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WHO urges countries to donate COVID-19 vaccines as supplies tighten

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The World Health Organization has urged countries to donate COVID-19 vaccine doses to inoculate the most vulnerable in 20 poorer nations after India, a key supplier to the agency’s COVAX vaccine-sharing programme, said it was prioritizing local needs, write Emma Farge, Brenna Hughes and Stephanie Nebehay.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the COVAX programme, run with the GAVI vaccine alliance, needed 10 million doses immediately to inoculate healthcare workers and older people as a stop-gap measure.

“COVAX is ready to deliver but we can’t deliver vaccines we don’t have. Bilateral deals, export bans, vaccine nationalism and vaccine diplomacy have caused distortions in the market with gross inequities in supply and demand,” Tedros told a news conference.

“Ten million doses is not much and it’s not nearly enough,” he said.

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India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker, said on Friday it would make domestic inoculations a priority. The move will hit COVAX supplies as some of AstraZeneca’s vaccine is produced by the Serum Institute of India.

Tedros thanked India for its exports so far and said the move was “understandable” given rising infections. He added that talks with India were underway to find a balance between local and international needs.

So far COVAX has delivered 32 million vaccine doses to 61 countries, but 36 countries still await vaccines to start inoculations, he said.

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Tedros has said countries should work together to ensure COVID-19 vaccinations begin everywhere across the world within the first 100 days of 2021, or by April 10.

WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward said that talks with well-supplied countries about donations were underway and that some had expressed “positive interest”, without naming them.

Meanwhile a long-awaited report into the origins of the novel coronavirus, following a WHO team trip to Wuhan, China in January and February, would be released in the next few days, team leader Peter Ben Embarek said. WHO’s member states will receive it first before it is made public, he said.

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German ICUs expect COVID peak to hit hospitals at Christmas

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Germany is likely to reach a peak of its fourth wave of COVID-19 infections by mid-December and this could mean 6,000 intensive care beds occupied by Christmas, the country's association for intensive care medicine (DIVI) said on Wednesday (1 December), write Paul Carrel and Emma Thomasson, Reuters.

Andreas Schuppert, a forecaster for the DIVI association, told a news conference he was "moderately optimistic" the peak in new cases would come in the next two weeks, but warned this would take time to have its full impact on hospitals.

"It is an ominous situation," DIVI president Gernot Marx told reporters. "We would be well advised to react immediately. We must get ahead of the situation."

About 4,600 intensive care beds are currently occupied by COVID-19 patients, compared with a previous high of 5,745 on Jan. 3 when Germany was in a full lockdown.

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However, the DIVI said a shortage of nursing staff means Germany now only has about 9,000 beds where patients can receive artificial respiration, down from 12,000 a year ago.

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany's state infectious disease agency, reported 67,186 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, up 302 from a week ago, and 446 deaths, the highest daily figure since Feb. 18 - bringing the overall death toll to 101,790.

However, the seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 fell for a second day to 442.9 people, from 452.2 people on Tuesday.

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Germany's federal and regional governments agreed on Tuesday to take action, including stepping up the vaccination campaign and restricting contact, especially for unvaccinated people.

Already criticised by scientists for acting too late, the leaders agreed to take firm decisions on Thursday on proposals such as compelling customers to show proof of vaccination or recovery in shops and limiting numbers of people at big events.

Four people in southern Germany have tested positive for the newly identified Omicron coronavirus variant even though they were fully vaccinated, the public health office in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg said.

Three of the infected people returned from a business trip to South Africa on Nov. 26 and Nov. 27 respectively, and the fourth person is a family member of one of the returnees. All four showed moderate symptoms of COVID-19.

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ACI EUROPE urges governments to adhere to WHO guidance and reject blanket travel bans

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Airport trade body ACI EUROPE has given its strongest support to the World Health Organization’s call for a calm and measured response to the Omicron variant, and urged governments to react accordingly. Specifically, in its updated COVID-19 Travel Advice, the WHO states: "Countries should continue to apply an evidence-informed and risk-based approach when implementing travel measures. Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods Europe’s airports are at the front line of a country’s travel policy. They have seen first-hand the dramatic and disproportionate impact of travel bans and other extreme travel restrictions - specifically quarantines - which have little effect upon the epidemiological situation."

The WHO’s unequivocal guidance to countries not to knee-jerk into travel bans is extremely welcome. The updated advice comes as ACI EUROPE welcomed the European Commission’s new travel regime proposals issued last week, which place the emphasis on a travellers’ health status rather than their country of departure. Societal and economic damage ensues when extreme travel restrictions such as those recently imposed by some countries override the lessons learned through the pandemic to date.

ACI EUROPE Director General Olivier Jankovecsaid: “We know beyond any doubt from the experience gained over these past 20 months that blanket travel bans and quarantines are not effective in preventing the spread of new variants. While they have no impact on the epidemiological situation, they do have dramatic consequences upon livelihoods. We urge all countries to follow the WHO advice and make sure they follow evidence-informed and risk-based approaches when reviewing their travel regimes, as part of precautionary measures in relation to the Omicron variant. In particular, targeted pre-departure testing should be preferred over travel bans and quarantines. Effective coordination and alignment at EU level involving all EEA countries, Switzerland and also the UK is a must”.

ACI EUROPE also pointed to the urgency of achieving greater rollout of vaccinations not just in Europe but globally. Jankovec commented: "It would be difficult not to link the emergence and spread of the Omicron variant with the current situation of global vaccination inequity – which painfully proves the point that 'nobody is safe until everybody is safe' as repeatedly said by Commission President von der Leyen. But that means the EU and other European countries must do much more to ensure COVAX gets vaccines swiftly to low income countries. This could also potentially require the EU to align with the US with a view to wave patents and other intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Securing wider and fairer access to vaccination and therapeutics across the World is an absolute prerequisite to effectively mitigate the risk of other variants of concern emerging. The aviation and travel and tourism sectors are the most directly exposed to rebounds in the COVID-19 pandemic. We just can’t go on like that.”

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First suspected case of Omicron variant of COVID-19 detected in Switzerland

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The first probable case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected in Switzerland, the government said late on Sunday (28 November), as the country tightened its entry restrictions to check its spread, writes John Revill, Reuters.

The case relates to a person who returned to Switzerland from South Africa around a week ago, the Federal Office for Public Health said on Twitter.

Testing will clarify the situation in the coming days, it added.

Switzerland has ordered that travellers from 19 countries must present a negative test when boarding a fight to the country, and must go into quarantine for 10 days on arrival.

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The list includes Australia, Denmark, Britain, Czech Republic, South Africa and Israel.

Swiss voters on Sunday backed the government's pandemic response plan by a bigger than expected majority in a referendum, paving the way for the continuation of exceptional measures to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases. Read more.

Some 62.01% voted in favour of a law passed earlier this year to provide financial aid to people hit by the COVID-19 crisis and laying the foundation for certificates giving proof of COVID-19 vaccination, recovery or a negative test. These are currently required to enter bars, restaurants and certain events.

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