Record spikes in Asia as WHO issues grim virus warning

Southeast Asian countries reported record rises of new coronavirus cases on Saturday as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the effects of the pandemic would be felt for decades and the scramble for a vaccine heated up. 

Six months after the World Health Organization 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 World Health Organization said the pandemic was a "once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come."

The outlook was bleak in Asia as well.

India and the Philippines reported record increases in new daily infections at 57,000 and 5,000, despite tightened restrictions.   

"We are waging a losing battle against COVID-19, and we need to draw up a consolidated, definitive plan of action," said an open letter signed by 80 Filipino medical associations.

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

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

Vaccine race

The pandemic has spurred a race for a vaccine with several Chinese companies at the forefront, while Russia has set a target date of September to roll out its own medicine.

However 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 said.

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.

Berlin 'Day of Freedom'

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 restrictions Friday on millions of households in northern England.

Norway, where infection numbers have been rising in recent days, 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. 

Despite the resurgence in cases, there have been demonstrations in Europe against the curbs. On Saturday, thousands protested in Berlin urging "a day of freedom" from the restrictions.

"We are the second wave," shouted some, as marchers headed for the Brandenburg Gate while others called for "resistance", dubbing the pandemic "the biggest conspiracy theory".

Few protesters wore a mask or respected the 1.5-metre (five-foot) social distancing requirement, an AFP journalist reported, despite police calling on them via megaphone to do so. –