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California finally lifts its last big COVID restrictions. Did the state play it too safe?

LOS ANGELES — When California finally lifted its mask mandate Tuesday — it had been, until then, the last state in America to require residents to cover their faces indoors, regardless of vaccination status — the shift felt more like an evolution than revolution.

In the state’s largest city, life looked pretty much the same as it did last Tuesday (and the Tuesday before that). Locals walked their dogs at sunrise; some wore N95s, some went maskless. Delivery drivers dropped packages on doorsteps, often with their mouths — but not their noses — covered by cloth. At one popular local pastry and coffee shop, pre-June-15 “safety protocols” remained in effect: no indoor dining, masks still “required at all times while inside the bakery.” Across the street, customers browsed the shelves at a beloved used bookstore — some masked, some not.

This mellow, you-can-go-your-own-way response to the official removal of pandemic restrictions stood in stark contrast to months of right-wing media distortions portraying California as a draconian police state where “lockdown” never ended.

Yes, California may have been the first state to lock down at the start of the pandemic — but it hasn’t been locked down in any real sense since May 2020. Shops have been open. Outdoor dining opened last summer, then closed during America’s holiday surge, then reopened in January 2021. Indoor dining has been open since March. Indoor bars have been open since May; so have amusement parks.

What changed on June 15 is that more Californians can now frequent these establishments at the same time — farewell, capacity limits — and vaccinated patrons will no longer be required by the government to keep their masks on. (Unvaccinated residents are still supposed to cover their faces indoors.)

In other words, California has pursued a more measured approach to reopening than conservative critics would have it — one that sought to balance the need to get businesses back on their feet after last spring’s global collapse while also recognizing that the most effective way to lure customers and workers out of hibernation is by ensuring they feel safe from the virus itself.

And now state leaders and experts expect this approach to pay off.

“It is because of our health-first focus that this state is not just poised to recover,” Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday. “It is poised to come roaring back.”

The strategy has already paid off in terms of public health. Today, California is averaging fewer than 1,000 new daily COVID cases for the first time since April 2020, down 98 percent from the state’s winter peak. In comparison, Florida — a fellow large warm-weather state that opened indoor bars and restaurants at full capacity over the winter and effectively banned mask mandates in May — is averaging nearly twice as many daily cases. For California, this translates into a per capita average of 2 cases for every 100,000 residents, one of the lowest rates in the nation; Florida’s case rate is four times as high. Similarly, the current per capita COVID hospitalization and death rates in California are just a third of their corresponding rates in Florida.

Higher vaccination rates are also likely leave California better prepared than Florida to weather future spread of the dangerous Delta variant. A full 92 percent of California seniors have received at least one vaccine dose, as have 72 percent of adults and 59 percent of the state’s total population. In Florida, each of these numbers is lower: 89 percent, 61 percent and 51 percent, respectively. Soon, private businesses will be able to require Californians to show their vaccine cards — digital or physical — to prove they don’t need a mask.

But while the public-health benefits of California’s more gradual approach to reopening are clear, the economic picture is more muddled — at least so far.

Business trends are encouraging. According to a new report from economists at the University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, California’s gross domestic product, or GDP — the standard measure of economic growth — actually shrank by less than Florida or Texas’s in 2020.

“California’s economy outperformed those other states’ because of [our] health policies,” Newsom said Monday. “Florida actually had worse economic outcomes over the last year than the state of California.”

And it wasn’t just California. When the authors of the UCLA report examined all 24 U.S. states with more than 5 million residents, they found that the ones with more “stringent” COVID rules tended to have “both better health outcomes as measured by infection rates and better economic outcomes as measured by GDP growth.”

In part as a result, Sacramento now boasts a record $80 billion surplus, and Newsom last month was able to announce the biggest state tax rebate in U.S. history.

As Bloomberg’s Matthew A. Winkler recently explained, “The Golden State has no peers among developed economies for expanding GDP, creating jobs, raising household income, manufacturing growth, investment in innovation, producing clean energy and unprecedented wealth through its stocks and bonds.”

Yet unfortunately for Newsom, these aren’t the only economic indicators worth considering. Unemployment is currently higher in California (8.3 percent in April, the last month with available data) than in Florida (4.8 percent) — a point that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, never tires of making. DeSantis’s argument is that it was well worth the public health tradeoff to let all indoor businesses operate at full capacity over the winter because it’s the reason fewer Floridians are unemployed today.

Regardless of what DeSantis says, that claim doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. By the time he lifted capacity limits last September, Florida’s unemployment had already fallen by half from its spring peak of 14.2 percent to 7.2 percent. Since then, it has only fallen another 2.4 percentage points, and it actually ticked up again in April. So given that most of Florida’s job gains came during a period — last spring and summer — when the Sunshine State and the Golden State were actually reopening at a similar pace, it’s likely that structural factors played a bigger role than COVID restrictions. The two states didn’t really diverge until the fall.

Still, it’s true that California’s job gains have been slower than Florida’s; that delayed school reopenings driven by teacher’s unions didn’t help; and that Newsom’s tighter approach over the holidays interrupted some of the state’s job progress. Epidemiologists say the pause was a rational price to pay when as many as 700 Californians were dying of COVID-19 every day — especially with expanded federal unemployment benefits serving to cushion the economic blow. But the question now is whether California can catch up.

Early indicators are positive. Last week, Californians filed the fewest unemployment claims since March 7, 2020, right before lockdown. The total number of jobless claims last week (53,000) was down 26 percent from the week before. New employment numbers released Friday show the state added more than 100,000 jobs for the third month in a row; in April, that was enough to account for 38 percent of all jobs added nationwide. And while “there are a disproportionate number of low-income households and small businesses who have been left behind in the demonstrable ‘better economic outcomes’ the state has experienced,” according to the UCLA report, its authors also forecast that “the California recovery [will] ultimately be … faster than” that of the U.S. as a whole — and that “many of [the] lost jobs” concentrated in “sectors with a high degree of human contact” will “return” as “the pandemic recedes and business restrictions are eased.”

Ultimately, this is California’s big bet: that a more cautious winter, a few additional months of masking up indoors and a wider mass vaccination drive have all but eliminated the risk of future surges — and set the stage for a stronger recovery as a result.

Californians seem to favor that approach. After toying this winter with the idea of recalling Newsom, a full 57 percent now say they would vote to keep him office, while just 40 percent say the opposite. Even more (64 percent) approve of how Newsom has handled the pandemic.

“We don’t want fits and starts,” the governor said Monday during an Instagram Live appearance with singer John Legend. “We want this damn chapter of our lives over, done for, 100 percent — never to return again.”

We’ll find out in the months ahead whether Newsom succeeded — and whether California’s sacrifices were worth it.

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COVID-19

Wuhan virologist Dr. Shi Zhengli denies COVID-19 lab leak theory in rare interview

In a rare interview with The New York Times, Wuhan virologist Dr. Shi Zhengli denied claims that the COVID-19 virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“My lab has never conducted or cooperated in conducting gain-of-function experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses,” she told The Times. Experts in the international community have struggled to gain transparent access to the lab, in order to determine the coronavirus’ origin.

“How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?” Zhengli said in the interview. “I don’t know how the world has come to this, constantly pouring filth on an innocent scientist,” she said.

Dr. Zhengli said that claims that the lab bolstered the virus and kept information about it’s spread under wraps are “speculation rooted in utter distrust.”

“I’m sure that I did nothing wrong,” she told the Times. “So I have nothing to fear.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

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COVID-19

Moderna, BioNTech Dive On Possible Tie Between Covid Vaccines, Heart Condition

Vaccine stocks toppled Thursday on reports Covid vaccines from Pfizer (PFE), BioNTech (BNTX) and Moderna (MRNA) could lead to a heart condition in young recipients.

Advisors to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control say inflammation of the heart muscle and tissues around it — known as myocarditis and pericarditis — has occurred in young people who’ve received a second dose of the messenger RNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

They say the conditions are “rare,” and most people responded to medicine and rest. Still, there was a higher than expected number of myocarditis/pericarditis incidents in vaccine recipients ages 16-24, the advisors said. The CDC still says the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks.

But on the stock market today, vaccine stocks Moderna and BioNTech slipped. Moderna fell 0.2% to 217 and BioNTech shares lost 0.7%, ending the regular session at 239.82. Pfizer stock, on the other hand, rose 2.2% to 40.68.
Vaccine Stocks Rattled As Patent Battle Begins

Also Thursday, the World Trade Organization began moving ahead with a plan that could waive Covid vaccine patents.

A coalition of emerging nations, led by South Africa and India, are pushing for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. On Wednesday, the WTO agreed to begin formal negotiations on a plan that could boost supplies to low-income nations.

Later this month, the WTO will begin discussions to determine the format for the negotiations. Next month, the organization will produce a report outlining progress on the vaccine supply plan, Reuters reported. The WTO’s general council begins July 21-22.

Global officials are batting about several plans.

Developing nations, led by South Africa and India, are seeking patent waivers for all Covid supplies — vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. That proposal would waive patents for at least three years.

The European Union also has a plan backed by Britain, Switzerland and South Korea. It says under existing WTO rules countries can grant licenses to manufacturers without the original patent-holder’s consent.
U.S., Germany At Odds Over Vaccines

Last month, President Joe Biden voiced his support for a temporary waiver limited only to vaccine patents. Shares of vaccine makers fell sharply on the news. A day later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel opposed the proposed waiver. Vaccine stocks BioNTech and CureVac (CVAC) are headquartered in Germany.

Meanwhile, other efforts to boost vaccine supplies to low-income nations are ongoing. Pfizer and BioNTech will provide 500 million Covid vaccine doses to the U.S. government. The government will donate the doses to low- and lower middle-income countries and organizations that support them.

On a year-to-date basis, shares of vaccine stocks have climbed. Moderna stock has doubled this year. Shares just broke out of a cup-with-handle base with a buy point at 189.10, according to MarketSmith.com. After a meteoric run in 2020, BioNTech shares have tripled in value this year.

Vaccine stock Novavax (NVAX) is under more pressure. Still, shares have risen by a double-digit percentage this year after the company announced a one-quarter delay for its Covid vaccine.

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COVID-19

Celebrations (and questions) greet US vaccine donation plan

Health officials and experts greeted U.S. plans to donate 500 million more COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries with both celebration and hesitation Thursday, amid questions over whether the effort would match the scale and urgency required to help poor regions desperate for doses right now.

With inequities in vaccine supplies around the world becoming alarmingly pronounced in recent months — vaccination campaigns in several richer countries have surged ahead while ones in many poorer nations have barely begun — some expressed hope that the pledge would encourage more such promises to fill a gaping need. Others stressed that the doses needed to roll out quickly.

The first 200 million doses will start to arrive in countries in August, the White House and manufacturer Pfizer said, with the rest following in the first half of 2022.

“Saving lives requires shots in arms now. Not at the end of 2021, not in 2022, but now,” said Kate Elder, senior vaccines policy advisor to the Doctors Without Borders organization. She added the donated vaccines “better come in sufficient volumes and urgently.”

The recent staggering surge in cases in India was a searing reminder of how the pandemic can still spiral out of control without vaccines — and health officials say countries in south and southeast Asia, Africa and elsewhere are desperate for shots now.

Some also noted that the Biden administration’s decision to donate Pfizer vaccines meant it was doubtful that the doses would reach the poorest of the poor: Because those vaccines need to be stored in ultra-cold conditions, many low-income countries with limited infrastructure likely won’t be able to take them to their most remote areas.

Those concerns were raised by health experts in Asia, and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would advise its countries to use Pfizer in their major cities.

Still, the Biden administration’s promise was “clearly a cause for celebration,” said Dr. John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa CDC, particularly at a time when virus infections are aggressively increasing on the continent of 1.3 billion people, and there are still countries that haven’t administered a single dose.

“Absolutely, it’s going to be a big help,” Nkengasong said, although he added he was eager to understand the exact timeline for the shots hopefully heading to his continent.

The donation of the Pfizer shots is crucial because the global disparity in vaccination has become a multidimensional threat: a human catastrophe, a $5 trillion economic loss for advanced economies, and a contributor to the generation of mutant viruses, said Jerome Kim, the head of the International Vaccine Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to making vaccines available to developing countries.

The U.S. will work with the global COVAX vaccine alliance to deliver the shots. U.S. President Joe Biden was expected to talk about the plan later Thursday in a speech on the eve of the summit of the wealthy Group of Seven democracies in Britain.

That summit might also give a crucial indication of whether and how far other nations in the elite club are willing to follow the U.S on vaccine sharing amid widespread criticism that richer countries have fallen woefully short so far, despite lofty promises of fairness when the vaccines were being developed.

The gaps in vaccine access are clear: The U.S. and Britain have fully vaccinated more than 40% of their populations, according to a global tracker kept by Johns Hopkins University. While countries like Haiti, on America’s doorstep, Burundi and many others have vaccinated 0%.

“So far, 77% of all the vaccines administered have gone into the arms of people in 10 countries,” said COVAX co-chair Jane Halton. “Now that has got to change.”

The inequality is not just a matter of fairness: There is also increasing concern over newer virus variants emerging from areas with consistently high COVID-19 circulation. At least three variants are circulating in Africa, the African CDC said, and driving infections. Even countries like Britain, with high rates of vaccination, have cited variants as an ongoing concern.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in The Times of London newspaper that it was now time for wealthy countries to “shoulder their responsibilities” and “vaccinate the world,” although his own country has yet to send any doses abroad or announce any solid plan to share vaccines. Johnson indicated Britain had millions of doses in surplus stocks.

Germany and France have each promised to donate 30 million doses by the end of the year.

The promises by wealthy nations — which have been accused of hoarding vaccines — have often been criticized as too little or too late, or both.

“While Biden’s plan is welcome, it is a small piece of the puzzle, and it doesn’t help countries that are struggling now,” said Fifa Rahman, who is a civil society representative on a World Health Organization body focused on increasing access to COVID-19 vaccines.

She cited the East African nation of Uganda as a concrete example, saying the country’s intensive care units are already full, and it has only small numbers of vaccines left.

Biden’s announcement is also tangled up in geopolitics, as he hopes to put the U.S. and its allies at the forefront of the global virus fight in the face of a growing supply of Chinese or Russian vaccines to poorer countries.

Many countries turned to China, which has exported 350 million doses of its vaccines to dozens of nations, according to its Foreign Ministry. While those Chinese vaccines have faced scrutiny because of a lack of transparency in sharing clinical trial data, many poorer nations were eager to receive anything at all.

China reacted to the U.S. vaccine plan through Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, who said China has always supported using vaccines as a “global public good.”

The shots promised by the Biden administration will go to 92 lower income countries and the African Union. Pfizer said the doses are part of a previous pledge, with its partner BioNTech, to provide 2 billion doses to developing countries over the next 18 months.

The White House had earlier announced separate plans to share 80 million doses globally by the end of June, most through COVAX.

Some experts said donations alone wouldn’t be enough to close the huge gaps in supplies and called for allowing qualified companies around the world to manufacture vaccines without intellectual property constraints.

The U.S. has expressed support for suspending IP protections on vaccines — and some other countries have agreed it should be explored — but, in an indication of the disjointed response from the wealthy G-7 nations, Germany repeated its opposition to an IP waiver on Thursday.

“We don’t think a waiver is helpful or is actually the problem,” said a senior German official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in line with department rules. “And nothing has changed about that.”

Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea. Associated Press writers Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Taiwan; Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia; Ken Moritsugu in Beijing; Maria Cheng in London; Jill Lawless in Falmouth, England; Angela Charlton in Paris; Geir Moulson in Berlin; and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed.

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COVID-19

US deaths from heart disease and diabetes climbed amid COVID

The U.S. saw remarkable increases in the death rates for heart disease, diabetes and some other common killers in 2020, and experts believe a big reason may be that many people with dangerous symptoms made the lethal mistake of staying away from the hospital for fear of catching the coronavirus.

The death rates — posted online this week by federal health authorities — add to the growing body of evidence that the number of lives lost directly or indirectly to the coronavirus in the U.S. is far greater than the officially reported COVID-19 death toll of nearly 600,000 in 2020-21.

For months now, researchers have known that 2020 was the deadliest year in U.S. history, primarily because of COVID-19. But the data released this week showed the biggest increases in the death rates for heart disease and diabetes in at least 20 years.

“I would probably use the word `alarming,’” said Dr. Tannaz Moin, a diabetes expert at UCLA, said of the trends.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly 3.4 million Americans died in 2020, an all-time record. Of those deaths, more than 345,000 were directly attributed to COVID-19. The CDC also provided the numbers of deaths for some of the leading causes of mortality, including the nation’s top two killers, heart disease and cancer.

But the data released this week contains the death rates — that is, fatalities relative to the population — which is considered a better way to see the impact from year to year, since the population fluctuates.

Of the causes of death for which the CDC had full-year provisional data, nine registered increases. Those included Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, chronic liver disease, stroke and high blood pressure.

Some of the increases were relatively small, but some were dramatic. The heart disease death rate — which has been falling over the long term — rose to 167 deaths per 100,000 population from 161.5 the year before. It was only the second time in 20 years that the rate had ticked up. This jump, of more than 3%, surpassed the less than 1% increase seen in 2015.

In raw numbers, there were about 32,000 more heart disease deaths than the year before.

Diabetes deaths rose to 24.6 per 100,000 last year, from 21.6 in 2019. That translated to 13,000 more diabetes deaths than in 2019. The 14% increase was the largest rise in the diabetes death rate in decades.

The death rate from Alzheimer’s was up 8%, Parkinson’s 11%, high blood pressure 12% and stroke 4%.

The CDC offered only the statistics, not explanations. The agency also did not say how many of the fatalities were people who had been infected with — and weakened by — the coronavirus but whose deaths were attributed primarily to heart disease, diabetes or other conditions.

Some experts believe a larger reason is that many patients did not seek treatment in an emergency because they feared becoming infected with the virus.

“When hospitalization rates for COVID would go up, we would see dramatic declines in patients presenting to the emergency room with heart attacks, stroke or heart failure,” Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, a Northwestern University researcher who is president-elect of the American Heart Association.

Other possible explanations also point indirectly to the coronavirus.

Many patients stopped taking care of themselves during the crisis, gaining weight or cutting back on taking high blood pressure medications, he said. Experts said the stress of the crisis, the lockdown-related disappearance of exercise options, and the loss of jobs and the accompanying health insurance were all factors, too.

Increases in Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, and West Virginia pushed the four into the group of states with the highest rates of death from heart disease, the CDC data showed. For diabetes, similar changes happened in Indiana, New Mexico, West Virginia and some other Southern and Plains states.

The death rate from the nation’s No. 2 killer, cancer, continued its decline during the year of COVID-19. It fell about 2% in 2020, similar to the drop seen from 2018 to 2019, even though cancer screenings and cancer care declined or were often postponed last year.

Lloyd-Jones’ theory for the decline: Many of the virus’s victims were fighting cancer, “but COVID intervened and became the primary cause of death.”

Earlier research done by demographer Kenneth Johnson at the University of New Hampshire found that an unprecedented 25 states saw more deaths than births overall last year.

The states were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Traditionally the vast majority of states have more births than deaths.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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US to buy 500M Pfizer vaccines to share globally

The U.S. will buy 500 million more doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to share through the global COVAX alliance for donation to 92 lower income countries and the African Union over the next year, a person familiar with the matter said Wednesday.

President Joe Biden was set to make the announcement Thursday in a speech before the start of the Group of Seven summit. Two hundred million doses — enough to fully protect 100 million people — would be shared this year, with the balance to be donated in the first half of 2022, the person said.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday that Biden was committed to sharing vaccines because it was in the public health and strategic interests of the U.S. As Biden embarks on his first foreign trip, he is aiming to show “that democracies are the countries that can best deliver solutions for people everywhere,” Sullivan said.

“As he said in his joint session (address), we were the ‘arsenal of democracy’ in World War II,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to be the ‘arsenal of vaccines’ over this next period to help end the pandemic.”

The news of the Pfizer sharing plan was confirmed to The Associated Press by a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the president’s formal announcement. The news was first reported by the Washington Post.

The U.S. has faced mounting pressure to outline its global vaccine sharing plan. Inequities in supply around the world have become more pronounced, and the demand for shots in the U.S. — where nearly 64% of adults have received at least one dose — has dropped precipitously.

The announcement comes a week after the White House unveiled its plans to donate an initial allotment of 25 million doses of surplus vaccine overseas, mostly through the United Nations-backed COVAX program, promising infusions for South and Central America, Asia, Africa and others at a time of glaring shortages abroad.

Overall, the White House has announced plans to share 80 million doses globally by the end of June, most through COVAX. Officials say a quarter of the nation’s excess will be kept in reserve for emergencies and for the U.S. to share directly with allies and partners.

The White House has also directed doses to allies including South Korea, Taiwan and Ukraine.

Global public health groups had been aiming to use the upcoming G-7 meetings in Cornwall, England, to press the nation’s wealthiest democracies to do more to share vaccines with the world, and Biden’s plans drew immediate praise toward that end.

“The Biden administration’s decision to purchase and donate additional COVID-19 vaccine doses is the kind of bold leadership that is needed to end this global pandemic,” said Tom Hart, acting CEO at The ONE Campaign, a nonprofit that seeks to end poverty. “This action sends an incredibly powerful message about America’s commitment to helping the world fight this pandemic and the immense power of US global leadership.”

Sullivan told reporters Wednesday that he does not expect the U.S. push to waive the patents on vaccines to cause tension with European counterparts.

“We’re all converging around the idea that we need to boost vaccine supply in a number of ways, sharing more of our own doses,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One. “We’ll have more to say on that, helping get more manufacturing capacity around the world.”

Globally, there have been more than 3.7 million confirmed deaths from COVID-19, and more than 174 million people have been confirmed infected.

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‘This IS INSANE’: Africa desperately short of COVID vaccine

In the global race to vaccinate people against COVID-19, Africa is tragically at the back of the pack.

In fact, it has barely gotten out of the starting blocks.

In South Africa, which has the continent’s most robust economy and its biggest coronavirus caseload, just 0.8% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to a worldwide tracker kept by Johns Hopkins University. And hundreds of thousands of the country’s health workers, many of whom come face-to-face with the virus every day, are still waiting for their shots.

In Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country with more than 200 million people, only 0.1% are fully protected. Kenya, with 50 million people, is even lower. Uganda has recalled doses from rural areas because it doesn’t have nearly enough to fight outbreaks in big cities.

Chad didn’t administer its first vaccine shots until this past weekend. And there are at least five other countries in Africa where not one dose has been put into an arm, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The World Health Organization says the continent of 1.3 billion people is facing a severe shortage of vaccine at the same time a new wave of infections is rising across Africa. The shortfall is estimated at 700 million doses. And vaccine shipments to the continent have ground to a “near halt,” WHO said last week.

“It is extremely concerning and at times frustrating,” said Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong, a Cameroonian virologist who is trying to ensure some of the world’s poorest nations get a fair share of vaccines in a marketplace where they can’t possibly compete.

The United States and Britain, in contrast, have fully vaccinated more than 40% of their populations, with higher rates for adults and high-risk people. Countries in Europe are near or past 20% coverage, and their citizens are starting to think about where their vaccine certificates might take them on their summer vacations. The U.S., France and Germany are even offering shots to youngsters, who are at very low risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

Poorer countries had warned as far back as last year of this impending vaccine inequality, fearful that rich nations would hoard doses.

In an interview, Nkengasong called on the leaders of wealthy nations meeting this week at the Group of Seven summit to share spare vaccines — something the United States has already agreed to do — and avert a “moral catastrophe.”

“I’d like to believe that the G-7 countries, most of them having kept excess doses of vaccines, want to be on the right side of history,” Nkengasong said. “Distribute those vaccines. We need to actually see these vaccines, not just … promises and goodwill.”

Others are not so patient, nor so diplomatic.

“People are dying. Time is against us. This IS INSANE,” South African human rights lawyer Fatima Hasan, an activist for equal access to health care, wrote in a series of text messages.

The Biden administration made its first major move to ease the crisis last week, announcing it would share an initial batch of 25 million spare doses with desperate countries in South and Central America, Asia and Africa.

Then, on Wednesday, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press that the U.S. will buy 500 million more doses of the Pfizer vaccine that will be donated through the U.N.-backed COVAX program to 92 lower-income countries and the African Union over the next year. President Joe Biden was set to make the announcement Thursday before the start of the G-7 summit. The person spoke on condition of anonymity.

Billionaire British philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, who was born in Sudan, added his voice to the issue Tuesday, saying the pandemic-era phrase “Nobody is safe until everybody is safe” — often repeated by leaders of wealthy nations — will be meaningless until they share their excess vaccine.

“They say that while they are hoarding the vaccine,” Ibrahim said. “Can you walk the talk? Stop just talking like parrots, you know, and do you really mean what you said?”

Uganda just released a batch of 3,000 vaccine doses in the capital, Kampala — a minuscule amount for a city of 2 million — to keep its program barely alive.

There and elsewhere, the fear is that the luck that somehow enabled parts of Africa to escape the worst of previous waves of COVID-19 infections and deaths might not hold this time.

“The first COVID was a joke, but this one is for real. It kills,” said Danstan Nsamba, a taxi driver in Uganda who has lost numerous people he knew to the virus.

In Zimbabwe, Chipo Dzimba embarked on a quest for a vaccine after witnessing COVID-19 deaths in her community. She walked miles to a church mission hospital, where there were none, and miles again to a district hospital, where nurses also had nothing and told her to go to the region’s main government hospital. That was too far away.

“I am giving up,” Dzimba said. “I don’t have the bus fare.”

South African health workers faced similar disappointment when they crowded into a parking garage last month, hoping for vaccinations and ignoring in their desperation the social distancing protocols. Many came away without a shot.

Femada Shamam, who is in charge of a group of old-age homes in the South African city of Durban, has seen only around half of the 1,600 elderly and frail people she looks after vaccinated. It is six months, almost to the day, since Britain began the global vaccination drive.

“They do feel very despondent and they do feel let down,” Shamam said of her unvaccinated residents, who are experiencing “huge anxiety” as they hunker down in their sealed-off homes 18 months into the outbreak. Twenty-two of her residents have died of COVID-19.

“It really highlights the biggest problem … the haves and the have-nots,” Shamam said.

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AP writers around the world contributed to this report.