France cranks up vaccine rollout to deliver shots faster

By Dominique Vidalon and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) -France is stepping up its COVID-19 vaccine rollout by widening further its first target group to include more health workers and simplifying a cumbersome process to deliver jabs more quickly, Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Tuesday.

France’s inoculation campaign got off to a slow start, hampered in part by red tape and President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to tread warily in one of the most vaccine-skeptical countries in the world.

But France has fallen behind neighbors such as Britain and Germany, and the president is now demanding the vaccination program be expedited.

Veran told RTL radio that the government was going to “accelerate and simplify our vaccination strategy”.

Some 300 vaccination centers would be operational from next week, the minister said, after initially ruling out such centers.

The original plan had been for the first phase of the vaccine rollout, which began in France on Dec. 27, to focus on nursing home residents and their carers. By the end of the first week, France had delivered just over 500 COVID-19 shots.

Over the weekend, the first hospital staff began receiving the vaccine. The government has now added paramedics and health workers to the first target group.

By the end of January, France will have begun vaccinating people aged 75 and above who are living at home, Veran said.

The head of the union of pharmacies – whose ubiquitous network helps administer millions of flu jabs every year – urged the government to allow it to do the same for COVID-19 shots.

“If we only rely on vaccination centers, we can be sure the level of vaccination by June will be mediocre. That would be a disaster,” Gilles Bonnefond of the USPO pharmacists’ union told, Reuters in an interview. “We can be operational in a week.”

The coronavirus has claimed the lives of 65,415 people in France, the seventh-highest death toll in the world.

France received an initial 500,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech and was due to receive an additional 500,000 per week. It will also get 500,000 doses per month of Moderna’s vaccine once it obtains regulatory approval in Europe and France.

MORE JABS

Rules demanding that only a doctor or a nurse under the direct supervision of a doctor inject the vaccine will be eased. Veran said a doctor would be allowed to supervise multiple nurses at any one time in a vaccination center.

Similarly, rules requiring that any person wanting a COVID-19 vaccine must hold a consultation with a doctor first would also be made simpler.

Veran also said about 10 to 15 cases of the new variant of the coronavirus first seen in Britain had been detected in France. Its rapid spread through southern England compelled British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce a third nationwide lockdown on Monday.

France remains under nightly curfew. Restaurants, bars, museums and cinemas are still closed. Veran said he hoped France would be able to open its ski resorts for the February holidays, but that such a move would depend on how active the virus was.

(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Sudip Kar-Gupta and Michel Rose; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Ed Osmond, Raissa Kasolowsky and Alex Richardson)

Europe crosses 500,000 COVID-19 deaths as new variant spreads

By Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia

(Reuters) – Europe became the first region worldwide to cross 500,000 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, as a new variant of the coronavirus discovered in Britain threatened the region’s prevention measures to curb the pandemic.

Reports of the mutated variant out of England prompted a pre-Christmas lockdown and have forced dozens of countries to close their borders to British travelers this week.

Italy, the nation with the highest death toll in Europe, on Sunday detected a patient infected with the new variant as have Denmark and France.

To curb the spread, European countries are considering screening passengers on flights from UK and obligating quarantine for travelers upon arrival.

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom became the first nation to approve the Pfizer Inc – BioNTech vaccine followed by the United States, European Union and other countries.

Europe has reported about 30% of the global COVID-19 fatalities and cases so far, according to a Reuters tally.

Europe’s death toll has accelerated in recent months. Since the first COVID-19 death was reported in France in February, it took eight months for the region to reach 250,000 deaths. It took only 60 days for the region to go from 250,000 to 500,000 deaths.

France, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and Russia have reported hundreds of deaths a day and the five countries account for almost 60% of the region’s total fatalities.

Globally there have been 77.52 million cases and 1.71 million deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

France may delay unwinding COVID lockdown as downward trend in cases levels off – sources

PARIS (Reuters) – France may have to delay unwinding some COVID lockdown restrictions next week after signs the downward trend in new cases has flattened out after shops were allowed to reopen late last month, two government sources said.

France’s health minister earlier told lawmakers that daily new COVID-19 infections were unlikely to fall to a 5,000 target by Dec. 15, BFM TV reported.

President Emmanuel Macron previously said the threshold was one condition for lifting the lockdown and imposing a nightly curfew, allowing cinemas and museums to reopen and ending the need for people to carry sworn affidavits outside their homes.

Another condition was for the number in intensive care to fall below 3,000. While that threshold may be met, the downward trend in new cases has plateaued at between 10,000 and 12,000.

“That the numbers have levelled off is not good news,” one government source said.

A second government source said that there was link between shops reopening on Nov. 28 ahead of Black Friday and the stagnant numbers, adding that it was imperative not to allow people to become complacent.

“We will not go as far as we would like on Dec. 15th,” the second official said.

A health ministry spokesman did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

Eric Caumes, head of infectious diseases at Paris hospital La Pitié-Salpêtrière, told LCI television that if the French were careless over Christmas and year-end holidays there would be a third wave of the virus in mid-January.

“No, I do not think this target can be reached as the trend downward stopped, it is stabilizing. So it will be difficult to reach that target,” Caumes said.

Health authorities reported 11,022 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Sunday, down from the 12,923 new infections detected the previous day.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Michel Rose, and Dominique Vidalon; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Ed Osmond and Nick Macfie)

U.S. nuclear power industry group sees reprocessing as potential waste fix

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the top U.S. nuclear power group said that reprocessing of nuclear waste, a technique that has not been practiced in the United States for decades because of proliferation and cost concerns, could help address a growing problem building up at nuclear plants across the country.

“Reprocessing is a very interesting part of the solution set,” Maria Korsnick, the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said during an interview last week that will be part of Reuters Events Energy Transition North America on Friday. The technology “would be really closing the fuel cycle in a very useful way” because it squeezes more energy from the waste that cannot be used when it is disposed permanently.

France and other countries reprocess nuclear waste by breaking it down into uranium and plutonium and reusing it to make new reactor fuel.

But nonproliferation experts say militants could target the reprocessing supply chain, which would be far longer in the United States, to seize materials that could be used to make a crude nuclear weapon.

Former President Jimmy Carter halted reprocessing in 1977, citing proliferation concerns. President Ronald Reagan lifted Carter’s moratorium in 1981 but high costs have prevented plants from opening.

Now the United States has a growing problem with nuclear waste, currently kept at the country’s nuclear reactors, first in spent fuel pools, and then in steel and concrete casks. While about $8 billion has been spent on the Yucca Mountain permanent nuclear waste repository project in Nevada, it has never opened due to local opposition.

President Donald Trump’s administration wanted to open Yucca, but Trump began opposing it in February as the presidential campaign got under way.

Two sites in New Mexico and Texas could serve as interim nuclear waste storage sites, but local concerns are mounting that those places could become the default permanent fix.

Rita Baranwal, the top U.S. Energy Department official on nuclear power, has said it is a shame to permanently dispose of nuclear waste and that the country should look at reprocessing and potentially export the waste to countries that could do it.

Korsnick said the nuclear power industry is eager to work with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden on energy issues including nuclear waste. Biden’s transition website lists driving down costs of advanced nuclear power and commercializing it as one way to fight climate change.

Korsnick also applauded a decision this summer by the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), a U.S. development agency, to lift a ban on funding nuclear projects.

She said the move would help the United States compete with Russia and China, which are also looking to export nuclear technology. The export market for U.S. advanced nuclear power technology could be worth up to $2 trillion, she said. The DFC’s move was criticized by some development experts who say bringing nuclear projects to poor countries would do little to address poverty.

On reprocessing, France has demonstrated it can be done safely, Korsnick said. “These are all conversations that we would have to step through as we design our final solution,” she said. “I’m confident that we have the technological expertise to do this well.”

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

U.S. and France play catch-up on Karabakh after Russia deploys troops

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Nvard Hovhannisyan

MOSCOW/YELPIN, Armenia (Reuters) – France and the United States are expected to send diplomats to Moscow soon to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia said on Thursday, two days after the Kremlin deployed troops to the ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan to secure a truce.

The arrival on Tuesday of the peacekeepers to oversee the ceasefire between Azeri troops and ethnic Armenian forces in the enclave extends Russia’s military footprint among the former Soviet republics it views as its strategic back yard.

Moscow co-chairs an international group overseeing the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with Washington and Paris, but they were not involved in the deal signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to end six weeks of fighting over the enclave.

“By no means do we want to distance ourselves from our American and French colleagues,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “Moreover, we have invited them to Moscow. They will arrive within the next few days to discuss how they can contribute to the implementation of the achieved agreements.”

The accord, which locked in territorial gains by Azeri troops against ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, triggered protests in Armenia calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan when it was announced early on Tuesday.

Hundreds of protesters rallied for a third day in the Armenian capital Yerevan on Thursday chanting “Nikol is a traitor!”. They then marched to the Security Service headquarters to demand the release of some opposition leaders and activists detained on Wednesday.

Pashinyan, elected in 2018 after street protests against alleged corruption ousted the former elite, said on Thursday he had signed the accord to secure peace and save lives.

Armenians living nearer to Nagorno-Karabakh, which has reported more than 1,300 losses among its fighters, had mixed feelings but welcomed the small columns of Russian peacekeepers making their way to the enclave on Thursday.

“We are happy that peacekeepers came but at the same time we are sad that we are giving up that territory,” Armen Manjoyan, a 45-year-old driver, said outside the Armenian village of Yelpin between Yerevan and the Azeri border.

“We all fought for it, but it turned out in vain,” he said. “I think it was not the right decision.”

Turkey, which has backed Azerbaijan over the conflict, signed a protocol with Russia on Wednesday to establish a joint centre to coordinate efforts to monitor the peace deal, agreed after three previous ceasefire attempts quickly broke down.

The details of the monitoring have yet to be worked out and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Russian officials were due in Ankara on Friday to discuss them.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, which now joins eight other former Soviet republics where Russia has a military presence. Moscow has military bases in five neighboring states as well as troops in regions which have broken away from three others.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in YELPIN, Nailia Bagirova in BAKU and Margarita Antidze in TBILISI and Alexander Marrow in MOSCOW; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Alison Williams)

Europe COVID death toll tops 300,000 as winter looms and infections surge

By Shaina Ahluwalia, Anurag Maan and Roshan Abraham

(Reuters) – More than 300,000 people have died of COVID-19 across Europe, according to a Reuters tally on Tuesday, and authorities fear that fatalities and infections will continue to rise as the region heads into winter despite hopes for a new vaccine.

With just 10% of the world’s population, Europe accounts for almost a quarter of the 1.2 million deaths globally, and even its well-equipped hospitals are feeling the strain.

After achieving a measure of control over the pandemic with broad lockdowns earlier this year, case numbers have surged since the summer and governments have ordered a second series of restrictions to limit social contacts.

In all, Europe has reported some 12.8 million cases and about 300,114 deaths. Over the past week, it has seen 280,000 cases a day, up 10% from the week earlier, representing just over half of all new infections reported globally.

Hopes have been raised by Pfizer Inc’s announcement of a potentially effective new vaccine, but it is not expected to be generally available before 2021 and health systems will have to cope with the winter months unaided.

Britain, which has imposed a fresh lockdown in England, has the highest death toll in Europe at around 49,000, and health experts have warned that with a current average of more than 20,000 cases daily, the country will exceed its “worst case” scenario of 80,000 deaths.

France, Spain, Italy and Russia have also reported hundreds of deaths a day and together, the five countries account for almost three quarters of the total fatalities.

Already facing the prospect of a wave of job losses and business failures, governments across the region have been forced to order control measures including local curfews, closing non-essential shops and restricting movement.

France, the worst-affected country in the EU, has registered more than 48,700 infections per day over the past week and the Paris region’s health authority said last week that 92% of its ICU capacity was occupied.

Facing similar pressures, Belgian and Dutch hospitals have been forced to send some severely ill patients to Germany.

In Italy, which became a global symbol of the crisis when army trucks were used to transport the dead during the early months of the pandemic, daily average new cases are at a peak at more than 32,500. Deaths have been rising by more than 320 per day over the past three weeks.

While the new vaccine being developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech will take time to arrive, authorities are hoping that once winter is passed, it will stem further outbreaks next year.

Citi Private Bank analysts described the news as “the first major advance toward a Post-COVID world economy”.

“More than any fiscal spending package or central bank lending program, a healthcare solution to COVID has the greatest potential to restore economic activity to its full potential…” it said in a note.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday said the European Union would soon sign a contract for 300 million doses of the vaccine, just hours after the drugmaker announced promising late-stage trials.

Yet health experts cautioned that the vaccine, should it be approved, was no silver bullet – not least because the genetic material it’s made from needs to be stored at temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 F) or below.

Such requirements pose a challenge for countries in Asia, as well as Africa and Latin America, where intense heat is often compounded by poor infrastructure.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan, Shaina Ahluwalia, Chaithra J and Roshan Abraham in Bengaluru, Sujata Rao-Coverley in London; editing by Jane Wardell, James Mackenzie, Nick Macfie and Mike Collett-White)

WHO chief looks forward to working ‘very closely’ with Biden team

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization chief welcomed efforts on Monday to strengthen the Geneva-based body through reform and said that it was looking forward to working closely with the administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

WHO’s funding must become more flexible and predictable to end a “major misalignment” between expectations and available resources, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, citing reform efforts by France, Germany and the European Union.

“We still have a lot of work left to do, but we believe that we’re on the right track,” Tedros told health ministers as the annual meeting resumed of the WHO, which groups 194 countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump has frozen U.S. funding to the WHO and begun a process that would see the United States withdraw from the body next July, drawing wide international criticism amid the COVID-19 crisis. He accuses the WHO of being “China-centric” in its handling of the pandemic, which Tedros has repeatedly denied.

Biden, who will convene a national coronavirus task force on Monday, said during campaigning he would rescind Trump’s decision to abandon the WHO on his first day in office.

Tedros urged the international community to recapture a sense of common purpose, adding: “In that spirit we congratulate President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and we look forward to working with this administration very closely.

“We need to reimagine leadership, build on mutual trust and mutual accountability to end the pandemic and address the fundamental inequalities that lie at the root of so many of the world’s problems,” he said.

An oversight panel called last week for reforms at the WHO including “predictable and flexible” funding and setting up a multi-tiered system to warn countries earlier about disease outbreaks before they escalate.

Tedros, speaking from quarantine after being in contact with an individual with COVID-19 more than a week ago, began with a minute’s silence, noting that COVID-19 cases approached 50 million with 1.2 million deaths.

Speaking shortly before Pfizer Inc said its experimental COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective, Tedros said vaccines being developed to curb the pandemic should be allocated fairly as “global public goods, not private commodities”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Editing by Catherine Evans)

U.S. crosses 10 million COVID-19 cases as third wave of infections surges

By Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia

(Reuters) – The United States became the first nation worldwide since the pandemic began to surpass 10 million coronavirus infections, according to a Reuters tally on Sunday, as the third wave of the COVID-19 virus surges across the nation.

The grim milestone came on the same day as global coronavirus cases exceeded 50 million.

The United states has reported about a million cases in the past 10 days, the highest rate of infections since the nation reported its first novel coronavirus case in Washington state 293 days ago.

The country reported a record 131,420 COVID-19 cases on Saturday and has reported over 100,000 infections five times in the past seven days, according to a Reuters tally.

The U.S. latest reported seven-day average of 105,600 daily cases, ramped up by at least 29%, is more than the combined average for India and France, two of the worst affected countries in Asia and Europe.

More than 237,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the illness caused by the coronavirus first emerged in China late last year.

The daily average of reported new deaths in the United States account for one in every 11 deaths reported worldwide each day, according to a Reuters analysis.

The number of reported deaths nationwide climbed by more than 1,000 for a fifth consecutive day on Saturday, a trend last seen in mid-August, according to a Reuters tally.

Health experts say deaths tend to increase four to six weeks after a surge in infections.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who spent much of his election campaign criticizing President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic, pledged on Saturday to make tackling the pandemic a top priority.

Biden will announce a 12-member task force on Monday to deal with the pandemic that will be led by former surgeon general Vivek Murthy and former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler. The coronavirus task force will be charged with developing a blueprint for containing the disease once Biden takes office in January.

The Midwest remains the hardest-hit region based on the most cases per capita with North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska the top five worst-affected U.S. states.

Illinois emerged as the new epicenter in the Midwest, with the state reporting over 60,000 COVID-19 infections in the last seven days, the highest in the country, according to Reuters data. The state reported more than 12,454 new cases on Saturday, the highest single-day number so far.

Texas, which accounts for 10% of total U.S. cases, is the hardest-hit state and became the first to surpass a million coronavirus cases in the United States on Saturday.

According to a Reuters analysis, the South region comprises nearly 43% of all the cases in the United States since the pandemic began, with nearly 4.3 million cases in the region alone, followed by the Midwest, West and Northeast.

New York, with over 33,000 fatalities, remains the state with highest number of deaths and accounts for about 14% of total U.S. deaths.

The United States performed about 10.5 million coronavirus tests in the first seven days of November, of which 6.22% came back positive, compared with 6.17% the prior seven-days, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia in Bengaluru; Editing by Diane Craft and Michael Perry)

In COVID-19 clampdown, China bars travelers from Britain, France, India

BEIJING (Reuters) – China has barred non-Chinese travelers from Britain, France, Belgium, the Philippines and India, imposing some of the most stringent entry curbs of any country as coronavirus cases surge around the world.

The restrictions, which cover those with valid visas and residence permits and take effect in conjunction with a more restrictive testing regime for arrivals from several other countries, drew a frosty response from Britain.

“We are concerned by the abruptness of the announcement and the blanket ban on entry, and await further clarification on when it will be lifted,” said the British Chamber of Commerce in China as the blanket bans were announced by the five countries’ Chinese embassies.

England started a month-long lockdown on Thursday. Britain’s virus death toll is the highest in Europe, and it is grappling with more than 20,000 new cases a day.

Belgium has Europe’s highest per capita number of new confirmed cases, while France and India are among the top five countries in the world with the most infections.

The suspensions were a partial reversal of an easing on Sept. 28, when China allowed all foreigners with valid residence permits to enter. In March, China had banned entry of foreigners in response to the epidemic.

‘SOLD OUT IN SECONDS’

Meanwhile, many people planning November visits to China scrambled to book earlier flights to circumvent potentially disruptive restrictions due to come into force for other countries from Friday.

Linyi Li, a Chinese national, had planned to fly from Seattle to China in mid-November but switched her flight to Nov. 6 even though fares had tripled.

“The tickets were sold out in seconds, as people were all scrambling to beat the deadline,” said Li, 30. “I’ve been rushing to sell many of my family belongings in the past days in case I can’t get back to the States.”

From Friday, all passengers from the United States, France, Germany and Thailand bound for mainland China must take a nucleic acid test and a blood test for antibodies against the coronavirus no more than 48 hours before boarding.

Flights scheduled for Friday are not covered by the new rule, since passengers would have done their tests before that day under previous requirements.

China also plans to impose dual-test requirements on travelers from Australia, Singapore and Japan from Nov. 8.

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said the antibody test was not widely available in many countries.

“(So) unfortunately, while technically leaving the door open, these changes imply a de facto ban on anyone trying to get back to their lives, work and families in China,” said the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.

On Tuesday, China Southern Airlines, the country’s biggest carrier by passenger load, said it would suspend transit services for passengers embarking from 21 countries, mostly African and Asian countries and including India and the Philippines.

The number of weekly international passenger flights serving mainland China from late October through March is set to slump 96.8% from a year earlier to 592, the latest schedules show.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Lusha Zhang, Dominique Patton, Stella Qiu, Gabriel Crossley, Martin Pollard and Shivani Singh; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and John Stonestreet)

France promises 1 billion euros for curfew-hit companies

PARIS (Reuters) – Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire promised 1 billion euros ($1.17 billion) of additional support to help French companies cushion the impact of a nightly curfew in Paris and eight other big cities where the coronavirus is running rampant.

Le Maire also said that companies in the beleaguered hospitality industry would be exempt from social charges if their revenues crashed by more than 50% as a result of the curfews.

The curfews are President Emmanuel Macron’s response to a dilemma facing countries across Europe: how to keep the economy running and protect jobs while slowing the spread of infections and taking pressure off the creaking healthcare systems.

“The new measures will cost about 1 billion euros over the duration of the curfew,” Le Maire told a news conference.

Le Maire also said he was asking banks to delay interest payments on state-guaranteed loans to struggling companies in the hotel, restaurant and events industries.

The French banking lobby, FBF, said in emailed comment to Reuters that “banks share the idea that flexibility should be the rule”.

French banks have given out more than 120 billion euros in state-backed loans so far this year. FBF added that a permanent dialogue between companies and their bankers was essential in order to find the best solution for reimbursement of the loans.

“Banks are confident in their ability to act, as they did during the deployment of PGE (state-backed loans), in a perfect coordination with public authorities and businesses,” FBF said.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said people could break the curfew to travel to and from work, catch a train or plane, seek medical attention and even walk a dog – but an interior ministry exemption document would be needed in case of a police check.

France’s interior minister said 12,000 police would enforce the curfews in Paris, Toulouse, Marseille, Montpellier, Grenoble, Rouen, Lille, Lyon and Saint-Etienne. In all, the curfew order covers about 20 million people, almost a third of France’s population.

Anyone breaking the curfew will be fined 135 euros

(Reporting by Geert de Clercq; Writing by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by John Stonestreet and Tomasz Janowski and Kirsten Donovan)