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Australia set for 10th day of no local COVID-19 cases
27 January 2021, 4:47 AM

Australia is on track for a 10th day of no new local COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, allowing its most populous state of New South Wales (NSW) to relax coronavirus restrictions after controlling a fast-spreading cluster.

NSW has recorded no local cases for 10 days after low single digit numbers earlier in January. Victoria state, which is hosting the Australia Open tennis tournament, has gone three weeks without a local case.

Other states and territories which have mostly been COVID-free, some for months, will report daily case numbers later on Wednesday, but are expected to report zero local infections.

Australia’s success in curbing small outbreaks, with a total 22 000 local cases since March 2020 and 909 deaths, comes at a time when global coronavirus cases are edging towards 100 million with the death toll surpassing 2 million.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklien announced coronavirus restrictions would be eased from Friday, including rules around mask wearing and allowing more people in house parties, weddings, funerals and places of worship.

The restrictions had kicked in late last year to successfully curb virus clusters in Sydney’s northern beaches and western suburbs. The outbreaks saw other states and territories close borders or restrict travel from NSW.

Berejiklien hinted that restrictions would be eased further in two weeks if there were no further cases, adding she was “striking the right balance” between economic growth and virus control.

“They both go hand in hand, you can’t have an open economy unless you make sure you get the health settings right,” she said, while urging Sydneysiders to come out and get tested for COVID-19 even for the “mildest of symptoms”.

Despite its relative success in handling the pandemic, Australia’s international borders will likely remain shut to non-citizens this year although there may be exclusive travel arrangements called “bubbles” with its South Pacific neighbours.

Australia had a one-way “travel bubble” with New Zealand where those arriving from the latter didn’t have to quarantine, but that arrangement was suspended for 72 hours on Monday after a highly infectious coronavirus strain was found in New Zealand.

New Zealand reported a third day of zero cases on Wednesday, allaying fears of a fresh outbreak.

China reports lowest daily rise in COVID-19 cases in more than 2 weeks
27 January 2021, 3:31 AM

China recorded its lowest daily increase in COVID-19 cases in more than two weeks, official data showed on Wednesday, suggesting aggressive measures implemented to curb a resurgence of the disease are working.

The National Health Commission said 75 new confirmed cases were reported on January 26, down from 82 a day earlier, and the lowest single-day rise since January 11.

Fifty-five of the new cases were local transmission, with the remaining 20 classified as imported cases.

More than half the locally transmitted cases were reported in the northeastern Heilongjiang province.

Fourteen cases were reported in neighbouring Jilin province, seven in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, and four in the capital itself.

Authorities across the country have rolled out measures including home quarantine, travel curbs and mass testing in a bid to contain the disease ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday in February, when hundreds of millions of people usually travel.

Government officials have repeatedly urged people to refrain from taking unnecessary trips and stay put during the holiday break. Those who press on with their trips must present a negative COVID-19 nucleic acid test result taken seven days before returning home.

New asymptomatic cases, which China does not classify as confirmed cases, rose to 61 from 57 a day earlier.

The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Mainland China now stands at 89 272.

The death toll remains at 4 636.

 

Dry ice, containers and overworked doctors: the hurdles for Japan’s vaccine roll-out
27 January 2021, 3:15 AM

Japan’s vaccination roll-out faces logistical hurdles that could further delay the slow-moving campaign, experts and officials say, complicating plans to deliver widescale coronavirus inoculations in time for the Olympics.

Already the last major industrial country to start mass vaccinations, Japan is likely to be hampered on the ground by a lack of containers and dry ice and difficulties in recruiting medical staff, more than a dozen people involved in the inoculation drive told Reuters.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said vaccines are critical to holding a successful Olympics after last year’s delay. The first shots for medical workers are planned at the end of February, leaving just 145 days until the start of the Games on July 23.

Japan will need to deliver about 870 000 injections a day to inoculate half its population by then, with each person needing two shots of the vaccine.

“The government’s plan puts a big burden on the individual municipalities in giving out the vaccines,” said Koji Wada, an adviser on the government’s COVID-19 response. “The big metropolitan areas like Tokyo may have the infrastructure to roll out the vaccinations smoothly, but more rural areas… could have more difficulty.”

Companies that specialise in moving medicines say there may not be enough specialised containers to transport the Pfizer Inc vaccine, which has to be stored at minus 75 degrees Celsius, much colder than standard freezers.

A government source told Reuters that officials did not begin assessing whether there were enough containers or dry ice to pack freezer boxes until late last year.

Japan’s vaccination tsar, Taro Kono, outlined the scale of the challenge last week. The coordination of medical workers, transport, freezer production, needle disposal and dealing with local governments are handled by different ministries, he said on Twitter.

Medical staff, already exhausted from caring for a third, deadly wave of infections, will need to be mobilised to give out shots.

The vaccine is still not approved, although that is widely expected by the middle of next month. Ahead of that, the health ministry on Wednesday carried out a mock inoculation exercise in a college gym in Kawasaki, 27 km south of Tokyo.

Japan has purchased enough Pfizer vaccines to inoculate 72 million people, more than half its population. The government is buying some 20 000 speciality coolers and sourcing massive quantities of dry ice for its transportation.

Japan produces about 350 000 tonnes of dry ice per year, but it’s mostly for food preservation, according to an official with one of the major makers. To transport the vaccine, the government will need either a granular or powder type of ice, which can keep temperatures colder than the standard dry-ice blocks used for food.

“It’s not just a case of being able to switch a part on a machine, the production method (for the ice) is different,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “It would take several months to retool.”

Transport company Nippon Express Co Ltd was involved in discussions to distribute Pfizer’s vaccine, but was depending on the drug-maker to provide special containers, a spokesperson said.

The company is building four specialised warehouses across Japan to store medical products, but those won’t be ready until February and aren’t designed for the super cold needed for Pfizer’s vaccine, he said.

Nihon Freezer Co, which makes industrial refrigerators, is making 2 300 coolers for the government, but without a formal contract until the first vaccines are approved, a company official said.

Those can be plugged in to any 100V outlet, the standard in Japan, although temporary vaccination centres such as schools may need rewiring.

“We have made about half of them and should have the remainder finished by June,” the official said about the freezers, which are manufactured in Denmark. “Finding enough components has been difficult because of the sudden increase in production.”

Medical equipment maker PHC Corp, which has been tapped by the government for ultra-low temperature freezers, said it is operating its main plant round-the-clock.

Once delivered, the vaccines must be administered by already overstretched medical workers. A Kyodo News survey showed about 80% of prefectural governments were concerned about having enough staff to give injections.

Multiple front-line doctors have said they lack manpower to deal with the crisis.

Nurses from the Self-Defense Forces have already been deployed to some pandemic-stricken cities, and could be called on again, a defence official said. The SDF has about 2 000 doctors and nurses qualified to give injections, though all can’t be spared, he said.

Japan has also contracted for hundreds of millions more vaccine doses from multiple overseas makers, but those won’t be mobilised for months.

That could add to doubts about the Olympics, but hurrying along the process would be worse, said Yoshihito Niki, an infectious disease specialist at Showa University Hospital.

“It’s better to move more cautiously and carefully with vaccinations than to make local municipalities rush forward with preparations,” he said.

Dollar retreats as riskier currencies rebound
27 January 2021, 3:02 AM

The US dollar fell across the board as riskier currencies found a firmer footing on Tuesday, a day after worries over vaccine rollouts and the outlook for US fiscal stimulus boosted demand for safe havens.

Mounting coronavirus cases and caution ahead of the US Federal Reserve’s policy meeting this week has dulled appetite for risk, lending support to the dollar against a basket of currencies in recent sessions, but investors were once again nibbling at riskier currencies on Tuesday.

The US Dollar Currency Index was 0.19% lower at 90.173. The index rose as high as 90.614, its strongest since Jan. 20, earlier in the session.

The dollar appeared to be taking its cue from overall risk sentiment in the market, said Michael Brown, senior analyst at payments firm Caxton, in London.

Data on Tuesday showed US consumer confidence rose moderately in January amid lingering concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There is also probably a lack of appetite to be buying the dollar before what’s likely to be another dovish Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting tomorrow,” Brown said.

Few if any changes are expected to the Fed’s policy statement on Wednesday after its two-day meeting and no new economic forecasts are scheduled to be released.

Despite the dollar’s recent rebound from multi-year lows, speculators in the currency market remain extremely bearish on the US currency.

Traders are also keenly watching progress on the US stimulus front after US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats may try to pass much of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion spending package with a majority vote, but it is not clear if they have the numbers to override Republican objections.

The euro was higher on the day, but gains were muted amid early signals that the economy may not rebound as strongly this year as predicted. Germany’s Ifo business climate indicator undershot expectations on Monday and an economic surprise index in Europe is near six-week lows.

On Tuesday, the Australian dollar – seen as a liquid proxy for risk – was 0.48% higher against the dollar; the New Zealand dollar was up 0.65%.

Elsewhere, emerging-market currencies saw an easing of recent selling pressure with the Brazilian real rising more than 1%.

Sterling pulled away from a one-week low against the dollar and also gained ground against the euro as rebounding risk appetite in broader asset markets weakened the US currency.

Portugal urged to seek international help as COVID-19 deaths hit record
27 January 2021, 2:22 AM

Portugal’s government was urged to transfer COVID-19 patients abroad on Tuesday as deaths hit a record high and the oxygen supply system of a large hospital near Lisbon partly failed from overuse.

COVID-19 fatalities in the past 24 hours reached a record 291, bringing the total to 653 878 cases and 11 012 deaths.

It now has world’s the highest seven-day average of cases and deaths per million people, according to ourworldindata.org.

A hospital in the Amadora municipality had to transfer 48 of its patients to other health units in the capital late on Tuesday as oxygen pressure was not enough for the large number of patients, it said in a statement.

“There was a need to relieve oxygen consumption so patients were transferred,” said the hospital, which has nearly no empty beds left. “They were never in danger.”

News reports showed ambulances rushing through the hospital’s main gates to get the patients, while some left escorted by police.

Twenty patients were transferred to Lisbon’s largest hospital, Santa Maria, which on Tuesday installed two fridges outside its morgue with the capacity for 30 bodies, its spokesperson said.

Across Portugal’s health service, 830 intensive care beds have been allocated to COVID-19 patients out of a total of 1 200, the Health Ministry said.

Currently 765 COVID-19 patients are in intensive care units.

As public hospitals struggle to cope, large military health units in Lisbon and Porto stepped in to help.

The one in the capital doubled its capacity to tackle the surge. Two cafeterias have been turned into wards.

The local council in Torres Vedras, a municipality near Lisbon which is facing major coronavirus outbreaks in several care homes, urged the foreign ministry to seek international help.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa told a news conference there was no need to create “alarm” about the idea of international aid but added: “We know there is the availability of friendly countries to help.”

Health Minister Marta Temido told broadcaster RTP on Monday:”The Portuguese government is triggering all mechanisms available, including in the international framework, to ensure it provides the best assistance to patients.”

But Temido noted that patient transfers were constrained by Portugal’s location on the westernmost edge of Europe,especially as other EU nations are also under pressure.(

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