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Wednesday, September 09, 2020, 22:36
Pope warns against seeking political gain from pandemic
By Agencies
Wednesday, September 09, 2020, 22:36 By Agencies

Pope Francis asks the faithful to keep safety distance as he arrives during his weekly general audience in San Damaso courtyard at the Vatican, Sept 9, 2020. (ANDREW MEDICHINI / AP)

OTTAWA / STOCKHOLM / BUENOS AIRES / BRASILIA / PARIS / CARACAS / CAIRO / HARARE / ADDIS ABABA / PRAGUE / MOSCOW / VATICAN CITY / TBILISI / LISBON - Pope Francis said on Wednesday no one should seek economic or political gain from the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine developers should not see it merely as a profit-making endeavor.

Francis told visitors at his weekly general audience - the second with public participation after six months of virtual audiences - that the pandemic should spur everyone to work for the common good.

The pandemic and the quest for a vaccine have become hot-button issues in the US presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Trump wants to fast-track a vaccine, which he has said is coming “very, very soon”. The virus has killed more than 186,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs.

Biden has charged that Trump is politicizing the issue to help his re-election and has called for any vaccine to be produced and distributed following established scientific standards without outside political interference.

The pope called people who turn their backs on the suffering coronavirus had caused “devotees of Pontius Pilate who simply wash their hands of it,” referring to the ancient Roman governor of Judea who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion but refused to take responsibility for it.

A sign featuring the AstraZeneca Plc logo stands at the company's DaVinci building at the Melbourn Science Park in Cambridge, UK, on June 8, 2020. (JASON ALDEN / BLOOMBERG)

AstraZeneca halts vaccine trial

Safety of a prospective COVID-19 vaccine comes "first and foremost", the World Health Organization's (WHO) chief scientist said on Wednesday, as a trial of a leading candidate from AstraZeneca was paused due to concerns over side effects.

"Just because we talk about speed...it doesn't mean we start compromising or cutting corners on what would normally be assessed," Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said in a social media event.

Just because we talk about speed...it doesn't mean we start compromising or cutting corners on what would normally be assessed. For drugs and vaccines which are given to people, you have to test their safety, first and foremost.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO's chief scientist

"The process still has to follow through rules of the game. For drugs and vaccines which are given to people, you have to test their safety, first and foremost," she said.

ALSO READ: WHO aiming for 2b doses of vaccine by end of 2021

WHO officials did not immediately respond directly to questions from Reuters over the move by AstraZeneca to pause global trials, including large late-stage trials, of its experimental coronavirus vaccine due to an unexplained illness in a study participant.

Britain’s medical regulator said on Wednesday it is urgently reviewing information available to determine whether AstraZeneca can restart trials of its experimental coronavirus vaccine after an unexplained illness in a participant.

In an email, director of licensing at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) Siu Ping Lam said the regulator is working with the Oxford Vaccine Centre to review the safety data, in line with protocol for the trial.

The vaccine called AZD1222, which AstraZeneca is developing with the University of Oxford, has previously been described by the WHO as probably the world's leading candidate and the most advanced in terms of development.

AstraZeneca said Tuesday it voluntarily paused trials to allow an independent committee to review safety data, and it was working to expedite the review to minimize any potential impact on the trial timeline.

“This is a routine action which has to happen whenever there is a potentially unexplained illness in one of the trials, while it is investigated, ensuring we maintain the integrity of the trials,” AstraZeneca spokeswoman Michele Meixell said in a statement. She said that it’s too early to determine the sick participant’s specific diagnosis.

This is a routine action which has to happen whenever there is a potentially unexplained illness in one of the trials, while it is investigated, ensuring we maintain the integrity of the trials.

Michele Meixell, AstraZeneca's spokeswoman

The study is testing a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca and University of Oxford researchers at various sites, including the United Kingdom, where the illness was reported.

Oxford University said the pause was triggered by its standard review process.

The nature of the case and when it happened were not detailed, although the participant is expected to recover, according to Stat News, which first reported the trial was halted due to a "suspected serious adverse reaction." 

A volunteer in the UK trials was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord generally caused by infections, the New York Times said, citing a person close to the situation that it didn’t name.

South African volunteers on AstraZeneca’s experimental coronavirus vaccine trial said they were not worried to hear the trial had been paused after a participant fell ill and they hoped to be part of a potential solution to the pandemic.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 27.4 million on Tuesday while the global death toll topped 896,000, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University.

Africa tally

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases recorded across the African continent reached 1,306,157 while the death toll rose to 31,494, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said Tuesday.

READ MORE: Falling infection rates bring hope in Africa

East African Community

The East African Community (EAC) launched a system to issue COVID-19 digital certificates to truck drivers in order to boost regional trade, an official said on Tuesday.

Christophe Bazivamo, deputy secretary-general of EAC, said at a virtual meeting that the EAC Regional Electronic Cargo and Driver Tracking System (RECDTS) will allow partner states to electronically share truck drivers' COVID-19 test results, therefore minimizing the need for multiple COVID-19 tests in a single trip.

Bazivamo said that the app provides a surveillance system to monitor long-distance truckers' crew health and also enables contact tracing.

According to the bloc, 40,000 truck drivers have been registered into the system so far since the the start of the pilot phase in July.

Angola

Angolan President Joao Lourenco has postponed local elections that were due later this year, citing a delay in drafting supporting legislation because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We acknowledge the efforts of the National Assembly in working on the legislation package,” Lourenco said in an emailed copy of a speech to lawmakers. “But the truth is that the work was not concluded yet.”

A new date for the southwest African nation’s first municipal vote hasn’t been set. Lourenco had pledged to hold the vote this year after taking power in 2017, after a planned election in 2014 was canceled.

Algeria

Algerian Health Minister Abderrahman Benbouzid said on Tuesday that about 100 healthcare workers in the country have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic outbreak began, official APS news agency reported.

About 5,000 healthcare workers had been infected with COVID-19, Benbouzid said at a press conference, urging people to continue to observe the epidemic prevention measures.

On Tuesday, the country reported 285 newcases and nine additional deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the total infections to 46,938 and the death toll to 1,571, said the Ministry of Health in a statement.

Argentina

Coronavirus cases in Argentina rose past 500,000 on Tuesday, with almost one in two tests now coming back positive.

Sergio Barrera Ruiz, a 52-year-old pediatrician from Jujuy in the north of Argentina, sees a local health crisis looming as the coronavirus pandemic ripples out from Buenos Aires, the capital, and grips the country's less well-equipped provinces.

The current rolling seven-day average number of cases in Argentina is around 10,000 daily, with about 200 daily deaths. There were a record 12,027 new confirmed cases on Tuesday. Nationwide deaths have topped 10,000. 

Health Ministry data show that over the past month, the number of confirmed infections daily is almost half that of the number of tests carried out, one of the highest "positive" rates in the world along with Mexico and Bolivia.

For months, over 90 percent of cases were concentrated in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area while the provinces were mainly spared. But now, the provinces account for almost a third of cases, with Córdoba, Santa Fe, Jujuy and Mendoza the most affected.

Brazil

Brazil's acting Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello said on Tuesday that a COVID-19 vaccine would be rolled out for all Brazilians in January 2021.

"We are closing contracts with vaccine manufacturers and the forecast is that a vaccine will arrive for us starting in January next year and we will start vaccinating everyone," Eduardo Pazuello said in a video posted to social media.

Brazil has the third-worst outbreak of coronavirus globally with more than 4.1 million cases. The Health Ministry said on Tuesday 14,279 newly confirmed cases were reported in the past 24 hours, as well as 504 deaths.

The official death toll now stands at 127,464, according to ministry data.

Some 20 percent of towns in Sao Paulo, the epicenter of the country's outbreak, saw children go back to school on Tuesday after six months of remote learning.

Canada

British Columbia on Tuesday ordered the closure of all nightclubs and Ontario delayed an easing of remaining restrictions imposed to fight the coronavirus pandemic, as Canada reported a spike in new COVID-19 cases.

The rise comes as schools across the country started to reopen after a nearly five-month forced shutdown to contain the spread of the virus, which has killed 9,153 people, according to latest government data. New cases jumped by 1,606 in the past 24 hours, taking the tally to 133,748.

Quebec, which welcomed back pupils last month, has already reported a number of cases in schools, whereas Alberta, which reopened schools one week ago, reported 11 COVID-19 cases spread across 11 different schools

An average of 545 new cases had been reported daily over the past week, up from about 300 in July. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam noted the increase in infections was concentrated among younger adults and cited the risk posed by private functions and family gatherings.

Canada’s western province of British Columbia has asked restaurants, pubs and bars to end sale of liquor at 10:00 pm and ordered bars and restaurants to close by 11:00 pm, unless serving food, according to a government statement.

Following the reopening of schools, Quebec, which welcomed back pupils last month, has already reported a number of cases in schools. Alberta, which reopened schools one week ago, reported 11 COVID-19 cases spread across 11 different schools, Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Tuesday, adding the infections were spread in the community, and not acquired within the schools.

The coronavirus reproduction number has risen to just above one, an indication that the virus is spreading.

Quebec unveiled a four-step alert system for measures to curb COVID-19 that would introduce restrictions such as limiting the number of people allowed to gather depending on the risk of transmission.

Chile

Chile posted the lowest daily increase in coronavirus cases in 20 days on Tuesday, as 1,263 people tested positive for the virus in the previous 24 hours.

It was the lowest figure since Aug 19, when 1,233 daily cases were reported, according to Ministry of Science data based on daily coronavirus reports by the Ministry of Health. Chile's total caseload now stands at 425,541.

Thirty deaths were reported in the past 24 hours, raising the death toll to 11,682.

Chilean Health Minister Enrique Paris underscored the importance of telemedicine in attending to COVID-19 patients, who can be highly contagious.

Several medical centers in poorer towns are monitoring and tracing COVID-19 cases through Chile's "Telehealth model, which allows remote care and communication with COVID and non-COVID patients," he said.  

Czech Republic

The Czech government will order the wearing of face masks inside buildings across the country from Thursday, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said on Twitter, after the daily increase in infections spiked to a record 1,164 on Tuesday.

It was the first time since the March outbreak that the number of new daily cases topped 1,000, amid a surge over the past month, although the government wants to avoid strict lockdowns of the kind imposed at the start of the pandemic.

The death toll in the Czech Republic has remained lower than in many other European countries, with 441 fatalities reported as of Wednesday out of a total of 29,877 cases since the start of the pandemic.

Egypt

Egypt reported 187 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, raising the tally to 100,228, said the Health Ministry.

Another 19 deaths were reported, lifting the death toll to 5,560, the ministry's spokesman, Khaled Megahed, said in a statement.

Total recoveries rose by 878 to 79,886, he added.

Egypt Air will resume direct flights between Cairo and Moscow as of Sept 17, at the rate of three flights per week, state news agency MENA reported on Tuesday, citing a statement by the company.

Travelers to Moscow must obtain a medical certificate with a negative PCR test result for coronavirus (COVID-19) from an accredited laboratory in Egypt, issued 72 hours at most before the date of arrival, MENA added.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia's confirmed COVID-19 cases reached 60,784 after 1,136 new cases were confirmed on Tuesday, the Ministry of Health said.

The ministry said in a statement that 16 patients died in the last 24 hours, lifting the death toll to 949.

Recoveries rose by 888 to 22,677, according to the ministry. 

EU

European Union (EU) lawmakers have cancelled their session at the parliament's headquarters in the French city of Strasbourg next week, despite a legal obligation to do so, because of the coronavirus, the assembly's president said on Tuesday.

Authorities in Strasbourg had urged lawmakers to come. Next week's session has additional prestige as the president of the European Commission, the EU executive, will deliver an annual address to the parliament.

"The resurgence of the pandemic in many member states and the decisions taken by the French authorities to classify the entire Lower Rhine department as a red zone obliges us to reconsider the move to Strasbourg," European Parliament President David Sassoli said in a statement.

"The plenary session of the European Parliament ... will take place in Brussels," he said, referring to the more regularly used assembly building in the Belgian capital, where EU lawmakers work when they are not in Strasbourg.

Medical technicians administer nasal swabs at a mobile testing site of the 15th district town hall in Paris, France, Sept 8, 2020. (MICHEL EULER / AP)

France

The number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in France rose by 6,544 over the last 24 hours to give a total of 335,524 cases,  the health ministry said on Tuesday, as the country battles to avert a second wave of the virus.

The number of deaths also climbed by 39 over the last 24 hours to reach a total of 30,764, the world's seventh-highest COVID-19 death toll.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex has tested negative for COVID-19, his office said on Tuesday, after he came into contact with the director of the Tour de France cycle race who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin will undergo a test after spending time with Castex earlier on Tuesday.

Georgia

Georgia has banned weddings and other types of public ceremony from Sept. 10 and postponed theater and cinema openings to contain the spread of the new coronavirus as the number of daily infections has risen, the government said on Wednesday.

Georgia reported 44 new cases of the virus on Wednesday, bringing its total to 1,773. The ex-Soviet republic of 3.7 million people has reported 19 deaths, far fewer than other countries in the South Caucasus region.

But as case numbers have risen it has banned weddings, birthdays and other parties as well as funeral dinners, both indoors and in open-air spaces, Natia Mezvrishvili, the government administration head, told a briefing.

Georgia has lifted most restrictions it imposed to contain COVID-19, reopening shops, hotels, restaurants and cafes, and it revived public and inter-city transport in June.

Germany

New coronavirus cases in Germany hovered around 1,300, while the reproduction number of the virus, known as R-naught, remained over the key threshold of 1.0 for a fourth day.

There were 1,331 new cases in the 24 hours through Wednesday morning, bringing the total to 254,957, according to data from from Johns Hopkins University. Fatalities increased by five to 9,336.

According to data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases, the number of confirmed cases increased by 1,176 to 253,474 while the reported death toll rose by nine to 9,338.

Greece

Coronavirus infections in Greece's overcrowded migrant camp Moria on the island of Lesbos nearly doubled since Monday to 35 confirmed cases, the migration ministry said on Tuesday.

Health authorities conducted a total of 2,000 tests in Moria, including 100 on camp staff who tested negative. All 35 migrants who tested positive have been moved to a segregated space and only one has shown COVID-19 symptoms.

ALSO READ: Thousands flee as fire rips through overcrowded Greek refugee camp

Nationwide, Greece authorities reported on Tuesday 169 new cases, bringing the tally to 11,832, with 290 deaths.

Kenya

The Kenyan government said Tuesday it has ramped up interventions aimed at containing COVID-19 disease in the rural counties that have lately witnessed a spike in caseload.

Rashid Aman, chief administrative secretary in the Ministry of Health, said the country is not yet out of the woods despite low positivity rates in the capital Nairobi and the coastal city of Mombasa that were previously regarded as the pandemic's hotspots.

Aman said that rising COVID-19 infections in several rural counties could derail efforts to flatten the curve.

Kenya's COVID-19 caseload reached 35,356 on Tuesday after 151 new cases were confirmed.

The death toll remained at 599 while recoveries rose by 173 to 21,483.

Libya

The National Center for Disease Control of Libya on Wednesday reported 879 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total confirmed cases in the country so far to 20,462.

The center said in a statement that 82 patients have newly recovered and 10 more died, bringing the total recoveries to 2,329 and the death toll to 324.

Mexico

Mexico has not registered new outbreaks and the number of deaths is in decline, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said .

"We are managing to tame this pandemic, and I hope that this nightmare will soon pass and we will return to the new normality, the new reality," Lopez Obrador said during his regular morning press conference.

Mexico reported 5,351 newly confirmed cases of coronavirus infection and 703 additional fatalities on Tuesday, bringing its totals to 642,860 infections and 68,484 deaths, according to updated health ministry data.

A student wearing a face mask undergoes temperature check before attending a class at a school in Rabat, Morocco, Sept 8, 2020. (CHADI / XINHUA)

Morocco

Morocco on Tuesday reported 1,941 new COVID-19 cases, taking the tally to 75,721.

The total recoveries increased by 1,143 to 57,239 while the death toll rose by 33 to 1,427 in the past 24 hours, said the Ministry of ealth in a statement.

Morocco has been facing a huge increase of coronavirus infections in the past days, mainly in Casablanca and Marrakech.

On Tuesday Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb announced the mobilization of more medics and logistical support to Casablanca. 

Portugal

Portugal reported 646 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the highest daily toll since April 20, with transmission primarily occurring in family households, health secretary of state Jamila Madeira told a news conference.

New cases fell to around 100 a day at the beginning of August but have crept back up since then, worrying the tourism industry as it waits to hear whether it will taken back out of the UK’s air bridge list.

Stricter measures to curb the coronavirus outbreak will be introduced across Portugal from mid-September as students return to schools and many workers go back to the office, although details have yet to be announced.

Most new cases were split between the northern region and Greater Lisbon, health ministry data showed.

Russia

Russia said on Wednesday 142 people had died from the new coronavirus in the last 24 hours, raising the official death toll to 18,135.

Russia's coronavirus taskforce reported 5,218 new cases, bringing its nationwide tally to 1,041,007, the fourth largest caseload in the world.

Russia's sovereign wealth fund will sell 32 million doses of potential COVID-19 vaccine 'Sputnik-V' to a top pharmaceutical company in Mexico, Russia's second vaccine export deal, a source close to the deal said.

The deal with Mexico is expected to be announced later on Wednesday, the source said.

READ MORE: Ifax: Russia completes early trials of 2nd potential virus vaccine

Sweden

Sweden carried out a record number of new coronavirus tests last week with only 1.2 percent coming back positive, the health agency said on Tuesday, the lowest rate since the pandemic began at a time when countries across Europe are seeing surges in infections.

Sweden avoided a lockdown and instead emphasized personal responsibility, social distancing and good hygiene in a bid to slow rather than eradicate a disease deemed here to stay.

Sweden carried out over 120,000 tests last week with just over 1,300 coming back positive

The strategy drew fierce criticism home and abroad as deaths shot up during the spring but has also been lauded by WHO officials as a sustainable model.

READ MORE: Sweden launches commission to investigate coronavirus response

“The purpose of our approach is for people themselves to understand the need to follow the recommendations and guidelines that exist,” Swedish Health Agency Director-General Johan Carlson said at a news conference.

More than 5,800 people with the disease have died, many times higher per capita than in neighboring Nordic countries but lower than Italy, Spain and the UK.

Deaths, hospitalizations and new cases have now dropped to low levels whilst countries such as Spain and France contend with surges in infections after they lifted lockdowns.

Sweden carried out over 120,000 tests last week with just over 1,300 coming back positive, far below the 19 percent positive tests hit during some weeks in the spring, and now has the lowest rate of spread in Scandinavia.

A woman wearing a face shield walks past the London Eye in London, Britain, Sept 8, 2020. (HAN YAN / XINHUA)

UK

All social gatherings of more than six people will be banned in England, under new limits to be announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday, as coronavirus cases grow.

At a press conference, Johnson will confirm that police will have new powers to disperse and fine any group larger than six people meeting indoors or outdoors from Sept 14. That marks a significant tightening of the current rules, under which police can break up gatherings of more than 30.

There will be exceptions for people grouping for work, weddings and funerals, and for organized sports, but parties in pubs and restaurants, and gatherings in public spaces will all be hit by the new limits.

The United Kingdom reported 2,460 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the tally to 352,560, according to government data. More than 57,400 deaths involving coronavirus had been registered in Britain, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics.

England said it would add seven Greek islands to its quarantine list from Wednesday morning, announcing that better access to data meant it could decide rules on an island-by-island basis. The islands affected are: Lesvos, Tinos, Serifos, Mykonos, Crete, Santorini and Zakynthos.

UN

The United Nations (UN) and humanitarian partners have launched a tri-national action plan to support government responses to the urgent needs in the border area between Colombia, Peru and Brazil -- home to largely indigenous people, said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Tuesday.

The plan seeks US$10.4 million for the next 12 months. It focuses on the initial emergency response in the sectors of health, food and nutrition, emergency shelter and water, and basic sanitation and hygiene, said OCHA.

This triple border region -- home to nearly 209,000 people, in which 57 percent of them are indigenous -- is currently witnessing the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world. COVID-19 is disproportionally affecting indigenous people with double of the national fatality rate, which is already one of the highest fatality rates worldwide, it noted.

The triple border area has been traditionally neglected, with very poor provision of basic services, absences of medical facilities, high food insecurity, high infant and maternal mortality rates, and outbreaks of other diseases such as malaria, dengue and chikungunya, said OCHA. 

US

Coronavirus cases in the US surpassed 6.3 million on Tuesday while the death toll topped 189,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

US states hit hard by a summer surge in cases showed improving trends, with Texas, Arizona, Florida and California reporting the fewest daily infections in months. 

Despite that, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the proclamation extending the disaster declaration for all Texas counties on Monday, local media reported Tuesday.

Meanwhile, New York will require kindergarten through 12th grade schools to disclose the number of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19 and may force colleges with more than 100 cases to switch to remote learning, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

He also said that colleges must now report to the state's health department when they have in excess of 100 cases, a threshold that would require a shift to remote classes unless there were extenuating circumstances.

Los Angeles is not allowing door-to-door trick or treating and other traditional Halloween gatherings this year to curb the spread of the virus, the city’s department of public health said in a statement.

In another development, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republican leaders will introduce a proposal for additional coronavirus relief on Tuesday. The proposal is expected to have a far smaller scope than the US$3 trillion bill passed in the Democratic-led House of Representatives in May.

Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday proposed administering Russia's "Sputnik-V" COVID-19 vaccine to nearly 15,000 candidates in upcoming legislative election so that they can campaign safely.

Maduro's adversaries are broadly planning to boycott the Dec 6 vote on the grounds that it is rigged in favor of the ruling Socialist Party, although one faction of the opposition has opened talks with the government to seek vote guarantees.

"It would be a good idea to give the Russian vaccine to the 14,400 candidates who have registered ... so that they can carry out their electoral campaign more comfortably," Maduro said during a televised address.

He said that in September, some Russian vaccines would arrive for clinical trials, and that in October "other vaccines" would arrive, without elaborating.

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe will resume domestic flights from Thursday and international flights next month in a boost to tourism, but travelers will be required to have COVID-19 clearance certificates, the government said.

The government said in a statement that domestic flights would resume on Sept 10 while international flights wouldstart on Oct 1.

"All travellers will be required to have a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) COVID-19 clearance certificate issued by a recognised facility within 48 hours from the date of departure," the statement reads.

The country has so far reported 7,388 infections and 218 deaths.

Nurses working in government health institutions began returning to work on Wednesday after nearly three months of strikes, following a call by their leaders to report for duty.

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