South Africa detects new coronavirus variant, still studying its mutations

By Alexander Winning

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South African scientists have detected a new coronavirus variant with multiple mutations but are yet to establish whether it is more contagious or able to overcome the immunity provided by vaccines or prior infection.

The new variant, known as C.1.2, was first detected in May and has now spread to most South African provinces and to seven other countries in Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania, according to research which is yet to be peer-reviewed.

It contains many mutations associated in other variants with increased transmissibility and reduced sensitivity to neutralizing antibodies, but they occur in a different mix and scientists are not yet sure how they affect the behavior of the virus. Laboratory tests are underway to establish how well the variant is neutralized by antibodies.

South Africa was the first country to detect the Beta variant, one of only four labelled “of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Beta is believed to spread more easily than the original version of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and there is evidence vaccines work less well against it, leading some countries to restrict travel to and from South Africa.

PANDEMIC ‘FAR FROM OVER’

Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist and one of the authors of the research on C.1.2, said its emergence tells us “this pandemic is far from over and that this virus is still exploring ways to potentially get better at infecting us.”

He said people should not be overly alarmed at this stage and that variants with more mutations were bound to emerge further into the pandemic.

Genomic sequencing data from South Africa show the C.1.2 variant was still nowhere near displacing the dominant Delta variant in July, the latest month for which a large number of samples was available.

In July C.1.2 accounted for 3% of samples versus 1% in June, whereas Delta accounted for 67% in June and 89% in July.

Delta is the fastest and fittest variant the world has encountered, and it is upending assumptions about COVID-19 even as nations loosen restrictions and reopen their economies.

Lessells said C.1.2 may have more immune evasion properties than Delta, based on its pattern of mutations, and that the findings had been flagged to the WHO.

A spokesman for South Africa’s health department declined to comment on the research.

South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign got off to a slow start, with only around 14% of its adult population fully vaccinated so far.

(Reporting by Alexander Winning; Editing by Tim Cocks and Gareth Jones)

U.S. coronavirus hospitalizations hit eight-month high over 100,000

By Anurag Maan

(Reuters) -The number of coronavirus patients in U.S. hospitals has breached 100,000, the highest level in eight months, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, as a resurgence of COVID-19 spurred by the highly contagious Delta variant strains the nation’s health care system.

A total of 101,433 COVID patients were hospitalized, according to data published on Friday morning.

U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled in the past month. Over the past week, more than 500 people with COVID were admitted to hospitals each hour on average, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The United States reached its all-time peak for hospitalizations on Jan. 14 when there were over 142,000 coronavirus-infected patients in hospital beds, according to HHS.

As the vaccination campaign expanded in early 2021, hospitalizations fell and hit a 2021 low of 16,000 on in late June.

However, COVID-19 admissions rose suddenly in July as the Delta variant became the dominant strain. The U.S. South is the epicenter of the latest outbreak but hospitalizations are rising nationwide.

Florida has the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalized patients, followed by Texas and California, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 95% of intensive care beds are currently occupied in Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

The Delta variant, which is rapidly spreading among mostly the unvaccinated U.S. population, has also sent a record number of children to hospital. There are currently over 2,000 confirmed and suspected pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to HHS.

Three states – California, Florida and Texas – amount to about 32% of the total confirmed and suspected pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States.

Children currently make up about 2.3% of the nation’s COVID-19 hospitalizations. Kids under 12 are not eligible to receive the vaccine.

The country is hoping for vaccine authorization for younger children by autumn with the Pfizer Inc vaccine.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said this week that the nation could get COVID-19 under control by early next year if vaccinations ramp up.

The United States has given at least one dose of vaccine to about 61% of its population, according to the CDC.

The United States, which leads the world in the most deaths and cases, has reported 38.5 million infections and over 634,000 deaths since the pandemic began last year, according to a Reuters tally.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry)

Factbox – Latest on the worldwide spread of the coronavirus

(Reuters) – The World Health Organization’s (WHO) pandemic program plans to ship 100 million doses of Sinovac and Sinopharm COVID-19 shots by the end of next month, mostly to Africa and Asia, in its first delivery of Chinese vaccines, a WHO document showed.

EUROPE

* Britain’s Health Department said it has not made any decision on COVID-19 vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds after the Telegraph reported the National Health Service planned vaccinations from the first week children return to school in September.

* The British public’s view of the government’s management of the coronavirus crisis has turned negative for the first time since February and they are worried about the risk of a new wave of infections, according to a survey.

* Hundreds of Greek frontline health workers protested against a plan to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for the care sector as infection rates remained high.

* Students and teachers who have not been inoculated against COVID-19 or recovered from the disease will have to take weekly tests, as infections in the country rose to their highest since May.

ASIA-PACIFIC

* Vilified by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party for its high COVID-19 cases, Kerala’s apparent poor record may actually hold crucial lessons for the country in containing the outbreak as authorities brace for a possible third wave of infections.

* Vietnam will deploy troops to industrial Binh Duong province, a major manufacturing hub in the Southeast Asian country, to help contain an expected 50,000 additional coronavirus infections there over the next two weeks, the government said.

* Thailand is in talks with European countries to purchase millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

AMERICAS

* Illinois will require all eligible students and school employees to be vaccinated and re-instituted an indoor mask mandate under an order announced by Governor J.B. Pritzker.

* Public support for stronger measures to require COVID vaccinations is strong, according to a new Reuters/IPSOS poll, but for Detroit automakers the debate over vaccination policy is far from over.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

* A third wave of COVID-19 infections in Africa has stabilized and the continent’s slow vaccination drive has picked up pace, the WHO said.

* Qatar is offering COVID-19 vaccines to evacuees from Afghanistan who are temporarily staying in the Gulf Arab state, which has been facilitating global evacuation efforts since the Taliban seized Kabul.

MEDICAL DEVELOPMENTS

* Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc said it would start a large study for its experimental COVID-19 vaccine in the next few weeks, after the drugmaker received authorization from Brazil’s regulatory agency.

* Pfizer Inc and BioNTech signed on Brazil’s Eurofarma Laboratorios as a manufacturer of their COVID-19 vaccine doses for Latin America.

* Pfizer said a booster dose of its two-shot COVID-19 vaccine spurs a more than threefold increase in antibodies against the coronavirus, as the company seeks U.S. regulatory approval for a third injection.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

* Global equity markets slipped while U.S. Treasury yields rose to two-week highs on Thursday after two hawkish Federal Reserve officials called for the U.S. central bank to start ending its bond-buying program ahead of a key speech by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

(Compiled by Aditya Soni and Krishna Chandra Eluri; Editing by Subhranshu Sahu and Arun Koyyur)

China criticizes U.S. ‘scapegoating’ as COVID origin report to be released

BEIJING (Reuters) -China criticized on Wednesday the U.S. “politicization” of efforts to trace the origin of the coronavirus, demanding a U.S. military laboratory be investigated, shortly before the release of a U.S. intelligence community report on the virus.

The U.S. report is intended to resolve disputes among intelligence agencies considering different theories about how the coronavirus emerged, including a once-dismissed theory about a Chinese laboratory accident.

“Scapegoating China cannot whitewash the U.S.,” Fu Cong, director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ arms control department, told a briefing.

A White House official said on Wednesday that President Joe Biden had been briefed on the classified report. “We look forward to having an unclassified summary of key judgments to share soon,” the official said.

U.S. officials say they did not expect the review to lead to firm conclusions after China stymied earlier international efforts to gather key information on the ground.

China has said a laboratory leak was highly unlikely, and it has ridiculed a theory that coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 infections emerged in late 2019, setting off the pandemic.

China has instead suggested that the virus slipped out of a lab at the Army’s Fort Detrick base in Maryland in 2019.

“It is only fair that if the U.S. insists that this is a valid hypothesis, they should do their turn and invite the investigation into their labs,” said Fu.

On Tuesday, China’s envoy to the United Nations asked the head of the World Health Organization for an investigation into U.S. labs.

A joint WHO-Chinese team visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology but the United States said it had concerns about the access granted to the investigation.

When asked if China would stop talking about the Fort Detrick laboratory if the U.S. report concluded the virus did not leak from a Chinese lab, Fu said: “That is a hypothetical question, you need to ask the U.S.”

Fu said China was not engaged in a disinformation campaign.

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley; additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. extends travel curbs at Canada and Mexico land borders

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Friday extended the closure of its land borders with Canada and Mexico to non-essential travel such as tourism through Sept. 21 despite Ottawa’s decision to open its border to vaccinated Americans.

The latest 30-day extension by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), came after Canada said in July it would start allowing in fully vaccinated U.S. visitors starting Aug. 9 for non-essential travel after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a lengthy ban that many businesses have called crippling.

“In coordination with public health and medical experts, DHS continues working closely with its partners across the United States and internationally to determine how to safely and sustainably resume normal travel,” DHS said on Twitter.

The United States has continued to extend the extraordinary restrictions on Canada and Mexico on a monthly basis since March 2020, when they were imposed to address the spread of COVID-19. Reuters reported this week the extension was expected.

The latest restrictions extend the prohibitions beyond the end of the busy U.S. summer tourism season. Airline officials say it will be at least weeks and potentially months before any U.S. travel restrictions are lifted, citing the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

The U.S. land border restrictions do not bar U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents from returning to the United States.

Separate from the Canada and Mexico land border restrictions, the United States bars most non-U.S. citizens who within the last 14 days have been in the United Kingdom, the 26 Schengen countries in Europe without border controls, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.

The White House confirmed on Aug. 5 it may require visitors from abroad to be vaccinated as part of its plans to eventually reopen international travel but it had yet to decide and would not immediately lift restrictions.

The White House in June launched interagency working groups with the European Union, Britain, Canada and Mexico to look at how eventually to lift travel and border restrictions.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Gareth Jones and Timothy Heritage)

Japan extends COVID-19 emergency lockdown as cases surge

By Daniel Leussink, Leika Kihara and Sakura Murakami

TOKYO/FUKUOKA, Japan (Reuters) – Japan on Tuesday extended its state of emergency in Tokyo and other regions and announced new measures covering seven more prefectures to counter a spike in COVID-19 infections that is threatening the medical system.

The current state of emergency, the fifth of the pandemic so far, was due to expire on Aug. 31 but will now last until Sept. 12. Tokyo announced 4,377 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, after a record 5,773 on Friday.

“The Delta variant raging across the world is causing unprecedented cases in our country,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said. “Serious cases are increasing rapidly and severely burdening the medical system, particularly in the capital region.”

The emergency will now cover nearly 60% of Japan’s population with the prefectures of Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Shizuoka, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka included. Less strict “quasi-emergency” measures will be applied to a further 10 prefectures.

Restaurants are being asked to close early and stop serving alcohol in exchange for a subsidy. Suga announced a fresh subsidy of 300 billion yen ($2.7 billion) to help businesses cope with the fall-out.

Suga said the government would also request occupancy limits at department stores and ask people to reduce by half the times they go to crowded areas.

Speaking at a news conference explaining the steps, the government’s top health advisor, Shigeru Omi, said Japan needed to come up with steps to “prod individuals to avoid taking action that could potentially spread infections”.

He said that could be done under the current laws, which are mostly based on voluntary cooperation, but added that there’s also room for a nationwide debate on how to do this under a new legal framework”. He did not go into details.

Speaking beside Omi, Suga said the government would consider crafting legislation to swiftly prepare enough hospital beds for critically ill COVID-19 patients, and speed up vaccinations.

Suga dismissed the idea of imposing a blanket, nationwide state of emergency, saying that would pose “excessive restrictions for some prefectures” that were succeeding in containing new infections.

FALLING SHARES

Japanese shares fell for a fourth day on Tuesday as concerns about the Delta variant overshadowed optimism about upbeat earnings.

Japan’s case fatality rate stands at about 1.3%, compared with 1.7% in the United States and 2.1% in Britain.

But health experts fear the number of deaths could soar in Japan as the Delta variant tears through the younger population and hospitals become too crowded to treat serious cases.

“Many experts expressed an extremely strong sense of crisis about the medical care situation and the status of infections,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said after consulting with health advisers.

More than 80% of Tokyo’s critical care beds are occupied, and the rate is already 100% in neighboring Kanagawa prefecture. Serious cases climbed to records of 276 in Tokyo and 1,646 nationwide on Tuesday.

Dai-ichi Life Research Institute estimated that the government’s extended and expanded state of emergency would lead to a total economic loss of about 1.2 trillion yen ($11 billion) and could cost 66,000 jobs.

That was about 60% higher than an expected loss of about 750 billion yen if the emergency remained at its current scope and schedule.

Repeated states of emergency have had a limited effect in slowing the spread of the virus.

Takuto Honda, 20, a university student in the southwestern city of Fukuoka who works part-time at a karaoke shop, said a harder lockdown with government pay-outs would be more effective. “If there is money to host the Olympics, there should be money to compensate us,” he said.

Pandemic fatigue and summer vacations have also been blamed for contributing to the latest COVID-19 surge in a nation where only around 37% of people have been fully vaccinated.

(Reporting by Sakura Murakami in FUKUOKA, Daniel Leussink, Leika Kihara and Rocky Swift in TOKYO; Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Susan Fenton, Giles Elgood and Mark Heinrich)

Factbox-Latest on the worldwide spread of the coronavirus

(Reuters) – The Tokyo Paralympics will take place generally without spectators, organizers said, as the government was set to prolong COVID-19 emergency measures in the capital and other regions that will run through the Games.

EUROPE

* The European Guarantee Fund, which is managed by the Investment Bank Group, secured European Union approval to provide guarantees on synthetic securitization tranches to help companies in 22 EU countries affected by the pandemic.

* Poland will send 650,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Ukraine, the minister in charge of the Polish vaccination drive told state news agency PAP.

* North Macedonia has reimposed restrictions on access to cafes, restaurants and public events in a bid to subdue a fresh spike in infections and nudge citizens to get vaccinated, prompting public anger and protests.

* All 16- and 17-year-olds in England will be offered their first vaccine dose by Aug. 23, according to a target set by British Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

ASIA-PACIFIC

* Thailand, a regional manufacturer of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus shots, is seeking to borrow 150,000 doses of the same vaccine from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, an official said, amid a Thai supply shortage.

* Indonesia extended its curbs though relaxed some measures in eight unspecified areas on the most populous islands of Java and Bali, as fewer infections have been reported in cities.

* Hong Kong’s government said it would upgrade 15 overseas places including the United States, Spain and France to “high risk” from “medium risk” by Aug. 20, meaning international arrivals from those countries will face lengthened quarantine due to a resurgence of the coronavirus.

* Taiwan has rejected an application for the emergency use of UBI Pharma’s vaccine candidate, the government said.

AMERICAS

* As the Delta variant of the virus sweeps through Mexico’s cities, more adults in their 30s and 40s are ending up in the hospital with polls showing vaccine hesitancy is rising in younger age groups.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

* Turkey is allowing people who were inoculated with Sinovac’s coronavirus vaccine to take an additional Pfizer dose as it looks to ease travel to countries that have not approved the Chinese shot, the health ministry said.

MEDICAL DEVELOPMENTS

* Europe’s drugs regulator said it was evaluating the use of Roche’s arthritis drug, Actemra, in hospitalized adults with severe COVID-19, its latest review of a potential coronavirus treatment.

* The UK’s health regulator said coronavirus vaccines did not raise the risk of miscarriage, and that it had not found any link between the shots and changes to menstrual periods.

* GlaxoSmithKline and CureVac said a study on macaque monkeys showed their jointly-developed vaccine candidate to be “strongly improved” in protecting against the virus compared with CureVac’s first attempt.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

* A surprisingly sharp slowdown in Chinese economic activity and a rapid Taliban takeover in Afghanistan helped drive global shares lower Monday.

* The initial success of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout that enabled an opening of the economy bolstered growth in the second quarter, official figures showed.

* Thailand’s economy unexpectedly grew in the second quarter from the first helped by exports and government spending, but spiking cases continue to batter domestic activity and tourism, restraining its fragile recovery.

(Compiled by Veronica Snoj and Federico Maccioni; Edited by Shounak Dasgupta)

U.S. consumer sentiment plummets in early August to decade low

By Evan Sully and Lindsay Dunsmuir

(Reuters) -U.S. consumer sentiment dropped sharply in early August to its lowest level in a decade, in a worrying sign for the economy as Americans gave faltering outlooks on everything from personal finances to inflation and employment, a survey showed on Friday.

The unexpected reading could give Federal Reserve policymakers pause if it translates in the months ahead to a dent in economic activity. The central bank has been getting closer to a decision on when to begin pulling back the extraordinary stimulus it put in place to shield the economy from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University of Michigan said its preliminary consumer sentiment index fell to 70.2 in the first half of this month from a final reading of 81.2 in July. That was the lowest level since 2011, and there have been only two larger declines in the index over the past 50 years. Those were at the depths of the 2007-2009 recession and during the first wave of shutdowns in April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic.

The losses were widespread across income, age, and education subgroups and spanned all regions. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the index would remain unchanged at 81.2.

U.S. stock market indexes slipped immediately after the report was released, while the price of gold gained ground. U.S. Treasury bond yields hit session lows.

“The renewed plunge suggests the latest wave of virus cases driven by the Delta variant could be a bigger drag on the economy than we had thought,” said Andrew Hunter, an economist at Capital Economics.

Economic growth is still expected to grow this year at its fastest pace in four decades after falling into a brief recession in 2020 caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But the recovery is showing some indication of cooling off.

COVID-19 cases have doubled in the past two weeks to reach a six-month peak as the more transmissible Delta variant spreads rapidly across the country. Labor shortages across the service sector also persist while supply chain disruptions have continued.

“The pandemic’s resurgence due to the Delta variant has been met with a mixture of reason and emotion…mainly from dashed hopes that the pandemic would soon end,” Richard Curtin, the survey director, said in a statement.

The survey’s gauge of current economic conditions also declined to a reading of 77.9 from 84.5 in July while its measure of consumer expectations slid to 65.2 from 79.0 in July.

The survey also showed consumers raising their expectations for medium term inflation, another measure the central bank is closely monitoring to ensure that inflation expectations remain anchored.

The survey’s one-year inflation expectation edged lower to 4.6%, down from 4.7%, but its five-year inflation outlook ticked up to 3.0% from 2.8% in July.

Consumer price increases slowed in July, the Labor Department said on Wednesday, but inflation overall remained at a historically high level amid lingering supply-chain disruptions and stronger demand for travel-related services.

(Reporting by Evan Sully and Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

WHO seeks to take political heat out of virus origins debate

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization said on Friday it was setting up a new group to trace the origins of the coronavirus, seeking to end what it called “political point scoring” that had hampered investigations.

The inability of the WHO to say where and how the virus began spreading has fueled tensions among its members, particularly between China, where COVID-19 cases were first identified in Wuhan in late 2019, and the United States.

The WHO called for all governments to cooperate to accelerate studies into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and “to depoliticize the situation.”

It specified that a new advisory group called the International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens would support “the rapid undertaking” of further studies.

“We should work all together. You, me, everyone wants to know the origin of worst pandemic in a century,” WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib said at a U.N. briefing on Friday.

Washington on Friday welcomed the WHO plan, noting the “emphasis on scientific-based studies and data driven efforts to find the origins of this pandemic so that we can better detect, prevent and respond to future disease outbreaks.”

President Joe Biden in late May ordered aides to find answers on COVID-19 origins and report back in 90 days.

In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around the city of Wuhan in January and February said that the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal. It said that a leak from a laboratory was “extremely unlikely” as a cause.

However, in a documentary broadcast in his native Denmark on Thursday, the WHO mission leader Peter Ben Embarek said that the lab hypothesis merited further study. Ben Embarek could not be reached by Reuters for further comment on Friday.

A WHO official said that its statement on advancing the virus origins study bore no relation to those remarks, noting that the Ben Embarek interview was filmed months ago.

China said it has never rejected cooperation on tracing COVID-19 origins, state media quoted the country’s vice foreign minister as saying.

(Reporting by Emma Farge, Jacon Gronholt-Pedersen and Gabriel Crossley; Editing by Keith Weir and Jon Boyle)

Long delays as Canada opens border to fully vaccinated American tourists after 16 months

VANCOUVER (Reuters) – Long delays were reported at the Canadian-U.S. border on Monday as Ottawa finally opened doors to fully vaccinated American tourists for the first time in 16 months, causing a rush of tourists to travel north during the busy summer season.

Government data showed a seven-hour wait time for the Fort Frances, Ontario, and International Falls, Minnesota, crossing. Fort Frances advertises itself online as “rarely experiencing delays.”

Several crossings in Ontario and New Brunswick – between the states of New York and Maine – had waits of three hours.

Canada barred all leisure travel from the United States in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but as of August 9 fully vaccinated travelers are able to enter the country. International travelers who are fully vaccinated will be allowed to enter in early September.

Late on Friday, the Canadian government and border staff reached a tentative deal to end a strike action that began earlier in the day.

Prior to the pandemic, tourism was the fifth-largest industry in Canada, contributing C$105 billion ($83.4 billion) to the GDP and providing one in ten jobs, according to the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.

Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Canada’s biggest airport, has also asked travelers to brace for delays as American leisure travelers returns to Canada.

(Reporting by Moira Warburton in Vancouver; Editing by Angus MacSwan)