Coronavirus has killed more than 2.4 million people and infected over 110 million globally. Here are virus-related developments for February 18:

A member of the National Hygiene Service uses a fogger to disinfect a classroom at a school to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Dakar, Senegal on February 16, 2021
A member of the National Hygiene Service uses a fogger to disinfect a classroom at a school to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Dakar, Senegal on February 16, 2021 (Reuters)

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Covid-19 death toll hits 100,000 in Africa

Coronavirus deaths in Africa have hit 100,000 with 3,341,197 confirmed infections, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources.

The region has seen fewer deaths than Europe, Latin America and North America, although South Africa has been hardest hit, accounting for nearly half of all deaths in Africa.

The fatalities were registered in 54 countries since the virus first emerged in December 2019.

France reports 22,501 new cases

The French health ministry has reported 22,501 new cases, compared with 25,018 on Wednesday and 21,063 last Thursday.

The seven-day moving average of new cases – which evens out daily data reporting irregularities – rose by 205 to 18,566 and the cumulative total of cases rose to 3.54 million.

Week-on-week, the new cases tally rose by about 3.80 percent, the lowest percentage increase since January 5.

France also reported 271 new coronavirus deaths over the previous 24 hours, after 310 on Wednesday, with the total virus death toll now at 83,393.

Italy records 13,762 new cases

Italy has reported 347 virus-related deaths against 369 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 13,762 from 12,074 the day before.

Some 288,458 tests for Covid-19 were carried out in the past day, compared with a previous 294,411, the health ministry said.

Italy has registered 94,887 deaths linked to the virus since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the seventh-highest in the world.

Individual vaccine arrangements undermine fair distribution - WHO

The World Health Organization has urged nations producing Covid-19 vaccines not to distribute them unilaterally but to donate them to the global Covax scheme to ensure fairness.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the plea as China hashes out agreements across Africa, Russia distributes shots in Latin America and the European Union eyes giving vaccines to poorer countries, all outside of the Covax facility.

Tedros said nations striking one-on-one deals undermine Covax's goal of equitable access, adding the WHO's scheme can even accommodate requests from governments that "prefer to give their donations to certain countries, because they are their neighbours or because they have some relationship".

Pfizer, BioNTech start testing vaccine in pregnant women

Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE have started an international study with 4,000 volunteers to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of their Covid-19 vaccine in healthy pregnant women, the companies said.

Pregnant women are at higher risk of developing severe Covid-19, and many public health officials have recommended some women in high-risk professions take coronavirus vaccines even without proof they are safe for them.

Turkey reports over 7,200 new infections

Turkey has reported 7,241 new coronavirus cases, including 640 symptomatic patients, according to the Health Ministry.

The country's case tally passed 2.61 million, while the nationwide death toll reached 27,821, with 83 fatalities over the past day.

Around half of South Africans have had Covid-19

Around half of South Africa's population may have already been infected by coronavirus, a figure far higher than the documented tally, a study and analysis of death figures suggest.

Samples taken from almost 5,000 blood donors across four South African provinces in January showed that between 32 and 63 percent had antibodies to the coronavirus.

The figure compares with clinically confirmed case rates of just two to three percent, according to South African research that was released online last week, but has not yet completed peer review.

Officially, South Africa has recorded close to 1.5 million coronavirus cases, of which just under 48,500 have been fatal – the highest toll in Africa.

More than 5M Turks received vaccination

Turkey has vaccinated more than 5 million people with the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech Ltd as part of a campaign launched one month ago.

Ankara launched the vaccinations on January 14, starting with health workers and the elderly. By Thursday afternoon more than 5.2 million people had received at least one dose of the vaccine, the country's  Health Ministry data showed. Around 900,000 of them, including senior government officials, had received a second dose.

Turkey plans to vaccinate teachers later this month ahead of a nationwide reopening of schools on March 1.

Dutch opposition lawmakers back new coronavirus curfew law

Key Dutch opposition parties have expressed support for hastily drawn-up legislation underpinning the country's coronavirus curfew after a judge ordered the measure scrapped earlier this week.

The lower house of parliament is expected to approve the legislation in a vote. That will send the bill to the senate on Friday — the same day that government lawyers go to court to appeal the order banning the 9 pm to 4:30 am (2000 GMT-0330 GMT) curfew.

Study suggests London infection rates down

A major study suggests virus infection rates in London have plunged by 80 percent in the past month as lockdown measures curb the spread of the virus.

Imperial College London researchers tested 85,000 people across England between February 4 and February 13 as part of the monthly study. It found that about 1 in 200 people were infected, a fall of two thirds from the month before.

The decline varied across the country and was steepest in London, where a new and more contagious strain of the virus was identified late last year. In January an estimated 1 in 30 people in London had the virus.

That has now fallen to about 1 in 185.

Indonesia's Jakarta warns of big fines for refusing vaccine

Indonesia's capital Jakarta is threatening residents with fines of up to $356.89 for refusing Covid-19 vaccines, an unusually stiff penalty aimed at ensuring compliance with a new regulation making inoculations mandatory.

Deputy Jakarta governor, Ahmad Riza Patria, said city authorities were merely following rules and such sanctions were a last resort in Jakarta, which accounts for about a quarter of the archipelago nation's more than 1.2 million coronavirus infections.

Indonesia is fighting one of Asia's biggest and most stubborn coronavirus epidemics and aims to inoculate 181.5 million of its 270 million population within 15 months under a vaccination programme that started last month.

Pakistan to receive 2.8M doses of AstraZeneca vaccine

Pakistan has said it expects to receive 2.8 million doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine on March 2, its first batch under the GAVI/WHO COVAX vaccine initiative, and will start giving doses to the over 60s.

Pakistan, which has recorded more than 550,000 cases of the virus and more than 12,000 deaths, is still largely reliant on the GAVI/WHO COVAX initiative, which aims to supply Covid-19 vaccines to poorer nations. 

The country began its Covid-19 vaccination programme only this month, with 500,000 doses of Sinopharm's vaccine donated by longtime ally China.

Frontline health workers are being vaccinated first.

Zimbabwe starts vaccinations

Zimbabwe has kicked-off its vaccination programme after receiving a donation of 200,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China earlier in the week.

Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who doubles as the country's health minister, was the first to receive the jab, at Harare's Wilkins Hospital.

Zimbabwe aims to vaccinate around 60,000 healthcare and other frontline workers in the first round of vaccinations. The elderly and those with chronic conditions will follow.

The southern African country has so far reported more than 35,000  cases and more than 1,400 deaths.

Malaysia enforces requirement for improved worker accommodation to rein in virus

Malaysia has gazetted an emergency ordinance compelling employers to provide lodging with sufficient living space and amenities for migrant workers to effectively control the spread of the virus.

It is among the first emergency ordinances – laws that do not require prior parliamentary approval – to be enforced since a national emergency was declared on January 12 to curb the virus spread.

Covid-19 infections in Malaysia have raged amongst migrant workers who typically work and live closely, with an outbreak at world's largest glove maker Top Glove Corp becoming the largest cluster in the country in December after over 5,000 workers were infected.

UK invests in studies of long Covid-19 syndrome

The British government is backing four new studies to investigate why some people continue to have symptoms months after becoming sick with Covid-19.

The Department of Health announced $26 million in funding for research into the causes, symptoms and effects of the phenomenon known as long Covid.

While most people recover from the virus in a few weeks, about one in 10 still have symptoms 12 weeks later. Researchers around the world are trying to understand the causes and dozens of symptoms that include breathlessness, headaches, fatigue and “brain fog.”

Guinea in talks to obtain 400,000 doses of Sputnik V vaccine

Guinea is in talks to obtain 400,000 doses of Sputnik V vaccines and expects to have the doses by the end of February, health ministry official Mohamed Lamine Yansane said.

Sixty doses of the vaccine were previously provided to the West African country on an experimental basis, with President Alpha Conde and some ministers among those vaccinated. 

Malaysia reports new daily high of 25 virus deaths

Malaysia reported a new daily high of 25 deaths, taking the total number of fatalities to 1,030.

The health ministry also reported 2,712 new infections, bringing the cumulative total to nearly 275,000 cases. 

Russia will register its third vaccine on February 20

Russia plans to register CoviVac, its third vaccine, on February 20, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a government website about the virus.

Thai-developed vaccine set to proceed to human trials

Thailand's second domestically developed vaccine will soon undergo human trials, officials said, adding that the plan was to produce up to five million doses by the end of the year.

The vaccine, developed by Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, had success in trials in mice and monkeys and is due to be tested on humans in late April or early May, Kiat Ruxrungtham of the Chula Vaccine Research Center said.

"By year-end we should have a production capacity of one to five million doses annually," Kiat told a news conference, adding this could later rise to about 20 million doses per year.

Czech Republic reports record number of serious patients 

The Czech Republic reported a record 1,227 of patients hospitalised in serious condition as the country's capacity to care for such cases dwindled.

As of Thursday morning, the country had 14 percent of capacity free in intensive care and high dependency units, including 154 beds for Covid patients.

The country of 10.7 million has had the most cases per capita in Europe except Portugal on a two-week basis, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control's data showed.

South African scientists to discuss Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine study

South African scientists will meet on Thursday to discuss a laboratory study that suggests the dominant local variant may reduce antibody protection from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by two-thirds, a health ministry spokesman told Reuters.

"I do know that our scientists will be meeting to discuss it (the Pfizer study) and they will advise the minister," spokesman Popo Maja said. "We are not going to be releasing a statement until advised by our scientists. We will also be guided by the regulator." 

UK PM should give clear statement on travel on Monday- easyJet

Prime Minister Boris Johnson should give a clear statement on the path for international travel when he sets out plans next week to ease virus restrictions on the economy, the boss of airline easyJet said.

"We also know that Monday is going to be a critical day for everyone and we need a clear statement on the path for international travel in the Prime Minister's announcement," said easyJet's Chief Executive Johan Lundgren. 

English lockdown reducing virus infections but prevalence still high, study finds

England's third national virus lockdown is helping to reduce infections, a study found, but the prevalence of cases remains high as Prime Minister Boris Johnson eyes a cautious route to re-opening the economy.

Dutch lawmakers debate curfew

Dutch lawmakers are holding a debate on hastily drawn up legislation underpinning the country’s coronavirus curfew after a judge ordered the measure scrapped earlier this week.

The lower house of parliament is expected to support the legislation, which would then go to the senate on Friday — the same day that government lawyers go to court to appeal the order banning the 9 pm-to-4:30 am curfew.

The curfew, which sparked rioting last month but is very broadly supported and followed, remains in force pending the outcome of that appeal.

Airbus lost $1.3B due to virus

European plane maker Airbus lost $1.3 billion last year amid an unprecedented global slump in air travel because of the pandemic, but expects to deliver hundreds of planes and make a profit in 2021 despite uncertainty about when people will resume flying en masse.

Airbus is also pushing to negotiate a “cease-fire” soon in its years-long trade dispute with US rival Boeing, amid hopes that the Biden Administration will be more amenable than Trump’s government to a deal. The dispute has led to billions of dollars in tit-for-tat cross-Atlantic tariffs on planes, cheese, wine, video games and other products.

Sri Lanka Health Ministry increases virus restrictions

Sri Lanka's Health Ministry has limited the number of guests at weddings and funerals as it seeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the capital and its suburbs.

The move comes as the health officials are calling for tougher action including imposing lockdowns after the local detection of a new variant that first emerged in the United Kingdom.

In January, Sri Lanka allowed 150 people to attend weddings. But it lowered that to 50 guests. Funerals are limited to 25 people.

Russia reports 13,447 new Covid-19 cases, 480 deaths

Russia reported 13,447 new daily cases, including 1,950 in Moscow, pushing the national infection tally to 4,125,598 since the pandemic began.

The government coronavirus task force said that 480 people had died of the disease in the last 24 hours, taking the official death toll to 81,926. 

Africa virus deaths near 100,000 after second wave

Africa's total reported death toll from virus was approaching 100,000, a fraction of those reported on other continents but rising fast as a second wave of infections overwhelms hospitals.

The continent's reported deaths, at 99,800, compare favourably with North America, which has registered more than half a million, and Europe, which is approaching 900,000, a Reuters tally shows.

But deaths are rising sharply across Africa, driven by its southern region, especially economic powerhouse South Africa, which accounts for nearly half. South Africa was ravaged by a second wave caused by a more contagious variant that has jammed up casualty wards.

Fujifilm's Avigan shows no significant benefit on virus mortality

A study of global trials of Fujifilm Holdings Corp's antiviral drug Avigan suggests it has little benefit for virus patients once their symptoms become serious.

The meta-analysis of nine clinical trials showed the drug, known generically as favipiravir, helped patients early on in their hospitalisation, according to the preprint of a study posted Wednesday on the medical website medRxiv.

But it failed to demonstrate statistically significant results in reducing mortality among those with mild to moderate Covid-19.

The study, the most comprehensive review of the drug so far, is the latest blow for the treatment that was once touted by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a promising treatment for the virus.

Lockdown over, tennis fans back as Australia says no new virus cases for over 48 hours

Australia said it had gone more than 48 hours since detecting the last locally acquired case, as Victoria state ended a lockdown letting thousands of tennis fans back in Melbourne Park for the last days of the Australian Open.

Jack Barber, a 25-year-old student, was among 7,477 spectators in the stadium watching Naomi Osaka defeat Serena Williams to go through to the ladies final.

"Yeah, it's awesome. I wasn't sure if they were going to put the event on. It's been really nice to be here. I actually kind of like the lower crowds," said Barber, with the Rod Laver Arena limited by social distancing restrictions to half its capacity.

"It's kind of nice to be able to walk around and go wherever you want."

Australia to roll out virus vaccine from next week

The vaccine roll out in Australia will begin in every state and territory on Monday, officials said.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said that people over 80, health workers and quarantine staff would be given priority.

Thousands of aged care residents across 190 towns will start being inoculated from the beginning of next week under the Australian Government's program.

Frontline healthcare workers and quarantine and border staff will receive the jab through 16 different Pfizer hubs, run by the states and territories.

Pandemic pushes Air France-KLM deep into red in 2020

Air France-KLM said that the pandemic "severely impacted" its earnings in 2020, pushing it deep into a net loss of $8.6 billion.

The previous year, the Franco-Dutch airline had booked bottom-line profit of $350 million. 

"2020 tested the Air France-KLM group with the most severe crisis ever experienced by the air transport industry," chief executive Benjamin Smith said in a statement.

The airline said group revenues plunged by nearly 60 percent to $13.3 billion as passenger numbers plummeted 67 percent to $34.7 million.

Pfizer says South African variant could significantly reduce vaccine protection

A laboratory study has suggested the South African variant may reduce antibody protection from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by two-thirds, and it is not clear if the shot will be effective against the mutation, the companies have said.

The study found the vaccine was still able to neutralise the virus and there is not yet evidence from trials in people that the variant reduces vaccine protection, the companies said.

Still, they are making investments and talking to regulators about developing an updated version of their mRNA vaccine or a booster shot, if needed.

For the study, scientists from the companies and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) developed an engineered virus that contained the same mutations carried on the spike portion of the highly contagious coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa, known as B.1.351. 

The spike, used by the virus to enter human cells, is the primary target of many Covid-19 vaccines.

Nepal approves Chinese Covid-19 vaccine Vero Cell for emergency use

Nepal approved Vero Cell vaccine for emergency use, a government official told Reuters, the second shot to be cleared after the AstraZeneca product.

"Conditional permission has been granted to the Chinese vaccine for its emergency use in Nepal," said Santosh K.C, a senior official in the Department of Drug Administration. 

India to test travellers from Brazil, South Africa and UK for virus strains

India will make molecular tests mandatory for people arriving directly or indirectly from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil in a bid to contain the spread of more infectious virus variants found in those countries.

India, which has reported the highest number of overall virus cases after the United States, detected the South African variant in four people last month and the Brazilian one in one person this month.

The government has said the South African and Brazilian strains can more easily infect a person's lungs than the UK mutation. India has so far reported 187 cases of infection with the UK variant.

Thailand reports 150 new virus cases

Thailand reported 150 new virus cases and no new deaths on Thursday, its virus task force said.

The new infections took the overall total to 25,111 cases while fatalities remained at 82. 

Hong Kong approves Sinovac vaccine for emergency use

Hong Kong has formally approved Sinovac vaccine for emergency use, the city's health secretary said, paving the way for its introduction in the global financial hub.

In a statement, Sophia Chan said the vaccine met the "safety, efficacy and quality requirements specified in Hong Kong emergency situations".

Russia's Sputnik V vaccine could reach Mexico on Saturday

A first shipment of Sputnik V vaccine could reach Mexico as soon as Saturday, Mexico's Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez Gatell said.

The Mexican government has agreed to purchase 24 million doses of the vaccine, he added. 

China reports 11 new virus cases in mainland vs 7 a day earlier

China reported 11 new mainland virus cases on February 17, official data showed, up from seven a day earlier but once again there were no locally transmitted infections.

The National Health Commission said in a statement that all new cases were imported infections that originated from overseas. New asymptomatic cases, which China does not classify as confirmed cases, rose to 20 from six a day earlier.

The total number of confirmed cases in mainland China now stands at 89,806, while the death toll remained unchanged at 4,636.

Hong Kong ease pandemic rules as cases decline

Hong Kong is reducing social distancing rules following a sharp drop in new virus cases, including restarting indoor dining and reopening gyms.

The relaxation that took effect on Thursday is a huge relief for the city’s service sector, which has been hammered by periodical closure orders and strict limits on dining out.

Under the new rules, indoor dining is permitted until 10 pm with no more than four people allowed at a table. Other outlets allowed to reopen include video arcades, fitness centres, beauty and massage parlours, amusement centres, karaoke bars and sports facilities. Staff at such facilities must undergo a coronavirus test every 14 days.

South Korea daily infections top 600

South Korea’s daily increase in virus infections has exceeded 600 for the second straight day, continuing an upward trend following last week’s Lunar New Year’s holidays.

The 621 new cases brought the national caseload to 85,567, including 1,544 deaths. The country reported 621 new cases on Wednesday, which was the highest daily jump in more than a month.

BioNTech says 'committed' to supplying Taiwan with vaccine

Germany's BioNTech said it still intends to provide Taiwan with vaccine doses after the island's health chief warned "political pressure" had scuppered a deal with the company.

Taiwanese health minister Chen Shih-chung said that negotiations with the German firm to acquire five million Pfizer-BioNTech shots fell through in December "because someone doesn't want Taiwan to be too happy". 

His comments raised concerns China might be trying to hinder Taiwan's inoculation drive. 

Indonesia kicks off second wave of Covid-19 vaccinations

Market traders were among the first to benefit from Indonesia's second phase of mass vaccinations, as the government looks to right the country's pandemic-battered economy.

Medical teams are now focusing on workers in close contact with the public and people over 60, authorities announced, after a first phase prioritising health workers, 1.1 million of whom have been vaccinated according to the health ministry.

Indonesia's economy – Southeast Asia's largest – has lurched into recession during an outbreak which has infected almost 1.3 million people and killed more than 33,000, according to official data, though low testing rates mean the figures could be much higher.

One-third of US military refusing to receive vaccine

Pentagon officials have said that about one-third of the US military are declining to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, despite significant coronavirus infection levels in the forces.

Major General Jeff Taliaferro revealed the high refusal rate in Congressional hearing, as the US Defense Department continues to classify covid vaccines as optional because they have yet to receive full approval from the Federal Drug Administration.

"Acceptance rates are somewhere in the two-thirds territory," said Taliaferro, stressing that the figure is based on "very early data."

Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said that there was no detailed military-wide data on vaccinations, but said more than 916,500 had been administered so far. 

Mexico reports nearly 1,100 new deaths

Mexico has reported 1,075 new confirmed deaths from coronavirus in the country, bringing the overall toll to 177,061.

English lockdown reducing infections but prevalence still high

England's third national Covid-19 lockdown is helping to reduce infections, a study has found, but the prevalence of cases remains high as Prime Minister Boris Johnson eyes a cautious route to re-opening the economy.

Johnson is due to set out a roadmap out of the lockdown, which began on January 5, on Monday, and has said that it will be a cautious and prudent approach.

The study, known as REACT-1 and led by researchers at Imperial College London, found that national prevalence was two thirds lower between February 4 and 1 3 than it had been in the previous survey that covered January 6-22.

"It's really encouraging news. We do think that lockdown is having an effect. We've seen this quite rapid decline now between January and this month," Paul Elliott, director of the programme at Imperial, told reporters.

UN chief urges global plan to reverse unfair vaccine access

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has sharply criticised the "wildly uneven and unfair" distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, saying 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all vaccinations and demanding a global effort to get all people in every nation vaccinated as soon as possible.

The UN chief told a high-level meeting of the UN Security Council that 130 countries have not received a single dose of vaccine and declared that "at this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community."

Guterres called for an urgent Global Vaccination Plan to bring together those with the power to ensure equitable vaccine distribution -- scientists, vaccine producers, and those who can fund the effort.

And he called on the world’s major economic powers in the Group of 20 to establish an emergency task force to establish a plan and coordinate its implementation and financing. He said the task force should have the capacity "to mobilise the pharmaceutical companies and key industry and logistics actors."

Mentally ill 'ignored' in most European vaccine plans

Most European countries are ignoring mentally ill patients in their Covid-19 vaccine strategies despite such patients being highly vulnerable to contracting and dying from the disease, the leading mental health organisations have warned.

Out of 20 European countries surveyed for a study, only the Netherlands, Britain, Germany and Denmark were found to recognise severe mental illness as a high-risk medical condition and to have made specific provisions for vaccinating patients.

"These patients are completely disregarded in most vaccination plans, and this needs to change," said Livia De Picker, a professor at the University Psychiatric Hospital Campus Duffel in Belgium who co-led the research.

"Recent work shows that if you have a psychiatric disorder your risk of Covid infection rises by 65%, and severely mentally ill patients are between 1.5 and 2 times more likely to die."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies