Two Highly Contagious Coronavirus Variants Appear in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG – South African officials say two highly contagious variants of coronavirus are now present in the country, as Africa’s worst-hit nation prepares for a possible new onslaught of cases.Officials from the National Institute for Communicable …

JOHANNESBURG – South African officials say two highly contagious variants of coronavirus are now present in the country, as Africa’s worst-hit nation prepares for a possible new onslaught of cases.

Officials from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases announced late Sunday that they have detected the B.1.617.2 and B.1.1.7 variants among the South African population.

With just under 1.6 million confirmed cases, South Africa leads the continent in coronavirus infections. Of those, nearly 55,000 people have died.

“It is not surprising that new variants have been detected in South Africa,” said Adrian Puren, the institute’s acting director. “We would like to assure the public that the institute is focusing their resources and research efforts towards understanding the variants and what the potential implications are for South Africa.”

The first variant, B.1.617.2, has been detected in four positive cases, the institute said. Two of those are in Gauteng, the most populous province, and home to Johannesburg and Pretoria.

South African officials said in a statement that all four known cases of this variant “have been isolated and managed.” and that contract tracing was underway.

B.1.617.2 is among the variants currently circulating in India, where the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center says 22.6 million COVID-19 cases have been reported — though health experts have warned that they believe both cases and deaths are being underreported in India.

Officials with the institute said they are now giving higher priority to positive samples from travelers entering South Africa, especially those coming from India.

The second variant, B.1.1.7, has been detected in 11 cases, South African officials said. This highly transmissible variant was initially detected in the U.K.

Officials urged South Africans to be vigilant, as the nation battles to secure enough vaccines to achieve herd immunity. The nation’s vaccination campaign has moved slowly so far, and to date, just over 382,000 people — all of them health workers — have been vaccinated.

The next phase of vaccinations is set to begin next week.

“We understand that many are suffering from COVID-19 fatigue, and becoming lax in exercising preventative measures,” Puren said. “But for the sake of yourselves and your loved ones, wash or sanitize your hands, wear your masks and maintain physical distance of 1.5 meters from others. Remember to hold gatherings outdoors, or in well ventilated areas and roll up your sleeve once the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to you.”

Source: Voice of America

Fifteen Killed in Landslide at Guinea Gold Mine

A landslide at an artisanal gold mine has killed at least 15 people in northeastern Guinea, the government said on Sunday. The disaster took place on Saturday in remote Siguiri province, 800 km (500 miles) from the capital Conakry. The zone holds some …

A landslide at an artisanal gold mine has killed at least 15 people in northeastern Guinea, the government said on Sunday.

The disaster took place on Saturday in remote Siguiri province, 800 km (500 miles) from the capital Conakry. The zone holds some of the West African country’s largest gold reserves.

In a statement the government said it had launched an investigation.

The bodies of those killed have been recovered and two women were among the casualties, a local resident said by phone, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The artisanal gold mines of Siguiri are notoriously dangerous with diggers working in narrow shafts without much protection.

Source: Voice of America

African Activists Welcome US Support of COVID Vaccine Waiver

JOHANNESBURG – African nations have welcomed news that the U.S. supports a proposal to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. But, they warn, the road ahead is long and full of obstacles.Health experts and activists say the deci…

JOHANNESBURG – African nations have welcomed news that the U.S. supports a proposal to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. But, they warn, the road ahead is long and full of obstacles.

Health experts and activists say the decision, announced this week by the U.S. trade representative, could save lives in parts of the world where the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage and vaccines are in short supply.

Fatima Hassan is director of the Health Justice Initiative, a South African group that advocates for equitable health care.

While Hassan said she welcomes U.S. support of the so-called “TRIPS” waiver — it stands for “Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property” — she worries that the process is moving too slowly.

“Obviously … we welcome the Biden administration’s announcement — and really its giving effect, partially, to a promise he made when he was campaigning to be the president of the United States,” he said, but added that it is only a “small step to be able to go forward in terms of the TRIPS waiver, but also in terms of other initiatives to scale up manufacturing not just in Africa, but in the global South, particularly in Latin America and Asia as well.”

The waiver idea came from two nations that have suffered greatly during the pandemic: South Africa and India. South Africa is the continent’s worst-hit country, with nearly 1.6 million confirmed cases and a vaccination program that has been plagued by fits and starts. Health officials are now bracing for a third wave of infections.

Hassan stressed that the waiver alone won’t immediately produce a bounty of locally produced vaccines. The Africa Centers for Diseases Control has identified about six facilities on the continent that are capable of manufacturing vaccines — hardly enough to quickly meet the needs of more than 1.2 billion Africans.

And, says Yuan Qiong Hu of global aid group Doctors Without Borders, the U.S. does not have the final word here. The World Trade Organization meets in June to hammer out the conditions, and there are a number of high-profile opponents, including the European Union, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Germany, Brazil and Australia.

While more than 100 countries support the waiver proposal, countries that oppose the waiver, says Hassan, may fear that it sets an irreversible precedent.

Industry groups also have weighed in. In a statement late last year, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations said diluting intellectual property rights would be “counterproductive” and would risk “undoing” the very system that generated life-saving vaccines in record time in the first place.

Despite such opposition, Hassan remains upbeat.

“Maybe this statement from the U.S. trade office is actually the first of a long journey, where over the next few decades we’ll finally be able to have a real reckoning around the impact of intellectual property on access to healthcare services, in particular medicine,” she said. “The fact that medicines are still commodified, that they are subject to a trade regime and subject to the quite excessive and quite protectionist rules of the World Trade Organization is a key concern for many organizations and many health advocates and activists.

“I think that we shouldn’t underestimate the statement and the move by the U.S. government,” she added. “It’s certainly going to create a ripple effect.”

Umunyana Rugege, director of South African advocacy group Section 27, certainly hopes that is the case. Her group campaigns for social justice in South Africa. Before COVID-19 appeared, their health advocacy focused on another pandemic: HIV. South Africa carries the world’s heaviest burden of that virus. Rugege said her country’s lengthy experience in that battle enabled them to act quickly when COVID-19 first appeared.

“Early in the pandemic, what we did was to call for a number of things,” she said. “The first thing was a moratorium on any new patents on COVID-related technologies. So that’s before we even had vaccines, before we knew what treatments were going to work. We said, let’s make sure that we’re not giving out new patents on these technologies. The second thing we demanded was for automatic compulsory licenses where there are health technologies that are found to be effective against COVID, but that have patents.”

This is familiar ground for African health activists. From the mid-90s, activists lobbied hard for the World Trade Organization to issue a similar waiver for lifesaving antiretroviral medications. A final agreement was inked in 2001.

According to the United Nations, as many as 42 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since counting began more 40 years ago. Since COVID was first recognized in early 2020, the World Health Organization says it has killed 3.2 million people.

Source: Voice of America

EU Calls on US, Others to Export Their COVID-19 Vaccines

PORTO, PORTUGAL – The European Commission called on the United States and other major COVID-19 vaccine producers Friday to export what they make, as the European Union does, rather than talk about waiving intellectual property (IP) rights to the shots….

PORTO, PORTUGAL – The European Commission called on the United States and other major COVID-19 vaccine producers Friday to export what they make, as the European Union does, rather than talk about waiving intellectual property (IP) rights to the shots.

Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference on the sidelines of a summit of EU leaders that discussions about the waiver would not produce a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the short and medium term.

“We should be open to lead this discussion. But when we lead this discussion, there needs to be a 360-degree view on it because we need vaccines now for the whole world,” she said.

“The European Union is the only continental or democratic region of this world that is exporting at large scale,” von der Leyen said.

She said about 50% of European-produced coronavirus vaccine is exported to almost 90 countries, including those in the World Health Organization-backed COVAX program, whose aim is to supply vaccines to mainly poor countries.

“And we invite all those who engage in the debate of a waiver for IP rights also to join us to commit to be willing to export a large share of what is being produced in that region,” she said.

Only higher production, removing export barriers and the sharing of already-ordered vaccines could immediately help fight the pandemic quickly, she said.

“So what is necessary in the short term and the medium term: First of all, vaccine sharing. Secondly, export of vaccines that are being produced. And the third is investment in the increasing of the capacity to manufacture vaccines,” she said.

Von der Leyen said the European Union had started its vaccine sharing mechanism, citing delivery of 615,000 doses to the Western Balkans as an example.

Source: Voice of America

Africa Risks Resurgence of Coronavirus, WHO Warns

African countries risk a new wave of coronavirus infections because of the slow rollout of life-saving vaccines and the circulation of new variants, the World Health Organization warns. The WHO reports the epidemic curve in Africa has plateaued for six…

African countries risk a new wave of coronavirus infections because of the slow rollout of life-saving vaccines and the circulation of new variants, the World Health Organization warns.

The WHO reports the epidemic curve in Africa has plateaued for six weeks, with the number of cases now standing at more than 4.5 million, including 123,000 deaths.

However, the U.N. health agency reports that the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases is giving rise to complacency and non-compliance with preventive measures, such as masking and social distancing. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, says the greatest threats to the spread of the infection and a resurgence of cases are delays and shortages of vaccine supplies.

“African countries are slipping further behind the rest of the world in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, now accounting for only one percent of the vaccines administered worldwide, down from two percent a few weeks ago,” Moeti said. “Only around half of the 37 million doses shipped to the continent have been administered so far.”

Moeti says African countries need to step up to get the available shots into people’s arms fast.

So far, the COVAX vaccine-sharing program has delivered some 80 million doses to Africa. COVAX officials say vaccine deliveries from the Serum Institute of India were halted in March because of the dramatic resurgence of COVID-19 in India. This, they note, has resulted in a shortfall of 140 million doses as India uses the vaccines to inoculate its population.

South Africa and India are leading efforts at the World Trade Organization for a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights that are preventing the mass production of generic COVID-19 vaccines. Moeti says she welcomes the U.S. decision to shore up these efforts.

“I would like to add my voice in praising the United States’ decision to support a temporary waiver on patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, which could mark a game-changer for Africa, unlocking millions more doses and saving countless more lives,” she said.

Moeti says the sooner negotiations are wrapped up, the sooner the manufacture and rollout of safe and effective vaccines can take place. In the meantime, she says, one of the quickest and surest ways to save lives is for countries to share their surplus stock of vaccines with countries in need.

Source: Voice of America

UN Gives $65 Million in Aid to Ethiopia, Tigray

The United Nations is disbursing $65 million for humanitarian needs in Ethiopia, $40 million of which will go to the aid operation in the northern Tigray region.“Ethiopian lives and livelihoods are being destroyed by drought, and children are suffering…

The United Nations is disbursing $65 million for humanitarian needs in Ethiopia, $40 million of which will go to the aid operation in the northern Tigray region.

“Ethiopian lives and livelihoods are being destroyed by drought, and children are suffering from malnutrition,” U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said in a statement Thursday while announcing the release of the funds. “And six months into the conflict in Tigray, civilians continue to bear the brunt. Women and girls are being targeted with horrific sexual violence, and millions are struggling to access essential services and food, especially in some rural areas that are completely cut off.”

He said the humanitarian response needs to be scaled up now. More than 16 million people need assistance across Ethiopia, including an estimated 4.5 million in the Tigray region.

Tigray has been the center of hostilities since November, when fighting broke out between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Tens of thousands of Tigray residents have fled to Sudan to escape the fighting.

The U.N. is allocating $40 million to emergency needs in Tigray, including shelter and clean water. It will also fund programs to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, as mass rapes have been widely reported in the conflict.

Women and girls have described being brutalized, most often by men in uniform from both the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries, as well as other irregular armed groups and militias. Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said recently that it could be many months before the full scale and magnitude of the atrocities committed against women and girls is known.

The U.N. says the remaining $25 million will fund humanitarian operations in the rest of Ethiopia, including in response to drought in the Somali and Oromia regions.

Despite the additional funds, the U.N. warns that the current humanitarian response across Ethiopia, including in Tigray, is not sufficient. Both additional funding and safer and unhindered access are needed to meet the growing needs.

Source: Voice of America