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Delta puts brakes on return to post-COVID normality

YANGON: Volunteers wearing personal protective equipment carry the body of a COVID-19 victim to a cemetery in Hlegu Township yesterday. – AFP

PARIS: Nations across the globe hit new pandemic highs and reimposed COVID-19 restrictions yesterday as the highly contagious Delta variant forced governments to put the brakes on plans to return to normality. The highly transmissible Delta variant, first detected in India, is sweeping the globe as countries race to inoculate their populations to ward off fresh outbreaks and allow for economies and daily life to recover.

The European Union – lambasted early on in the pandemic response for a botched vaccine acquisition program – said yesterday it has delivered enough shots to cover 70 percent of the bloc’s population. “By tomorrow, some 500 million doses will have been distributed to all regions of Europe,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

Supply shortages in South Korea have meant only about 11 percent of the country’s 52 million population is fully vaccinated, according to health authorities. The nation, held up as a model of how to combat the pandemic, reported 1,378 new coronavirus cases yesterday, a third straight record high. From tomorrow, gatherings of more than two people will be banned after 6:00 pm, schools, bars and clubs will be closed.

In Pakistan, where less than eight percent of the population has been vaccinated, the government said only those who had received jabs would be allowed to fly. The country of around 215 million people has largely escaped the worst of the pandemic, with under a million recorded infections and around 23,000 deaths – although cases are on the rise again.

After an “exponential” rise in cases in recent days, officials in the autonomous northeastern Spanish region of Catalan said they had no choice but to reimpose restrictions. Nightclubs will close and a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination will be needed to take part in outdoor activities involving more than 500 people.

Russia also announced yesterday that cases continued to surge and it had a new record number of daily deaths, the fifth since the beginning of the month. The 752 new deaths bring Russia’s total toll to 142,253. The country also recorded 25,082 new infections, meaning there have been more than 5.7 million cases. State statistics agency Rosstat, which defines coronavirus-related deaths more broadly, put the figure at 270,000 by the end of April.

Less than 20 percent of Russians have received a single dose, despite shots of locally developed vaccines being readily available. Despite the rising infections and deaths, 54 percent of a deeply skeptical Russian public don’t plan to get vaccinated, according to a survey by the independent Levada-Center published this week.

While vaccines have been successful in mitigating the worst effects of infections, concerns have been raised about how well some of them will cope with more virulent strains. In Indonesia, which is fighting a ferocious wave of infections, more than a dozen fully inoculated frontline health workers have died, according to the country’s medical association. Authorities said on Friday that medics would be given a third booster jab using the vaccine made by US company Moderna, to provide them extra protection.

The Southeast Asian nation has been depending heavily on China’s Sinovax shots amid the global shortage of alternatives that have been mostly supplied to rich nations. The rapid spread of the Delta variant across Asia, Africa and Latin America is exposing crucial vaccine supply shortages for some of the world’s most poorest and most vulnerable populations.

Senegal, the EU, the United States, several European governments and other partners, signed an accord in Dakar on Friday to finance vaccine production in the West African state. And Cuba approved its home-grown Abdala vaccine for emergency use, the first Latin American coronavirus jab to get the green light and a possible lifeline for a region trying to battle a killer pandemic with modest means.

Pfizer and BioNTech announced they would seek regulatory authorization for a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine. It comes after initial data from an ongoing trial showed a third shot pushed antibody levels five to 10 times higher against the original coronavirus strain and the Beta variant, first found in South Africa, compared to the first two doses alone, according to a statement.

In addition, the companies expect that a third dose will perform similarly well against the highly transmissible Delta strain, which is quickly becoming globally dominant. Out of caution, the companies are also developing a Delta-specific vaccine, the first batch of which has been manufactured at BioNTech’s facility in Mainz, Germany.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said Friday that there was a “likely causal association” between coronavirus vaccines using mRNA technology and “very rare” heart inflammations, but the benefits still outweigh the risks. The UN health body’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS) said that cases of myocarditis – inflammation of the heart muscle – and pericarditis – inflammation of the lining around the heart – had been reported in multiple countries, especially the US.

“The reported cases have typically occurred within days of vaccination, more commonly among younger males and more often following the second dose the of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines,” the committee said in a statement. After reviewing available data, the GACVS judged that “current evidence suggests a likely causal association between myocarditis and the mRNA vaccines”.

The WHO said the European Medical Agency’s pharmacovigilance committee, which tracks medicines’ side effects, had also seen a “plausible causal relationship” in a review of the data. Myocarditis is a rare disease which experts believe is usually triggered by a virus. Most sufferers experience chest pain, and it is often treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and – if needed – additional oxygen.

Students and teachers vaccinated against COVID-19 will not need to wear masks in US classrooms when school resumes in the fall, health authorities said Friday. The new guidance follows the recent federal approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 shot for Americans aged 12 to 15, with hospitalizations and deaths down sharply since January – but cases beginning an upward trajectory due to the surging Delta variant of the coronavirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had announced in May that vaccinated Americans could drop masks, but the health advice for schools was not immediately changed accordingly. “Indoors: Mask use is recommended for people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, and staff,” the nation’s lead federal public health agency announced in its updated guidance. Schools are free to follow the guidelines or ignore them, the CDC added. – AFP


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