Global COVID-19 deaths top 700,000; WHO team heads to South Africa

In the latest global COVID-19 developments, the fatality count passed the 700,000 mark as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the deployment of a surge team to South Africa, the continent's hardest-hit country, and Australian health officials took more steps to limit spread from its hot spot in Victoria state.

The global total today topped 18.5 million and is now at 18,635,877 cases, with 702,903 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

Surge team heads for South Africa

In Africa, cases are nearing the 1 million mark, and the WHO today announced it was sending a surge team to South Africa. In a statement, it said the first part of a 43-member multidisciplinary expert team is due to arrive today.

One member is David Heymann, MD, a well-known epidemiologist who led the WHO's response to SARS in 2003. The team is led by Matshidiso Moeti, MBBS, director of the WHO's African regional office, and Mike Ryan, MD, who heads the WHO's health emergencies program.

The deployment came after discussions with South Africa's health ministry. The team will observe how South Africa's health department is supporting state COVID-19 activities and then focus on supporting efforts in four of the most affected states: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, Kwazulu Natal, and Mpumalanga.

South Africa has the world's fifth-highest total. In a related development, the country's health minister said today that cases in Gauteng, Western Cape, and Eastern Cape have slowed some in recent weeks, but it's too soon to say if the country has reached its peak.

Record cases in Australia's Victoria state, others curb travel

Australia's Victoria state, which is grappling with a large flare-up in and around the Melbourne area, reported 725 new cases and 15 deaths, both records, Reuters reported. The state ordered even tougher measures that shutter most of its economy, including the closure of most businesses, a ban on elective surgery, and the closing of childcare centers.

Also, the states of New South Wales and Queensland took more steps to bar potentially infected travelers. Queensland had already banned travelers from Victoria state and has now ordered similar bans on those from New South Wales and the city of Canberra.

And in New South Wales, people returning from Victoria state must stay in quarantine in hotels for 14 days. The state reported 12 new cases today.

Australia is among the countries that successfully contained the early spread of the virus, and health officials have said the outbreak in Victoria state likely began when security guards had contact with travelers who were quarantined in hotels.

Vietnam outbreak affects 2 more provinces

Elsewhere, Vietnam—another country known for containing its early spread but is experiencing a flare-up—reported 43 new cases today and said cases linked to the hot spot  in Danang have now been detected in two more provinces, Bac Giang near Hanoi and Lang Son near the border with China, Reuters reported.

The health ministry said the outbreak in Danang, which is on lockdown, appears to be under control. Its outbreak began at the end of June, and so far, the source hasn't been identified. The city is a popular domestic tourist destination, a factor that led to the spread of the virus to at least 10 cities and provinces.

In developments in other parts of the world:

  • In Europe, Ireland's health minister today announced that the next phase of eased restrictions—including reopening pubs—will be paused, due to a rise in cases throughout the country, including eight significant clusters, RTE, Ireland's public broadcaster, reported today. And in Greece, health officials urged people to follow current measures to avoid a return to more restrictive ones, following a rise in cases, including 124 new ones today.

  • Bolivia has canceled school for the rest of 2020, due to the spread of COVID-19 and because most rural areas don't have Internet access, CNN The decision affects 2 million students.

  • North Korea said tests on a defector returning from South Korea who had a suspected COVID-19 infection were inconclusive, according to Reuters. If confirmed, the case would have been the country's first officially acknowledged case.

CEPI survey sheds light on vaccine capacity

Meanwhile, in vaccine developments, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) recently surveyed vaccine manufacturers to gauge their capacity to meet the demand for COVID-19 vaccine. In a statement, the group said that information from 113 companies that responded to the survey suggests a capacity of 2 to 4 billion doses from October through the end of 2021.

CEPI said the finding is important, because it hopes to distribute 2 billion doses through the COVAX initiative, a collaboration with the WHO and Gavi to deliver vaccines equally to all countries, amid worries that a few countries could monopolize the vaccine supply, a development that would work against ending the global spread of COVID-19. "Our survey confirm that this 2 billion manufacturing target can not only be achieved but can be delivered without displacing other critical vaccine manufacturing activities," the group said.

In another development, India-based Zydus Cadila today announced promising phase 1 findings for its plasmid DNA-based COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine appears to be safe, immunogenic, and tolerable, paving the way for a phase 2 trial to begin tomorrow.

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