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Canada third COVID-19 wave ‘critical’, panel expands use of AstraZeneca doses

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By David Ljunggren and Steve Scherer

OTTAWA (Reuters) -A surge in COVID-19 cases means Canada is at a critical juncture, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday, while an expert panel said AstraZeneca PLC’s vaccine could now be offered to more people.

The number of daily cases has doubled this month to 8,600 as a third wave rips across Canada and health officials said they could jump again to more than 15,000 by the end of April unless stricter measures were taken as new coronavirus variants spread.

“There are more contagious and more dangerous variants out there. The situation is critical,” said Trudeau, who together with his wife Sophie later received their first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“Vaccine doses continue to be the good news we all need in what has become a very tough spring,” said Trudeau.

Separately, Canada‘s national panel on immunization said AstraZeneca’s vaccine could now be used in those above 30. Citing reports of rare cases of blood clotting it had previously recommended doses only be given to those 55 and older.

Shelley Deeks, the panel’s vice chair, told reporters that the public health benefits of inoculating as many people as fast as possible far outweighed any risks. So far, four people in Canada have developed the clots, but none were fatal.

Several provinces had already lowered the minimum age for recipients of the vaccine to 40.

British Columbia on Friday imposed restrictions to limit non-essential travel between three regions.

“The new variant strains are infecting more people and resulting in record levels of hospitalizations,” public safety minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement.

Trudeau, saying it was important to plan for the future, said Ottawa had struck a deal with Pfizer Inc for 35 million booster doses in 2022 and 30 million in 2023.

He also said his government had identified 100 federal healthcare workers who could be sent to help Ontario, which is struggling to cope with a worsening third wave and accuses Ottawa of not doing enough to tackle new, more highly transmissible variants.

Health officials told a briefing that if people cut the number of personal contacts by 20%-30%, the number of new daily cases could drop to around 4,500.

“We are still in a tight race between vaccines and variants,” said Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam.

Canada has so far recorded a total of 23,822 deaths and 1,155,834 cases of COVID-19.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Steve Scherer; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Mike Collett-White, Peter Graff)

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Factbox: Countries respond to heart inflammation risk from mRNA shots

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Some countries have halted altogether or are giving only one dose of COVID shots based on so-called mRNA technology to teens following reports of possible rare cardiovascular side effects.

Europe’s drug regulator said in July it had found a possible link between a very rare inflammatory heart condition and COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.

However, the benefits of mRNA shots in preventing COVID-19 continue to outweigh the risks, European and U.S. regulators and the World Health Organization have said.

Here are some of the steps some countries are taking:

CANADA

The Public Health Agency of Canada said data suggested that reported cases of rare heart inflammation were higher after Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine compared with the Pfizer/BioNTech shots.

DENMARK

The Danish Health Agency said on Friday that it was continuing to offer Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine to under-18s, and that a statement on Wednesday suggesting a suspension had in fact been a miscommunication.

FINLAND

Finland paused the use of Moderna’s vaccines for younger people and instead would give Pfizer’s vaccine to men born in 1991 and later. It offers shots to those aged 12 and over.

HONG KONG

A panel of health experts advising the Hong Kong government has recommended in September children aged 12-17 should get only one dose of BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine after reports of heart inflammation as a side effect.

NORWAY

Norway will hold off giving children aged 12-15 a second dose of a vaccine against COVID-19 until it has gathered more research. On Oct. 22 the health ministry said there was no urgency given that children have a low risk of falling seriously ill from COVID-19.

On Sep. 2 Norway decided on giving one dose of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to children aged 12-15.

SWEDEN

Sweden has extended the pause of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine beyond the original Dec. 1 deadline for people aged 30 and younger due to rare heart-related side-effects, the public health agency said on Oct. 21.

The agency said earlier in October that data pointed to an increase of myocarditis and pericarditis among youths and young adults vaccinated with Moderna vaccine Spikevax, and paused the use for all born 1991 or later.

SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa will start vaccinating children between 12 and 17 using the Pfizer vaccine, the health minister said, as the country looks to ratchet up inoculations ahead of final year examinations.

On the advice of its vaccine advisory committee the government would only give teenagers a single shot of Pfizer’s normal two-shot regime due to concerns that it may affect the heart.

UNITED KINGDOM

Britain has been offering all 12-15-year-olds a first a shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Second doses would not be offered to the age group until at least spring when there may be more data from around the world.

 

(Compiled by Antonis Triantafyllou; Editing by Joanna Jonczyk-Gwizdala and Tomasz Janowski)

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Hong Kong’s zero-COVID policy undermining financial hub status – industry group

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A financial industry group warned on Monday that Hong Kong‘s zero-COVID policy and strict quarantine requirements for international travellers threatens to undermine the city’s status as a financial hub.

The Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (ASIFMA) said a survey of members, including some of the world’s largest banks and asset managers, showed 48% were contemplating moving staff or functions away from Hong Kong due to operational challenges, which included uncertainty regarding when and how travel and quarantine restrictions will be lifted.

Hong Kong has some of the most stringent travel restrictions in the world and is virtually COVID-19 free, however unlike regional rival Singapore, which is slowly re-opening its borders, the Chinese-ruled city has no public plan for opening up to international travellers.

Local leaders say their focus is removing restrictions on travel from Hong Kong to mainland China, which also has strict entry restrictions. At present travellers from Hong Kong to the mainland must still undergo quarantine.

“Hong Kong’s status as an (international financial centre) is increasingly at risk along with its long-term economic recovery and competitiveness as a premier place to do business,” Mark Austen chief executive of Asifma wrote in open letter to Hong Kong’s financial secretary Paul Chan.

The letter made a series of recommendations including publishing “a roadmap for exiting Hong Kong’s ‘zero-case’ based COVID-19 strategy beyond solely the immediate goal of opening borders with China”, as well as prioritising vaccinations.

Hong Kong has reported just over 12,300 cases since the start of the pandemic, mostly imported, and 213 deaths.

Regional rival Singapore is expanding quarantine-free travel to nearly a dozen countries, but authorities are grappling with how to do so while averting a surge of Covid-19 cases among older people and those with weak immune systems.

 

(Reporting by Alun John; Editing by Michael Perry)

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Red Cross urges action for Papua New Guinea as COVID-19 overwhelms health system

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Concerted international action is needed to support Papua New Guinea as a surge in COVID-19 cases overwhelms the Pacific country’s health system, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said on Monday.

Coronavirus cases in the island nation of 9 million have been surging in recent weeks, with 385 new cases recorded on Thursday, according to latest available government data.

There have been 26,731 officially confirmed cases and 329 deaths in the country 150 km (90 miles) north of Australia.

Less than 1% of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data figures, although the government anticipated months ago that it would have enough shots by now for everyone who wanted to be vaccinated.

Misinformation, public apprehension, and logistical challenges with the rollout have slowed down vaccinations, the Red Cross said.

“Urgent efforts and further support are needed in healthcare to prevent a massive loss of life in the coming days and weeks,” Uvenama Rova, PNG Red Cross secretary general, said in a statement.

According to the PNG National Control Centre for COVID-19, all major hospitals have been hit with rising cases.

“We’re at the moment barely managing with the existing load,” Gary Nou, team leader for Emergency Medical Team at the National Centre, was quoted as saying last week in a statement on the centre’s website.

A medical team from Australia arrived in Port Moresby this month, and Britain was also to send a team.

While some other nations in the Pacific region, such as the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, have also had sluggish vaccine rollouts, the tiny nation of Palau had 99% of its population over 12 vaccinated by mid-October, while Fiji had 96% of eligible people with one dose, the Red Cross said this month.

 

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by William Mallard)

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