Kenya hails first vaccine ‘bazookas,’ Rwanda secures Pfizer shots

By Omar Mohammed and Clement Uwiringiyimana

NAIROBI/KIGALI (Reuters) – Kenya received over a million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, while Rwanda said it was the first in Africa to secure shots from Pfizer, as efforts to inoculate the world’s poorest nations accelerated.

With fewer resources and tougher logistics than other regions, African nations are racing to secure the doses needed to protect their roughly 1.3 billion people and allow the safe reopening of economies.

Africa has been relatively lightly hit by the coronavirus compared with other regions, recording 104,000 deaths, according to a Reuters tally. That is lower than national tolls in the United States, India, Brazil, Russia and Britain.

Kenya’s batch, which arrived on a Qatar Airways passenger flight, is the first of an initial allocation of 3.56 million doses by the global COVAX facility.

“We have received … machine guns, bazookas, and tanks to fight this war against COVID-19,” Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe exulted as the doses arrived at Nairobi’s main airport.

COVAX, which is led by the GAVI vaccines alliance along with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners, aims to deliver over 1.3 billion doses to 92 lower- and middle-income countries, covering up to 20% of their populations.

Backers of the initiative hope to level a playing field that has seen wealthier nations quickly vaccinate millions, ahead of poorer regions. Only a few African nations have started inoculating citizens with vaccines acquired outside of COVAX.

First shots under COVAX are arriving at several African nations this week, including Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.

Senegal, which received 200,000 doses developed by China’s Sinopharm last month, got an additional 324,000 shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday, via COVAX.

COLD STORAGE

In Kigali, officials said Rwanda will get the first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 shots to be dispatched to Africa under the vaccine-sharing scheme. The Pfizer vaccine presents an extra logistical challenge because it requires ultra-cold storage.

The batch of 102,960 doses were due in Kigali on Wednesday, hours after a flight landed carrying 240,000 AstraZeneca doses from the Serum Institute of India, the health ministry said. The government has installed special infrastructure to keep the vaccine at -70 degrees.

“Rwanda is one of the first countries among the low income countries to have ultra-cold chain,” said Fode Ndiaye, the United Nations’ resident coordinator.

Rwanda plans to start its vaccination drive on Friday, prioritizing frontline health workers and others at high risk. It hopes to vaccinate 30% of its roughly 12 million people before the end of this year.

Despite Africa’s comparatively low fatalities, fragile economies across the continent are reeling from lockdowns.

Kenya, which has so far recorded 106,470 infections and 1,863 deaths, has taken a major economic hit from the virus, which cut the flow of tourists, a crucial source of foreign exchange and jobs.

Nairobi plans to prioritize 400,000 health workers nationwide in a vaccination campaign starting on Friday, the health ministry said.

It will join Ivory Coast, Ghana and South Africa among the nations in sub-Saharan Africa to start vaccination drives.

(Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Thirteen die as truck slams crowded SUV near U.S.-Mexico border

By Sharon Bernstein and Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – At least 13 people were killed on Tuesday when a maroon Ford Expedition crammed with 25 adults and children was slammed by a tractor-trailer near the U.S.-Mexico border, officials said.

It was not immediately clear how fast the vehicles were going, or whether the SUV had observed a stop sign before heading into an intersection along State Route 115 near El Centro, about 10 miles (16.1 km) north of the border, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) said.

Those killed, who included the driver of the SUV, ranged in age from 20 to 55, and minors as young as 16 were injured, said Omar Watson, chief of the highway patrol’s border division.

Television images by an NBC affiliate showed the maroon SUV crunched next to a white truck cab with the name Haven and Sons written on the side.

Several of the occupants were ejected from the vehicle and died on the pavement; others died inside the SUV, Watson said.

Despite the presence of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and Spanish translators, Watson did not address whether the SUV’s occupants were migrant workers or others who might have crossed from Mexico in an overcrowded vehicle. Most of the survivors are Spanish-speaking, a CBP spokesperson said.

Although the number varies by trim and model year, the Ford Expedition typically is designed to hold five to eight people.

Watson said the CHP was working with the Mexican Consulate to determine who was in the vehicle and notify families of fatalities.

The CBP spokesperson, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the case, said that the agency was not in pursuit of or aware of the vehicle until the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department asked for its help at the crash site.

The agency does not know and is not investigating the immigration status of the people at this time.

The driver of the tractor-trailer, which was hauling two loads of gravel, was also hospitalized with moderate injuries, Watson said.

Several of the victims were taken to El Centro Regional Medical Center, the director of the hospital’s emergency room, Judy Cruz, said in a news briefing posted on Facebook.

Agriculture drives the economy around El Centro. Known as the Imperial Valley, the area is a big producer of fruits, vegetables, grain and cattle despite being desert due to irrigation from the Colorado River and a long growing season.

Hospital officials had previously said that 27 people were in the SUV, and that 15 had died, but Watson said that there were 25 passengers and 13 fatalities.

Three patients were flown to other hospitals from the crash, and seven others were brought to El Centro. One person died at the hospital, Cruz said.

“The patients are going through a little bit of a difficult time as you can imagine,” said Adolphe Edward, chief executive officer of El Centro Regional Medical Center.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California. Additional reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles.; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Matthew Lewis and Cynthia Osterman)

Napa Valley wineries menaced by wildfire, as second California blaze kills three

By Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam

CALISTOGA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters in Northern California on Tuesday struggled to make headway against two fast-moving, destructive wildfires, one threatening towns and wineries in Napa Valley and another that killed three people in the Cascade foothills closer to the Oregon border.

The three fatalities in the so-called Zogg Fire that erupted on Sunday in Shasta County, about 200 miles (322 km) north of San Francisco, were reported Monday evening by the local sheriff. As of Tuesday there were still no details on how or when they perished.

All three were civilians, and their deaths brought to 30 the number of people killed since January – 29 of them just over the past six weeks – in what now stands as the worst year on record for California wildfires in terms of acreage burned

Farther south, the Glass Fire also raged for a third day in wine country, where it destroyed the popular mansion-like Chateau Boswell winery Sunday night and a building at the Castello di Amorosa winery, whose landmark architecture was inspired by a 13th-century Tuscan castle, on Monday.

But wine industry officials said the longer-term ramifications of the Glass Fire and a spate of other blazes that came before it is likely to be a 2020 vintage of diminished volume because of grapes spoiled by heavy exposure to smoke.

Some 80,000 people have been placed under evacuation orders in the middle of harvest season, including all 5,300 residents of Calistoga, a resort town known for its hot springs and mud baths and the site of the Castello di Amorosa complex.

Although both fires were still zero-percent contained, calmer winds could give firefighters an edge on Tuesday despite continuing above-normal heat and low humidity, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, officials said.

The Zogg fire, burning near the town of Redding, has destroyed 146 structures and charred more than 40,000 acres (16,180 hectares) of grassy hillsides and oak woodlands thick with dense, dry scrub. About 15,000 structures were listed as threatened, and 2,200 residents were under evacuation orders or advisories.

After merging with three other blazes, the Glass Fire had spread across more than 42,000 acres (16,990 hectares) in Napa and Sonoma counties, incinerating at least 80 homes and 32 other structures, according to Cal Fire.

Napa Valley residents Matthew Rivard and Amanda Crean parked their car by a sign reading “Welcome to the World Famous Wine Growing Region” on Monday night and watched flames surround the Schramsberg Vineyards, known for its sparkling wines.

WINE COUNTRY HAVOC

A short distance to the northwest, flames destroyed a farmhouse containing a wine-storage chamber, a fermentation room, a bottling facility and offices at the Castello di Amorosa winery, but its distinctive castle complex and tasting room remained unscathed, Chief Executive Georg Salzner said.

The majority of its wine supply, about 100,000 cases stored elsewhere, remained safe, he said. The owner, Dario Sattui, had hurried to the complex before dawn on Monday to find the castle surrounded by flames and called for help, Salzner told Reuters.

“The main building, which was not affected, might have burned down too if it hadn’t been for the firefighters,” he said.

In the heart of Calistoga, the evacuation left its main street, known for boutiques and tasting rooms, looking like a ghost town, according to a Reuters photographer.

As of Wednesday, no wineries were reported to have burned in neighboring Sonoma County, though a “couple of outbuildings and accessory buildings” were damaged, said Michael Haney, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners trade group.

The Glass Fire struck midway through the traditional grape-harvesting season in Napa and Sonoma counties, both world-renowned among California’s wine-producing regions and still reeling from a cluster of large wildfires earlier this summer.

The full effect on the region’s wine business remained to be seen. But Haney said vintners would likely scale back production of certain wines due to smoke exposure to grapes still on the vines when the fires struck.

“I do know there are wineries saying we have been impacted and we won’t be making as much wine,” he said. Several Napa Valley growers said recently they would forgo a 2020 vintage altogether due to smoke contamination of their crop.

The blazes in Shasta County and wine country marked the latest flashpoints in a destructive spate of wildfires this summer across the U.S. West.

California fires have scorched over 3.8 million acres (1.5 million hectares) since January – far exceeding any single year in state history. They have been stoked by increasingly frequent and prolonged bouts of extreme heat, high winds and dry-lightning sieges that scientists attribute to climate change.

More than 7,000 homes and other structures have burned statewide this year.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam; Additional reporting and writing by Andrew Hay and Steve Gorman; Editing by David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)

Northern California wildfires kill three, force evacuation of thousands

By Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) – A northern California wildfire raging in the foothills of the Cascade range has claimed three lives, officials said on Monday, as a separate blaze prompted mass evacuations and spread turmoil to the famed wine-producing regions of Napa and Sonoma counties.

The three fatalities in the so-called Zogg Fire in Shasta County, which erupted on Sunday near Redding, about 200 miles north of San Francisco, were reported by the county sheriff and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire). They were all civilians.

No further details about the victims or how they perished were immediately provided. But the deaths bring to 29 the number of people killed since mid-August in a California wildfire season of historic proportions.

The Zogg fire, which has destroyed 146 structures and charred 31,000 acres of grassy hillsides and oak woodlands thick with dry scrub, coincided with the outbreak of another conflagration in the heart of California’s wine country north of the Bay area.

That blaze, dubbed the Glass Fire, has spread across 36,000 acres of similar terrain in Napa and Sonoma counties since early Sunday, incinerating more than 100 homes and other buildings, forcing thousands of residents to flee and threatening world-renowned vineyards, according to CalFire.

Both fires were listed at zero containment as of Monday evening. The cause of each was under investigation.

They marked the latest flashpoints in a destructive spate of wildfires this summer across the Western United States.

In California this year, wildfires have scorched 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares) since January – far exceeding any single year in state history. They have been stoked by intense, prolonged bouts of heat, high winds and other weather extremes that scientists attribute to climate change.

More than 7,000 homes and other structures have burned statewide so far this year.

LANDMARK CHATEAU BURNS

The Glass Fire broke out in Napa Valley before dawn near Calistoga before merging with two other blazes into a larger eruption of flames straddling western Napa County and an adjacent swath of Sonoma County.

In one notable property loss, the mansion-like Chateau Boswell winery in St. Helena – a familiar landmark along the Silverado Trail road running the length of the Napa Valley – went up in flames on Sunday night.

An estimated 60,000 residents have been placed under evacuation orders or advisories in Sonoma and Napa counties combined, but no injuries have been reported.

Not everyone heeded evacuation orders.

In 2017, roughly 5% of Santa Rosa’s homes were lost when downed power lines sparked a devastating firestorm in October that swept the region, killing 19 people.

HARVEST SEASON SMOKE

The Glass Fire struck about midway through the region’s traditional grape-harvesting season, already disrupted by a spate of large fires earlier this summer.

Several Napa Valley growers said recently they would forgo a 2020 vintage altogether due to smoke contamination of ripening grapes waiting to be picked.

The 475 vintners in Napa Valley alone account for just 4% of the state’s grape harvest but half the retail value of all California wines sold. Sonoma County, too, has become a premiere viticulture region with some 450 wineries and a million acres of vineyards.

The full impact on the region’s wine business remains to be seen and will differ for each grower, depending on how far along they are in the harvest, said Teresa Wall, spokeswoman for the Napa Valley Vintners trade group.

“There are some who were close to wrapping up, and some who were still planning to leave their grapes hanging out there for a while,” she said.

The fires caused major upheavals for the area’s most vulnerable residents already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Adventist Health St. Helena hospital was forced to evacuate patients on Sunday, the second time in a month following a lightning-sparked wildfire in August.

On Monday, residents at Oakmont Gardens, a Santa Rosa retirement community, leaned on walkers and waited to board a bus taking them to safety, their face masks doubling as protection against smoke and COVID-19.

Over 100,000 homes and business have suffered power outages across northern California since Sunday, some from precautionary shutoffs of transmission lines to reduce wildfire risks in the midst of extremely windy, hot, dry weather, Pacific Gas and Electric Co reported.

Red-flag warnings for extreme wildfire risks remained posted for much of Northern California, forecasting low humidity and gale-force wind gusts.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam in Santa Rosa, California; Writing and additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney, Gerry Doyle & Shri Navaratnam)

Firefighters make headway against lightning-sparked California wildfires

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California fire officials on Sunday reported significant headway battling the two largest of dozens of lightning-sparked blazes raging in and around the greater San Francisco Bay area since mid-August, though 60,000 people remained under evacuation.

As of Sunday firefighters had managed to carve containment lines around 56% of the perimeter of a colossal wildfire that has burned more than 375,000 acres across five counties north of the bay, including a swath of the Napa and Sonoma valley wine country region.

That marked a major gain from 41% containment listed a day earlier for the blaze, dubbed the LNU Lightning Complex fire, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

Containment of a slightly larger fire called the SCU Lightning Complex, which has charred more than 377,000 acres in four counties east and south of the bay, grew to 50% on Sunday, up from 40% on Saturday, CalFire said.

Those two blazes together – which rank as the second- and third-largest wildfires on record in California – account for half of total acreage set ablaze during the past two weeks in a series of catastrophic lightning storms.

Firefighters, helped by cooler weather after a record-breaking heat wave abated, have gained ground elsewhere across the state, as well.

“We definitely have increased containment on all of the major fires, evacuations are being lifted and weather conditions are more favorable,” CalFire spokeswoman Christine McMorrow told Reuters by phone. “We are definitely making progress.”

Nearly 14,00 lightning strikes, mostly in central and northern California, have ignited hundreds of individual fires since Aug. 15, many of which merged into bigger conflagrations. Those fires have collectively charred more than 1.42 million acres – a landscape larger than the state of Delaware, according to CalFire.

Seven fatalities have been confirmed, and nearly 2,500 homes and other structures have been reduced to ruin. Smoke from the fires also badly degraded air quality throughout the region, adding to health hazards already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

While CalFire said more than 60,000 residents remained displaced throughout the fire zone as of Sunday morning, McMorrow said “quite a few” evacuation orders and warnings were being lifted.

Meteorologists said the recent spate of dry lightning, the heaviest seen in California in more than a decade, was linked to the same atmospheric high-pressure system that caused a lengthy heat wave, which in turn further desiccated dense, fire-prone vegetation across the state.

Scientists point to lengthy droughts and longer-than-normal stretches of extreme heat as evidence of climate change that has steadily intensified and prolonged wildfire season in California and across the Western United States in recent years.

Climatologist Zach Zobel said California is on track to overtake the nearly 2 million acres burned in 2018, when the state suffered its deadliest wildfire in history, as well as the most acreage burned on record gong back to 1987.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Black Americans disproportionately die in police Taser confrontations

By Linda So

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As police confront protesters across the United States, they’re turning to rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and other weapons meant to minimize fatalities.

But some are using a weapon that has potential to kill: the Taser. When those encounters have turned fatal, black people make up a disproportionate share of those who die, according to a Reuters analysis.

Reuters documented 1,081 cases through the end of 2018 in which people died after being shocked by police with a Taser, the vast majority of them after 2000. At least 32% of those who died were black, and at least 29% were white. African-Americans make up 14% of the U.S. population, and non-Hispanic whites 60%.

To explore the Reuters database of deaths involving police and Tasers, click here:

“These racial disparities in Taser deaths are horrifying but unsurprising,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Police violence is a leading cause of death for black people in America, in large part because over-policing of black and brown communities results in unnecessary police contacts and unnecessary use of force.”

In 13% of the deaths identified in police reports, autopsies or other records as involving people of Hispanic ethnicity, Reuters was unable to document race. The race of the person who died was also unknown in the remaining 26% of the cases.

The deaths illustrate a challenge for U.S. law enforcement at a time when protests over police killings have thrown a spotlight on their tactics. Tasers, which deliver a pulsed electrical current meant to give police several seconds to restrain a subject, have been nearly universally embraced since the early 2000s as a less lethal alternative to firearms. About 94% of America’s roughly 18,000 police agencies now issue Tasers.

Tasers drew fresh attention over the weekend after the Friday night death of Rayshard Brooks. A police officer shot the 27-year-old with his handgun after Brooks ran away with an officer’s Taser and pointed it at police following a scuffle, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said. A lawyer for the Brooks family, L. Chris Stewart, said Brooks’ wielding of the Taser didn’t justify his shooting, noting that police routinely argue in court that the devices are non-lethal weapons.

In a series of reports in 2017, however, Reuters identified more than a thousand cases since 2000 in which people died after being shocked by police with the weapons, typically in combination with other forms of force.

Most independent researchers who have studied Tasers say deaths are rare when they are used properly. But the Reuters investigation found that many police officers are not trained properly on the risks, and the weapons are often misused. Tasers fire a pair of barbed darts that deliver a paralyzing electrical charge or can be pressed directly against the body – the “drive stun” mode – causing intense pain.

Some recent examples of Taser misuse highlight the risks and confusion surrounding the weapon.

On May 30, during nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, two college students, Taniyah Pilgrim, 20, and Messiah Young, 22, had gone out to get food and were stuck in traffic due to the demonstrations in Atlanta.

In a confrontation with police caught on bodycam video, one officer repeatedly struck the driver’s side window with a baton as a second officer stunned Pilgrim with a Taser. A third officer used a Taser on Young, as the police dragged the black students out of the car.

Video footage of the officers shocking them drew criticism around the country. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields apologized at a news conference the next day. “How we behaved as an agency, as individuals was unacceptable,” she said. Young was treated in the hospital and required stitches. Shields resigned on Saturday after the Brooks killing.

After the May 30 incident, one officer wrote in a police report that he used his Taser because he was unsure whether the students were armed. The Taser’s manufacturer, Axon Enterprise Inc, warns in guidelines distributed to police departments that the weapon should not be used on people who are driving or restrained. And law enforcement experts say Tasers generally shouldn’t be used on anyone who is already immobilized, such as in a car.

Six police officers involved in the incident — five of them black, one white — were charged for using excessive force. Four have been fired. Two have sued the mayor and police chief seeking their jobs back. An attorney representing the two officers says he believes the firings were politically motivated.

“The question police should be asking is not: ‘Can I use the Taser?’ but ‘Should I?’” said Michael Leonesio, a retired police officer who ran the Oakland Police Department’s Taser program and has served as an expert witness in wrongful death lawsuits against Axon. “This is a dangerous weapon,” Leonesio said. “The more it’s used, the more people are going to die.”

Axon says its weapons are not risk-free but are safer than batons, fists, tackles and impact munitions. “Any loss of life is a tragedy regardless of the circumstance, which is why we remain committed to developing technology and training to protect both officers and the community,” the company said in an email to Reuters.

“TASE HIS ASS”

On a hot July day in 2017, Eurie Martin, 58, wanted a drink of water. After walking more than 12 miles to visit relatives for his birthday, he stopped to ask a homeowner for water in Deepstep, a town of about 130 people in central Georgia. The homeowner refused and called police to check out Martin, “a black man,” according to the district attorney.

Martin was walking on the side of the road when a Washington County Sheriff’s deputy arrived and tried to speak with him. Martin, who suffered from schizophrenia, ignored him and kept walking. The deputy called for backup.

The officers said Martin got “defensive” and “clinched his fists,” ignoring commands to place his hands behind his back, the district attorney said. One deputy told another to “Tase his ass,” according to the officers’ dashboard camera video.

When the deputy fired the Taser, Martin fell to the ground, removed the Taser prong from his arm, and walked away. A third deputy arrived and fired his stun gun at Martin’s back, causing him to fall.

The deputies surrounded Martin as he lay face down, applying the weight of their bodies and deployed their Tasers 15 times. Martin could be heard crying out in pain saying, “they killing me.” He died of cardiac arrhythmia during police restraint, according to an autopsy.

“He was a victim of walking while black,” said Mawuli Davis, an attorney representing Martin’s family. The deputies, who were fired after they were indicted, said they followed their training on use of the stun gun.

Last November, a judge granted the three deputies – all white – immunity from prosecution just weeks before they were to go trial on murder charges in Martin’s death.

In its guidelines distributed to police departments, Axon warns against using multiple Tasers at the same time. Law enforcement experts say repeated applications and continuous use of stun guns can increase the risk of death and should be avoided.

The sheriff’s office declined to respond to multiple requests for comment.

The judge ruled the deputies acted in self-defense and that their use of the Taser was “justified” and “reasonable under the circumstances.” Citing Georgia’s Stand Your Ground Law, the judge wrote all people have the right to use reasonable force to protect themselves against “death or great bodily injury.”

The district attorney appealed the ruling, and the case is scheduled to be heard before the state Supreme Court in August. If the high court overturns the lower court’s ruling, the murder charges against the deputies will be reinstated.

Martin died “for daring to ask for a drink of water in the Georgia sun,” said his sister Helen Gilbert. “Every person of common sense knows he did nothing to deserve his death. I will not rest until this long walk to justice is complete.”

SCRUTINY

Deaths involving Tasers typically draw little public scrutiny – no government agency tracks how often they’re used or how many of those deployments prove fatal. Coroners and medical examiners use varying standards to assess a Taser’s role in a death. And there are no uniform national standards governing police use of Tasers.

Late in 2009, as evidence of cardiac risks from Tasers mounted, the manufacturer made a crucial change: It warned police to avoid firing its stun gun’s electrified darts at a person’s chest.

But on March 3 in Tacoma, Washington, that warning wasn’t heeded.

Newly released video and audio recordings show Tacoma police officers using a Taser and beating a black man as he shouted, “I can’t breathe” — similar to George Floyd’s desperate cry when a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck on May 25.

Police said they found Manuel Ellis, 33, trying to open doors of unoccupied cars and that he attacked a police vehicle and two officers. An attorney for his family said he was walking home from a convenience store when the confrontation with police took place.

Police handcuffed Ellis and bound his legs with a canvas strap after firing a Taser into his chest, according to an autopsy report. He lost consciousness, and efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. An autopsy listed his cause of death as respiratory arrest due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint.

His death sparked protests in Tacoma on June 5 after video of the incident surfaced. The governor called for a new investigation, and the city’s mayor demanded the four officers involved be fired and prosecuted. Two officers are white, one is black and the other is Asian. They have been placed on administrative leave, but have not been charged.

One of the officers, Christopher Burbank, declined to comment. Attempts by Reuters to reach the other three were unsuccessful. The Tacoma Police Department said it was cooperating with county and state investigators.

(Additional reporting by Grant Smith. Editing by Jason Szep)

Bolsonaro threatens WHO exit as COVID-19 kills ‘a Brazilian per minute’

By Lisandra Paraguassu and Ricardo Brito

BRASILIA (Reuters) – President Jair Bolsonaro threatened on Friday to pull Brazil out of the World Health Organization after the U.N. agency warned Latin American governments about the risk of lifting lockdowns before slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus throughout the region.

A new Brazilian record for daily COVID-19 fatalities pushed the county’s death toll past that of Italy late on Thursday, but Bolsonaro continues to argue for quickly lifting state isolation orders, arguing that the economic costs outweigh public health risks.

Latin America’s most populous nations, Brazil and Mexico, are seeing the highest rates of new infections, though the pandemic is also gathering pace in countries such as Peru, Colombia, Chile and Bolivia.

Overall, more than 1.1 million Latin Americans have been infected. While most leaders have taken the pandemic more seriously than Bolsonaro, some politicians that backed strict lockdowns in March and April are pushing to open economies back up as hunger and poverty grow.

In an editorial running the length of newspaper Folha de S.Paulo’s front page, the Brazilian daily highlighted that just 100 days had passed since Bolsonaro described the virus now “killing a Brazilian per minute” as “a little flu.”

“While you were reading this, another Brazilian died from the coronavirus,” the newspaper said.

Brazil’s Health Ministry reported late on Thursday that confirmed cases in the country had climbed past 600,000 and 1,437 deaths had been registered within 24 hours, the third consecutive daily record.

Brazil reported another 1,005 deaths Friday night, while Mexico reported 625 additional deaths.

With more than 35,000 lives lost, the pandemic has killed more people in Brazil than anywhere outside of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Asked about efforts to loosen social distancing orders in Brazil despite rising daily death rates and diagnoses, World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman Margaret Harris said a key criteria for lifting lockdowns was slowing transmission.

“The epidemic, the outbreak, in Latin America is deeply, deeply concerning,” she told a news conference in Geneva. Among six key criteria for easing quarantines, she said, “one of them is ideally having your transmission declining.”

In comments to journalists later Friday, Bolsonaro said Brazil will consider leaving the WHO unless it ceases to be a “partisan political organization.”

President Donald Trump, an ideological ally of Bolsonaro, said last month that the United States would end its own relationship with the WHO, accusing it of becoming a puppet of China, where the coronavirus first emerged.

Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the coronavirus risks to public health and efforts to lift state quarantines have drawn criticism from across the political spectrum in Brazil, where some accuse him of using the crisis to undermine democratic institutions.

But many of those critics are divided about the safety and effectiveness of anti-government demonstrations in the middle of a pandemic, especially after one small protest was met with an overwhelming show of police force last weekend.

Alfonso Vallejos Parás, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said infections are high in Latin America as the virus was slow to gain a foothold in the region.

“It is hard to estimate when the pace of infection will come down,” he said.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Ricardo Brito; Additional reporting by Gabriela Mello in Sao Paulo, Gram Slattery and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro and Adriana Barrera in Mexico City; Editing by Brad Haynes, Rosalba O’Brien and Leslie Adler)

Mexico overtakes U.S. coronavirus daily deaths, sets records

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico overtook the United States in daily reported deaths from the novel coronavirus for the first time on Wednesday, with the health ministry registering a record 1,092 fatalities it attributed to improved documenting of the pandemic.

Latin American has emerged in recent weeks as a major center for coronavirus. Brazil, where the virus has hit hardest in the region, also reported a record number of deaths on Wednesday.

The Mexican government had previously predicted the pandemic would peak in early May and under U.S. pressure has begun reopening its vast auto industry, which underpins billions of dollars of business through cross-border supply chains.

However, plans to further relax social distancing measures this week were put on hold in recognition of the fact that infections had not yet begun coming down.

Wednesday saw a record 3,912 new infections, with the number of daily deaths more than twice the previous record of 501.

The total number of known cases in Latin America’s second-largest economy is now 101,238 and its tally of deaths is 11,729, making it the seventh country with most deaths from the virus, according to the John Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell attributed the sharp jump in numbers to a new mortality committee established by the Mexico City government to better identify which deaths in the capital were caused by the virus.

“Over the past 20 or 25 days, we have had various cases that were slowly passed on to the registry, for various reasons,” he said. “A technical committee has specifically been carrying out complementary methods.”

The committee was established after growing criticism that Mexico’s very limited testing rate meant most cases and deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, were not being registered. A Reuters investigation concluded that fatalities could be 2.5 times higher than reported.

Mexico’s government has previously admitted the real number of fatalities was higher than the official count.

It was not clear if the inclusion of more deaths registered by the Mexico City committee would push daily numbers higher in future.

Mexico, with just over a third of the population of the United States, is at an earlier stage of the pandemic curve than its neighbor and the government has acknowledged that deaths could eventually surpass 30,000.

U.S. daily reported deaths were 1,045 on Wednesday, government data showed.

(Reporting by Mexico City Newsroom; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Cooney)

U.S. coronavirus death toll passes 35,000, cases top 700,000: Reuters tally

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – U.S. coronavirus deaths topped 35,400 on Friday, rising by more than 2,000 for the fourth day in a row, according to a Reuters tally, as some states announced timetables for lifting restrictions aimed at blunting the pandemic.

Total deaths in California topped 1,000 on Friday, the eighth state to reach that milestone and the first on the West Coast, according to a Reuters tally.

U.S. coronavirus confirmed cases were over 700,000, up 30,884 with a few states yet to report.

The number of new cases reported has accelerated in the past three days, with 31,425 cases reported on Thursday. A record increase of 35,715 new cases was reported on April 10.

The infections and fatalities are spread unevenly across the country, with more densely populated places such as New York accounting for nearly half the total U.S. deaths.

Sweeping stay-at-home orders in 42 states to combat the new coronavirus have shuttered businesses, disrupted lives and decimated the economy, and some protesters have begun taking to the streets to urge governors to rethink the restrictions.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Daniel Wallis and Sonya Hepinstall)

China says nearly 1,300 virus deaths not counted in Wuhan, cites early lapses

By Yawen Chen and Brenda Goh

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Nearly 1,300 people who died of the coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan, or half the total, were not counted in death tolls because of lapses, state media said on Friday, but Beijing dismissed claims that there had been any kind of cover-up.

The central city where the outbreak emerged late last year added 1,290 more fatalities to the 2,579 previously counted as of Thursday, reflecting incorrect reporting, delays and omissions, according to a local government task force in charge of controlling the coronavirus.

Reflecting the additional deaths in Wuhan, China revised its national death toll later on Friday up to 4,632.

The revision follows widespread speculation that Wuhan’s death toll was significantly higher than reported.

Rumours of more victims were fuelled for weeks by pictures of long queues of family members waiting to collect ashes of cremated relatives and reports of thousands of urns stacked at a funeral home waiting to be filled.

“In the early stage, due to limited hospital capacity and the shortage of medical staff, a few medical institutions failed to connect with local disease control and prevention systems in a timely manner, which resulted in delayed reporting of confirmed cases and some failures to count patients accurately,” state media cited an unidentified Wuhan official as saying.

Suspicion that China has not been transparent about the outbreak has risen in recent days as death tolls mount in many countries, including the United States, with President Donald Trump on Wednesday expressing scepticism about China’s previously declared death figure of about 3,000.

“Do you really believe those numbers in this vast country called China, and that they have a certain number of cases and a certain number of deaths; does anybody really believe that?” he said.

‘RESPONSIBILITY TO HISTORY’

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday that while there might have been data collection flaws earlier during the outbreak, China has “a responsibility to history, to the people and to the deceased” to ensure numbers are accurate.

“Medical workers at some facilities might have been preoccupied with saving lives and there existed delayed reporting, underreporting or misreporting, but there has never been any cover-up and we do not allow cover-ups,” he said.

Wuhan’s total number of cases was revised up by 325, suggesting that some of the new deaths had been recorded as cases but not confirmed as fatalities, taking the total number of cases in the city of 11 million people to 50,333, or about 60% of mainland China’s total.

The topic “Wuhan revises its death toll” was one of the most read on China’s Weibo microblogging platform, which is heavily moderated.

Many commentators praised the government for admitting its mistakes and correcting them, although some still questioned the numbers and one urged other provinces to reassess their data.

Doctors and government officials in Wuhan have been repeatedly questioned about the accuracy of the death toll by journalists on government-arranged trips.

CHAOTIC EARLY DAYS

Some of those officials acknowledged that people may have died without being counted in the chaotic early days of the outbreak, before testing was widely available.

“There couldn’t have been many because that was a very short period,” Wang Xinghuan, head of one of two field hospitals built for the outbreak, told reporters in Wuhan on April 12. He stressed that he was not speaking for the government.

It is not unusual in epidemics for case and fatality numbers to be revised after authorities carry out retrospective re-testing or reclassify the cause of infection or death.

The Spanish region of Catalonia on Wednesday announced an additional 3,242 coronavirus deaths since the start of the pandemic, nearly doubling its previous tally, citing a change in methodology to include data from funerary services on suspected and confirmed COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and private homes.

Before the revised Wuhan numbers were released, China said it had recorded 26 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, down from 46 cases a day earlier, according to the National Health Commission.

It brought the total number of cases in mainland China to 82,367.

Of the new cases, 15 were imported infections, the lowest since March 17. The remaining 11 confirmed cases were locally transmitted, down from 12 a day earlier. The number of new asymptomatic cases increased to 66 from 64 a day earlier.

China does not include patients with no clinical symptoms such as a cough or a fever in its tally of confirmed cases.

No new deaths were reported.

 

(Reporting by Yawen Chen and Brenda Goh; Additional reporting by Ryan Woo, Catherine Cadell, Stella Qiu, Lusha Zhang, Se Young Lee, Tom Daly and the Shanghai newsroom, and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Engen Tham and David Stanway; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel, Raju Gopalakrishnan)