Virus variants inciting India's second surge, epidemiologists say

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The second surge of COVID-19 cases in India has swamped hospitals much faster than the first because mutations in the virus mean each patient is infecting many more people than before, epidemiologists and doctors say.

A patient lies in a bed as she is being shifted to a hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ahmedabad, India, April 15, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave

India’s daily infections skyrocketed more than 20-fold to more than 200,000 on Thursday since a multi-month-low in early February, though the government has played down the role of mutants in the latest rise, the worst anywhere this month.

The world’s hardest-hit country after the United States has reported about 950 cases of people contracting the variants first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

“The point is that these variants of concern are still not on top of the discourse,” said epidemiologist Rajib Dasgupta of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“Even if it is a new variant, you need to do the same things” to control it and treat patients “but it requires a different urgency to recognise that”, he said.

Doctors at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences have found that one patient is now infecting up to nine in 10 contacts, compared with up to four last year.

Scientists in Britain say the B.1.1.7 variant here, widely known as the British mutant, is 70% more transmissible than previous variants, and much deadlier.

The northern Indian state of Punjab, which has reported one of the highest recent fatality rates in the country, said late last month 81% of 401 COVID-19 samples it sent for genome sequencing were found to be the British variant.

“This virus is more infectious and virulent,” said Dhiren Gupta, a senior consultant at New Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

“More children are reporting high-grade fever compared to last year. We have 35-year olds with pneumonia in intensive care, which was not happening last year.”

India has recorded 14.1 million infections and 173,123 deaths in total.

MASS GATHERINGS

The government has mainly attributed the big rise in cases to a reluctance to wear marks and crowding.

Still, it has refused to call off a mass gathering of Hindu devotees for a festival and its ministers are addressing tens of thousands of largely mask-less people in election rallies.

A scientist at the National Institute of Epidemiology said more evidence was needed to directly link the rise in cases to the variants, but that anecdotally that seemed to be the case.

“There are in-vitro experiments which can also tell us about the infectivity, the severity, how lethal it is, etc, but those are not completed yet, they are ongoing,” said Tarun Bhatnagar.

“We haven’t had a virus that has spread so rapidly, and we haven’t had the time to study it. Everything is on the go. We are dealing with it, being affected by it and studying it. The pace of every thing is too fast.”

But with crowding still common in many regions of India, “we are about to find out just how dangerous this strain is”, said Om Srivastava, head of infectious diseases at Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital who also advises India’s worst-hit Maharashtra state.

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New Zealand could open border with Australia from end of week: 1NEWS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – New Zealand could open its borders to Australian travellers as soon as the end of the week, New Zealand broadcaster 1NEWS reported on Tuesday without saying where it obtained the information.

FILE PHOTO: People jog past a social distancing sign on the first day of New Zealand’s new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) safety measure that mandates wearing of a mask on public transport, in Auckland, New Zealand, August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Fiona Goodall

The report comes as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is scheduled to announce the date for quarantine-free travel with Australia later on Tuesday, after facing mounting pressure from businesses to open the border.

The so-called ‘travel bubble’ would restrict travellers from certain areas in the event of an outbreak in Australia and is expected to run on a state-by-state basis, the broadcaster said.

Australian tourists visiting the country during the ski season and school holidays would “really matter” to struggling industries in New Zealand, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said during a breakfast show also on 1News.

Robertson, however, did not give any indication of when the border will open.

Both Australia and New Zealand have managed the COVID-19 crisis more successfully than most other developed nations after closing their international borders to non-citizens and permanent residents very early during the pandemic.

Most Australian states have opened their borders to New Zealanders since last October but New Zealand has delayed returning the favour due to sporadic outbreaks in some Australian cities.

Meanwhile, The Australian newspaper reported on Tuesday citing government and industry sources that quarantine-free travel between the countries could begin on April 12 or 19.

Airlines have started bookings with “the 19th pretty much definite”, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry tourism chief John Hart was quoted as saying in the report.

Australia’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.

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Australia's Queensland reports fewer new COVID-19 cases, eyes easing curbs

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia reported a drop-off in new cases of locally acquired COVID-19 in Queensland on Wednesday, fuelling optimism that a three-day snap lockdown in state capital Brisbane will be lifted ahead of the Easter holidays.

FILE PHOTO: Commuters wearing protective face masks in accordance with new public health regulations for riding public transit depart a train station in the wake of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Sydney, Australia, January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo

More than two million residents of Australia’s third-largest city have been asked to stay home until Thursday evening as authorities rushed to contain two distinct virus clusters, which have grown to 17 cases.

“Fingers crossed, all will be looking good for Easter,” Queensland state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told reporters.

“If we see very good testing rates across Queensland and we don’t see any unlinked community transmission, the signs for Easter are looking positive.”

Two new locally acquired cases were reported on Wednesday, all linked to the virulent UK variant of the virus, down from eight a day earlier as authorities added dozens of venues to potential virus exposure sites.

Palaszczuk said a final decision on the lockdown, which allows residents to leave their homes only for essential work, healthcare, grocery shopping or exercise, would be taken on Thursday morning.

Neighbouring New South Wales state on Wednesday reported one new local case linked to the Queensland outbreak prompting authorities to put in place some restrictions until Easter in four regional areas.

Household gatherings will be limited to 30 people and tougher social distancing rules will be reintroduced in indoor venues as authorities urged residents of the affected areas to avoid travelling.

Several states have closed their borders with Queensland, throwing Easter travel plans into disarray, with Brisbane Airport expecting an 85% fall in the number of domestic travellers by this weekend compared with its pre-lockdown target.

The Easter long weekend and two-week school term break is a busy time for Australian travel.

Snap lockdowns, border closures and speedy tracking systems have helped Australia to keep its coronavirus numbers relatively low. It has reported just under 29,300 COVID-19 cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began.

Still, Australia has fallen far short of its target of inoculating at least 4 million people by the end of March. Just under 600,000 have received their first dose of vaccine so far, according to government data.

Australia plans to provide at least the first vaccine dose to its near 26 million population by the end of October.

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Australia's Queensland warns of more COVID-19 cases, Easter travel plans in disarray

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia reported eight new locally acquired COVID-19 cases in Queensland on Tuesday and authorities warned more could emerge as the state scrambles to quash an outbreak linked to the highly contagious UK variant of the coronavirus.

The new cases took the total in the latest outbreak to 15 so far, a day after the state announced a snap three-day lockdown in Brisbane, Australia’s third most-populous city.

All of the cases were linked to two distinct virus clusters, one related to a doctor and the second to a nurse, authorities said.

“The fact that we have these cases that are linked is good news,” Queensland state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told reporters. “Do we expect to see more cases? Probably. Probably, we will see more.”

About 2 million people in Brisbane are required to stay home until Thursday afternoon except for essential work, healthcare, grocery shopping or exercise while masks are mandatory when stepping outside of homes.

The snap lockdown has thrown the travel plans of thousands into disarray as the lockdown is scheduled to end just a day before the Easter long weekend and the school term break in Australia, a popular time for vacations.

Neighbouring New South Wales (NSW) state, Australia’s most populous, is also on alert after two of the Queensland cases, a nurse and her sister, travelled while infectious to Byron Bay, a tourist town just south of the Queensland border and home to Hollywood A-listers such as Chris Hemsworth.

Health alerts have been issued for some pubs, cafes and restaurants exposed to the virus as officials urged patrons to test and isolate.

“I hope that we do not have any cases emerge in New South Wales, but I won’t be surprised if we did. So, we need to brace ourselves,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

Snap lockdowns, social distancing rules and speedy contact tracing systems have helped Australia to contain fresh clusters in recent months. It has reported just under 29,300 cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began.

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Japan's vaccine minister says inoculation pace to accelerate in May

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan’s vaccine minister, Taro Kono, said on Monday that the pace of coronavirus inoculation in the country would accelerate in May, but that the Tokyo Olympics, set to start in July, were not factoring into the schedule.

FILE PHOTO: Japan’s vaccination programme chief Taro Kono attends a news conference on the country’s preparations to begin vaccinating health workers, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan February 16, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged to have enough doses for the country’s 126 million people by June, before the July 23 start of the Tokyo Olympics. Supplies have been trickling in from Pfizer Inc. factories in Europe, but are expected to accelerate in the coming months.

“Starting in May, there will be no bottleneck in supply,” Kono told Reuters in an interview. Officially the minister in charge of administrative reform, Kono was tapped in January to lead Japan’s COVID-19 vaccination push.

He added that he expected to be able to get 10 million doses of vaccines each week in May but that the Olympics, which a majority of Japanese have said should be postponed or cancelled, were not a factor in his scheduling.

Japan started its vaccination campaign last month, later than most major economies and dependent on imported doses of Pfizer’s vaccine. Shots developed by AstraZeneca PLC and Moderna Inc now await local regulatory approval.

Kono said the AstraZeneca vaccine would be approved “hopefully sometime soon”, adding that the decision was up to the health ministry. Having the AstraZeneca vaccine made domestically would save him from having to “worry about the transparency mechanism” that the European Union has used to limit exports of vaccines made there.

“If we have somebody manufacturing vaccines in Japan, it would take off half my headache,” Kono said.

As of Friday, just over 780,000 people in Japan, mostly healthcare workers, have received at least one vaccine dose.

While Japan has escaped the worst ravages of the pandemic seen elsewhere, cases have begun ticking up again recently, prompting concern among some officials about a potential “fourth wave” of the pandemic. Adding to those concerns, a report quoted by NHK national television warned that the country’s vaccination pace might not be able to keep up with the increase in cases.

Kono said that while the vaccine prevents symptoms, people shouldn’t depend on it alone and need to maintain preventive measures such as wearing masks and hand washing.

Though he frequently tops public opinion polls as a top choice for prime minister, Kono sidestepped questions about when he might take up the job. A general election needs to be held later this year.

“Right now, I’m doing my job,” he said.

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Papua New Guinea facing COVID-19 crisis as infection rate rises

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Half of COVID-19 tests from the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) processed by Australia have been positive, the leader of Queensland state said on Monday, prompting calls for faster vaccine delivery.

FILE PHOTO: Newly constructed apartment blocks are seen behind the stilt house village called Hanuabada, located in Port Moresby Harbour, Papua New Guinea, November 19, 2018. Picture taken November 19, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

PNG’s Western Province lies within a few kilometres (miles) of Australia’s northern border, and Queensland laboratories are assisting to investigate the worsening outbreak.

Queensland state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Papua New Guinea was “on the doorstep” and she held real concern about the rising infection rate there.

“Out of the 500 tests that our health authorities have done for PNG, 250 have come back positive,” Palaszczuk told reporters on Monday.

Ninety new cases were recorded in Papua New Guinea on Saturday by its government, and a World Health Organisation weekly update was due to be released later on Monday.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape is also expected to make a statement on the worsening epidemic.

The island nation has recorded a total of 2,173 cases and 21 deaths since the pandemic began, according to a PNG government statement. COVID infections have been recorded in 17 provinces.

The latest outbreak is centred on the National Capital District in Port Moresby, and comes after the nation mourned the death of its first prime minister, Sir Michael Somare.

Papua New Guinea granted regulatory approval for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine last week. The vaccine is not planned to be rolled out until late April, through the COVAX initiative which has allocated one million doses to the Pacific.

Brendan Crabb, chairman of the Pacific Friends of Global Health, said Papua New Guinea is experiencing exponential growth in COVID-19 cases and an emergency plan was needed to assist its small and overstretched health system.

“We were already at this absolute crisis point for the country. Added to that is the Grand Chief Michael Somare’s commemorations over the past week, which if ever there was a super-spreading event in the middle of an already big epidemic, clearly that’s it,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Crabb, the chief executive of the Burnet Institute which works on infectious disease programmes in Papua New Guinea, said Australia had made good commitments to purchasing vaccines for Papua New Guinea, but these needed to be delivered faster.

“We need Papua New Guinea’s 5,000 or so health care workers vaccinated in the next week or two,” he said.

He said if health services are overwhelmed by COVID-19 the treatment of malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis would also collapse.

Australia on Friday committed to spending $77 million to distribute vaccines in the Indo Pacific under an initiative by the Quad group, which also includes the United States, Japan and India. This is additional to the $407 million Canberra has pledged for regional vaccine access to nine Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste.

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Tokyo area COVID numbers showing signs of rising, health minister says: Kyodo

FILE PHOTO: A medical worker wearing a protective suit conducts a simulation for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test at the newly opened Narita International Airport PCR Center in Narita, east of Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato/File Photo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Coronavirus cases in the Greater Tokyo area are showing signs of creeping up, Japanese Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said on Friday, according to Kyodo News, raising questions about whether a state of emergency could be lifted on schedule on March 21.

The Japanese government last week extended the emergency declaration for Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures by 14 days, saying COVID-19 cases hadn’t fallen far enough, while new, more infectious coronavirus variants posed a threat.

Restrictions such as shorter business hours for restaurants and bars have helped diminish new cases in Tokyo to roughly a tenth of a peak of 2,520 cases on Jan. 7. But the numbers are far from Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s target of bringing the seven-day average to 70% of the preceding week.

The seven-day average of new cases in Tokyo has been stuck in the mid- to high-200s since late February, while the daily tally exceeded 300 for the second straight day on Thursday.

Tokyo – and Japan – are racing to bring coronavirus cases under control and vaccinations well under way as it prepares to host the Summer Olympics, which start July 23.

Japan’s COVID-19 inoculation campaign began only last month with health workers and has been moving slowly, hampered by a lack of supply. The country has so far recorded about 441,000 coronavirus cases and 8,400 deaths.

Health Minister Tamura said the decision on whether the state of emergency could be lifted in the Tokyo area, which accounts for about 30% of Japan’s population, would ultimately be made after hearing the views of experts, Kyodo reported.

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Singapore 'bubble' business hotel welcomes first guests

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore has launched a travel “bubble” business hotel that allows executives to do face-to-face meetings without a risk of exposure to the coronavirus, in one of the world’s first such facilities.

FILE PHOTO: A view of a meeting room outfitted with airtight glass panels at short-stay facility [email protected], a complex of hotel rooms and meeting halls near the airport which will welcome business “bubble” travellers from March, as part of the city-state’s effort to resume international meetings and conferences amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Singapore February 22, 2021. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

The hotel has meeting rooms outfitted with airtight glass panels to reduce the risk of transmission and even has a special compartment with an ultraviolet light to sanitise documents so they can be shared between participants.

Some of its first guests have come from France, Germany, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.

“Given that we have operations in Singapore, I need to be able to travel to conduct face-to-face meetings with the team based in Singapore, as well as process some paperwork,” said Olivier Leroux, who was among the first guests when he checked in on Monday after his flight from France.

The hotel differs from quarantine hotels in the city-state, where guests are isolated for two weeks and must pass COVID-19 tests before being cleared to leave and join the local community.

Visitors to the bubble hotel are not permitted to enter Singapore and must leave via the airport.

Singapore is expected to host the World Economic Forum in August this year, and the bubble hotel has been floated as way to facilitate business meetings during the event.

Room rate starts at S$384 ($284.70) per night, which is includes meals, two-way airport transfer and COVID-19 tests required during the course of the stay.

Due to strictly enforced curbs and quarantine measures, regional business hub Singapore has kept a tight lid on its coronavirus infections, despite clusters emerging last year in migrant workers’ dormitories.

($1 = 1.3488 Singapore dollars)

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WHO report on Wuhan, China mission due in mid-March: officials

FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured outside a building of the World Health Organization (WHO) during an executive board meeting on update on the coronavirus outbreak, in Geneva, Switzerland, February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) – The findings of a WHO-led mission to Wuhan, China to investigate the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are expected in mid-March, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.

“The current timing is the week of 14-15 March,” Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO expert who led the mission, told a news briefing.

Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergency expert, said. “To clarify, there was never a plan for an interim report, first of all. It was hoped we would get a summary report out…The director-general (Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus) will receive that report from the team in the near future and we will discuss the recommendations.”

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Japan supercomputer shows doubling masks offers little help preventing viral spread

FILE PHOTO: A computer simulation by Japanese scientists at research giant Riken and Kobe University, illustrates the effectiveness of different mask combinations worn to curb the spread of droplets during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, in this presentation slide supplied by the Riken Center for Computational Sciences on March 5, 2021. Red is a loosely fitted non-woven mask. Green is a fitted non-woven mask. Green and brown are a non-woven mask with a polyurethane one on top. The bar graph illustrates the “droplet collection efficiency”. The blue bar shows the results of wearing loose-fit non-woven (surgical) mask. while red shows a fitted non-woven mask, and purple shows a fitted non-woven mask plus polyurethane mask. Riken/Handout via REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese supercomputer simulations showed that wearing two masks gave limited benefit in blocking viral spread compared with one properly fitted mask.

The findings in part contradict recent recommendations from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that two masks were better than one at reducing a person’s exposure to the coronavirus.

Researchers used the Fugaku supercomputer to model the flow of virus particles from people wearing different types and combinations of masks, according to a study released on Thursday by research giant Riken and Kobe University.

Using a single surgical-type mask, made of non-woven material, had 85% effectiveness in blocking particles when worn tightly around the nose and face. Adding a polyurethane mask on top boosted the effectiveness to just 89%.

Wearing two non-woven masks isn’t useful because air resistance builds up and causes leakage around the edges.

“The performance of double masking simply does not add up,” wrote the researchers, led by Makoto Tsubokura.

In general, professional grade N95 masks were the best in protecting against infection, followed by non-woven masks, cloth masks, and finally polyurethane types, the study showed.

The Riken research team previously used the Fugaku supercomputer to model how humidity can affect viral contagion and the infection risks in trains, work spaces, and other environments.

As the COVID-19 epidemic has worn on, scientific consensus has grown that the virus is spread through the air and masks are effective in controlling contagion.

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