Coronavirus Update: WHO director-general calls for moratorium on booster shots

The highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is now in 135 countries, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, as its head called for a moratorium on booster shots of vaccines to ensure poorer countries can get access to first doses.

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WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made this latest appeal for greater vaccine equity at a regular press briefing, the Associated Press reported. The agency has said there is still not enough data to show that boosters are needed for people who have had both shots of a two-dose vaccine in reining in the spread of the virus.

Tedros reiterated the target set by WHO earlier this year of having 10% of the populations of all countries get vaccines by September on the grounds that as long as major swaths of a population are unvaccinated, variants may emerge, with the risk that one might prove fully vaccine-resistant.

“Accordingly, WHO is calling for a moratorium on boosters until at least the end of September to enable at least 10% of the population of every country to be vaccinated,” he said Wednesday.

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In its weekly epidemiological update, the WHO said the global number of confirmed new cases stood at more than 4 million in the week through Aug. 1, and has now been rising for more than a month.

The trend is being driven by sharp rises in the eastern Mediterranean and western Pacific regions, which reported 37% and 33% increases, respectively, in the latest week, while the southeastern Asia region reported a 9% increase.

The number of deaths fell 7% from the previous week to 64,000-plus. The global tally of cases could exceed 200 million by next week.

SOURCE: WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION

The update also said that the delta variant was detected in three new countries in the latest week, boosting the total to 135. The delta variant is dominant in the U.S., where younger people are showing more severe forms of COVID, as the New York Times reported.

Many of the patients that are now being hospitalized are younger than 50, in contrast to the significantly higher average age when the pandemic surged last year. Doctors are reporting many cases in patients in their 20s or 30s, almost always unvaccinated, and they are said to be sicker than younger people were last year.

Doctors have coined the phrase “younger, sicker, quicker” to describe the phenomenon and suspect that delta is playing a role, although there is not enough data yet to be confident.

Experts continue to urge unvaccinated people in all age groups to get their shots and not put themselves at risk of a potentially lethal illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that 65-and-older Americans have the highest vaccination rate, with 80.1% fully vaccinated.

Read now: I traveled overseas as the delta variant of COVID-19 surged. Here’s what I wish I knew before my trip.

That means they have had two shots of the vaccines developed by Pfizer PFE, -1.07% with German partner BioNTech BNTX, +17.80% or Moderna MRNA, +8.42%, or one shot of Johnson & Johnson’s JNJ, -0.59% one-dose regimen. The AstraZeneca AZN, -0.61% AZN, -0.33% vaccine, widely used in the U.K. and other places, has not been authorized for use in the U.S.

That compares with the overall vaccination rate of 49.7%. Among adults 18 and over, 60.6% are fully vaccinated and 70.1% have received at least one dose. But rates vary widely from state to state, and a group of mostly southern states, led by Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, are experiencing worrying COVID-case surges, according to a New York Times tracker.

Governors in some of those states are resisting revised CDC guidance on wearing face masks, even as their hospitals fill with patients. Others have changed their minds. Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican, said he now regrets signing a law barring mask mandates from being enacted locally in his state.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is aiming to grant full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine by Labor Day or sooner, the New York Times reported. That may boost vaccination rates, as some resisters have cited the lack of full approval as a reason to avoid the shot, and it is hoped that approval will boost public confidence and encourage more people to get vaccinated.

Pfizer applied for full approval for its vaccine on May 7, and Moderna applied in June. A full approval is a much more in-depth type of authorization that takes a longer time; even a “priority review” can take six months. But experts have urged the FDA to speed up the process, as COVID-19 continues to spread and since the vaccine has shown to be safe and effective in millions of people.

In other COVID news, Beijing is banning overseas travel for its residents as it works to contain its worst outbreak since the early days of the pandemic, CBS News reported. China’s capital recorded 71 new locally transmitted cases on Wednesday.

South Korea has detected its first two cases of the new delta-plus COVID-19 variant, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, as Reuters reported. That variant is in the sublineage of the delta variant first identified in India, and has acquired the spike-protein mutation called K417N, which is also found in the beta variant first identified in South Africa, said Reuters. Some scientists fear that variant is even more transmissible than delta, but more study is required to be certain.

Greece’s entire synchronized-swimming team is out of the Olympics after four athletes tested positive for COVID-19, NPR reported. The bad news came as the sport, officially called artistic swimming, was just entering its first days of competition.

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In France, coastal areas are reactivating measures to protect from the virus, including the wearing of face masks, AFP reported. Health officials on Corsica said they were providing more intensive-care beds for COVID patients and mobilizing medical staff as hospital occupancy in Bastia, one of the Mediterranean island’s two main cities, passed 79%.

In the U.K., the vaccine advisory board is recommending that 16- and 17-year-olds be offered a first vaccine dose, namely of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the Guardian reported. In a statement circulated Wednesday afternoon, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization said its decision had been made after “large changes” in the way that COVID has been spreading in the U.K., “particularly in younger age groups.”

The European Commission will buy up to 200 million doses of the experimental COVID-19 vaccine developed by Novavax Inc. NVAX, +18.69%. The deal covers an initial 100 million doses and the option to buy an additional 100 million doses through 2023. The company said it expects to complete its submission to EU regulators in the third quarter of this year.

Former President Barack Obama has scaled back a 60th-birthday bash set for this weekend due to the surge of infections blamed on the delta variant of the coronavirus, his office said Wednesday, the AP reported. Attendance is now limited to family and close friends. Published reports had said hundreds of celebrities, politicos and others were expected at the Martha’s Vineyard home the Obamas purchased in 2019.

See: Pandemic travel restrictions separate loved ones around the world

Main Street: The CDC should scrap its confusing guidance and make Covid-19 vaccination the only priority. Images: AFP via Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness headed above 199.7 million on Wednesday, while the death toll climbed above 4.25 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with a total of 35.2 million cases and in deaths with 614,337.

India is second by cases at 31.8 million and third by deaths at 425,757 according to its official numbers, which are expected to be undercounted.

Brazil is second in deaths at 558,432, but is third in cases at 19.9 million. Mexico has fourth highest death toll at 241,936 but has recorded just 2.9 million cases, according to its official numbers.

In Europe, Russia continues to pull ahead of the U.K. by deaths at 159,032, while the U.K. has 130,179, making Russia the country with the fifth highest death toll in the world and highest in Europe.

China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 105,353 confirmed cases and 4,848 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.

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