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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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N.Korea fires two ballistic missiles from Pyongyang airport, S.Korea says

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January 17, 2022

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea fired two suspected short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) on Monday from an airport in its capital city of Pyongyang, South Korea’s military reported, the fourth test https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/north-korea-used-railway-born-missile-fridays-test-kcna-2022-01-14 this month to demonstrate its expanding missile arsenal.

Japan also reported the launch, with chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno condemning it as a threat to peace and security.

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In less than two weeks, nuclear-armed North Korea has conducted three other missile tests, an unusually rapid series of launches. Two of them involved single “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after launch, while a test on Friday involved a pair of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) fired from train cars.

Monday’s launch appeared to involved two SRBMs fired east from Sunan Airfield in Pyongyang, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

North Korea used the airport to test fire the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) in 2017.

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said the missiles appeared to have travelled about 300 km and landed in the ocean near North Korea’s east coast.

“It is self-evident that the aim of North Korea’s frequent missile launches is to improve their missile technology,” he told reporters.

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“The repeated launching of North Korea’s ballistic missiles is a grave problem for the international community, including Japan,” Kishi added, noting that the launches were a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from all ballistic missile development.

The pace of testing and variety of launch sites suggests that North Korea has enough missiles to feel comfortable expending them on tests, training, and demonstrations, and helps reinforce its deterrent credibility by emphasizing the volume of its missile force, said Mason Richey, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

North Korea has not tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons since 2017, but after denuclearisation talks stalled in 2019, it began unveiling and testing a range of new SRBM designs.

Many of the latest SRBMs, including the hypersonic missiles, appear designed to evade missile defences. North Korea has also vowed to pursue tactical nuclear weapons, which could allow it to deploy nuclear warheads on SRBMs.

“Every tactical missile launch flaunts how little sanctions have constrained the Kim regime, and how the U.S. … has failed to make North Korea pay a sufficient cost for short-range missile programme development,” Richey said.

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‘ISOLATING AND STIFLING’

The latest launches have drawn both condemnation and an appeal for dialogue from a U.S. administration that has imposed new sanctions over North Korean missile launches and is pushing for more.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration imposed its first new sanctions on Pyongyang on Wednesday, and called on the U.N. Security Council to blacklist several North Korean individuals and entities. It also repeated calls for North Korea to return to talks aimed at reducing tension and persuading it to surrender its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

North Korea has defended the missile tests as its sovereign right to self-defence and accused the United States of intentionally intensifying confrontation with new sanctions.

In a statement before Friday’s missile tests, the North Korean foreign ministry said that although the United States might talk of diplomacy and dialogue, its actions showed it was still engrossed in its policy of “isolating and stifling” North Korea.

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South Korea’s national security council held an emergency meeting after Monday’s test, with members stressing that “above all else, it is essential to start dialogue as soon as possible in order for the situation on the Korean Peninsula to not become more strained and to restore stability”, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.

The launches came as North Korea, more isolated than ever under self-imposed border closures aimed at preventing a COVID-19 pandemic, appeared to be preparing to open at least some trade across its land border with China.

Chinese brokers said they expect the resumption of regular trade with North Korea as soon as Monday, after a North Korean train pulled into a Chinese border town on Sunday in the first such crossing since anti-coronavirus lockdowns began in 2020.

“This timing suggests Beijing is more than complicit with Pyongyang’s provocations; China is supporting North Korea economically and coordinating with it militarily,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.

Last week, China criticised the new U.S. sanctions but also called on all sides to act prudently and engage in dialogue to reduce tensions.

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China says it enforces existing international sanctions on North Korea, but has joined with Russia to urge https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/china-russia-revive-push-lift-un-sanctions-north-korea-2021-11-01 the U.N. Security Council to ease the measures, saying they hurt the civilian population.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Elaine Lies and Sakura Murakami in Tokyo; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Neil Fullick and Gerry Doyle)

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China’s birth rate drops to record low in 2021

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January 17, 2022

BEIJING (Reuters) -Mainland China’s birth rate dropped to a record low of 7.52 per 1,000 people in 2021, National Bureau of Statistics data showed on Monday, accelerating a downward trend that led Beijing last year to begin allowing couples to have up to three children.

China scrapped its decades-old one-child policy in 2016, replacing it with a two-child limit to try to avoid the economic risks from a rapidly aging population, but the high cost of urban living has deterred couples from having more children.

The birth rate was the lowest since 1949, when the statistics bureau began collating the data.

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The natural growth rate of China’s population, which excludes migration, was only 0.034% for 2021, the lowest since 1960, according to the data.

“The demographic challenge is well known but the speed of population aging is clearly faster than expected,” said Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset management.

“This suggests China’s total population may have reached its peak in 2021. It also indicates China’s potential growth is likely slowing faster than expected,” Zhang said.

There were 10.62 million births in 2021, the data showed, compared with 12 million in 2020.

The birth rate in 2020 was 8.52 births per 1,000 people.

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(Reporting by Liangping Gao, Tony Munroe and Ryan Woo; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

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Australia, New Zealand step up efforts to aid tsunami-hit Tonga

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January 17, 2022

By Kirsty Needham and Praveen Menon

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON (Reuters) -Australia and New Zealand dispatched surveillance flights on Monday to assess the damage in Tonga, isolated from the rest of the world due to the eruption of an underwater volcano that triggered a tsunami and blanketed the Pacific island with ash.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged to provide support for Tonga as early as possible but said the volcano ash had hampered relief efforts.

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“There’s been a lot of challenges there with the ash cloud and the disruption to communications and so we are working together to get as much support to Tonga as we possibly can,” Morrison told radio station 2GB on Monday.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology told Reuters in an emailed statement on Monday there was “no current volcanic activity, and the volcano is not spewing ash”. It said ash that had reached the Australian state of Queensland was from a previous eruption.

Australia’s Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja said initial reports suggested no mass casualties and that Tonga’s airport “appears to be in relatively good condition” but there were “significant damage” to roads and bridges.

Seselja said Australia was liaising with the United States, New Zealand, France and other countries to coordinate responses.

New Zealand’s Defence Minister Peeni Henare said at a news conference in Auckland that power had been restored in large parts of Nuku’alofa and some communications are back up.

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A New Zealand Hercules C-130 would perform drops of essentials after the requirements are assessed and the navy will also be deployed.

An underwater volcano off Tonga erupted on Saturday, triggering a tsunami on the shores of Tonga and cutting off phone and internet lines for the entire island.

There are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga as yet but communications are still limited and outlying costal areas remain cut off.

Satellite images show some of the outlying islands submerged.

A U.K. woman has reportedly gone missing after she was washed away, media reports said.

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Angela Glover and her husband James, who own the Happy Sailor Tattoo in Nuku’alofa, had gone to get their dogs when the wave hit. James managed to hold onto a tree but his wife, who also runs a dog rescue on the island, and their dogs were washed away, New Zealand state broadcaster TVNZ reported. Several social media posts from family and friends said she has still not been found.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Sunday that the tsunami had a significant impact https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/new-zealand-pm-ardern-says-tonga-eruption-hugely-concerning-2022-01-15 on infrastructure.

Red Cross said it was mobilising its regional network to respond to what it called the worst volcanic eruptions the Pacific has experienced in decades.

“Red Cross has enough relief supplies to support 1,200 households with essential items such as tarpaulins, blankets, kitchen sets, shelter tool kits and hygiene kits,” said Katie Greenwood, IFRC’s Pacific Head of Delegation told Reuters.

Greenwood said the agency is expecting up to 80,000 people to be affected by the tsumani

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“That is what we are planning for as a worst case scenario until we can get further confirmation from the people on the ground,” she said.

The agency said there were concerns that communities may not have access to safe drinking water as a result of saltwater inundation caused by the tsunami waves and ashfall.

MASSIVE BLAST

The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano has erupted regularly over the past few decades but the impact of Saturday’s eruption was felt was far away as Fiji, New Zealand, the United States and Japan. Two people drowned off a beach in Northern Peru due to high waves caused by the tsunami.

About 26 hours since the eruption, nations thousands of kilometres to the west have volcanic ash clouds over them, New Zealand forecaster WeatherWatch said in a statement.

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Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia are affected and the ash cloud is expected to fan out towards eastern Australia on Monday, it said.

Early data suggests the volcanic eruption was the biggest blast since Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines 30 years ago, New Zealand-based volcanologist Shane Cronin told Radio New Zealand.

“This is an eruption best witnessed from space,” Cronin said.

“The large and explosive lateral spread of the eruption suggests that it was probably the biggest one since about the 1991 eruption of Pinatubo,” Cronin said.

(Reporting by Praveen MenonEditing by Nick Zieminski and Michael Perry)

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