‘It’s going to change our country’: South Africa starts vaccinating over-60s

By Akhona Matshoba and Shafiek Tassiem

KRUGERSDORP, South Africa (Reuters) – Hope and excitement gripped the Munsieville care home in the South African mining city of Krugersdorp on Monday, when people over the age of 60 were called to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for the first time.

“It’s going to change our country for the better,” Caroline Nicholls, 64, a judge, told Reuters while waiting to get her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

“I am very excited to finally be here today,” said Ellen Segope, 65, a pensioner who lives nearby. In Cape Town, celebrated anti-apartheid activist and cleric Desmond Tutu was among those vaccinated.

South Africa’s vaccination campaign has suffered a series of setbacks, delaying the point at which it can start protecting its elderly against the coronavirus.

In February, it ditched plans to use AstraZeneca’s vaccine because of data showing it had greatly reduced efficacy against the dominant local variant, and it temporarily paused use of Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) vaccine in a research study vaccinating health workers because of concerns over very rare cases of blood clots.

But it recently signed large bilateral supply deals with Pfizer and J&J for a combined 61 million doses and had received the first 1 million Pfizer shots by Monday.

“We do know that our people have been waiting for long for these vaccines, … but we are pleading for patience,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told a news conference.

“We would have loved to have had the vaccines as early as January or December last year. It was not possible, but now it is here. Let’s make use of it,” he added.

Wealthier countries like the United States and Britain started their vaccination campaigns in December.

South Africa kicked off immunizations in mid-February, but the rollout of the J&J vaccine has been slow because it is being administered in a research study using limited stock to further evaluate its efficacy in the field.

As of Sunday, roughly 480,000 health workers had been given J&J’s vaccine in the so-called Sisonke study.

Mkhize said the country worst affected by COVID-19 on the African continent in terms of recorded deaths was aiming to vaccinate more than 16 million people in the second phase of its vaccination campaign, which started on Monday.

Along with the over-60s, the government plans to vaccinate those with co-morbidities and workers deemed essential for economic activity in that second phase, which is expected to last until mid-October.

(Writing by Alexander Winning; Editing by Nick Macfie)

COVAX vaccines reach more than 100 countries, despite supply snags

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) -The COVAX vaccine facility has delivered nearly 38.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 102 countries and economies across six continents, six weeks after it began to roll out supplies, according to a statement on Thursday.

The program offers a lifeline to low-income countries in particular, allowing them in the first instance to inoculate health workers and others at high risk, even if their governments have not managed to secure vaccines from the manufacturers.

But there have been some delays, the GAVI vaccine alliance and World Health Organization said in a statement.

Reduced availability of delayed some deliveries in March and April, and much of the output of the Serum Institute of India, which makes the AstraZeneca vaccine, is being kept in India, where daily infections surpassed 100,000 for the first time on Monday.

The Caribbean island of St. Lucia became the 100th country to receive vaccines through COVAX. Iran, also battling a record rate of infection, is another recent recipient.

The 102 countries reached so far include 61 benefiting from a mechanism essentially financed by donors.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday called it a “travesty” that some countries still did not have enough vaccines to begin inoculating health workers and the most vulnerable.

GAVI said last month that it planned to deliver 237 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine – which has been produced at cost for a few dollars a dose, and does not require the advanced refrigeration of some other coronavirus vaccines – to 142 countries by the end of May.

“COVAX may be on track to deliver to all participating economies in the first half of the year, yet we still face a daunting challenge as we seek to end the acute stage of the pandemic,” GAVI chief executive Seth Berkley said in the statement.

Nonetheless, COVAX still expects to deliver at least 2 billion doses this year 2021, and to diversify the offering beyond the AstraZeneca/Oxford and Pfizer/BioNTech shots it is currently supplying.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Hundreds in Serbia mourn medics, demand better COVID protection

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Hundreds of people held a minute’s silence in front of Serbia’s government building on Monday to pay their respects to doctors and nurses killed by COVID-19 and to demand more is done to protect health workers.

People placed white roses at the entrance to the building and lit candles.

Of the 4,245 people who have died in Serbia from COVID-19, around 2.5% or 105 were doctors, according to official figures.

The Union of Doctors and Pharmacists, which organized the protest, says the death toll among doctors is higher than in other countries in the region.

“For a small country such as Serbia, this is a huge number of people we have lost because of bad organization,” said Ferenci Tot, a respiratory diseases specialist, who was among the protest organizers.

In neighboring Croatia only one doctor has died from COVID-19, in Albania 24 doctors have died and in Bosnia 23 doctors, according to local media reports.

Doctor Dejan Zujovic, a pulmonologist who has worked in COVID-19 red zones in Belgrade, said long working hours and poor protection equipment were the main reasons for such a high death rate among doctors.

“People do not go on holidays, they are exhausted and their immunity suffers,” he said.

Government officials have said they will investigate the deaths of medical workers but little has been done so far.

The head of the government’s Crisis Committee, Predrag Kon, drew public criticism when he said doctors and nurses became infected while having coffee rather than while working with patients.

To prevent further deaths, hours spent in COVID-19 red zones should be limited to six a day, with a one-month time limit on rotas, said Doctor Gorica Djokic, a secretary general of the Union of Doctors and Pharmacists.

(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

U.S. unfreezing Venezualan assets to help opposition fight COVID-19: Guaido

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition said on Thursday the United States has granted it access to millions of dollars of frozen Venezuelan government funds to support efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

The U.S. Treasury Department had approved the release of the funds, the opposition said in a statement without specifying the total amount.

The statement said part of the released funds would go to pay some 62,000 health workers $300. During a live appearance on Twitter on Thursday night, opposition leader Juan Guaido said health workers could register accounts to receive payments of $100 a month starting Monday.

Healthcare workers in Venezuela can earn as little as $5 a month.

Guaido first announced the additional support for healthcare workers four months ago, but distribution required a permit from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), as the frozen funds were held by the New York Federal Reserve.

The opposition plans to distribute the funds using AirTM, a digital payment platform, but on Thursday, the website was blocked in Venezuela.

“You have to be very bad to block an account for men and women who are giving everything with conviction to protect our people when they are going to receive a bonus,” said Guaido.

The opposition leader added healthcare workers would be sent a manual with the steps to download a virtual private network (VPN) so they could circumvent the restrictions. AirTM also tweeted instructions how to use a VPN.

Guaido has been recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s rightful president after assuming an interim presidency in 2019 on the grounds that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent.

In July, the opposition obtained permission to distribute $17 million in funds frozen in the United States that would be channeled through international health organizations to purchase supplies for medical workers.

The license also approves another $4.5 million to support Venezuelans at risk of death, an opposition press release said.

Venezuela is suffering economic collapse and its crumbling health system has so far registered 37,567 cases of COVID-19 and 311 deaths, although experts say the number is likely to be higher due to widespread insufficient testing.

(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Over 90,000 health workers infected with COVID-19 worldwide: nurses group

By Cecile Mantovani

(Reuters) – At least 90,000 health-care workers worldwide are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, and possibly twice that, amid reports of continuing shortages of protective equipment, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) said on Wednesday.

The disease has killed more than 260 nurses, it said in a statement, urging authorities to keep more accurate records to help prevent the virus from spreading among staff and patients.

The Geneva-based association said a month ago that 100 nurses had died in the pandemic sparked by a novel coronavirus that emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

“The figure for health care workers infections has risen from 23,000 to we think more than 90,000, but that is still an under-estimation because it is not (covering) every country in the world,” Howard Catton, ICN’s chief executive officer, told Reuters Television in its lakeside offices.

The 90,000 estimate is based on information collected on 30 countries from national nursing associations, government figures and media reports. The ICN represents 130 national associations and more than 20 million registered nurses.

Catton, noting that 3.5 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported worldwide, said: “If the average health worker infection rate, about 6 percent we think, is applied to that, the figure globally could be more than 200,000 health worker infections today.

“The scandal is that governments are not systematically collecting and reporting on this information. It looks to us as though they are turning a blind eye which we think is completely unacceptable and will cost more lives,” Catton, a Briton, added.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is coordinating the global response to the pandemic, says that its 194 member states are not providing comprehensive figures on health worker infections as they grapple with the unprecedented crisis.

The WHO last said on April 11 that some 22,000 health workers were thought to have been infected.

The ICN said it now believes those “shocking” figures to significantly underestimate the reality.

“This failure to record both infection rates and deaths among healthcare workers is putting more nurses and their patients in danger,” the statement said.

(Writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Congo starts vaccinating health workers against Ebola

A Congolese health worker checks the temperature of a woman before the launch of vaccination campaign against the deadly Ebola virus near Mangina village, near the town of Beni, in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Samuel Mambo

By Fiston Mahamba

MANGINA, Congo (Reuters) – Congolese officials and the World Health Organization began vaccinating health workers against the deadly Ebola virus on Wednesday, to try to halt an outbreak in Congo’s volatile east.

A Reuters witness on a visit to Mangina, the village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where the epidemic was declared, saw health workers in protective suits administering the injections.

So far 43 people are believed to have been infected in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, including 36 who have died, the health ministry said on Tuesday.

“We are putting all our energy and all our expertise to quickly control this epidemic,” Health Minister Oly Ilunga told journalists at the start of the vaccination campaign.

“All the measures of prevention are in place. The vaccination is the last phase. It will enable us to break the chain of transmission of this epidemic.”

More than 900 contacts of those infected have been identified for monitoring, although security is an issue in the area where militia groups operate, WHO said.

The disease, which causes fever, vomiting, and diarrhea, is spread through direct contact with body fluids.

“Around 40 health workers are expected to be vaccinated today; by end of the week, once all the necessary steps are in place, vaccination of community contacts and their contacts will commence,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said.

WHO has said that analysis of genetic sequencing showed it was a separate outbreak from the one 2,500 km (1,500 miles) away in the northwest that ended less than two weeks ago after killing 33 people — but the same Zaire strain.

This is Congo’s 10th Ebola outbreak since the virus was first identified near northern Congo’s Ebola river.

“There is a huge fear among the local population,” Kaswera Mathumo, a medical worker at a clinic in Mangina, where the vaccinations were taking place, said.

The experimental vaccine being used, which is manufactured by Merck, proved successful during its first wide-scale usage against the previous outbreak in Equateur Province.

More than 3,000 doses remain in stock in the capital Kinshasa, allowing authorities to deploy them quickly to affected areas.

But they face security challenges in eastern Congo, a region bubbling with conflicts over land and ethnicity stoked by decades of on-off war.

Local authorities announced on Tuesday that 14 bodies had been discovered in the town of Tubameme, about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of the epicenter of the outbreak in the town of Mangina, suspected to have been killed by a militia group.

(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Tim Cocks and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Richard Balmforth)