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Encouraging Vaccine Results, Xmas Restrictions, Second Wave Peak? COVID-19 Global Highlights

These are the global coronavirus stories you need to know about this week.

After 23 consecutive days of no new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths, Victoria, Australia announced that it was no longer mandatory to wear masks outdoors, except when social distancing is not possible. People are still required to wear masks in indoor public areas and on public transport. The Chief Executive of Australia’s largest airline Qantas hinted that once a COVID-19 vaccine is available, passengers may require a vaccination passport before they can travel abroad.

Malaysia reported a record 2188 daily COVID-19 cases on 24 November. There have been no new cases of locally transmitted COVID-19 infection in Singapore since 11 November; however, imported cases continue to be reported daily.

Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi has asked state governments to prepare for the storage and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. He stated that the Government of India is closely tracking the vaccine development process and is in touch with global regulators, Indian and multinational vaccine developers and manufacturers, and other governments. India’s COVID-19 tally stood at 9.2 million as of 25 November.

In Belgium, the second COVID-19 wave peaked 2 weeks ago and there has been further decline in infection, hospitalisations, and death rates. So far, 561,803 COVID-19 cases were reported, 15,938 deaths, and 36,569 recovered patients. Belgium is due to receive the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine before the end of the year. Belgium has approved a fourth coronavirus vaccine purchase, CureVac. This brings the number of coronavirus vaccines ordered by Belgium to more than 20 million: 7.74 million from AstraZeneca, 5.16 million from Johnson & Johnson, and 5 million from Pfizer. 

The latest coronavirus study by the University of Antwerp shows Belgians are feeling down, more so than during the first wave. Students and unemployed workers from the hospitality industry are among those most affected. 

France passed the milestone of 50,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 this week. During his speech on Tuesday, President Macron indicated that COVID-19 vaccines would not be compulsory. He added that the first vaccinations could be administered as early as the end of December.

The UK’s Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine team announced positive interim phase 2/3 results, thanks in part to a trial dosing error and younger patient population. The best results were seen with a half dose followed by a full dose in patients 55 years or younger. “The reason we had the half dose is serendipity,” Mene Pangalos from AstraZeneca said. Checks were done when fewer than expected side effects were seen after the first dose, “and we found out that they had underpredicted the dose of the vaccine by half,” Pangalos said.

Meanwhile, a UK-wide easing of lockdown was announced for 5 days over Christmas.

Spain’s Minister of Health presented a COVID-19 vaccination strategy this week. The Government has established three stages of prioritisation based on the availability of vaccines. The first to be vaccinated will be care home residents and staff, followed by health workers. The number of new cases of COVID-19 is decreasing and the government and local authorities are building a Christmas plan with measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 during the festive period. 

In Portugal, there are record numbers of hospitalisations and the Government says the situation for healthcare services is critical. Experts estimate that the country should reach the peak of its second wave between November 25 and 30.

The country is currently in a state of emergency and healthcare workers considered ‘essential’ to the public health system may have their resignations denied. The country’s physician’s union says the measure is illegal.

On the 24th, the total number of people who recovered from COVID-19 was 184,233. The number of diagnoses since the beginning of the pandemic reached 268,721.

In Italy, the weekly report from the Ministry of Health (9-15 November) confirms a slowdown in the transmission index of SARS-CoV-2, but there’s still a high incidence of COVID-19 across  the country, causing significant pressure on health services. The country will remain split into red, orange, and amber zones until December 3. 

As of November 22 Italy has 34,279 hospitalised patients, of which 3801 are in intensive care units, and 767,867 people tested positive. All regions exceeded the 30% occupancy threshold for intensive care beds except Veneto and Calabria. Ten regions exceeded the 50% threshold and Lombardy is over 90%.

School closures have not been a problem in Germany but it has been unclear how high the rate of unreported cases is among children and young people. Typically, tests are only carried out when symptoms occur or following possible contact with an infected person. Now paediatricians have reported that following screening of 110,000 children and adolescents, only 0.53% of all tests were positive.

While the second wave in Germany has peaked, the case numbers remain high at more than 20,000 infections a day, so restrictions on social contacts are being tightened. However, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a loosening of lockdown over Christmas and the new year.

Mexico passed 100,000 deaths and is only surpassed by the US, Brazil, and India.

In Chile and Argentina, CanSino Biologics Inc. will start testing its coronavirus vaccine candidate; and Mexico City has already enrolled 2000 volunteers who will begin receiving the vaccine next week.

The transmission rate rose again in Brazil. On November 16 it was 1.1, according to Imperial College London. By November 24, the figure was 1.3, the highest level since May.

The country has exceeded 170,000 COVID-19 deaths and 6.1 million cases.

The phase 3 results of the Brazillian CoronaVac vaccine trial are due to be released in the first week of December.

As the COVID-19 surge continues across much of the United States, models now predict that cumulative cases could reach 20 million by January, nearly doubling the current total of 12.4 million. The escalating case numbers are already straining hospitals, particularly in the middle of the country. Some facilities report having to turn away patients because of a shortage of beds and staff.

Nurses are fighting North Dakota’s plans for them to keep working if they test positive but are asymptomatic.

Pfizer and BioNTech filed an application with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an emergency use authorisation of its COVID-19 vaccine. Some reports suggest vaccine distribution could begin by mid-December. In addition, the FDA authorised use of baricitinib in combination with remdesivir for treating hospitalised COVID-19 patients who require supplemental oxygen or ventilation.

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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