Second year of pandemic ‘could even be tougher’: WHO’s Ryan

GENEVA (Reuters) – The second year of the COVID-19 pandemic may be tougher than the first given how the new coronavirus is spreading, especially in the northern hemisphere as more infectious variants circulate, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.

“We are going into a second year of this, it could even be tougher given the transmission dynamics and some of the issues that we are seeing,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies official, said during an event on social media.

The worldwide death toll is approaching 2 million people since the pandemic began, with 91.5 million people infected.

The WHO, in its latest epidemiological update issued overnight, said after two weeks of fewer cases being reported, some five million new cases were reported last week, the likely result of a letdown of defenses during the holiday season in which people – and the virus – came together.

“Certainly in the northern hemisphere, particularly in Europe and North America we have seen that sort of perfect storm of the season – coldness, people going inside, increased social mixing and a combination of factors that have driven increased transmission in many, many countries,” Ryan said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, warned: “After the holidays, in some countries the situation will get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Amid growing fears of the more contagious coronavirus variant first detected in Britain but now entrenched worldwide, governments across Europe on Wednesday announced tighter, longer coronavirus restrictions.

That includes home-office requirements and store closures in Switzerland, an extended Italian COVID-19 state of emergency, and German efforts to further reduce contacts between people blamed for failed efforts, so far, to get the coronavirus under control.

“I worry that we will remain in this pattern of peak and trough and peak and trough, and we can do better,” Van Kerkhove said.

She called for maintaining physical distancing, adding: “The further, the better…but make sure that you keep that distance from people outside your immediate household.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and John Miller in Zurich; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Exclusive: New global lab network will compare COVID-19 vaccines head-to-head

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A major non-profit health emergencies group has set up a global laboratory network to assess data from potential COVID-19 vaccines, allowing scientists and drugmakers to compare them and speed up selection of the most effective shots.

Speaking to Reuters ahead of announcing the labs involved, Melanie Saville, director of vaccine R&D at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said the idea was to “compare apples with apples” as drugmakers race to develop an effective shot to help control the COVID-19 pandemic.

The centralized network is the first of its kind to be set up in response to a pandemic.

In a network spanning Europe, Asia and North America, the labs will centralize analysis of samples from trials of COVID-19 candidates “as though vaccines are all being tested under one roof”, Saville said, aiming to minimize the risk of variation in results.

“When you start off (with developing potential new vaccines) especially with a new disease, everyone develops their own assays, they all use different protocols and different reagents – so while you get a readout, the ability to compare between different candidates is very difficult,” she told Reuters.

“By taking the centralized lab approach … it will give us a chance to really make sure we are comparing apples with apples.”

The CEPI network will initially involve six labs, one each in Canada, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Bangladesh and India, Saville said.

Hundreds of potential COVID-19 vaccines are in various stages of development around the world, with shots developed in Russia and China already being deployed before full efficacy trials have been done, and front-runners from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca likely to have final-stage trial results before year-end.

Typically, the immunogenicity of potential vaccines is assessed in individual lab analyses, which aim to see whether biomarkers of immune response – such as antibodies and T-cell responses – are produced after clinical trial volunteers receive a dose, or doses, of the vaccine candidate.

But with more than 320 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in the works, Saville said, the many differences in data collection and evaluation methods are an issue.

As well as potential variations in markers of immunity, there are differences in how and where samples are collected, transported and stored – all of which can impact the quality and usefulness of the data produced, and make comparisons tricky.

And with a range of different vaccine technologies being explored – from viral vector vaccines to ones based on messenger RNA – standard evaluation of their true potential “becomes very complex”, she said.

“With hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines in development … it’s essential that we have a system that can reliably evaluate and compare the immune response of candidates currently undergoing testing,” she said.

By centralizing the analysis in a lab network, much of what Saville called the “inter-laboratory variability” can be removed, allowing for head-to-head comparisons.

CEPI says all developers of potential COVID-19 vaccines can use the centralized lab network for free to assess their candidates against a common protocol. For now, the network will assess samples from early-stage vaccine candidate testing and first and second stage human trials, but CEPI said it hoped to expand its capacity to late stage (Phase III) trial data in the coming months.

Results produced by the network will be sent back to the developer, with neither CEPI nor the network owning the data.

CEPI itself is co-funding nine of the potential COVID-19 vaccines in development, including candidates from Moderna, AstraZeneca, Novavax and CureVac.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Mark Potter)

Global coronavirus deaths top half a million

By Jane Wardell and Cate Cadell

SYDNEY/BEIJING (Reuters) – The death toll from COVID-19 surpassed half a million people on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally, a grim milestone for the global pandemic that seems to be resurgent in some countries even as other regions are still grappling with the first wave.

The respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus has been particularly dangerous for the elderly, although other adults and children are also among the 501,000 fatalities and 10.1 million reported cases.

While the overall rate of death has flattened in recent weeks, health experts have expressed concerns about record numbers of new cases in countries like the United States, India and Brazil, as well as new outbreaks in parts of Asia.

More than 4,700 people are dying every 24 hours from COVID-19-linked illness, according to Reuters calculations based on an average from June 1 to 27.

That equates to 196 people per hour, or one person every 18 seconds.

About one-quarter of all the deaths so far have been in the United States, the Reuters data shows. The recent surge in cases has been most pronounced in a handful of Southern and Western states that reopened earlier and more aggressively. U.S. officials on Sunday reported around 44,700 new cases and 508 additional deaths.

Case numbers are also growing swiftly in Latin America, on Sunday surpassing those diagnosed in Europe, making the region the second most affected by the pandemic, after North America.

On the other side of the world, Australian officials were considering reimposing social distancing measures in some regions on Monday after reporting the biggest one-day rise in infections in more than two months.

The first recorded death from the new virus was on Jan. 9, a 61-year-old man from the Chinese city of Wuhan who was a regular shopper at a wet market that has been identified as the source of the outbreak.

In just five months, the COVID-19 death toll has overtaken the number of people who die annually from malaria, one of the most deadly infectious diseases.

The death rate averages out to 78,000 per month, compared with 64,000 AIDS-related deaths and 36,000 malaria deaths, according to 2018 figures from the World Health Organization.

CHANGING BURIAL RITES

The high number of deaths has led to changes to traditional and religious burial rites around the world, with morgues and funeral businesses overwhelmed and loved ones often barred from bidding farewell in person.

In Israel, the custom of washing the bodies of Muslim deceased is not permitted, and instead of being shrouded in cloth, they must be wrapped in a plastic body bag. The Jewish tradition of Shiva where people go to the home of mourning relatives for seven days has also been disrupted.

In Italy, Catholics have been buried without funerals or a blessing from a priest. In New York, city crematories were at one point working overtime, burning bodies into the night as officials scouted for temporary interment sites.

In Iraq, former militiamen have dropped their guns to instead dig graves for coronavirus victims at a specially created cemetery. They have learned how to conduct Christian, as well as Muslim, burials.

ELDERLY AT RISK

Public health experts are looking at how demographics affect the death rates in different regions. Some European countries with older populations have reported higher fatality rates, for instance.

An April report by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control looked at more than 300,000 cases in 20 countries and found that about 46% of all fatalities were over the age of 80.

In Indonesia, hundreds of children are believed to have died, a development health officials have attributed to malnutrition, anemia and inadequate child health facilities.

Health experts caution that the official data likely does not tell the full story, with many believing that both cases and deaths have likely been under reported in some countries.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell in Sydney and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Daniel Wallis)

North America extends coronavirus travel restrictions: U.S. official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States, Mexico and Canada are extending restrictions on non-essential travel across their shared borders for an additional 30 days, U.S. Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said in a tweet.

“As President Trump stated last week, border control, travel restrictions, and other limitations remain critical to slowing the spread of coronavirus and allowing the phased opening of the country,” Wolf wrote.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

‘Elbow to elbow:’ North America meat plant workers fall ill, walk off jobs

By Tom Polansek and Rod Nickel

CHICAGO/WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) – At a Wayne Farms chicken processing plant in Alabama, workers recently had to pay the company 10 cents a day to buy masks to protect themselves from the new coronavirus, according to a meat inspector.

In Colorado, nearly a third of the workers at a JBS USA beef plant stayed home amid safety concerns for the last two weeks as a 30-year employee of the facility died following complications from the virus.

And since an Olymel pork plant in Quebec shut on March 29, the number of workers who tested positive for the coronavirus quintupled to more than 50, according to their union. The facility and at least 10 others in North America have temporarily closed or reduced production in about the last two weeks because of the pandemic, disrupting food supply chains that have struggled to keep pace with surging demand at grocery stores.

According to more than a dozen interviews with U.S and Canadian plant workers, union leaders and industry analysts, a lack of protective equipment and the nature of “elbow to elbow” work required to debone chickens, chop beef and slice hams are highlighting risks for employees and limiting output as some forego the low-paying work. Companies that added protections, such as enhanced cleaning or spacing out workers, say the moves are further slowing meat production.

Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork processor, on Sunday said it is shutting a pork plant indefinitely and warned that plant shutdowns are pushing the United States “perilously close to the edge” in meat supplies for grocers.

Lockdowns that aim to stop the spread of the coronavirus have prevented farmers across the globe from delivering produce to consumers. Millions of laborers also cannot get to the fields for harvesting and planting, and there are too few truckers to keep goods moving.

The United States and Canada are among the world’s biggest shippers of beef and pork. Food production has continued as governments try to ensure adequate supplies, even as they close broad swathes of the economy.

The closures and increased absenteeism among workers have contributed to drops in the price of livestock, as farmers find fewer places for slaughter. Since March 25, nearby lean hog futures have plunged 35%, and live cattle prices shed 15%, straining the U.S. farm economy.

North American meat demand has dropped some 30% in the past month as declining sales of restaurant meats like steaks and chicken wings outweighed a spike in retail demand for ground beef, said Christine McCracken, Rabobank’s animal protein analyst.

Frozen meats in U.S. cold storage facilities remain plentiful, but supply could be whittled down as exports to protein-hungry China increase after a trade agreement removed obstacles for American meat purchases.

“There’s a huge risk of additional plant closures,” McCracken said.

JBS had to reduce beef production at a massive plant in Greeley, Colorado, as about 800 to 1,000 workers a day stayed home since the end of March, said Kim Cordova, president of the local United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union that represents employees.

“There’s just not enough people,” Cordova said. She added that the union knew of at least 50 cases and two deaths among employees as of Friday.

Plant worker Saul Sanchez, known affectionately as “grandpa” among some co-workers, tested positive for the virus and died on April 7 at 78 years old, according to his daughter, Beatriz Rangel. She said he only went from home to work before developing symptoms, including a low fever.

“I’m heartbroken because my dad was so loyal,” Rangel said.

Brazilian owned JBS confirmed an employee with three decades of experience died from complications associated with COVID-19, without naming Sanchez. The company said he had not been at work since March 20, the same day JBS removed people older than 70 from its facilities as a precaution. He was never symptomatic while at work and never worked in the facility while sick, according to the company.

JBS said it was working with federal and state governments to obtain tests for all plant employees.

Weld County, where the plant is located, had the fourth highest number of COVID-19 cases of any county in Colorado on Friday, according to the state. Health officials confirmed cases among JBS workers.

JBS said high absenteeism at the plant led slaughter rates to outpace the process of cutting carcasses into pieces of beef. The company disputed the union’s numbers on worker absences but did not provide its own. It took steps including buying masks and putting up plexiglass shields in lunch rooms to protect employees, said Cameron Bruett, spokesman for JBS USA.

“MY LIFE IS IN JEOPARDY”

At Wayne Farms’ chicken plant in Decatur, Alabama, some workers are upset the company recently made employees pay for masks, said Mona Darby, who inspects chicken breasts there and is a local leader of hundreds of poultry workers for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“My life is in jeopardy because we’re working elbow to elbow,” she said.

Wayne Farms, with annual sales exceeding $2 billion, is trying to obtain masks to distribute to employees, though supplies are limited, spokesman Frank Singleton said. He said he did not know of any instances where employees were charged for masks.

Workers at a Tyson Foods Inc chicken plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee, bought their own masks when the facility ran out, said Kim Hickerson, who loads chicken on trucks there and is a union leader. Some are talking about quitting because they are scared of getting sick, he said.

“I just put it in God’s hands,” he said.

Tyson, the top U.S. meat producer, is working to find more personal protective equipment for employees, spokesman Worth Sparkman said. The company increased cleaning at facilities and sought to space out employees, which can both slow production, according to a statement.

Workers have lost their trust in Olymel after an outbreak of the coronavirus closed a plant in Yamachiche, Quebec, according to union spokeswoman Anouk Collet. “They do not feel that the company took all the measures they could have taken to keep them safe,” she said.

Company spokesman Richard Vigneault said the plant will reopen on Tuesday with new measures in place, such as separating panels, masks and visors.

Marc Perrone, international president of the UFCW union, said meat plant workers are increasingly weighing concerns about their own safety and their responsibility to produce food.

“If we don’t take care of the food supply, the American people are going to panic,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Edward Tobin)

Honda to recall 1.2 million vehicles in North America to replace Takata airbags

The Honda logo is displayed at the 89th Geneva International Motor Show in Geneva, Switzerland March 5, 2019. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Honda Motor Co said on Tuesday it would recall 1.2 million Honda and Acura vehicles in North America to replace defective Takata airbags on the driver’s side.

The company said https://hondanews.com/channels/corporate-recalls/releases/statement-by-american-honda-regarding-recall-of-takata-desiccated-replacement-driver-front-airbag-inflators it was aware of one injury linked to the defect, which may have caused the airbag to rupture when it was deployed in a crash.

Of the 23 total deaths worldwide linked to faulty Takata airbags, 21 have occurred in Honda vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the recall covers 1.1 million U.S. vehicles and is to replace inflators received “either as a permanent Takata airbag inflator recall replacement or as a service part installed following a crash or problem with the airbag itself.”

Another 100,000 vehicles are being recalled in Canada, Mexico and Central America, Honda said.

The Honda models being recalled include 2001-2007 and 2009 Honda Accord, 2001-2005 Honda Civic, 2002-2007 and 2010-2011 Honda CR-V, 2003-2011 Honda Element, 2007 Honda Fit, 2002-2004 Honda Odyssey, 2003-2008 Honda Pilot, and 2006-2014 Honda Ridgeline.

The Acura models include 2003 Acura 3.2CL, 2013-2016 Acura ILX, 2003-2006 Acura MDX, 2002-2003 Acura 3.2TL, 2004-2006 and 2009-2014 Acura TL, 2007-2016 Acura RDX, and 2010-2013 Acura ZDX.

More than 290 injuries worldwide have been linked to Takata inflators that could explode, spraying metal shrapnel inside cars and trucks. In total, 19 automakers are recalling more than 100 million potentially faulty inflators worldwide.

Repairs of the recalled Hondas and Acuras will begin immediately in the United States with replacement parts made by alternate suppliers, Honda said.

Honda became aware of the issue after a Honda Odyssey crash, where the front airbag deployed and injured the driver’s arm.

An investigation later showed that manufacturing issues at Takata’s Mexico facility introduced excessive moisture into the inflator during assembly, leading to the problem.

The total number of recalled inflators is now about 21 million in about 12.9 million Honda and Acura vehicles that have been subject to recall for replacing Takata front airbag inflators in the United States, the company said.

Automakers in the United States repaired more than 7.2 million defective Takata air bag inflators in 2018, as companies have ramped up efforts to track down parts in need of replacement.

(Reporting by Sanjana Shivdas in Bengaluru and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli and Steve Orlofsky)

Ford to recall about 1.3 million vehicles in North America

FILE PHOTO: An airplane flies above a Ford logo in Colma, California, U.S., October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

(Reuters) – Ford Motor Co said on Wednesday it would recall about 1.3 million vehicles in North America, including certain 2015-17 Ford F-150 and 2017 Ford Super Duty trucks, to add water shields to side door latches. (http://ford.to/2ySvCBJ)

The No.2 U.S. automaker said the safety recall is due to frozen door latch or a bent or kinked actuation cable in the affected vehicles, that may result in a door not opening or closing.

The company said it was not aware of any accidents or injuries associated with the issue but said because of the fault the door may appear closed, increasing the risk of the door opening while driving.

The cost of the recall was estimated to be $267 million and would be reflected in its fourth quarter results, the company said. (http://bit.ly/2yT3EWu)

Ford said it continues to expect full-year adjusted earnings in the range of $1.65 to $1.85‍​ per share.

(Reporting by Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva and Arun Koyyur)

North American leagues urge vigilance after Manchester attack

A man looks at flowers for the victims of the Manchester Arena attack in central Manchester, Britain May 23, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

By Rory Carroll

(Reuters) – North America’s major sports leagues have strict safety procedures at their arenas but have urged fans attending games to be vigilant following Monday’s suicide bombing at a pop concert in Manchester, England, officials said on Tuesday.

The attack, which killed 22 people, has raised concerns in the U.S. ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, when fans flock to baseball stadiums to kick off the summer.

It also comes during the playoffs for the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Basketball Association (NBA), high-profile games that typically take place before sold-out crowds.

“We already have a very thorough and detailed security plan in place at all of our arenas to ensure the safety of our fans,” said Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the NHL.

“Obviously, with yesterday’s events, arenas have been reminded to re-double their efforts and to maximize their vigilance”

The league requests that anyone attending a game report anything that they observe as suspicious or out of the ordinary to law enforcement, security or arena personnel, he said.

An NBA official echoed that sentiment.

“We are in communication with the appropriate authorities and taking all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of our fans, teams and staff,” said Mike Bass, an NBA spokesman.

League officials typically do not share the specifics of their security measures for safety reasons.

The attacker in Manchester targeted Europe’s largest indoor arena, which was full to its 21,000 capacity, about the size of most NHL and NBA arenas.

Major League Baseball, which recently began its season and mostly plays its games in outdoor stadiums that are larger than NHL and NBA arenas, has a similar approach to fellow leagues.

“Fan safety and ballpark security are always our top priorities, and we will continue to do everything possible to provide a safe environment for our fans,” the league said in a statement to Reuters.

The National Football League, which has some stadiums that hold more than 80,000 people, is currently in its off-season.

(Editing by Ken Ferris)

Mexico private sector eyes more NAFTA content in future products

FILE PHOTO - Trucks wait in a long queue for border customs control to cross into the U.S. at the Otay border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes/File photo

By Dave Graham

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A modernization of the NAFTA trade deal should protect existing industrial supply chains in North America, but could seek to source more work for future products from the member states to help create jobs, a top Mexican negotiator in the process said.

The government of U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday triggered the process to start renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which could usher in formal talks by mid-August.

Trump has threatened to jettison the 23-year-old accord if he cannot rework it in favor of the United States, arguing it has gutted U.S. manufacturing by outsourcing jobs to Mexico.

NAFTA’s supporters say the integration of lower-cost Mexico into production chains has safeguarded employment by enabling North America to compete better with Asian and European rivals.

Mexican business leaders say toughening rules that stipulate a certain amount of content must be sourced from North America to qualify for NAFTA certification could be one way of allaying U.S. fears, and pave the way for an agreement on the revamp.

Offering insight into how Mexico may seek to broker a deal, Moises Kalach, a linchpin of the country’s private sector defense of NAFTA, said U.S. business leaders and government officials were increasingly persuaded that existing supply chains should not be disrupted – but that future production lines could be tailored to provide more work for North America.

“Obviously, innovation and technology have been changing the way and even form of how products are made, and there’s an opportunity to have certain products and innovations made with a lot more regional integration, without doing damage to current lines of production,” Kalach, who heads the international negotiating team of Mexico’s Consejo Coordinador Empresarial business lobby, said by phone from Washington.

“This is part of the proposal that we want to put on the table, that we want to push,” Kalach added, speaking after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer had kicked off a 90-day consultation process with Congress and others over NAFTA.

Elaborating, Kalach said new products and materials in industries like carmaking and electrodomestic goods – sectors where Mexico runs a sizeable trade surplus with the United States – could be made with higher NAFTA content in the future.

Trump argues Mexico’s surplus with the United States proves that the deal has hurt U.S. industry. Supporters of NAFTA say U.S. consumer demand has fueled the U.S. deficit and point out that the Mexican surplus has fallen since peaking a decade ago.

The deal underpins more than $1 trillion of trilateral trade.

U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer said in Washington that NAFTA had been successful for U.S. agriculture, investment services and the energy sector, but not manufacturing.

Kalach said after Thursday’s announcements it was still unclear exactly what the United States would seek in the renegotiation.

Thomas Donohue, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement on Thursday that the NAFTA renegotiation should do “no harm”, and urged leaders to move quickly to avoid crimping investment and overly politicizing the talks.

(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Lisa Shumaker)