age 50.

It is believed whale sharks may live 100-150 years. The longest-known whale shark reached about 60 feet (18 meters).

“Whale sharks are remarkable in that females have massive litters of pups, up to 300 at one time. Being very large is almost certainly a prerequisite for carrying this many young inside a female’s body,” said Australian Institute of Marine Science marine biologist Mark Meekan, who led the research published the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

These sharks have a brownish-grayish color on the back and sides with white spots, with a white underside.

“Our study provides the first evidence that male and female whale sharks grow at different rates,” Meekan said. “Previously, researchers had to rely on estimates of growth and age extracted from the vertebrae of dead sharks that had either stranded on shore or been killed by a fishery. Samples were very limited and didn’t cover a very wide size range of animals, confounding attempts to produce reliable estimates of growth patterns.”

They are filter feeders, swimming great distances through the world’s tropical oceans to find enough plankton to sustain themselves.

“Our study has important implications for conservation,” Meekan said. “If it takes many years, 30 or more, for these animals to become mature, there are lots of threats such as hunting and ship-strike that they may succumb to before they get a chance to breed, making conservation strategies for these animals an urgent task.”

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

New travel curbs imposed as world tackles second COVID-19 wave

By Stephen Coates and Peter Graff

SYDNEY/LONDON (Reuters) – Nations in Asia imposed new restrictions on Monday and an abrupt British quarantine on travelers from Spain threw Europe’s summer reopening into disarray, as the world confronted the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

In the United States, where infection rates have been climbing since mid-June, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien became the most senior White House official to test positive.

Surges were reported in a number of countries previously singled out as places where the virus was under control.

Australia recorded a record daily rise. Vietnam locked down the city of Danang, forcing tens of thousands of visitors to evacuate. Mainland China confirmed the most new locally transmitted cases since early March. Papua New Guinea shut its borders.

Hong Kong banned gatherings of more than two people, closed down restaurant dining and introduced mandatory face masks in public places, including outdoors.

Just weeks after European countries trumpeted the reopening of tourism, a surge in infections in Spain prompted Britain to order all travelers from there to quarantine for two weeks, torpedoing the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people.

The World Health Organization said travel restrictions could not be the answer for the long term, and countries had to do more to halt the spread inside their borders by adopting proven strategies such as social distancing and the wearing of masks.

“It is going to be almost impossible for individual countries to keep their borders shut for the foreseeable future. Economies have to open up, people have to work, trade has to resume,” WHO emergencies program director Mike Ryan said.

“What is clear is pressure on the virus pushes the numbers down. Release that pressure and cases creep back up.”

NOT LIKE BEFORE

Officials in some of the European and Asian countries where the virus is again spreading say new outbreaks will not be as bad as the original waves that hit earlier this year, and can be contained with local measures rather than nationwide shutdowns.

But countries that have suffered extreme economic hardship from months of lockdowns are also determined not to let the virus get out of control again, even if that means reversing the path to reopening.

Europe has yet to lift bans on travelers from many countries, including the United States where the White House said national security adviser O’Brien presented no risk of infection for Trump or Vice President Mike Pence.

Britain’s announcement of the return of quarantine for Spain was likely to torpedo the revival of airlines and tourism businesses across the continent, which had thought they had survived their biggest crisis in living memory.

Britain accounts for more than 20% of foreign visitors to Spain, where tourism represents 12% of the economy.

Europe’s biggest airline, Ryanair, cut its annual passenger target by a quarter on Monday and warned a second wave of COVID-19 infections could lower that further.

A British junior health minister said more European countries could end up on the “red list” if infections surge.

“If we see the rates going up, we would have to take action because we cannot take the risk of coronavirus being spread again across the UK,” Helen Whately told Sky News when asked if Germany or France might be next after Spain.

In China, which managed to squelch local transmission through firm lockdowns after the virus first emerged in the central city of Wuhan late last year, a new surge has been driven by infections in the far western region of Xinjiang.

In the northeast, Liaoning province reported a fifth straight day of new infections and Jilin province reported two new cases, its first since late May.

Australian authorities who have imposed a six-week lockdown in parts of the southeastern state of Victoria said it could last longer after the country’s highest daily increase in infections.

“The tragedy of COVID-19 is that we know, with the number of new infections that we have seen today, that there will be many further deaths in the days ahead,” Australian Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd told reporters.

In Japan, the government said it would urge business leaders to ramp up anti-virus measures such as staggered shifts, and aimed to see rates of telecommuting return to levels achieved during an earlier state of emergency.

“At one point, commuter numbers were down by 70 to 80%, but now it’s only about 30%,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said late on Sunday. “We really don’t want to backtrack on this, so we have to explore new ways of working and keep telecommuting high.”

Vietnam is evacuating 80,000 people, mostly local tourists, from Danang after three residents tested positive at the weekend. Until Saturday, the country had reported no community infections since April.

North Korean state media reported on the weekend that the border town of Kaesong was in lockdown after a person who defected to South Korea three years ago returned this month with symptoms of COVID-19. If confirmed, it would be the first case officially acknowledged by Pyongyang.

Papua New Guinea halted entry for travellers from Monday, except those arriving by air, as it tightens curbs against infections that have more than doubled over the past week.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Stephen Coates and Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie)