Brazil COVID deaths hit new monthly record as France tightens restrictions

Brazil COVID deaths hit new monthly record as France tightens restrictions

RIO DE JANEIRO-Agence France-Presse
Brazil COVID deaths hit new monthly record as France tightens restrictions

The COVID-19 death toll spiraled out of control in Brazil in March, more than doubling the country’s previous monthly record, officials said on March 31, as French President Emmanuel Macron announced a limited nationwide lockdown.

In a sign of the devastation the virus is still causing while the world races to roll out vaccines, Brazil reported 66,573 people had died of COVID-19 in March - more than twice as many fatalities as the country’s second-deadliest month of the pandemic, July 2020.

France meanwhile became the latest European country to relent to stubbornly high coronavirus cases, despite Macron’s repeated vows not to reintroduce a national lockdown.

The virus has killed more than 2.8 million people since it emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. And though the world is looking to vaccines to end the upheaval COVID-19 has brought, rollouts are off to a sputtering start in many countries.

That includes Brazil, where health experts say the explosion of cases is partly driven by a local variant of the virus known as P1, which can re-infect people who have had the original strain and is believed to be more contagious.

"Never in Brazilian history have we seen a single event kill so many people" in one month, said doctor Miguel Nicolelis, former pandemic response coordinator for Brazil’s impoverished northeast.

With the southern hemisphere winter approaching and the virus spreading fast, Brazil is facing "a perfect storm," he told AFP.

"That’s a threat not just for Brazil but for the entire world."

The surge in Brazil has overwhelmed hospitals and forced doctors to make agonizing decisions over whom to give life-saving care - prioritizing those most likely to survive.

"We’re in a very tragic situation," said epidemiologist Ethel Maciel.

In France, daily cases have doubled to around 40,000, and hospitals are overflowing in flashpoints such as Paris.

That ultimately forced Macron to relent and reimpose nationwide restrictions he rejected in January.

"We gained precious weeks of liberty," he said in a national address, but the current measures "were too limited at a time when the epidemic is accelerating".

The limited lockdown already in place in regions including Paris would be extended to the whole country from Saturday night for the next four weeks, he said.

Schools will close for three or four weeks depending on age level - two of which are spring holidays.
In Italy, Prime Minister Mario Draghi meanwhile extended restrictions until April 30, including restaurant and business closures.

And Japan’s minister in charge of coronavirus response announced plans Thursday to designate parts of three regions - Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi - for special virus countermeasures from April 5 to May 5.

The move, which will allow local officials to make businesses close early or face fines, comes with infections rising in the three regions even as the Olympic torch crosses the country before the delayed Games open on July 23.

On the bright side, the number of available vaccines could be growing.

Experts at the World Health Organization said an interim analysis found two Chinese vaccines, from firms Sinovac and Sinopharm, demonstrated "safety and good efficacy" - but that more data were needed.

The makers of another vaccine, U.S. pharma giant Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech, are pushing ahead with plans to ramp up production, saying new data from the United States showed their jab was 100-percent effective on 12- to 15-year-olds.

The U.S. has administered more vaccine doses than any other country, with almost 150 million of the 600 million jabs given worldwide.

But it has also suffered more than 550,000 fatalities - the world’s highest toll - and coronavirus was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. last year.

Some European countries have restricted access to the AstraZeneca vaccine over reports of blood clots, but the EU’s drug regulating agency said it had found no specific connecting risk factors.

However, it said a causal link was "possible" and that "further analysis is continuing."

In a setback for another vaccine maker, about 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine were ruined in a factory error, The New York Times reported - a blow to the U.S. company’s efforts to quickly boost production.

In China, which has mostly beaten back the virus, authorities declared a week-long lockdown in the city of Ruili, after six cases were detected near the Myanmar border - the country’s first such move in months.

Greece meanwhile said it would reopen most retail stores and relax leisure restrictions despite high COVID numbers.

And Brisbane, Australia lifted a three-day mini-lockdown it imposed to stop an outbreak that infected 14 people.
With the pandemic devastating the global economy, the World Trade Organization gave a note of hope, saying that global trade is set to increase by eight percent this year.

However, the critical importance of the pandemic fight was lost on Harlock - a one-year-old German Shepherd who was joyfully learning to sniff out COVID-19 in Rome.

"Sniff," her trainer Massimiliano Macera said, quick to reward his furry student with treats whenever nose met tube.

"Their work is play," Macera said of his dogs. "These guys are already experts."