The global tallies of cases and deaths from the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 have started to plateau, according to the World Health Organization, but they remain at “unacceptably” high levels in many countries, notably India, where the crisis continues to deepen.
The positive declines in the Americas and Europe, the two worst-affected regions in the pandemic, are being offset by surging infections in Southeast Asia, where new variants are engulfing India, as well as Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, which entered a fresh lockdown on Monday that is expected to stretch through June 7, according to Reuters.
The WHO declared the strain dubbed B.1.627 that was first detected in India a “variant of concern” on Monday and said it is likely far more transmissible than the original virus.
“Globally, we are still in a perilous situation,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The spread of variants, increased social mixing, the relaxation of public health and social measures and inequitable vaccination are all driving transmission,” Tedros said in a Monday briefing with reporters.
Villagers in Northern India discovered dozens of corpses on the banks of the Ganges River, the New York Times reported, raising concerns that poorer people are disposing of COVID-19 victims in rivers because the cost of cremations has climbed so high. For weeks now, crematoria and graveyards have been overwhelmed by demand and Indians have been using parks and car parks for funeral pyres.
In another grim development, Indian hospitals are reporting a rise in cases of mucormycosis, or “black fungus,” a rare but potentially lethal infection that is closely linked to diabetes. The disease can lead to blackening or discoloration over the nose, blurred or double vision, chest pain, breathing difficulties and coughing blood, Reuters reported. Diabetes can in turn be exacerbated by steroids such as dexamethasone, which are being used to treat severe COVID-19.
There was positive news on the vaccine front, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the emergency use authorization it had granted to the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc.
and German partner BioNTech SE
for use in 12- to 15-year-olds. The news comes at a time when the U.S. vaccine push has been slowing with most of those willing to be vaccinated having received at least one jab, leaving only antivaxers unprotected.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. ET Monday, 152.8 million Americans had received at least one dose, equal to 46% of the population.
A full 115.5 million Americans were fully vaccinated, equal to 34.8% of the population, meaning they have received two shots of the two-dose vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and Moderna Inc.
or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson
one-shot vaccine. The AstraZeneca
vaccine has not been authorized for use in the U.S.
Among Americans 65 years old and older, 39 million people are fully vaccinated, equal to 71.5% of that group. Almost 46 million people in that age bracket have received a first jab, covering 83.7% of that population.
But the WHO’s Tedros again called on wealthier countries to do more to ensure poorer countries get access to vaccines, noting that high- and upper-middle income countries represent 53% of the world’s population, but have received 83% of the world’s vaccines. Experts have warned that hogging vaccines will allow new variants to emerge and they could eventually prove resistant to the vaccines that have been authorized for use.
“Redressing this global imbalance is an essential part of the solution, but not the only part, and not an immediate solution. We cannot put all our eggs in one basket,” Tedros said.
In other news:
• Novavax Inc.
has delayed plans to seek regulatory clearances for its COVID-19 vaccine, while shortages in raw materials are slowing the ramp-up of production of doses, the Wall Street Journal reported. The delays may set back efforts to increase vaccinations in developing countries, which have been dealing with limited doses of currently available shots and are looking forward to Novavax’s. The company previously expected to complete requests for regulatory authorizations of its COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S., the U.K. and other European countries by the end of June. Now, the company said Monday it expects to complete those filings by the end of September.
• Cerecor Inc.
said its experimental COVID-19 drug had received a Fast Track designation from the Food and Drug Administration, MarketWatch’s Jaimy Lee reported. The treatment candidate is a monoclonal antibody being targeted at people with COVID-19 who are sick enough to be hospitalized.
• The Food and Drug Administration advisory committee plans to hold a meeting on June 10 to discuss authorizing COVID-19 vaccines for use in pediatric populations. During the meeting, FDA officials are also expected to share details about what they expect to see in applications to authorize and approve these vaccines for use in children. The advisory committee will not discuss specific vaccines, the regulator said.
• The Nigerian government has reimposed lockdown restrictions, banning gatherings of over 50 people, along with the closure of bars, nightclubs and gyms, the Guardian reported. The ban comes days before almost half of the country’s 200 million people celebrate the Islamic celebration of Eid. The government said restrictions were needed given the fragility of its healthcare system, a lack of vaccines after orders from India were disrupted and an overall lack of compliance with public safety measures.
• Visitors to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania are being offered COVID-19 vaccine shots as part of a government drive to encourage Romanians to get vaccinated, BBC News reported. Medics with fang stickers on their scrubs are offering Pfizer shots to everyone who visits the 14th-century Bran Castle in central Romania. Romania has recorded just over a million infections since the pandemic began, and nearly 29,000 deaths. The country’s government says it wants to vaccinate 10 million people by September, but almost half of Romanians say they are not inclined to get the jab – one of the highest hesitancy levels in Europe, according to a survey by Globesec.
The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness edged close to 159 million on Tuesday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll rose above 3.3 million. More than 95 million people have recovered from COVID, the data show.
The U.S. continues to lead the world in cases and deaths by wide margins, with 32.7 million cases and 582,162 deaths, or about a fifth of the worldwide tallies.
India is second to the U.S. by cases at 22.7 million and third by fatalities at 246,116.
Brazil is third with 15.2 million cases and second by fatalities at 423,229.
Mexico has the fourth-highest death toll at 219,098 and 2.4 million cases, or 15th highest tally.
The U.K. has 4.5 million cases and 127,870 deaths, the fifth-highest in the world and highest in Europe.
China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 102,643 confirmed cases and 4,846 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.
What’s the economy saying?
A record number of small businesses said they could not fill open jobs in April, adding to a growing national controversy over whether extra unemployment benefits are keeping scores of people from re-entering the labor force, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.
Some 44% of small businesses said job openings went unfilled in April, according the National Federation of Independent Business. The NFIB is the nation’s largest small-business lobbying group.
“Small-business owners are seeing a growth in sales but are stunted by not having enough workers,” said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. “Finding qualified employees remains the biggest challenge for small businesses and is slowing economic growth.”
A simmering debate over whether generous jobless benefits have discouraged people from returning to work boiled over Friday after the government reported that the U.S. added a paltry 266,000 new jobs in April.
Economists polled by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast an increase of 1 million new jobs, with some estimates ranging as high as 2 million.
“The market mechanism to clear this labor supply-and-demand imbalance is higher real wages,” said chief economist Scott Anderson of Bank of the West. “This would provide more incentive for folks who have exited the labor force to come back in, and for others to switch jobs to sectors where qualified labor is in short supply.”
Separately, job openings in the U.S. topped 8 million in March for the first time ever, the Labor Department said Tuesday. There were 7.5 million open jobs in February.
The number of job openings is now well above pre-pandemic levels and easily exceeds the all-time peak of 7.57 million set in November 2018.