Coronavirus update: New Zealand’s Helen Clark to co-chair COVID-19 enquiry

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clarke has been announced as co-chair of an independent panel examining how the World Health Organization and countries handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the UK is investing in a coronavirus test that gives results in as little as 20 minutes.

This story will be regularly updated throughout Friday.

Friday’s key moments:

New Zealand’s Helen Clark to co-chair COVID-19 enquiry

Members of an independent panel examining how the World Health Organization and countries handled the COVID-19 pandemic were named on Thursday, with former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clarke officially announced as co-chair alongside former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

They issued the list of the other 11 members, which include former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and the United Kingdom’s former foreign secretary David Miliband.

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Other members include former Colombian finance minister Mauricio Cardenas, Chinese professor Zhong Nanshan, a former president of Medecins Sans Frontieres Joanne Liu of Canada, as well as Mark Dybul and Michel Kazatchkine, who each formerly headed the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.

The panel is to meet about every six weeks starting this month through to April and will make a presentation to the WHO’s executive board in October, it said.

UK to invest in 20-minute COVID-19 test

A man wearing white in a lab looks at a test tube in front of what looks a bit like an open washing machine.
Getting results for some coronavirus tests may take several days.(AP: Kirsty Wigglesworth)

The British Government said it is investing in a coronavirus test that gives results in as little as 20 minutes.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said his Government is expanding trials of two new tests — a no-swab saliva test and another that gives results in minutes.

It’s also running a trial on the benefits of repeat testing of people without symptoms.

Britain has hugely expanded its testing capacity since the start of the pandemic, but critics say it is still not doing enough to find and isolate people with the coronavirus.

Anyone with symptoms is eligible for a test, but the BBC reported Thursday that people who enter their postcode into the Government’s website are sometimes being directed to drive-through centre hundreds of kilometres away.

Mr Hancock insisted the system was working well despite some “operational challenges.”

The Government said it has the capacity to perform almost 350,000 tests a day, though only abut 180,000 are actually being processed daily.

Majority of African countries to receive free vaccines

Two pairs of hands are held out with a person spraying hand sanitiser. Photo shot from above looking down.
The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX), aims to secure 220 million vaccine doses for Africa.(AP: Jerome Delay)

The World Health Organization said eight African countries have agreed to self-finance their doses of a potential coronavirus vaccine, with those remaining to receive the doses for free.

The WHO said all of Africa’s 54 countries have expressed interest in the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, or COVAX.

COVAX aims to secure at least 220 million vaccine doses for the Africa’s 1.3 billion people.

“In the past, we Africans have ended up far too often at the back of the queue for vaccines, and we have to ensure that this doesn’t happen again,” said WHO Africa program manager Richard Mihigo.

Over 170 countries have expressed in COVAX, with the goal of securing 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021 so countries can meet the needs of at least 20 percent of their populations, starting with health workers and vulnerable populations like the elderly.

The goal to have “significant quantities” of vaccines in the first half of 2021 seems on target, said Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

Beijing receives international flights for first time since March

View of an Air China branded plane from above, as it flies above a layer of clouds.
An Air China flight from Phnom Penh was the first international flight to land in Beijing in months.(Supplied: Air China)

Beijing’s main international airport on Thursday began receiving flights from a limited number of countries considered at low risk of coronavirus infection.

Passengers flying in from Cambodia, Greece, Denmark, Thailand, Pakistan, Austria, Canada and Sweden, must have first shown a negative nucleic acid test for coronavirus before boarding, Beijing local government spokesperson Xu Hejian told reporters.

Passenger arrivals will be limited to roughly 500 per day during an initial trial period and all will need to undergo additional testing for the virus on arrival, followed by two weeks of quarantine.

The first flight under the new arrangement, Air China 746, arrived from Phnom Penh, Cambodia just before 7:00am (local time).

Back in March, all international flights to Beijing had been redirected to a dozen other cities where passengers were tested and processed before being allowed to travel on to the Chinese capital.

China has recorded a total of 4,634 deaths from COVID-19 among 85,077 cases since the virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, which sparked the global pandemic.

Pandemic bankrupts one of Europe’s largest brothels

One of Europe’s biggest brothels has filed for bankruptcy after being unable to operate for months due to coronavirus restrictions.

Germany’s Daily Express reported Thursday that the Pascha brothel in Cologne had used up all of its financial reserves paying for the upkeep of its 10-story building and 60 staff.

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As part of a wide range of efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia, where Cologne is located, banned sex work five months ago.

Organisations representing sex workers have warned that the closure of brothels will likely force sex work underground, where women are at greater risk of exploitation.

Africa’s coronavirus case rate falls again

Africa’s top public health official said the rate of confirmed new coronavirus cases has fallen again, by 14 per cent from the previous week.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC), dismissed the idea of a “hidden pandemic” on the continent, insisting that testing has improved significantly in Africa’s 54 countries and close to 1 per cent of the continent’s total population of 1.3 billion has been tested for the virus.

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He said earlier concerns about testing shortages were disappearing as countries test more, and the easing curve “represents a sign of hope.”

Africa has a total of 1.2 million confirmed cases, roughly half in South Africa.

“In the coming weeks we’ll see dynamics begin to change with the introduction of antigen tests,” Mr Nkengasong said, adding they be readily deployed in regional areas.

“We’re very encouraged it can transform the situation.”

ABC/wires

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