NEW DELHI/BANGKOK — India and Thailand reported record daily coronavirus cases on Thursday, as a new wave of infections, combined with a shortage of hospital beds and vaccines, threatens to slow Asia’s recovery from the pandemic.
India breached 200,000 daily infections for the first time on Thursday and the financial hub of Mumbai entered a lockdown, as many hospitals reported shortages of beds and oxygen supplies.
“The situation is horrible. We are a 900-bed hospital, but there are about 60 patients waiting and we don’t have space for them,” said Avinash Gawande, an official at the Government Medical College and Hospital in Nagpur, a commercial hub in Maharashtra.
The surge was the seventh record daily increase in the last eight days and takes the total caseload to 14.1 million, only second to the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims thronged to a religious festival in the north of the country on Wednesday, stoking fears of another surge in COVID-19 cases.
Rising infections have also put strain on the healthcare system in Manila and Bangkok.
The Philippines saw many hospitals in its capital region, home to around 13 million people, filling up, as cases rise. Confirmed coronavirus cases in the last 30 days alone reached 266,489, accounting for 30% of the country’s total infections.
|A health worker in personal protective equipment draws the curtains of a makeshift room used by a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patient in a quarantine facility in Manila, Philippines, April 15, 2021. Photo: Reuters|
Some families of COVID-19 patients have taken to social media to share their ordeals in finding hospitals. Some travelled outside the capital to find a healthcare facility, or spent long hours in line.
Thailand reported 1,543 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, the sharpest increase since the start of the pandemic and the fourth record rise this week.
The spike has increased hospital bed occupancy rates as all positive cases have to be admitted into care under Thai rules. A total of 8,973 patients are being treated.
While the country considers lockdown measures, its neighbour Cambodia imposed a lockdown in its capital and a satellite district on Thursday as an outbreak that started in late February saw cases spike almost ten-fold to 4,874 within two months.
Bangladesh also began a week-long lockdown with strict restrictions on Wednesday as infections have reached around 7,000 cases a day in the last two weeks from below 300 in February.
|Local residents queue for a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) nasal swab test, in Bangkok, Thailand, April 14, 2021. Photo: Reuters|
As the divide between developed and developing countries’ access to COVID-19 vaccines grows, the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Wednesday urged vaccine makers to increase technology transfer to bring in manufacturing capacity.
Thailand, for example, vaccinated 0.4% of its population, trailing neighbours, such as Singapore with 14.6%, a Reuters estimate found.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who became WTO director-general in March, also called for its members to reduce vaccine export restrictions and work to ease logistics and customs procedures.
In Australia, which abandoned its inoculation target earlier this week following shipment delays and newly imposed restrictions on the use of AstraZeneca’s shot, a leading doctors’ association opposed a government plan to create mass inoculation hubs, citing logistical challenges.
“You need to find a workforce from somewhere, and we are not aware of large numbers of registered nurses and doctors who are available to manage these centres,” Australian Medical Association (AMA) President Omar Khorshid told local radio.
Japan, whose inoculation pace has been impacted by tight supplies, may cancel this year’s Olympics in Tokyo if the coronavirus crisis becomes too dire, a senior ruling party official said on Thursday, less than 100 days ahead of planned start of the games.
“If it seems impossible to do it any more, then we have to stop, decisively,” Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, told broadcaster TBS.
Japan is grappling with rising coronavirus infections, with numbers trending higher in Tokyo after the government ended a state of emergency, and Osaka suffering a record number of cases.
Pfizer, Moderna vaccines effective against Indian variants: study
The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines should remain highly effective against two coronavirus variants first identified in India, according to new research carried out by US scientists.
The lab-based study was carried out by the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and NYU Langone Center and is considered preliminary because it has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
“What we found is that the vaccine’s antibodies are a little bit weaker against the variants, but not enough that we think it would have much of an effect on the protective ability of the vaccines,” senior author Nathaniel “Ned” Landau told AFP on Monday.
The researchers first took blood from people who were vaccinated with either of the two shots, which are predominant in the United States and have been given to more than 150 million Americans.
They then exposed these samples in a lab to engineered pseudovirus particles that contained mutations in the “spike” region of the coronavirus, which were particular to either the B.1.617 or B.1.618 variants, first found in India.
Finally, that mixture was exposed to lab-grown cells, to see how many would become infected.
The engineered pseudovirus particles contained an enzyme called luciferase, which fireflies use to light up. Adding it to the pseudovirus makes it possible to tell how many cells are infected, based on light measurements.
Overall, for B.1.617 they found an almost four-fold reduction in the amount of neutralizing antibodies — Y-shaped proteins the immune system creates to stop pathogens from invading cells. For B.1.618, the reduction was around three-fold.
“In other words, some of the antibodies now don’t work anymore against the variants, but you still have a lot of antibodies that do work against the variants,” said Landau.
“There’s enough that do work that we believe that the vaccines will be highly protective,” he added, because the overall levels remain well above those found in samples taken from people who recovered from infection with earlier unmutated virus.
But this kind of lab investigation cannot predict what the real world efficacy might look like — that will have to be investigated through other studies.
The coronavirus is known to latch on to a particular receptor on human cells called ACE2, which it uses to force its entry.
Landau’s team showed the Indian variants were able to bind more tightly to this receptor, like other variants of concern. This might be linked to its increased transmissibility compared to the original strain.
“Our results lend confidence that current vaccines will provide protection against variants identified to date,” the team concluded.
However, they do not preclude the possibility that newer variants that are more resistant to vaccines will emerge — highlighting the importance of widespread vaccination at the global level.
Japan’s economy slumps back into decline as COVID-19 hits spending
Japan’s economy shrank more than expected in the first quarter as a slow vaccine rollout and new COVID-19 infections hit spending on items such as dining out and clothes, raising concerns the country will lag others emerging from the pandemic.
Capital expenditure also fell unexpectedly and export growth slowed sharply, a sign the world’s third-largest economy is struggling for drivers to pull it out of the doldrums.
The dismal reading and extended state of emergency curbs have heightened the risk Japan may shrink again in the current quarter and slide back to recession, defined as two straight quarters of recession, some analysts say.
“Global chip shortages caused a marked slowdown in exports, putting a drag on capital spending as well,” said Yoshimasa Maruyama, chief market economist at SMBC Nikko Securities.
“Consumption will probably remain stagnant, raising risks of an economic contraction in the current quarter.”
The economy shrank an annualised 5.1% in the first quarter, more than the forecast 4.6% contraction and following an 11.6% jump in the previous quarter, government data showed on Tuesday.
The decline was mainly due to a 1.4% drop in private consumption as state of emergency curbs to combat the pandemic hit spending for clothing and dining out.
But the bigger-than-expected contraction also reflected a surprise 1.4% drop in capital expenditure, which confounded market expectations for a 1.1% increase as companies scaled back spending on equipment for machinery and cars.
While exports grew 2.3% thanks to a rebound in global demand for cars and electronics, the pace of increase slowed sharply from the previous quarter’s 11.7% gain, a worrying sign for an economy still reeling from weak domestic demand.
Domestic demand knocked 1.1% point off gross domestic product (GDP), while net exports shaved off 0.2 point, the data showed.
“That domestic demand is weak shows the adverse effects from the coronavirus haven’t been shaken off at all,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.
Despite massive monetary and fiscal stimulus, Japan’s economy slumped a record 4.6% in the fiscal year that ended in March, the data showed.
“There will undoubtedly be fiscal money poured on this problem to soften the blow, though after so much already, it is difficult to see this having more than a fairly marginal effect,” analysts at ING wrote in a research note, adding they expect the economy to shrink again in the current quarter.
“And the Bank of Japan seems to be out of fresh policy stimulus ideas currently, so we don’t anticipate anything new from them apart from extending existing measures.”
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura blamed the weak GDP reading mainly on the curbs to combat the pandemic, adding the economy still had “potential” to recover.
“It’s true service spending will likely remain under pressure in April-June. But exports and output will benefit from a recovery in overseas growth,” he told reporters.
Japan’s economy expanded for two straight quarters after its worst postwar slump in April-June last year due to the initial hit from the pandemic.
The export-driven recovery came to a standstill as consumption took a hit from a spike in new virus strains that forced the government to re-impose curbs just 10 weeks before the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Monster cyclone makes landfall in COVID-stricken India
A deadly cyclone blasted ashore in western India late Monday with fierce winds and drenching rains that turned streets into rivers, disrupting the country’s response to its devastating COVID-19 outbreak.
Cyclone Tauktae, which local press reports called the biggest to hit the area in 30 years, has unleashed heavy weather since the weekend that killed at least 20 people in its approach to land.
It made landfall in Gujarat state just after 8:30 pm local time (1500 GMT) as an Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm packing winds of 155-165 kilometres (95-100 miles) per hour, gusting up to 185 kph, the Indian Meteorological Department said.
One woman died after high winds knocked over an electricity poll in the city of Patan in northern Gujarat, officials said.
Sea levels swelled as high as three metres (10 feet) along the coast, said local weather officials in the coastal town of Diu, which reported wind speeds of 133 kph.
The colossal swirling system visible from space has exacerbated India’s embattled response to a coronavirus surge that is killing at least 4,000 people daily and pushing hospitals to their breaking point.
In waterlogged and windswept Mumbai, where authorities on Monday closed the airport and urged people to stay indoors, authorities shifted 580 COVID-19 patients “to safer locations” from three field hospitals.
Six people died and nine were injured as the storm lashed Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, the chief minister’s office said.
|Heavy rains and strong winds lash Mumbai as a major cyclone packing ferocious winds and threatening a destructive storm surge bore down on India. Photo: AFP|
Two navy ships were deployed to assist in search and rescue operations for a barge carrying 273 people “adrift” off Mumbai’s coast, with 28 picked up so far, the defence ministry said late Monday.
Seven people died and nearly 1,500 houses were damaged in Kerala state, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan tweeted late Monday.
COVID-19 patients evacuated
Around 200,000 people were evacuated in Gujarat, where all COVID-19 patients in hospitals within five kilometres of the coast were also moved.
Authorities there scrambled to ensure there would be no power cuts in the nearly 400 designated COVID-19 hospitals and 41 oxygen plants in 12 coastal districts.
Chief minister Vijay Rupani told reporters that over 1,000 COVID-19 hospitals in coastal towns have been provided with generators and power backups, with 744 health teams deployed along with 174 ICUs on wheels and 600 ambulances.
“Besides the daily requirement of 1,000 tonnes of oxygen in Gujarat per day, an additional stock of 1,700 tonnes has been secured and could be used in case of emergency,” Rupani said.
Virus safety protocols such as wearing masks, social distancing and the use of sanitisers would be observed in the shelters for evacuees, officials added.
The state also suspended vaccinations for two days. Mumbai did the same for one day.
|Commuters drive through a waterlogged road amidst heavy rains in Mumbai. Photo: AFP|
Thousands of disaster response personnel have been deployed, while units from the coast guard, navy, army and air force have been placed on standby.
Maharashtra evacuated around 12,500 people from coastal areas.
Four people died on Saturday as rain and winds battered Karnataka state, while two died in Goa as winds hit power supplies and uprooted trees.
‘Terrible double blow’
The vast nation of 1.3 billion people on Monday reported 4,100 deaths and 280,000 fresh COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the total close to 25 million — a doubling since April 1.
“This cyclone is a terrible double blow for millions of people in India whose families have been struck down by record COVID-19 infections and deaths,” said Udaya Regmi from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The organisation said it was helping authorities to evacuate people most at risk in coastal areas, providing first aid, masks “and encouraging other critical COVID-19 prevention measures”.
|This handout satellite image shows Cyclone Tauktae over western India on May 17, 2021. Photo: AFP|
Last May, more than 110 people died after “super cyclone” Amphan ravaged eastern India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal.
The Arabian Sea previously experienced fewer severe cyclones than the Bay of Bengal but rising water temperatures because of global warming was changing that, Roxy Mathew Koll from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology told AFP.
“(The) Arabian Sea is one of the fastest-warming basins across the global oceans,” he said.
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