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Ontario complains of more vaccine delays

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By Anna Mehler Paperny and Moira Warburton

TORONTO (Reuters) – Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Monday the province expects to face a delay in the supply of AstraZeneca Plc COVID-19 vaccine, as he faces significant blowback for his handling of the pandemic in Ontario.

“The Premier was notified today by our officials to be prepared for delays to two shipments of AstraZeneca expected from the federal government later this month and next,” a statement from Ford’s office said.

Ford has faced widespread criticism in recent days as Ontario’s pandemic spirals out of control, and he has sought to shift the blame to the sluggish supply of vaccines coming from the federal government.

No other province reported a drop in AstraZeneca supply on Monday. A federal government source who was not authorized to speak publicly said it was unclear what Ontario’s premier was referring to as there had been no change to AstraZeneca delivery schedules since early April.

An Ontario government source insisted the shipments were being delayed.

Canada‘s most-populous province said on Sunday it would lower the minimum age for recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine to 40 from 55. Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia said on Monday they would also lower the age.

Ontario announced 4,447 new cases on Monday, with a 10.5% positivity rate and 19 more deaths. The rising caseload has pushed the province’s hospitals to the brink.

On Friday, Ontario announced measures to close borders with the provinces of Quebec and Manitoba. But the following day, it reversed its decision to close playgrounds and amended its granting of extra powers to police to enforce a stay-at-home order.

Doctors and pharmacists had expressed concern that not enough people were signing up to take the AstraZeneca shot, citing blood clot fears.

Two people in Canada have developed clots after receiving the shot and are recovering. UK regulators have estimated the risk is about four in one million.

Nadjla Banaei, client care coordinator at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Toronto, has had several patients express concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine. They may have underlying health conditions and worry about what they have read, she said.

The move to lower the age group expands the pool of potential AstraZeneca recipients but does not necessarily quell fears around it, she said.

“Why did they drop the age all of a sudden? What are we supposed to communicate to people?” Banaei said. “Of course, with all these changes, people are going to be hesitant.”

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said over the weekend that the provinces were free to offer AstraZeneca to anyone over 18.

The West Coast province of British Columbia said on Monday it would direct police to stop drivers to make sure they are not traveling outside their communities.

 

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny and Moira Warburton; Editing by Denny Thomas and Peter Cooney)

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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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