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Published: 10:50, October 18, 2021 | Updated: 23:04, October 18, 2021
UK falls behind Europe on virus as mutation draws focus
By Agencies
Published:10:50, October 18, 2021 Updated:23:04, October 18, 2021 By Agencies

A boy at COVID-19 test station as he entered his new secondary school for the first time at Wales High school, Sheffield, England, Sept 3, 2021. (RUI VIEIRA/AP)

ROME / JUBA / ADDIS ABABA / HAVANA / PARIS / BRUSSELS / MOSCOW - Surging COVID-19 cases in the UK have left the country behind the rest of Europe with former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb calling for urgent research into a mutation known as delta plus.

Britain, faster to reopen and relax restrictions than other European countries, reported the highest daily jump in new cases on Sunday since mid-July. Weekly deaths from the virus topped 800 for each of the past six weeks, higher than in other major western European nations, according to Bloomberg’s tracker.

Britain, faster to reopen and relax restrictions than other European countries, reported the highest daily jump in new cases on Sunday since mid-July. Weekly deaths from the virus topped 800 for each of the past six weeks, higher than in other major western European nations, according to Bloomberg’s tracker

ALSO READ: UK to begin virus booster drive for over-50s next week

The UK also has lagged in rolling out the vaccines to adolescents amid concerns that some side effects undermined the net benefit of the shots given children are less likely to become seriously ill. The delay meant most older children weren’t offered a vaccine until the school year had started, and they’re now seeing the highest levels of infection in the population.

Prevalence of COVID-19 is growing among those aged 17 and younger, the latest React-1 study led by Imperial College London found last week. The reproduction rate in that age group was 1.18, meaning that on average every 10 young people infected are passing it on to about 12 others.

The delta plus strain Gottlieb highlighted includes the K417N mutation, which has stoked concern because it’s also harbored by the beta variant that’s associated with an increased risk of reinfection.

“We need urgent research to figure out if this delta plus is more transmissible, has partial immune evasion,” he said in a tweet. “There’s no clear indication that it’s considerably more transmissible, but we should work to more quickly characterize these and other new variants.”

UK researchers said in late June that there’s no evidence yet to suggest the additional mutation is more worrisome. A German paper out earlier this month found while both delta and delta plus infect lung cells more efficiently than the original coronavirus strain, delta plus doesn’t appear to be significantly more dangerous than delta.

ALSO READ: UK panel does not recommend virus shots for healthy youths

Gottlieb, who serves on Pfizer’s board of directors, led the FDA from 2017 to 2019. He has been promoting his new book, “Uncontrolled Spread: Why C-19 Crushed Us and How We Can Defeat the Next Pandemic.”

In England, the percentage of people testing positive continued to increase in the week ending Oct 9, with an estimated 890,000 people having COVID-19, or about 1 in 60, according to the Office for National Statistics.

EU

Over one billion COVID-19 vaccines produced in the European Union have been exported to more than 150 countries since December 2020, the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday.

"Very clearly, the European Union is the largest exporter of COVID-19 vaccines," von der Leyen said in a statement, noting the EU has exported as many vaccines as it has delivered to EU citizens.

The EU begun exporting vaccines at the start of the global rollout in December 2020, whereas other major producers such as the United States did not, and restricted exports for months.

However, EU exports have been mainly directed to bigger economies, with Japan, Turkey and Britain among the main recipients, because they had supply contracts with vaccine makers which produced jabs in the EU.

Vaccines exported or donated by the EU to poorer nations are a small portion of total exports, but the EU plans to boost its donations in coming months with the goal of distributing at least 500 million COVID-19 shots to the most vulnerable countries, von der Leyen said.

Africa

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa reached 8,426,107 cases as of Sunday evening, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.

The Africa CDC, the specialized healthcare agency of the African Union (AU), said the death toll from the pandemic across the continent stands at 215,467.

A girl gets a dose of the Cuban made Soberana-02 vaccine for COVID-19 in Havana, Cuba, Aug 24, 2021. (RAMON ESPINOSA / AP)

Cuba

The daily counts of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths continue to drop in Cuba as the island's national immunization campaign took effect with homegrown COVID-19 vaccines.

Cuba on Sunday recorded 2,197 new cases and 21 deaths, taking the nationwide tallies to 934,965 and 8,058 respectively, according to the Cuban Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP).

Francisco Duran, the national director of epidemiology at MINSAP, said that there are 8,683 active cases in Cuba, the lowest number since mid-July.

Meanwhile, in Havana, the country's capital and most populous city with 2 million inhabitants, the daily cases dropped from more than 1,900 to just over 100 in the past 10 weeks.

At the same time, local governments across the country continue to ease lockdown measures, including the gradual reopening of schools, beaches, restaurants, and gyms as well as the lifting of restrictions on people's movement during nighttime hours.

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic shortened the limit for receiving the third dose of Pfizer/Biotech vaccine to six months from eight months. 

The move follows an acceleration in the spread of the coronavirus during the last week in the nation of 10.7 million, with 787 new cases reported on Sunday, the highest number on any Sunday since April.

Egypt

Egypt has mandated that public sector employees must be vaccinated in order to enter their work places or face a weekly PCR test. The order, announced on Sunday, will take effect from Nov 15.

The government is also banning the unvaccinated from entering government premises from December. Egypt would allocate 1 billion Egyptian pounds ($64 million) to cope with COVID-19. Total doses of vaccine used have reached 31.7 million.

This file photo taken on June 4, 2021 shows a vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a pharmacy in Paris, France. (STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

France

France’s health agency wants more details on the effects of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine on younger people amid concerns about potential side effects, Dominique Le Guludec, who heads the agency, told Le Journal du Dimanche. 

“We want to be sure about the vaccine’s benefits” on younger people, and an alert in Scandinavia this month “made us change our strategy,” the head of Haute Autorite de Sante said.

The agency has also recommended not using the vaccine as a third booster shot for elderly people until it gets European Medicines Agency approval.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 240.74 million while the global death toll topped 4.90 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Italy

Italy reported 24 coronavirus-related deaths on Sunday, up from 14the previous day, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections fell to 2,437 from 2,983.

Italy has registered 131,541 deaths linked to COVID-19 since the outbreak in February last year. It has the second highest toll in Europe behind Britain, and the ninth highest in the world.

The number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 - not including those in intensive care - stood at 2,386 on Sunday, up from 2,371 a day earlier.

The number of patients in intensive care with COVID-19 fell to 349 from 352.

Some 381,051 tests for COVID-19 were carried out in the space of 24 hours, compared with a previous 472,535, the health ministry said.

ALSO READ: GAVI: Summit secures US$2.4b for virus shots for poor countries

This undated image provided by Merck & Co shows their new antiviral medication. Pharmaceutical company Merck & Co said on Oct 1, 2021 that its experimental COVID-19 pill reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half in people recently infected with the coronavirus and that it would soon ask health officials in the US and around the world to authorize its use. (MERCK & CO VIA AP)

Merck

The plan to roll out Merck & Co's promising antiviral pill to treat COVID-19 risks repeating the inequities of vaccine distribution, potentially leaving the nations with the greatest need once again at the back of the line, international health groups say.

For example, only about 5 percent of Africa’s population is immunized, creating an urgent need for therapeutics that could keep people out of hospitals. That compares with more than a 70 percent inoculation rate in most wealthy nations.

Merck on Oct 11 applied for US emergency clearance of the first pill for COVID-19 after it cut hospitalizations and deaths by 50 percent in a large clinical trial. The medicine, made with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, could gain authorization as soon as December.

The US drugmaker has taken the unusual pandemic step of licensing several generics of its antiviral molnupiravir before its branded version was even authorized for marketing.

But international health officials said even that is not enough for the medicine to reach many in low- and middle-income countries in large enough numbers, while noting shortcomings and red tape among global organizations that could further slow distribution.

Merck this year plans to produce 10 million treatment courses of the pill, which is taken twice a day for five days, and another 20 million next year.

In addition, its licensing deals with eight Indian drugmakers will allow cheaper generic versions for 109 low- and middle-income countries including in Africa, a move international groups acknowledge is a positive concession.

But as wealthy nations secure molnupiravir supply deals - the United States has already locked up 1.7 million courses with an option for 3.5 million more by January of 2023 at about $700 per course - concerns grow over who might be left out.

Merck said it has worked on the technology transfer needed to start generic manufacturing, in contrast to vaccine makers who continue to resist calls to waive patents or allow for generic versions to boost supplies.

But a recent report prepared for the United Nations' Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator program tasked with buying COVID-19 therapeutics for poor countries cited concerns that UN agencies were not moving quickly enough to secure adequate volumes of potential new treatments ahead of time, including Merck's drug.

In addition, manufacturing for low-income countries in many nations also requires World Health Organization (WHO) approval, a regulatory process that typically takes months.

Merck said it is committed to providing timely access to its drug globally with plans for tiered pricing aligned with a country’s ability to pay. A spokesperson confirmed it is in discussions about expanding licenses for generic molnupiravir "to build sufficient global supply of quality-assured product to meet orders globally."

ALSO READ: WHO: 6 out of 7 COVID-19 infections in Africa undetected


A woman wearing a face mask walks in Moscow on Oct 5, 2021. (DIMITAR DILKOFF / AFP)

Russia

Russia on Monday reported 34,325 new COVID-19 infections, its highest single-day case tally since the start of the pandemic.

The country's coronavirus task force also reported 998 coronavirus-related deaths in the last 24 hours.

South Sudan

South Sudan's government said Sunday it plans to roll out mass testing and mandatory vaccination in a bid to contain the spread of coronavirus.

John Rumunu, acting COVID-19 incident manager, said mass testing will be carried out using rapid diagnostic tests to gauge the level of infections in the country.

"The taskforce resolved to carry out mass vaccination program in all the public and private institutions, this is to caution all the institutions to know that in the next few months to come, travelling outside might require mandatory COVID-19 vaccine certificate," he told journalists in Juba during the weekly updates on COVID-19.

Rumunu cautioned the public on the need to observe preventive health guidelines on COVID-19 such as mandatory wearing of facemasks, social distance, washing of hands regularly with soap and avoiding crowded places.

Sacha Bootsman, World Health Organization (WHO) COVID-19 incident manager disclosed that so far only 0.3 percent of South Sudan's population of 12.2 million is vaccinated.

Anthony Fauci, US President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, responds to questions by Senator Rand Paul during the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 20, 2021. (J SCOTT APPLEWHITE / POOL / AFP)

United States

President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser said he expects US regulators to consider whether people who got the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get an mRNA shot against COVID-19 as a booster. 

“If you boost people who have originally received J&J with either Moderna or Pfizer, the level of antibodies that you induce in them is much higher than if you boost them with the original J&J,” Anthony Fauci said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. 

“But the data of boosting the J&J first dose with a J&J second dose is based on clinical data,” he said. “So what’s going to happen is that the FDA is going to look at all those data, look at the comparison, and make a determination of what they will authorize.”

A so-called mix-and-match booster has been discussed among scientists and government experts, though no timeline has been released for when it might be officially considered. 

The issue is complicated by safety, supply and concern about confusing public messaging. 

Food and Drug Administration experts recommended a second Johnson & Johnson shot for people 18 and older last week. They also backed a third dose of the Moderna Inc shot - which unlike J&J uses mRNA technology - for people at high risk of contracting COVID-19. 

The recommendations require backing by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which could come as soon as this week.

The Pfizer Inc-BioNTech SE vaccine, also based on mRNA technology, was cleared for boosters in September. More than 10 million third shots have been given in the US. 

Fauci said the individual choice of which booster to get would depend on several factors, including the risk of myocarditis, a heart inflammation that some evidence suggests is a risk for young men who get mRNA vaccines.

“I believe there’s going to be a degree of flexibility of what a person who got the J&J originally can do, either with J&J or with the mix-and-match from other products,” Fauci said on Fox News Sunday.

The logo of Valneva SE Group is pictured at the company's headquarters in Saint-Herblain, near Nantes, western France, on July 30, 2020. (JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP)

Valneva 

Vaccine company Valneva reported positive Phase 3 results on Monday for its inactivated, adjuvanted COVID-19 vaccine candidate VLA2001.

"These results confirm the advantages often associated with inactivated whole virus vaccines," said Valneva Chief Executive Thomas Lingelbach.

"We are committed to bringing our differentiated vaccine candidate to licensure as quickly as possible and continue to believe that we will be able to make an important contribution to the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic," he added.

Valneva added it was preparing for trials in children aged between 5-12 years and for a Valneva-sponsored trial to evaluate VLA2001's performance for people in need of a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot.

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