Vaccinated people need not quarantine post COVID-19 exposure, CDC says

(Reuters) – People who have received the full course of COVID-19 vaccines can skip the standard 14-day quarantine after exposure to someone with the infection as long as they remain asymptomatic, U.S. public health officials advised.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Wednesday the vaccines have been shown to prevent symptomatic COVID-19, thought to play a greater role in the transmission of the virus than asymptomatic disease.

“Individual and societal benefits of avoiding unnecessary quarantine may outweigh the potential but unknown risk of transmission (among vaccinated individuals),” the CDC said.

The agency has laid down strict criteria for people who would no longer have to quarantine after the vaccinations, including having received both doses of a two-dose vaccine.

People who choose not to quarantine should do so only if they received their last dose within three months, and should only avoid 14 days quarantine after their last shot, the time it takes to develop immunity, CDC said.

Fully vaccinated persons who do not quarantine should still watch for symptoms for 14 days following an exposure.

Two-dose vaccines from Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have been authorized for emergency use in the United States. Johnson & Johnson applied for a U.S. authorization of its single-dose shot last week.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra and Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta and Sriraj Kalluvila)

Splendid isolation: Hungarian family out sails COVID nightmare on the sea

By Krisztina Than

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – While the world was grappling with the pandemic, a Hungarian family of four decided last summer to fulfil their dream: sailing around the globe in a 50-feet boat called “Teatime.”

They left a Croatian port in late June 2020 and have since sailed around Italy and Spain, then stopped for some time on Cape Verde before crossing the Atlantic.

After having spent Christmas on Martinique, they are now anchored in Marigot, on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, waiting to sail towards the Panama canal.

They are in no rush, though, as life on the boat — just as for many people quarantined in their homes — has slowed down.

“For me it is a fantastic experience that I can spend a lot more time with my kids, instead of getting home late from work totally exhausted,” said 48-year-old Domonkos Bosze, who set up a home office on the boat. He works in the IT business.

“Our route is fairly flexible: basically the weather defines which way we go, as the hurricane and cyclones seasons set the limits for sailing each region.”

He and his wife Anna, who have been sailing for more than a decade, had planned the adventure long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the pandemic presented them with the dilemma of whether this was the right time to go, in the end their determination overruled all worries and risks.

TEATIME ON SEA

So far the biggest challenge has been a six-hour storm during the Atlantic crossing which they managed well, losing only a toaster and the satellite phone which broke.

They follow the changes in coronavirus rules in each country and take a test or go into quarantine as required.

“When we arrived in Martinique … we told authorities that we just spent 16 days on the open seas and they accepted that as quarantine,” Bosze said.

Nonetheless, the boat is filled with enough foodstuff for a month. And they catch their own tuna or mahi mahi (dorado), much to the joy of their 6- and 8-year-old daughters.

The two girls do remote learning, and will be enrolled in local schools if possible to get familiar with different cultures.

Domonkos said a discussion with Jimmy Cornell, the legendary Romanian-born British yachtsman, had a great influence on their thinking when they planned the trip.

While being together all the time in a confined space posed some difficulties in the beginning, now everything goes like clockwork on “Teatime”, named after the family’s habit of sitting down for tea and chatter.

Anna said the trip has given her huge freedom even though she cooks regularly besides handling the sails if needed.

“We saw dolphins jumping at the bow of the boat and swimming with us, with the sea totally calm … so we could see them clearly under water,” she said, smiling.

Depending on COVID restrictions, they plan to sail on this year or next year towards the Pacific, and now they say their trip could last another 5-6 years, stopping for extended periods in the southern Pacific and on the Indian ocean.

(Reporting and writing by Krisztina Than; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

WHO team in Wuhan visits hospital that treated early COVID cases

By Gabriel Crossley

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – A World Health Organization-led team of experts investigating the origins of COVID-19 on Friday visited a hospital in the Chinese city of Wuhan that was one of the first to treat patients in the early days of the outbreak.

The hospital visit was the team’s first in the field after two weeks in quarantine, and a WHO spokeswoman said the group’s contacts in Wuhan will be limited to visits organized by their Chinese hosts due to health restrictions.

“The team will go out but they will be bussed to wherever, so they won’t have any contact with the community. They will only have contact with various individuals that are being organized as part of the study,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a briefing in Geneva on Friday.

After meeting with Chinese scientists earlier in the day, the team went to the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine.

Zhang Jixian, director of the hospital’s department of respiratory and critical care, has been cited by state media as the first to report the novel coronavirus, after treating an elderly couple in late 2019 whose CT scans showed differences from typical pneumonia.

“Extremely important 1st site visit. We are in the hospital that treated some of the first known cases of COVID-19, meeting with the actual clinicians & staff who did this work, having open discussion about the details of their work,” Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO-led team, wrote on Twitter.

The team plans to visit labs, markets and hospitals during its remaining two weeks in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first identified in late 2019.

While an exact itinerary has not been announced, the WHO has said the team plans to visit the seafood market at the center of the early outbreak as well as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. One hypothesis, rejected by China, is that the outbreak was caused by a leak at the government lab.

The WHO-led probe in Wuhan has been plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between China and the United States, which accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticized the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.

The WHO has sought to manage expectations. “There are no guarantees of answers,” its emergency chief, Mike Ryan, said this month.

The investigating team had been set to arrive in Wuhan earlier in January, and China’s delay of their visit drew rare public criticism from the head of the WHO, which former U.S. President Donald Trump accused of being “China-centric”.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said on Friday that WHO and Chinese experts were working together to trace the origin of the virus, but stressed that the mission was not a probe.

“It is part of a global research, not an investigation,” Zhao told a regular news conference in Beijing.

China has pushed the idea that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan, with state media citing the presence of the virus on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers saying it had been circulating in Europe in 2019.

China’s foreign ministry has also hinted that the sudden closure of a U.S. army laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland in July 2019 was linked to the pandemic.

“At the early stage in China, it was a burden particularly for Wuhan people when everyone was calling it a Wuhan virus, which was humiliating,” said Yang You, a 30-year-old Wuhan resident. “If it could be traced to the source clearly, in my opinion, it could clear either China’s or Wuhan’s name.”

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Martin Quin Pollard; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing and Stepahnie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Michael Perry, Nick Macfie & Simon Cameron-Moore)

More than half of world’s airline pilots no longer flying: survey

(Reuters) – More than half of the world’s airline pilots are no longer flying for a living amid the plunge in demand during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new survey, and those that are still flying feel less valued by their employers.

A poll of nearly 2,600 pilots by UK-based GOOSE Recruitment and industry publication FlightGlobal, released on Thursday, found only 43% were doing the job they had trained for, with 30% unemployed, 17% furloughed and 10% in non-flying roles.

Many pilots that are still flying have faced deteriorating working conditions. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd, for example, instituted permanent pay cuts of up to 58%, and Turkish Airways and Singapore Airlines Ltd have temporarily lowered salaries.

“We can see the effect the pandemic has had on employed pilots too,” GOOSE Recruitment chief executive officer and founder Mark Charman said in a statement. “Large numbers are feeling insecure about their jobs, an increased number are planning to look for new roles this year as well as many feeling less valued by their employers.”

For the unemployed pilots in the survey, 84% said it was due to the pandemic. Before COVID-19 hit, there had been widespread pilot shortages that had driven up demand for aviators and led to improving pay and conditions.

Now, 82% of unemployed pilots would take a pay cut for a new opportunity, the survey found.

For those that have kept their jobs, pilots in Europe reported being the most stressed by COVID-19, with respondents citing the risk of catching the virus, disjointed rules and the possibility of being placed in quarantine during a rotation as among their concerns.

Forty percent of pilots said their mental health had been affected by the pandemic, with the figure higher among younger pilots.

“The amount of stress and anxiety the pandemic has caused me has permanently scarred my outlook on life,” one surveyed pilot said.

(Reporting by Jamie Freed in Sydney. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

WHO team in Wuhan probing COVID-19 origins moves out of quarantine

By Gabriel Crossley

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – A World Health Organization-led team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic left its quarantine hotel in Wuhan on Thursday to begin field work, two weeks after arriving in the Chinese city where the virus emerged in late 2019.

The mission has been plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between China and the United States, which has accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticized the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.

“Thanks, Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei, for a frank discussion on the #COVID19 virus origins mission,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted.

“I asked that the international scientists get the support, access & data needed, and the chance to engage fully with their Chinese counterparts.”

The WHO has not provided details of the mission’s itinerary, although team leader Peter Ben Embarek said in November that the group would likely go to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the first known cluster of cases was traced.

The team, made up of independent experts, is due to remain for two more weeks in China, which has used stringent measures, including drastically curtailing international arrivals, to curb the spread of the coronavirus. China has been battling a series of local outbreaks over the past month.

“During the second 14 days, the team will be able to go out under strict medical supervision, continuous testing and the restrictive measures,” Hans Kluge, the WHO’s European regional director, told a news conference from Copenhagen on Thursday.

He said the first two weeks had been productive.

“The team members have been prepared by counterparts in China in different fields, there have been, every day, many, many hours of presentations and exchange of data,” he said.

After leaving their quarantine hotel shortly after 3 p.m. (0700 GMT) without speaking to journalists, team members boarded a bus to a lakeside hotel, where a portion of the building and grounds were cordoned off.

Several team members described long work days during their quarantine, and relief at being able to leave their rooms.

“Slightly sad to say goodbye to my ‘gym’ & my ‘office’ where I’ve been holed up for last 2 wks!!,” team member Peter Daszak said on Twitter, along with photos of exercise equipment and a desk in his hotel room.

The team members’ luggage, loaded onto the bus by workers in protective suits, included yoga mats and what appeared to be a guitar case.

SCIENCE AND POLITICS

The WHO has sought to manage expectations for the investigation.

“There are no guarantees of answers,” WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan told reporters this month. “It is a difficult task to fully establish the origins and sometimes it can take two or three or four attempts to be able to do that in different settings.”

China’s foreign ministry said the team would participate in seminars, visits and field trips.

“All these activities must be in accordance with the principle of tracking the origin scientifically and with the ultimate goal of preventing future risks and protecting the safety and health of the people,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing on Thursday.

The origin of COVID-19 has been highly politicized.

The investigating team had been set to arrive in Wuhan earlier in January, and China’s delay of their visit drew rare public criticism from the head of the WHO, which former U.S. President Donald Trump accused of being “China-centric” early in the outbreak.

China has been pushing a narrative that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan, with state media citing the presence of the virus on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers saying it had been circulating in Europe in 2019.

China’s foreign ministry has also hinted on several occasions that the sudden closure of a U.S. army laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland in July 2019 was linked to the pandemic.

Wuhan resident Tu Zhengwang, 28, said it was not certain that the virus had originated in the city.

“It could be other places,” he said. “But if you find the origin, whether it is in Wuhan or other places, you could prevent similar incidents from happening.”

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley in Wuhan; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

WHO issues new clinical advice on treating COVID-19 patients

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) issued fresh clinical advice on Tuesday for treating COVID-19 patients, including those displaying persistent symptoms after recovery, and also said it advised using low-dose anti-coagulants to prevent blood clots.

“The other things in the guidance that are new are that COVID-19 patients at home should have the use of pulse oximetry, that’s measuring the oxygen levels, so you can identify whether someone at home is deteriorating and would be better off having hospital care,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

The WHO advised clinicians to put patients into the awake prone position, on their front, shown to improve the oxygen flow, she said.

“Also we recommend, we suggest, the use of low-dose anti-coagulants to prevent blood clots forming in blood vessels. We suggest the use of lower doses rather than higher doses because higher doses may lead to other problems,” Harris said.

She added that a WHO-led team of independent experts, currently in the central Chinese city of Wuhan where the first human cases were detected in December 2019, is due to leave quarantine in the next two days to pursue its work with Chinese researchers on the virus origins.

She declined to comment on reports of delays in roll-out of vaccines in the European Union. She said she had no specific data and the WHO’s priority was for health workers in all countries to be vaccinated in the first 100 days of the year.

AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University, told the EU on Friday it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge)

Britain tightens borders to keep out new COVID-19 strains

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain is tightening border controls to prevent new strains of COVID-19 coming into the country, suspending all the ‘travel corridor’ arrangements that had meant arrivals from some countries did not need to quarantine.

The change comes into force at 0400 GMT on Monday and means all passengers must have a recent negative coronavirus test and transfer immediately into isolation upon arrival. The isolation period lasts for 10 days, unless the passenger tests negative after five days.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the announcement during a news conference when he praised the country’s vaccination program, but he also warned: “What we don’t want to see is all that hard work undone by the arrival of a new variant that is vaccine busting.”

On Thursday, Britain banned arrivals from South America, Portugal and some other countries over fears about a strain of the virus detected in Brazil.

Britain has already felt the effects of mutations in the virus first hand. A strain first discovered in England has proved to be more transmissible and a major factor behind a spike in cases across the country.

(Reporting by Sarah Young, Writing by William James, editing by Elizabeth Piper)

Chinese city of Langfang goes into lockdown amid new COVID-19 threat

BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese city of Langfang near Beijing went into lockdown on Tuesday as new coronavirus infections raised worries about a second wave in a country that has mostly contained COVID-19.

The number of new cases in mainland China reported on Tuesday remained a small fraction of those seen at the height of the outbreak in early 2020. However, authorities are implementing strict curbs whenever new cases emerge.

The National Health Commission reported 55 new cases on Tuesday, down from 103 on Monday. Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, accounted for 40 of the 42 locally transmitted infections.

In a village in the south of Beijing that shares a border with Hebei, residents were stopping vehicles and asking to see health-tracking codes on mobile phones.

“We have to be careful as we’re near Guan, where COVID cases were reported today,” said a volunteer security officer surnamed Wang.

At a highway checkpoint, police in protective gowns ordered a car entering Beijing to return to Hebei after the driver was unable to show proof of a negative coronavirus test.

China’s state planning agency said it expected travel during next month’s Lunar New Year period to be markedly down on normal years, with a bigger share of people choosing cars over other transport. Many provinces have urged migrant workers to stay put for the festival.

HOME QUARANTINE

Langfang, southeast of Beijing, said its 4.9 million residents would be put under home quarantine for seven days and tested for the virus.

The government in Beijing said a World Health Organization team investigating the origin of the coronavirus would arrive on Thursday in the city of Wuhan, where the virus emerged in late 2019, after a delay that Beijing has called a “misunderstanding”.

Shijiazhuang, Hebei’s capital, has been hardest hit in the latest surge and has already placed its 11 million people under lockdown. The province has shut sections of highway and is ordering vehicles to turn back.

A new guideline from the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control recommended that taxi and ride-hailing operators suspend car-pooling services, and that drivers should get weekly DNA tests and be vaccinated in order to work, the ruling Communist Party-backed Beijing Daily reported.

As of Jan. 9, China had administered more than 9 million vaccine doses.

Across the country, the number of new asymptomatic cases rose to 81 from 76 the previous day. China does not classify asymptomatic cases as confirmed coronavirus infections.

The total number of confirmed cases reported in mainland China stands at 87,591, with an official death toll of 4,634.

(Reporting by Jing Wang and Andrew Galbraith in Shanghai and Sophie Yu, Roxanne Liu and Lusha Zhang in Beijing; writing by Se Young Lee and Ryan Woo; Editing by Sam Holmes and Kevin Liffey)

Coronavirus reaches end of earth as first outbreak hits Antarctica

By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – The coronavirus has landed in Antarctica, the last continent previously free from COVID-19, Chile’s military said this week, as health and army officials scrambled to clear out and quarantine staff from a remote research station surrounded by ocean and icebergs.

Chile’s armed forces said at least 36 people had been infected at its Bernardo O’Higgins base, including 26 army personnel and 10 civilian contractors conducting maintenance at the base.

The permanently staffed research station, operated by Chile’s army, lies near the tip of a peninsula in northernmost Antarctica, overlooking a bay often dotted with icebergs.

Base personnel “are already properly isolated and constantly monitored” by health authorities in Magallanes, in Chilean Patagonia, the army said, adding there had so far been no complications.

Research and military stations in Antarctica – among the most remote in the world – had gone to extraordinary lengths in recent months to keep the virus out, canceling tourism, scaling back activities and staff and locking down facilities.

Researchers with the British Antarctic Survey estimate about 1,000 people at 38 stations across the frozen continent had safely navigated the southern hemisphere winter without incident. But an uptick in travel to and from the region this spring and early summer have heightened infection risk.

An Army press officer said the first COVID-19 cases had been reported in mid-December, when two soldiers fell ill.

The Magallanes region, one of the closest populated areas to Antarctica and take-off point for many boats and planes headed to the continent, is among the hardest-hit in Chile.

Much of the area, blasted by cold winds off the ocean, mountains and glaciers, has been under quarantine restrictions for months.

Chile’s Navy reported it too had detected three cases of COVID-19 among 208 crew members of a ship that had sailed in the Antarctic region between Nov. 27 and Dec. 10.

(Reporting by Natalia Ramos; Additional reporting by Aislinn Laing and Reuters TV; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. tops 18 million COVID-19 cases as officials eye new virus variant in UK

By Susan Heavey and Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – Total U.S. COVID-19 cases surpassed 18 million on Tuesday as health officials tried to tamper fears about a new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus in the United Kingdom.

Reports of the new virus variant in England, which prompted a pre-Christmas lockdown and caused dozens of countries to close their borders to British travelers this week, have spurred talks among government officials of mandatory COVID-19 testing for travelers from the UK and a possible quarantine mandate.

News of the coronavirus mutation comes as the United States deals with a surge in new infections that is overwhelming hospitals in some states. The latest million cases were recorded in just six days, according to a Reuters tally, as U.S. COVID-19 fatalities approach 320,000, the most in the world.

Some U.S. health officials on Tuesday sought to assuage fears about the new virus variation, saying that it should be monitored, but that its discovery should not be cause for despair.

U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News on Tuesday that both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which received U.S. emergency use authorizations this month, should be effective at preventing illness from the recently discovered variant of the virus. He also said it did not seem to have different physical effects on individuals.

Moderna Inc and BioNTech SE, which worked with Pfizer Inc to develop its vaccine, are scrambling to test their shots against the variant, but expressed confidence in them.

“Scientifically it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine can also deal with this virus variant,” BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin told reporters.

More than 600,000 Americans, mostly healthcare workers, had received their first COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Monday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some states began vaccinating long-term care facility residents on Monday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert who received the Moderna vaccine on camera on Tuesday, said surveillance is necessary to monitor spread of the British variant, but that officials should not overreact.

“Travel bans are really rather draconian things to do,” Fauci told ABC News’ “Good Morning America.”

Along with Fauci, Azar and National Institutes of Health head Dr. Francis Collins rolled up their sleeves for the Moderna shot on live television on Tuesday.

‘EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE ON THE TABLE’

State and federal officials are strategizing how to prevent the spread of the new virus variant in the United States, considering such measures as screening passengers on flights from England or, at the federal level, mandating quarantine for travelers upon arrival.

The U.S. government is considering requiring all passengers traveling from the UK receive a negative test within 72 hours of departure as a condition of entry, airline and U.S. officials briefed on the matter said on Monday.

Michael Osterholm, a pandemic adviser for Joe Biden, on Tuesday said all options need to be considered to stem the spread of the new variant, and urged the Trump administration to come up with a plan now.

“We really need to develop a national response,” he told CNN. “Everything needs to be on the table.”

He said the U.S. could mandate a 14-day quarantine period for travelers from the UK as an added precaution beyond requiring a negative test result.

With no national plan and state and local governments already overwhelmed, it was unclear who could enact and enforce such quarantines, Osterholm said.

“Nothing will stop this virus from transmitting from country to country. Our job is to slow it down,” he added.

British Airways, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic said on Monday they will allow only passengers who test negative for the coronavirus to fly to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee on Monday ordered travelers arriving from the UK, South Africa or other “countries with circulation of a new, potentially more contagious COVID-19 variation” to quarantine for 14 days after arriving in his state.

“This common-sense measure will protect Washingtonians in our fight against COVID-19,” Inslee said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert, Peter Szekely, Anurag Maan and Gabriella Borter; Writing by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Bill Berkrot)