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UK's #COVID-19 tracking system under fire amid warning of second spike

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Britain’s system for tracing those with the novel coronavirus was under fire on Thursday (21 May) as it grappled with the development of a tracking app and health workers warned the government that unless there was clarity it could suffer a second deadly wave, write Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday (20 May) a “world-beating” programme to test and trace those suspected of having been in contact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19 would be in place by 1 June.

Britain is currently testing the app - based on Bluetooth - on the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England where the government says more than half the residents had downloaded it.

James Brokenshire, the junior interior minister in charge of security, said there were technical issues with the app but that traditional measures would be used until it works.

“The track and trace system is going to be ready,” Brokenshire told Sky News.

“We obviously want to see that the app is put in place well and effectively, learning from the experience on the Isle of Wight and dealing with all of the feedback that we’re receiving on some of the technical issues, to ensure that the app is as strong as we can make it.”

When asked directly if the system could work without the app, he said: “Yes”.

Tracking and tracing those infected is seen as crucial to preventing a deadly second wave of the outbreak - and thus getting the economy working again after the lockdown.

But Britain’s system has been dogged by criticism: opposition lawmakers said an earlier promise of a nationwide roll-out of a National Health Service (NHS)-developed smartphone app had slipped from the middle of this month.

The NHS Confederation, a group which represents the health service’s organisations, said the United Kingdom is at risk of a second jump in cases without clarity on government strategy.

“The relaxation of restrictions based on scientific advice is the right approach but it must be accompanied by an effective test, track and trace strategy which enables us to monitor local spread of the disease,” the confederation said.

“To achieve this we must have national, local and cross-agency involvement. Without this, we do face the risk of a second wave of infections.”

When asked about a trial in Britain of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, the drug U.S. President Donald Trump says he takes, Brokenshire said that all drugs were tested carefully. When asked if he would take it, he said he felt there was no need to make such statements.

His comments come after Trump on Tuesday defended taking hydroxychloroquine to try to ward off the novel coronavirus despite medical warnings about its use.

“I’m taking hydroxychloroquine,” Trump, 73, said on 18 May. “All I can tell you is so far I seem to be OK.”

Brokenshire also said restrictions on arrivals in Britain from overseas would be introduced early next month. He declined give any further details.

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Coronavirus disinformation: Online platforms took more actions fighting vaccine disinformation

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The Commission has published the new reports by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, TikTok and Mozilla, signatories of the Code of Practice on Disinformation. They provide an overview of the evolution of the measures taken in January 2021. Google expanded its search feature providing information and a list of authorised vaccines in user's location in response to related searches in 23 EU countries, and TikTok applied the COVID-19 vaccine tag to over five thousand videos in the European Union. Microsoft co-sponsored the #VaxFacts campaign launched by NewsGuard providing a free browser extension protecting from coronavirus vaccines misinformation. Additionally, Mozilla reported that curated authoritative content from its Pocket (read-it-later) application gathered more than 5.8 billion impressions across the EU.

Values and Transparency Vice President Věra Jourová said: “Online platforms need to take responsibility to prevent harmful and dangerous disinformation, both domestic and foreign, from undermining our common fight against the virus and the efforts towards vaccination. But platforms' efforts alone will not suffice. It is also crucial to strengthen co-operation with public authorities, media and civil society to provide reliable information.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton added: “Disinformation poses a threat that needs to be taken seriously, and platforms' response must be diligent, robust and efficient. This is particularly crucial now, when we are acting to win the industrial battle for all Europeans to have a fast access to safe vaccines.”

The monthly reporting programme has been recently extended and will continue until June as the crisis still unfolds. It is a deliverable under the 10 June 2020 Joint Communication to ensure accountability towards the public and discussions are ongoing on how to further improve the process. You will find more information and the reports here.

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Merkel says COVID variants risk third virus wave, must proceed carefully

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New variants of COVID-19 risk a third wave of infections in Germany and the country must proceed with great care so that a new nationwide shutdown does not become necessary, Chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured) told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, writes Paul Carrel.

The number of new daily infections has stagnated over the past week with the seven-day incidence rate hovering at around 60 cases per 100,000. On Wednesday (24 February), Germany reported 8,007 new infections and 422 further deaths.

“Because of (variants), we are entering a new phase of the pandemic, from which a third wave may emerge,” Merkel said. “So we must proceed wisely and carefully so that a third wave does not necessitate a new complete shutdown throughout Germany.”

Merkel and state premiers in Germany, Europe’s most populous country and largest economy, have agreed to extend restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus until 7 March.

Hair salons will be allowed to reopen from 1 March, but the threshold for a gradual reopening of the rest of the economy targets an infection rate of no more than 35 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days.

Vaccines and comprehensive testing could allow for “a more regionally differentiated approach”, Merkel said in the newspaper interview, published online on Wednesday.

“In a district with a stable incidence of 35, for example, it may be possible to open all schools without causing distortions in relation to other districts with a higher incidence and schools that are not yet open,” she added.

“An intelligent opening strategy is inextricably linked with comprehensive quick tests, as it were as free tests,” she said. “I cannot say exactly how long it will take to install such a system. But it will be in March.”

Merkel described Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, which some essential workers have refused, as “a reliable vaccine, effective and safe.”

“As long as vaccines are as scarce as they are at the moment, you can’t choose what you want to be vaccinated with.”

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India warns of worsening COVID-19 situation, vaccinations to expand

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India announced an expansion of its vaccination programme on Wednesday (24 February) but warned that breaches of coronavirus protocols could worsen an infection surge in many states, write Krishna N. Das and Neha Arora.

Nearly a month after the health minister declared that COVID-19 had been contained, states such as Maharashtra in the west and Kerala in the south have reported a surge in cases, as reluctance grows over mask-wearing and social distancing.

India’s infections are the second highest in the world at 11.03 million, swelled in the past 24 hours by 13,742, health ministry data shows. Deaths rose by a two-week high of 104 to 156,567.

“Any laxity in implementing stringent measures to curb the spread, especially in view of new strains of virus ... could compound the situation,” the ministry said in a statement singling out nine states and a federal territory.

India has confirmed the long-time presence of two mutant variants - N440K and E484Q - in addition to those first detected in Brazil, Britain and South Africa.

The ministry said that while cases in the states of Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, as well as the federal territory of Jammu and Kashmir, were rising, the proportion of high-accuracy RT-PCR tests in those places was falling. Cases have also risen in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

In the past week, a third of India’s 36 states and union territories have reported an average of more than 100 new cases each day, with Kerala and Maharashtra both reporting more than 4,000, in a trend experts link to the reopening of schools and suburban train services.

The government has also asked states to speed vaccinations for healthcare and frontline workers. Just about 11 million people have received one or two doses in a campaign that began on Jan. 16, versus a target of 300 million by August.

From March 1, India will start vaccinating people above 60 and those older than 45 with health conditions free of charge in about 10,000 government hospitals and for a fee in more than 20,000 private facilities, the government said.

Earlier on Wednesday, a regulatory panel sought more data from drugmaker Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories for emergency authorisation of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, a senior official with direct knowledge of the discussions said.

The Central Drugs Standard Control Organization did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for confirmation.

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