Rising Covid infections just ‘tip of the iceberg’

Figures showing a global rise in Covid-19 cases could herald a much bigger problem as some countries also report a drop in testing rates, the WHO has said.

After more than a month of decline, Covid cases started to increase around the world last week, the WHO said, with lockdowns in Asia and China’s Jilin province battling to contain an outbreak.

A combination of factors was causing the increases, including the highly transmissible Omicron variant and its cousin the BA.2 sub-variant, and the lifting of public health and social measures, the WHO said.

“These increases are occurring despite reductions in testing in some countries, which means the cases we’re seeing are just the tip of the iceberg,” WHO’s head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.

Low vaccination rates in some countries, driven partly by a “huge amount of misinformation” also explained the rise, WHO officials said.

New infections jumped by 8% globally compared to the previous week, with 11 million new cases and just over 43,000 new deaths reported from March 7-13. It is the first rise since the end of January.

The biggest jump was in the WHO’s Western Pacific region, which includes South Korea and China, where cases rose by 25% and deaths by 27%.

Africa also saw a 12% rise in new cases and 14% rise in deaths, and Europe a 2% rise in cases but no jump in deaths. Other regions reported declining cases, including the eastern Mediterranean region, although this area saw a 38% rise in deaths linked to a previous spike in infections.

A number of experts have raised concerns that Europe faces another coronavirus wave, with case rising since the beginning of March in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

The WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove said at the briefing that BA.2 appears to be the most transmissible variant so far.

However, there are no signs that it causes more severe disease, and no evidence that any other new variants are driving the rise in cases.

The picture in Europe is also not universal. Denmark, for example, saw a brief peak in cases in the first half of February, driven by BA.2, which quickly subsided.

But experts have begun to warn that the United States could soon see a similar wave to that seen in Europe, potentially driven by BA.2, the lifting of restrictions and potential waning immunity from vaccines given several months ago.

“I agree with the easing of restrictions, because you can’t think of it as an emergency after two years,” said Antonella Viola, professor of immunology at Italy’s University of Padua.

“We just have to avoid thinking that Covid is no longer there. And therefore, maintain the strictly necessary measures, which are essentially the continuous monitoring and tracking of cases, and the maintenance of the obligation to wear a mask in closed or very crowded places.”

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Millions under lockdown as China deals with Omicron outbreak

China has moved to free up hospital beds as officials reported thousands of new cases from an Omicron-led coronavirus outbreak that has put millions under lockdown and raised fears for the health system.

The country recorded 3,290 new Covid-19 cases today, including 11 severe cases.

The total was down on yesterday’s count of more than 5,000, but the highly transmissible variant is posing the sternest challenge yet to China’s ‘zero-Covid’ strategy to contain the pandemic.

China, where the first virus case emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, has not officially reported any Covid-related deaths for more than a year.

Under strict Covid-19 protocols, the country previously sent all patients with any symptoms to specialist hospitals.

But a steep jump in cases, which has led to the 17.5 million residents of the southern tech hub of Shenzhen being locked down and restrictions imposed on Shanghai and other cities, has driven concerns over looming bed shortages.

The National Health Commission said patients with mild Covid cases could isolate at a central quarantine facility to ease pressure on hospitals.

“Patients with Omicron variant strains are mainly asymptomatic infections and mild cases, most of them do not require serious treatment,” the health authority said.

“All admission to designated hospitals will take up a lot of medical resources.”

Images of patients lying on gurneys outside hospitals in Hong Kong, where hospitals have been overrun by a surge in cases, have spooked mainland officials, who are now also rushing to build makeshift hospitals in some provinces.

Footage on state broadcaster CCTV Wednesday showed dozens of giant cranes assembling “temporary hospitals” in northeast China’s Jilin province, which has reported more than 5,000 cases over the past week.

The province of more than 24 million residents has only 22,880 hospital beds.

As of yesterday, 6,000 railway carriage-style hospital rooms — first erected during the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan – have been put in place in Jilin City and the nearby metropolis of Changchun, to deal with a feared influx of patients.

As well as leaving tens of millions of people under lockdown across the country, the latest spike in cases has sparked long queues outside mass testing sites and tight controls at ports, raising the risk of trade disruption.

Germany reports another record Covid-19 incidence

Germany reported another record high seven-day incidence of the coronavirus even as the country prepares to ease restrictions.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) registered 262,593 new infections, a 22% jump compared to a week ago, bringing the total number of infections to nearly 17.7 million.

Infections have been rising again since the start of March after rules preventing unvaccinated people from accessing many indoor public spaces started to be eased.

The seven-day incidence rose to a new high of 1,607 infections per 100,000 people today, up from 1,585 the day before.

Another 269 people died, bringing the total death toll to126,142 people.

On Friday, parliament is set to adopt a slimmed-down law that will significantly reduce restrictions around Germany. The existing law expires on Saturday.

The government argues that even though cases are rising, there is no longer a major risk of overloading the health system due to vaccinations and the fact that the dominant Omicron variant often has milder symptoms.

Limited protective measures will still be possible in hotspots with high numbers of infections.

Japan set to remove all Covid restrictions as new infections ease

Japan is set to announce the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions imposed on Tokyo and 17 other prefectures as a wave of infections caused by the Omicron variant continues to ebb.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to announce the lifting of curbs on 21 March, along with a further easing of border measures, local media reported.

Tokyo logged 7,836 coronavirus cases yesterday, down 12% from a week earlier. An Omicron wave led to record infection rates in the capital and throughout Japan in February, the nation’s deadliest wave of the pandemic so far.

After a slow start, the government’s Covid-19 vaccine booster programme has accelerated, with about 71% of Japan’s vulnerable elderly population having received a third dose.

The so-called quasi-state of emergency curbs currently applied in 18 of Japan’s 47 prefectures centre on limiting hours for eateries and other businesses.

Officials in the western prefecture of Osaka had considered requesting an extension of the restrictions due to high hospitalisations, but ultimately decided to let them expire, the Kyodo news service reported.

The measures have had an impact on the economy, particularly the service sector.

Social distancing signs displayed at Haneda Airport in Tokyo

“A certain amount of services demand will be unleashed if the curbs are lifted as households have quite a lot of savings now and it coincides with the spring holidays,” said Daiju Aoki, chief Japan economist at UBS SuMi TRUST Wealth Management.

Health experts have said the current Omicron wave is not over, and new variants could emerge at any time.

But the restrictions, used repeatedly during the two-year pandemic, have lost their effectiveness on public behaviour, said Tohoku University professor Hitoshi Oshitani.

“We need to have a different strategy to suppress the transmission at this stage,” said Prof Oshitani, a lead advisor on the government’s pandemic response. “It’s still premature to discuss a kind of exit strategy from this virus.”

Mr Kishida is also likely to announce a raising of the limit on daily arrivals in Japan to 10,000 from April, from the current 7,000, media have said, the latest step in relaxing tough border regulations that have drawn criticism from businesses and educators.

Vietnam ends Covid quarantine for international travellers

Vietnam has announced an end to quarantine for international travellers, as it seeks to restart its tourism industry after two years of strict Covid-19 restrictions.

The only virus requirement for visitors will be a negative Covid test, the country’s ministry of health said in a statement.

The communist state’s tourism sector was worth up to $32 billion a year before the pandemic, but it ground to a standstill during the pandemic as the government restricted travel.

Virus curbs have slowly been eased in recent months, with visitors trickling back in since November to play golf at resorts, under a bubble arrangement.

Vietnam also announced the resumption of 15 days’ visa-free travel for citizens from 13 countries: Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Britain, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Belarus.

The country, which has a population of 97 million, is still reporting nearly 200,000 new Covid cases a day as the Omicron variant sweeps through.

But the health ministry says the situation “remains under control” with hospitalisation and death rates staying low.

Officials attribute that to the high vaccination rate, with 98% of adults fully inoculated according to the health ministry.

The country is making efforts to roll out booster jabs to the population while preparing to vaccinate children and young teenagers.

South Korea hits record 400,000 plus cases amid Omicron wave

South Korea has reported more than 400,000 new coronavirus cases, a new record, as the country continues to ease restrictions despite the Omicron-fuelled wave of infections.

Health authorities said 400,741 cases were recorded, the country’s highest daily figure since the pandemic began two years ago.

The latest spike in cases is the “last biggest challenge” facing the country, Sohn Young-rae, a senior health official, told a press briefing.

The government had anticipated caseloads in this ballpark, he said, adding that they believed they were nearing the peak of the Omicron wave.

“If we overcome this crisis we will step closer to returning to normalcy,” he added.

South Korea leads the world in newly reported cases in the last seven days, according to WHO data, with 2,358,878 cases, followed by Vietnam with 1,795,380.

People dine at a food stall in Gwangjang Market in Seoul

The vast majority of South Korea’s eligible population has been vaccinated and boosted, and despite the record number of infections in the country of 52 million people, death rates remain very low.

The country has also continued to relax its social distancing rules, under pressure from small businesses and self-employed Koreans who say years-long Covid restrictions had pushed their businesses to the brink.

The country now has a 11pm curfew for businesses and a six-person limit for private gatherings.

It will lift mandatory quarantine on arrival for fully vaccinated visitors from 21 March.

The government is expected to decide whether to further relax or keep the current distancing guidelines on Friday.

Seoul abandoned its vaunted “trace, test and treat” programme last month, as a dramatic surge in Omicron cases threatened to overwhelm its healthcare system.

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