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Latin American nations seek more time to join WHO vaccine plan
18 September 2020, 1:18 AM

Brazil and several other Latin American countries have informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) they need more time to sign up for its global COVID-19 vaccine allocation plan known as COVAX, officials said on Thursday.

Countries have until midnight on Friday to formalize legally binding commitments to COVAX, a mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of eventual vaccines.

A representative for the GAVI Alliance, the COVAX secretariat that will handle the requests for an extension, said by email that details of which nations have joined COVAX so far will only be made public after the deadline.

“The federal government, as well as other countries, continues in talks with GAVI to extend the deadline for formalizing Brazil’s participation in the initiative,” a Brazilian statement said.

Brazil, which has the world’s most severe outbreak outside the United States and India, said more time was needed to gather information on regulatory, legal, storage and logistical issues.

Health officials in Mexico, which has the worst outbreak in Latin America after Brazil, said their country would sign the commitment on time before the deadline.

More than 170 countries have joined the global vaccine plan to help buy and distribute immunization shots for COVID-19 fairly around the world, WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday.

Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan-American Health Organization, said in a briefing on Wednesday that Latin American countries were having trouble meeting the deadline and some wanted to push back the date.

Barbosa said all countries in the Americas except the United States had expressed interest in the vaccine facility, even those that have separate agreements with vaccine makers, because it gives them an added guarantee of access to doses.

Ten Latin American countries are among 90 poor nations in the world that will not have to pay for the vaccine, while the others in the region will pay an “accessible” price through COVAX, Barbosa said.

Colombian President Ivan Duque confirmed on Wednesday that his government was joining COVAX and Paraguay’s health ministry said it has already signed, even as it plans to buy the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca PLC and Oxford University.

Brazil’s central government has an agreement to test and buy the AstraZeneca vaccine, while Sao Paulo state is testing one developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech and the states of Paraná and Bahia reached deals for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

US plans for hundreds of millions of cheap, fast COVID-19 tests
18 September 2020, 1:09 AM

US manufacturers are sharply increasing production of cheap, fast – but less accurate – COVID-19 tests, aiming for 100 million per month by year end that will enable schools and workplaces to significantly expand testing.

Manufacturing and government sources tell Reuters that more than half a dozen so-called antigen tests will likely be authorized by the end of October. US regulators in recent months have authorized antigen tests from Abbott Laboratories, Becton Dickinson & Co, Quidel Corp and LumiraDX.

When planned production of the newly authorized tests are combined with previously approved diagnostics, overall monthly US testing capacity will exceed 200 million per month by year end, these sources said.

Makers of the four recently-approved antigen tests have the capacity to make around 40 million per month, but expect to more than double that by year end, according to a Reuters analysis that includes proprietary figures shared by companies.

Unlike the $100 and up molecular diagnostics currently dominating US testing that must be sent to a lab and often take several days for results, antigen tests can cost as little as $5. They can be performed anywhere and produce results in minutes.

That opens the possibility of regular screening at schools and businesses of even asymptomatic people, an important tool for containing future outbreaks, experts said.

“If we could get testing to a scale where everyone you want to test can be tested quickly and cheaply with a quick turnaround time (for results), then you could screen people” before they spread the virus, said Dwayne Breining, director of labs at Northwell Health, New York state’s largest hospital system.

Lab-based molecular tests are too hard to make and deploy at that level, he said.

Antigen tests detect certain proteins that are part of the virus from samples taken via nasal or throat swabs, similar to rapid tests for strep throat in a doctor’s office.

A lack of testing capacity and little federal coordination early in the pandemic hampered efforts to control spread of the virus that has infected more than 6 million people in the United States.

Still, regulators and health experts are concerned about antigen test reliability. They typically detect the virus around 80% to 90% of the time, below the more than 95% rate of lab-based tests. False negative results raise the likelihood that sick people could unwittingly spread COVID-19.

There is also not enough data to be certain the new tests can detect the virus when infected people are in the early, pre-symptomatic stage, potentially limiting their usefulness.

The US conducted around 25 million tests in August, including lab and antigen tests, according to data from the University of Oxford. Antigen test makers and their suppliers are gearing up for a huge boost.

Tony Lemmo, chief executive of BioDot Inc, which makes dispensers of chemicals used in the tests, says he has recently received orders that would translate into some 500 million tests in the coming months.

The United States could have capacity to conduct 3 million coronavirus tests per day this month, about half of them antigen tests. That could climb to as high as 135 million monthly tests in October, a top health official told a US congressional panel on Wednesday.

European diagnostics companies Roche Holding AG and Quiagen NV have said they will apply for US authorization for their antigen tests.

The National Institutes of Health is working with companies on new tests that will likely add as many as another 30 million tests per month to overall capacity this year, a US official told Reuters. The agency has also provided grants to help test-makers boost manufacturing capacity, including $71 million to Quidel in July.

The US official, who was not authorised to speak publicly, told Reuters that getting to 100 million tests a month by year end could potentially slip by a couple of months because of production challenges.

To ramp up, companies need to hire enough skilled workers and source the paper used in the tests, called nitrocellulose, the official said.

“There’s just so much required to go from zero to millions of tests,” said Quidel CEO Douglas Bryant, whose company is working with large US universities on daily testing of student athletes.

College football teams in the Big Ten conference will use antigen testing after announcing on Wednesday they would go ahead with games beginning next month.

Nursing homes are using Becton Dickinson’s antigen tests to screen residents and staff through a government program.

Even if test-makers succeed in scaling production, capacity will remain tight for some time, as schools, employers and others clamor for tests, executives and officials said.

Quidel has prioritised customer requests for its tests, Bryant said, with healthcare facilities and schools near the top, and industries like tourism further back in line.



SA records 2 128 new cases, 67 more coronavirus related deaths
17 September 2020, 11:44 PM

South Africa has recorded 2 128 new coronavirus cases. This brings the total number of cases to 655 572.

The country has also recorded 67 new COVID-19 related fatalities, bringing the total number of deaths to 15 772.

In a statement, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize says most of the new deaths were recorded in KwaZulu-Natal.

“Regrettably, we report 67 more COVID-19 related deaths: “20 from KwaZulu-Natal, 13 from Gauteng, 12 from Western Cape, 19 from Limpopo and 3 from the Eastern Cape,” says Dr Mkhize.

The cumulative number of tests conducted to date is 3 983 533.

The number of recoveries now stands at 585 303, this translates to a recovery rate of 89,3%.

France reports highest number of new COVID-19 cases in a day
17 September 2020, 11:02 PM

France registered a record 10 593 new confirmed coronavirus in the past 24 hours, Health Ministry data showed on Thursday, the country’s highest single-day count since the pandemic began.

The rise followed a government decision to make COVID-19 tests free, leading to a surge in testing and an increase in infection rates.

The previous high in 24 hours in France was 10 561 new cases, recorded on September 12.

The seven-day moving average of new cases – which smoothes out irregularities – rose to a high of nearly 8 800.

The Ministry reported that the cumulative number of cases had risen to 415 481, and the death toll had risen by 50 to 31 095, the second-highest number of new deaths in a day in two months.

The government’s decision to make COVID-19 testing free has resulted in long queues at testing centres in cities and testing has increased six-fold since the peak of the first coronavirus wave.

About 1.2 million tests were carried out last week, the health minister said.

Data show 5.4% of tests were positive.

Doctors say many tests are pointless as some people who have no symptoms, or have had no contact with people with confirmed cases, take multiple tests.

“To get tested three times a week is totally delirious. Anyone can show up and say they have symptoms,” Jean-Jacques Zambrowski, a doctor and health policy lecturer at Paris Descartes University, said on BFM TV.

French television showed scenes of chaos at testing centres in big cities, with people waiting hours and jostling in queues.

Hundreds of workers at laboratories went on strike on Thursday over poor working conditions as the testing system buckles under the demand.

The number of people being treated in hospital for COVID-19 rose by 25 to 5 844, the 19th consecutive daily increase after a low of 4 530 at the end of August, down from a mid-April high of over 32 000.

Global coronavirus cases to soon surpass 30 million – Reuters tally
17 September 2020, 5:50 AM

Global coronavirus cases are expected to pass 30 million on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally, with the pandemic showing no signs of slowing.

India was firmly in focus as the latest epicentre, although North and South America combined accounted for almost half of the global cases.

Global new daily case numbers reached record levels in recent days and deaths neared 1 million as the international race to develop and market a vaccine heated up.

The official number of global coronavirus cases is now more than five times the number of severe influenza illnesses recorded annually, according to World Health Organisation data.

Around the world, there have been almost 1 million deaths, considered a lagging indicator given the two-week incubation period of the virus. That has well exceeded the upper range of 290 000 to 650 000 annual deaths linked to influenza.

India on Wednesday became only the second country in the world, after the United States, to record more than 5 million cases.

The south Asian nation, the world’s second most populous country, has been reporting more new daily cases than the United States since mid-August and accounts for just over 16% of global known cases.

The United States has about 20% of all global cases,although it has just 4% of the world’s population. Brazil, the third worst-hit country, accounts for roughly 15% of global cases.

It took 18 days for global cases to surge from 25 million to more than 30 million. It took 20 days for the world to go from 20 million to 25 million and 19 days to go from 15 million to 20 million.

The global rate of new daily cases is slowing, reflecting progress in constraining the disease in many countries, despite a few big surges.

Health experts stress that official data almost certainly under-reports both infections and deaths, particularly in countries with limited testing capacity.

The race to develop and bring to market a novel coronavirus vaccine has grown increasingly frenetic in recent weeks with about 200 candidates in development globally.

US President Donald Trump has said his country could have a vaccine ready for distribution before the US election on November 3, while a Chinese health official this week said China may have a vaccine ready for public use as early as November.

While the trajectory of the coronavirus still falls far short of the 1918 Spanish flu, which infected an estimated 500 million people, killing at least 10% of them, experts worry the available data is underplaying the true impact of the pandemic.



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