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Published: 09:06, July 01, 2022 | Updated: 18:37, July 01, 2022
Russia scraps remaining COVID-19 restrictions
By Agencies
Published:09:06, July 01, 2022 Updated:18:37, July 01, 2022 By Agencies

A woman has her body temperature checked as she waits in line to receive an injection of Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination point in a public services office in Moscow, Russia, on Feb 10, 2021. (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)

ROME / HELSINKI / JUBA / BERLIN / COPENHAGEN - Russia said on Friday it was ending all restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19, including the requirement to wear masks, citing a steady decline in deaths from the virus.

However, it did not rule out re-introducing restrictive measures if the situation deteriorates.

Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said it was "suspending previously introduced restrictions, including the mask regime, a ban on public catering at night, and a number of other measures".

It said the dynamics of the virus were consistent with global trends and 93 percent of confirmed cases were mild or asymptomatic.

Since the start of the pandemic in Russia in April 2020, over 800,000 people have died from coronavirus or causes related to COVID-19, Reuters calculations show, with the country recording over 18 million infections. 

Russia was quick to develop and launch its Sputnik V vaccine when the pandemic struck but take-up was slow, with many Russians citing distrust of the authorities and fear of new medical products. About 52 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen waits to make a national statement on the second day of the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow on Nov 2, 2021. (ADRIAN DENNIS / POOL / AFP)

Denmark

A Danish parliamentary probe on Thursday leveled harsh criticism against the government over its order to cull millions of mink in 2020 due to coronavirus concerns, potentially paving the way for an impeachment of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.

In efforts to forestall the spread of a mutated variant of the coronavirus, the government ordered about 17 million mink culled, devastating an industry recognised in the fashion industry around the world for its high-quality furs.

While Danes broadly approved of Frederiksen's initial handling of the pandemic, the Social Democratic minority government was thrown into turmoil when it emerged that there had been no legal basis to order the cull of healthy mink.

The incident eventually led to the exit of the agriculture minister and parliament commissioned an inquiry into whether ministers including Frederiksen had known that the legal framework was absent, when the order was made.

Other high-ranking officials were also included in the inquiry.

The Prime Minister office's actions "led to the gross misleading of mink breeders and the public and the clearly illegal instructions to authorities," the commission behind the probe said in its report to parliament.

It was not immediately clear whether a majority in parliament would favour an independent legal assessment of the probe's results, which could prompt a launch of an impeachment case.

Opposition parties have earlier expressed support for an impeachment.

The Prime Minister will respond to the criticism at a news conference at 0800 GMT on Friday.

A passenger wearing a face mask checks in at the Helsinki Airport, Finland, on June 21, 2021. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Finland

Public health measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic are coming to an end at Finland's border crossing points, authorities said.

As of Friday, travelers are no longer required to present a vaccination certificate, a negative test result or a proof of recovery from COVID-19 when entering the country, said the Finnish institute for health and welfare in a press release Thursday.

The end of COVID-19 border health measures applies to travelers within the EU and beyond, it said.

The Finnish Border Guard is expecting an increase in arrivals from non-EU countries, particularly Schengen visa holders who come to Finland for shopping and for transit to other Schengen countries, said Tuomas Laosmaa, head of the border inspections unit, in an interview with national radio Yle.

He said the number of border crossings into Finland would reach half of the pre-COVID-19 level in a few months, but a complete return to the 2019 volume would take longer.

A young man receives the Nuvaxovid vaccine against COVID-19 coronavirus, at the CIZ Tegel vaccination center in Berlin, on Feb 28, 2022. (TOBIAS SCHWARZ / AFP)

Germany

A new regulation came into force in Germany on Thursday that means COVID-19 tests are no longer free for most residents.

Under the regulation, tests continue to be free of charge for children under five, people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, and visitors to hospitals and inpatient care facilities.

However, people attending large indoor events, as well as contact persons of elderly people over 60 and of people among high-risk groups must now pay a contribution of 3 euros ($3.13) per test.

"The tests are valuable, they are important," Minister of Health Karl Lauterbach told public broadcaster ZDF. "I would have liked to continue offering them completely free of charge, but we could no longer afford that."

According to Lauterbach, the cost of the tests had reached around 1 billion euros per month. With cases expected to increase in the autumn, it is economically unfeasible for the government to continue covering expenses for tests, Lauterbach said.

As elsewhere in Europe, COVID-19 figures in Germany have recently risen again due to the more contagious Omicron variant BA.5. Within a week, the country's seven-day COVID-19 incidence rate climbed from 533 to around 669 infections per 100,000 inhabitants on Thursday, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.

The Omicron sub-lineage BA.5 became the dominant COVID-19 variant in Germany last week, accounting for around half of infections, RKI said.

A medical staffer takes a nasal swab for a COVID-19 rapid test at a testing site in Rome on Dec 30, 2021. (ANDREW MEDICHINI / AP)

Italy

Italy on Thursday updated coronavirus heath protocols in the workplace, as the main pandemic indicators in the country continue to rise.

The new rules, developed by the Ministry of Labor and Social Policies and the Ministry of Health, will require mask use for those with specific health risks, or in cases where workplaces could increase the risk of infection.

The guidelines also encourage "smart working" - working from home instead of the office - as well as staggered entrance and exit times for employees in the workplace, and in common areas such as food dispensaries and changing rooms.

The protocols, which are applicable to private workplaces, also prohibit employees with a body temperature of over 37.5 degrees Celsius from entering a workplace. Any employee presenting flu-like symptoms is required to inform their employer in a "timely" manner.

The changes come as Italy's main coronavirus indicators have worsened in recent days. According to a report released Thursday by the Gimbe Foundation, a health monitoring entity, the country's weekly COVID-19 infections climbed more than 50 percent over the seven-day period ending Tuesday, compared to a week earlier.

Based on data from the Health Ministry, the Gimbe Foundation also reported that hospitalizations due to COVID-19 climbed more than 25 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, the number of people in intensive care units rose by 15 percent, and the weekly mortality rate rose by 16 percent.

However, the main indicators still remain far below the peaks reached earlier in the pandemic.

On Thursday, Italy reported more than 83,000 new cases, down from more than 94,000 cases a day earlier.

Oxford Biomedica

Britain's Oxford Biomedica said on Friday it had signed a new three-year agreement to potentially make AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine beyond 2022, but no volumes were defined in an indication of waning demand for the shot.

An elderly couple wearing protective face masks against COVID-19 walks past the Pfizer Inc headquarters on Dec 9, 2020 in New York City. (ANGELA WEISS / AFP)

Pfizer

Pfizer Inc said on Thursday it is seeking full US approval for its oral COVID-19 antiviral treatment Paxlovid, which is currently available under an emergency use authorization (EUA).

Pfizer said it submitted a New Drug Application for Paxlovid to the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of COVID-19 in vaccinated and unvaccinated people at high risk of progression to severe illness.

That is basically consistent with the drug's current EUA, which Pfizer said covers 50 percent to 60 percent of the US population, citing estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A full approval could mean the company would have the option to sell Paxlovid on the open market like other drugs, depending on whether or not the US government decides to stop buying the drug and providing it for free nationwide.

Also, "the company might have more control over educating the public with commercials, or however they want, to boost uptake," said Karen Andersen, healthcare strategist at Morningstar.

The two-drug treatment taken for five days beginning shortly after onset of COVID-19 symptoms reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 88 percent in non-hospitalized, high-risk adult patients in Pfizer's clinical trial, which did not included vaccinated people.

South Sudan

The Chinese government through the South-South Cooperation Assistance Fund (SSCAF) on Thursday donated more than 1.3 million personal protective equipment (PPE) items to refugees in South Sudan, in partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to support the COVID-19 response.

Juliette Murekeyisoni, the deputy representative of UNHCR in South Sudan, said the donation of personal protective equipment will help curb the spread of coronavirus among refugees living inside and outside camps, together with their hosts.

"This donation will help us to keep the people we serve safe," Murekeyisoni told journalists during the handover ceremony in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

She stressed the need for strategic collaboration to boost COVID-19 response among vulnerable groups like refugees and internally displaced persons.

The donated items included 1.1 million pairs of gloves, 70,000 disposable fluid-resistant gowns, 70,000 protective eye goggles, 70,000 N95 respiratory masks and 1,000 pairs of rubber boots.

The UNHCR said the anti-COVID-19 supplies donation from China will help protect more than 900 frontline medical and support staff from secondary infections as they respond to and serve patients affected by the disease in 17 primary healthcare centers and units, two hospitals in South Sudan's Unity, Upper Nile, Western and Central Equatoria States, said the UNHCR.

According to the UNHCR, the facilities which will benefit from anti-COVID-19 supplies provide medical services to 343,000 refugees, 80 percent of whom are women and children besides more than 60,000 members of host communities.

Food and Drug Administration building is shown Thursday, Dec 10, 2020 in Silver Spring, Md. (MANUEL BALCE CENETA / AP)

United States

US health regulators will not require companies to submit new clinical trial data on COVID-19 vaccines that target the now dominant BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants to authorize those shots, but will instead rely on studies showing the efficacy of targeting the earlier BA.1 subvariant, a top official said on Thursday.

Peter Marks, a senior official overseeing vaccines at the US Food and Drug Administration, told Reuters the agency would also consider manufacturing data specific to a BA.4 and BA.5 vaccine, and that preclinical data from animal studies and safety data for those shots could also be available.

The FDA on Thursday recommended COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers Pfizer Inc/BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc change the design of their booster shots beginning this fall to include components tailored to combat BA.4 and BA.5. It plans to review them for emergency use authorization.

"It's very similar to what we do with influenza strain changes where there will be a couple of amino acids difference, but we don't expect any difference in the safety that we're going to see," Marks said.

He said he expects the immune response to the BA.4/5 booster shot to be similar to that seen with BA.1.

"We're very comfortable doing this, because it will help us get ahead of things," Marks said.

The FDA has directed manufacturers to launch human clinical trials to study the BA.4/5 vaccines, but said that data will be used to gauge the continued effectiveness of the boosters against new variants that may arise.

Marks said he believes regulators from other countries are seriously considering using BA.1-based vaccines, which some drugmakers have already been producing and may be available sooner.

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