COVID-19 spikes in Asia, variant spread keep global health officials on edge

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street/Flickr cc

COVID-19 cases continue to rise in a number of Asian countries, and hospitalizations are rising in others. Over in the United Kingdom, mitigation measures are slated to relax soon, but health officials are closely tracking sharp rises in the B1617 variant, first identified in India.

At a World Health Organization (WHO) media briefing today, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said that while India's situation is still "hugely concerning," several countries are also reporting worrying numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths and have emergency needs.

"Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Egypt are just some of the countries that are dealing with spikes in cases and hospitalizations," he said, adding that some countries in the Americas still have high case numbers and spikes are occurring in some African nations.

Tedros also said vaccine inequities are sadly playing out, with only 0.3% going to low-income countries. "Trickle down vaccination is not an effective strategy for fighting a deadly respiratory virus," he said, pointing out that even as some countries are vaccinating children and adolescents, others don't have enough to immunize the health workers needed to staff hospitals.

Asian countries report more rises

As cases in India remain high, with about 4,000 more deaths reported today, the situation in New Delhi has stabilized and health officials there are able to share supplies with other parts of the country experiencing shortages, according to the New York Times.

Singapore today tightened its measures for the first time since its lockdown last year, due to a rise in local infections and clusters, according to Reuters. The new curbs—in effect until the middle of June—include limits on social gatherings and restaurant dining, and employees are encouraged to work from home.

Meanwhile, rapid COVID spread in Japan triggered state of emergencies for three more prefectures, which include Hokkaido, Okayama, and Hiroshima. Tokyo and five other prefectures are already under a state of emergency, slated to last until May 31. In related developments, the country's doctors union urged the government to cancel the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics due to the country's ongoing outbreak, according to CNN.

Elsewhere, Taiwan today reported another record high, with 29 new cases, prompting officials to close bars and nightclubs in the capital, according to Reuters. And in mainland China, the country reported two local infections, its first since the middle of April.

Rapid B1617 rise in UK triggers surge testing

A rapid rise in the B1617 variant in the UK is raising concerns, especially since the country is set to enter the next phase of its reopening on Jun 21, which would remove remaining limits on gathering, according to the BBC. To try and mitigate variant-related surges, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a COVID briefing today that the interval between COVID-19 vaccines will be cut from 12 weeks to 8 weeks for those older than 50 and other groups who are at greater risk for severe illness.

The UK's department of health said today the B1617.2 variant is starting to spread rapidly in some areas, especially in the North West and in London, and cases rose from 520 last week to 1,313 cases this week. Although there is no evidence on whether the virus causes more severe disease or evades vaccine protection, the agency said the speed of growth is concerning.

Steps to track and curb the spread of the variant include surge testing in 15 areas. Matt Hancock, the UK's health and social care secretary, said, "We are monitoring the situation very carefully and will not hesitate to take further action if necessary."

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