Coronavirus infections in the South Asia region surpassed 30 million on Friday, according to a Reuters tally of official data, led by India which is struggling with a second COVID-19 wave and a vaccine shortage across the region.
India, the second most-populous country in the world, this month recorded its highest COVID-19 death toll since the pandemic began last year, accounting for just over a third of the overall total.
The South Asia region – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka – accounts for 18% of global cases and almost 10% of deaths. But there is growing suspicion that official tallies of infections and deaths are not reflecting the true extent of the problem.
This month, India opened its coronavirus vaccination campaign to everyone aged 18 or older. However, it has not been able to meet vaccine demand despite being one of the biggest vaccine producers in the world.
India has been inoculating its people with the AstraZeneca (AZN.L) vaccine produced locally at the Serum Institute of India (SII), Covaxin made by local firm Bharat Biotech and has begun rolling out Russia’s Sputnik V.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced mounting criticism for the failure to secure vaccines as only about 3% of India’s 1.3 billion population has been fully vaccinated, the lowest rate among the 10 countries with the most cases.
To meet domestic demand, India temporarily halted vaccine exports in March after donating or selling more than 66 million doses. The halt has left countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and many in Africa scrambling for alternate supplies.
However, India is still facing a vaccine shortage and several of its state governments, and even cities such as Mumbai, have launched global tenders or sought expressions of interest from firms such as Pfizer (PFE.N), Moderna (MRNA.O) and Johnson and Johnson (JNJ.N) for urgent supplies.
India’s official tally of daily coronavirus infections has been falling in the past few days, offering hope that its second wave is ebbing.
But there are serious concerns that many new infections are not being reported, largely due to a dearth of testing in the countryside.
As of Friday, India has reported nearly 27.6 million cases and 318,895 deaths. (Graphic on global cases and deaths)
Since India is unlikely to resume major exports of COVID-19 vaccines until October, other South Asia countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh are making diplomatic efforts to secure COVID-19 vaccines to prop up their faltering inoculation drives as their stocks run out.
India’s western neighbour Pakistan, with purchases and donations from China and allocations from the World Health Organisation and the GAVI Vaccine Alliance, has now secured more than 18 million doses. On Wednesday, Pakistan opened its vaccination campaign to everyone aged 19 or older.
At least 219.17 million vaccine doses have been administered in southern Asia by Friday, according to figures from Our World in Data.
German chancellor Scholz tests positive for coronavirus
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has tested positive for coronavirus and is showing mild symptoms of a cold, Reuters quoting a government spokesperson said on Monday.
Scholz is isolating in the federal chancellery. He has cancelled all his public appearances this week but will attend scheduled meetings remotely, said an emailed statement.
Germany is rolling out booster vaccinations for older and clinically vulnerable citizens going into winter, read the report.
The World Health Organisation said last week that the coronavirus remained a global emergency but the end of the pandemic could be in sight if countries tackled it properly.
Pfizer CEO tests positive for COVID for second time
Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla said on Saturday he had tested positive for COVID-19 but that he was symptom free.
“I’m feeling well and symptom free,” Bourla said in a statement.
Bourla, 60, back in August had contacted COVID and had started a course of the company’s oral COVID-19 antiviral treatment, Paxlovid.
Paxlovid is an antiviral medication that is used to treat high-risk people, such as older patients.
Bourla has received four doses of the COVID vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.
The chief executive said he has not yet taken the new bivalent booster.
Developed by Moderna and the team of Pfizer and BioNTech, the new so-called bivalent shots aim to tackle the BA.5 and BA.4 Omicron subvariants, which make up 84.8% and 1.8%, respectively, of all circulating variants in the United States, based on latest data.
“I’ve not had the new bivalent booster yet, as I was following CDC guidelines to wait three months since my previous COVID case which was back in mid-August,” Bourla added.
In August, the FDA authorized Pfizer and Moderna’s updated booster shots that target the dominant BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants.
A federal health agency said this week that over 25 million doses of the so-called bivalent shots had been sent out. That consisted of mostly the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, as production of the Moderna vaccine ramps up.
Fight to end virus pandemic takes place on UN’s sidelines
In four days of fiery speeches over war, climate change and the threat of nuclear weapons, one issue felt like an afterthought during this year’s U.N. General Assembly: the coronavirus pandemic, The Associated Press reported.
Masks were often pulled below chins — or not worn at all — and any mention of COVID-19 by world leaders typically came at the tail-end of a long list of grievances.
But on the sidelines of the annual meeting, the pandemic was still very much part of the conversation, AP reported.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gathered with World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell and others to discuss equitable access to COVID vaccines, tests and treatments.
And earlier that day, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield joined leaders from around the globe to mark the progress that has been made to fight COVID-19 — including the more than 620 million vaccine doses to 116 countries and economies that the United States has provided. But she emphasized there is still much work to do.
Tedros noted that the number of deaths around the globe is near its lowest since the pandemic began, and two-thirds of the world’s population is vaccinated. But the encouraging signs mask a deep disparity between wealthy and poor countries.
For instance, only 19% of people living in low-income countries are fully vaccinated compared with 75% in high-income countries. And only 35% of health care workers and 31% of older populations in lower-income countries are fully vaccinated and boosted.
Key to closing those gaps, according to Guterres, is countering misinformation about vaccines and overcoming hesitancy while also increasing testing to snuff out the potential for more variants. The world also needs early warning systems for pandemics and must ensure a well-paid and well-supplied workforce in the health care sector.
“Let’s get it done,” Guterres said. “Let’s end this pandemic once and for all.”
Thomas-Greenfield said that COVID-19 care needs to be shifted from being offered primarily in emergency facilities to integrating it in routine services.
She outlined three new initiatives: a pilot program to be launched in 10 countries to help people get screened for COVID-19 and receive antiviral medications; a $50 million commitment from the U.S to improve access to medical oxygen critical for treating patients with severe cases; and a global clearinghouse to make medical supply chains more resilient, efficient and equitable.
While few would argue that the situation has not improved — and indeed U.S. President Joe Biden recently remarked that the pandemic was over before walking back his comments — no one on Thursday was ready to call it quits.
“A marathon runner does not stop when the finish line comes into view,” Tedros said, and instead runs harder to get to the end.
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