The Latest: Delta variant exploits low global vaccine rates
NEW YORK — The latest alarming coronavirus variant is exploiting low global vaccination rates and a rush to ease pandemic restrictions.
That’s adding new urgency to the drive to get more shots in arms and slow its supercharged spread. The vaccines most used in Western countries still appear to offer strong protection against the highly contagious delta variant. The mutation was first identified in India and now spreading in more than 90 other countries.
The World Health Organization warned this week that the trifecta of easier-to-spread strains, insufficiently immunized populations and a drop in mask use and other public health measures will delay the end of the pandemic.
The delta variant is positioned to take full advantage of those chinks in any country’s armor.
“Widespread vaccination remains even more critical, because the virus that we have circulating is in fact more transmissible than the original wild type,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Parts of Europe have reinstated travel quarantines, several Australian cities are in outbreak-sparked lockdowns — and just as Japan readies for the Tokyo Olympics, some visiting athletes are infected.
MORE ON THE PANDEMIC
— WHO decision challenges West to recognize Chinese vaccines
— Thailand opens resort island of Phuket to vaccinated foreigners in ambitious plan to revive devastated tourism industry
— Biden well short on goal of delivering 80 million vaccine doses to world as White House cites local hurdles
— Indonesia vaccinates thousands in one-day event as it escalates its virus fight amid surge that’s filling hospitals
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
MOSCOW — Russian health authorities have launched booster coronavirus shots for those who had been immunized more than six months ago, amid a surge in new infections and deaths.
Moscow health authorities on Thursday started offering booster shots with the domestically produced, two-shot Sputnik V vaccine and its one-shot Sputnik Light version. Other Russian regions are also starting to offer booster shots.
The move comes as Russia has faced a surge in infections, with more than 20,000 new COVID-19 infections daily since last Thursday. That’s more than double the average in early June.
It recorded 672 deaths Thursday, the highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Thousands of Indonesians have lined up at a sports stadium to receive a COVID-19 dose in a one-day, mass vaccination event.
At the stadium in Bekasi, outside Jakarta, local authorities aimed to vaccine 25,000 people. It’s part of a push to dramatically scale up the nation’s virus fight as hospitals fill with sick patients.
The event is part of an effort to administer 1 million doses per day in July and 2 million in August.
Meanwhile, President Joko Widodo announced new community restrictions and the mobilization of the National Police and other resources to combat the surging infections. The efforts follow a warning this week from the Red Cross that Indonesia is “on the edge of a COVID-19 catastrophe” and urgently needs to increase medical care, testing and vaccinations.
HELSINKI — Estonia’s prime minister says an operational failure at a cold storage warehouse containing tens of thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses last week caused damage worth almost 3 million euros ($3.6 million) to the Baltic nation.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas says some 250,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine, including vaccine for minors, are unusable.
Kallas says “claims for damages have been started from both the insurance company and (cold storage) equipment suppliers,” adding an independent external audit will be conducted.
According to Estonian media, the cold storage’s alarm system failed to report a major temperature change for several hours during the Midsummer bank holidays last week. The issue was noted only as a member of the staff entered the storage. Among others, a substantial amount of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine doses became unusable.
Kallas says Estonia’s authorities will organize 24-hour physical surveillance of cold storage containing vaccines.
A nation of 1.3 million, Estonia has vaccinated 51.3% of its adult population with at least one dose.
BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia’s health authorities say no one has died from the coronavirus in the past 24 hours for the first time in nine months.
Authorities say there’s been 81 new infections in the past day, among the lowest recently registered new cases.
The drop in infections has sparked easing of some measures and led to widespread relaxation among the people who have been gathering in full bars and night clubs, as well as wedding parties and other events.
The Serbian government’s health ministry says the more contagious delta variant of the virus has been registered in the country in two younger people who had been abroad. Doctors have warned people to remain vigilant.
Serbia has fully vaccinated around 37% of the population of 7 million. The nation has mostly used China’s Sinopharm vaccines, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Russia’s Sputnik V.
More than 7,000 people have died of the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.
GENEVA — The World Health Organization says any coronavirus vaccines it has authorized for emergency use should be recognized by countries when they open their borders.
The move could challenge Western countries to broaden their acceptance of two Chinese vaccines, which the U.N. health agency has licensed but most European and North American countries have not.
In addition to vaccines authorized by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, WHO has also given the green light to two Chinese vaccines made by Sinovac and Sinopharm.
In its aim to restore travel across Europe, the European Union said in May that it would only recognize people as vaccinated if they had received shots licensed by the European Medicines Agency, which doesn’t include the Chinese vaccines. However, it’s up to individual countries if they wish to allow entry to people who have received other vaccines, including Russia’s Sputnik V.
Although Western countries have largely relied on vaccines made in the U.S. and Europe, such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca, many developing countries have used the Chinese-made shots. This year, the head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged the effectiveness of its home-grown shots was low and numerous countries that have used them extensively, including the Seychelles and Bahrain, have seen COVID-19 surges even with relatively high levels of immunization.
NAIROBI, Kenya — The African Union special envoy tasked with leading efforts to procure COVID-19 vaccines for the continent is blasting Europe as Africa struggles amid a crushing third wave of infections.
Strive Masiyiwa says “not one dose, not one vial, has left a European factory for Africa.”
Masiyiwa also took aim Thursday at the global COVAX effort to distribute vaccines to low-and middle-income countries, accusing COVAX of withholding crucial information including that key donors had not met funding pledges.
The African continent of 1.3 billion people is now in the grip of a third wave of infections the Africa CDC calls “extremely aggressive.”
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia will impose a curfew in most areas in Selangor and parts of Kuala Lumpur, where coronavirus cases remain high despite a national lockdown since June 1.
Defense Minister Ismail Sabri says the decision was made given the dense population and rising infectivity rate in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, as well as the spread of more aggressive Covid-19 variants. Malaysia reported 6,988 new infections on Thursday, with Selangor and Kuala Lumpur accounting for nearly 60%.
Under the Enhance Movement Control Order starting Saturday for two weeks, Ismail says no one can leave home. He says only one person from a household can go out to buy groceries within a 10-kilometer radius, with a curfew after 8 p.m.
He says only essential services and factories producing food, medicines and masks can operate. Ismail says vaccinations will be intensified in the affected areas.
Daily cases nationwide have come down from a high of more than 9,000 at the end of May. However, they’ve climbed this week to above 6,000. Less than 10% of the nation’s 33 million people have been vaccinated.
BERLIN — A top German official says it was “absolutely irresponsible” of European soccer’s governing body to allow some 40,000 fans to watch England’s European Championship match against Germany at London’s Wembley Stadium.
The crowd for Tuesday’s second-round match, which England won 2-0, was the biggest in Britain since the pandemic began in March 2020. The event came as the more contagious delta variant is fueling a sharp rise in new COVID-19 cases in the U.K.
Asked about the capacity decision on Thursday, and about the prospect of more fans attending the final at Wembley, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer replied: “I think this UEFA position is absolutely irresponsible.”
Seehofer, who is also responsible for sports, added: “I have the suspicion that this is about commerce again, and commerce must not outshine the protection of the population against infection.”
He appealed to UEFA “not to push this off on local health authorities — a sports association should say clearly, ’we don’t want it this way and we’re reducing the numbers of spectators.”
GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization’s Europe office says a 10-week drop in COVID-19 cases in the region has ended, and warned that a new wave could loom unless people “remain disciplined” and more people get vaccinated.
Dr. Hans Kluge on Thursday cited a 10% increase in infection numbers over the last week because of “increased mixing, travel, gatherings, and easing of social restrictions.” He cautioned that the highly transmissible delta variant is on track to be the dominant one by August in the 53-country region.
Some 63 percent of people in the region haven’t had a first vaccine jab, he said.
“The three conditions for a new wave of excess hospitalizations and deaths before the autumn are therefore in place: New variants, deficit in vaccine uptake, increased social mixing,” he told reporters from Copenhagen, Denmark.
“There will be a new wave in the WHO European region unless we remain disciplined, and even more so when there is much less rules in place to follow, and unless we all take the vaccine without hesitating when it is our turn,” he added.
Kluge said people who want to travel and gather over the summer should continue “life-saving reflexes” like wearing masks. WHO Europe says people should make sure they get both doses of double-jab vaccines for maximum effectiveness.
Dr. Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer at WHO Europe, warned governments not to lift social distancing measures amid increased transmission. She said any such lifting should be accompanied by stronger public-health measures; sharing and sequencing information on new variants; testing; and reinforcing contact tracing.
WARSAW, Poland — In a move to boost uptake in coronavirus vaccinations, Poland launched a nationwide lottery Thursday for fully inoculated adults in which they can win money or prizes that include Toyota cars.
The lottery runs through September, a time when the Health Ministry says Poland can expect a fourth wave of infections, mainly due to the social mixing during vacation and the delta variant of the coronavirus.
Those who register will be eligible for prizes ranging from 200 zlotys ($52; 44 euros) in daily draws, to 100,000 zlotys ($26,000; euro 22,000) or Toyota Corolla cars in monthly draws. The top prizes are two Toyota C-HR cars and two wins of 1 million zlotys ( $263,000; 221,000 euros)
Some 12.3 million people in the nation of 38 million have been fully vaccinated, and another 17 million have received the first shot. There have been some 2.9 million registered COVID-19 infections, of which 75,000 have led to deaths.