Sri Lanka enters lockdown as Covid overwhelms hospitals

Coronavirus pandemic has killed over 4.4 million people and infected over 210.6 million globally. Here are the coronavirus-related developments for August 20:

A medical official stands next to coffins for bodies of coronavirus disease victims at Judicial Medical Officer's premises in Colombo, Sri Lanka on August 20, 2021.
A medical official stands next to coffins for bodies of coronavirus disease victims at Judicial Medical Officer’s premises in Colombo, Sri Lanka on August 20, 2021. (Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters)

Friday, August 19, 2021

Rajapaksa gives in to calls for lockdown

Sri Lanka has announced a nationwide lockdown on Friday, bowing to intense pressure from medical experts as coronavirus infections overwhelmed hospitals, morgues and crematoriums.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had resisted calls for a lockdown for weeks, agreed to the 10-day closure after dire warnings that hospitals could no longer cope with the inflow of Covid-19 patients.

“Nationwide Lockdown in effect from 10pm today to Monday (30/08),” health minister Keheliya Rambukwella said on Twitter. “All essential services will function as normal. I sincerely request all #lka citizens to adhere to the law and #StayHome.”

The daily death toll hit a record 186 alongside a new high of 3,800 infections on Thursday with no more ICU beds available for virus victims.

Official figures show 6,790 people have died of the virus while 373,165 have been infected.

However, independent health experts have said the actual toll is at least twice as much.

Rambukwella said 10 days ago on August 10 that the country had not reached a “critical stage” and any lockdown would be a “last resort”.

Since then, 1,568 people have died and 40,218 have been infected.

US Covid anxiety rising amid delta surge, poll finds

Anxiety in the United States ove Covid-19 is at its highest level since winter, a new poll shows, as the Delta variant rages, more states and school districts adopt mask and vaccination requirements and the nation’s hospitals once again fill to capacity.

The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research also finds that majorities of American adults want vaccination mandates for those attending movies, sports, concerts and other crowded events; those travelling by aeroplane; and workers in hospitals, restaurants, stores and government offices.

The poll shows that 41 percent are “extremely” or “very” worried about themselves or their family becoming infected with the virus.

That is up from 21 percent in June, and about the same as in January, during the country’s last major surge, when 43 percent were extremely or very worried.

Vietnam to deploy troops, issues stay-home order

Vietnam will deploy troops in Ho Chi Minh City and prohibit residents from leaving their homes, authorities said.

Vietnam’s toughest order yet comes amid a spike in fatalities and infections, despite weeks of lockdown measures in the business hub of 9 million people, the epicentre of the country’s deadliest outbreak.

“We are asking people to stay where you are, not to go outside. Each home, company, factory should be an anti-virus fort,” Pham Duc Hai, deputy head of the city’s coronavirus authority, said on Friday.

The government said it was preparing to mobilise police and military to enforce the lockdown and deliver food supplies to citizens.

Police with loudspeakers were seen driving around residential areas on Friday instructing people to follow protocols and assuring them food supplies would be provided.

The defence ministry plans to send 1,000 military medics and medical equipment over the weekend, according to a military document reviewed by Reuters.

The government also extended restrictions on Friday in the capital Hanoi by a further 15 days, state media reported.

The country recorded over 312,000 cases and 7,150 deaths, with about half of the infections and 80 percent of fatalities in Ho Chi Minh City alone.

India approves three-dose DNA vaccine

India’s drug regulator approved Zydus Cadila’s three-dose DNA vaccine for emergency use in adults and children aged 12 years and above, bringing in the sixth vaccine authorised for use in the country.

The company said it plans to manufacture 100 million to 120 million doses of ZyCoV-D annually and has started to stockpile the vaccine.

The generic drugmaker, listed as Cadila Healthcare Ltd, applied for the authorization of ZyCoV-D on July 1, based on an efficacy rate of 66.6 percent in a late-stage trial of over 28,000 volunteers nationwide.

ZyCoV-D is the world’s first plasmid DNA vaccine against the coronavirus. It uses a section of genetic material from the virus that gives instructions as either DNA or RNA to make the specific protein that the immune system recognises and responds to.

Zydus Cadila’s vaccine, developed in partnership with the Department of Biotechnology, is the second home-grown shot to get emergency authorization in India after Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.

The drugmaker said the shot is administered using a needle-free applicator as opposed to traditional syringes.

South Africa opens jabs to all adults

South Africa has opened eligibility to all adults to step up the volume of inoculations as it battles a surge in the disease driven by the delta variant.

The country on Friday started offering shots to everyone aged 18 and older as the volume of shots given per day has stalled even though vaccines are now more widely available.

Less than 200,000 jabs are being given per day, down from 250,000 earlier this month and significantly lower than the target of 300,000 that the government had hoped to achieve by this time.

In the last 24 hours, South Africa has recorded more than 13,000 new infections, including 317 deaths. Nearly 80,000 people in South Africa have died from the disease in the pandemic, according to official figures but the actual number of deaths is estimated to be nearly thre e times that amount, according to statistics showing the country’s average death rates.

South Africa has so far vaccinated more than 10 million people, of which more than 4.6 million are fully vaccinated.

AstraZeneca hails trial results for Covid treatment

Drug firm AstraZeneca announced positive results from a trial of a treatment for Covid-19 symptoms.

The US-funded drug, made from a combination of two antibodies, was initially developed as a treatment for those who had already been exposed to the disease.

A new trial of 5,197 participants who had not been exposed showed a 77-percent reduced risk of developing symptomatic disease, with no severe cases recorded, Astra said in a statement.

A previous trial of the AZD7442 drug had shown it only reduced the risk of developing symptoms by 33 percent, which it concluded in June was not statistically significant.

The data show that one dose could “quickly and effectively prevent symptomatic Covid-19”, said Myron Levin, principal trial investigator.

“With these exciting results, AZD7442 could be an important tool in our arsenal to help people who may need more than a vaccine to return to their normal lives.”

It is hoped that the drug could be used alongside vaccines for those who need more protection, affording up to 12 months of defence.

Participants in the trial were adults who were poor responders or intolerant to vaccines, or who had increased risk of infection because of their locations or circumstances.

Major Canada banks mandate jabs

Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) will require employees entering their premises to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 from this fall, according to company memos seen by Reuters on Friday.

The moves follow a similar measure announced to staff by Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) on Thursday as companies battle the spread of the coronavirus in their offices.

All TD employees entering its buildings will be required to be vaccinated from November 1 and will be asked to register their vaccination status by September 30, according to a memo from TD’s Chief Human Resources Officer Ken Lalonde.

Additional protocols, including the completion of a learning module about the benefits of vaccination and mandatory rapid testing and a face covering, will be required of staff who are not yet fully vaccinated or have not disclosed their vaccination status.

CIBC will require employees to be vaccinated by October 31 in regions where they can be, including in Canada and the United States, according to an internal blog distributed on Friday.

RBC will also require all employees to be fully vaccinated by October 31 to work in its locations, according to an internal note from Chief Human Resources Officer Helena Gottschling to global employees on Thursday.

Employees, starting in Canada and the United States and followed by other regions where applicable, will be asked to confirm their vaccination status.

Thailand’s cases pass one million mark

Thailand has passed the 1 million mark in coronavirus cases, 97 percent of which were recorded in the past five months, as the country struggles to get on top of one of Asia’s most severe outbreaks.

Authorities reported 19,851 cases and 240 fatalities, taking total confirmed infections past 1 million and deaths to 8,826.

Thailand had kept the outbreak largely under control and enjoyed only partial social restrictions for much of the pandemic until it was hit in April by the virulent Alpha variant, followed later by the Delta variant, at a time when few people were vaccinated.

US probes Moderna vaccine for higher heart inflammation

US health officials are investigating reports that Moderna Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine may be linked to a higher risk of a rare heart condition in younger adults than previously thought, the Washington Post reported, citing people familiar with the review.

The report quoted a source saying it was too early for the regulators to reach a conclusion, and that additional work was needed before any recommendation was made.

Health regulators in June had added a warning to the literature that accompanies the mRNA vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer to flag the rare risk of heart inflammation seen primarily in young males.

However, they said the benefit of the shots in preventing Covid-19 continued to outweigh the risks.

There might be a 2.5 times higher incidence of myocarditis in those who get the Moderna vaccine compared with Pfizer’s vaccine, the Post quoted a source as saying.

UK regulator approves first monoclonal antibody treatment

The UK health regulator has approved Ronapreve, the antibody developed by Roche and Regeneron, to prevent and treat the virus.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said the approval was the first in the UK for a monoclonal antibody treatment for the disease caused by the virus.

South Korea extends social distancing curbs

South Korea has extended its social distancing curbs for two weeks amid a surge in cases, while allowing vaccinated people some latitude, its prime minister said.

The country’s fourth wave has shown few signs of abating six weeks after the toughest Level 4 distancing rules, which include a ban on gatherings of more than two people after 6 p.m. were imposed in the greater Seoul area.

South Korea reported 2,052 new cases 2,001 of which were locally acquired, Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) data showed.

Israeli doctors find severe breakthrough cases

In Israel’s virus wards, doctors are learning which vaccinated patients are most vulnerable to severe illness, amid growing concerns about instances in which the shots provide less protection against the worst forms of the disease.

Around half of the country’s 600 patients presently hospitalised with severe illness have received two doses of the Pfizer Inc shot, a rare occurrence out of 5.4 million fully vaccinated people.

The majority of these patients received two vaccine doses at least five months ago, are over the age of 60 and also have chronic illnesses known to exacerbate a coronavirus infection.

They range from diabetes to heart disease and lung ailments, as well as cancers and inflammatory diseases that are treated with immune-system suppressing drugs, according, doctors, health specialists and officials.

India reports 36,571 new cases

India has reported 36,571 new infections in the last 24 hours, the government said in a statement.

Japan to ramp up tests

Japan plans to dramatically ramp up daily tests, borrowing from anti-contagion measures used in the recent Tokyo Olympics, as it battles its worst wave of infections, driven by the Delta variant.

New infections exceeded 25,000 for the first time, a tally by national broadcaster NHK showed, with the surge mainly among those in their 40s and 50s, most of whom are unvaccinated.

The speed and severity of Japan’s Delta-driven infections are overtaking the strategy of targeted cluster tracing it has favoured over the mass testing used by many nations.

Three more US senators test Covid positive

Three US senators from different political affiliations and different parts of the country have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The lawmakers, who were vaccinated, are among the 71 members of Congress to be diagnosed with Covid-19 since the beginning of last year, according to the nonpartisan group GovTrack.

“I’ve tested positive for a breakthrough case of Covid-19. I feel good but will isolate per docs instructions,” Senator John Hickenlooper, 69, said on Twitter.

“I’m grateful for the vaccine,” the Colorado Democrat added, as he encouraged other people to get the shot.

Republican Senator Roger Wicker, 70, tested positive earlier Thursday “after immediately seeking a test due to mild symptoms,” his office said in a statement.

Wicker is being treated by a doctor in Mississippi, his home southern state with the 10th highest infection rate in the nation.

A third senator, 77-year-old Angus King, was tested Thursday as a precaution after he began experiencing symptoms.

“While I am not feeling great, I’m definitely feeling much better than I would have without the vaccine,” said King, an independent from Maine where the Covid infection rate is relatively low.

Congress is currently on recess, and the Senate comes back into session on September 13.

Last February 67-year-old House Republican Ron Wright, who lived for years with cancer, died two weeks after contracting Covid-19.

Japan action star Sonny Chiba dies from Covid-19 complications

Japanese action star Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba has died in hospital from complications related to Covid-19, public broadcaster NHK said. He was 82.

Chiba a martial artist and imposing actor known for his legendary fight scenes, was best known in the West for his role as sword maker Hattori Hanzo in the “Kill Bill” series of films.

Mexico reports 23,006 new cases, 850 more deaths

Mexican health authorities have reported 23,006 new Covid-19 cases and 850 more deaths, bringing the total number of infections in the country since the pandemic began to 3,175,211 and the total confirmed death toll to 251,319.

Feds seize over 3,000 fake vaccination cards in Anchorage

More than 3,000 fake Covid-19 vaccination cards have been confiscated at cargo freight facilities at the Anchorage airport as they were being shipped from China, officials said.

Officers from US Customs and Border Protection seized the cards in the past week as they arrived in small packages, said Jaime Ruiz, an agency spokesperson.

There were between 135 and 150 packages found in Anchorage, all sent by the same person in China, Ruiz said.

The packages contained small amounts of the fake cards, about 20 or 25 each.

The cards confiscated in Anchorage closely resemble the authentic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention certificates given out by health care workers when US citizens receive their vaccinations, the agency said. However, this shipment had cards that exhibited low-quality printing.

The seizure comes as a cottage industry for counterfeit cards has sprung up online to accommodate people who say they won’t get vaccinated for either personal or religious reasons.

Another 3,600 fake cards were found recently at cargo facilities in Memphis, Tennessee, Ruiz said.

Brazil reports 36,315 new cases and 979 deaths

Brazil has had 36,315 new cases of the novel coronavirus reported in the past 24 hours, and 979 deaths from Covid-19, the health ministry said.

The South American country has now registered 20,494,212 cases since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 572,641, according to ministry data, in the world’s third worst outbreak outside the United States and India and its second-deadliest after the United States.

As vaccination advances, the rolling 7-day average of Covid deaths has fallen to less that one third of the toll of almost 3,000 a day at the peak of the pandemic in April.

Israel to begin Covid booster shots for over 40s

Israelis aged 40 and over will be able to receive coronavirus vaccine booster shots starting this weekend, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Thursday, as the country battles a spike in infections.

Israel was one of the first countries to launch a vaccination drive in mid-December via an agreement with Pfizer to obtain millions of paid vaccine doses in exchange for sharing data on their effectiveness.

The inoculation campaign was hailed as a success story that helped drastically reduce infections in the country of nine million.

But cases have been rising due to the spread of the Delta variant among the unvaccinated and waning immunity in others.

To try and contain the spread, authorities last week began administrating a booster shot to those aged 50 and older, after starting a campaign for over-60s late last month.

Israel has recorded more than 970,000 coronavirus infections since the pandemic started early last year and over 6,700 deaths.

More than 5.4 million people have received two doses of the vaccine, while 1.2 million have had a third jab.

Scientists question evidence behind US Covid-19 booster shot drive

The Biden administration’s plan to provide Covid-19 vaccine boosters is based on concerns that a decrease in the vaccines’ ability to protect against milder infections could also mean people will have less protection against severe illness, a premise that has yet to be proven, scientists said.

US officials, citing data showing waning protection against mild and moderate illness from the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines more than six months after inoculation, on Wednesday said boosters will be made widely available starting on September 20.

The additional dose will be offered to people who received their initial inoculation at least eight months earlier.

Data on so-called “breakthrough” infections in vaccinated people shows that older Americans have so far been the most vulnerable to severe illness.

As of August 9, almost 74 percent of the 8,054 vaccinated people that were hospitalized with Covid-19 were above the age of 65, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 20 percent of those cases ended in deaths.

Based on available data on vaccine protection, it is not clear that younger, healthier people will be at risk.

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