Global COVID-19 death toll surpasses 3 million amid new infections resurgence

By Roshan Abraham and Anurag Maan

(Reuters) – Coronavirus-related deaths worldwide crossed 3 million on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, as the latest global resurgence of COVID-19 infections is challenging vaccination efforts across the globe.

Worldwide COVID-19 deaths are rising once again, especially in Brazil and India. Health officials blame more infectious variants that were first detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa, along with public fatigue with lockdowns and other restrictions.

According to a Reuters tally, it took more than a year for the global coronavirus death toll to reach 2 million. The next 1 million deaths were added in about three months.

Brazil is leading the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported and accounts for one in every four deaths worldwide each day, according to a Reuters analysis.

The World Health Organization acknowledged the nation’s dire condition due to coronavirus, saying the country is in a very critical condition with an overwhelmed healthcare system.

“Indeed there is a very serious situation going on in Brazil right now, where we have a number of states in critical condition,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove told a briefing last Thursday, adding that many hospital intensive care units are more than 90% full.

India reported a record rise in COVID-19 infections on Monday, becoming the second nation after the United States to post more than 100,000 new cases in a day.

India’s worst-affected state, Maharashtra on Monday began shutting shopping malls, cinemas, bars, restaurants, and places of worship, as hospitals are being overrun by patients.

The European region, which includes 51 countries, has the highest total number of deaths at nearly 1.1 million.

Five European countries including the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Italy and Germany constitute about 60% of Europe’s total coronavirus-related deaths.

The United States has the highest number of deaths of any country at the world at 555,000 and accounts for about 19% of all deaths due to COVID-19 in the world. Cases have risen for the last three weeks but health officials believe the nation’s rapid vaccination campaign may prevent a rise in deaths. A third of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine.

At least 370.3 million people or nearly 4.75% of the global population have received a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine by Sunday, according to latest figures from research and data provider firm Our World in Data.

However, the World Health Organization is urging countries to donate more doses of approved COVID-19 vaccines to help meet vaccination targets for the most vulnerable in poorer countries.

 

India’s daily virus cases breach 100,000; mutants, behavior blamed

By Neha Arora and Rama Venkat

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India reported a record rise in COVID-19 infections on Monday, becoming the second country after the United States to post more than 100,000 new cases in a day, as politicians stage massive election rallies raising fears of further spreading the virus.

Hospitals in the worst affected state, Maharashtra, are being overrun by patients. India’s richest state, home to its commercial capital Mumbai and numerous industries, reported a record 57,074 new cases overnight.

The country’s daily infections have risen about 12 fold since hitting a multi-month low in early February, when authorities eased most restrictions and people largely stopped wearing masks and following social distancing.

With 103,558 new infections, India has now reported 12.6 million cases, the highest after the United States and Brazil, data from the health ministry showed. Deaths jumped by 478, still one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, raising the total to 165,101.

India has recorded the most number of infections in the past week anywhere in the world. More infectious variants of the virus may have played a role in the second surge, some epidemiologists say.

“The new variant, or variants of concern, probably explains a lot of it, rather than simplistic explanation of behavior,” said Rajib Dasgupta, head of the Center of Social Medicine & Community Health in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

India has found hundreds of cases of the virus variants first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

Subhash Salunke, a former WHO official who advises Maharashtra on its COVID-19 strategy, said cases in the state would continue to rise for another couple of weeks. He said a way out was vaccinating all adults in its hardest-hit cities such as Mumbai, Pune and Nashik.

“If we start doing this, by the end of April we will see a downward trend,” he said.

VACCINE RAMP-UP

India, the world’s biggest maker of vaccines, has injected 77 million doses at home since starting its campaign in the middle of January – the third highest after the United States and China.

India’s per capita COVID-19 vaccinations, however, are lower than many other countries, including that of more populated China that started giving shots to its citizens much earlier.

India is currently vaccinating only people above the age of 45, having covered health and front-line workers first with the AstraZeneca shot and a government-backed one.

In a meeting held by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday, officials discussed raising the country’s vaccine output further. The government has in recent weeks slowed vaccine exports, after shipping more than 65 million doses.

“It was highlighted that all efforts are underway to secure adequate quantities of vaccines to meet the rising domestic requirements as well as to meet the genuine needs of other countries,” his office said in a statement.

Though cases have risen exponentially in nearly a dozen states, politicians and ministers are still addressing election rallies attended by tens of thousands of mask-less people jostling for space.

The health minister in the northeastern state of Assam, currently voting to elect a new government, was ridiculed on social media on the weekend after saying there was no need for masks in his state and that wearing one hurts businesses like beauty parlors.

Maharashtra will start shutting shopping malls, cinemas, bars, restaurants and places of worship from Monday evening. Authorities will also impose a complete lockdown at weekends, as experts worried about a shortage of critical-care beds in hospitals, especially in its smaller cities.

The rise in cases has pulled down the stock market.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat Bengaluru and Neha Arora in New Delhi; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Michael Perry)

EU warns it could block vaccine exports, wields legal threat at drugmakers

By John Chalmers and Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Europe’s fight to secure COVID-19 vaccine supplies intensified on Thursday when the European Union warned drug companies such as AstraZeneca that it would use all legal means or even block exports unless they agreed to deliver shots as promised.

The EU, whose member states are far behind Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States in rolling out vaccines, is scrambling to get supplies just as the West’s biggest drugmakers slow deliveries to the bloc due to production problems.

As vaccination centers in Germany, France and Spain cancelled or delayed appointments, the EU publicly rebuked Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca for failing to deliver and even asked if it could divert supplies from Britain.

European Council President Charles Michel said in a letter to four EU leaders that the EU should explore legal means to ensure supplies of COVID-19 vaccines it contracted to buy if negotiations with companies over delayed deliveries are unsuccessful.

“If no satisfactory solution can be found, I believe we should explore all options and make use of all legal means and enforcement measures at our disposal under the Treaties,” Michel said in the Jan. 27 letter.

EU rules on monitoring and authorizing exports of COVID-19 vaccines in the 27-nation bloc could lead to exports being blocked if they violated existing contracts between the vaccine maker and the EU, an EU official said.

The European Commission is to lay out the criteria under which such exports would be evaluated on Friday.

VACCINE CRUNCH

The swiftest mass vaccination drive in history is stoking tensions across the world as big powers buy up doses in bulk and poorer nations try to navigate a financial and diplomatic minefield to collect whatever supplies are left.

Israel is by far the world leader on vaccine rollout per head of population, followed by the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Bahrain and the United States. Behind them are Italy, Germany, France, China and Russia.

The African Union (AU) has secured another 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, a regional health leader said on Thursday, in a push to immunize 60% of the continent’s population over three years.

Under fire from the EU, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said the EU was late to strike a supply contract so the company did not have enough time to iron out production problems at a vaccine factory run by a partner in Belgium.

Tensions have risen as both New York-based Pfizer and AstraZeneca, headquartered in Cambridge, England, have had production problems.

Britain, which has repeatedly touted its lead in the vaccine rollout race since leaving the EU’s orbit on Jan. 1, said its deliveries must be honored.

“I think we need to make sure that the vaccine supply that has been bought and paid for, procured for those in the UK, is delivered,” Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove told LBC Radio.

Just a day ahead of a decision by European regulators on whether to approve the drugmaker’s shot, Germany’s vaccine committee said AstraZeneca’s vaccine should only be given to people aged between 18 and 64.

“There are currently insufficient data available to assess the vaccine efficacy from 65 years of age,” the committee, also known as Stiko, said in a draft resolution made available by the health ministry on Thursday.

Britain’s Johnson said health authorities in Britain believed the vaccine was safe and worked across all age groups.

APPOINTMENTS CANCELLED

In the northern French region of Hauts-de-France, France’s second-most-densely-populated region, several vaccination centers were no longer taking appointments for a first jab. In several other French regions, some online appointment platforms closed booking options.

Spain’s Madrid region has ceased first vaccinations for at least this week and next and was using the few doses it has to administer second shots to those who have had the first one, said deputy regional government chief Ignacio Aguado.

Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, last week postponed opening its vaccination centers until Feb. 8, while the state of Brandenburg has also had to push back vaccination appointments originally scheduled for the end of January due to delivery delays.

AstraZeneca is prepared to publish the delivery contract it has with the European Union and aims on Friday to make proposals to the European Commission on which sensitive parts to black out, the Frankfurter Allgemeine reported.

The newspaper quoted an EU source as saying that while AstraZeneca would not be able to deliver the 80 million doses expected for the first quarter, volumes should significantly exceed the 31 million doses that had earlier been reported.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson and Paul Carrel in Berlin and Matthias Blamont in Paris and Kate Holton, Paul Sandle and Alistair Smout in London; writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Keith Weir and Nick Macfie)

Global COVID-19 cases surpass 100 million as nations tackle vaccine shortages

By Shaina Ahluwalia and Roshan Abraham

(Reuters) – Global coronavirus cases surpassed 100 million on Wednesday, according to a Reuters tally, as countries around the world struggle with new virus variants and vaccine shortfalls.

Almost 1.3% of the world’s population has now been infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and more than 2.1 million people have died.

One person has been infected every 7.7 seconds, on average, since the start of the year. Around 668,250 cases have been reported each day over the same period, and the global fatality rate stands at 2.15%.

The worst-affected countries – the United States, India, Brazil, Russia and the United Kingdom – make up more than half all reported COVID-19 cases but represent 28% of the global population, according to a Reuters analysis.

It took the world 11 months to record the first 50 million cases of the pandemic, compared to just three months for cases to double to 100 million.

Around 56 countries have begun vaccinating people for the coronavirus, administering at least 64 million doses. Israel leads the world on per capita vaccinations, inoculating 29% of its population with at least one dose.

UNITED STATES

With over 25 million cases, the United States has 25% of all reported COVID cases although it accounts for just 4% of the world’s population. The United States leads the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported, accounting for one in every five deaths reported worldwide each day. With just under 425,00 fatalities, the United States has reported almost twice as many deaths as Brazil, which has the second-highest death toll in the world.

As the worst-affected region in the world, Europe is currently reporting a million new infections about every four days and has reported nearly 30 million since the pandemic began. Britain on Tuesday reached 100,000 deaths.

The Eastern European region, including countries like Russia, Poland and Ukraine, contribute to nearly 10% of all global COVID-19 cases.

Despite securing deals for vaccine supplies early on, many European countries are facing delays in shipments from both Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca Plc.

ASIA AND AFRICA

In India, the nation with the second-highest number of cases, infections are decreasing, with almost 13,700 new infections reported on average each day – around 15% of its peak. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday India was completely self-reliant on coronavirus vaccine supplies as the world’s second-most populous country inoculated more than 1 million people within a week of starting its campaign.

China, which recently marked the first anniversary of the world’s first coronavirus lockdown in the central city of Wuhan, is facing its worst wave of local cases since March last year.

As richer nations race ahead with mass vaccination campaigns, Africa is still scrambling to secure supplies as it grapples with concerns about more-infectious variants of the virus first identified in South Africa and Britain.

According to the Reuters tally, African countries have nearly 3.5 million cases and over 85,000 deaths.

The South African variant, also known as 501Y.V2, is 50% more infectious and has been detected in at least 20 countries.

U.S. President Joe Biden will impose a ban on most non-U.S. citizens entering the country who have recently been in South Africa starting Saturday in a bid to contain the spread of a new variant of COVID-19.

Australia and New Zealand have fared better than most other developed economies during the pandemic through swift border closures, lockdowns, strict hotel quarantine for travelers and widespread testing and social distancing.

“We have the virus under control here in Australia, but we want to roll out the vaccine,” Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told a news conference on Sunday.

(Reporting by Shaina Ahluwalia and Roshan Abraham in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jane Wardell)

Sturgeon orders Scots to stay at home as new variant advances

By Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Scotland on Monday imposed the most stringent COVID-19 lockdown since last March and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would shortly impose tougher curbs in England to contain a rapidly spreading outbreak of a new variant of the coronavirus.

The United Kingdom has the world’s sixth-highest official coronavirus death toll – 75,024 – and the number of new infections is soaring across the country.

As Johnson mulled tougher measures for England, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the new variant accounted for nearly half of new cases in Scotland and is 70% more transmissible.

Scots, she said, would be legally required to stay at home for January from midnight. Schools will close for all but the children of essential workers.

“I am more concerned about the situation that we face now than I have been at any time since March,” Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament.

“As a result of this new variant, (the virus) has just learned to run much faster, and has most definitely picked up pace in the past couple of weeks,” Sturgeon said.

Visiting a hospital to see the first people receive the vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, Johnson said the country faced “tough, tough” weeks to come.

“If you look at the numbers, there’s no question that we’re going to have to take tougher measures and we’ll be announcing those in due course,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the virus really surging.”

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland implement their own COVID-19 responses though they are trying to coordinate more across the United Kingdom.

SCHOOLS

England is currently divided into four tiers of restrictions, depending on the prevalence of the virus, with the vast majority of the country in Tiers 3 and 4 where social mixing is restricted and restaurants and pubs are closed.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier that the rules in Tier 3 were clearly not working.

With England moving back towards the strict lockdown of the first wave in March, Johnson was also asked if schools would have to close once again and return to online learning.

He said that would remain a last resort for primary schools given the social and educational damage that can be done to isolated children.

But he indicated they may need to rethink a plan to reopen secondary schools for pupils aged between 11 and 18.

“It looks as though secondary schools probably play more of a role in the spread of the epidemic than primary schools, so we’ll have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later in the month,” he said.

The government has spent the year trying to balance the need to shut down the country to contain the virus without hammering the economy.

The first national coronavirus lockdown in May last year prompted a 25% drop in economic output – unprecedented in modern records – leaving Britain’s economy harder hit by the pandemic than most others.

While the economy recovered partially in the third quarter, renewed lockdown measures threaten to cause a double-dip recession at the start of 2021.

(Reporting by Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge, Andy Bruce; Editing by Sarah Young and Hugh Lawson)

One million Americans vaccinated for COVID; Tennessee new epicenter

By Gabriella Borter and Dan Whitcomb

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Tennessee emerged alongside California on Wednesday as an epicenter of the latest COVID-19 surge even while more than 1 million Americans have been vaccinated as U.S. political leaders sought to guard against a highly contagious coronavirus variant sweeping across Britain.

Tennessee averaged nearly 128 new infections per 100,000 people over the last week, the highest of any U.S. state, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. California stood second at 111 new cases per 100,000 residents.

“Our state is ground zero for a surge in COVID-19 and we need Tennesseans to (do) their part,” Governor Bill Lee said on Twitter, urging residents to wear face masks and gather only with members of their own household over Christmas.

Some public health officials say Americans’ traveling and gathering for Thanksgiving contributed to the latest nationwide explosion in cases.

All told, 31 U.S. states have reported a grim record in new COVID-19 infections for December as hospitalizations and deaths also spiral. More than 194,600 new cases were confirmed on Tuesday alone.

The CDC said that as of Wednesday morning more than 1 million people nationwide had been given the first of the two doses required for the two coronavirus vaccines that have been approved. But most Americans have been told that it could be six months or more before they are eligible for the shots as priority is given to healthcare workers, nursing home residents and in some cases top government officials.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, received the Moderna vaccine on live television on Tuesday. Joe Biden was inoculated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in front of cameras on Monday.

CONCERN GROWS OVER MUTANT VARIANT

U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, earlier this week criticized political leaders for putting themselves at the front of the line for the shot.

“We are not more important then frontline workers, teachers etc. who are making sacrifices everyday. Which is why I won’t take it,” Omar said on Twitter.

The Trump administration said on Wednesday it had reached a $2 billion deal with Pfizer to distribute 100 million additional doses of its vaccine by July.

But Americans who saw a ray of hope in the release of the two vaccines in December learned of an even more transmissible coronavirus variant spreading in the United Kingdom. Drug makers Pfizer and Moderna were testing their vaccines against the variant, but believed the drugs would be effective against the mutant virus.

The United States, unlike many nations worldwide, has not banned travelers from Britain.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would order international travelers to quarantine for 14 days on arrival and provide contact information to government officials. Sheriff’s deputies will make visits to enforce the order on those arriving from Britain, the mayor said.

Travelers found to violate those orders face fines of $1,000 per day, de Blasio said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked airlines to screen British travelers for COVID-19. The state was an early epicenter of the virus and has recorded more than 36,000 COVID deaths, far more than any other state.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee this week ordered a 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving from the UK, South Africa or other countries where the new variant had been detected.

In New York City, vaccination programs expanded to the Fire Department, where roughly 6,000 personnel have contracted the virus, Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro told reporters. Some 400 FDNY paramedics lined up to receive their first doses of the Moderna vaccine on Wednesday, including Verena Kansog, advanced life support coordinator for Manhattan, who got her shot at a training center on Randalls Island.

“I feel relieved,” Kansog, who worried about bringing the disease home to her elderly mother, told Reuters in a phone interview. “I was not one single bit nervous.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Anurag Maan, Carlo Allegri, Jonathan Allen, Peter Szekely, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey and Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler)

‘Great day for humanity’: Pfizer says COVID-19 vaccine over 90% effective

By Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective based on initial trial results, the drugmaker said on Monday, a major victory in the war against a virus that has killed over a million people and battered the world’s economy.

Experts welcomed the first successful interim data from a large-scale clinical test as a watershed moment that showed vaccines could help halt the pandemic, although mass roll-outs, which needs regulatory approval, will not happen this year.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE said they had found no serious safety concerns yet and expected to seek U.S. authorization this month for emergency use of the vaccine, raising the chance of a regulatory decision as soon as December.

If granted, the companies estimate they can roll out up to 50 million doses this year, enough to protect 25 million people, and then produce up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

“Today is a great day for science and humanity,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen,” he said.

Experts said they still wanted to see the full trial data, which have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal, but the preliminary results looked encouraging.

“This news made me smile from ear to ear. It is a relief to see such positive results on this vaccine and bodes well for COVID-19 vaccines in general,” said Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford.

There are still many questions, such as how effective the vaccine is by ethnicity or age, and how long it will provide immunity, with the “new normal” of social distancing and face covering set to remain for the foreseeable future.

Pfizer expects to seek U.S. emergency use authorization for people aged 16 to 85. To do so, it will need two months of safety data from about half the study’s 44,000 participants, which is expected in the third week of November.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said it would take several weeks for U.S. regulators to receive and process data on the vaccine before the government could potentially approve it.

MARKETS SURGE

The prospect of a vaccine electrified world markets with the S&P 500 and Dow hitting record highs as shares of banks, oil companies and travel companies soared. Shares in companies that have thrived during lockdowns, such as conferencing platform Zoom Video and online retailers, tumbled.

Pfizer shares jumped more than 11% to their highest since July last year, while BioNTech’s stock hit a record high.

Shares of other vaccine developers in the final stage of testing also rose with Johnson & Johnson up 4% and Moderna Inc, whose vaccine uses a similar technology as the Pfizer shot, up 8%. Britain’s AstraZeneca, however, fell 2%. Moderna is expected to report results from its large-scale trial later this month.

“The efficacy data are really impressive. This is better than most of us anticipated,” said William Schaffner, infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “The study isn’t completed yet, but nonetheless the data look very solid.”

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed the test results, and the market boost: “STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!” he tweeted.

President-elect Joe Biden said the news was excellent but did not change the fact that face masks, social distancing and other health measures would be needed well into next year.

The World Health Organization said the results were very positive, but warned there was a funding gap of $4.5 billion that could slow access to tests, medicines and vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

‘NEAR ECSTATIC’

“I’m near ecstatic,” Bill Gruber, one of Pfizer’s top vaccine scientists, said in an interview. “This is a great day for public health and for the potential to get us all out of the circumstances we’re now in.”

Between 55% and 65% of the population will need to be vaccinated to break the dynamic of the spread of COVID-19, said Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn, adding that he did not expect a shot to be available before the first quarter of 2021.

The European Union said on Monday it would soon sign a contract for up to 300 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The companies have a $1.95 billion contract with the U.S. government to deliver 100 million vaccine doses beginning this year. They did not receive research funding from the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program.

The drugmakers have also reached supply agreements with the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan.

Pfizer said the interim analysis, conducted after 94 participants in the trial developed COVID-19, examined how many had received the vaccine versus a placebo.

Pfizer did not break down how many of those who fell ill received the vaccine. Still, over 90% effectiveness implies that no more than 8 of the 94 had been given the vaccine, which was administered in two shots about three weeks apart.

The efficacy rate, which could drop once full results are available, is well above the 50% effectiveness required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a coronavirus vaccine.

Shortly after Pfizer’s announcement, Russia said its Sputnik V vaccine was also more than 90% effective, based on data collated from inoculations of the public. Its preliminary Phase III trial data is due to be published this month.

MORE DATA NEEDED

To confirm the efficacy rate, Pfizer said it would continue its trial until there were 164 COVID-19 cases among volunteers. Bourla told CNBC on Monday that based on rising infection rates, the trial could be completed before the end of November.

Pfizer said its data would be peer reviewed once it has results from the entire trial.

“These are interesting first signals, but again they are only communicated in press releases,” said Marylyn Addo, head of tropical medicine at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany.

Dozens of drugmakers and research groups around the globe have been racing to develop vaccines against COVID-19, which on Sunday exceeded 50 million cases since the new coronavirus first emerged late last year in China.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which relies on synthetic genes that can be generated and manufactured in weeks, and produced at scale more rapidly than conventional vaccines. The technology is designed to trigger an immune response without using pathogens, such as actual virus particles.

The Trump administration has said it will have enough vaccine doses for all of the 330 million U.S. residents who want it by the middle of 2021.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Michele Gershberg in New York, Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss in Frankfurt and Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Caroline Humer, Edwina Gibbs and David Clarke)

Second UK lockdown? PM says second wave inevitable, new restrictions possible

By Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton and Andy Bruce

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he did not want another national lockdown but that new restrictions may be needed because the country was facing an “inevitable” second wave of COVID-19.

Ministers were on Friday reported to be considering a second national lockdown, after new COVID-19 cases almost doubled to 6,000 per day, hospital admissions rose and infection rates soared across parts of northern England and London.

That rise in cases was part of a second wave that was now unstoppable, the prime minister said.

“We are now seeing a second wave coming in…It is absolutely, I’m afraid, inevitable, that we will see it in this country,” Johnson told UK media.

Asked about whether the whole of the country should brace for a new lockdown, rather than just local restrictions, he said: “I don’t want to get into a second national lockdown at all.”

But he did not rule out further national restrictions being brought in.

“When you look at what is happening, you’ve got to wonder whether we need to go further than the rule of six that we brought in on Monday,” he said, referring to the ban on gatherings of more than six people.

The United Kingdom has reported the fifth largest number of deaths from COVID-19 in the world, after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.

The UK’s official number of new positive cases shot up by nearly a thousand on Friday to 4,322, the highest since May 8, after a separate ONS model pointed to about 6,000 new cases a day in England in the week to Sept. 10.

That was up from modelling of 3,200 cases per day in the previous week, with the North West and London seen as hotspots.

Health Minister Matt Hancock called a second national lockdown a last resort earlier on Friday and when he was asked about it said: “I can’t give you that answer now.”

SPREADING WIDELY ACROSS ALL AGES

The UK said its reproduction “R” number of infections has risen to a range of 1.1-1.4 from last week’s 1.0-1.2.

“We’re seeing clear signs this virus is now spreading widely across all age groups and I am particularly worried by the increase in rates of admission to hospital and intensive care among older people,” said Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director at Public Health England.

“This could be a warning of far worse things to come.”

Britain imposed new COVID regulations on the North West, Midlands and West Yorkshire from Tuesday. More than 10 million people in the United Kingdom are already in local lockdown, and restrictions for millions more could be on the way.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said later on Friday that it was “increasingly likely” that additional measures would soon be required in Britain’s biggest city. He said he had seen evidence about the spread of the virus in London which was “extremely” concerning.

COVID-19 cases started to rise again in Britain in September, with between 3,000 and 4,000 positive tests recorded daily in the last week. This is still some way behind France, which is seeing more than 10,000 new cases a day.

“COVID-19 infection rates have increased in most regions, particularly the North West and London,” the ONS said.

The ONS said there had been clear evidence of an increase in the number of people testing positive aged 2 to 11 years, 17 to 24 years and 25 to 34 years.

Johnson was criticized by opposition politicians for his initial response to the outbreak and the government has struggled to ensure sufficient testing in recent weeks.

Asked by LBC radio why the testing system was such a “shambles”, Hancock said Dido Harding, who is in charge of the system, had done an “an extraordinary job.”

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton and Sarah Young; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Mike Collett-White, Philippa Fletcher, William Maclean)

Exclusive: Hong Kong activists discuss ‘parliament-in-exile’ after China crackdown

By Natalie Thomas and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy activists are discussing a plan to create an unofficial parliament-in-exile to keep the flame of democracy alive and send a message to China that freedom cannot be crushed, campaigner Simon Cheng told Reuters.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, was convulsed by months of often violent pro-democracy, anti-China protests last year against Chinese interference in its promised freedoms, the biggest political crisis for Beijing since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Hong Kong police fired water cannon and tear gas and arrested more than 300 people on Wednesday as protesters took to the streets again in defiance of new, sweeping security legislation introduced by China to snuff out dissent.

The law pushes China’s freest city and one of the world’s most glittering financial hubs on to a more authoritarian path. China, which denies interfering in Hong Kong, has warned foreign powers not to meddle in its affairs.

Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen, worked for the British consulate in the territory for almost two years until he fled after he said he was beaten and tortured by China’s secret police. Cheng, who has since been granted asylum by Britain, describes himself as pro-democracy campaigner.

“A shadow parliament can send a very clear signal to Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities that democracy need not be at the mercy of Beijing,” he told Reuters in London. “We want to set up non-official civic groups that surely reflect the views of the Hong Kong people.”

He said that while the idea was still at an early stage, such a parliament-in-exile would support the people of Hong Kong and the pro-democracy movement there. He declined to say where the parliament might sit.

“We are developing an alternative way to fight for democracy,” Cheng said. “We need to be clever to deal with the expanding totalitarianism: they are showing more powerful muscle to suppress so we need to be more subtle and agile.”

He said more and more people were “losing hope that it is effective to go out on to the streets or run for election” to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or mini-parliament.

“We should stand with the Hong Kong people and support those staying in Hong Kong,” he said.

‘VERY GOOD SIGNAL’

Asked about HSBC’s support for the sweeping national security law, Cheng said the British government should speak to senior British capitalists to make them understand the importance of democracy.

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered millions of Hong Kong residents the path to British citizenship following China’s imposition of the law, hundreds of thousands of people would come to the United Kingdom, Cheng said.

“The UK has given a very good signal,” Cheng said. “At least hundreds of thousands of people will come.”

Almost 3 million Hong Kong residents are eligible for the so called British National (Overseas) passport. There were 349,881 holders of the passports as of February, Britain said.

“One day we will be back in Hong Kong,” Cheng said.

Hong Kong returned to China 23 years ago with the guarantee of freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including its independent legal system and rights to gather and protest, under a “one country, two systems” formula.

Huge protests calling for democracy, especially on the anniversaries of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen crackdown, were common and brought major streets to a standstill for 79 days in the Umbrella movement of 2014.

The national security law punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, will see mainland security agencies in Hong Kong for the first time and allows extradition to the mainland for trial.

(Reporting by Natalie Thomas, editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Stephen Addison)

UK says some children have died from syndrome linked to COVID-19

By Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) – Some children in the United Kingdom with no underlying health conditions have died from a rare inflammatory syndrome which researchers believe to be linked to COVID-19, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday.

Italian and British medical experts are investigating a possible link between the coronavirus pandemic and clusters of severe inflammatory disease among infants who are arriving in hospital with high fevers and swollen arteries.

Doctors in northern Italy, one of the world’s hardest-hit areas during the pandemic, have reported extraordinarily large numbers of children under age 9 with severe cases of what appears to be Kawasaki disease, more common in parts of Asia.

“There are some children who have died who didn’t have underlying health conditions,” Hancock told LBC Radio.

“It’s a new disease that we think may be caused by coronavirus and the COVID-19 virus, we’re not 100% sure because some of the people who got it hadn’t tested positive, so we’re doing a lot of research now but it is something that we’re worried about.”

Children were until now thought to be much less susceptible than their parents or grandparents to the most deadly complications wrought by the novel coronavirus, though the mysterious inflammatory disease noticed in Britain, Spain and Italy may demand a reassessment.

“It is rare, although it is very significant for those children who do get it, the number of cases is small,” Hancock, one of the ministers leading Britain’s COVID-19 response, said.

He did not give an exact figure for the number of deaths.

Kawasaki disease, whose cause is unknown, is associated with fever, skin rashes, swelling of glands, and in severe cases, inflammation of arteries of the heart.

Britain’s National Health Service says the syndrome only affects about eight in every 100,000 children every year, with most aged under 5.

There is some evidence that individuals can inherit a predisposition to the disease, but the pattern is not clear.

Children either testing positive for COVID-19 or for its antibodies have presented gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea in the last two weeks, the Spanish Pediatric Association said on Monday.

Though the children were otherwise in good health, their condition could evolve within hours into shock, featuring tachycardia and hypotension even without fever.

Most cases were detected in school-age or teenage minors, and sometimes overlapped with Kawasaki disease or toxic shock syndrome (TSS).

Parents should be vigilant, junior British interior minister Victoria Atkins said.

“It demonstrates just how fast moving this virus is and how unprecedented it is in its effect,” Atkins told Sky News.

Professor Anne Marie Rafferty, the president of the Royal College of Nursing, said she had heard reports about the similarity between cases in infants and Kawasaki syndrome.

“Actually there’s far too little known about it and the numbers actually at the moment are really too small,” told Sky News. “But it is an alert, and it’s something that’s actually being explored and examined by a number of different researchers.”

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton in London and Clara-Læïla Laudette in Madrid; editing by Michael Holden and Angus MacSwan)