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Analysis-Country by country, scientists eye beginning of an end to the COVID-19 pandemic

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November 3, 2021

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – As the devastating Delta variant surge eases in many regions of the world, scientists are charting when, and where, COVID-19 will transition to an endemic disease in 2022 and beyond, according to Reuters interviews with over a dozen leading disease experts.

They expect that the first countries to emerge from the pandemic will have had some combination of high rates of vaccination and natural immunity among people who were infected with the coronavirus, such as the United States, the UK, Portugal and India. But they warn that SARS-CoV-2 remains an unpredictable virus that is mutating as it spreads through unvaccinated populations.

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    None would completely rule out what some called a “doomsday scenario,” in which the virus mutates to the point that it evades hard-won immunity. Yet they expressed increasing confidence that many countries will have put the worst of the pandemic behind them in the coming year.

    “We think between now and the end of 2022, this is the point where we get control over this virus … where we can significantly reduce severe disease and death,” Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist leading the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVID-19 response, told Reuters.

    The agency’s view is based on work with disease experts who are mapping out the probable course of the pandemic over the next 18 months. By the end of 2022, the WHO aims for 70% of the world’s population to be vaccinated.

    “If we reach that target, we will be in a very, very different situation epidemiologically,” Van Kerkhove said.

In the meantime, she worries about countries lifting COVID precautions prematurely. “It’s amazing to me to be seeing, you know, people out on the streets, as if everything is over.”

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COVID-19 cases and deaths have been declining since August in nearly all regions of the world, according to the WHO’s report on Oct. 26.

Europe has been an exception, with Delta wreaking new havoc in countries with low vaccination coverage such as Russia and Romania, as well as places that have lifted mask-wearing requirements. The variant has also contributed to rising infections in countries such as Singapore and China, which have high rates of vaccination but little natural immunity due to much stricter lockdown measures.

“The transition is going to be different in each place because it’s going to be driven by the amount of immunity in the population from natural infection and of course, vaccine distribution, which is variable … from county by county to country by country,” said Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

    Several experts said they expect the U.S. Delta wave will wrap up this month, and represent the last major COVID-19 surge.

“We’re transitioning from the pandemic phase to the more endemic phase of this virus, where this virus just becomes a persistent menace here in the United States,” former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said.

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Chris Murray, a leading disease forecaster at the University of Washington, likewise sees the U.S. Delta surge ending in November.   

“We’ll go into a very modest winter increase” in COVID-19 cases, he said. “If there’s no major new variants, then COVID starts to really wind down in April.”

Even where cases are spiking as countries drop pandemic restrictions, as in the UK, vaccines appear to be keeping people out of the hospital.

Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London said that for the UK, the “bulk of the pandemic as an emergency is behind us.”

‘A GRADUAL EVOLUTION’

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    COVID-19 is still expected to remain a major contributor to illness and death for years to come, much like other endemic illnesses such as malaria.

“Endemic does not mean benign,” Van Kerkhove said.

Some experts say the virus will eventually behave more like measles, which still causes outbreaks in populations where vaccination coverage is low.

Others see COVID-19 becoming more a seasonal respiratory disease such as influenza. Or, the virus could become less of a killer, affecting mostly children, but that could take decades, some said.

   Imperial College’s Ferguson expects above-average deaths in the UK from respiratory disease due to COVID-19 for the next two-to-five years, but said it is unlikely to overwhelm health systems or require social distancing be reimposed.

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    “It’s going to be a gradual evolution,” Ferguson said. “We’re going to be dealing with this as a more persistent virus.”

Trevor Bedford, a computational virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who has been tracking the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, sees a milder winter wave in the United States followed by a transition to endemic disease in 2022-2023. He is projecting 50,000 to 100,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths a year, on top of an estimated 30,000 annual deaths from flu.

The virus will likely continue to mutate, requiring annual booster shots tailored to the latest circulating variants, Bedford said.

If a seasonal COVID scenario plays out, in which the virus circulates in tandem with the flu, both Gottlieb and Murray expect it to have a significant impact on healthcare systems.

“It’ll be an issue for hospital planners, like how do you deal with the COVID and flu surges in winter,” Murray said. “But the era of … massive public intervention in people’s lives through mandates, that part I believe will be done after this winter surge.”

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    Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, said with some countries well protected by vaccines while others have virtually none, the world remains vulnerable.

    “What keeps me up at night about COVID is the concern that we could have a variant emerge that evades our vaccines and evades immunity from prior infection,” Hatchett said. “That would be like a new COVID pandemic emerging even while we’re still in the old one.” 

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Bill Berkrot)

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Blinken downbeat about nuclear talks as Iran floats proposals

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December 2, 2021

By Parisa Hafezi and Humeyra Pamuk

VIENNA/STOCKHOLM (Reuters) -The United States said on Thursday it had little cause for optimism about reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and would know in a day or so if Iran would negotiate in good faith as Tehran put forward fresh proposals.

“I think, in the very near future, the next day or so, we’ll be in a position to judge whether Iran actually intends now to engage in good faith,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Stockholm.

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“I have to tell you, recent moves, recent rhetoric, don’t give us a lot of cause for … optimism. But even though the hour is getting very late, it is not too late for Iran to reverse course and engage meaningfully,” he added.

Iran has provided European powers who are shuttling between U.S. and Iranian officials with drafts on sanctions removal and nuclear commitments, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator said on Thursday, as world powers and Tehran try to reinstate the pact.

The announcement came on the fourth day of indirect talks in Vienna between Iran and the United States on bringing both fully back into the deal, under which Iran limited its nuclear program in return for relief from U.S., European Union and U.N. economic sanctions.

The talks resumed on Monday after a five-month hiatus prompted by Iran’s election of an anti-Western hardliner as president.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog on Wednesday said Iran has started producing enriched uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant dug into a mountain, further eroding the nuclear deal during talks with the West on saving it.

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“What Iran can’t do is sustain the status quo of building their nuclear program while dragging their feet on talks. That will not happen,” Blinken told reporters in Stockholm in a possible reference to that development.

It was unclear whether Blinken had been briefed on the latest proposals by the Iranians when he made his comments.

“We have delivered two proposed drafts to them … Of course they need to check the texts that we have provided to them. If they are ready to continue the talks, we are in Vienna to continue the talks,” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani told reporters in the Austrian capital.

A European diplomat in Vienna confirmed draft documents had been handed over.

Under the pact, Tehran limited its uranium enrichment programme, a potential pathway to nuclear weapons though Iran says it seeks only civilian atomic energy, in exchange for relief from the economic sanctions.

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But in 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, calling it too soft on Iran, and reimposed harsh U.S. sanctions, spurring Tehran to breach nuclear limits in the pact.

“We want all sanctions to be lifted at once,” Bagheri told reporters. He said an Iranian proposal regarding how to verify the removal of sanctions – Tehran’s overriding priority in the talks – would be handed over to the European parties later.

A senior European diplomat estimated on Tuesday that 70-80% of a draft deal on salvaging the 2015 accord was completed when Iran and world powers last met in June, though it remained unclear if Tehran would resume talks where they left off.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Vienna and Humeyra Pamuk in Stockholm; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Simon Lewis in Washington; Writing by Parisa Hafezi and Arshad Mohammed;Editing by Peter Graff, Mark Heinrich and Marguerita Choy)

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Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family

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December 2, 2021

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – Former South Africa paralympic superstar, Oscar Pistorius, jailed in 2016 for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has been moved closer to her family ahead of reconciliation talks that could help pave the way for his early release from prison.

Pistorius, known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon-fibre prosthetic legs, went from public hero to convicted murderer in a trial that drew worldwide interest. He becomes eligible for parole after serving half of his 13-year sentence.

Pistorius is set to speak to Steenkamp’s parents, June and Barry Steenkamp, in a process known as victim-offender dialogue – an integral part of South Africa’s restorative justice programme in its prison system that brings parties affected by a particular crime together in a bid to achieve closure.

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“They are participating in the process because they have committed themselves to being part of the victim-offender dialogue. They feel they have to do this for Reeva,” Tania Koen, lawyer for the Steenkamps, said of the family.

Pistorius’ lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘SENSITIVE PROCESS’

Gold medalist Pistorius, once the darling of the Paralympic movement for pushing for greater recognition and acceptance of disabled athletes, shot dead Steenkamp, a model and law student, in his bathroom in 2013.

Pistorius said he had believed she was an intruder but was jailed in 2016, initially for a six-year term. After an appeal by prosecutors who said this was too lenient the term was increased to 13 years.

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He has now been moved from a prison near Johannesburg to one on South Africa’s east coast, near where Steenkamp’s parents live.

Neither their lawyer Koen nor Singabakho Nxumalo, a spokesman for the department of correctional services, could provide Reuters with a timeline for the discussions.

“It is very sensitive process, highly emotional… and we do not force people to participate in it,” Nxumalo said.

“But we are saying at least it does lay a foundation where people can, if possible, forgive each other, find one another and then try to move forward in harmony,” he said.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf and Siyabonga Sishi; editing by Gareth Jones)

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Omicron may soon cause over half of COVID infections in Europe -EU

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December 2, 2021

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s public health agency said on Thursday that the Omicron variant could be responsible for more than half of all COVID-19 infections in Europe within a few months.

The estimate could lend weight to preliminary information about the very high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, above that of the Delta variant, which before Omicron was considered the most contagious of the main coronavirus strains.

“Based on mathematical modelling conducted by ECDC, there are indications that Omicron could cause over half of all SARS-CoV-2 infections in the EU/EEA within the next few months,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in a statement.

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There is no conclusive evidence about Omicron’s transmissibility so far but the World Health Organization’s lead person on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said on Wednesday the agency expected to have data on this within days.

Europe has so far recorded a few dozens of infections with the Omicron variant, which was first detected in southern Africa last month.

The European Union and European Economic Area (EEA) include the 27 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Earlier on Thursday, the French government’s top scientific adviser Jean-Francois Delfraissy said that Omicron could take Delta’s place already by the end of January.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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