Coronavirus: Latest on COVID-19 from around the world - Friday, January 21

Here's the latest on the pandemic from around the world.

Vaccines and treatments 

Nearly 30 generic drugmakers in Asia, Africa and the Middle East will make cheap versions of Merck & Co's COVID-19 antiviral pill molnupiravir under a landmark UN-backed deal to provide poorer nations with wider access to the drug, seen as a weapon in fighting the pandemic.

However, there are questions about molnupiravir, which has shown low efficacy in trials and has raised concerns regarding side effects - and lengthy procedures for approvals may delay supplies in many poorer nations for months.

Under the deal, negotiated by the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) with Merck, the US company will not receive royalties for the sale of the low-cost version of the pill while the pandemic continues.

The MPP said the deal stipulated the pill would be distributed to 105 less-developed nations.

A molnupiravir course of 40 pills for five days is expected to cost about $20 in poorer nations, an MPP official involved in the talks with drugmakers told Reuters, citing initial estimates from drugmakers, which are subject to change. That is far below the $700 per course the US agreed to pay for an initial delivery of 1.7 million courses, but twice as high as first estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO)-backed programme to procure COVID-19 drugs and vaccines for the world. 

Meanwhile, a preliminary joint Russian-Italian study has found levels of Omicron-neutralising antibodies are higher in people vaccinated with Russia's Sputnik V vaccine than those vaccinated with Pfizer

The study - funded by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which markets Sputnik V abroad - compared the blood serum of people who had received the different vaccines. The preliminary study was conducted by scientists from the Spallanzani Institute in Italy and Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, the developer of Sputnik V vaccine.

Researchers said samples taken three to six months after the second dose of a vaccine have shown the levels of antibodies in recipients of two doses of Sputnik V were more resistant to Omicron than in those vaccinated with Pfizer.



The US government will make 400 million non-surgical N95 masks from its strategic national stockpile available for free to the public starting next week, a White House official said, as the Biden administration attempts to curb the ongoing pandemic.

Snug-fitting N95 face masks, which filter at least 95 percent of particulate matter from the air, will be shipped to pharmacies and community health centers this week, the official said, and will be available for pickup late next week.

Retail chain CVS, which has nearly 10,000 pharmacy locations including within Target stores, and Walgreens, which has more than 9000 stores, plan to distribute free masks, company spokespeople said.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is preparing for future variants of COVID-19, White House chief of Staff Ron Klain told MSNBC in an interview that aired on Thursday, as the Omicron-related wave of cases appeared to be easing in parts of the country.

"We're prepared. We're increasing the production of tests. We're increasing the production of masks," Klain said in the interview, taped on Wednesday.

"We have to be prepared for whatever comes next... there's a lot of steps left in fighting this pandemic. We are taking those steps."


Africa's top public health bodies on Thursday called for donated COVID-19 vaccines to come with a shelf life of three to six months so countries could plan their rollouts and avoid a situation where doses expire.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said 2.8 million doses of vaccine had expired on the continent, roughly 0.5 percent of the 572 million doses delivered to date.

He said 10.4 percent of Africans were currently fully vaccinated.

"In terms of the 0.5 percent, let me be very clear, any dose of vaccine that expires pains me because that is a life that can be potentially saved," Nkengasong told a news briefing.

In a separate briefing, the World Health Organisation Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, echoed Nkengasong's call.

"Many countries indicate that they would like vaccines to be donated with at least three months of shelf life, if not more," Moeti said.



China's capital Beijing ramped up efforts to curb COVID-19 infections, ordering checks among cold-chain firms and urging residents to cut unnecessary gatherings, as the city reported an uptick in local cases weeks before the Winter Olympics.

Beijing had three domestically transmitted infections with confirmed symptoms on Wednesday, including one previously reported as a local asymptomatic carrier for January 18, according to local health authority data on Thursday. That compared with one local confirmed infection for January 18.

The city has reported less than 10 local infections since January 15, with both the Delta and Omicron variants detected, a tiny case count compared with the rest of the world.

However, the city and China are still working under guidelines of getting any virus flare-up under control as soon as possible. The strategy takes on extra urgency as Beijing and neighbouring Hebei province will host the Winter Olympics from February 4, while the ongoing Lunar New Year travel season raises the risk of virus transmission nationwide.

Hong Kong

Face-to-face teaching in secondary schools will be suspended in the Chinese-ruled territory from Monday until after the approaching Lunar New Year, due to a rising number of coronavirus infections in several schools, local authorities said. 


India's wealthiest state Maharashtra will reopen schools next week, its education minister said on Thursday, as new cases of the Omicron variant fell sharply, even though it had the highest tally of infections nationwide.

Over the last 24 hours, India hit a fresh eight-month high with 317,532 new infections, while deaths rose by 491, close to this month's peak - although the figure included 85 from a previous wave in the southern state of Kerala. 


Thailand will resume its 'Test & Go' quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals from February 1, its coronavirus task force said on Thursday, in response to its slowing rate of infections.

The scheme was suspended a month ago after only seven weeks due to the rapid global spread of the Omicron variant and uncertainty about vaccine efficacy against the new strain.



France will unveil a timetable for easing its COVID-19 restrictions later on Thursday, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said, despite cautioning that the wave of Omicron infections tearing through the country had not yet reached its peak.

Attal said France's new vaccine pass rules would help to allow a softening of the rules, even as the incidence rate of infections continues to increase.

France reported nearly half a million infections on Wednesday, leaving the seven-day average at 320,000 cases. However, the number of patients in intensive care has stabilised, leaving the government some room for manoeuvre.

Attal declined to detail the plans for the progressive easing of restrictions, which include the closure of nightclubs, caps on the number of people allowed into sports and entertainment venues, and working-from-home rules.


Austria's conservative-led government said on Thursday it was introducing a national lottery to encourage people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus -  just hours before parliament was due to pass a bill introducing a national vaccine mandate.

Roughly 72 percent of Austria's population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe. 

Chancellor Karl Nehammer told a news conference he wanted there to be a financial reward for getting vaccinated, adding: "We have learned from the past and we have seen that a vaccination lottery is the best possible way to set up such a system."

Members of the public, whether already vaccinated or not, would be entitled to one ticket for each shot they have had - three in total for those who have had their booster shot.

Every 10th ticket would win a 500 euro ($568) gift voucher, Nehammer said, adding it would cost up to 1 billion euros. He later added on Twitter that the vouchers could be used in "retail, tourism, hospitality, services, culture and sport".


Britain's economy showed tentative signs of picking up last week as a wave of coronavirus cases driven by the Omicron variant eased, after businesses suffered a widespread fall in turnover during December.

Tax data released on Thursday showed a 6 percentage-point gap last month between the proportion of firms reporting falling sales and the proportion reporting a rise - the biggest net fall since April 2020 near the start of the pandemic.

Economists have forecast Britain's economy may lose around half a percent of output over December and January due to the COVID-19 surge, which led to widespread staff absences and prompted many people to limit socialising.

But there are signs that the slump started to reverse last week - restaurant reservations in the week to January 17 were 93 percent of their level in the equivalent week before the pandemic, up from 88 percent the week before. Consumer spending on credit and debit cards also increased to 85 percent of its level in February 2020 in the week to January 13, from 82 percent the week before.

Reuters / Newshub.