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Monday Morning News & Notes
Global COVID hot spots. Big breakthrough in modernizing Ukraine’s Air Force.
Most coronavirus indicators continued to decline across the globe but the pandemic picture remains a little more complex at the regional and country level. There were nearly 2.6 million new infections (-14%) and over 17,000 more COVID deaths (-26%) around the world in the latest 28-day reporting period according to the World Health Organization. With just 45 countries reporting hospital data, global hospitalizations also declined with 110,082 new admissions (-25%) intensive care numbers actually edged upward with 3,059 new pandemic patients (+1%).
“Reported COVID cases are underestimates of infection rates, largely due to the reductions in testing globally, and potential delays in reporting. Data presented in this report are therefore incomplete and should be interpreted in light of changes in testing and surveillance. The presented hospitalization data are preliminary and might change as new data become available. Furthermore, hospitalization data are subject to reporting delays.”
At the regional level, South-East Asia remains a concern with increases in COVID cases (+52%) while being the only region to register increasing virus deaths (+153%). This is largely due to surging numbers in India, Indonesia, and Thailand. India reported 162,559 new infections (+32%) and another 656 deaths (-110%). The pandemic situation in Indonesia is worrying with increasing infections (+148%), deaths (+220%), hospitalizations (+286%), and intensive care admissions (+206%). While Thailand saw infection numbers jump (+656%).
Two other regions, Africa (+2%) and the Western Pacific (+47%), also saw increasing infection numbers.
At the individual country level, the United States again had the most pandemic deaths of any country on earth with 5,333 more lives lost (-22%). But while it recorded 355,376 new infections (-34%), South Korea actually had the most new cases with 418,960 (+46%). Other pandemic hot spots include Brazil with 1,305 pandemic deaths (+11%), France where there were 925 more deaths (+31%), Peru with 525 more fatalities (+48%), and Australia where 362 more people lost their lives (+25%). Australia (+46%), Japan (+15%), and Afghanistan(+113), all saw infections rise.
Five countries have reported significantly increasing COVID hospitalizations, they are Mongolia (+815%), Afghanistan (+523%), Indonesia (+286%), Singapore (+76%), and France (+4%). The United States again registered the highest overall hospitalizations with 45,308 new admissions (-31%).
Of the 21 countries reporting intensive care numbers, eight have reported serious increases in new ICU admissions. They are Indonesia (+206%), Singapore (+81%), Sweden (+33%), Lithuania (+26%), Brunei (+25%), Ireland (+21%), France (+16%), and Italy (+17%).
The WHO says in the last 28 days a mere 24,884 positive tests were sequenced and sent to the international genome database. Two strains, XBB.1.5 and XBB.1.16, remain on the global health agency’s most serious ‘variants of interest’ list. XBB.1.5 remains dominant globally, from what limited data there is, but the WHO notes that XBB.1.16 infection spread continues to double jumping from 4.9% of sequenced positive tests to 11.6% from week to week. XBB.1.9.1, XBB.1.9.2, and XBB.2.3 have all also increased their share of infection activity. A new variant, XBB.2.3 has also been added to the ‘variants under monitoring’ list.
The global health agency stresses that none of the XBB strains, including XBB.1.16, have yet proven to cause more severe infections. It cites the latest epidemiological assessment, this time from Singapore, showing no increases in hospitalization from XBB infections.
The world must be better prepared for the next pandemic.
That is the unofficial theme of the World Health Organization’s annual World Assembly that began over the weekend in Geneva, Switzerland.
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:
“We simply cannot continue as we did before.”
Dr. Tedros is aiming to begin to reach a “historic agreement” at the assembly. One that will signal a dramatic shift in how the world approaches global health security after the COVID pandemic.
The World Health Organization is launching an ambitious effort to build a global network to protect people from threatening infectious diseases. The International Pathogen Surveillance Network will provide a platform for countries to share in the collection and genome sequencing of viruses to, hopefully, provide valuable data to inform public health decision-making.
Built on the advances accrued during the COVID pandemic the global health agency says the IPSN platform will help public health officials identify, track, prevent, and respond to outbreaks. The platform would also play a role in disease surveillance and the development of treatments and vaccines. It will rely on experts from around the world who are involved in the cutting edge of genomics and data analytics from the private, public, and academia sectors.
WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:
“As was so clearly demonstrated to us during the COVID pandemic, the world is stronger when it stands together to fight shared health threats.”
However, the WHO notes there are some steep challenges. Chief among them is while there was a drastic scaling up of surveillance and testing systems during the first two years of the COVID pandemic many countries still lack effective testing and tracking systems. And the WHO notes the wealthier countries that did have them are now slashing surveillance and testing budgets and infrastructure, drastically reducing or even eliminating them altogether.
From what little data there is left, the COVID situation in Europe appears to be remaining stable according to the latest weekly assessment from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. For the fourth straight week what coronavirus indicators still being reported across the EU have been stable or in decline across all age groups.
The ECDC recorded another 370 COVID deaths in Europe in the week ending May 14.
At the country level, there was some variation in the EU and greater European Economic Area with a few countries reporting increasing numbers. The ECDC notes that the number of countries reporting infection data has actually declined so “it is not possible to assess the current situation in countries not reporting data.”
As well the EDC notes that “long-term care facilities surveillance data have been excluded from the surveillance summary as of week 19, due to the low number of reporting countries.”
The agency says of the countries still reporting data there wasn’t one that recorded increasing infection numbers overall or among vulnerable seniors. Malta saw its positivity percentage increase and it also reported rising COVID hospitalizations. Infection-related admissions rose in Estonia. No country reported an increase in pandemic deaths.
The ECDC has now lowered the bar on coronavirus variant surveillance to countries that report “at least 10 results” of sequenced positive tests over a two-week period. Of the 20 countries meeting that embarrassingly low threshold XBB.1.5 remains dominant in Europe coming back in 89.6% of sequenced positive test results.
Uptake for a 2nd booster dose remains lackluster in Europe with just 35.5% of vulnerable seniors getting a variant-specific booster dose and the protection it offers.
A spring COVID wave appears to be rolling across Finland. The Finnish Institute for Health says infection-related hospitalizations have been increasing since mid-March. Intensive care numbers were also rising but have recently leveled off. That said, the agency says admissions numbers are “moderate” compared to previous waves.
The institute says COVID wastewater surveillance also indicates rising infection activity with the amount of coronavirus being detected has risen in the last few weeks.
Chief Physician Tuula Hannila-Handelberg spoke to Yle:
“The spring coronavirus infection wave is currently underway in Finland, and THL is monitoring the situation. Infection rates tend to decrease towards the summer, but it's important to identify those patients who are at risk of developing a severe infection.”
As is the case elsewhere, XBB variants are dominant in Finland.
The institute says seniors and those in high-risk communities are bearing the brunt of COVID hospitalizations. It adds that the majority of those testing positive are either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.
A Norwegian study seems to link symptomatic COVID infections with a higher chance of suffering from long-COVID than someone who may have been infected but never got tested.
In Norway, roughly 90% of the population is estimated to have had COVID during the course of the pandemic. A Norwegian Institute of Public Health study included 2.3 million participants of which, 75,979 had tested positive.
It found that long-COVID cases were more frequent among the pool of people who had tested positive than those who had not. Among the group that had tested positive, they were more likely to have to see a Doctor for long-COVID symptoms six months after an infection. They were also more likely to suffer long-COVID related neurological conditions.
Senior Researcher Karin Magnusson
“Our study shows that a significant number will still have symptoms or complaints six months after being infected. We found that the prevalence was slightly higher among those who tested positive than among those who tested negative or did not test themselves.”
Magnusson says the study’s findings add valuable knowledge to better understanding long-COVID.
“For example, people who still have complaints after six months will need healthcare. It is currently unclear how the effects of long-COVID can be prevented and treated.”
Shortness of breath, coughing, and fatigue were the most common long-COVID symptoms according to the study.
🇺🇸 - 🇫🇮 🇸🇪
According to a new study from the United States, the COVID pandemic has exacerbated fears of childbirth among expecting mothers.
Researchers at Dartmouth College used data from an online survey conducted for over a year examining how the pandemic impacted pregnant women’s well-being, mental health, and healthcare experiences.
Anthropology Professor Zaneta Thayer authored the study:
“Our results showed really high rates of childbirth fear in our sample. Since there’s no pre-pandemic U.S. data, we cannot compare our data to that context but we know that the rates are very high compared to other international studies on the subject that have been published pre-pandemic.”
The study used prenatal data from 1,775 participants and postpartum data from 1,110 participants taken a month after their due date. 62% of participants suffered from tokophobia, a pathological fear of pregnancy. The study found that the pandemic increased fears if childbirth with concerns ranging from whether they had enough of a support system during birth to if they got infected and would they pass it to their baby or if their baby would be taken away from them.
The study concluded that there is a need for childbirth fear to be included as part of maternal health care.
“Our findings illustrate that pregnant people are stressed in the U.S. birth environment and that they are not getting the emotional support they need. And the COVID pandemic just added to those fears. Prior research has shown that treating childbirth fear can reduce it and improve confidence in one’s ability to give birth.”
In Sweden and Finland, fear of childbirth has been a focus of study since the 1980s. Expecting mothers in Finland are actually screened for tokophobia as part of maternal care.
Dartmouth’s study is one of the first published studies to measure tokophobia in the U.S.
🇨🇦 🇺🇸 🇯🇵 🇫🇷 🇩🇪 🇮🇹 🇬🇧🇪🇺
The war in Ukraine wasn’t the only topic on the table when G7 leaders met in Japan. The bloc of countries also looked at the lessons learned during the COVID pandemic so as not to be unprepared for the next one. Together world leaders agreed to improve global health infrastructure, increase regional vaccine production capacity, strengthen pandemic response financing, and expand universal health coverage.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says concerted action on pandemic preparedness is crucial.
“We need stronger global coordination in preventing, preparing, and responding to future pandemics. The World Health Organization deserves the resources to fulfill its leading role as the global health's nerve center. We have to step up our engagement with countries that are less equipped to address health emergencies. They need more skilled personnel, better infrastructure, and more community engagement. And we have to increase local capacities to produce vaccines in the places where they are needed. The EU is supporting countries like Senegal, South Africa, Ghana, and Rwanda, where local manufacturing projects are now taking firm root. We need to start thinking about regional manufacturing hubs serving regions.”
More signs of a return to pre-pandemic ‘normal’ as tourism numbers begin to ratchet up. In Europe, Spain saw more than 8.1 million international arrivals in April, a 16.9% year-over-year increase. Over the first four months of the year, Spain has recorded a 34.9% increase in international arrivals. Of those incoming travelers, 57.6% came from within the European Union. But the biggest increase came from the United Kingdom with Brits pouring back into one of their favourite hot spots as passenger numbers from the UK increased by 12.1%.
Elsewhere, Portugal (+31.9%), Italy (+28.8%), and the United States (+22.9%) all saw hefty increases in arrivals in April.
⚡️Energy & Environment🍃
Natural gas prices over the weekend in Europe were the lowest they have been in two years. Gas was trading on the Dutch exchange for around €30 per megawatt hour. To compare, natural gas prices during the winter energy crisis hit a leak of almost €350 per megawatt hour.
Green Power Denmark Chief Consultant and Energy Analyst Kristian Rune Poulsen spoke to Ritzau to say this is not a sign the energy crisis is over but rather a reflection of the reprieve of an extremely mild winter across Europe.
“The record high came about because we were very busy filling up gas reservoirs at the same time that there was great uncertainty about the gas supply. After the winter period last year, there were record low levels of gas in the European inventory, and therefore there was panic in the market this summer. That pushed prices up. Now we have come to the other side of a mild winter, and now there is the opposite of a record-high inventory.”
Poulsen added while nothing is certain he does not expect natural gas prices to hit the highs of last fall again.
Negotiations are underway to expand Denmark’s offshore wind farm capacity to be able to produce enough power to supply about nine-million homes with electricity. In these talks, the Danish government has received, somewhat reluctant, support for state ownership of offshore wind farms from Dansk Industri, Denmark’s largest business organization and employers' organization. The Danish government announced last week that it wanted a direct stake in all offshore wind projects.
DI Political Director Emil Fannike Kiær spoke to Ritzau:
“For us and for the industry, it is important that we have enough green power, and we must speed up supply. We shouldn't drag things out any further.”
Kiær adds that DI came on board because it believes that either state ownership or a higher taxation of possible gains is inevitable. But he adds that Dansk Industri is advocating for a small ownership stake by the Danish state.
There is a push in the European Parliament to cap revenues from energy companies during a crisis and use the cash infusion to help ease soaring energy bills for people across Europe. After scraping through the energy crisis thanks to a record-warm winter, the European Union wants to reform its electricity market to better brave any future price spikes.
According to Reuters, the proposed revenue cap would cover 90% of any revenue over €180 per megawatt hour. This would include wind, solar, nuclear, and other electricity producers. The cash raised would then fund government measures to buffer consumers from soaring energy prices.
The EU did levy a temporary cap on energy companies as an emergency measure when prices skyrocketed last fall.
🇺🇦/ 🇷🇺 War
🇺🇸 🇩🇰 🇵🇹 🇺🇦
There has been a major breakthrough in Ukraine’s campaign to get its hands on more modern F-16 fighter jets. U.S. President Joe Biden, who had ruled out giving F-16s to Ukraine, seems to have had a change of heart. Biden has approved training Ukrainian pilots on flying F-16s.
Biden also announced the United States would approve the transfer of F-16s from allied countries to Ukraine. This is huge news for Ukraine. Much like Germany has the power to veto Leopard tank exports between countries, the United States can do the same with F-16s.
Immediately after the news broke, both Denmark and Portugal said they would be willing to host Ukrainian pilots and train them on the more modern fighter jet. The United Kingdom also quickly followed suit. There are some reports that training has already begun using advanced flight simulators.
However, Ukraine won’t be getting F-16s anytime soon. Training Ukrainian pilots will take anywhere from six to 18 months. It also hasn’t yet been determined which countries will actually donate F-16s and if so how many.
Denmark’s Acting Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen says a concrete plan to begin training Ukrainian pilots will be hammered out very soon. Poulsen will meet with a number of allied countries including Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands in Warsaw today (Monday) to hammer out a plan to train Ukrainian pilots.
Poulsen also told Danish public broadcaster DR that Denmark is open to not only training Ukrainian pilots but also donating F-16s to Ukraine. But he stressed that being open to the idea and it actually happening are two different things.
“We are open to discussing, once we have made the training efforts, whether we should go one step further and donate F-16 fighter jets.”
Denmark has just under 50 aging F-16s. They were supposed to begin being retired last year but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put that plan on hold. Denmark will begin replacing its fleet if F-16s with cutting edge new F-35s this fall. Danish pilots have been training on the new planes in the United States.
The Chair of the Ukrainian Parliament Ruslan Stefanchuk paid a visit to Denmark last week where he met with various Danish officials and had an audience with Queen Margrethe II. Among the topics up for discussion during his meetings, Stefanchuk focused mostly on continued Danish support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia. At the top of his wish list was for Denmark to play a role in getting more modern F-16 aircraft to Ukraine, a wish that took a giant step towards becoming reality during his visit.
“I am appealing to both the people and the Parliament to donate these F16 aircraft so that they can become the wings of Ukraine's victory.”
Reacting to the news that Denmark will play a significant role, along with Portugal, to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets Stefanchuk personally thanked Acting Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen.
Russia is not happy with the idea that Ukraine could soon field F-16s in the battle for the skies. Acting Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen is dismissing the Russian threats and bluster.
“They will do what they can to scare the coalition of countries that support Ukraine's struggle for freedom. I take it as a sign that the Russians are trying to intimidate the countries that are lending a helping hand.”
Poulsen says he doesn’t believe that donating F-16s to Ukraine will result in an increased threat from Russia.
More weapons are flowing to Ukraine. The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s charm offensive has taken him across Europe where he rallied billions in new weapons packages. After attending the G7 summit in Japan it appears he has secured even more weapons for Ukraine. Among the countries ponying up more military help is the United States. President Joe Biden confirmed a new weapons package including armoured vehicles, ammunition, and artillery will soon be headed to Ukraine. The package is work about $375 million U.S.
More sanctions against Russia have been added to the growing pile. G7 leaders meeting in Japan levied new sanctions over Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
Per a statement issued by the G7:
“We are renewing our commitment to provide the financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support Ukraine requires for as long as it takes. We are imposing further sanctions and measures to increase the costs to Russia and those who are supporting its war effort. And we are taking steps to support partners worldwide as they navigate the suffering caused by Russia’s war, including through humanitarian assistance. We are also building on the success of our efforts to ensure that Russia is no longer able to weaponize the availability of energy against us and against the world.”
Among the new sanctions, the G7 is now targeting the trade of Russian diamonds to restrict international sales of all diamonds mined, processed, or produced in Russia.
G7 countries are also expanding sanctions on the export of industrial machinery, tools, and other technology, to Russia that could help its war machine. Those will be focused on goods from the manufacturing, construction, transportation, and business services sectors.
“We will starve Russia of G7 technology, industrial equipment, and services, that support its war machine.”
The G7 is also turning its attention to countries that are helping Russia skirt sanctions and providing it with weapons and materials. It says action continues to be taken to prevent the supply of weapons and materials to Russia by 3rd parties. Although it does not provide any specifics.
It is also continuing to try and choke Russia off from the international financial system targeting third-country branches of Russian banks, which may be helping it avoid sanctions. The G7 warns of “further measures” that will be taken against those helping Russia finance its war in Ukraine. Building on sanctions targeting Russia’s energy exports the G7 will continue to help countries transition away from Russian oil and gas while also targeting Russia’s exports of metal.
The G7 countries consist of the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Eight other nations are participating in the summit this year.
🇺🇸 🇬🇧/ 🇷🇺
On Friday, the United States and the United Kingdom each issued a bevy of new sanctions targeting dozens of Russian-linked energy and shipping companies. There was also a specific focus on arctic transportation and companies that may be helping Russia skirt sanctions. The two countries are trying to undermine Russia’s ability to manufacture weapons and generate revenue to funnel to its war effort in Ukraine.
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