New WTO chief calls for tripling of vaccine production

By Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop

GENEVA (Reuters) – The new chief of the World Trade Organization (WTO) urged its member states on Monday to work with pharmaceutical companies to license more COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing in developing countries in order to triple global production.

“People are dying in poor countries,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said on her first day in office. “The world has a normal capacity of production of 3.5 billion doses of vaccines and we now seek to manufacture 10 billion doses.”

Her call comes as a group of developing countries led by South Africa and India seek to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs and vaccines, a move opposed by the United States, the European Union and other wealthy nations.

Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO’s first female and first African director-general, said that, while this debate continued, companies must be encouraged to open up and license more viable manufacturing sites now in developing countries.

In a speech to the WTO’s 164 member states, she said there was an upcoming world manufacturing convention and urged the start of dialogue with manufacturers associations.

After a long campaign that was derailed in the latter stages by a Trump administration veto, the 66-year-old Nigerian was confirmed as boss last month, pledging to “forget business as usual” at the WTO, which is struggling to strike new deals and whose arbitration functions are paralyzed.

“READY TO GO”

“It feels great. I am coming into one of the most important institutions in the world and we have a lot of work to do. I feel ready to go,” Okonjo-Iweala told a reporter on arrival at the WTO’s lakeside Geneva headquarters where she donned a mask and elbow-bumped officials.

The former Nigerian finance and foreign minister aims to revive the global trade watchdog ahead of a major year-end meeting, saying she feared the world was leaving the WTO behind.

WTO delegates agreed to hold the next major ministerial conference in Geneva from Nov. 29.

The meeting was originally due to be held in Kazakhstan in 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic. Okonjo-Iweala has said she hopes ministers at the year-end meeting can finalize deals on ending fisheries subsidies and reforms for the WTO’s top appeals body.

Since the WTO director-general holds few executive powers, some analysts question her ability to revive the body in the face of so many challenges, including persistent U.S.-China trade tensions and growing protectionism heightened by the pandemic.

(Reporting by Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; editing by Ed Osmond and Gareth Jones)

Governments support AstraZeneca shot after South Africa halts roll-out

By Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) – Western governments rushed to offer support for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccination after South Africa halted its roll-out when research showed it offered minimal protection against mild infection from a variant spreading there.

The arrival of vaccines has given hope that scientists can tame a pandemic that has killed 2.3 million people worldwide. But if vaccines are less effective against new variants, they may need to be tweaked and people may need booster shots.

South Africa announced its pause after researchers from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Oxford found that the AstraZeneca vaccine provided only minimal protection against mild or moderate infection from the B.1.351 variant, now the dominant form of the virus in that country.

The research is not yet peer reviewed and did not provide data on older people most likely to die or need hospitalization. There was no data on whether the vaccine would prevent severe illness, and researchers said that was still possible.

“This study confirms that the pandemic coronavirus will find ways to continue to spread in vaccinated populations, as expected,” said Andrew Pollard, chief investigator on the Oxford vaccine trial.

“But, taken with the promising results from other studies in South Africa using a similar viral vector, vaccines may continue to ease the toll on health care systems by preventing severe disease.”

SERIOUS INFECTIONS

French Health Minister Olivier Veran voiced support for the AstraZeneca vaccine, arguing it provided sufficient protection against “nearly all the variants” of the virus.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said current evidence suggests all three vaccines approved in Europe – which include AstraZeneca – provided effective protection against serious infections.

Britain and Australia urged calm, citing evidence that the vaccines prevented grave illness and death, while AstraZeneca said it believed its vaccine could protect against severe disease.

“We think that both the vaccines that we’re currently using are effective in, as I say, in stopping serious disease and death,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters. Britain also uses the Pfizer shot.

“We also think in particular in the case of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine that there’s good evidence that it is stopping transmission, as well, I think 67% reduction in transmission.”

Australia is expected approve the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine within days and expressed confidence in it.

“There is currently no evidence to indicate a reduction in the effectiveness of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines in preventing severe disease and death. That is the fundamental task, to protect the health,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said.

But if vaccines do not work as effectively as hoped against new and emerging variants, then the world could be facing a much longer – and more expensive – battle against the virus than previously thought.

The AstraZeneca vaccine was the big hope for Africa as it is cheap and easy to store and transport. South Africa, which had hoped to roll out the AstraZeneca shot this month, is storing around 1 million doses it has received from the Serum Institute of India.

The B.1.351 variant dominant in South Africa, also known as 20I/501Y.V2, is also circulating in at least 40 other countries, including the United States. Other major variants include one first found in Britain, known as 20I/501Y.V1, and one found in Brazil known as P.1.

Austria warned against non-essential travel to its Alpine province of Tyrol because of an outbreak of the South African variant there. Cases were also detected north of Paris, forcing one school to close.

VACCINE SHOCK

An analysis of infections by the South African variant showed there was only a 22% lower risk of developing mild-to-moderate COVID-19, more than 14 days after being vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot, versus those given a placebo.

Protection against moderate-severe disease, hospitalization or death could not be assessed in the study of around 2,000 volunteers who had a median age of 31, as the target population were at such low risk.

Professor Shabir Madhi, lead investigator on the AstraZeneca trial in South Africa, said the vaccine’s similarity to another produced by Johnson & Johnson, which reduced severe disease by 85%, suggested it would still prevent serious illness or death.

“There’s still some hope that the AstraZeneca vaccine might well perform as well as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in a different age group demographic that I address of severe disease,” he told BBC radio.

Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, said efforts were under way to develop a new generation of booster shot vaccines that will allow protection against emerging variants.

“This is the same issue that is faced by all of the vaccine developers, and we will continue to monitor the emergence of new variants that arise in readiness for a future strain change.”

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton; editing by Michael Holden, Angus MacSwan, Nick Macfie and Giles Elgood)

White House confirms Biden signing new South Africa travel restrictions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House confirmed President Joe Biden is signing an order on Monday imposing a ban on most non-U.S. citizens entering the country who have recently been in South Africa starting Saturday.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki also confirmed Biden will re-impose an entry ban on nearly all non-U.S. travelers who have been in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and 26 countries in Europe that allow travel across open borders that was set to expire Tuesday.

“With the pandemic worsening and more contagious variants spreading, this isn’t the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” Psaki said at a news briefing.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese)

Moderna plans trial of altered COVID-19 vaccine booster to address South Africa variant

(Reuters) – Moderna said on Monday it plans to start clinical trials of an altered booster version of its COVID-19 vaccine aimed at the South African variant after tests showed its authorized vaccine may produce a diminished antibody response.

It will also test an additional booster shot of its authorized vaccine in trials to see if it boosts antibody reaction against the South Africa variant. The current regimen is for two shots four weeks apart.

The company said in a press release that it was being cautious and that the two-dose regimen of the vaccine was still expected to be protective against the South African and other variants detected to date.

The company said the vaccine did not see any impact from the U.K. variant – which has been shown to be more transmissible – in the tests.

The company said it plans to publish data from its tests against the South African and U.K. variants on the website bioRxiv.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru and Caroline Humer in New York; Editing by Maju Samuel and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

New COVID-19 variant defeats plasma treatment, may reduce vaccine efficacy

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – The new COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa can evade the antibodies that attack it in treatments using blood plasma from previously recovered patients, and may reduce the efficacy of the current line of vaccines, scientists said on Wednesday.

Researchers are racing to establish whether the vaccines currently being rolled out across the globe are effective against the so-called 501Y.V2 variant, identified by South African genomics experts late last year in Nelson Mandela Bay.

“This lineage exhibits complete escape from three classes of therapeutically relevant monoclonal antibodies,” the team of scientists from three South African universities working with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) wrote in a paper published in the bioRxiv journal.

“Furthermore, 501Y.V2 shows substantial or complete escape from neutralizing antibodies in COVID-19 convalescent plasma,” they wrote, adding that their conclusions “highlight the prospect of reinfection … and may foreshadow reduced efficacy of current spike-based vaccines.”

The 501Y.V2 variant is 50% more infectious than previous ones, South African researchers said this week. It has already spread to at least 20 countries since being reported to the World Health Organization in late December.

It is one of several new variants discovered in recent months, including others first found in England and Brazil.

The variant is the main driver of South Africa’s second wave of COVID-19 infections, which hit a new daily peak above 21,000 cases earlier this month, far above the first wave, before falling to about 12,000 a day.

Convalescent blood plasma from previous patients has not been shown to be effective when administered to severely ill patients requiring intensive care for COVID-19, but it is approved in several countries as an emergency measure.

British scientists and politicians have expressed concern that vaccines currently being deployed or in development could be less effective against the variant.

The paper said it remained to be seen how effective current vaccines were against 501Y.V2, which would only be determined by large-scale clinical trials. But results showed the need for new vaccines to be designed to tackle the evolving threat, it said.

(Reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Peter Graff)

Blast-rocked South African oil refinery shut down for investigations

By Rogan Ward and Wendell Roelf

DURBAN (Reuters) – South Africa’s second-largest crude oil refinery, the Engen plant in Durban, has been shut down to allow investigators a chance to find out the cause of a “fire incident” earlier on Friday, Engen said.

Engen, which operates the 120,000 barrel per day plant and is majority owned by Malaysia’s Petronas, said a fire broke out at around 0510 GMT and was extinguished by 0645 GMT.

“Engen is currently assessing its overall bulk fuels supply and demand position and implementing immediate mitigations to manage inventory and product supply requirements,” Engen said in an update.

Local emergency services said seven people were injured, although Engen said no injuries were recorded and all refinery personnel were accounted for.

“I saw a massive fireball at the center of the refinery with thick black smoke billowing from it,” Durban resident Shane Lloyd Pretorius told Reuters.

Engen said in a statement that the cause of the fire was under investigation.

A Reuters witness at the scene saw several fire engines spraying foam onto the affected part of the refinery, as well as ambulances, metropolitan police and national police standing by.

Africa’s most industrialized economy has six refineries, four using crude oil and two synthetic fuel as feedstock. It is a net importer of petroleum products.

The country’s third-biggest crude oil refinery, a 100,000 bpd facility operated by Astron Energy in Cape Town, also suffered an explosion earlier this year.

Top refinery SAPREF, which is also located in Durban and is a joint venture between BP and Shell, said the incident at Engen’s facility had no impact on its operations.

The Engen Refinery and SAPREF form part of a major petrochemical hub on the east coast close to Durban’s port.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Winning in Johannesburg and Ng Yi Shu in Singapore; Writing by Alexander Winning; Editing by Himani Sarkar, David Evans, Alexander Smith, Kirsten Donovan)

Coronavirus deaths rise above a million in ‘agonizing’ global milestone

By Jane Wardell

(Reuters) – The global coronavirus death toll rose past a million on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, a grim statistic in a pandemic that has devastated the global economy, overloaded health systems and changed the way people live.

The number of deaths from the novel coronavirus this year is now double the number of people who die annually from malaria – and the death rate has increased in recent weeks as infections surge in several countries.

“Our world has reached an agonizing milestone,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

“It’s a mind-numbing figure. Yet we must never lose sight of each and every individual life. They were fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues.”

It took just three months for COVID-19 deaths to double from half a million, an accelerating rate of fatalities since the first death was recorded in China in early January.

More than 5,400 people are dying around the world every 24 hours, according to Reuters calculations based on September averages, overwhelming funeral businesses and cemeteries.

That equates to about 226 people an hour, or one person every 16 seconds. In the time it takes to watch a 90-minute soccer match, 340 people die on average.

(Reuters interactive graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2VqS5PS)

“So many people have lost so many people and haven’t had the chance to say goodbye,” World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“…Many, many of the people who died died alone in medical circumstances where it’s a terribly difficult and lonely death.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world had to unite to fight the virus.

“History will judge us on the decisions we do and don’t make in the months ahead,” he said in the Independent newspaper.

INFECTIONS RISING

Experts remain concerned that the official figures for deaths and cases globally significantly under-represent the real tally because of inadequate testing and recording and the possibility of concealment by some countries.

The response to the pandemic has pitted proponents of health measures like lockdowns against those intent on sustaining politically sensitive economic growth, with approaches differing from country to country.

The United States, Brazil and India, which together account for nearly 45% of all COVID-19 deaths globally, have all lifted social distancing measures in recent weeks.

“The American people should anticipate that cases will rise in the days ahead,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence warned on Monday. U.S. deaths stood at 205,132 and cases at 7.18 million by late Monday.

India, meanwhile, has recorded the highest daily growth in infections in the world, with an average of 87,500 new cases a day since the beginning of September.

On current trends, India will overtake the United States as the country with the most confirmed cases by the end of the year, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pushes ahead with easing lockdown measures in a bid to support a struggling economy.

Despite the surge in cases, India’s death toll of 96,318, and pace of growth of fatalities, remains below those of the United States, Britain and Brazil. India on Tuesday reported its smallest rise in deaths since Aug. 3, continuing a recent easing trend that has baffled experts.

In Europe, which accounts for nearly 25% of deaths, the WHO has warned of a worrying spread in western Europe just weeks away from the winter flu season.

The WHO has also warned the pandemic still needs major control interventions amid rising cases in Latin America, where many countries have started to resume normal life.

Much of Asia, the first region affected by the pandemic, is experiencing a relative lull after emerging from a second wave.

The high number of deaths has led to changes 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, while in Iraq former militiamen dropped their guns to dig graves at a specially created cemetery and learned how to conduct both Christian and Muslim burials.

In some parts of Indonesia, bereaved families have barged into hospitals to claim bodies, fearing their relatives might not be given a proper burial.

The United States, Indonesia, Bolivia, South Africa and Yemen have all had to locate new burial sites as cemeteries fill up.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell; additional reporting by Shaina Ahluwalia, Seerat Gupta and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Pandemic pace slows worldwide except for southeast Asia, eastern Mediterranean: WHO

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic is still expanding, but the rise in cases and deaths has slowed globally, except for southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

In its latest epidemiological update, issued on Monday night, it said that the Americas remains the hardest-hit region, accounting for half of newly reported cases and 62% of the 39,240 deaths worldwide in the past week.

More than 23.65 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and 811,895​ have died, according to a Reuters tally on Tuesday.

“Over 1.7 million new COVID-19 cases and 39,000 new deaths were reported to WHO for the week ending 23 August, a 4% decrease in the number of cases and (a 12% decrease) in the number of deaths compared to the previous week,” the WHO said.

Southeast Asia, the second most affected region, reported a jump accounting for 28% of new cases and 15% of deaths, it said. India continues to report the majority of cases, but the virus is also spreading rapidly in Nepal.

In WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region, the number of reported cases rose by 4%, but the number of reported deaths has consistently dropped over the last six weeks, the WHO said. Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan reported the highest increase in cases compared to the previous week.

The number of cases and deaths reported across Africa decreased by 8% and 11% respectively in the past week, “primarily due to a decrease in cases reported in Algeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa”, it said.

“In the European region, the number of cases reported has consistently increased over the last three weeks,” it said. “However, only a slight decrease (1%) was reported in the most recent week, and the number of deaths have continued to decrease across the region.”

In WHO’s western Pacific region, the number of new cases dropped by 5%, driven by less spread in Japan, Australia, Singapore, China and Vietnam. South Korea reported an 180% jump in cases, “mainly due to an increase in cases associated with religious gatherings”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Novavax begins mid-stage study of COVID-19 vaccine in South Africa

(Reuters) – U.S. drug developer Novavax Inc said on Monday it started a mid-stage study of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine in South Africa, as the country experiences a surge in coronavirus cases.

South Africa is the fifth worst affected country with 583,653 coronavirus cases and 11,677 deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

“Because South Africa is experiencing a winter surge of COVID-19 disease, this important Phase 2b clinical trial has the potential to provide an early indication of efficacy,” Novavax research chief Gregory Glenn said.

The trial of Novavax’s NVX-CoV2373, backed by a $15 million grant from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was being conducted in two separate groups, one comprising 2,665 healthy volunteers and the other, 240 HIV-positive adults.

Novavax expects its vaccine, once approved, would be supplied to South Africa through a deal signed earlier this year with the Serum Institute of India to develop and commercialize NVX-CoV2373.

The vaccine candidate is one of nearly 30 globally being tested in human clinical trials.

Early-stage data from a small clinical trial of the vaccine has shown that it produced high levels of virus-fighting antibodies, and the company aims to begin larger studies to obtain regulatory approvals as early as December.

Novavax intends to begin Phase 2 of the small clinical trial in the United States and Australia in the near future and said it would include about 1,500 candidates. It also aims to begin Phase III as soon as late September.

The U.S. government in July awarded Novavax $1.6 billion to cover testing its potential coronavirus vaccine in the United States and manufacturing with the aim of delivering a 100 million doses by January.

(Reporting by Sabahatjahan Contractor and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru; Editing by Amy Caren Daniel and Shinjini Ganguli)

WHO reports record daily increase in global coronavirus cases, up over 292,000

(Reuters) – The World Health Organization reported a record increase in global coronavirus cases on Friday, with the total rising by 292,527.

The biggest increases were from the United States, Brazil, India and South Africa, according to a daily report. Deaths rose by 6,812. The four countries have dominated global headlines with large outbreaks.

The previous WHO record for new cases was 284,196 on July 24. Deaths rose by 9,753 on July 24, the second largest one-day increase ever. Deaths have been averaging 5,200 a day in July, up from an average of 4,600 a day in June.

Nearly 40 countries have reported record single-day increases in coronavirus infections over the last week, around double the number that did so the previous week, according to a Reuters tally showing a pick-up in the pandemic in every region of the world.

Cases have been on the rise also in Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Bolivia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bulgaria, Belgium, Uzbekistan and Israel, among others.

Last week, cases in Latin America for the first time surpassed the combined infections in the United States and Canada, a Reuters tally showed. Infections are surging in Brazil, which is second in the world behind the United States in cases and deaths.

Globally there are over 17.4 million infections and nearly 675,000 deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Howard Goller)