Sunday, September 19

Virus deaths top 4,000 in India as pope calls for patent waivers

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Family members and relatives wearing protective gear perform the last rites of their loved one who died due to the Covid-19 coronavirus at a crematorium on the outskirts of Siliguri on May 8, 2021, as India recorded more than 4,000 coronavirus deaths in a day for the first time. — AFP photo

NEW DELHI, INDIA: New Covid-19 deaths surged past 4,000 for the first time in India on Saturday in one of the world’s worst outbreaks, as the pope called for patent waivers to “allow universal access to the vaccine.”

The call for waivers has gained momentum after the United States announced its surprise support for such a scheme to enable adequate vaccine supplies to fight the raging pandemic.

India now accounts for nearly half of the world’s new known cases according to an AFP database, and it reported a national record 4,187 new deaths Saturday.

New Delhi has struggled to contain the outbreak, which has overwhelmed its healthcare system and sparked public anger over mismanagement.

“The government says that there is ample supply of medicines and oxygen,” said Brijesh Pandey, who spends hours every day jostling with others to try to secure oxygen for his brother-in-law.

“But look how hundreds of desperate people are struggling to save their brothers, sisters and parents.”

India reported more than 400,000 new infections on Saturday, but many experts suspect the official death and case numbers are a gross underestimate.

The surge has spilled into next-door Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Its eastern neighbour Pakistan began a nine-day shutdown targeting travel and tourist hot spots to try to stop its outbreak from snowballing during the upcoming Eid celebrations at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The Eid holidays usually see a mass movement of people across the nation of 220 million, and the government has mobilised the military to help enforce the restrictions.

‘Closed nationalism’

But mosques, which have been packed each night throughout Ramadan, will remain open despite the virus threat.

Pope Francis on Saturday expressed his backing for “universal access to the vaccine and the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights”, condemning the “virus of individualism” that “makes us indifferent to the suffering of others”.

“A variant of this virus is closed nationalism, which prevents, for example, an internationalism of vaccines,” he said.

“Another variant is when we put the laws of the market or intellectual property above the laws of love and the health of humanity.”

The global arsenal against the coronavirus expanded as the vaccine from China’s Sinopharm became the first fully non-Western shot to get the green light from the World Health Organization.

The WHO has already given emergency use authorisation to vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca, a status that paves the way for countries to quickly approve and import shots.

Sinopharm is already in use in 42 territories around the world, including Pakistan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Serbia.

The European Union meanwhile said it had sealed a deal with BioNTech/Pfizer for up to 1.8 billion extra doses of its Covid-19 vaccine.

“Other contracts and other vaccine technologies will follow,” EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said.

The United States this week backed a push led by the WHO, India and South Africa to waive Covid-19 vaccine patent protections to boost supply to poorer nations.

The European Union on Saturday pressed the US for a concrete proposal and a commitment to export much-needed jabs.

Worries about Tokyo Olympics

Rapid vaccine rollouts worldwide are considered critical in the fight against the virus, which has killed 3.26 million people so far, and some countries with high immunisation rates such as Britain are already easing restrictions and testing events with large gatherings again.

But concerns are swirling about the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, with Japan’s vaccination programme moving slowly.

A coronavirus state of emergency in parts of Japan, including Tokyo, was extended on Friday with authorities warning of some hospitals being overwhelmed.

The pandemic has already disrupted test events for the Olympics, with several postponed, cancelled or moved abroad.

But International Olympic Committee vice-president John Coates was adamant Saturday that the Games will go ahead despite the risks.

Asked by AFP if there was any scenario in which the event, due to start on July 23, could be cancelled or postponed again, he replied: “No, there’s not.” — AFP