US official cautions over China, Russia virus vaccines as race heats up

America's top infectious diseases official has raised concerns over COVID-19 vaccines being developed by China and Russia as the world scrambles for answers to a pandemic the World Health Organization (WHO) warned will be felt for decades.

Six months after the WHO declared a global emergency, the novel coronavirus has killed more than 680,000 people and infected more than 17.5 million, according to an Agence France Presse tally.

As countries across Western Europe announced new lockdowns and reported historic economic slumps, the UN health body said the pandemic was a "once-in-a-century" crisis.

Several Chinese companies are at the forefront of the race to develop a vaccine to the disease and Russia has set a target date of September to roll out its own medicine.

But US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said it was unlikely his country would use any vaccine developed in either country, where regulatory systems are far more opaque than they are in the West.

"I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone," he told a US Congressional hearing on Friday, July 31.

"Claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing, I think, is problematic, at best."

As part of its own "Operation Warp Speed," the US government will pay pharma giants Sanofi and GSK up to $2.1 billion for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, the companies said.

In east Asia, territories which saw success in tackling the early wave of the coronavirus are now confronting worrying new spikes.  

Japan's Okinawa declared a state of emergency Saturday after a record jump in cases on the island – many linked to US military forces stationed there.

Hong Kong opened a new makeshift hospital to house COVID-19 patients after cases rose to record highs.

Fresh lockdowns

France, Spain, Portugal and Italy all reported huge contractions in their economies for the April-June quarter, while Europe as a whole saw gross domestic product fall by 12.1 percent. 

In a sign of the trade-offs being forced on European governments, Britain imposed new lockdowns Friday on millions of households in northern England.

With large Muslim populations in those areas, the ban was painfully timed, on the eve of the Eid-al-Adha festival. 

Latvia lifted some restrictions on indoor cultural events on Saturday.

Norway, where infection numbers have been rising in recent days, on Friday recorded its first virus death in two weeks.

At least 33 crew members confined on a Norwegian cruise ship have tested positive for the new coronavirus, the company Hurtigruten said on Saturday. 

In sports, the regional government of Madrid recommended that the Madrid Open tennis tournament – rescheduled from May to September – be cancelled due to new outbreaks. 

Meanwhile, jobless Americans were bracing for an end to extra unemployment payments after Congress failed to reach a deal on extending benefits.

A day earlier, the US posted a record second-quarter GDP drop of 9.5 percent.

Sect leader arrested

Fresh off a bout of COVID-19, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro said Friday nearly everyone will probably end up catching the new coronavirus.

His comments came as Brazil's death toll closes on 100,000.

In South Korea the elderly leader of a secretive sect at the center of the country's early coronavirus outbreak was arrested Saturday, August 1, for allegedly hindering the government's effort to contain the epidemic.

People linked to Lee Man-hee's Shincheonji Church of Jesus accounted for more than half of the South's coronavirus cases in February and March, when the country was enduring one of the worst early outbreaks in the world.

The South has since been returning largely to normal, appearing to have brought the outbreak under control with an extensive "trace, test and treat" program. 

Travel trouble

The pandemic continued to cause trouble in the travel and tourism sectors.

Latin America's biggest airline, the Brazilian-Chilean group LATAM, said it would lay off least 2,700 crew.

Tanzania banned Kenya's national airline from entering the country effective Saturday as part of a deepening row triggered by Tanzania's controversial handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

British Airways pilots overwhelmingly voted to accept a deal cutting wages by 20 percent with 270 jobs lost.

Hoping for more tourists to return, Greece on Saturday reopened six of its main ports to cruise ships for the first time in the coronavirus-shortened tourism season. –