Coronavirus case numbers are rising to dire new levels around the world, including in Bangladesh and several U.S. states, potentially wiping out two months of progress in fighting the pandemic and prompting governments and businesses to impose new restrictions.
Indonesia exceeded the 50,000 mark for confirmed infections on Thursday as the government allowed businesses to reopen amid increasing economic pressures. In Melbourne, Australia, health workers planned to go door-to-door to test more than 100,000 residents in a coronavirus hot spot that threatens to undo the nation's success in battling the virus.
In the Indian capital of New Delhi, which has reported over 70,000 cases, authorities will conduct house-to-house screenings for the virus. With the city's hospitals overwhelmed, military personnel were providing care at makeshift medical wards fashioned from railroad coaches. India reported a record 16,922 cases on Thursday, taking the national total to 473,105, with nearly 15,000 deaths.
American hospital officials and health experts, meanwhile, are warning that politicians focusing on the economy and a public tired of being cooped up are letting a deadly medical disaster spiral to new heights. The 34,700 COVID-19 cases reported Tuesday returned the U.S. to near its late April peak of 36,400 new cases in one day, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University.
Several states have set single-day case records this week, including Arizona, California, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Oklahoma. Some also broke hospitalization records, as did North Carolina and South Carolina.
"People got complacent," said Dr. Marc Boom, CEO of the Houston Methodist hospital system. "And it's coming back and biting us, quite frankly."
The virus has been blamed for over 120,000 U.S. deaths - the highest toll in the world - and more than 2.3 million confirmed infections nationwide. On Wednesday, the widely cited University of Washington computer model of the outbreak projected nearly 180,000 U.S. deaths by Oct. 1.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced that their states, which were devastated by early outbreaks that appear to be under control, will now require travelers from certain states to quarantine for 24 days upon arrival.
The quarantine applies to people coming from states with a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents on a seven-day average, or with a 10% or higher positive rate over seven days.
European nations appeared on track to reopen their shared borders by July 1, and their EU representatives debated criteria for lifting restrictions on visitors from outside Europe. In Greece, aviation officials were visiting regional airports that are due to open to direct international flights on July 1.
Americans are unlikely to be allowed into EU nations for at least the next few weeks, given how the pandemic is flaring in the U.S. and President Donald Trump's ban on Europeans entering the United States.
World financial markets were rattled by the setbacks in fighting the pandemic, which clouded prospects for recoveries of economies mired in their worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Asian shares fell Thursday after the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost over 700 points overnight for a drop of 2.7% and the broader S and P 500 fell 2.6%.
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that the continent's cases have surged to more than 336,000, up by 10,000 from a day earlier. The Africa CDC chief said the pandemic on the 54-nation continent "is picking up speed very quickly" while shortages of testing materials and medical equipment remain severe.
Alarmed, some states are moving to ensure more consistent use of face masks and other anti-virus measures.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, ordered people to wear masks in public as the daily count of hospitalizations and new cases hovered near records. In Florida, several counties and cities recently enacted mask requirements.
Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious-disease expert at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, said he worries that states will squander what time they have to head off a much larger crisis.
"We're still talking about subtlety, still arguing whether or not we should wear masks, and still not understanding that a vaccine is not going to rescue us," he said.
In Paris, the city's iconic Eiffel Tower reopened to visitors for the first time Thursday after its longest-ever closure in peace time: 104 days. But enjoying views from the top requires some effort: the lift that normally carries visitors up the 324-meter (1,063-feet) tall wrought-iron structure remains closed, so for now people have to take the stairs.
"It's very special, very special because it's only the Paris people," said Annelies Bouwhuis, a 43-year-old visitor from the Netherlands. "We've seen a lot Paris people enjoying their city, enjoying their parks without all the tourists."
Skyscraper-studded Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, ended a monthslong nightly curfew, saying in a tweet that there would be "free move all day and night" as long as people wore masks and maintained social distancing.
In China, where the virus first appeared late last year, an outbreak in Beijing appeared to have been brought under control. China reported 19 newly confirmed cases nationwide amid mass testing in the capital.
South Korea was still struggling to quell an outbreak there, reporting 28 new cases on Thursday, mostly associated with nightlife, churches, a huge e-commerce warehouse and door-to-door sales. But the numbers have not reached the hundreds of new cases every day in late February and early March.
Worldwide, over 9.4 million people have been confirmed infected, and nearly 500,000 have died, by Johns Hopkins' count. Experts say those numbers are low due to limited testings and missed mild cases.
Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO's emergencies chief, said when countries will hit their peak numbers of infections hinges entirely on what people do.
"There are no magic answers. There are no spells here. You can't divine this away," Ryan told reporters in Geneva. "We have to act at every level."
The race to a vaccine
Who would be the first to get a COVID-19 vaccine? Probably people in the country where the first effective vaccine is developed.
About a dozen different vaccines are in various stages of testing worldwide, including in Britain, China and the U.S. This week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said he is cautiously optimistic there will be a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year or early 2021.
Several wealthy countries have already ordered millions of doses of those experimental vaccines.
Britain and the U.S., for example, have invested in a vaccine candidate being developed by Oxford University and produced by AstraZeneca. If it works, U.K. politicians have said Britons will be vaccinated with it. The U.S. expects to start stockpiling it this fall and also has invested in other vaccine candidates.
Groups including the vaccine alliance GAVI are also working to buy doses for poor countries and AstraZeneca has agreed to license its vaccine to India's Serum Institute for the production of 1 billion doses. The World Health Organization is drafting guidelines for the ethical distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
How vaccines are distributed within a country will vary. Last week, U.S. officials said they were developing a tiered system for that. The system would likely prioritize groups at greatest risk of severe complications from COVID-19 and key workers.
As the race intensifies for a vaccine against the new coronavirus, rich countries are rushing to place advance orders for the inevitably limited supply to guarantee their citizens get immunized first - leaving significant questions about whether developing countries will get any vaccines in time to save lives before the pandemic ends.
Earlier this month, the United Nations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, and others said it was a "moral imperative" that everyone have access to a "people's vaccine." But such grand declarations are unenforceable, and without a detailed strategy, the allocation of vaccines could be inequitable and extremely messy, said health experts.
"We have this beautiful picture of everyone getting the vaccine, but there is no road map on how to do it," said Yuan Qiong Hu, a senior legal and policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders in Geneva. Few measures have been taken to resolve numerous problems for achieve fair distribution, she said.
In the past, Hu said, companies have often applied for patents for nearly every step of a vaccine's development and production: from the biological material like cell lines used, to the preservative needed to stretch vaccine doses and even how the shots are administered.
"We can't afford to face these multiple layers of private rights to create a 'people's vaccine,'" she said.
Speaking at a vaccine summit earlier this month that addressed the thorny issue of equitable distribution, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo agreed.
"Only a people's vaccine with equality and solidarity at its core can protect all of humanity from the virus," he said.
At a summit with African leaders on Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said countries in Africa would be "among the first to benefit" once a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and deployed in China, but no deals were announced to back up his promise.
Worldwide, about a dozen potential COVID-19 vaccines are in early stages of testing. While some could move into late-stage testing later this year if all goes well, it's unlikely any would be licensed before early next year at the earliest. Still, numerous rich countries have already ordered some of these experimental shots and expect delivery even before they are granted marketing approval.
Britain and the U.S. have spent millions of dollars on various vaccine candidates, including one being developed by Oxford University and manufactured by AstraZeneca. In return, both countries are expected to get priority treatment; the British government declared that if the vaccine proves effective, the first 30 million doses would be earmarked for Britons.
Separately AstraZeneca signed an agreement to make at least 300 million doses available for the U.S., with the first batches delivered as early as October. In a briefing Tuesday, senior Trump administration officials said there will be a tiered system to determine who in America is offered the first vaccine doses. Tiers likely would include groups most at risk of severe disease and workers performing essential services.
Last week, the European Union moved to ensure its own supply. On Saturday, AstraZeneca struck a deal with a vaccines group forged by Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands to secure 400 million doses by the end of the year.
Among several global efforts underway to try to ensure developing countries don't get left behind is an "advance market commitment" from the vaccines alliance GAVI, whose CEO has warned countries about the dangers of vaccines not being available globally.
"Even if a few countries go ahead and have vaccines, if there are raging outbreaks in other places ... that is going to continue to threaten the world and the return to normality," said Seth Berkley, the GAVI CEO.
GAVI and partners have inked a $750 million deal with AstraZeneca to supply 400 million doses by the end of 2020. The Anglo-Swedish pharma giant has also agreed to license its vaccine to India's Serum Institute for the production of 1 billion doses.
Johnson and Johnson plans to make its coronavirus shot for poor countries at a not-for-profit price, because of the complexity of the technology and expertise needed, said the company's chief scientific officer, Dr. Paul Stoffels. Likewise, AstraZeneca has pledged to make the vaccine available at no profit during the pandemic.
The World Health Organization and others have called for a COVID-19 "patents pool," where intellectual property rights would be surrendered so pharmaceuticals could freely share data and technical knowledge. Numerous countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada and Germany have already begun revising their licensing laws to allow them to suspend intellectual property rights if authorities decide there is an overwhelming need given the pandemic.
But the response from the industry has been lukewarm.
Executives at Pfizer and some other major drug makers say they oppose suspending patent rights for potential COVID-19 vaccines. Health officials worry what that might mean for divvying up supplies of a vaccine arguably needed by every country on the planet.
"We can't just rely on goodwill to ensure access," said Arzoo Ahmed, of Britain's Nuffield Council on Bioethics, noting that precedents of how innovative drugs have been distributed are not encouraging. "With HIV/AIDS, it took 10 years for the drugs to reach people in lower-income countries."
African nations have already been at the back of the line for medical supplies in the pandemic and "it will be worse if a vaccine is found," UNAIDS chief Winnie Byanyima told reporters Thursday. "We can't afford to be in the back of the queue."
Other experts pointed out that there are billions of taxpayer dollars devoted to every stage of vaccine development, but little oversight over how the funds are spent and few guarantees the inoculations will get to those who need them most.
"We don't know what the process will look like or how transparent it will be," said Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute Geneva.
The World Health Organization is currently working on developing an "allocation framework" for how coronavirus vaccines should be given out, said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the U.N. health agency's chief scientist. But this guidance would not be binding.
Swaminathan said she hoped there might be 2 billion doses available for vulnerable and priority health workers globally by the end of next year and that WHO would propose how they might be distributed.
"Countries need to agree and come to a consensus," she said. "That's the only way this can work."
China has said Bangladesh will get priority in terms of cooperation and support if they can successfully develop vaccine for the coronavirus.
"Of course, Bangladesh is our important friend and Bangladesh will surely get priority," Deputy Chief of Mission at Chinese Embassy in Dhaka Hualong Yan told our sister newsagency UNB this week.
He said Bangladesh and China are working closely to deal with the situation amid the coronavirus outbreak.
He said five Chinese companies are working to develop vaccine for coronavirus.
An inactivated COVID-19 vaccine candidate developed by the Institute of Medical Biology under the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences has entered phase-2 clinical trials in China, the Science and Technology Daily reported Saturday.
The phase-2 trials, which further evaluate the immunogenicity and safety of the vaccine in humans, are conducted in the southwestern province of Yunnan.
So far, five COVID-19 vaccine candidates have been approved for clinical trials in China, accounting for 40 percent of the total vaccines in clinical trials worldwide, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology, reports Xinhua.
As Bangladesh's fight against the COVID-19 pandemic continued to become fiercer, Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China, had a phone call conversation with Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, on May 20.
During the talks, President Xi reassured Prime Minister Hasina of standing by Bangladesh as the truest friend in this all-out war against COVID-19.
Additional reporting from AP
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