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COVID: Brazil, South Africa and UK Variants, Will Vaccines Work?

Michelle Roberts

Health editor, BBC News online

Two more cases of a Covid variant first identified in Brazil have been found in the UK, bringing the total number to 12.

Both – one in the West Midlands and one in Haringey, London – were linked with international travel to Brazil.

What are these new variants?

There are many thousands of different versions, or variants, of Covid circulating.

Apart from the Brazil variant (also known as P.1), concerns focus on a few:

It’s not unexpected that new variants have developed – all viruses mutate as they make copies of themselves to spread and thrive.

Most of these differences are inconsequential. A few can even be harmful to the virus’s survival. But some can make it more infectious or threatening.

Are the new ones more dangerous?

There is no evidence that any of them cause much more serious illness for the vast majority of people who become infected.

As with the original version, the risk is highest for people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions.

For the UK variant there is some research suggesting it may be associated with a 30% higher risk of death. The evidence is not conclusive, however.

Measures such as washing your hands, keeping your distance from other people and wearing a face covering will still help prevent infections. Because the new variants appear to spread more easily it is important to be extra vigilant.

What’s happening to the virus?

The UK, South Africa and Brazil variants could be much more contagious or easy to catch.

All three have undergone changes to their spike protein – the part of the virus which attaches to human cells.

As a result, they seem to be better at infecting cells and spreading.

Experts think the UK or “Kent” strain emerged in September and may be up to 70% more transmissible or infectious. The latest research by Public Health England puts it between 30% and 50%.

The South Africa variant emerged in October, and has more potentially important changes in the spike protein. Experts recently found a small number of cases of the UK variant that have one of these more concerning changes too.

It involves a key mutation – called E484K – that may help the virus evade parts of the immune system, called antibodies, that can fight coronavirus based on experience from prior infection or a vaccine.

The Brazil variant emerged in July and has this E484K mutation too.

What are variants and how do they happen?

The Brazil variant emerged in July and has this E484K mutation too.

Will vaccines still work?

Current vaccines were designed around earlier versions of coronavirus, but scientists believe they should still work, although perhaps not quite as well.

A recent study suggests the Brazilian variant may be resisting antibodies in people who should have some immunity because they have caught and recovered from an earlier version of coronavirus.

Early lab results, however, suggest the Pfizer vaccine can protect against the new variants, although slightly less effectively.

Two new coronavirus vaccines that could be approved soon – one from Novavax and another from Janssen – appear to offer some protection too.

Data from the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine team suggests it protects just as well against the new UK variant. It offers less protection against the South Africa variant – although it should still protect against severe illness.

Early results from Moderna suggest its vaccine is effective against the South Africa variant, although the immune response may not be as strong or long-lasting.

Variants could emerge in the future that are different again.

Even in the worst case scenario, vaccines could be redesigned and tweaked to be a better match – in a matter of weeks or months, if necessary, say experts.

As with flu, where a new shot is given each year to account for any changes in circulating flu viruses, something similar could happen for coronavirus.

What is being done about it?

More variants will emerge.

Scientists around the world are on the look-out and any important ones will be closely studied and monitored.

Experts are updating coronavirus vaccines. The UK Government has announced a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop vaccines against future variants, with a pre-order of 50 million doses.

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COVID Rumors: Tanzania’s President Magufuli Dies at 61

BBC- Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has died aged 61, the country’s vice-president has announced.

He died on Wednesday from heart complications at a hospital in Dar es Salaam, Samia Suluhu Hassan said in an address on state television.

Magufuli had not been seen in public for more than two weeks, and rumours had been circulating about his health.

Opposition politicians said last week that he had contracted Covid-19, but this has not been confirmed.

Magufuli was one of Africa’s most prominent coronavirus sceptics, and called for prayers and herbal-infused steam therapy to counter the virus.

“It is with deep regret that I inform you that today… we lost our brave leader, the president of the Republic of Tanzania, John Pombe Magufuli,” Vice-President Hassan said in the announcement.

She said there would be 14 days of national mourning and flags would fly at half mast.

According to Tanzania’s constitution, Ms Hassan will be sworn in as the new president within 24 hours and should serve the remainder of Magufuli’s five-year term which he began last year.

Magufuli was last seen in public on 27 February, but Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa insisted last week that the president was “healthy and working hard”.

He blamed the rumours of the president’s ill-health on “hateful” Tanzanians living abroad.

But opposition leader Tundu Lissu told the BBC that his sources had told him Magufuli was being treated in hospital for coronavirus in Kenya.

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John Magufuli at a glance

John Pombe Magufuli after being elected president (October 30, 2015)
Magufuli was first elected president in 2015
  • Born in Chato, north-west Tanzania, in 1959
  • Studied chemistry and maths at the University of Dar es Salaam
  • Worked as a chemistry and maths teacher
  • First elected as an MP in 1995
  • Became a cabinet minister in 2000
  • First elected president in 2015
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When Covid-19 arrived in Tanzania, Magufuli called on people to go to churches and mosques to pray. “Coronavirus, which is a devil, cannot survive in the body of Christ… It will burn instantly,” he said.

He declared Tanzania “Covid-19 free” last June, saying the virus had been eradicated by three days of national prayer.

He also mocked the efficacy of masks, expressed doubts about testing, and teased neighbouring countries which imposed health measures to curb the virus.

“Countries in Africa will be coming here to buy food in the years to come… they will be suffering because of shutting down their economy,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

Tanzania has not published details of its coronavirus cases since May, and the government has refused to purchase vaccines.

On Monday, police said they had arrested four people on suspicion of spreading rumours on social media that the president was ill.

“To spread rumours that he’s sick smacks of hate,” Mr Majaliwa said at the time.

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A legacy set for debate

Analysis by Dickens Olewe, BBC News

John Magufuli cultivated an image of a rambunctious action man, a departure from his predecessors’ demure and stately styles.

His interventionist leadership won him fans beyond Tanzania, especially in the East African region where he once inspired the #WhatWouldMagufuliDo Twitter hashtag that was shared by supporters of his no-nonsense approach to fighting corruption.

There will be vigorous debate about his legacy and whether his successor should stay the course or change direction.

But this discussion cannot be divorced from the current trend on the continent, where support for democracy remains strong but most people are increasingly disillusioned by the failure to deliver the promised dividends.

So while a significant number of Africans would prefer an action-driven leader like Magufuli, they equally want leaders who govern honestly and a government that respects them and does not hide information about their president’s health.

Magufuli’s death has been attributed to a long-standing heart condition, but many will still suspect that he succumbed to Covid-19.

It is an irony that the pandemic he so strenuously denied has outlasted him, turning his once-heralded presidency into a cautionary tale for the region and the continent.

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Magufuli was declared president on his 56th birthday in October 2015. He was elected for a second term following a disputed poll last year.

He was hailed for his anti-corruption stance during his time in office, but he was also accused of cracking down on dissent and curtailing certain freedoms.

His critics agree that Magufuli contributed to Tanzania’s development. He invested in large infrastructure projects such as a standard-gauge railway to connect the country with its neighbours, major highways, and a bus system in the commercial hub of Dar es Salaam.

He also increased electricity production, reducing the need for power rationing.

But it is his approach to Covid-19 that many analysts say will define his legacy.

African leaders pay tribute

In Tanzania, people have reacted with grief and disbelief to the news of Magufuli’s death.

One, Joseph Petro, told the BBC he thought Magufuli was a “caring” leader, adding “he was helping people in one way or another”.

“I am really pained. I am personally pained,” he said.

A woman reads a newspaper announcing the death of Tanzania's President John Magufuli in Dar es Salaam, on March 18, 2021.image copyrightAFP

Another, Illuminata Abel, offered similar sentiments: “He was not my relative, but he was someone who listened to people’s problems, and he was down to earth.”

African leaders have also come out to pay tribute.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said: “I have lost a friend, colleague and visionary ally,” and declared a seven-day period of national mourning in Kenya.

Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan called Magufuli a “partner in democracy” and a “patriot who loved his country”.

But Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu told the BBC that Magufuli’s “politics, policies and Covid denialism” had “driven the country towards disaster”.

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Trump: Presidency a Big Financial Loss

Donald Trump’s net worth dropped by about $700m to $2.3bn during his time as president, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit his fortunes hard, with Mr Trump’s office buildings, branded hotels and resorts losing revenue and falling in value.

His fleet of planes and golf courses have also seen drops in their value.

Mr Trump is currently under a criminal investigation into his financial affairs and his family business.

Bloomberg analysed financial documents and other filings from May 2016 and January 2021 to calculate Mr Trump’s wealth before and after he became US president.

Mr Trump’s commercial real estate accounts for about three-quarters of his net worth. The office towers he owns or co-owns have seen big drops in valuations as more people work from home, a trend that could last in the long term.

Bloomberg, which provides financial news and data, estimates a 26% drop in the value of his main commercial property holdings.

He also owns, manages or licenses his name to about a dozen hotels and resorts, plus 19 golf courses.

Although golf has become popular during the pandemic as a socially distanced outdoor sport, Mr Trump’s two courses in Scotland have consistently lost money, filings show.

After the Capitol Hill siege in January, the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) of America ended an agreement to host its 2022 championship tournament at Mr Trump’s New Jersey golf course, saying it would hurt the group’s brand.

media captionTrump describes allegations he avoided taxes as “fake news”

Deutsche Bank, the only bank willing to lend to him after his bankruptcies in the 1990s, also said after the riots that it would not do business with him again.

Mr Trump also owns a fleet of planes that includes a Boeing 757. These planes are decades old and have been marked down in value over the years, according to financial disclosures seen by Bloomberg.

Seven planes were valued at around $59m in 2015 and five were valued at about $6.5m in 2020. The value of Mr Trump’s aircraft has dropped over the years, in part because he has sold some of his fleet.

Criminal investigation

During his presidency, Mr Trump’s finances were regularly in the spotlight and he has been very secretive about how much tax he pays.

Last month the Supreme Court ordered Mr Trump to hand over his tax returns and other financial records to prosecutors in New York.

For months they have been trying to obtain eight years’ worth of Mr Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns.

The investigation was originally started in 2018 to examine the Trump Organization’s role in hush-money payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to two women who said they had had affairs with Mr Trump.

Book deal?

As a former president, Donald Trump can expect to sign some lucrative media deals to recover some of his lost wealth, such as a post-presidential memoir.

Barack and Michelle Obama reportedly got paid about $65m for their memoirs, while Bill Clinton earned a $15m advance for his 2004 book.

Bloomberg says the most obvious way Mr Trump can profit post-presidency is with a news channel or social media platform that would appeal to his 74m voters in the 2020 election.

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Former Brazil Pres. Wants COVID Summit & Vaccine Equity

(CNN) Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is calling on US President Joe Biden to ensure vaccine equity, in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

Speaking from Sao Paulo, Brazil, da Silva said the US has a surplus of vaccines and suggested the excess could be donated to countries in need.

“One suggestion that I would like to make to President Biden through your program is: it’s very important to call a G20 meeting urgently,” da Silva told Amanpour. “It’s important to call the main leaders of the world and put around the table just one thing, one issue. Vaccine, vaccine and vaccine!”

He added, “The responsibility to international leaders is tremendous so I’m asking President Biden to do that because I can’t … I don’t believe in my government. And so, I couldn’t ask for that for Trump, but Biden is a breath for democracy in the world.”

Former Brazilian President on whether he’ll run for election 00:27

In da Silva’s first interview since a Supreme Court justice annulled his 2017 convictions of

corruption and money laundering last week, the former leader also said he would not decline an invitation to run in the country’s presidential election next year.

“When it comes the moment to run for the elections, and if my party and the other allied parties understand that I could be the candidate, and if I’m well and my health with the energy and power that I have today, I can reassure you that I will not deny that invitation, but I don’t want to talk about that. That’s not my main priority. My main priority now is to save this country,” da Silva said.

The South American nation has been setting record daily virus deaths repeatedly in recent days as another brutal wave of Covid-19 sweeps the country. The resurgence has overwhelmed medics fighting on the pandemic’s frontline with an increasing number of hospitals across the country reaching capacity.

On Tuesday, Brazilian Health Ministry research institution Oswaldo Cruz Foundation called the current emergency in the country “the greatest health and hospital collapse in the history of Brazil.”

Da Silva, 75, was convicted on corruption and money laundering charges three years ago stemming from a wide-ranging investigation into the state-run oil company Petrobras, dubbed “Operation Car Wash.”

But in a surprise move last Monday, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge annulled his convictions and ordered that the cases be processed again at the Federal Court of Brasilia. If the ruling is upheld — and if Lula is not re-convicted before the candidacy filing deadline — he would technically be able to stand for office again and challenge current President Jair Bolsonaro in 2022 .

Political clash on the horizon?

Da Silva, who helped found the left-wing Workers Party, has largely refused to be drawn on running for office, saying last Wednesday that he “doesn’t have time to think about candidacy in 2022.”

However, the former President — better known as Lula — has launched a scathing attack on Bolsonaro, telling Brazilians last week not to “follow any stupid decision by the President and the Minister of Health” and urging people to get vaccinated. He also condemned the current administration’s handling of the pandemic, saying many deaths from the virus “could have been avoided.”

“If we had a president who respected the population, he would have created a crisis committee to guide the Brazilian society on what to do every week,” the ex-president added.

Bolsonaro defended his handling of the healthcare crisis in the face of da Silva’s remarks, telling CNN Brasil last week that his government empowered local officials and arguing that imposing lockdown measures — which he has refused to do — would only “lead the citizen to a situation of poverty.”

Bolsonaro has previously said he hoped Brazil’s Supreme Court would restore da Silva’s convictions, and accused his predecessor of 2022 ambitions. “Former President Lula is now starting his campaign. Because he has nothing good to show and this is the [Workers Party] rule, their campaign is based on criticizing, lying and misinforming,” he said.

While the elections are still 18 months away, Brazil’s coronavirus outbreak will likely play into voter’s sentiments. Bolsonaro’s disapproval ratings reached their highest level to date at 54%, according to the Datafolha polling institute’s latest survey results issued on Wednesday.

Brazil has the second-highest numbers of Covid-19 in the world with 11,603,535 cases and 282,127 coronavirus-related deaths as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Hospitals are swamped with cases across the country. The latest analysis from CNN shows that ICU occupancy rates in 25 out of Brazil’s 26 states plus its federal district are at or above 80%. Of those, 14 states have ICU occupancy rates at or above 90% which puts them at imminent risk of collapse.

On Tuesday, the governor of Brazil’s second most populous state, Minas Gerais, said the health system simply could not support new patients.

“I don’t want Minas Gerais to become a horror movie,” Romeu Zema said in a press conference to announce the implementation of the “purple phase” across the state, the most restrictive of the Minas Gerais plan to handle the pandemic.

“Any new infected (person) can mean one more death because the state does not have the capacity to take in new patients,” said Zema.

Bolsonaro’s crisis management under fire

Since the beginning of Brazil’s vaccination campaign on January 17, the country has administered more than 12.5 million vaccine doses across its population of over 211 million. More than 9 million people have received at least one dose while just over 3 million people have been given a second dose, according to the latest data from the country’s health ministry.

As the country’s coronavirus spread outpaces its vaccination rollout, criticism is mounting. According to the same Datafolha institute’s poll, which interviewed 2,023 people by telephone on March 15 and 16, 54% of Brazilians found Bolsonaro´s performance bad or awful — up from 48% in late January.

The poll report also said 43% of Brazilians blame Bolsonaro while 20% blame their state governors for the current state of the pandemic in Brazil.

Regarding Bolsonaro´s presidency, 44% of those polled think it is bad or awful, four points higher than in the last poll, and the highest since he took office in January of 2019. Thirty percent of the respondents judge Bolsonaro´s rule as good or great and another 26% see it as regular.

Bolsonaro this week appointed a new health minister — the fourth in a year — as ICU and mortality rates skyrocketed. The new minister, cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga, replaces army general Eduardo Pazuello, but there is little sign of any change in the administration’s approach to the crisis.

On Tuesday, Queiroga in an interview with CNN Brasil echoed the President in saying that lockdowns only apply in “extreme situations” and would not be imposed by the federal government.

Journalists Rodrigo Pedroso and Marcia Reverdosa contributed to this report from Sao Paulo, Brazil. CNN’s Caitlin Hu also contributed from New York, Matt Rivers from Rio De Janeiro and Vasco Cotovio from London. CNN’s Lauren Said-Moorhouse wrote from London

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Haiti: Violent Insurrection by Police, Stations Burn, Prisoners Freed

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Masked officers who said they belonged to a disgruntled sector of the Haitian police force known as Fantom 509 stormed several police stations in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, freeing jailed comrades accused of participating in an alleged coup against embattled President Jovenel Moise last month.

The group of officers, along with some civilians, set a police station ablaze and then headed to a local Nissan auto dealership, which was looted and vandalized. Among the officers storming the station were police in uniform with their faces covered to avoid being recognized.

The day began with officers and police academy cadets marching toward police headquarters to demand that the bodies of five officers killed during a raid last week on the Village of God shantytown be recovered from the gang still holding them. The shantytown is run by the 5 Seconds gang.

The ill-fated raid, which took place five days ago, was aimed at arresting gang members but resulted in the death of the five officers and the wounding of several others.

Things heated up in Haiti’s capital Wednesday when disgruntled officers took to the streets demanding the release of their arrested colleagues. They told local media they belonged to Fantom 509.

Political strife in Haiti has deepened as opposition leaders claim Moïse’s five-year term has expired. They had demanded that he step down on Feb. 7. On that day, Moïse announced that authorities had arrested 23 people accused of plotting a coup to kill him and overthrow his government, including a high-ranking police official and a Supreme Court judge favored by the opposition.

Hours after the arrests, the opposition nominated a supposed transitional president that no one has recognized and have organized protests.

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UK: Winter Lockdown Delay Caused 27,000 Deaths, Astra Zenica News, US Testing

 

Guardian (UK)  Delaying the winter lockdown caused up to 27,000 extra deaths in England, the Resolution Foundation thinktank has claimed as it accused the government of a “huge mistake” which should be central to any public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the pandemic.

In an assessment of policy over the last year, it said delaying the start of the latest lockdown until January, despite evidence of fast-rising cases before Christmas, led to around a fifth of all fatalities caused by the virus. It said these could have been avoided if restrictions were put in place quickly enough to prevent the death rate rising from early December.

While it praised the vaccination programme – delivering jabs three times faster than Europe – and financial support for firms and workers which has included £6,700 for every household on average, it said mistakes on lockdowns were repeated “three tragic times”. It added that allowing extra deaths did not limit economic impacts, but rather increased them, because it only precipitated longer and more onerous lockdowns.

“Going timidly and late on lockdowns has been a disaster – causing many thousands of avoidable deaths,” said Mike Brewer, chief economist at the foundation. “Furthermore, delays to restrictions have meant them needing to be tougher and longer-lasting than in other countries, thereby worsening the economic damage.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has touched everyone, but lower-income families have borne the brunt of the crisis in terms of their lives and livelihoods. This shouldn’t be forgotten as we look to rebuild post-pandemic Britain.”

The report details how when Italy announced a national lockdown on 9 March 2020, Boris Johnson waited two weeks before doing the same in the UK. In September after cases started rising again and the government’s scientific advisers urged a circuit breaker lockdown, the government did not introduce an England-wide lockdown for over five weeks and this winter “the pattern of letting the caseload surge before acting” was repeated.

“Christmas was ‘semi-cancelled’, with reduced or no inter-household contact allowed, only on 19 December,” the foundation said. “And, despite still-surging numbers, a full return to national lockdown was not announced until 4 January, by which point we were seeing over 50,000 cases a day across the UK.”

Labour calls for full Covid public inquiry starting in June

 

Read more

Economic policy was far more successful, the thinktank said.

Crisis-related spending totalling £340bn has meant that “the worst recession for 300 years has seen the smallest rise in unemployment of any recession in living memory”.

It added: “Amazingly, household income has been broadly similar in 2020 to its 2019 level in aggregate, despite GDP falling by almost 10%.”

However it said the most “glaring failure of economic policy” was on sick pay, which still means 2 million low-earners receive only £96 a week if they are sick. This meant the incomes of people being asked to stay at home to save lives were not protected, which undermined the stay at home message, limited the effectiveness of the test-and-trace system and increased infections.

Downing Street has been approached for comment.

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Biden administration invests $10B in school COVID-19 testing program

The Biden administration is investing $10 billion to ramp up COVID-19 testing in schools in an effort to increase testing across the country and help schools reopen for in-person learning.

The funding comes from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and will be distributed to states and certain cities next month by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) as part of a strategy to help get schools open in the remaining months of this school year.

The CDC and state and local health departments will provide technical assistance to states and schools setting up and implementing these programs.

The money will be used to provide diagnostic tests to symptomatic teachers, staff and students, as well as “serial screening” for those who don’t have symptoms but might have been exposed to an infectious person. The idea behind serial screening testing is to help schools identify asymptomatic people who may be contagious so that prompt action can be taken to prevent transmission

Backstory: Biden has put a major focus on reopening schools this year. He urged states to prioritize teachers for vaccinations and school staff to get at least one shot by the end of March.

Questions raised: But the guidance from CDC about reopening schools does not say testing or screening is a priority. CDC says schools should offer referrals to diagnostic testing for symptomatic students and staff at all levels of community spread, but there’s not a whole lot of data showing the benefits of screening. CDC recommends it as a complementary strategy to other mitigation measures.

What does it mean? With some teachers’ unions still resisting in-person learning even after being prioritized for vaccinations, it’s not clear these extra steps will help.

CDC addresses vulnerable communities 

Included in the funding announcement for schools was a $2.25 billion initiative to address health equity issues. The grant, funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will expand health services to help reduce COVID-19 health disparities.

CDC said the funding is the agency’s largest investment to date to support communities affected by COVID-19-related health disparities.

The two year grants will go to 108 public health departments for bolstered COVID-19 testing and contact tracing capabilities in underserved communities and populations, including racial and ethnic minority groups and people living in rural areas.

“Everyone in America should have equal opportunity to be as healthy as possible,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “This investment will be monumental in anchoring equity at the center of our nation’s COVID-19 response—and is a key step forward in bringing resources and focus to health inequities that have for far too long persisted in our country.”

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WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine benefits outweigh risk

The latest development in the overseas AstraZeneca saga: The World Health Organization on Wednesday recommended that nations continue using the vaccine against the coronavirus created by Oxford University and the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, after some European countries halted its use over safety concerns. The vaccine is not currently approved for use in the U.S.

In a statement, the WHO said its Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety was assessing safety data, and that it was staying in touch with the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s version of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Backstory: About a dozen nations, mostly in Europe, have paused their use of AstraZeneca vaccines after a few people who received the shot developed dangerous blood clots.

However: The WHO said blood clots are common, and that vaccination campaigns should continue.

“Vaccination against Covid-19 will not reduce illness or deaths from other causes. Thromboembolic events are known to occur frequently. Venous thromboembolism is the third most common cardiovascular disease globally,” the agency said. “At this time, WHO considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue.”

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An ominous trend: German COVID-19 cases rise amid AstraZeneca vaccine suspension

Coronavirus infections are on the rise in Germany as the country has joined more than a dozen European nations in suspending the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine over concerns of blood clots.

The Robert Koch Institut, Germany’s center for infectious diseases, on Tuesday reported about 83.7 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, a jump from 68 just one week prior. The institute said that this number could reach 200 by mid-April.

Possible third wave: Dirk Brockmann, a Robert Koch Institut epidemiologist, told Germany’s ARD television that the spike in cases indicates a third wave of COVID-19 in the country that was initially praised for its early response to the pandemic.

Brockmann specifically attributed the increase to the government’s easing of nationwide safety restrictions even as a new more transmissible variant has spread throughout the country.

Experts warn that the increased rate of infection, as well as the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine, could delay the country’s progress toward reaching herd immunity.

FDA official: US AstraZeneca stockpile not in danger of expiring

While Europe simultaneously wrestles with national vaccine suspensions and AstraZeneca’s own delivery shortages, the US is still sitting on a pile of tens of millions of doses. They aren’t going anywhere, and a top health official Wednesday said they’re not in danger of expiring.

“I do not believe we are at risk of throwing this out at any time in the near future,” Peter Marks, the director of the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine center, told a House panel.

The federal government preordered 300 million doses of the vaccine under the Trump administration, but issues with clinical trials have held up its authorization and the FDA is still waiting on additional data.

Officials have said the stockpile is intended to make it easier to quickly distribute the vaccine across the country if the company receives FDA clearance in the coming weeks.

 

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Grenada: More Than 8,000 Residents Vaccinated in Month

One month after commencing the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, the Ministry of Health said that over 8,000 people in Grenada have been inoculated.

The country’s goal is to have 60% of the 112,000 population be vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine by June/July 2021.

“To date, we have recorded 8,606 people who received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine,” said Health Minister Nickolas Steele who was among the first policymakers to be inoculated with the vaccine. Steele is scheduled to receive his second dose by the end of the month.

At present, the vaccine is available at health centres and other sites set up at strategic locations that are deemed as easily accessible for citizens. “Some days are busier than others, but there is a constant flow of citizens at the vaccination sites,” Steele disclosed.

Steele has, however, expressed disappointment with the number of healthcare workers who are either delaying or refusing to be vaccinated, while at the same time administering the vaccine to those who are choosing to obtain the added protection.

“I think that is unacceptable. They are the ones that have the information, know the benefits of vaccination, have access to all of the proper information if they so choose, so they can make an informed decision as opposed to an emotional decision,” Steele said. “It is worrying that healthcare providers interacting with Covid-19 positive cases or elderly citizens would not want the added protection for them and those in their care…I cannot contemplate how someone, who is on the frontline would contemplate not being vaccinated.”

Scientific research and review have concluded that the vaccine does not stop transmission, but it reduces the possibility of developing severe Covid-19 infection, especially for those with underlying medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Grenada is scheduled to receive 45,600 vaccines through the COVAX facility as well as receive thousands of free vaccines from the Government of India. The Indian Government has donated 500,000 vaccines for sharing among Caricom members.

Grenada, as of March 15, 2021, recorded 154 Covid-19 cases since the first confirmation were announced on 22 March 2020. Only 2 according to the island’s dashboard are currently classified as active. The 2 active cases, both in self-isolation, are incoming passengers who were each on commercial flights from the United States and Jamaica respectively.

CMC

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Haiti: Moise Wants UN Help in Keeping Order

Haiti President Jovenel  Moise has asked UN Secretary-General António Guterres for assistance in his nation’s fight against terrorism and lawlessness.

This came after his appeal to the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, Mr. Luis Almagro for technical support in the same fight.

“This Tuesday, March 16, I had an interview with UN Secretary-General António Guterres. I asked the UN for technical and logistical support for the PNH, in order to combat banditry in Haiti and strengthen the poverty reduction program.

“During the said meeting, the UN Secretary General António Guterres and I discussed the issue of the inter-Haitian national dialogue. I remain convinced that through this dialogue we will manage to resolve the current crisis and together build a more just, united and prosperous Haiti,” Moïse said.

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US: 8 Dead in Shootings at 3 Atlanta Massage Parlors

A series of shootings at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area have left eight people dead, the majority of them women of Asian descent, leading to fears the killer had a racial motive.

A 21-year-old man, Robert Aaron Long, is a suspect in the shootings, and was taken into custody in south-west Georgia about 150 miles (240km) from the city after his car was intercepted by police after a manhunt.

The killings occurred amid a rising number of attacks on Asian Americans across the US since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Six of those killed were Asian while two were white.

“It appears that they may be Asian,” Atlanta’s police chief, Rodney Bryant, said, with South Korea’s foreign ministry adding in statement on Wednesday that its diplomats in Atlanta had confirmed from police that four of the victims who died were women of Korean descent.

The shootings – all believed to have been carried out by a single gunman – began at about 5pm, when five people were shot at Youngs Asian Massage Parlor in a strip mall near a rural area in Acworth, Cherokee County, about 30 miles (50km) north of Atlanta. According to the local county sheriff’s office spokesman, Jay Baker, two people died at the scene and three were transported to a hospital, where two of them also died.

The next shooting took place at 5.50pm when police in the Buckhead neighbourhood of Atlanta, responding to a call of a robbery, found three women dead from apparent gunshot wounds at Gold Spa.

While they were at that scene, they learned of a call reporting shots fired at another spa across the street, Aromatherapy Spa, and found a woman who appeared to have been shot dead inside.

The suspect’s car was caught on camera in the Acworth shooting, seen pulling up to the business at about 4.50pm, minutes before the attack. Baker said the suspect was taken into custody in Crisp County.

Police said video footage also showed the suspect’s vehicle in the area of the Atlanta spas at about the time of those attacks as well. That, as well as other video evidence, “suggests it is extremely likely our suspect is the same as Cherokee County’s, who is in custody”, Atlanta police said in a statement.

The FBI spokesperson Kevin Rowson said the agency was assisting Atlanta and Cherokee County authorities in the investigation.

Robert Aaron Long
Robert Aaron Long, 21, was taken into custody ‘without incident’. Photograph: Crisp County Sheriff’S Office/Reuters

Long was arrested after state troopers performed a pursuit intervention technique, a move “which caused the vehicle to spin out of control”, Hancock said. Long was then taken into custody “without incident”.

“Our entire family is praying for the victims of these horrific acts of violence,” Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, said on Tuesday evening on Twitter. “Once again we see that hate is deadly,” Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia tweeted.

The Stop AAPI Hate group issued a statement saying that many in the Asian American community had felt targeted over the past year.

“The reported shootings of multiple Asian American women today in Atlanta is an unspeakable tragedy – for the families of the victims first and foremost, but also for the Asian American community, which has been reeling from high levels of racist attacks over the course of the past year,” it said.

“This latest attack will only exacerbate the fear and pain that the Asian American community continues to endure.”

On Tuesday evening, Long’s Facebook page appeared to have been removed from the site. A Facebook video, first reported by the Daily Beast, featuring Long at his local church, the Crabapple First Baptist church, had also been removed.

According to the Daily Beast, the 2018 video showed Long talking about his journey towards baptism. “As many of you may remember, when I was eight years old I thought I was becoming a Christian, and got baptized during that time. And I remember a lot of the reason for that is a lot of my friends in my Sunday school class were doing that,” Long is quoted as saying.

On Friday evening police released a booking photo of Long dressed in an anti-suicide smock.

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Resorts Promise Free Stays, Private Flights to Covid-Wary Guests

Chadner Navarro, Bloomberg News

(Bloomberg) — On Jan. 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a new requirement that air travelers arriving in the U.S. from international destinations produce a negative PCR test or a medical letter stating they are free of Covid-19 following an infection.

But what happens if you test positive while on vacation?

The U.S. government won’t allow you onto a commercial flight until you’ve fully recovered, so hoteliers across the Caribbean are stepping in with an attractive insurance policy: free rooms. It’s a bid to salvage the business they’ve rebuilt since reopening borders in summer and fall 2020.

Provided that you’re asymptomatic and not in need of medical attention, they say, you’re welcome to self-isolate on their dime until you’re permitted to go home.

At Ladera, a lush, eco-friendly, all-inclusive in Saint Lucia, a two-week quarantine could translate into $12,600 of complimentary room nights, during which you’d bunker down in a villa with a plunge pool. Within the stately sanctuary of Rosewood Baha Mar, which reopened in Nassau, the Bahamas, on March 4, you might be confined to a $1,565-per-night suite—costing the hotel nearly $22,000, before you factor in also-covered (and mandatory) room service orders from the in-room dining menu.

It’s a steep financial risk should there be an outbreak on a property. But it’s a calculated one aimed at recapturing business from travelers who are more afraid of getting stuck than of getting sick.

A Policy With Precedent

When the Maldives reopened its borders in July, one of its top resorts, Soneva Jani, offered to comp a two-week quarantine for guests who get infected during their Indian Ocean holiday. The hotel’s medical team has been trained to care for patients with either asymptomatic or mild cases; a speedboat whisks anyone requiring more critical care to a hospital on a neighboring island.

“We remind guests to ensure that they organize appropriate travel insurance ahead of their visit,” the hotel’s website says.

At the time, the idea was revolutionary. If you’ve gotten Covid, where better to ride it out than in a $2,300-a-night overwater bungalow with staff on-hand to provide alfresco movie screenings and special meals on your patio.

Now hotels in the Caribbean and Mexico are following suit with nearly identical policies.

Nobu Hotel Los Cabos not only will arrange complimentary pre-flight Covid tests for guests who booked at least a three-day stay, but should they come up positive—and remain asymptomatic—the hotel will allow them to quarantine for free in one of its minimalist, desert-inspired rooms for up to 14 days. Nobu includes the cost of medical-assistance insurance in its nightly rates, so if the illness progresses, guests will have coverage for local hospitalization.

Among other seaside retreats offering free quarantine stays: the brand-new resort Palmaïa, the House of AïA in Playa del Carmen, Mexico; Eden Roc Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic; and all of the 15 Karisma Hotels & Resorts in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica.

Ladera, in Saint Lucia, has set aside three of its 37 cliffside suites for anyone who may need to isolate. Meals from the resort’s restaurant, plus non-alcoholic beverages, are included in the tropical quarantine.

Upping the Ante

On Feb. 22, the three hotels comprising the Baha Mar resort in the Bahamas collectively upped the ante with their Travel with Confidence program. If you test positive for Covid-19 ahead of your return to the U.S., you’ll be upgraded to a suite with a $150 daily food and beverage credit per person to put towards grilled rib-eyes, fish tacos, and sorbet mimosas.

The Bahamas already requires all incoming travelers to have insurance that will cover potential quarantine expenses, but this separate initiative from Baha Mar means being able to avoid the red tape of insurance claims altogether.

If the additional time away is too much (guests are still confined to a room, after all), or if having access to the U.S. health-care system is more desirable, a special arrangement with the CDC is allowing the resort to charter private flights—also complimentary—for asymptomatic, positive-testing guests to return to the U.S.

The Cost of Confidence

Graeme Davis, Baha Mar’s chief executive officer, expects these offerings to cost no more than 1% of the resort’s current revenue—what he considers a negligible operating expense. His reasoning? After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to administer more than 40,000 tests since reopening in December, Baha Mar’s positivity rate has been just .002%, or two per 1,000.

“Since launching this program, there’s been a significant increase in bookings, both short-term for March and for June and July,” Davis says, adding that advance bookings across the island resort are on pace with pre-pandemic numbers. By comparison, the industry-wide global occupancy average has hovered from 30% to 40%, according to industry analyst STR.

According to Ladera’s general manager, Christian Gandara, the hotel has not yet had a guest test positive. So far, the policy has made money in increased bookings. Soneva, meanwhile, has quarantined about a dozen guests since July—running to an estimated $386,000 in room nights.

Whatever the number, it’s the cost of consumer confidence. Henley Vasquez, CEO and co-founder of Passported, a luxury trip-planning agency that focuses on family travel, says that the major concern among her clients right now isn’t getting sick but getting stuck abroad if they do.

“They want to know what happens if they catch Covid-19 outside the country,” she says. That may be especially true of vaccinated travelers, who run little risk of developing serious illness from the coronavirus but who may still be able to test positive.

As a result, Vasquez explicitly asks hotels about their contingency plans before she books a client, and has found that all luxury properties—whether or not they’re advertising it—have something in place.

“Now that Americans have to get tested before they can go home, a hotel can’t afford not to have a procedure in place,” she says. The difference in policies, she says, boils down to who’s paying for what.

Still, since the provision at many of these properties applies only to those with zero symptoms, travelers must consider the potential risk to themselves, as well as those in the community they’re visiting. Local hospital systems in the region are small and often heavily burdened should symptoms become worse. Even travelers who believe themselves to be immune or who think Covid might be no worse than the flu would be wise to have a Plan B in place—such as “medevac” insurance that would airlift a seriously ill passenger to a hospital of choice.

For Lawrence Norman Tuck, general manager of the Nobu Hotel in Cabo, shouldering the quarantine costs was a no-brainer. The January announcement spooked his clients in a palpable way, leading to last-minute cancellations and a slowdown in new bookings. Offering free quarantine stays, he reasoned, would be the most effective way to stop the bleeding.

A few weeks in, his reasoning has borne out: “Guests tell us that one of the reasons they’ve decided to stay is because of this program,” he says.

Tight border protocols, such as requiring a negative PCR test result and a “health visa” for entry into the Bahamas, has made Baha Mar’s offerings possible, says Davis.

“If I were a resort in Miami Beach, for example, and I wasn’t doing any testing—and there’s no requirement for testing to come in—this Travel With Confidence initiative would not be a good investment.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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