US, Japan cases rise as vaccine hopes fade

Sudip Kar-Gupta and Thomas Seythal
·4-min read

European officials say measures to control a surge in coronavirus infections must remain in force despite hopes that new vaccines can bring the pandemic under control as confirmed cases hit new highs in Japan and the US.

This week's announcement by Pfizer Inc of a potentially effective vaccine spurred optimism that an end to months of crisis could be in sight, sending financial markets soaring.

But France and the World Health Organisation urged people to continue complying with lockdowns as it became clear that the new vaccines would not come soon enough for many COVID-19 sufferers and shrinking economies.

"This is definitely not the moment to loosen up," French Prime Minister Jean Castex told newspaper Le Monde.

While Pfizer and German partner BioNTech aim to produce 50 million doses this year if the vaccine is approved in time, it will not become more widely available until 2021, leaving strained health systems to manage until then.

In Italy, which reported 623 deaths on Wednesday and passed the 1 million case milestone and in Germany, which has also registered infections climbing back to levels seen earlier in the crisis, officials said any return to normal would take time.

"We really must grit our teeth for a couple more months," said Lothar Wieler, head of Germany's Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases.

"Unfortunately it will take a while until everyone who wants to can get vaccinated."

The dire situation facing Italy, the country at the centre of the first wave of the pandemic, was underlined by a video on social media showing a corpse sprawled in a hospital lavatory after the patient apparently died while waiting for a test.

After achieving a degree of control over the pandemic following the blanket lockdowns earlier in the year, governments across the region have scrambled to impose new restrictions to try to curb the alarming rise in case numbers in recent weeks.

But while some signs have emerged that those measures may be helping slow infection rates in some areas, authorities said more was needed.

"Infections went down fast last week but we need to make more progress," Ernst Kuipers, head of the Dutch hospital association LNAZ told reporters.

"The measures in place are still necessary and we keep stressing the importance of following the rules."

As euphoria following Pfizer's announcement faded, European shares slipped back from eight-month highs, with poor economic data from Britain adding to doubts about a rebound from the brutal slump following the first lockdowns.

"Dealers are starting to realise that even though a drug has a very high success rate in late-stage trials, the process of obtaining approval and getting it rolled out could take a long time," CMC Markets UK analyst David Madden said.

As the crisis has ground on and jobless numbers have risen, public support for countermeasures has fractured.

Several countries have had protests while observance of rules against public gatherings or mandating mask wearing or social distancing can be patchy.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a vaccine was needed urgently but that Europe could not afford to rely on hopes of a new drug.

"We may be tired of COVID-19 but it is not tired of us," Tedros said.

"European countries are struggling but the virus has not changed significantly, nor the measures to stop it."

Japan posted a record of 1645 new coronavirus infections on Thursday in what experts fear marks a third wave of the virus.

The figure, including a record 236 new cases on the northern island of Hokkaido, exceeded the previous single-day record of 1596 infections, set on August 7, Kyodo News reported.

Tokyo confirmed 393 new cases, the largest daily count in three months, while the western prefecture of Osaka experienced 231 cases, surpassing 200 for the third day in a row.

Recent surges "can be considered as a third wave of the coronavirus," Toshio Nakagawa, chairman of the Japan Medical Association, told a news conference on Wednesday, when Japan recorded 1543 new daily infections.

Japan has so far reported 114,400 coronavirus infections and a total of 1884 COVID-19-related deaths.

The United States also set a record for new cases for a second consecutive day, reporting more than 144,000 new infections.

The tally, released by Johns Hopkins University on Thursday, was up from nearly 140,300 a day earlier.

Since the start of the pandemic, the US has recorded 10.4 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 241,800 virus-related deaths, far more than any other country.

The surge is widespread across the US, with Illinois and North Carolina among the states recording all-time highs.

Globally, more than 52.29 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus and 1,286,963 have died.