Canada’s biggest provinces seek clamp down on social gatherings as coronavirus wave spreads

By Mahad Arale and Allison Lampert

TORONTO/MONTREAL (Reuters) – Canada’s two most populous provinces on Friday moved to clamp down further on social gatherings in a bid to slow a second wave of coronavirus cases sweeping across much of the country.

Ontario ordered the closure of bars and restaurants from midnight to 5 a.m. except for takeout and delivery and said strip clubs would have to shut down from Saturday.

Premier Doug Ford, whose government has already slashed the size of permitted gatherings indoor and outdoors, repeated his concerns that the majority of new cases were in people under 40.

“I can tell you I don’t see seniors going into nightclubs too often,” he told a daily briefing.

Health officials in Canada have been making increasingly gloomy comments in recent days. Theresa Tam, the chief medical officer, said on Friday that some local authorities could be overwhelmed unless the wave was curbed.

In Quebec, Health Minister Christian Dube urged residents to cut down on social interactions.

“We’re asking you to make a special effort for the next 28 days,” he told a news conference, saying the government did not want to close bars because people might then attend private parties that are harder to control.

Ontario and Quebec together account for 79% of the 149,094 cases reported in Canada so far and 93% of the 9,249 deaths.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada signed a deal with AstraZeneca PLC to buy up to 20 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. It is among the leading candidates in the global race for a vaccine.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand said in an interview that the first doses were due in early 2021, assuming public trials went well.

Canada has now signed deals for a total of around 300 million doses of vaccine candidates from a number of major pharmaceutical firms.

(Additional reporting by Allison Martell in Montreal, writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Alistair Bell)

Virginia governor Northam tests positive for COVID-19

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on Friday said he and his wife have tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the latest U.S. state governor to announce this week that they have contracted the highly contagious virus.

Northam, a Democrat, announced his positive test results in a post on Twitter, saying he is asymptomatic and will continue to work while isolating at home. Republican Missouri Governor Mike Parson this week said preliminary tests showed he and his wife were positive for COVID-19.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Colleges reopenings in-person likely added 3,000 U.S. COVID-19 cases per day: study

By Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters) – Reopening college and university campuses for in-person instruction during late summer this year could be associated with more than 3,000 additional cases of COVID-19 per day in the United States in recent weeks, according to a new study.

The findings call into question the practicality of face-to-face classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, and are important as colleges and universities plan their spring 2020 semesters, said researchers from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Indiana University, the University of Washington and Davidson College.

The findings are yet to be peer reviewed and have not yet been published online.

To track COVID-19 cases and study their association with students attending classes at college campuses, the team used location data from a database of cellphone users who agreed to share information. The information was gathered from July 15 to Sept. 13.

They also looked at COVID-19 infection rates in counties with campuses, before and after colleges reopened and students arrived.

The researchers noted significant increases in counties where colleges had reopened for face-to-face instruction, especially in and around campuses with students who came from areas with higher incidences of COVID-19.

“We are able to predict between 1,000 and 5,000 additional cases a day due to colleges reopening for face-to-face instruction, with our best estimate being somewhere around 3,219 cases a day,” said Ana Bento, a co-author of the study, from Indiana University’s School of Public Health.

The study did not go into how many COVID-19 cases were “imported” – or from students who arrived on campuses – and how many were local transmissions.

The team also pointed out that asymptomatic cases may not have been caught unless testing was done on campuses regardless of symptoms, and that the study did not look at measures taken by individual colleges.

(Reporting by Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. CDC reports 202,329 deaths from coronavirus

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday reported 6,958,632 cases of the new coronavirus, an increase of 42,340 cases from its previous count, and said that the number of deaths had risen by 918 to 202,329.

The CDC reported its tally of cases of the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, caused by a new coronavirus, as of 4 p.m. ET on Sept. 24 compared with its previous report a day earlier.

The CDC figures do not necessarily reflect cases reported by individual states.

(Reporting by Dania Nadeem in Bengaluru; Editing by Vinay Dwivedi)

COVID-19 death toll could double to two million before vaccine in wide use: WHO

GENEVA/ZURICH (Reuters) – The global death toll from COVID-19 could double to 2 million before a successful vaccine is widely used and could be even higher without concerted action to curb the pandemic, an official at the World Health Organization said on Friday.

“Unless we do it all, (2 million deaths) … is not only imaginable, but sadly very likely,” Mike Ryan, head of the U.N. agency’s emergencies program, told a briefing on Friday.

The number of deaths about nine months since the novel coronavirus was discovered in China is nearing 1 million

“We are not out of the woods anywhere, we are not out of the woods in Africa,” said Ryan.

He said young people should not be blamed for a recent increase in infections despite growing concerns that they are driving its spread after restrictions and lockdowns were eased around the world.

“I really hope we don’t get into finger wagging: it’s all because of the youth,” said Ryan. “The last thing a young person needs is an old person pontificating and wagging the finger.”

Rather, indoor gatherings of people of all ages were driving the epidemic, he said.

The WHO is continuing talks with China about its possible involvement in the COVAX financing scheme designed to guarantee fast and equitable access globally to COVID-19 vaccines, a week after the deadline for committing passed.

“We’re in discussions with China about the role they may play as we go forward,” said Bruce Aylward, WHO senior adviser and head of the ACT-Accelerator program to back vaccines, treatments and diagnostics against COVID-19.

He confirmed that Taiwan has signed up to the scheme, even though it is not a WHO member, bringing the total to 159 participants. Some 34 are still deciding.

Talks with China also include discussion of the world’s second-largest economy potentially supplying vaccines to the scheme, he said.

The UN agency published on Friday draft criteria for the assessment of emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines to help guide drugmakers as vaccine trials reach advanced stages, said WHO assistant director-general, Mariangela Simao.

The document will be available for public comment until Oct. 8, she said.

Earlier on Friday, a Chinese health official said the WHO had given its support for the country to start administering experimental coronavirus vaccines to people even while clinical trials were still underway.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebenay and Emma Farge in Geneva and Michael Shields in Zurich; Writing by Josephine Mason in London; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Timothy Heritage, Kirsten Donovan)

Two charged in deadly COVID-19 outbreak at Massachusetts veterans’ home

(Reuters) – Two people were indicted for their alleged role in a COVID-19 outbreak at a Massachusetts veterans’ home that contributed to the deaths of at least 76 residents, the state’s attorney general announced on Friday.

A grand jury on Thursday indicted superintendent Bennett Walsh and David Clinton, the former medical director of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, on charges of criminal neglect related to their work at the facility.

“We allege that the actions of these defendants during the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility put veterans at higher risk of infection and death and warrant criminal charges,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement.

Healey said the charges stem from the two individuals’ roles in decision-making at the home that led to the consolidation of two dementia units into one.

The move placed symptomatic residents, including some who had tested positive for the coronavirus, and asymptomatic residents in close proximity,” increasing the exposure of asymptomatic veterans to the virus,” officials said.

“We believe this is the first criminal case in the country brought against those involved in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Healey told a news conference.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, additional reporting by Peter Szekely, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

French labs show how global supply bottlenecks thwart effort to ramp up testing

By Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – Mass testing was meant to be the answer to the second wave. Politicians promised that with enough tests, conducted quickly enough, they could keep the coronavirus in check, without having to resort to lockdowns that crippled economies six months ago.

But so far, with a surge sweeping Europe just as students return to school and university, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. There aren’t enough tests, and they are taking too long.

Pierre-Adrien Bihl, who runs four labs that together conduct 800 tests a day in eastern France, has one explanation for what has gone wrong: a global supply chain that can’t keep up.

“I spend my days checking orders have been made and received and hassling my supplier to deliver, deliver, deliver,” he said. “But all their clients demand the same thing.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, like other European leaders, has pressed for a swift increase in tests. His government promises that anyone who needs a test can get one.

But five companies that operate laboratories in Paris and eastern France told Reuters there was simply no way they could work any faster, as long as they are struggling to obtain chemicals and test kits that are mainly produced abroad.

This week, Bihl said, he had to take his diagnostic machine offline for nearly 24 hours, after a four-day delay in the delivery of some single-use parts.

The shutdown forced Bihl to reduce testing appointments until the backlog could be made up, he said, adding that such shutdowns were taking place three or four times a month.

Arthur Clement, who runs four laboratories, said the U.S. manufacturer of his diagnostic machine, Cepheid, was sending him just 300 test kits per month at the end of the summer, as cases surged.

With his labs performing 25,000 tests per month, Clement had to send nearly all of them out to a third party, where they were taking up to 7-10 days to get results. Cepheid did not respond to a request for comment.

Clement ordered a new diagnostic machine from a South Korean manufacturer two months ago, which finally arrived last Friday, and now he says he can perform all tests in-house and deliver results in a day.

GLOBAL MARKET

In Paris, queues snake out of testing centers each day, with lines forming before sunrise at some. People with COVID symptoms are waiting on average three days for their results, according to official data, though for some the wait can be double.

France is now conducting more than 1.2 million polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests per week in response to the epidemic, which has killed more than 31,000 people in the country and infected nearly half a million.

The French health ministry denies that there is a nationwide shortage of chemicals. It says there have been localized shortages in some parts of the country, but the overall supply is adequate. Health Minister Olivier Veran has said France has access to supplies of reagents equivalent to double the actual demand for tests.

But laboratories can’t just order chemicals from anywhere: testing machines typically require proprietary chemical kits and tools, some of which can be obtained only from the manufacturer.

The ministry recommends laboratories diversify their suppliers of testing machines, to mitigate the risk of one supply chain becoming blocked. But that means buying extra machines to duplicate capacity, which costs more money and can take months.

Suppliers of the machines to French labs include Cepheid and Becton Dickinson in the United States, Switzerland’s Roche, and France’s Biomerieux and Eurobio Scientific.

Cepheid, Roche and Eurobio Scientific did not respond to requests for comment on the supply of COVID equipment and reagents.

Becton Dickinson told Reuters in an email it was delivering more than 1 million tests per month globally. It acknowledged that this has fallen short of demand, but said it aims to scale up to 1.9 million per month by late 2020.

Biomerieux said its sites in France had spare capacity.

Lionel Barrand, one of the five laboratory operators who spoke to Reuters, said the supply-chain crunch was partly rooted in France’s reliance on imported reagents. He estimated 90% of COVID-19 reagents used in France were sourced overseas.

“We depend heavily on the global market,” said Barrand, who heads a laboratory industry group, the Syndicat National des Jeunes Biologistes.

Some of the French laboratories worry that U.S. suppliers such as Cepheid and Becton Dickinson are prioritizing labs in the United States, where healthcare costs are higher and profit margins bigger.

Becton Dickinson said it allocates test kits using quotas, which are set on the basis of the number of its testing machines in a country and the severity of outbreaks.

“We do not use pricing, margins or profit as a factor in our allocations,” the company said.

(Reporting by Richard Lough; Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont; Editing by Peter Graff)

The ventilators never came: How graft hampered Brazil’s COVID-19 response

By Gram Slattery and Ricardo Brito

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – As COVID-19 patients flooded Rio de Janeiro’s public health system from early April to late May, Dr. Pedro Archer found himself making gut-wrenching decisions.

People struggling to breathe needed ventilators, he said, but there weren’t enough to go around; those with a slim chance of recovery were passed over.

“Every shift it was like that,” said Archer, a surgeon at a municipal hospital in Rio de Janeiro, a metropolis of 6.7 million people anchoring a state of the same name. “Sometimes, I would give them sedatives just so that they didn’t suffer. Eventually, they would pass away.”

Some of those deaths, state and federal prosecutors now say, may have been avoidable. They allege that top officials here sought to pocket up to 400 million reais ($72.2 million) via corruption schemes that steered inflated state contracts to allies during the pandemic. The deals, they said, included three contracts for 1,000 ventilators, most of which never arrived.

Rio state Health Secretary Edmar Santos was arrested July 10 and charged with corruption in connection with those contracts. A lawyer for Santos did not respond to a request for comment. Santos admitted to participating in various illicit schemes involving rigged public tenders, according to confidential court documents prepared by federal investigators laying out the alleged scams, which were reviewed by Reuters. He is now a cooperating witness in the probe, the documents said.

Separately, a federal judge suspended Rio state Governor Wilson Witzel from office on August 28 out of concern he might interfere with the investigations. Witzel is also facing impeachment proceedings over alleged graft.

He denied wrongdoing in a statement to Reuters. Vice-Governor Claudio Castro, who took over for Witzel in August, did not respond to a request for comment.

Latin America has been hit hard by the pandemic, with over 8.9 million confirmed coronavirus cases as of September 24, according to a Reuters tally. Brazil alone has registered over 139,000 COVID-19 deaths, second only to the United States.

If the city of Rio were a country, its per capita mortality rate from the coronavirus would rank as the world’s worst, according to a Reuters calculation based on John Hopkins University data. More than 10,000 people have died from COVID-19 in this postcard city of sea and sand, and more than 18,000 statewide.

The region’s response to the pandemic has been hobbled by various factors, experts say, including poverty and crowded urban living conditions. Some leaders, including Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, have played down the pandemic’s severity.

But the virus has also been aided by greed.

Similar to Brazil, investigators in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru have likewise alleged that officials there lined their pockets through pandemic-related graft schemes.

In court documents detailing the alleged scams in Rio, Brazilian prosecutors describe a series of inter-related criminal enterprises, in which emergency contracts for masks, coronavirus tests – even hand gel – were allegedly rigged.

Reuters reviewed hundreds of pages of prosecutors’ allegations, many confidential and not previously reported; and it interviewed more than a dozen medical professionals and good-government experts who condemned the opportunism they say has compounded coronavirus misery in Rio.

“The pandemic allowed governments to spend significant resources very quickly while internal controls were relaxed due to the emergency,” said Guilherme France, research director for Transparency International in Brazil. “It ended up creating a perfect storm for corruption.”

A representative of Witzel said the suspended governor increased internal controls in the Rio state government, adding that he had fired many public servants accused of “irregularities” during his time in power.

GHOST HOSPITALS

Rio state’s pandemic response called for seven field hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients. Officials at the state health ministry, known as SES, awarded contracts worth 836 million reais ($151 million) to a nonprofit health organization named IABAS to build the structures, which were to open by April 30. Just two have  opened so far, one in mid-May, the other in late June, well after the initial COVID-19 surge.

In late July, as the pandemic eased in Rio, one of those structures located in the working-class city of São Gonçalo was dismantled amid a lack of patients. All that remains is a large field, stripped of grass and littered with debris.

The IABAS contracts are part of an alleged kickback racket spearheaded by Mario Peixoto, a local entrepreneur arrested in May for reputedly defrauding the Rio state health system. Federal court documents submitted by prosecutors describe a complex scheme in which associates of Peixoto allegedly arranged for bribes to be routed to government officials to secure a variety of public health contracts, including the field hospitals.

Lawyers for Peixoto said he is innocent and did not participate in the field hospital deal. His trial is pending.

Federal prosecutors have not charged IABAS. But in confidential court documents they filed asking a judge to authorize the arrest of additional suspects, they said there was no “room for doubt” that IABAS’ winning bid was tainted by graft. Among the various irregularities cited by prosecutors: IABAS drafted its winning proposal before SES solicited offers.

IABAS told Reuters it won the hospital contracts by offering the lowest price. It said SES made frequent changes to the agreement, which slowed construction. IABAS said six of the seven structures were either completed or nearly finished in early June, when Rio state canceled its contract and took control of all the project sites.

In a statement to Reuters, SES disputed IABAS’ characterization of the progress it had made. It said four of the seven field hospitals were far from complete when the state took over.

SES declined to comment on IABAS’ allegation that the health ministry made frequent changes to the construction agreement. SES said it had saved more than 500 million reais ($90.3 million) by suspending payments to IABAS following the corruption allegations made by prosecutors. The ministry said it is cooperating with the investigation.

MISSING VENTILATORS

Prosecutors say Rio’s state government also rushed out ventilator contracts to three companies that had little or no relevant experience.

According to court documents summarizing prosecutors’ findings, Rio on March 21 awarded a little-known firm, Arc Fontoura, a contract worth 68 million reais ($12.3 million) to provide 400 ventilators for immediate delivery. State auditors have since determined Rio’s health ministry paid a nearly 200% markup from the market price.

Arc Fontoura had not previously contracted with the state, and tax documents indicated the firm’s annual revenue was no more than 4.8 million reais ($870,000), prosecutors said. The company’s registered address, Reuters found, is a small residence in a working-class part of the city.

When Rio received a small batch of the ventilators from the company at the end of March, hospital workers complained to SES that the machines lacked key components, prosecutors said in the court documents summarizing their findings. The documents did not make clear in which hospital the health workers were stationed.

Arc Fontoura did not respond to phone calls or e-mails or receive Reuters at its listed address.

On April 1, SES awarded contracts worth a combined 116 million reais ($20.9 million) to two other firms – MHS Produtos e Servicos and A2A Comercio – to supply 300 ventilators each.

Rio prosecutors quickly identified irregularities, according to court documents, starting with the timing of the companies’ bids.  The little-known enterprises submitted their proposals less than an hour after SES opened the tender, which was not advertised beforehand, a sign the firms had been tipped off, prosecutors said.

By May 8, Rio’s state health department said publicly that of the 1,000 ventilators it had ordered, just 52 had been delivered, all from Arc Fontoura. SES said in early May it had canceled its contract with A2A because of “the company’s inability to deliver” the ventilators. A2A did not respond to requests for comment.

MHS owner Glauco Guerra  denied wrongdoing. He said in an email that his company had significant experience providing services to federal agencies. He said he submitted his bid a day after the tender was opened, not within a few hours, as prosecutors had alleged. Guerra said SES entered his bid documents into its computer system in a way that led prosecutors to misinterpret the timeline.

He said 97 ventilators were delivered to SES on June 6, and that the agency later canceled the contract for the remainder. State prosecutors confirmed in public documents seen by Reuters that 97 ventilators ordered by MHS had arrived at a Rio airport in early June.

SES said in a statement to Reuters that all contracts signed “during the pandemic are being audited and revised,” adding that any irregularities will be punished. The ministry declined to comment on  MHS’ claim that its bid documents were entered into the SES system in a misleading fashion, citing ongoing investigations into the matter.

Archer, the surgeon, says his experience battling COVID-19 without enough ventilators has left him bitter.

During the peak of the pandemic in April and May, he said as many as 30 patients in his care were waiting for the machines. Many were too unstable to move to hospitals elsewhere and ultimately died, he said.

How many patients could have been saved, he wondered. How many did corruption kill?

“It’s very difficult to accept things you know are wrong,” Archer said.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery in Rio de Janeiro and Ricardo Brito in Brasília; Additional reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier in Rio de Janeiro; editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Marla Dickerson)

Pioneering Justice Ginsburg makes history again with U.S. Capitol honor

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of gender equality, will make history again on Friday as the first woman and the first Jewish person to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will be among those who will visit to pay their respects on Friday, when the late justice’s casket will be placed in National Statuary Hall, encircled by sculptures of prominent Americans.

Ginsburg, a stalwart liberal on the high court since 1993, died last Friday at age 87. Known simply as RBG, she was an icon to millions of Americans – including young girls – after a long legal career built on fighting for women’s rights.

Her ceremony will feature remarks by a woman rabbi, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

“We have a lot of cause for … observance of a historic time, for a historic woman who did more for the equality of women than anybody in our history,” Pelosi told her weekly news conference on Thursday.

“Her passing is like a death in so many families in our country because so many people pinned their hopes, heeded her guidance, admired her stamina, her love of the arts, bringing civility to her relationships in the court and in the country,” Pelosi said.

Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was also mourned at the Capitol in 2005, but as a private citizen, she lay “in honor,” not “in state.” A statue of Parks, placed in 2013, will overlook Ginsburg’s casket during the ceremony.

Biden, who presided over Ginsburg’s confirmation hearings as a senator in 1993, said the judge was a “voice for freedom and opportunity.” He has called for Republicans to honor her wishes and not consider a nominee until after the Nov. 3 presidential election. Also visiting the Capitol on Friday will be Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, and Biden’s wife, Jill.

Statuary Hall was prepared for the ceremony by Thursday afternoon. Thick black ribbons were affixed to the colossal marble columns around the room’s perimeter, surrounding the area where a catafalque was to hold Ginsburg’s flag-draped coffin.

Crowds of mourners have flocked to the U.S. Supreme Court, across the street from the Capitol, since Ginsburg’s death was announced, standing vigil and leaving flowers and signs.

Just down a hallway from Statuary Hall, Trump’s fellow Republicans – who narrowly control the bitterly divided Senate – have pledged to confirm his as-yet-unidentified nominee to replace Ginsburg within the next few weeks, angering Democrats who feel he should wait until after the election.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ginsburg’s admirers have had to pay their respects outdoors at her coffin for two days of public viewing under the Supreme Court’s soaring portico.

The Capitol ceremony on Friday morning will be limited to invited guests because of concerns about the virus.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Mary Milliken and David Gregorio)

U.S. CDC reports 201,411 coronavirus deaths

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday reported 6,916,292 cases of the new coronavirus, an increase of 41,310 cases from its previous count, and said that the number of deaths had risen by 1,136 to 201,411.

The CDC reported its tally of cases of the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, caused by the new coronavirus, as of 4 p.m. ET on Sept. 23 compared with its previous report a day earlier.

The CDC figures do not necessarily reflect cases reported by individual states.

(Reporting By Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Vinay Dwivedi)