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Why lockdowns alone won’t save us from the pandemic

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The prospect of locking society down again the way we did in the first wave of COVID-19 — and the collateral damage that comes with it — is daunting.

The financial devastation on businesses forced to close and lay off employees, the increase in mental health issues, the halting of elective medical procedures and the continuing risks to essential workers on the front lines all factor in.

Keeping society functioning and supporting devastated sectors of the economy while limiting the spread of the coronavirus is key to navigating the pandemic until a safe and effective vaccine is here.

But experts acknowledge there is growing resistance to some of the restrictions that highlights a need to manage the public mood as the pandemic rages on.

You arguably could not find a more politically charged term right now than “lockdown,” since everyone has a different, personal idea of what it is.

“This term has become equated with so many bad things that no one really understands what it means,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“It’s everyone’s worst fear about what somebody else is doing to them regarding the pandemic.”

Osterholm, a veteran of SARS and MERS who warned the world for 15 years that a pandemic was coming, thinks the term lockdown should be abolished altogether.

Instead, Osterholm said we need to look at it as targeted public health measures necessary to reducing the spread of COVID-19 and getting back to normal as quickly as possible, while at the same time supporting those who have suffered financially.

The key to successfully riding out the pandemic lies in finding balance between working with the population to help keep the number of cases low without substantially changing life as we know it.

“The challenge is, the end isn’t coming soon,” he said. “But it’s coming, and what we need to do is try to have as few cases as possible between now and the time a vaccine arrives.”

‘Pandemic fatigue’ can turn to ‘pandemic anger’

Managing the public’s frustration presents a challenge for public health officials in the second wave.

During a journalism conference at Carleton University in Ottawa on Thursday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said that public health messaging can seem inconsistent because of the evolving science in the pandemic.

“We are living in a more challenging period right now,” she said, in which authorities have “to convince people who are fatigued to stick to sustainable habits or public health practices.”

Ontario and Quebec have already moved to close bars, restaurants and gyms in their hardest-hit regions amid rising cases, while Alberta and British Columbia weigh the need to tighten restrictions amid record-high rises in cases.

Osterholm said resistance to public health restrictions not only stems from the concept of “pandemic fatigue,” but also from something he calls “pandemic anger.”

“It’s people who don’t believe that the pandemic is real,” he said. “They think it’s a hoax.”

Raywat Deonandan, a global health epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said the resistance also stems from “raw selfishness.”

 

Protesters clash with police officers during an anti-lockdown protest in London, England, on Sept. 26. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

 

“There’s an inability to think about community responsibility,” he said, explaining that people think they won’t personally be seriously affected by the virus because it has a comparatively higher survivability rate in younger age groups.

“But if you scale this up to a population, then that’s tens of thousands of deaths – and they don’t care.”

Perception of risk has a cost

The latest World Economic Outlook from the International Monetary Fund found that while lockdowns controlled the spread of the coronavirus, they also contributed to a global economic recession that disproportionately affected vulnerable populations.

But the IMF report also found the damage to the economy was largely driven by people “voluntarily refraining” from social interactions out of a fear of contracting the virus.

Osterholm said the perception of risk — and not strict public health restrictions — is what holds people back from doing things like travelling by plane or entering a retail store.

“Nobody is telling you you can’t go to the grocery store rather than ordering online — it’s just people don’t feel safe and secure,” he said.

“Well, how do you make that happen? You make it happen by making cases occur at a much, much lower rate than they’re occurring now. It’s not going to be just by telling the virus we’re done.”

Lockdowns should be last resort

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Md., isn’t in favour of lockdowns as a first line of defence in the pandemic.

“If you’re going to take public health interventions, they have to be very targeted towards specific activities that are actually leading to spread,” he said. “You only use a lockdown when you have fouled up your response so bad that that’s all you have left to do.”

 

 

A group of international experts push back against the Great Barrington Declaration and its pursuit of COVID-19 herd immunity, calling it “a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.” 2:05

But ignoring lockdowns isn’t an effective strategy, either.

The Great Barrington Declaration, a controversial proposal from a group of scientists (backed by a U.S. think-tank) to lift restrictions, made headlines last week for its calls to protect “the vulnerable” from COVID-19 with strict measures while allowing those “at minimal risk of death” to return to normal life and build up herd immunity to the virus.

But it failed to present a logical counterargument for controlling the virus or concrete ways to protect the vulnerable (including the elderly and the poor), not to mention those who care for them.

Referring to the declaration, Deonandan said, “If there wasn’t a vaccine coming, if nothing changes and this has to be how we live in perpetuity, then OK, maybe we have to discuss some other options. But none of that is true.”

Canada has had more than 200,000 cases and is approaching 10,000 deaths, but modelling predicts the situation would be much worse if public health guidelines like physical distancing, mask-wearing and proper hand hygiene weren’t followed.

Osterholm said those pushing the the Barrington Declaration completely misunderstood the concept behind public health restrictions and the reasons behind enacting them in the first place.

“If you’re going to keep thinking about this as a lockdown, then we’re going to find a lot of resistance to this,” he said. “But on the other hand, if you don’t suppress transmission, we’re also going to see a lot of deaths.”

A question of public tolerance

Lockdowns are one of many tools a country can use in the face of an infectious disease outbreak, but their effectiveness is dependent on the public’s willingness to tolerate them.

China imposed some of the most severe public health restrictions in modern history upon the discovery of the coronavirus at the beginning of this year, something democratic nations would be unlikely to imitate.

But China is already seeing the rewards of its draconian efforts to control the spread. It’s the only major economy expected to grow this year, with retail spending surpassing pre-pandemic levels for the first time and factory output rising on the backs of demand for exports of masks and other medical supplies to countries like Canada.

Other regions like New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong acted swiftly by closing borders, imposing strict public health measures and opting for shorter, more strategic lockdowns, which have allowed them to carefully reopen society.

South Korea, meanwhile, didn’t lock down at all and instead focused on testing, tracing and isolating cases to control the spread of the virus successfully.

“The lesson here is you choose one path and you stick with it,” Deonandan said. “What is not acceptable is vacillating between different strategies.”

 

Lockdowns are one of many tools a country can use in the face of an infectious disease, but their effectiveness is dependent on the public’s willingness to tolerate them. (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

 

Australia imposed targeted lockdown measures in the face of outbreaks, which University of Western Australia epidemiologist Dr. Zoë Hyde said has been “enormously successful” in eliminating the virus in much of the country.

“While lockdowns absolutely have harms associated with them, the harms are much less than those of an unmitigated epidemic,” she said. “Governments can also minimize the harms of lockdowns by making them short and sharp, and by financially supporting workers and businesses.”

Lockdowns ‘a sign of failure’

Hyde said the eastern Australian state of Victoria was a precautionary tale for the debate over lockdowns, because of mistakes made in a hotel quarantine system that allowed the virus to spread again.

“If governments have not tried hard enough to suppress the virus, then a lockdown is inevitable, whether people want one or not,” Hyde said.

“Lockdowns are a sign of failure. They’re a sign that governments have not been doing enough.”

Victoria was recording around 700 new cases per day in July, but a second lockdown coupled with a mask mandate have brought case numbers down to only a handful a day at most.

“Measures to combat the virus have to be tailored. They can’t be more than the economy can bear,” Hyde said, “but equally we must remember that the best way to protect the economy is to suppress the virus.”

“Ultimately it’s the virus doing the damage to the economy, not the measures designed to suppress it. No matter what we wish, the economy won’t go back to normal if a dangerous virus is circulating.”


Source: – CBC.ca

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'We took our eye off the ball': How Canada lost its vaccine production capacity – CTV News

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TORONTO —
In the race to develop and produce a COVID-19 vaccine, Canada is on the sidelines despite its once notable status as a global source for life-saving injections.

Canada lost that standing long ago, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained this week, which means even if the country had developed its own novel coronavirus vaccine, there would be no means to produce it on the scale required.

“We used to have [production capacity] decades ago but we no longer have it,” Trudeau said Tuesday in Ottawa.

How did it get to this point? Canadian administrations simply took their “eye off the ball,” said Earl Brown, an infectious disease expert and a former member of the H1N1 vaccine task group in Canada. After that pandemic, a review found that vaccine production capacity was “right at the top” of the list of problems, he said. It wasn’t always that way.

“We had great vaccine producers in Canada — world leaders essentially — 50 years ago,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. There was Connaught Laboratories in Toronto, which was known for producing insulin to treat diabetes and inoculants for diphtheria and polio, and Institut Armand Frappier in Montreal that produced vaccines, including one for tuberculosis, he noted.

“The problem was they had a poor business model,” said Brown. “These were vaccine companies spun off from universities, so there was indirect funding and they had a model of not making so much profit.”

So they were eventually sold, Montreal’s Frappier lab to British multinational GlaxoSmithKline and Connaught, through a series of mergers, to French multinational Sanofi Pasteur​ after Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government’s program of privatization​. The labs now have a “tighter production line and not so much capacity,” said Brown.

The inability to mount a domestic production campaign means that the Canadian government must rely on purchase agreements with top U.S. and European pharmaceutical brands, including Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, to produce and provide the shots to Canadians once the vaccines are approved by Health Canada. In the absence of a domestic candidate, Ottawa has ordered as many as 414 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates from seven different companies.

‘A MAJOR GLITCH’

There are some promising vaccine candidates in development across Canada, including Quebec’s Medicago and Saskatchewan’s VIDO-InterVac, but the companies lack the means to produce them here. What would that mean for rollout should those candidates be successful? 

“That’s a major glitch,” said Brown. “You’re going to have to get a partner, somebody who’s got the ability to do that and then you have to get them onside, tuned up, send them your vaccine, get it produced and bottled. Not the best way to do it.”

For those Canadian companies to mount production campaigns on their own will take time — and a lot of it, they have said. VIDO-InterVac said it has plans to build a facility in one year, but that it would take another still to get it in operating shape. “That’s not the time frame you like,” said Brown.

In the meantime, Canadians will have to rely on speedier countries with approved COVID-19 vaccines to provide doses, but Canadians won’t be prioritized ahead of their own people. “Countries like the United States, Germany and the U.K. do have domestic pharmaceutical facilities, which is why they’re obviously going to prioritize helping their citizens first,” Trudeau said on Tuesday in Ottawa.

To help Canadians first, the federal government should set up a Crown corporation to produce vaccines, suggests Joel Lexchin, a professor emeritus with York University’s School of Health Policy and Management. 

“It’s one thing if we give up the ability to domestically make something like laundry detergent. We can all live without laundry detergent. But when it comes to medications and vaccines, those are critical for the health of Canadians and we should be able to make them ourselves,” he told CTV National News. “Not only will the ability to domestically produce them ensure that Canadians get the care that they need, but we can also fulfill our human rights obligations by exporting them at low cost to low- and middle-income countries.”

‘GROSS INCOMPETENCE’

The reliance on other countries and private companies is upsetting critics of Trudeau, who said Tuesday that his administration has begun funding domestic vaccine production capacity because “we never want to be caught short again.” 

“This is gross incompetence that’s going to cost Canadians their lives and their jobs,” said Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner on Tuesday from Parliament Hill.

But criticism toward one government’s inaction may often easily be directed at another with hindsight, countered Brown on Your Morning.

“When you have the problem, you look back and say ‘We should have done something, shouldn’t we?’” he said.

With files from CTV News’ Rachel Aiello and CTV National News correspondents Glen McGregor and Avis Favaro 

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'We took our eye off the ball': How Canada lost its vaccine production capacity – CTV News

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TORONTO —
In the race to develop and produce a COVID-19 vaccine, Canada is on the sidelines despite its once notable status as a global source for life-saving injections.

Canada lost that standing long ago, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained this week, which means even if the country had developed its own novel coronavirus vaccine, there would be no means to produce it on the scale required.

“We used to have [production capacity] decades ago but we no longer have it,” Trudeau said Tuesday in Ottawa.

How did it get to this point? Canadian administrations simply took their “eye off the ball,” said Earl Brown, an infectious disease expert and a former member of the H1N1 vaccine task group in Canada. After that pandemic, a review found that vaccine production capacity was “right at the top” of the list of problems, he said. It wasn’t always that way.

“We had great vaccine producers in Canada — world leaders essentially — 50 years ago,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. There was Connaught Laboratories in Toronto, which was known for producing insulin to treat diabetes and inoculants for diphtheria and polio, and Institut Armand Frappier in Montreal that produced vaccines, including one for tuberculosis, he noted.

“The problem was they had a poor business model,” said Brown. “These were vaccine companies spun off from universities, so there was indirect funding and they had a model of not making so much profit.”

So they were eventually sold, Montreal’s Frappier lab to British multinational GlaxoSmithKline and Connaught, through a series of mergers, to French multinational Sanofi Pasteur​ after Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government’s program of privatization​. The labs now have a “tighter production line and not so much capacity,” said Brown.

The inability to mount a domestic production campaign means that the Canadian government must rely on purchase agreements with top U.S. and European pharmaceutical brands, including Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, to produce and provide the shots to Canadians once the vaccines are approved by Health Canada. In the absence of a domestic candidate, Ottawa has ordered as many as 414 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates from seven different companies.

‘A MAJOR GLITCH’

There are some promising vaccine candidates in development across Canada, including Quebec’s Medicago and Saskatchewan’s VIDO-InterVac, but the companies lack the means to produce them here. What would that mean for rollout should those candidates be successful? 

“That’s a major glitch,” said Brown. “You’re going to have to get a partner, somebody who’s got the ability to do that and then you have to get them onside, tuned up, send them your vaccine, get it produced and bottled. Not the best way to do it.”

For those Canadian companies to mount production campaigns on their own will take time — and a lot of it, they have said. VIDO-InterVac said it has plans to build a facility in one year, but that it would take another still to get it in operating shape. “That’s not the time frame you like,” said Brown.

In the meantime, Canadians will have to rely on speedier countries with approved COVID-19 vaccines to provide doses, but Canadians won’t be prioritized ahead of their own people. “Countries like the United States, Germany and the U.K. do have domestic pharmaceutical facilities, which is why they’re obviously going to prioritize helping their citizens first,” Trudeau said on Tuesday in Ottawa.

To help Canadians first, the federal government should set up a Crown corporation to produce vaccines, suggests Joel Lexchin, a professor emeritus with York University’s School of Health Policy and Management. 

“It’s one thing if we give up the ability to domestically make something like laundry detergent. We can all live without laundry detergent. But when it comes to medications and vaccines, those are critical for the health of Canadians and we should be able to make them ourselves,” he told CTV National News. “Not only will the ability to domestically produce them ensure that Canadians get the care that they need, but we can also fulfill our human rights obligations by exporting them at low cost to low- and middle-income countries.”

‘GROSS INCOMPETENCE’

The reliance on other countries and private companies is upsetting critics of Trudeau, who said Tuesday that his administration has begun funding domestic vaccine production capacity because “we never want to be caught short again.” 

“This is gross incompetence that’s going to cost Canadians their lives and their jobs,” said Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner on Tuesday from Parliament Hill.

But criticism toward one government’s inaction may often easily be directed at another with hindsight, countered Brown on Your Morning.

“When you have the problem, you look back and say ‘We should have done something, shouldn’t we?’” he said.

With files from CTV News’ Rachel Aiello and CTV National News correspondents Glen McGregor and Avis Favaro 

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Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Wednesday – CBC.ca

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The latest:

British Columbia reported a record high COVID-19 case number on Tuesday as neighbouring Alberta declared a public health emergency and put forward targeted measures aimed at slowing transmission of the novel coronavirus.

Alberta — which reported 1,115 new cases and 16 additional deaths on Tuesday — is temporarily banning indoor private social gatherings and moving all students in Grade 7 and above to at-home learning.

Premier Jason Kenney opted to keep businesses, including retail and clothing stores, open with 25 per cent capacity. Casinos will be allowed to run their slot machines at 25 per cent capacity and churches will still be allowed to hold services with one-third their normal audience. Restaurants can still offer in-person dining.

Kenney, who has not ruled out the possibility of further restrictions in the weeks ahead, said Tuesday’s measures were needed to keep the province’s health-care system from being “overwhelmed” and to protect the vulnerable.

“They are also needed to protect Albertans from the health, social and economic damage that a crushing lockdown would inflict.”

But some in the province were quick to criticize Tuesday’s orders, saying they didn’t go far enough. Mike Parker, president of a major union of health-care workers, called the measures “inadequate” and took issue with Kenney’s leadership, saying the premier “continues to put business interests ahead of the well-being of all Albertans.”

As of Tuesday, Alberta had 13,349 active cases of COVID-19 and 348 people in hospital, with 66 in intensive care.

WATCH | Alberta response not aggressive enough to curb COVID-19, says respirologist:

Recent news on COVID-19 vaccines is very encouraging, particularly with regards to protecting the elderly, says respirologist Dr. Samir Gupta.    7:46

British Columbia, meanwhile, reported 941 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday — a new daily high in the province, which also announced a new public health measure.

Health officials in B.C. had already introduced a mask requirement for indoor public spaces and new rules around social gatherings, but on Tuesday they also moved to temporarily ban indoor group fitness activities.

“We need to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our province and that needs to happen now,” Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a statement. “That is why we have paused all gatherings, events and indoor group fitness activities.”

The vast majority of the new cases in B.C. were in the Fraser Health region, which includes major cities like Surrey and Burnaby. As of Tuesday there were 7,732 active cases of COVID-19 in the province and 284 people in hospital, with 61 in intensive care.


What’s happening across Canada

As of 11:20 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 344,928, with 57,298 of those considered active cases. A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial reports, regional health information and CBC’s reporting stood at 11,653.

Saskatchewan reported 175 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the number of active cases in the province to 2,927. Premier Scott Moe and the province’s chief medical health officer are expected to announce new restrictions later Wednesday.

Ontario is expected to provide guidance Wednesday on how people should handle the upcoming holiday season amid the coronavirus pandemic. Toronto and Peel Region are currently under the grey, or lockdown, level in the province’s tiered COVID-19 alert system, with those restrictions to stay in place at least until the week of Christmas.

WATCH | Toronto pub offering free meals to those in need:

The Dizzy Gastro Sports Pub in Toronto’s west end is offering free meals to people who are struggling financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Owner Chris Murie expects more people to be looking for help as government benefits wind down. 6:03

The tough new rules have sparked outcry from some small business owners, who argue they unfairly clamp down on small retailers while big-box stores that sell essentials like groceries are still allowed to sell “non-essential” products.

Ontario reported 1,373 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, with 445 in Toronto and 415 in Peel Region. Health officials reported 35 additional deaths, bringing the cumulative death toll in the province to 3,554.

The number of people with COVID-19 in the province’s hospitals stood at 523, with 159 in intensive care, according to a provincial dashboard.

Quebec, which has seen the most cases of any province to date, recently provided its own guidance around Christmas.

Premier François Legault has said that people in that province can attend up to two social gatherings (with a maximum of 10 people in attendance at each event) from Dec. 24 to 27. People who plan on attending these gatherings are also asked to quarantine a week before and a week after.

Quebec reported 1,100 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. Hospitalizations stood at 655, with 93 in intensive care, according to a provincial dashboard.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, meanwhile, urged people to be “very, very observant” of the province’s public health guidelines over the holidays. He waded into the broader debate about how to handle the holiday season this week, calling Quebec’s plan “dangerous.”

Manitoba reported 476 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 12 additional deaths, bringing the province’s death toll to 248.

In Atlantic Canada, where a travel bubble that tied the provinces together has been temporarily popped, Nova Scotia‘s premier is once again urging people to “stay the blazes home.”

After announcing 37 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday — the most the province has seen since late April — health officials put forward new regulations that will see a range of closures in the Halifax area beginning later this week. Restaurant dining rooms will close, as will public spaces like libraries, casinos and recreation centres.

“If you haven’t woken up to the second wave, this is your wake-up call,” Premier Stephen McNeil said.

WATCH | N.S. cracks down on Halifax to stop COVID-19 surge:

Nova Scotia is responding to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases with new restrictions focused on the Halifax area and a massive push for rapid testing regardless of symptoms. The goal is to find every case and preserve the relative safety the province has enjoyed for months. 1:57

New Brunswick reported five more cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, while Newfoundland and Labrador reported two new cases. There were no new cases in Prince Edward Island.

In the North, Nunavut reported 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the number of active cases in the territory to 153. There were no new confirmed cases reported in Yukon or the Northwest Territories on Tuesday.


What’s happening around the world

From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 11 a.m. ET

As of early Wednesday morning, there were more than 59.9 million reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with more than 38.3 million of those listed as resolved or recovered, according to a coronavirus tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than 1.4 million.

In the Americas, U.S. president-elect Joe Biden will give a speech on Wednesday highlighting the challenges facing Americans as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches and the country faces a surge in coronavirus infections.

Although White House officials are pushing Georgia to do more to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday that the responsibility rests with individual Georgians, as he implored them to take precautions over Thanksgiving.

In Minnesota, a surge of COVID-19 cases throughout the state is affecting staffing levels at many nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. That’s forcing the state to send the National Guard to help out in some homes, while the administration is also asking state employees to consider volunteering in facilities with critical staff shortages.

The Star Tribune reported Wednesday that Minnesota Department of Health data shows 90 per cent of the state’s nursing homes and 58 per cent of assisted-living facilities have active outbreaks.

Robert Lugo, left, helps manage Zoom calls as Santa Larry, right, speaks with a virtual visitor at the Santa Experience in the Mall of America on Tuesday in Bloomington, Minn. The owners had initially set up a socially distanced set, featuring a cabin with a plexiglass window, but moved completely online after new COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Tuesday that 47 long-term care facilities are in “a crisis staffing situation” and are receiving active support from the state, including help from federal health nurses.

Gov. Tim Walz’s administration is also taking the unusual step of emailing all state employees and asking them to consider volunteering for two-week stints in long-term care facilities, particularly in greater Minnesota.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Singapore, which once had the highest COVID-19 rate in Southeast Asia, said it was nearly virus-free and Australia’s most-populous state eased restrictions, while Tokyo will urge bars and restaurants to operate with shortened hours.

WATCH | Some Canadians in Australia favour an aggressive approach to COVID-19:

Australia became one of the few countries in the world, and one with many similarities to Canada, to beat back a second wave of COVID-19 and bring its case count near zero. 5:13

South Korea said 60 new army recruits at a boot camp have tested positive for the coronavirus, the military’s largest cluster infection. The Defence Ministry said in a statement the recruits had been taking basic training at an army unit in Yeoncheon, a town near the tense border with North Korea, at the start of their 18 months of mandatory military service.

It said more tests are underway to determine whether 860 other recruits and troops at the Yeoncheon unit have been infected with the virus too.

In Europe, Germany reported a record 410 COVID-19 deaths over 24 hours just before federal state leaders and Chancellor Angela Merkel were due to discuss an extension of pandemic-related restrictions into December and for the Christmas and New Year holidays.

France will start easing curbs this weekend so people will be able to spend the holiday with their families, and said a vaccine could start being administered by the year-end if approved by regulators.

An employee works to prepare orders for Christmas at JoueClub toys shop in Paris as non-essential stores prepare to reopen after weeks of lockdown to combat a resurgence of the coronavirus in France. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Wednesday that his government was considering limiting Christmas celebrations to six people in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Health experts and scientists have advised that six is a sufficiently low number to help stop the virus, Sanchez said, adding that the final details of the restrictions will be negotiated with regional authorities.

In the Middle East, Iran registered on Wednesday a daily record high of 13,843 new cases, the health ministry said, pushing the national tally to 894,385 in the Middle East’s worst-hit country.

The World Health Organization said the coronavirus pandemic has “slowed down” in the past week although death rates continued to rise, with more than 67,000 new deaths reported.

The UN health agency said in its latest epidemiological update Wednesday that even though there was a “downward trend” in the number of cases in Europe, the region still has the biggest proportion of new cases and deaths globally. WHO noted that Africa reported the highest increase in new cases and deaths, driven by South Africa, Algeria and Kenya.

In the past week, WHO said, the number of new cases reported in Europe dropped by about six per cent after a 10 per cent decline the previous week, suggesting that lockdowns across the continent are effectively slowing transmission. Still, the region accounts for about half of new global deaths.

In Asia, WHO noted that Japan reported the largest number of daily cases since the beginning of the outbreak, with more than 2,000 reported every day for five consecutive days, a 41 per cent increase from the previous week. Myanmar reported a 74 per cent jump in cases last week, with more than 11,000 new cases and a 36 per cent increase in deaths, at 188.

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