India’s vaccinations plummet as coronavirus infections soar

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India’s daily COVID-19 shots have fallen sharply from an all-time high reached early last month as domestic companies struggle to boost supplies and imports are limited, even as the country fights the world’s worst surge in infections.

Daily inoculations have averaged 2.5 million since hitting a peak of 4.5 million on April 5. A quadrupling of coronavirus cases during the period has collapsed the public health system in many regions of the country.

India, with the world’s biggest vaccine making capacity, has partially or fully immunized only 12% of its 1.35 billion people, according to data from the government’s Co-Win.

Public forecasts by its only two current vaccine producers show their total monthly output of 70-80 million doses would increase only in two months or more, though the number of people eligible for vaccines has doubled to an estimated 800 million since May 1.

India on Saturday received 150,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and the government said “millions of doses” more will come in.

Pfizer said on Monday it was in discussions with the Indian government seeking an “expedited approval pathway” for its vaccine.

“Unfortunately, our vaccine is not registered in India although our application was submitted months ago,” CEO Albert Bourla said.

“We are currently discussing with the Indian government an expedited approval pathway to make our Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine available for use in the country.”

Pfizer was the first company to seek emergency use authorization for its vaccine in India late last year. It withdrew its application in February after the drugs regulator sought a small, local safety study for the shot before considering its request.

But as cases surged, India said last month it would fast-track approval for some foreign shots, with companies now required to do a local trial within 30 days of approval, not before.

GlobalData analyst Prashant Khadayate said Pfizer will become a “vaccine of choice among people who can afford it” but that its need to be stored in ultra-low temperatures would be a challenge.

India has also invited Johnson & Johnson and Moderna to sell their vaccines to the country.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Manash Mishra; Editing by Tom Hogue and Nick Macfie)

Tanzania installs oxygen production plants to serve COVID-19 patients

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Tanzania has installed medical oxygen production plants in its biggest national hospitals to serve intensive care wards treating coronavirus patients, its health ministry said on Friday.

The ministry statement said the plants installed in each hospital will produce 200 medical oxygen cylinders a day.

The announcement that the plants had been installed in seven referral hospitals in a World Bank-backed project was another change of COVID-19 policies since the death of President John Magufuli in March.

Earlier this month, President Samia Suluhu Hassan shifted the country’s approach to COVID-19 from the controversial stances of her predecessor by announcing she was forming a committee to research whether Tanzania should follow the course taken by the rest of the world against the pandemic.

And on Sunday Hassan said that while that committee continues its work, Tanzanians should follow the public health guidelines for COVID-19 prevention advised globally, namely mask wearing and washing hands. She called on religious leaders to help educate the public on this.

Magufuli, who died last month after weeks of speculation that he was ill with COVID-19, was Africa’s most prominent COVID-19 sceptic. He urged Tanzanians to shun mask-wearing and denounced vaccines as a Western conspiracy, frustrating the World Health Organization. Tanzania stopped reporting coronavirus data in May 2020.

(Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

COVID pandemic accelerating, WHO Americas office warns

MEXICO CITY/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating, which is why equitable access to vaccines and effective preventive measures are crucial to helping turn the tide, the head of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

“Our region is still under the grip of this pandemic … in several countries of South America the pandemic in the first four months of this year was worse than what we faced in 2020,” PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said in a briefing.

“This shows that we will only overcome this pandemic with a combination of rapid and equitable vaccine access and effective preventive measures. This pandemic is not only not over, it is accelerating,” she added.

Over the past week more than 1.4 million people became infected with COVID-19 in the region and over 36,000 died from complications related to the disease, meaning that one in four coronavirus deaths reported worldwide last week were in the Americas.

Etienne pointed to Canada’s infection rates, which surpassed U.S. figures for the first time since the start of the pandemic; surging cases across the Caribbean and Central America, underscoring the expectation of more hospitalizations in Costa Rica as the country reported a 50% jump in cases in the last week; and spiking infections across South America.

The PAHO director urged countries with extra vaccine doses to consider donating them to counties in need in the Americas, saying that considering the increased incidence of COVID-19 variants of concern, time was of the essence.

PAHO serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito in Mexico City and Lucila Sigal in Buenos Aires Editing by Matthew Lewis)

U.S. administers 230.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines – CDC

(Reuters) – The United States has administered 230,768,454 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Monday morning, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday.

The figure is up from the 228,661,408 vaccine doses the CDC said had gone into arms by Sunday out of 290,692,005 doses delivered.

The agency said 140,969,663 people had received at least one dose while 95,888,088 people are fully vaccinated as of Monday.

The CDC tally includes two-dose vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, as well as Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine as of 6:00 a.m. ET on Monday.

A total of 7,791,592 vaccine doses have been administered in long-term care facilities, the agency said.

The number of vaccine doses delivered remained at 290,692,005, as of Monday morning as shipments are not always sent on Sundays, according to the CDC.

(Reporting by Trisha Roy in Bengaluru)

Important to get U.S. vaccine help along border, Mexican official says

By Adriana Barrera and Cassandra Garrison

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico is ramping up requests for more COVID-19 shots from the United States, and in the coming days may ask for assistance vaccinating people along the countries’ shared border, the Mexican government official in charge of vaccine diplomacy said.

Mexico has received 2.7 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine from the United States, but has not made progress on accessing larger U.S. stocks, deputy foreign minister for multilateral affairs Martha Delgado said in an interview with Reuters late last week.

“We are once again taking up dialogue to insist on this need,” she said, ahead of an upcoming visit by Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard to the United States.

Mexico may also put forward a proposal to prioritize vaccination along its border with the United States, Delgado said, describing the issue as important and a concern in Mexico.

The proximity and human ties between populous towns and cities along the border means it is easy for the coronavirus to re-infect both sides.

The U.S.-Mexico border region, which stretches 3,175 km (1,973 miles), is home to at least 14.6 million people, according to government data from 2018.

Tens of thousands of Central Americans have trekked to the U.S. border in recent months, in a growing humanitarian challenge for U.S. President Joe Biden. Delgado did not specify whether a new proposal for vaccines in the border area would include migrants.

The supply of vaccines has become a global diplomatic tussle.

Mexico government officials on Friday declared the doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine shipped from the United States safe and approved by two health regulators after operations were halted at the U.S. plant that produced them due to contamination.

Following Delgado’s interview with Reuters, a representative for her declined to comment on whether the issue could impact future vaccine agreements with the United States.

Ebrard will also make trips to Russia, China and India, as part of efforts to ensure supply agreements are honored.

Part of his agenda in the United States will be devoted to vaccines, including “scientific exchange,” Delgado said.

Mexico has so far received more than 21 million shots, primarily from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, China’s Sinovac and Cansino and Russia’s Sputnik V.

But supply delays and shortages have hampered the campaign to vaccinate its population of 126 million.

The country has relied on deals with China and Russia amid gaps by Western suppliers and slow shipments through global COVAX facility mechanism, led by the GAVI vaccines alliance and the World Health Organization to promote equitable access.

Mexico was considering hosting Phase III trials for an additional Chinese vaccine, Delgado said. She declined to say which one.

(Reporting by Adriana Barrera and Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Karishma Singh)

WHO warns on Brazil COVID-19 outbreak as Bolsonaro blasts Senate inquiry

By Eduardo Simões

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday blasted a pending Senate inquiry on his handling of a record-breaking COVID-19 outbreak, which global health officials compared to a “raging inferno.”

Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso ruled late on Thursday that enough senators had signed on to a proposed inquiry on the government’s pandemic response to launch the probe despite stalling by Senate leadership.

“It’s a stitch-up between Barroso and the leftists in the Senate to wear out the government,” Bolsonaro told supporters outside his residence, accusing the judge of “politicking.”

A Senate investigation represents the most severe political consequence to date for Bolsonaro’s approach to the coronavirus, which he compared to a “little flu” last year as he ignored health experts calling for mask wearing and social distance.

Bolsonaro has backed off his criticism of COVID-19 vaccines, but he continues to attack governors attempting lockdowns and even milder measures, accusing them without proof of killing more with those restrictions than the virus itself.

COVID-19 has taken more than 345,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States. One in four deaths from the pandemic this week were in Brazil, where a brutal wave is overwhelming hospitals and setting records of more than 4,000 deaths per day.

“What you are dealing with here is a raging inferno of an outbreak,” said Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization, in a public briefing.

Yet fatigue and political pressure from Bolsonaro have pushed some governors to ease restrictions despite record deaths.

The state of Sao Paulo, whose governor has been a critic of the president, announced that it was loosening some restrictions next week even as its hospitals struggle to manage case loads.

Sao Paulo officials said a downtick in hospitalizations had justified the decision to restart soccer matches without spectators, reopen stores selling building materials and resume take-out service at restaurants.

(Reporting by Eduardo Simoes; Additional reporting by Tatiana Bautzer; Editing by Brad Haynes and Dan Grebler)

Israel honors Holocaust victims as COVID-19 vaccines keep survivors alive

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A memorial siren brought traffic to a halt in Israel on Thursday as it honored six million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust, and gave thanks for its swift rollout of COVID-19 vaccines as a lifesaver for elderly survivors.

With around 57% of the population having already received at least one vaccine dose, Israel’s infection rate has dropped dramatically.

That has allowed care and nursing homes to open their doors to visitors again, reuniting many of the country’s 180,000 survivors with their loved ones.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said 900 in that community had died as a result of the coronavirus. But many times more had been inoculated in time. Overall, Israel has recorded 6,270 deaths from the virus.

“Some we did not manage to reach with vaccines in time, but writ large, the vaccine succeeded,” he said, addressing the survivors at a ceremony marking the start of the annual Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day. “You got vaccinated at a record rates.”

Israel’s three national lockdowns, “were difficult for us all, but among many of you, they awakened painful memories of the terrible loneliness of your childhood”.

As the sirens sounded nationwide, traffic stopped and motorists stepped out of their vehicles to stand for two minutes in honor of the Holocaust dead.

In a ceremony in parliament, legislators lit memorial candles and read aloud the names of relatives who perished in the Holocaust.

In Bahrain, one of four Arab countries that established official ties with Israel last year, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities planned a Holocaust remembrance event on the Internet.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; editing by John Stonestreet)

‘Falling like flies’: Hungary’s Roma community pleads for COVID help

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Coronavirus infections are ravaging Hungary’s 700,000-strong Roma community, according to personal accounts that suggest multiple deaths in single families are common in an unchecked outbreak fueled by deep distrust of authorities.

Data on infections in the community is unavailable but interviews with about a dozen Roma, who often live in cramped and unsanitary conditions, reveal harrowing stories of suffering and death and of huge health-care challenges.

“Our people are falling like flies,” said Aladar Horvath, a Roma rights advocate who travels widely among the community.

When asked by phone to describe the overall situation, he broke down sobbing and said he had learned an hour before that his 35-year-old nephew had died of COVID.

Another Roma, Zsanett Bito-Balogh, likened the outbreak in her town of Nagykallo in eastern Hungary to an explosion.

“It’s like a bomb went off,” she said.

“Just about every family got it…People you see riding their bikes one week are in hospital the next and you order flowers for their funerals the third.”

Bito-Balogh, who herself recovered twice from COVID-19, said that at one point she had 12 family members in hospital. She said she had lost two uncles and her grandmother to the virus in the past month, and a neighbor lost both parents, a cousin and a uncle within weeks.

She says she is now rushing to organize in-person registration points for vaccines and plans to have the network up and running in a few weeks.

Despite the challenges in persuading many Roma to turn to health authorities for medical care and vaccinations, Roma leaders are urging the government to do more to intervene and tackle what Horvath describes as a humanitarian crisis.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said vaccinations would be rolled out to Roma but that the community needed to volunteer for their shots.

“Once we get to that point, the younger Roma should get in line,” Gulyas said in answer to Reuters questions. The Roma community is predominantly young, which means their vaccinations are scheduled later than for older Hungarians.

The government’s chief epidemiologist did not respond to requests for comment.

DECADES OF MISTRUST

Barely 9% of Roma want to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a survey carried out at Hungary’s University of Pecs in January but published here for the first time. It was conducted by Zsuzsanna Kiss, a Roma biologist and professor at Hungary’s University of Pecs.

Kiss said the Roma have mistrusted doctors and governments for decades because of perceived discrimination.

However, gaining Roma trust is not the only challenge.

Hungary’s 6,500 general practitioners are leading the vaccine roll-out, but 10% of small GP clinics are shut because there is no doctor to operate them, mostly in areas with high Roma populations, government data shows.

Although the government has deployed five “vaccination buses” that tour remote areas, people must first register for inoculations.

“The rise in cases (among the Roma) is clearly proportionate to vaccine rejection,” said former Surgeon General Ferenc Falus.

“This more infectious virus reaches a population whose immune system has weakened greatly during the winter months. If they go without vaccines for long, it will definitely show in extra infections and fatalities among the Roma.”

Hungary currently has the world’s highest weekly per capita death toll, driven by the more contagious variant first detected in Britain, despite a rapid vaccination rollout, data from Johns Hopkins University and the European Union indicates.

“We never trusted vaccines much,” said Zoltan Varga, a young Roma also from Nagykallo.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Mark Heinrich)

Immune response may be linked to AstraZeneca vaccine clot issue; death risk rising among young adults in Brazil

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) -The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Immune response may explain rare clots after AstraZeneca vaccine

Researchers may have found an explanation for the rare but serious blood clots reported among some people who received AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. They believe the phenomenon is similar to one that rarely occurs with a blood thinning drug called heparin, called heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT). In HIT, the drug triggers the immune system to produce antibodies that activate platelets, which cause blood to clot. Drugs other than heparin can cause clotting disorders that strongly resemble HIT, and researchers suspect that in rare cases, the AstraZeneca vaccine may be another such trigger. Four previously healthy individuals who got the AstraZeneca shot and developed life-threatening clots had the same kind of antibodies that activate platelets and initiate clotting in HIT, the researchers reported on Monday in a paper posted on Research Square ahead of peer review. Twenty individuals who received the vaccine but did not develop clots did not have these antibodies. An editorial comment posted with the study noted that drug-induced thrombocytopenia is treatable if identified promptly. Millions of people have received the vaccine without issues and European regulators and the World Health Organization say the benefits of the AstraZeneca shot outweigh its risks.

COVID-19 death risk rising for young adults in Brazil

Southern Brazil is seeing a sudden rise in COVID-19 deaths among young and middle-aged adults after the identification there of a concerning virus variant known as P.1, researchers said. They analyzed data from Parana – the largest state in southern Brazil – on 553,518 cases diagnosed from September 2020 through March 17, 2021. In all age groups, the proportion of patients who died either held steady or declined between September and January. Starting in February, however, fatality rates rose for almost all groups over age 20, according to a report posted on Friday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. From January to February, these rates tripled among patients aged 20 to 29, from 0.04% to 0.13%, and doubled among those aged 30 to 39, 40 to 49, and 50 to 59. “Individuals between 20 and 29 years of age whose diagnosis was made in February 2021 had an over 3-fold higher risk of death compared to those diagnosed in January 2021,” the researchers said. “Taken together, these preliminary findings suggest significant increases in case fatality rates in young and middle-aged adults after identification of a novel SARS-CoV-2 strain circulating in Brazil, and this should raise public health alarms.”

Pfizer, Moderna vaccines limit asymptomatic infections

Vaccines from Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE and from Moderna Inc dramatically reduced the risk of infection by the new coronavirus within weeks after the first of two shots, according to data from a study of nearly 4,000 U.S. healthcare personnel and first responders in six states. Previous trials by the companies evaluated the vaccines’ efficacy in preventing illness from COVID-19, but would have missed infections that did not cause symptoms. In the new study, conducted from mid-December to mid-March, nearly 75% of participants had received at least one dose of vaccine, and everyone had weekly coronavirus testing for 13 consecutive weeks in order to pick up asymptomatic infections. According to a report published on Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of infection fell by 80% two weeks or more after the first of two shots and by 90% by two weeks after the second shot. “The authorized mRNA COVID-19 vaccines provided early, substantial real-world protection against infection for our nation’s healthcare personnel, first responders, and other frontline essential workers,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

Pandemic has cut parents’ access to hospitalized children

Pediatricians have long endorsed the idea that babies and children in hospitals should not be separated from their families – a practice that in many facilities was restricted or discontinued to limit COVID-19 infections, according to new research. From mid-May through early July, researchers collected survey responses from 96 pediatric care units in 22 countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. The results – mostly from intensive care units for newborns – showed that before the pandemic, 87% of units welcomed families and 92% encouraged skin-to-skin care, according to a report published in Journal of Perinatology. After the onset of the pandemic, more than 83% of the hospital units restricted family presence, with additional restrictions placed on parental participation in their infant’s care, said study coauthor Ita Litmanovitz of Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, Israel. Hospitals’ decisions to limit family access did not depend on their previous rules, the availability of single-family rooms, or the virus infection rate in the hospital’s geographical area. “Restrictions during the pandemic increased separation between the infant and family,” the researchers found. These restrictions, Litmanovitz added, “go against psychological and neuroscientific evidence in support of unrestricted parental presence and ability to care for their hospitalized infants.”

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Leaders of 23 countries back pandemic treaty idea for future emergencies

GENEVA/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Leaders of 23 countries and the World Health Organization on Tuesday backed an idea to create an international treaty that would help deal with future health emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic by tightening rules on sharing information.

The idea of such a treaty, also aimed at ensuring universal and equitable access to vaccines, medicines and diagnostics for pandemics, was floated by the chairman of European Union leaders, Charles Michel, at a summit of the Group of 20 major economic powers last November.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has endorsed the proposal, but formal negotiations have not begun, diplomats say.

Tedros told a news conference on Tuesday that a treaty would tackle gaps exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. A draft resolution on negotiations could be presented to the WHO’s 194 member states at their annual ministerial meeting in May, he said.

The WHO has been criticized for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and was accused by the administration of U.S. president Donald Trump of helping China shield the extent of its outbreak, which the agency denies.

A joint WHO-China study on the virus’s origins, seen by Reuters on Monday, said it had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” as a cause. But the study left many questions unanswered and called for further research.

On Tuesday, the treaty proposal got the formal backing of the leaders of Fiji, Portugal, Romania, Britain, Rwanda, Kenya, France, Germany, Greece, Korea, Chile, Costa Rica, Albania, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, the Netherlands, Tunisia, Senegal, Spain, Norway, Serbia, Indonesia, Ukraine and the WHO itself.

“There will be other pandemics and other major health emergencies. No single government or multilateral agency can address this threat alone,” the leaders wrote in a joint opinion piece in major newspapers.

“We believe that nations should work together towards a new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response.”

The leaders of China and the United States did not sign the letter, but Tedros said both powers had reacted positively to the proposal, and all states would be represented in talks.

The treaty would complement the WHO’s International Health Regulations, in force since 2005, through cooperation in controlling supply chains, sharing virus samples and research and development, WHO assistant director Jaouad Mahjour said.

(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Kevin Liffey)