Coronavirus news live: African Union to buy 110m Moderna vaccines, NZ to set vaccine mandates for 40% of workforce


China is demanding faster and more accessible Covid-19 testing services in its latest effort to reinforce a zero-tolerance policy against the virus, even when cities have already scrambled to test millions in just a few days amid outbreaks.

Frequent testing, and sometimes mass testing, is standard practice in China’s containment of domestically transmitted outbreaks in the past year, but health authorities say testing services remain unsatisfactory in parts of China amid flare-ups, report Reuters

“Small clusters and sporadic infections have occurred in some areas, exposing problems such as the unreasonable locations of nucleic acid testing agencies, inconvenient services and delays in the returning of results,” state media reported today , citing the National Health Commission (NHC).

China is facing a new wave of infections involving nearly 200 locally transmitted symptomatic cases in 12 provincial areas since 17 October. Many of the infected were from remote parts of northwest China without as much health resources as major cities.

NHC said testing agencies should provide 24-hour services to the public and strive to have results within six hours for those who volunteer to be tested, according to state media reports. It previously said in September that cities with over 5 million people should have the capacity to test everyone within three days.

While China is yet to approve self-testing kits for diagnosing Covid-19, swab tests that require professional labs to process samples are widely available.

We’ve got an interesting little interactive today from my colleagues Anna Leach and Miles Probyn which sets out to ask why people believe Covid conspiracy theories, and wonders if folklore could hold the answer?

Researchers have mapped the web of connections underpinning coronavirus conspiracy theories, opening a new way of understanding and challenging them.

Using Danish witchcraft folklore as a model, the researchers from UCLA and Berkeley analysed thousands of social media posts with an artificial intelligence tool and extracted the key people, things and relationships.

The tool enabled them to piece together the underlying stories in coronavirus conspiracy theories from fragments in online posts. One discovery from the research identifies Bill Gates as the reason why conspiracy theorists connect 5G with the virus.

Folklore isn’t just a model for the AI. Tangherlini, whose specialism is Danish folklore, is interested in how conspiratorial witchcraft folklore took hold in the 16th and 17th centuries and what lessons it has for today.

View the interactive here: Why people believe Covid conspiracy theories: could folklore hold the answer?

Heathrow passenger traffic at around 45% of pre-pandemic levels

Just a quick note from PA here, that Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye has said the London airport is still only seeing post-lockdown passenger traffic at around 45% of 2019 levels.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “It’s definitely been a tough 18 months but we are starting to see the recovery coming through. Now all we need to see is stability in the travel rules, so people are confident of what we need to do and the airlines can build it into their systems.

“We are hiring people right now to make sure that across the airport we can meet the demand that is starting to come through. We’re still at around 40 to 45% of the levels even on the busiest days of where we were back in 2019.”

UK headteachers describe ‘sinister’ tactics of anti-vaxx protesters

Sally Weale

Headteachers have described the “sinister” intimidation tactics being used by protesters against the vaccination against Covid of teenagers in schools.

“It started with a few emails from a group calling itself Lawyers for Freedom,” the Guardian was told by the headteacher of one of a number of Liverpool schools that have come under pressure from anti-vaccine activists. “An email is relatively easy to ignore.”

The protests soon escalated, however, with “aggressive” leafleting of pupils by five or six protesters as they left school. The head dialled 999, but the police did not come. “It felt disproportionate,” said the head. “We know there was at least one student who came back into school and was quite upset by what was going on.”

That was followed by a visit from a small group of protesters who gained access to the school, demanded to meet the head, then served quasi-legal documents warning that they would be held legally responsible if any child suffered death or harm from these “experimental vaccines”.

The same has happened at a number of Liverpool secondary schools. The encounters were typically filmed on a mobile phone then posted on the social media app Telegram by a group calling itself Liverpool’s People’s Resistance UK, naming schools and in some cases teachers, declaring, “Notice served.”

“It was pretty aggressive,” the head said. “They came up to reception asking to speak to the headteacher about a legal matter. They insist on reading from a script and they film the whole process on a mobile.

“Once they’ve handed the papers over, they tend to disappear. They’ve got the footage they want. It almost feels like it’s a trophy. There are Trumpian undertones to what these groups are doing. If they started describing themselves as patriots, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Read more of Sally Weale’s report here: UK headteachers describe ‘sinister’ tactics of anti-vaxx protesters

Ukraine record new record high for daily deaths with 734 fatalities

A quick snap from Reuters here on the Covid surge that is hitting the east of the continent of Europe, with today Ukraine’s health ministry confirming it registered a record daily high of 734 coronavirus-related deaths over the past 24 hours. The previous high of 614 deaths was on 22 October.

The ministry’s data also showed 19,120 new infections were reported over the past 24 hours. That compares to a total of 14,634 new coronavirus cases on 24 October in Ukraine.

UK minister: ‘use your own initiative’ on face masks

Business minister Paul Scully has been on Sky News this morning, and as expected much of the interview was taken up with Budget details. The only really Covid-adjacent section of the interview was when he was asked if he would be wearing a face mask in the House of Commons on Budget day, to which he didn’t really give an answer, preferring to say that he might not be in the chamber on the day, and only if it is “rammed”.

Asked about whether one political party wearing face masks in parliament and one political party not wearing face masks was sending mixed messages to the public at a time when the trend is for rising case numbers in the UK, he said:

I think the message is to make your decisions for yourself. It depends where you want to go to. If you want the government to be dictating to you every minute of the day. It’s a message that you can use your own initiative and make your own decisions.

Here are the latest Covid numbers in the UK, by the way.


Bulgaria sets new records for cases and deaths amid protests over restrictions

Bulgaria reported record numbers of daily coronavirus deaths and infections as a fourth wave of the disease is stretching the health system in the European Union’s least vaccinated member state.

New infections in the previous 24 hours topped 5,863 while 243 people died of the virus, official data showed. The pandemic has killed 23,316 people in Bulgaria.

Faced with surging infections and frustrated by the slow take-up of vaccines, the Balkan country of 7 million people has made health passes mandatory for most indoor public venues.

People walk through a metro station in Sofia this week.
People walk through a metro station in Sofia this week. Photograph: Hristo Rusev/Getty Images

Tsvetelia Tsolova reports for Reuters from Sofia the new restrictions have prompted protests and some political parties have accused the interim government of failing to manage the pandemic ahead of parliamentary elections on 14 November.

Health authorities have warned that failure to slow the new wave of the disease may trigger tougher restrictions as hospitals struggle to deal with more Covid-19 patients.

On Tuesday, more than 7,100 people were in Covid wards, including 608 of them in intensive care. More than 90% of the patients were not vaccinated, data showed.

Vaccinations have picked up since last Thursday, when authorities limited access to restaurants, cinemas and gyms, among other venues, to those who are vaccinated, have recovered from the virus or have a negative Covid-19 test.

Still, Bulgaria, where vaccine scepticism runs high amid entrenched mistrust of state authorities and contradictory messages from politicians and experts, has managed to fully inoculate only 24% of its adult population compared with an EU average of 74%.

Hong Kong tightens its border restrictions

Helen Davidson

After weeks of sustained calls for Hong Kong to relax its quarantine and border restrictions, the city’s leader has just announced they’re getting tougher.

Currently Hong Kong’s border rules are a labyrinthine range of entry requirements depending on the traveller’s point of origin, vaccination status, visa status, and quarantine hotel bookings.

The city mostly bans non-residents, and requires entrants to undergo up to 21 days of quarantine. There are some exemptions to that, which include allowing some resident travellers to undergo shorter periods of quarantine or for other individuals like diplomats and business figures – recently including Nicole Kidman who was filming a movie – to bypass it altogether or to isolate at home.

At a regular press conference on Tuesday, Lam announced “most” quarantine exemptions to visitors coming from both overseas and the mainland will soon be cancelled. She said only essential workers, like truck drivers carrying goods between Hong Kong and China, would be allowed to travel without quarantining.

Hong Kong has gone about two months without a domestic case of Covid-19 but its leader, Carrie Lam, has made it clear she is prioritising reopening travel with mainland China over lifting international border restrictions. China is pursuing a zero Covid strategy, and expects Hong Kong to have similar situation and response measures in place in order to ease cross-border travel.

Lam conceded this posed a “dilemma”, but a mainland bubble remained the priority.

“So if Hong Kong were to loosen border controls for people arriving from overseas or adopt what other countries have done – so-called [living] with the Covid-19 virus – then the chances to travel with the mainland will be reduced.”

The decision walks Hong Kong even further away from what international business groups, companies and expats, as well as residents with overseas family ties had been lobbying for.

Faced with the uncertainty of the border closures on top of a worsening security and political environment, foreign chambers of commerce have warned many existing companies are leaving, downsizing or moving staff to other Asian cities.

“What we do not see is a massive outflow of companies out of Hong Kong,” Frederik Gollob, the chairman of the European Chamber, recently told Bloomberg. “But we do see the tendency to restructure either functions, parts of your teams, teams, or in some cases, entire companies to other locations in Asia.”

A survey by the US chamber of commerce earlier this year found more than 40% of its members were considering leaving Hong Kong, but its president, Tara Joseph, said the government was not responding to their concerns. “We’re at the point where it just feels like we’re talking to a wall,” Joseph told Bloomberg. “So we’ve stopped writing letters at this point.”

A general view shows the city skyline from a star ferry in Hong Kong.
A general view shows the city skyline from a star ferry in Hong Kong. Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images


Hello, it is Martin Belam here in London. I’ll be taking over from Samantha Lock and here for the next few hours. Business minister Paul Scully is doing the UK media round for the government this morning. I suspect it will mostly be about pre-announcing elements of this week’s budget, but I will bring you any Covid-related lines that emerge in due course.


African Union to buy up to 110m Moderna vaccines

An exclusive story from Reuters today reports an arrangement struck between the African Union (AU) and the White House to secure up to 110 million Covid-19 vaccine doses.

The AU is set to buy the vaccine from manufacturer and vaccine developer Moderna Inc. The White House will defer delivery of 33 million doses intended for the United States to facilitate the deal, officials told the news agency.

The AU’s doses will be delivered over the coming months, with 15 million arriving before the end of 2021, 35 million in the first quarter of next year and up to 60 million in the second quarter.

“This is important as it allows us to increase the number of vaccines available immediately,” the AU coronavirus envoy, Strive Masiyiwa, said. “We urge other vaccine producing countries to follow the lead of the (US government) and give us similar access to buy this and other vaccines.”

Masiyiwa said the Moderna purchase represented the first time the 55-member AU had secured vaccines that were not fully produced in Africa.

The new shipments of vaccine are well below what Africa needs to vaccinate its 1.3 billion people, who have had far less access to the life-saving vaccines than more prosperous parts of the world. Getting access to Moderna vaccines adds diversity to the AU’s vaccine supply with different storage requirements.

“We are grateful to have helped negotiate this encouraging step forward between Moderna and the African Union that will significantly expand access to vaccines on the continent in the near-term,” said Natalie Quillian, the White House’s deputy coordinator for Covid-19 response.


China Covid outbreak continues to spread

Helen Davidson

China reported 35 new domestic cases on Monday, as authorities continue to battle an outbreak of the Delta variant primarily centred around Inner Mongolia but which has spread to at least 11 provinces.

China is one of the few remaining countries still pursuing a zero Covid strategy, and has again responded to the latest outbreak with travel restrictions, stay-inside orders and other measures.

At least four people are under investigation for breaching pandemic measures, and several officials in Inner Mongolia have been punished, including the local health commission’s deputy director who has been removed from her post, according to Caixin.

The outbreak of more than 150 cases so far has spread through tour groups travelling between provinces, health authorities have said. This morning local government officials in Gansu revealed dozens of tour groups are stranded in the province, comprising more than 420 tourists.

Beijing, which has recorded several cases linked to Inner Mongolia tourists, has barred from entry anyone who has been to an affected area, and postponed its upcoming annual marathon.


New Zealand announces vaccine mandates for 40% of workforce

New Zealand is announcing sweeping vaccine mandates for workers in cafes, bars, hairdressers and gyms, as the country aims for some of the world’s highest vaccination rates.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said the government would also require businesses to provide paid time off to allow workers to get vaccinated.

Under the new rules, vaccination will be required for all workers at businesses where customers need to show Covid-19 vaccination certificates – under New Zealand’s new framework, that includes hospitality and close-contact businesses like hairdressers and gyms whenever there is a “red” or “orange” level of traffic light restrictions. The changes are expected to affect about 40% of New Zealand’s workforce. Those who do not comply with vaccination mandates can be given 4 weeks notice by employers. Unemployment benefits and support will not be affected in any way if people are dismissed as a result of refusal to get vaccinated.

The measures won’t come into force until New Zealand moves to its new epidemic management model, which happens when the country passes 90% vaccination.

Asked if the changes were “government overreach,” Ardern said “absolutely not”.

“We’ve been very careful here to make an assessment of those areas that throughout this outbreak and throughout COVID-19 have always been assessed as high risk,” she said.

“We are trying to be very careful to ensure that everything we’re doing has a public health basis to it, and also balances out the rights of those who are both workers [and] also the rights of those who may be clients or customers.”

Hello and thanks for joining us.

I’m Samantha Lock reporting to you from Sydney, Australia, and I’ll be with you for the next short while while we go through all the key Covid developments.

As the disparity in vaccination rates widens between the world’s wealthiest and poorest nations, some good news has finally arrived.

The African Union (AU) has brokered a deal to buy up to 110 million vaccine doses from Moderna Inc, Reuters reports.

Under the negotiations delivery of some doses intended for the United States will be deferred to facilitate the deal, officials told the news agency. The deal was brokered in part by the White House.

The AU’s doses will be delivered over the coming months, with 15 million arriving before the end of 2021, 35 million in the first quarter of next year and up to 60 million in the second quarter.

Here’s a round-up of the day’s leading Covid stories:

  • European Medical Agency approves Moderna booster. The medical body approved doses for all adults, saying the Spikevax booster can be given out and administered, after it gave the green light to the Pfizer/BioNTech’s Comirnaty jab earlier in October.
  • US introduces new guidelines on non-US citizens’ entry into the country and testing for travellers. Foreign nationals will have to be fully vaccinated before entering the country, with some exemptions in place for under-18s. Those coming from countries with low vaccination rates will have to justify their visit.

  • UK reports 38 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid as of Monday, bringing the UK total to 139,571.
  • Moderna moves towards expanding shots to children, saying a low dose of its Covid vaccine is safe and appears to work in six- to 11-year-olds.

  • Children as young as three will start receiving Covid vaccines in China, where 76% of the population has been fully vaccinated. It comes as authorities continue to maintain a zero-tolerance policy towards outbreaks.
  • Worst of US pandemic likely behind us but we can’t drop our guard, experts say. The number of new Covid cases and deaths in the US has been in a steady decline since early September but experts also caution that it’s not yet safe to abandon safeguards against the virus. That’s because parts of the US population and much of the world remain unvaccinated, which could allow for outbreaks and dangerous new variants of the virus to emerge.
  • People in Tokyo can eat and drink in bars and restaurants later in the evening from today as Japan eases social distancing rules.

  • Russia reports 37,930 new Covid-19 infections in the last 24 hours, its highest single-day case tally since the start of the pandemic.
  • Spain reached the grim milestone of 5 million COVID-19 cases during the pandemic.
  • Mexico reports more than 1,000 new Covid-19 cases, health ministry says.
  • Facebook deleted a video of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro in which he warned of a link between Covid-19 vaccines and Aids.

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