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WHO Calls for Urgent Action to Slow COVID-19 Spread in Africa

GENEVA – The World Health Organization is calling for urgent action to stem the rapid spread of COVID-19 across Africa, which is being fueled by a surge of more contagious variants of the disease.

Latest reports say COVID-19 cases in Africa have been rising by 25% every week for the past six weeks, bringing reported cases there to more than 5.4 million, including 141,000 deaths.

WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, warns the rampant spread of the more contagious alpha, beta, and delta variants is raising the pandemic threat across the continent to a new level.

“The speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is like nothing we have seen before,” said Moeti. “Cases are doubling every three weeks, compared to every four weeks at the start of the second wave. Almost 202,000 cases were reported in the past week and the continent is on the verge of exceeding its worst week ever in this pandemic.”

In the same period, WHO reports deaths have risen by 15% across 38 African countries to nearly 3,000. The jump is largely due to the highly transmissible coronavirus variants, which have spread to dozens of countries. The most contagious delta variant has been found in 16 countries. It reportedly has become the dominant strain in South Africa.

Moeti says more people are falling ill and requiring hospitalization, even people younger than 45 years. She says evidence is growing that the delta variant is causing longer and more severe illness.

With Africa’s lack of life-saving vaccines, Moeti says it is important for people to practice public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and frequent handwashing to prevent the disease from spreading.

“With WHO’s guidance, countries are taking action to curb the rise in cases,” said Moeti. “All countries in resurgence in the region have put limits on people gathering to help with physical distancing. …They are using nuanced, risk-based approaches, informed by the local epidemiology, in an effort to avoid nationwide lockdowns that we know cause great harm to livelihoods, particularly for low-income households.”

Vaccines are proving highly effective against the COVID-19 variants and in ending devastating surges of severe cases of the disease. They are widely available in the world’s richest countries, but not Africa.

Moeti is urgently appealing to countries to share their excess doses to help plug the continent’s vaccine gap, saying Africa must not be left languishing in the throes of its worst wave yet.

Source: Voice of America

Unvaccinated Americans Whiter, More Republican Than Vaccinated

Americans who say they will definitely not get vaccinated against COVID-19 are overwhelmingly white and Republican, according to polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Meanwhile, the group that plans to wait and watch for problems is disproportionately Black and Hispanic.

The United States is falling just short of President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of Americans receive at least one dose of vaccine by July 4.

While about one-third of Americans have not been immunized against COVID-19, their reasons and intentions break down largely along racial and political lines. Hard no

Only 14% of Americans say they will definitely not get vaccinated. But this group is 69% white, compared with 7% Black and 12% Hispanic. Republicans make up 58% of this group, while Democrats account for 18%.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen political divides in attitudes towards COVID itself, not just the vaccines,” said Liz Hamel, director of KFF’s Public Opinion and Survey Research program.

For example, she said, “believing that the media has exaggerated the seriousness of the pandemic — that’s something that we heard President [Donald] Trump saying when he was in office. It’s something that Republicans are more likely to agree with than Democrats. And people who believe that the pandemic has been exaggerated are much less likely to say they want to get the vaccine.”

More than half of those who said they would not get vaccinated said they did not need it. Maybe later

On the other hand, KFF polling found that 10% of respondents said that they would “wait and see” before getting the shots.

The “wait and see” group is disproportionately Black (18%) and Hispanic (22%), compared with the “definitely not” group, where they make up 7% and 12%, respectively.

While the “definitely not” group is basically unchanged, the “wait and see” group has shrunk to a quarter of the size it was when vaccines began rolling out in December, as more and more people have gotten their shots.

But the number of people who still plan to wait and see seems to be leveling off. After big drops during the first couple of months of vaccine rollout, the “wait and see” group has lost just a few percentage points each month over the past several months.

While those who remain unvaccinated are increasingly hard to reach, experts say there are still opportunities to get more shots in arms.

Safety

The biggest reasons for hesitancy in all groups are the novelty of the vaccines and concerns about side effects.

All the vaccines currently in use are under emergency authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has lower safety requirements than full FDA approval. About half of the “wait and see” group told KFF pollsters that they would be more likely to get the shots if they were FDA approved.

Health officials are working with trusted faith and community leaders, business owners, and others in communities with low vaccination rates. “We need these individuals to encourage their peers to accept the vaccine,” said Rupali Limaye, head of behavioral and implementation science at the Johns Hopkins International Vaccine Access Center.

Some governments and businesses are offering incentives for people to get their shots, from free beer to million-dollar lotteries.

“Some people may be nudged by a free doughnut,” Limaye said. “Others may require something larger, such as a chance for a college scholarship, for example.”

Access is still an issue for some of the unvaccinated. In the KFF poll, 3% of people still said they planned to get vaccinated “as soon as possible.”

Reaching this group may not sound like much of a gain, but “even an increase of one to two percent of vaccine coverage at the state level could really limit outbreaks,” Limaye said.

Low-wage workers may be worried about finding time to schedule shots or recover from side effects.

Health officials could target Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine for this group, Limaye said.

Employers could offer vaccines on the job, she added, and “they can also give employees time off to make sure that they can get the vaccine.”

These measures may help motivate the “wait and see” group, KFF’s Hamel said.

“There still is a lot of work to do in convincing those potentially convertible people before really worrying about how to convince people who … are really strongly against getting the vaccine,” she added.

KFF’s most recent random-digit dial telephone survey reached 1,888 adults from June 8 to 21. The margin of error is 3%.

Source: Voice of America

Ugandans Face 2 Months’ Imprisonment for Violating COVID Laws

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Ugandans may find themselves in jail for two months if they are found breaking public health controls in a new COVID-19 law. Through July, acts such as praying in open spaces, not wearing masks, hawking, street vending and selling nonfood items will get one arrested. These are now deemed acts that enable the spread of COVID-19. Uganda has registered 1,057 new cases, 1081 active cases and 1061 deaths.

Samples collected in early June indicate that the predominant COVID strain currently in Uganda is the delta variant first seen in India.

Jane Ruth Aceng is the minister for health.

“From our observations, we have noted increased transmissibility resulting in a fast-moving outbreak, more severe clinical presentations of new cases and unfortunately resulting in poor clinical outcomes,” said Aceng.

Aceng says Uganda will most likely reach the peak of daily case numbers in late July or early August, before registering a slight drop in cases.

That is why, through July, anyone found praying in an open space or outside a church or a mosque, not wearing masks, hawking, street vending and selling nonfood items will be sentenced to two months in jail.

Anyone found operating a bar or a movie theater, attending a seminar, cultural event or indoor sports event could face jail time if convicted.

State minister for health Anifa Kawooya says the law is necessary.

“These penalties are not punishments. In one way, it is to instill attitude change,” said Kawooya. “That the moment that you know that if I don’t observe these SOPs [standard operating procedures], this will happen.”

The new law also prohibits entry of visitors from India, other than Ugandan citizens or residents. Anyone who aids in the escape of someone confined in a place designated for isolation or quarantine of COVID-19 can also be imprisoned for two months.

More vaccine coming

The Health Ministry hopes that once the government can acquire more vaccines, fewer people will be severely affected and in need of critical care in hospitals. So far 861,645 people have been inoculated with their first dose of AstraZeneca and 129,257 have had their second dose.

Between July and August Uganda expects to receive 974,400 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the Covax facility and another 300,000 Sinovac doses from China.

To encourage Ugandans to get vaccinated, the country is currently undertaking a study to monitor vaccine efficacy by counting COVID infections that may occur in vaccinated people.

“Preliminary Investigations show that no hospitalized persons were fully vaccinated at the time of illness,” said Aceng. “Therefore, there’s no current evidence to support the allegations that fully vaccinated persons have acquired severe infections and died in Uganda.”

Uganda has also applied for 2 million doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine through the African Export-Import Bank and the African Union. and another 9 million doses through the Covax cost-sharing facility.

Source: Voice of America

North Korea Shows No Vaccine Urgency, Despite New Virus Woes

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – North Korea this week reported a mysterious “grave incident” that suggested a major lapse related to its coronavirus response.

Its leader, Kim Jong Un, recently acknowledged food shortages, comparing the situation to a devastating 1990s famine.

The North now acknowledges on a regular basis that it faces a worsening pandemic-related crisis, even as it continues to claim it is free of COVID-19.

Just how severe a crisis is unknown because North Korea has shut itself off from the outside world in an all-encompassing 17-month coronavirus lockdown.

What is increasingly clear, though, is that North Korea is dragging its feet on accepting the international vaccines that offer the best way out of its predicament.

Talks stalled

North Korea has done little to advance the process to receive vaccines from COVAX, the United Nations-backed program meant to ensure fair global vaccine distribution.

Negotiations between North Korea and Gavi, a vaccine alliance that helps run COVAX, have stalled for months, with North Korea completing only two of the seven required administrative steps, according to a source familiar with the talks.

“If the DPRK had been swift with the paperwork, they would have gotten some vaccines. It’s hard to say how much, but if they complied with the request from Gavi we would be well underway now,” said the source, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussion, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

In a statement, Gavi did not comment on the status of the negotiations.

“Work is ongoing and discussions continue with DPRK,” a Gavi spokesperson said. “As we get closer to a potential delivery, we’ll be able to share more information on timetables.”

Multiple obstacles

Gavi announced in March that it planned to distribute 1.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to North Korea by May.

Several barriers have delayed the shipment, though, including North Korean concerns about the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, reluctance to sign a liability waiver in case of side effects, and refusal to allow international workers into the country to facilitate the shipment.

Global supply shortages are also to blame. India, a major producer of the AstraZeneca vaccine, earlier this year suspended vaccine exports amid its own explosion in COVID-19 cases.

North Korea appears to see the vaccine shortage as a main obstacle. In a May statement to the World Health Organization, North Korea accused countries of selfishly hoarding vaccine supplies, creating a “bottleneck” in global production.

Refrigeration issues

A big hurdle is North Korea’s antiquated and uneven health care system, which limits its ability to handle many types of COVID-19 vaccines.

The country does not have a consistent electricity supply, much less the network of ultra-cold refrigerators and specialized delivery trucks needed to handle vaccines such as those produced by Pfizer and Moderna, which utilize advanced mRNA technology.

According to the source familiar with the talks, North Korea has not yet accepted international offers to help upgrade its cold supply chain network.

That means Pyongyang may be forced to choose between the AstraZeneca vaccine, or those made in China or Russia, all of which can be stored at higher temperatures. It is not clear whether North Korea has considered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which also does not require super cold storage.

At a briefing last week, a Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson refused to say whether China has provided any vaccines to North Korea, saying only Beijing was prepared to help “should there be such a need.”

The Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, has also not been delivered to North Korea, according to an April report in the state-run TASS news agency, which quoted Russian Embassy officials in Pyongyang.

No foreigners

Another problem is North Korea’s severe lockdown, which has prevented virtually any foreigners from entering the country.

According to the source who spoke with VOA, North Korea is refusing to allow international aid workers into the country to help facilitate the shipment, ostensibly because of fears about outsiders bringing COVID-19 into the country.

However, Gavi procedures require that international staff must be present, the source said. Gavi “won’t just ship it,” the source said.

United Nations agencies’ employees, who might have been able to help with the vaccine shipment, have left North Korea amid worsening lockdown conditions.

Will it change anytime soon?

It does not seem that North Korea will retreat from its hunkered-down position anytime soon. Kim has repeatedly warned of a “prolonged” lockdown, saying his country must maintain “perfect” anti-epidemic measures.

Many officials and diplomats in the region now privately concede that it may be years before North Korea reopens to many foreigners.

However, some analysts speculate that North Korea may have been hinting at a different pandemic approach this week when it acknowledged a “grave incident” in its pandemic stance.

Kim did not say what the lapse was, but he lambasted senior officials during a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, even replacing several of them, presumably over the situation.

The move could amount to North Korea laying the groundwork for eventually accepting international help, said Ramon Pacheco-Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London.

“The insistence on this being an international crisis, plus now admitting that this is affecting North Korea, as well, opens the door to international cooperation,” Pacheco-Pardo said.

Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based Korea specialist at the Stimson Center, though, questioned that conclusion.

“If North Korea wants to accept vaccines it can just do so,” she said. “Convening a politburo meeting to do that seems unnecessarily convoluted,” she added.

Meanwhile, North Korea appears to be managing expectations at home. In a May editorial, the state-run Rodong Sinmun warned of a long battle against the virus, adding the vaccines produced overseas were “no universal panacea.”

Source: Voice of America