California to reopen within weeks as COVID eases

The most populous US state suffered a severe winter COVID-19 outbreak, but now has among the nation’s lowest infection rates per capita, in part due to its vaccination program.Some 35.5 million doses have been administered. More than 60 per cent of residents have had at least one dose, and just under half (48 per cent) are fully vaccinated.Health secretary Mark Ghaly said “California is at a place where we can begin to talk about moving beyond the blueprint” of tiered health restrictions.The state will make vaccinations or negative tests mandatory for all major indoor events, but will not operate a “vaccine passport” scheme, he said.Major outdoor events – with over 10,000 people – will be allowed to permit those without vaccinations or recent negative tests to attend if they keep their masks on, although private venues will be free to create their own restrictions.Officials had previously set a June 15 target for reopening, dependent on achieving goals in terms of vaccinations and COVID infection rates.COVID-related hospitalisations were now at their lowest level “since the very early months and weeks of the pandemic,” Ghaly said.WHO SAYS COVID-19 DEATH TOLLS LIKELY A ‘SIGNIFICANT UNDERCOUNT’The World Health Organisation says official death tolls directly or indirectly attributed to COVID-19 are likely to be a “significant undercount”.As of Friday more than 3.4 million deaths globally have been officially put down to the disease, but the WHO says the figure is more likely between six and eight million people.Last year, the World Health Statistics report found there had been at least three million excess deaths due directly or indirectly to COVID-19, some 1.2 million more than officially reported.“Total deaths are at least two to three times higher than officially reported,” Samira Asma, WHO assistant director-general in charge of data, told reporters.Asked how many excess deaths could be attributed to the pandemic today, Asthma replied: “I think safely, about six to eight million deaths could be an estimate, with a cautionary note.She said the WHO is working with countries “to understand the true human toll of the pandemic so we can be better prepared for the next emergency”.OVERSEAS TRAVEL NOT SAFE: WHOProgress against the coronavirus pandemic remains “fragile” and international travel should be avoided, a World Health Organisation director warned on Thursday (local time), while stressing that authorised vaccines work against variants of concern.“Right now, in the face of a continued threat and new uncertainty, we need to continue to exercise caution, and rethink or avoid international travel,” WHO’s European director Hans Kluge said, before adding that “pockets of increasing transmission” on the continent could quickly spread.The so-called Indian variant, which might be more transmissible, has now been identified in at least 26 of the 53 countries in the WHO Europe region, Mr Kluge said during his weekly press conference.But he said that authorised vaccines are effective against the new strain. “All COVID-19 virus variants that have emerged so far do respond to the available, approved vaccines,” Mr Kluge said, adding that all COVID-19 variants can be controlled with the same public health and social measures used until now.In the WHO’s Europe region, which covers part of central Asia, the weekly number of new cases fell by 60 per cent in a month, from 1.7 million in mid-April to 685,000 last week.Although the Indian strain is still being studied, “it is able to spread rapidly” and replace the dominant lineage in Europe, Mr Kluge said.Variants are “not in themselves dangerous, but they can be if they change the behaviour of the virus,” the WHO said in a note published on its website, adding that further lockdowns might become necessary to stop a new strain spreading out of control.So far only 23 per cent of people in the region have received a vaccine dose, with just 11 per cent having had two doses, Kluge said, as he warned citizens to continue to exercise caution.“Vaccines may be a light at the end of the tunnel, but we cannot be blinded by that light,” he said.COVID-19 World NumbersJAB PROFITS TURN PEOPLE INTO BILLIONAIRESIt has also emerged that profits from COVID-19 jabs have helped at least nine people become billionaires, a campaign group said on Thursday (local time), calling for an end to pharmaceutical corporations’ “monopoly control” on vaccine technology.“Between them, the nine new billionaires have a combined net wealth of $US19.3 billion ($A25 billion), enough to fully vaccinate all people in low-income countries 1.3 times,” The People’s Vaccine Alliance said in a statement.The alliance, a network of organisations and activists campaigning for an end to property rights and patents for inoculations, said its figures were based on the Forbes Rich List data.“These billionaires are the human face of the huge profits many pharmaceutical corporations are making from the monopoly they hold on these vaccines,” said Anna Marriott from charity Oxfam, which is part of the alliance.In addition to the new mega-rich, eight existing billionaires have seen their combined wealth increase by $32.2 billion thanks to the vaccine rollout, the alliance said.Topping the list of new vaccine billionaires were the CEO of Moderna Stephane Bancel, and his BioNTech counterpart Ugur Sahin.Three other neobillionaires are co-founders of the Chinese vaccine company Cansino Biologics.The research comes ahead of the G20 Global Health Summit on Friday, which has been a lightning rod for growing calls to temporarily remove intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines.Proponents say doing so would boost production in developing countries and address the dramatic inequity in access.The United States, as well as influential figures like Pope Francis, back the idea of a global waiver on patent protections.At a Paris summit seeking to boost financing in Africa amid the pandemic on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the removal of “all these constraints in terms of intellectual property which blocks the production of certain types of vaccines”.The European Commission said Wednesday it would be a “constructive” voice in WTO talks on the issue.“The highly effective vaccines we have are thanks to massive amounts of taxpayers’ money so it can’t be fair that private individuals are cashing in while hundreds of millions face second and third waves completely unprotected,” said Heidi Chow, Senior Policy and Campaigns Manager at Global Justice Now, which helped analyse the billionaire data.“As thousands of people die each day in India, it is utterly repugnant … to put the interests of the billionaire owners of Big Pharma ahead of the desperate needs of millions,” she added.Manufacturers have stressed that patent protection is not the limiting factor in ramping up vaccine production.They say a wide range of issues — from the set up of manufacturing sites, to the sourcing of raw materials, to the availability of qualified personnel — are holding up the manufacturing process.NED-3846-Vaccines-comparisonUK SAYS VACCINES WORK AGAINST INDIAN VARIANTMeanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday (local time) that COVID-19 vaccines are proving effective against a variant that has spread like wildfire in India and denied that the government was being lax on travel from hot spots.Mr Johnson has been under particular pressure for delaying restrictions on travel to and from India last month, at a time when he was still planning to head to a trade-focused summit in New Delhi.The trip was eventually called off as India succumbed to a devastating new wave of infections, and it was then quickly added to the UK’s “Red List”, meaning arriving travellers have to quarantine in hotels at their own cost.But more than 100 flights have arrived from India since then and the variant has been spreading in Britain, especially in areas with large South Asian communities, potentially endangering plans to reopen the British economy fully from June 21.“We have increasing confidence that vaccinations are effective against all variants including the Indian variant,” Mr Johnson said in parliament.“We have one of the strongest border regimes anywhere in the world,” he added, after a day of confusion from ministers on Tuesday about whether travel is allowed to “amber” countries including most of Europe.Travel to amber countries should only be undertaken for “any emergency or extreme reason” such as family illness, the prime minister said.Health Secretary Matt Hancock meanwhile is under pressure to explain his claim that the rise of the Indian variant in Britain is due to a refusal by some people to get vaccinated.Official data has shown the variant actually took hold due to travellers coming from India, raising more questions about the British government’s delay in adding the country to the Red List when Pakistan and Bangladesh were already on it.The data shows that positive tests among travellers coming from India were higher than those from Bangladesh and comparable to Pakistan, well before the new restrictions took effect for India on April 23.Mr Hancock told parliament on Wednesday that 2967 cases of the B1617.2 variant have now been identified in Britain, up nearly one-third since Monday.Announcing “surge testing” in several more areas, he said “the race between the virus and the vaccine has got a whole lot closer”.But so far the British government has insisted it remains on track to lift virtually all restrictions on public life from June 21, after a successful vaccination campaign.Britain remains one of the countries hardest-hit by COVID with the nation’s death toll nearing 128,000.EU TO REOPEN BORDERS TO FULLY VACCINATED TRAVELLERSEU member states agreed on Wednesday (local time) to reopen the bloc’s borders to travellers who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, European sources said.Meeting in Brussels, diplomats also agreed to increase the level of new cases a country can hit before being declared unsafe — a measure that would open up travel into the EU from more places.The recommendations will be adopted by EU ministers on Friday, they said. An EU Commission spokesman confirmed that the envoys had endorsed the update to travel rules.Since March 2020, non-essential travel into the 27-member European Union has been banned, apart from a small number of countries deemed safe because of their low COVID case rate.But businesses on the continent are reopening as virus restrictions are phased out and bars, hotels and restaurants are worried about the summer tourist trade.Diplomats said that, under the new rules, travellers who could demonstrate that they had received the required number of doses of an EU-approved vaccine could enter the bloc.In addition, the number of cases per 100,000 people that a country could register over two weeks and still be considered for the green list will rise from 25 to 75.This would still exclude non-vaccinated travellers from much of the world, but could allow travel from, for example, Britain, which is well-advanced in its vaccination campaign.The current green list only has seven countries: Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, plus China if Beijing agrees to reciprocate.The 27-nation bloc looks set to expand this list to include other countries with low infection rates from where people could arrive with or without being vaccinated.Individual member states could still decide their own rules on quarantine or testing requirements for arrivals.Member states also agreed to set up a co-ordinated emergency mechanism to rapidly suspend arrivals from a non-EU country stricken by the sudden appearance of a new variant.As it makes progress on opening up to the rest of the world, the EU is struggling to advance on establishing a common health certificate that would allow people to travel more freely within the bloc.NED-3345-International-Vaccine-RolloutAUSTRIA DITCHES ASTRAZENECAMeanwhile, Austria will phase out AstraZeneca from its COVID-19 immunisation program because of delivery problems and wariness among the population following reports of the vaccine’s rare side effects, the health minister said.Austria becomes the third European country to drop AstraZeneca, after Norway and Denmark ditched the vaccine over rare cases of severe blood clots in people receiving the jab.“We will probably continue to do first shots with AstraZeneca until early June, and then that’s it … AstraZeneca will be discontinued,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein told private TV channel Puls 24.Mr Mueckstein said those who received a first shot of AstraZeneca would still get a second shot of the vaccine, but officials would determine which other vaccine to use for any refresher jabs later.Mr Mueckstein, a doctor himself, insisted AstraZeneca was “safe” but said Austria had taken the decision to discontinue it because of “bad compliance among the population”, “bad press” and “delivery problems”.The European Commission is suing the British-Swedish pharmaceutical group over its failure to deliver millions of doses of its vaccine.A third of Austria’s nine million people has received at least one COVID-19 shot.The European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organisation both recommend continued use of the vaccine, arguing that the benefits far outweigh the associated risks.US COVID DEATHS DROPMeanwhile, the United States is seeing its fewest number of deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, official data showed on Tuesday (local time)The seven-day moving average of deaths was 545 on May 16, and “the last time our seven-day-average was this low was in March 2020, essentially since the pandemic began,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said at a briefing.New daily cases are headed down in all US states, with the current average of 30,211 the lowest since last June — when there were severe testing shortages.“We are winning the war on the virus, and we need you to help us finish the job,” White House senior adviser for COVID response Andy Slavitt said, calling on remaining eligible Americans to get vaccinated.About 60 per cent of the US adult population has now received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, and the country is moving to loosen restrictions.Last the week the CDC amended its guidance to say that vaccinated people do not need to wear masks either outdoors or indoors for most activities, a move welcomed by many experts, though some said it might have been premature.The US has also authorised the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 12 and up and more than 600,000 12-to-15-year-olds have now received their first shots, added Ms Walensky.Meanwhile, more than 1.5 billion doses of vaccines have been administered around the world, six months after the start of the first vaccination campaign. And at least 200 million doses have been given in the European Union as of Tuesday, according to official figures.The milestone indicates that the EU should be on track to meet its goal of fully vaccinating 70 per cent of adults — meaning roughly 255 million people out of its total 448 million population — by late July.SINGAPORE APPROVES VACCINE FOR TEENSIt comes as Singapore authorised the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine to teenagers aged 12 to 15, officials said, in a first for Asia.The city-state’s Health Sciences Authority extended the use of the vaccine — currently only approved for individuals aged 16 and above — after reviewing clinical data submitted by the manufacturer.Singaporean authorities “assessed that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine demonstrated high safety and efficacy for this age group of 12 to 15 years old, which is consistent with what we have observed for the adult population,” Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said at a press conference.More details on plans to vaccinate those in this group will be provided soon, he added.Earlier this month Canada became the first country to approve the vaccine for children aged 12 to 15, with the US following shortly after.The city-state tightened restrictions in recent weeks after several new clusters were found, including one linked to a tuition centre.Singapore announced Sunday it will close schools, warning that new coronavirus strains such as the one first detected in India were affecting more children.In the latest round of restrictions, the city-state limited public gatherings to two and banned restaurant dine-ins.About 1.4 million in the country of 5.7 million have received both vaccine doses, with efforts so far focusing on vulnerable groups, frontline workers, and those above 45.Starting Wednesday, the time interval between doses will be extended from three to four weeks to six to eight weeks to allow more people to get their first jab, officials said.Those aged between 40 to 44 will also be invited to get vaccinated. Last year, the coronavirus surged through crowded dormitories housing low-paid foreign workers, infecting tens of thousands.But by global standards, Singapore’s overall outbreak has been mild — officials have reported more than 61,600 cases so far and 31 deaths since the start of the pandemic.SUMMIT URGES LIFTING PATENTS FOR AFRICAA Paris summit seeking to boost financing in Africa amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday (local time) called for the lifting of vaccine patents to allow their manufacture on the continent, French President Emmanuel Macron said.“We are asking the WHO, the WTO and the Medicines Patent Pool to remove all these constraints in terms of intellectual property which blocks the production of certain types of vaccines,” Mr Macron said at the end of the summit attended by African leaders and officials from global financial institutions.Citing the slow pace of vaccination as a major problem for the continent, Mr Macron staked out an aim of vaccinating 40 per cent of people in Africa by the end of 2021.“The current situation is not sustainable, it is both unfair and inefficient,” said Mr Macron.Mr Macron warned that failing to vaccinate Africans risked allowing potentially dangerous COVID-19 variants to emerge on the continent that then could spread around the world.Africa has so far been less badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic than other global regions — with a total of 130,000 dead across the continent — although the human catastrophe in India shows it is way too early to sound the all clear.“Failing to protect Africa from the variants that will reappear on African soil will hit the Africans themselves and then perpetually condemn us to chase” these variants, said Mr Macron.Senegal President Macky Sall praised what he described as a “change of mentality” in the approach, with G20 nations realising their own wellbeing depended on vaccine progress in Africa.“We have a common responsibility; vaccinating one’s own populations does not guarantee health security,” he said, pointing to the risk of variants emerging in Africa that could evade vaccines.IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva warned that failure to accelerate the vaccine rollout in Africa would also have economic consequences.“It is clear that there is no durable exit from the economic crisis unless we exit the health crisis,” she said.NED-3736-Vaccine-benefit-vs.-harmUS PROMISES MORE VACCINESOn Monday, US President Joe Biden announced that the United States was surging exports of COVID vaccines to other countries to reclaim “American leadership” in the global fight against the pandemic, dismissing rival efforts by China and Russia.Mr Biden confirmed that 20 million more doses are being released over the next six weeks, bringing the total earmarked for shipping out by the end of June to 80 million.The boost follows pressure on the Biden administration from other governments to use its large vaccine surplus to help struggling countries, now that significant progress has been made in rolling out vaccinations at home.The initiative also addresses concerns that Moscow and Beijing have been taking advantage of the worldwide crisis to spread influence through distribution of their own national vaccines in a so-called “vaccine diplomacy” contest.By July, the United States will have easily cemented its place as leader on this stage, Mr Biden said, while pointedly adding that Washington was not using the rollout as leverage over countries.“This will be more vaccines than any country has actually shared today, five times more than any other country,” Mr Biden said in a White House speech.“Russia and China … have donated 15 million doses. You know there’s a lot of talk about Russia and China influencing the world with vaccines. We want to lead the world with our values,” he said.“We will not use our vaccines to secure favours from other countries.”US MAKES HUGE PLEDGEThe White House would not say which countries were being prioritised for the shipments, but Biden has signalled that Washington will be doing what it can to help India push back against a surge in the pandemic.An initial 60 million doses have already been pledged.These will all be of AstraZeneca, a British-developed vaccine that has yet to be used in the United States and looks increasingly unlikely ever to be needed. Exports will begin as soon as US health regulators give approval.Mr Biden said the next wave of 20 million doses would also include already authorised vaccines being used in the United States — Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.Mr Biden framed the US effort to assist other countries as both moral and medically necessary.“We know that America will never be fully safe until the pandemic that’s raging globally is under control. No ocean’s wide enough, no wall’s high enough to keep us safe,” he said.“We need to fight the disease around the world to keep us safe here at home, and to do the right thing of helping other people — it’s the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, it’s the strong thing to do.” However, concerns over Russian and Chinese soft power are also clearly high on the president’s mind.He flagged US efforts in leading the “world’s democracies” in a “multilateral effort to end this pandemic.” “I expect to announce progress in this area at the G7 summit” being held in Britain next month, he said.“Just as democracies led the world in the darkness of World War II, democracy will lead the world out of this pandemic,” he said, calling it a moment that “requires American leadership.”UK TASTES ‘FREEDOM’Meanwhile, most of Britain saw a significant easing of coronavirus restrictions on Monday (local time), despite new fears over a more transmissible Indian variant.The widely welcomed lifting of many curbs on indoor mixing across England, Wales and most of Scotland was dubbed “Freedom Monday” by The Sun.At the North Western pub in Liverpool, a masked barman pulled pints and customers tucked into full English breakfasts of bacon, eggs, sausage and beans.Visitors also returned to cinemas, galleries, museums and theatres, while fitness classes resumed and sports venues opened their doors for the first time in months.Diners and drinkers trickled back into London hub Leicester Square, but the many boarded-up units were a reminder of the pandemic’s destructive force.“What’s nice is to see people we don’t know. Seeing people happy, you can see people smiling and enjoying themselves,” said Yara Mahran, 24, shortly before heading into the Vue cinema.Nearby Chinatown was bustling, while gamblers, including 57-year-old Ian Jones and his poker buddies, returned to the table for the first time in over a year.“For me it (poker) was a way of life,” said Jones. “With lockdown, I was just so distraught.”HUGGING AGAINBritish holiday-makers began arriving in Portugal as travel restrictions to selected countries were lifted, providing some respite after months of stay-at-home measures, and a boost to the beleaguered airline and travel sectors.Most anticipated, though, was the removal of social distancing within private homes, allowing family members forced apart during the pandemic to hug again.“I actually feel a wee bit emotional saying this … you can hug your loved ones again,” said Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “another milestone in our road map out of lockdown”. But he still urged caution, warning: “Remember that close contact, such as hugging, is a direct way of transmitting this disease.” Britain’s next step to completely lift restrictions is due on June 21, but that is under threat because of rising cases of the coronavirus variant that first emerged in India.More than 36.5 million people have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the UK, and 20 million two doses — but ministers want a greater take-up to prevent further delays to the full reopening.NED-2545-How-long-covid-virus-can-surviveSome restaurants such as London’s Hard Rock Cafe hailed the expanded reopening, after welcoming back outdoor diners five weeks ago.But the Night Time Industries Association, an industry grouping representing nightclubs and other late-night venues, warned any delay to the June 21 target would be a “body blow”.Even as measures were lifted, second vaccine doses were being brought forward as a precaution to protect the over-50s and clinically vulnerable people.But Health Secretary Matt Hancock said emerging evidence suggested the vaccines approved for use in the UK were effective against the Indian variant.Nationwide cases of the strain have risen from 1,313 to 2,323 in the last week. The rise is centred around the northern English towns of Bolton and Blackburn, which account for around a fifth of the UK variant infections and have a significant population of South Asian heritage.Hancock said rapid response teams had descended on the area over the weekend, visiting 35,000 people to distribute tests and ramp up vaccinations.He noted the majority of the 19 people in hospital in Bolton with the new variant had been eligible for vaccination but had not yet come forward.“To anyone who feels hesitant about getting the vaccine right across the country, just look at what’s happening in Bolton,” Mr Hancock told politicians, urging everybody eligible to get jabbed.The government, which launched a new publicity campaign Monday encouraging people to open windows when meeting indoors to curb the virus, has warned the variant could “spread like wildfire among the unvaccinated groups”.It has not ruled out renewed localised restrictions.London Mayor Sadiq Khan told Sky News he wanted “flexibility to give younger people the vaccine in parts of London where we’re concerned about this strain”.Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, and the northeastern Moray area are maintaining existing restrictions due to a surge in cases linked to the Indian variant.AstraZeneca vaccineOn Monday most of the UK will take a major step in reopening the economy, with restaurants and bars opening their indoors and entertainment venues like sports stadiums and cinemas reopening with some restrictions.However the unlocking has coincided with the arrival of a more transmissible coronavirus variant from India.To counter the new strain the government has said it will accelerate the rollout of second vaccines doses to over-50s and the clinically vulnerable, cutting the interval since the first jab to eight weeks.Data from Public Health England shows the vaccines are already having a significant impact, reducing hospitalisations and deaths, saving more than 11,700 lives and preventing 33,000 hospitalisations in England by the end of April.The government has said its goal is to give a first dose to all adults by the end of July. – with Nadia Salemme

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