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Trainee Indian doctors pulled from exams to fight world’s biggest COVID surge

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India postponed exams for trainee doctors and nurses on Monday, freeing them up to fight the world’s biggest surge in coronavirus infections, as the health system crumbles under the weight of new cases and hospitals run out of beds and oxygen.

The total number of infections so far rose to just short of 20 million, propelled by a 12th straight day of more than 300,000 new cases in a pandemic sparked by a virus first identified in central China at the end of 2019.

Medical experts say actual numbers in India could be five to 10 times higher than those reported.

Hospitals have filled to capacity, supplies of medical oxygen have run short, and morgues and crematoriums have been overloaded with corpses. Patients are dying on hospital beds, in ambulances and in carparks outside.

“Every time we have to struggle to get our quota of our oxygen cylinders,” said B.H. Narayan Rao, a district official in the southern town of Chamarajanagar, where 24 COVID-19 patients died, some from a suspected shortage of oxygen supplies.

“It’s a day-to-day fight,” added Rao, as he described the hectic scramble for supplies.

In many cases, volunteer groups have come to the rescue.

Outside a temple in the capital, New Delhi, Sikh volunteers were providing oxygen to patients lying on benches inside makeshift tents, hooked up to a giant cylinder. Every 20 minutes or so, a new patient came in.

“No one should die because of a lack of oxygen. It’s a small thing otherwise, but nowadays, it is the one thing every one needs,” Gurpreet Singh Rummy, who runs the service, told Reuters.

Total infections since the start of the pandemic have reached 19.93 million in India, swelled by 368,147 new cases over the past 24 hours, while the death toll rose by 3,417 to 218,959, health ministry data showed. At least 3.4 million people are currently being treated.

Offering a glimmer of hope, the health ministry said positive cases relative to the number of tests fell on Monday for the first time since at least April 15.

Modelling by a team of government advisers shows coronavirus cases could peak by Wednesday this week, a few days earlier than a previous estimate, since the virus has spread faster than expected.

At least 11 states and regions have ordered curbs on movement to stem infections, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, widely criticised for allowing the crisis to spin out of control, is reluctant to announce a national lockdown, concerned about the economic impact.

“In my opinion, only a national stay at home order and declaring medical emergency will help to address the current healthcare needs,” Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist with the University of Michigan, said on Twitter.

People carry a body of a man, who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during his cremation at a crematorium in New Delhi, India May 3, 2021. Photo: Reuters

People carry a body of a man, who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during his cremation at a crematorium in New Delhi, India May 3, 2021. Photo: Reuters

Crisis tests Modi

As medical facilities near breaking point, the government postponed an exam for doctors and nurses to allow some to join the coronavirus battle alongside existing personnel, it said in a statement.

In Pune, the second-largest city in the state of Maharashtra, Dr. Mekund Penurkar returned to work just days after losing his father to COVID-19. His mother and brother are in hospital with the virus, but patients are waiting to see him.

“It is a very difficult situation,” he said. “Because I have been through such a situation myself, I can’t leave other patients to their fate.”

Modi has been criticised for not moving sooner to limit the spread and for letting millions of largely unmasked people attend religious festivals and crowded political rallies in five states during March and April.

In early March, a forum of government scientific advisers warned officials of a new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus taking hold, five of its members told Reuters.

Despite the warning, four of the scientists said the federal government did not seek to impose major curbs.

With the next general election due in 2024, it remains to be seen how the pandemic might affect him or his party. His Hindu nationalist party was defeated on Sunday in a state poll in the eastern state of West Bengal, although it won in the neighbouring state of Assam.

Leaders of 13 opposition parties urged Modi in a letter on Sunday to immediately launch free national vaccinations and to prioritise oxygen supplies to hospitals and health centres.

Despite being the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, India does not have enough for itself. Just 9% of a population of 1.35 billion has received a dose.

Daily shots have fallen sharply from an all-time high reached early last month as domestic companies struggle to boost supplies. Vaccination centres in Mumbai were deserted after the state government said it did not have enough supplies to administer second doses for adults above 45.

Only limited doses were available for those aged 18-44 and no walk-ins were allowed.

India has struggled to increase capacity beyond 80 million doses a month due to a lack of raw materials and a fire at the Serum Institute, which makes the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Another manufacturer, Pfizer Inc, is in talks with the government for “expedited approval” of its vaccine, Chief Executive Albert Bourla said on LinkedIn, announcing a donation of medicines worth more than $70 million.

Last month, India said its drugs regulator would hand down a decision within three days on emergency-use applications for foreign vaccines, including that of Pfizer.

International aid has poured in in response to the crisis.

Britain will send another 1,000 ventilators to India, the government said on Sunday. Prime ministers Boris Johnson and Modi are set to talk on Tuesday.

The Indian COVID-19 variant has now reached at least 17 countries including Britain, Iran and Switzerland, spurring several nations to close their borders to travellers from India.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20210504/trainee-indian-doctors-pulled-from-exams-to-fight-worlds-biggest-covid-surge/60708.html

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Pfizer, Moderna vaccines effective against Indian variants: study

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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.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20210518/pfizer-moderna-vaccines-effective-against-indian-variants-study/60998.html

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Japan’s economy slumps back into decline as COVID-19 hits spending

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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.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20210518/japans-economy-slumps-back-into-decline-as-covid19-hits-spending/60997.html

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Monster cyclone makes landfall in COVID-stricken India

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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

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

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

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.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20210518/monster-cyclone-makes-landfall-in-covidstricken-india/60996.html

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