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WHO Europe advises avoiding international travel for now as concern about vaccine inequity grows

Travelers keen to jet off for a long-awaited vacation should exercise patience in the face of “fragile” progress in containing the coronavirus pandemic, which makes it necessary to avoid international travel for now, the World Health Organization’s regional head for Europe warned on Thursday.

“Right now, in the face of a continued threat and new uncertainty, we need to continue to exercise caution, and rethink or avoid international travel,” said Kluge, referring to new variants of the virus that have proven to be far more infectious than the original.

However, he stressed that the vaccines that have so far been authorized for emergency use in the pandemic are effective against new variants, including B.1.617, the variant that first emerged in India that has now been detected in at least 26 of the 53 countries in the WHO’s Europe region, Kluge said at a weekly press conference.

The scientist’s comments come at a time of growing concern about the unequal distribution of vaccines across the globe, with wealthier countries, including the U.S., far more advanced in inoculating their citizens than lower-income ones.

Experts, including from the WHO, the United Nations, Unicef and the Red Cross, have urged greater sharing of vaccines to prevent variants from emerging that could prove resistant to the current vaccines, sending vaccine developers back to the drawing board and undermining the entire exercise.

See now: Red Cross calls on wealthier countries to end ‘glaring inequity’ in COVID-19 vaccine access as global case tally nears 164 million

The U.S. has now fully vaccinated 125.4 million people, equal to 37.8% of its population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker. Some 159.2 million Americans have received at least one dose of a two-dose regimen, equal to 47.9% of the population.

By contrast, Germany has so far fully vaccinated just 11.9% of its population, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. France has fully vaccinated 13.9% of its population, Spain 15.9%, and Ireland 10.9%.

In Africa, the numbers are worse. Egypt has fully vaccinated just 0.2% of its population, South Africa 1% and Mali 0.1%. Many African countries have no data available yet.

India, which is undergoing a crushing wave of infections that has overwhelmed its healthcare system, has vaccinated 12.7 million people out of a population of almost 1.4 billion, the data show. India counted 3,874 deaths on Thursday, below the global single-day record of 4,529 deaths set on Wednesday, according to its health ministry.

Media reports now say several Indian states are running out of a drug used to treat black fungus, a rare and potentially lethal infection that is being detected in COVID-19 patients, especially ones suffering from diabetes.

The infection is caused by mold found in wet environments and can attack the respiratory tract, as CNN reported. At least 90 people have died of black fungus in the western state of Maharashtra, which includes the financial center Mumbai, according to the state’s health minister, Rajesh Tope. At least 800 people are currently hospitalized with the infection.

In other vaccine news, the chief executive of Emergent BioSolutions Inc.
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+3.44%
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the drug contractor that had to destroy millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson’s
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vaccine after a manufacturing snafu at a Baltimore plant, told a congressional hearing Wednesday that the company made enough of a key ingredient for more than 100 million doses of that vaccine. But federal health regulators are evaluating whether to release the shots and inspecting them for potential contamination, the Wall Street Journal reported.

A Word from the Experts: Rick Bright wants to wipe out this virus — but it’s going to take better COVID-19 vaccines, distributed to 70% of the world’s population

Emergent CEO Robert Kramer apologized for the problems, which the company said were partly due to the challenge of trying to create two vaccines at scale after being awarded contracts by the Trump administration, overwhelming the Baltimore facility. The company was also until recently contracted to make the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has still not been granted an EUA for administration in the U.S.

In other vaccine news, Pfizer Inc.
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and BioNTech SE
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said they have reached a new agreement with the European Commission to supply up to 1.8 billion additional doses of their COVID-19 vaccine. The partners said the agreement is to provide 900 million doses initially with an option for the EC to request up to an additional 900 million doses. The new agreement adds to the 600 million doses already committed to the European Union through 2021. 

Separately, the companies said they have agreed to supply Turkey with an additional 60 million vaccine doses.

See now: 10 countries where vaccinated Americans are allowed to travel — but it won’t come cheap

In other news:

• Thousands of volunteers will be given a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as part of a U.K. clinical trial to examine whether a “booster” shot can protect against the coronavirus disease and its variants, MarketWatch’s Lina Saigol reported. The Cov-Boost study, led by University Hospital Southampton National Health Service Foundation Trust, will look at the effect of seven different vaccines, given at least 10 to 12 weeks apart, on people who have already received two doses of either the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech, or the one from AstraZeneca
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and Oxford University. Initial findings from the trial are expected in September.

Read: Moderna says trial booster vaccine effective against COVID-19 variants

• Singapore has ordered Facebook and Twitter to carry a correction notice to users of the social-media platforms in the country over what it says is a false statement about a new virus variant originating in Singapore, Reuters reported. The ministry of health said it was aware of the statement circulating online on media outlets and social platforms, which implied that a new, previously unknown variant of COVID-19 originated in Singapore and risked spreading to India from the city-state.

People who are fully vaccinated don’t need to wear a mask or physically distance for most outdoor or indoor activities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Thursday, but some exceptions remain, including the requirements for public transportation. Photo: Justin Lane/Shutterstock

• A district of northern Thailand has launched a raffle in which its vaccinated residents can win a live cow each week for the rest of the year, in an attempt to boost the local vaccination drive, the Guardian reported. From next month, one lucky vaccinated villager in the Mae Chaem district of Chiang Mai province will be randomly chosen every week to win a young cow worth about 10,000 baht ($318.78), according to Reuters. The campaign, set to run for 24 weeks, reportedly has been met with enthusiasm among the district’s approximately 43,000 people since it was announced earlier this week.

See: COVID-19 pandemic was a ‘preventable disaster,’ made worse by a lack of global coordination and dithering, independent panel finds

• Kroger Co.
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 will allow fully vaccinated customers and most fully vaccinated workers not to wear a face mask in stores, at distribution centers and in other facilities starting May 20. Pharmacy and clinic associates will still be required to wear a mask. Nonvaccinated workers will still have to wear a mask, and the grocer is encouraging nonvaccinated customers to do so as well. Enhanced cleaning and social-distancing messaging will continue, and the company will continue to offer a $100 incentive to employees who get the vaccine. Kroger joins a list of retailers, including Walmart
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and Target
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that have relaxed rules after updated CDC guidance last week.

See now: Four COVID-19 vaccines are being tested in children and teens. Here’s when different age groups could become eligible for shots.

• The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has eased storage rules for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the Washington Post reported. The move will allow the vaccine to be stored in a normal refrigerator for up to a month, compared with a previous limit of five days. The move follows a similar one by the European drug regulator earlier this week.

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 165 million on Thursday, the Johns Hopkins data shows, while the death toll rose topped 3.4 million.

The U.S. continues to lead the world in total cases with 33 million and deaths with 587,986, although cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all falling as more Americans become vaccinated.

India is second worldwide with 25.8 million cases, and its 287,122 reported deaths place it third globally.

Brazil is third in cases with 15.8 million and second in deaths with 441,691.

Mexico is fourth by fatalities with 220,850 and has recorded 2.4 million cases.

The U.K. has 4.5 million cases and 127,963 deaths, the fifth highest in the world and most of any country in Europe.

China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 102,797 confirmed cases and 4,846 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.

What’s the economy saying?

Applications for U.S. unemployment benefits continued to decline to a pandemic low in mid-May as companies ramp up hiring efforts, MarketWatch’s Greg Robb reported.

Initial jobless claims fell 34,000 to 444,000 in the week ended May 15.

Economists surveyed by Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal had forecast new claims to fall to a seasonally adjusted 452,000.

New state jobless claims have been cut in half since the start of the year, but they are still more than twice as high now compared with the last month before the pandemic.

The number of applications had been running in the low 200,000s before the viral outbreak early last year.

Read: A jobs report whodunit: The prime suspects for weak hiring gains in April

Separately, the Conference Board’s index of leading economic indicators had its second consecutive solid gain in April, a sign the economy’s recovery from the pandemic is gathering momentum, the research firm said Thursday.

The index rose 1.6% in April after a 1.3% gain in March. It was the strongest gain since last July.

“The U.S. LEI suggests the economy’s upward trend should continue and growth may even accelerate in the near term,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, senior director of economic research at the Conference Board.

The coincident economic index, a measure of current activity, rose 0.3% in April following a 0.9% gain in the prior month. The lagging index rose 1.8% after a 3.7% decline in March.

The Conference Board now forecasts real GDP could grow in a range of 8% to 9% in the second quarter, with annual growth expected to reach 6.4%.

In another report, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve’s business-activity index fell to 31.5 in May from a nearly 50-year high of 50.2 in the prior month, the regional Fed bank said Thursday.

Economists polled by the Wall Street Journal expected a 40.5 reading. Any reading above zero indicates expansion in the manufacturing sector.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average
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and S&P 500
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were higher Thursday.

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