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COVID-19 Around the World

Weekly COVID news at a glance

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(AUS) Quarantine changes

Victoria has begun to change its quarantine requirements for both confirmed positive cases and international arrivals. Fully vaccinated travellers and aircrew can now quarantine at home when they arrive in Victoria.

COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria Commissioner Emma Cassar has confirmed hotel quarantine will be wound back in coming weeks, as the state adjusts to living with COVID. Almost all remaining coronavirus restrictions for Victoria lifted just before midnight last Friday, including changes to self-quarantine requirements for positive cases and close contacts.

The quarantine period for confirmed cases will drop from 14 days to ten days, and close contacts not in the same household as a confirmed case, will only have to isolate until they receive a negative test result. Household contacts will have to isolate for seven days if fully vaccinated or 14 days if not vaccinated.

(AUS) Risks even after being vaccinated

Vaccines are the best form of protection against the virus, but fully vaccinated people can still contract COVID.

If two people who are fully vaccinated meet up however, they effectively have three layers of vaccine protection. Firstly, they are both are far less likely to bring the virus to the meeting and secondly, if either person is infected but vaccinated, they are less likely to pass on the virus than an unvaccinated person would be.

Thirdly, the uninfected person will have protection from the infected because they are also vaccinated. Studies from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute show the AstraZeneca vaccine offers between 60 and 67 per cent effectiveness against infection, Pfizer is 90 per cent and Moderna, 95 per cent. Research also shows that handwashing and mask wearing can reduce risks even further. 

 

(AUS) Visa holders welcomed back

Australia’s international borders will be reopened to eligible visa holders from 1 December after being locked out for almost two years due to the pandemic. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Monday a range of fully-vaccinated visa holders will no longer be required to secure an exemption to travel into the country. 

Those eligible for the rule change will include skilled migrants, international students, humanitarian as well as working holiday maker and provisional family visa holders. The federal government has estimated 200,000 migrants holding these visas are expected to take up the offer between December and January. 

 

(Worldwide) Austria COVID-19 vaccines mandatory

The Austrian government has recently announced it will make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory from 1 February, becoming the first EU country to do so. But it remains unclear what penalties will be in place for those who flout the mandatory policy.

The strict measures come after COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in Austria, with the country seeing a fourth wave of infections. Days after Austria imposed a lockdown on the unvaccinated, it announced a full national COVID-19 lockdown starting on Monday. The restrictions will be in force for 20 days.

(Worldwide) More Asian countries welcome vaccinated

As Asian countries are learning to live with the coronavirus — with the notable exception of China — and gaining momentum in their vaccination campaigns, several are cautiously reopening their borders and welcoming travelers.

While some Asian nations vaccinated the majority of their populations months ago, they are only now reopening to international travel — just before the winter holidays. On Monday, Singapore said it would allow back in travelers from five more countries, including India and Indonesia, starting later in the month.

 

(Worldwide) U.S. expands COVID-19 booster

U.S. regulators expanded eligibility for booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines to all adults on Friday, allowing millions more Americans to get additional protection against the virus amid a recent rise in infections.

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, signed off on the expanded eligibility on Friday evening after the U.S. FDA broadened its authorization of booster doses to all adults who had received their second shot of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine at least six months prior. According to an agency spokesperson, the CDC stopped short of saying all adults should get a booster.

 

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(AUS) Regional community centre has vaccine success

A community centre in Wodonga on the New South Wales-Victoria border is being acknowledged as having run a successful regional COVID vaccination program, especially with its multicultural residents. The Albury-Wodonga region currently has a vaccination rate among the highest in the country, with the community centre partnership key in achieving this. 

The initiative is a partnership between the Albury-Wodonga Ethnic Communities Council and Albury-Wodonga Health, funded by the Victorian government. Community leaders are able to speak in many languages other than English, including Swahili, Nepali, Hindi, French and dialects of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Multicultural residents of the area and participants of the program say they have found it important to have questions answered and misinformation dispelled in their native languages, overall making vaccination more accessible.

 

(AUS) Review vaccine booster time

Health Minister Greg Hunt has asked the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to review health advice on vaccine boosters as uncertainty grows over Omicron, a new variant of COVID-19.

To be eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot, you must be aged 18 and over and have had a second dose of a COVID-19 at least six months ago. The Australian government will seek advice about whether the six-month timeframe for a booster shot should be shortened.

The UK has already brought forward the eligibility for booster shots to five months after the second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in an effort to speed up the program.

 

(AUS) Funding for vulnerable vaccine groups

The Victorian Government has announced new funding to help vulnerable Victorians get vaccinated. Eligible community organisations and neighbourhood houses can apply for up to 20,000-dollars to make it easier for people to get vaccinated and to reduce COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. 

The funding will help address any practical efforts such as assisting vaccination appointment booking or arranging childcare for parents during appointments.

The program will assist Victorians from vulnerable groups, such as people living with disability, seniors, multicultural communities, social housing residents and those affected by domestic violence. Funding is also available for organisations and programs to increase vaccination rates by addressing vaccine misinformation. 

Minister for Multicultural Affairs Ros Spence announced the two and a half million-dollar package on Monday. For more information, visit the Victorian government website and search for the local community access grants program.

 

(Worldwide) Israel seals borders

Israel is barring entry to all foreign nationals, in one the most drastic of travel restrictions imposed by countries around the world in an attempt to slow the spread of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

Israel’s coronavirus cabinet has authorised a series of measures including banning entry by foreigners, red-listing travel to 50 African countries, and making quarantine mandatory for all Israelis arriving from abroad. The entry ban came into effect at midnight local time (10pm GMT) on Sunday.

 

(Worldwide) US could face ‘fifth wave’

Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, said on Sunday the US has “the potential to go into a fifth wave” of coronavirus infections amid rising cases and stagnating vaccination rates. He also warned that the newly discovered Omicron variant shows signs of heightened transmissibility.

On Sunday evening, shortly after the first Omicron cases in North America were confirmed in Canada, the White House said Biden met Fauci and other advisers on returning to Washington from holiday in Nantucket.

Fauci, a statement said, “informed the president that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid”.

 

(Worldwide) Calls for lifting of Omicron travel bans

South Africa’s president has condemned travel bans enacted against his country and its neighbours over the new coronavirus variant Omicron.

Cyril Ramaphosa said he was “deeply disappointed” by the action, which he described as unjustified, and called for the bans to be urgently lifted. The UK, EU and US are among those who have imposed travel bans.

Omicron has been classed as a “variant of concern”. Early evidence suggests it has a higher re-infection risk. The heavily mutated variant was detected in South Africa earlier this month and then reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) last Wednesday.

The variant is responsible for most of the infections found in South Africa’s most populated province, Gauteng, over the last two weeks, and is now present in all other provinces in the country.

 

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Worldwide COVID news at a glance

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1  COVAX scheme falling short of target

The World Health Organisation’s COVID vaccine sharing scheme has fallen well short of its initial target. The COVAX scheme has aimed to deliver two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2021, mostly to developing countries. With less than two months until the end of the year, about only a quarter of that target number have been shipped.

COVAX suffered delivery delays in the first half of the year, largely due to the Delta variant outbreak across India, with the Indian government stopping exports from their vaccine manufacturers. COVAX was relying on the Indian produced vaccines for most of its promised supply. The program has also seen generous pledges from developed countries, but a slow uptake on actually delivering the doses, including from Australia. 

 

2  Denmark brought back restrictions

Denmark became one of the first nations in Europe to lift all domestic COVID-19 restrictions on 10 September when 80 per cent of the population aged 12 and above had been fully vaccinated. 

After declaring COVID-19 as an illness that is no longer a “critical threat to society”, the Danish government is now bringing back restrictions less than two months after they were scrapped. The country announced on Monday it will re-introduce a health pass because of the sharp rise in COVID-19 infections, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said.

 

3  Austria nationwide lockdown for unvaccinated

Austria has begun a lockdown for people not vaccinated against COVID-19, a first in the European Union as the country fights a record surge in cases. About 65 per cent of Austria’s almost nine million people are vaccinated, below the EU average of 67 per cent, while daily increases in infections have hit records this week.

Other European governments are also eyeing unpopular COVID-19 curbs, with the Netherlands opting for Western Europe’s first partial lockdown of the winter. Austria’s lockdown means people over 12 who are neither vaccinated nor recently recovered will not be allowed to leave the house except for reasons such as buying essential supplies, exercise or seeking medical care.

 

4  No more free treatment to unvaccinated Singaporean

The Singaporean government has announced that it will no longer cover the costs of COVID-19 treatment for people who choose not to get a vaccine. From 8 December, COVID-19 patients who are “unvaccinated by choice” will need to pay for the care they receive at hospitals and treatment facilities.

Free treatment is currently available to Singaporeans, permanent residents, and long-term pass holders unless they test positive shortly after returning from overseas. The measure was introduced “to avoid financial considerations adding to public uncertainty and concern when COVID-19 was an emergent and unfamiliar disease,” Singapore’s Ministry of Health said in a statement on Monday.

 

5  South Korea’s booster shots push

 

In South Korea, citizens were urged to take a COVID-19 booster shot on Wednesday, as more of the elderly fell ill and reported vaccine breakthrough infections, driving serious and critical cases to a record.

Severe coronavirus cases jumped from the mid-300s in October to 460 on Wednesday, official data showed. Of the severely ill patients, more than 82 per cent were aged 60 and older. But it has steadily risen in recent weeks, led by the elderly, as vaccine protection wanes over time and the group’s weaker immune system makes them more vulnerable to infections.

 

6  UK firm to trial T-cell vaccine

An Oxfordshire-based company will soon start clinical trials of a second-generation vaccine against Covid-19, an easy-to-administer skin patch that uses T-cells to kill infected cells and could offer longer-lasting immunity than current vaccines.

The vaccines prime T-cells to remove infected cells from the body quickly after infection, thus preventing viral replication and disease. While the antibodies produced by the current Covid vaccines stick to the virus and stop it infecting cells, T-cells find and destroy infected cells. Those other vaccines, such as the Pfizer/BioNTech and the AstraZeneca/Oxford University jabs, also produce a T-cell response, but to a lesser extent.

 

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More COVID-19 jabs for poorer countries

The World Health Organisation has called for vaccine makers to prioritise deliveries of COVID-19 jabs to the COVAX dose-sharing facility for poorer countries and says no more doses should go to countries with more than 40 per cent coverage. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that boosters should not be administered except to people who are immunocompromised.

Poorer countries have so far received just 0.4 per cent of vaccine stocks but make up 9 per cent of the world population. Dr Tedros said he had heard various excuses as to why this is the case, including that certain countries’ vaccination programs were not ready. However, this was true for only a few countries, he added.

Producers also argue that these countries have not ordered any vaccines – but the WHO chief pointed out that they are relying instead on the COVAX scheme to access them.

 

Pfizer COVID-19 pill ’89 per cent effective

Pfizer says that a clinical trial of its pill to treat COVID-19 had shown it is highly effective, hailing it as a big step toward ending the pandemic. Pfizer’s is the second anti-COVID pill after that of Merck, which is actually an influenza medicine rebranded to fight the coronavirus. Pfizer’s has been created specifically to fight COVID-19.

The Pfizer drug called Paxlovid achieved an 89 per cent reduction in risk of hospitalisation or death among adult patients with COVID-19 who are at high risk of progressing to severe illness, the US company said Friday. The results from the middle-to-late stage clinical trial were so strong that Pfizer will stop recruiting new people for the trial, it said.

 

High-risk gene common in South Asians doubles the risk

 

British scientists have discovered a gene that doubles the risk of respiratory failure and death from COVID-19 and is more common among people of South Asian descent.

According to the Nature Genetics study by scientists at the University of Oxford, 60 per cent of people of South Asian background – compared with 15 per cent of people of European ancestry – carry the high-risk gene called LZTFL1. It could also explain why people of South Asian heritage are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

He said other factors can contribute to a high rate of COVID-19-related health complications in these communities, including travelling on public transport, working in public-facing jobs and living in households with large multigenerational families.

 

Just 1.7 per cent of PNG residents are vaccinated

Only 1.7 per cent of Papua New Guineans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This has been a cause of concern for the international community, who are watching the virus spread through an exposed population with high rates of co-morbidities and minimal access to healthcare. The mood within the country, however, is very different. No doubt there is abundant fear, but this has centred on the vaccine itself.

Many Papua New Guineans have access to the vaccine, even in some of the remotest corners of the country. They are also fully familiar with injected medicines and vaccinations against diseases like polio and measles. But millions of Papua New Guineans are not getting vaccinated against COVID-19 because they are terrified of this specific vaccine. This is not “vaccine hesitancy”, but full-blown opposition: a genuine antipathy.

 

Costa Rica children to be mandatory for vaccine 

Costa Rica has become the first country in the world to make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for children. The jab will join the extensive list of basic childhood vaccinations already required by law, health officials said.

The country signed a deal with Pfizer to acquire doses to start vaccinating all under-12s from March 2022. Last week, the US health regulatory bodies approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for children aged five to 11.

Most children are unlikely to get seriously ill if they catch Covid-19 but may still be infectious, even with no symptoms. The vaccine could help stop them from spreading the virus to others.

 

Restrict travel to whom refused boosters in UK

More than 10 million people in the UK have had Covid vaccine top-up shots, figures show, as government sources confirmed they are looking at plans for travel restrictions on people who do not take up the booster offer.

About 30% of over-80s and more than 60% of people aged 50 and over have yet to receive the extra doses, however. In a move that may further drive booster uptake, No 10 sources confirmed that ministers were considering a change in the rules on travel so that eligible people who had turned down a third dose would face quarantine and testing if they went abroad. The change was said not to be imminent.

 

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