The Chinese city of Wuhan marked a year since it began its traumatic 76-day coronavirus blockade on Saturday, as the pandemic continued to rage elsewhere, with President Joe Biden warning that the death toll in the United States could exceed 600,000.
Traffic was buzzing, sidewalks were bustling, and citizens filled parks and public transport in Wuhan, underscoring the scale of the recovery in the metropolis of 11 million where the pathogen first appeared before it went global.
However, the spread of COVID-19 was accelerating elsewhere, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying that a new strain that has emerged in the UK could be more deadly and more transmissible than the one that threatened Wuhan a year ago.
“In addition to spreading faster, it now appears that there is evidence that the new variant … may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” Johnson said at a press conference.
The sobering news came as Britain reported record deaths from COVID-19 following an increase in cases and hospitalizations since the variant was first identified in the south -est of England in September.
The death toll in the country – 95,981 as of Friday – is the highest in Europe.
United States grapples with more deaths
In the United States, the world’s hardest-hit country, the new president has given his highest estimate to date of its possible cost by stepping up federal aid.
“The virus is increasing,” Biden said at a press conference. “We are at 400,000 dead, we expect well over 600,000.”
Globally, the virus has killed more than two million people, infected tens of millions more and hammered economies.
There were new signs of the extent of the damage inflicted on the global economy, with the Purchasing Managers Index closely watched showing that Europe was heading into another recession, while Latin America suffered its biggest drop in foreign trade since the global financial crisis.
In Wuhan, a team of experts from the World Health Organization were still in quarantine at a hotel ahead of a mission to investigate the source of the virus, and the body said it was too early to determine whether the pandemic had really started there.
“All the assumptions are on the table,” WHO Emergency Director Michael Ryan told a press conference in Geneva.
“And it is definitely too early to determine exactly where this virus started, whether in China or outside.”
Beijing is bracing for the scrutiny the team will bring to its virus story, after trickling down to the idea that the pandemic has started outside its borders.
As residents of Wuhan recalled their year-long remote lockdown, Hong Kong introduced its first pandemic lockdown. The government has ordered thousands of residents to stay at home as authorities tackle an epidemic in one of its poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods.
Countries around the world introduced new measures on Saturday, including the Netherlands, which was due to institute its first curfew since World War II.
Until February 19, residents will be required to stay at home from 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., or face a fine of 95 euros ($ 115).
In the Colombian capital of Bogota, residents were on their third consecutive weekend of quarantine, which means the closure of all non-essential stores in the city of eight million people from Friday at 8 p.m. to Monday at 4 a.m. morning.
Jamming of vaccines
As vaccine deployments accelerate around the world, Hungary has announced it is going it alone and is buying two million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, frustrated by the European Union’s cumbersome strategy of buying injections in bulk on behalf of members.
“It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse,” President Viktor Orban said of the various vaccines, despite some experts’ mistrust of Sputnik V being deployed ahead of large clinical trials. ladder.
Brazil, meanwhile, was due to receive two million doses of another vaccine developed by British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.
The WHO has repeatedly warned that richer countries are hoarding vaccines.
But there was good news on Friday for poorer countries as the WHO and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced an agreement for up to 40 million initial doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine available to them through the global COVAX pool. .
“We can only end the pandemic anywhere if we end it everywhere,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
A separate deal, negotiated by international agencies working with the WHO, will provide developing countries with tens of millions of rapid antigen tests at half the usual price of $ 5.