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COVID-19

North Korea marks end of first COVID wave, but risks persist

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(Last Updated On: August 5, 2022)

North Korea on Friday said all of its fever patients have recovered, marking the end of its first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, but challenges linger with economic hardships deepening and an unvaccinated population exposed to future resurgences, Reuters reported Friday.

While state media said the “anti-epidemic situation has entered a definite phase of stability”, rather than boasting of victory, North Korea said it would “redouble efforts to maintain perfection in the execution of state anti-epidemic policies”. 

The reclusive country has never confirmed how many people caught COVID-19, apparently lacking testing supplies. But it said around 4.77 million fever patients have fully recovered and 74 died since late April. It has reported no new fever cases since July 30.

South Korean officials and medical experts have cast doubts on those figures, especially the number of deaths.

Shin Young-jeon, a professor at Hanyang University’s medical school in Seoul, said while the peak of the first COVID wave may have passed, the stated fatalities were nearly “impossible” and there could be up to 50,000 deaths.

“Their success, if any, should lie in the fact that the outbreak didn’t lead to a political or social chaos. Whether their COVID response was successful was another problem.”

South Korea’s Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, responsible for inter-Korean affairs, said this week there were “credibility issues” with the North’s data but the COVID situation seemed “somewhat under control.”

Experts said the pandemic and a nationwide lockdown would deepen the North’s already dire food situation, and the World Health Organization said in June the COVID situation there could be getting worse.

COVID-19

China announces resumption of visas for Japanese

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(Last Updated On: January 29, 2023)

China announced it was resuming issuing visas for Japanese travelers beginning Sunday, ending its nearly three-week suspension in an apparent protest of Tokyo’s tougher COVID-19 entry requirements for tourists from China, AP reported.

The decision was announced in a statement posted on the Chinese Embassy’s website.

China stopped issuing new visas in Japan on Jan. 10 in apparent retaliation for Tokyo’s requirement of additional tests for Chinese tourists in late December, ahead of Lunar New Year holidays.

Japan cited soaring infections in China after it abruptly eased coronavirus restrictions as well as scarce COVID-19 data from Beijing.

Japan reopened its borders for individual tourists in October, allowing travelers with proof of vaccination instead of testing at airports unless they show symptoms.

But on Dec. 30, Japan required all travelers from China to show pre-departure negative tests and take an additional test upon arrival.

China also stopped issuing visas to South Koreans after South Korea in early January did the same for short-term travelers from China.

Last Friday, South Korea said it would keep the measure in place through the end of February over concerns that the spread of COVID-19 in China may worsen following Lunar New Year travel.

Health authorities in China have said infections have peaked but there are concerns abroad that Beijing was not sharing enough data.

The latest wave of infections in Japan appears to be subsiding in recent weeks, with confirmed daily cases falling to about one-fifth of the peak in early January.

Japan’s government last week announced plans to downgrade COVID-19 to an equivalent of seasonal influenza in May, a move that would further relax mask wearing and other preventive measures as the country seeks to return to normalcy.

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COVID-19

China celebrates Lunar New Year like COVID no longer exists

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(Last Updated On: January 28, 2023)

China has celebrated the Lunar New Year with abandon this year, as millions of people traveled, packed into tourist spots, and gathered in large numbers – marking an end to the country’s three-year “zero COVID” experiment.

More than 300 million trips were made during the holiday, nearly 90% of pre-pandemic levels, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism told Bloomberg.

While the revelry is a relief after recurring lockdowns, it also carries the risk of reigniting the omicron wave that scorched the country in recent weeks, filling hospitals and overwhelming crematoriums.

“Pent-up demand is being released as many people rush to scenic spots, watch firework shows and crowd into restaurants and hotels,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura Holdings Inc., wrote in a note on Thursday. Government-released data “suggest the ‘exit wave’ is quickly coming to an end.”

The speed with which China charged through its reopening is unrivaled. A month ago, the government estimated 37 million people a day were contracting the virus. The streets went quiet. Just as quickly, the population appears to have turned the page, Bloomberg reported.

Nevertheless, it remains unclear how severe and widespread the outbreak is. The government stopped universal testing and changed how it defines COVID-19 mortality, clouding official reports. According to a report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, the number of patients hospitalized with severe disease or dying from COVID-19 has declined more than 70% from the peak in early January.

While extreme weather in some regions exacerbated traffic, many people were undaunted by the challenge or the risk of supercharging the world’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak. Total bookings were four times higher than last year, when strict measures limited travel as well as the spread of the virus, according to Trip.com.

The jubilation of reopening was mixed with tourism-related headaches. Carol Gong, who reunited with her family in Shanghai, was overwhelmed by the crowds during a day trip to Disneyland.

“It looked as if we were watching a zombie movie, as people lined up heel-to-heel and shoulder-to-shoulder in a meandering queue,” said Gong, who waited an hour in freezing weather to get into the theme park. Still, it was worth it, she said. “People are so relieved that China has reopened. They’re starting to relax and enjoy life.”

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US proposes once-a-year COVID shots for most Americans

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(Last Updated On: January 24, 2023)

U.S. health officials want to make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the annual flu shot.

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday proposed a simplified approach for future vaccination efforts, allowing most adults and children to get a once-a-year shot to protect against the mutating virus, AP reported.

This means Americans would no longer have to keep track of how many shots they’ve received or how many months it’s been since their last booster.

The proposal comes as boosters have become a hard sell. While more than 80% of the U.S. population has had at least one vaccine dose, only 16% of those eligible have received the latest boosters authorized in August.

The FDA will ask its panel of outside vaccine experts to weigh in at a meeting Thursday. The agency is expected to take their advice into consideration while deciding future vaccine requirements for manufacturers.

In documents posted online, FDA scientists say many Americans now have “sufficient preexisting immunity” against the coronavirus because of vaccination, infection or a combination of the two. That baseline of protection should be enough to move to an annual booster against the latest strains in circulation and make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the yearly flu shot, according to the agency.

For adults with weakened immune systems and very small children, a two-dose combination may be needed for protection. FDA scientists and vaccine companies would study vaccination, infection rates and other data to decide who should receive a single shot versus a two-dose series.

FDA will also ask its panel to vote on whether all vaccines should target the same strains. That step would be needed to make the shots interchangeable, doing away with the current complicated system of primary vaccinations and boosters.

The original two-dose COVID shots have offered strong protection against severe disease and death no matter the variant, but protection against mild infection wanes. Experts continue to debate whether the latest round of boosters significantly enhanced protection, particularly for younger, healthy Americans.

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