Coronavirus live news: Fauci says political divide added to ‘stunning’ US deaths; Italy ‘misled’ WHO

Japan’s Emperor Naruhito said he was anticipating a “bright future” as Japan began its coronavirus inoculation programme, during an address to mark his 61st birthday on Tuesday, Reuters reports.

Celebrations to mark the Emperor’s birthday have been muted this year because of the pandemic.

“Fortunately, the number of new infections appears to be declining nationwide. Furthermore, coronavirus vaccinations have started,” Naruhito said, speaking to reporters at the imperial palace from behind a large transparent partition.

“I look forward to a bright future ahead, as our people overcome the coronavirus crisis by sharing the pain and helping each other, “ Naruhito said.

Japan’s Covid vaccination started this month, but one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies faces challenges with the programme.

Japan’s Emperor Naruhito celebrates his 61st birthday in Tokyo, Japan.

Japan’s Emperor Naruhito celebrates his 61st birthday in Tokyo, Japan. Photograph: Imperial Household Agency of Jap/Reuters

There will be limited supplies of vaccine doses for the first months of the rollout and shots for the elderly will be distributed gradually, the inoculation chief said on Monday.

On the Emperor’s birthday, visitors usually come to the imperial palace to offer good wishes and sign a guestbook – a practice that dates back to 1948. The Emperor also appears on a palace balcony with other members of the imperial family to speak to visitors.

Those events were cancelled this year. Naruhito’s new year public appearance last month was also replaced by a video message.

Naruhito, the grandson of Emperor Hirohito in whose name Imperial troops fought World War Two, is Japan’s first monarch born after the war. He ascended the throne in 2019 after his father, Akihito, abdicated

Ben Doherty

Papua New Guinea’s Covid-19 tsar has tested positive for the coronavirus.

David Manning, PNG’s pandemic response controller and police commissioner, tested positive, along with two family members, over the weekend.

He said, given the nature of his work, and his high level of exposure, infection “was bound to happen sooner or later”.

I have been telling people to be tested for Covid-19 and as the controller I had to take the test. I am glad I did, so I am now taking measures to protect my family.

I urge everyone to go to your nearest health centre and get tested. It is by knowing your status you can then take steps to protect your loved ones, especially the most vulnerable including the old and those with existing medical conditions.

Manning reiterated concerns about the low number of Covid-19 tests conducted across PNG.

Papua New Guinea pandemic controller and police commissioner David Manning

Papua New Guinea pandemic controller and police commissioner David Manning Photograph: EMTV Papua New Guinea

“Our Covid-19 response is more than 12 months in place but we have only tested about 50,000 people. This is roughly 0.5% of the PNG population.

“I want to see more tests being done around the country so that we can have a fair idea of where the pandemic is in PNG and take measures to mitigate and contain it.”

PNG has had only 1056 confirmed cases, and 10 known deaths from Covid-19, but the actual rate of infection and death is likely significantly higher.

WHO agrees compensation fund for serious Covax vaccine side effects

The World Health Organization has agreed a no-fault compensation plan for claims of serious side effects in people in 92 poorer countries due to get COVID-19 vaccines via the Covax sharing scheme, resolving a big concern among recipient governments, Reuters reports.

The programme, which the WHO said was the first and only vaccine injury compensation mechanism operating on an international scale, will offer eligible people “a fast, fair, robust and transparent process”, the WHO said in a statement.

“By providing a no-fault lump-sum compensation in full and final settlement of any claims, the Covax programme aims to significantly reduce the need for recourse to the law courts, a potentially lengthy and costly process,” the statement said.

Questions of how compensation claims would be handled in the event of any serious Covid vaccine side effects, which are likely to be very rare, had been a worry for countries due to get Covid shots via the COVAX plan.

Countries funding their own Covid vaccine procurement also plan their own liability programmes.

The WHO-agreed plan, which has been under discussion for several months, is designed to cover serious side effects linked to any Covax-distributed vaccines until June 30, 2022, to Covax’s Advance Market Commitment-eligible economies – a group of 92 poorer states which includes most African and Southeast Asian countries.

Austria bets on millions of tests to contain Covid-19

While Austria has struggled to contain the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, it is fast emerging as a world leader in testing as a way to reopen schools and businesses, AFP reports.

The small nation with a population of just under nine million tested three million people last week alone, with the mass-testing strategy forming a key plank for getting pupils back into the classroom.

Half of those three million tests were administered in schools, where twice-weekly tests have been mandatory since in-person lessons restarted earlier this month.

Only a tiny percentage of parents have refused to have their children tested under the scheme – and those children are not allowed to return to school.

The other 1.5 million tests were carried out at more than 500 dedicated centres, around 900 pharmacies and roughly 1,000 companies.

Biden on reaching 500,000 US Covid deaths: ‘We must not become numb to the sorrow’

In a somber address to the nation as the US surpassed half a million coronavirus deaths on Monday, Joe Biden urged the country to unify in its battle against the virus.

“I ask all Americans to remember those we lost and those we left behind. But as we all remember, I also ask us to act, to remain vigilant, to stay socially distanced, to mask up, get vaccinated when it’s your turn,” the president said in his address from the White House.

Biden used the speech to urge Americans to overcome partisanship and follow public health guidelines as his administration races to distribute vaccines and end the pandemic:

China reported 10 new Covid cases on 22 February, down from 11 cases a day earlier, the national health authority said on Tuesday.

The National Health Commission said in a statement all of the new cases were imported infections originating from overseas. The number of new asymptomatic cases, which China does not classify as confirmed cases, rose to nine from eight a day earlier.

The total number of confirmed Covid cases in mainland China now stands at 89,852, while the death toll remained unchanged at 4,636.

Australia will ramp up its Covid immunisation drive with more shots to be rolled out from next week, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Tuesday, after a second shipment of the vaccine reached the country overnight.

Reuters: About 166,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc and Germany’s BioNtech arrived late Monday, authorities said, as the country entered the second day of a nationwide inoculation programme.

Total weekly doses will be raised to 80,000 next week from 60,000 doses this week, with the number expected to reach 1 million a week by the end of March when CSL Ltd begins to locally produce the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Australia on Monday began mass Covid vaccinations for its 25 million people after the arrival last week of a first batch of more than 142,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine.

Elle Hunt

All of New Zealand is in alert level 1 after a cluster of coronavirus cases in the community in Auckland was successfully contained, but prime minister Jacinda Ardern is under renewed pressure to reassess the country’s border controls.

Nick Wilson, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Otago, and the opposition National party are both calling for a purpose-built managed isolation and quarantine facility instead of converted hotels.

Wilson told the Herald the border response was “highly problematic” and in need of an overhaul: “The failure rate is just so unsustainably high, with now 11 border failures since last August.”Wilson is set to meet with ministers this week to discuss his concerns.

National’s Chris Bishop has said that a dedicated quarantine facility, with separate ventilation systems for each room and facilities on-site for staff, could be built on land outside Auckland airport, far from the central city. Victoria state premier Daniel Andrews announced plans for such a facility last week.

But Ardern has so far resisted the idea, saying that the bespoke building would be a “significant ask” and not necessarily effective in preventing transmission – while the vaccination rollout could change what’s required at the border.

Elle Hunt

More on New Zealand now:

Auckland has now joined the rest of the country at alert level 1, mask wearing is now compulsory on all trains, buses and planes around the country. Experts have been urging for the measure for months, but Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins told Radio New Zealand the government had to weigh up conflicting advice over whether they were effective as a precautionary approach.Hipkins said the government would take a “fairly light-handed approach” to enforcement initially to give people and transport providers an opportunity to comply.

Cabinet has also decided against making checking into venues mandatory, despite falling numbers of scans (which would prove crucial to contact tracing in the event of an outbreak). Hipkins said compulsion posed issues with enforcement, such as with people who do not own phones.

The government would be looking at ways to increase QR code scans as a preventative measure – but Hipkins was cheered by the vaccination programme, getting underway as of this week.

New Zealand confirms new Covid case

Elle Hunt

New Zealand’s Ministry of Health has confirmed a new positive Covid-19 case in the community, a schoolmate of one from the original Auckland cluster.

The girl had had limited exposure to the original case but, as a fellow student at Papatoetoe High School, had been asked to seek testing and self-isolate at home.

The school was closed last week as part of precautions; when it reopened yesterday, the girl and her sibling had stayed home.

“Despite the rest of the country moving down alert levels, Papatoetoe high school and their community have stayed at a heightened state of alert more than akin to level 3,” said Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins.

Hipkins has asked all students and teachers and some household members to present to the school for another test and that people elsewhere in New Zealand, “be kind”.

“This is the early phase of the investigation into this particular case and we ask people not to pass judgement on others.”

The cases now associated with the most recent Auckland outbreak is nine. Waste water testing from the Papatoetoe area as well as nearly 70,000 tests processed since Sunday has give

UK govt eyes return to normal by end of June

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday set out a four-step plan to ease coronavirus restrictions, expressing hope that life could get back to normal by the end of June, AFP reports.

In a statement to parliament, he outlined a “gradual and cautious” approach to lifting curbs in England, starting with the reopening of schools from March 8 and non-essential retail from 12 April.

Some fans could be able to attend sporting fixtures from 17 May, while all social distancing restrictions could be removed from 21 June – all subject to change and depending on scientific data.

The announcement is the first big step towards restoring normal life, nearly a year after Johnson imposed the first of three stay-at-home orders that have devastated Britain’s economy.

Johnson told MPs that with a mass vaccination programme easing pressure on overstretched hospitals, “the end really is in sight”.

“A wretched year will give way to a spring and summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today,” he added.

The Conservative leader, who was accused of acting too late and relaxing curbs too early last year, said the plan would be “cautious but irreversible”, ensuring no more lockdowns.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer urged Johnson not to buckle in the face of pressure from Conservative lawmakers for a faster return to normality.

Such a move would “waste all the sacrifices of the last 12 months”, Starmer warned.

Adam Morton

Most of the reduction in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions last year is likely to be wiped out as transport rebounds after Covid-19 lockdowns and farming recovers from the long-term-drought, according to an audit of national climate data.

Scott Morrison told the National Press Club earlier this month the government was “getting on with” reducing emissions, citing official data that found emissions were down 3% in the year to June to their lowest levels since 1998. He declared “these are the facts”.

An audit by Hugh Saddler, an energy consultant and honorary associate professor at ANU’s Crawford school of public policy, suggests at least some of the drop is likely to disappear:

Syria approves Russia’s Sputnik Covid vaccine

Syria has authorised the use of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, its embassy in Moscow said Monday, AFP reports.

The country is the latest to approve the Russian vaccine, named after the Soviet-era satellite. Sputnik V was registered in August before clinical trials were underway, which left experts wary.

But leading medical journal The Lancet published results showing the jab to be safe and 91.6 percent effective.

“The Syrian Arab Republic has completed all registration procedures for the Russian Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus infection and allowed its use on its territory,” the Russian TASS news agency cited the Syrian embassy as saying in a statement.

More than 30 countries have approved the vaccine, according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which financed its development.

Syria in December also signed on to the World Health Organisation’s Covax initiative to procure vaccines.

The WHO, together with the UN children’s agency UNICEF and Gavi, will support Syria in acquiring jabs to initially cover at least three percent of the population and aim for 20 percent by the end of the year.

Syria has recorded 15,179 coronavirus infections and 998 fatalities from the virus in government-held areas.

Territories under Kurdish control in the country’s northeast have recorded nearly 8,600 cases and 311 deaths, while the rebel-held northwest has reported 21,121 infections and 408 fatalities.

Russia backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s long-running civil war.

Italy ‘misled’ WHO about pandemic preparedness weeks before Covid confirmed locally

Italy allegedly misled the World Health Organization (WHO) on its readiness to face a pandemic less than three weeks before the country’s first locally transmitted coronavirus case was confirmed.

Each year, countries bound by the International Health Regulations (IHR) – an international treaty to combat the global spread of disease – are required to file a self-assessment report to the WHO on the status of their preparedness for a health emergency.

Italy undertook its last self-assessment report on 4 February 2020. In section C8 of the report, seen by the Guardian, where countries have to evaluate their overall readiness to respond to a public health emergency, the author marks Italy in ‘level 5’, which is the highest status of preparedness.

The category states that a country’s “health sector emergency response coordination mechanism and incident management system linked with a national emergency operation centre have been tested and updated regularly”.

However, it emerged last year that Italy had not updated its national pandemic plan since 2006, a factor that may have contributed to at least 10,000 Covid-19 deaths during the first wave and which is a key element in an investigation into alleged errors by authorities being carried out by prosecutors in Bergamo, the Lombardy province that was severely affected in the pandemic’s early stage:

Fauci says political divide added to ‘stunning’ US deaths

Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said political divisiveness contributed significantly to the “stunning” US coronavirus death toll, which on Monday surpassed 500,000 lives lost, Reuters reports.

The country had recorded more than 28 million Covid cases and 500,054 fatalities as of Monday afternoon, according to a Reuters tally of public health data. In an interview with Reuters, Fauci on Monday said the pandemic arrived in the United States as the country was riven by political divisions in which wearing a mask became a political statement rather than a public health measure.

“Even under the best of circumstances, this would have been a very serious problem,” Fauci said, noting that despite strong adherence to public health measures, countries such as Germany and the UK struggled with the virus.

“However, that does not explain how a rich and sophisticated country can have the most percentage of deaths and be the hardest-hit country in the world,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top adviser to President Joe Biden.

“That I believe should not have happened.”

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

While the United States has just about 4% of the global population, it has recorded nearly 20% of all Covid-19 deaths.

Fauci said the emergence of more contagious variants of the coronavirus, especially ones from South Africa and Brazil that have been shown to reduce the immunity from natural infections and vaccines, have made it challenging to predict when the nation will be able to put the pandemic behind it.

Fauci and Biden have said the United States should return to something approaching pre-pandemic normal life around Christmas. That could change, he cautioned.

The variants also change the equation when it comes to herd immunity, in which a population becomes protected from infection because of high levels of immunity from vaccines or infections.

Asked whether that is still achievable, Fauci said, “I think we can get herd immunity at least against getting sick.”


Hello and welcome to today’s live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic with me, Helen Sullivan.

I’ll be bringing you the latest coronavirus developments for the next few hours _ as always, you can find me (and a movie recommendation) on Twitter, too @helenrsullivan.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said political divisiveness contributed significantly to the “stunning” national Covid-19 death toll, which on Monday surpassed 500,000.

Meanwhile Italy allegedly misled the World Health Organization (WHO) on its readiness to face a pandemic less than three weeks before the country’s first locally transmitted coronavirus case was confirmed.

Here are the key developments from the last few hours:

  • More than half a million people have died of Covid-19 in the US, according to Johns Hopkins University. The country had recorded more than 28 million cases and 500,071 lives have been lost as of Monday afternoon.
  • US president Joe Biden is set to mark the latest tragic milestone of Covid deaths in the US on Monday night, with a candlelit commemoration and moment of silence for the 500,000 who will have lost their lives.
  • The US has administered 64,177,474 doses of Covid-19 vaccines as of Monday morning and delivered 75,205,940 doses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
  • Italy allegedly misled the World Health Organization (WHO) on its readiness to face a pandemic less than three weeks before the country’s first locally transmitted coronavirus case was confirmed.

  • British prime minister Boris Johnson has set out a four-stage plan for England to come out of lockdown that could pave the way for nightclubs to reopen, sports fans to fill stadiums once again and staycations to return.
  • Real-world evidence from the Covid vaccination programmes in England and Scotland show that one dose of vaccine gives high protection against severe disease and admission to hospital – and protects against even mild disease with no symptoms in younger people.
  • France reported a further 333 deaths from Covid-19, as well as 4,646 new infections, an increase from last Monday’s daily case tally of 4,376.

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