Saturday September 18, 2021

Record virus cases in Tokyo as more regions weigh emergency ; Sydney lockdown extended by four weeks

July 29, 2021

Sydney: Millions of Sydney residents will spend another month in lockdown, authorities announced on Wednesday, citing a still-fast-growing coronavirus outbreak and stubbornly low vaccination rates.

Australia’s biggest city had been due to exit five weeks of lockdown on July 30, but the restrictions will now remain in place until August 28 as case numbers continued to climb. "I appreciate personally what we’re asking people do for the next four weeks but it is because we want to keep our community safe and want to make sure we can bounce back as quickly as possible," New South Wales state premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

Officials announced 177 new cases linked to the Sydney outbreak, which began mid-June when a driver for an international flight crew contracted the virus. People living in hotspots have been urged not to leave their neighbourhoods, but those living alone will be allowed to create a "singles bubble" with another person.

During the lockdown, Sydney residents can leave their homes only for exercise, essential work, shop for necessities such as food, and medical reasons. In recent weeks, police have doled out fines to those violating the restrictions.

Berejiklian said police would step up compliance efforts, while imploring Sydneysiders to report others breaking the rules. "We really need people to do the right thing at all times. Do not let your guard down," she said.

The announcement came as Melbourne awoke to the end of its fifth virus lockdown, after beating the Delta variant for the second time in recent months. It was a victory won through "determination and hard work", according to Victoria state premier Dan Andrews.

They were among the roughly eight million people in Victoria and South Australia states who exited lockdown overnight after local outbreaks of the highly contagious variant were contained.

Johnny Sandish, who owns a cafe in central Melbourne, said his business was under major financial pressure and the first morning of post-lockdown trade was quieter than expected. "We’re losing a lot of money, almost going broke," he told AFP.

"There’s no money coming in the business, only going out." Australia was lauded for its early pandemic success, after slamming shut its international borders and moving quickly to quash Covid-19 clusters.

But with a largely unvaccinated population, it has struggled to respond to the Delta variant, which has repeatedly sent cities into lockdown. Melbourne musician Dante Zawadzki-Colliton said he was happy to be out and about after two weeks stuck at home, but the city’s frequent shutdowns had taken their toll.

"Having to adapt to being locked inside and quickly assimilating to the outside is a struggle and very exhausting," he told AFP. About 13 percent of Australians have been vaccinated, with low supplies of Pfizer-BioNTech shots and scepticism about the AstraZeneca jab slowing the rollout.

The country has recorded more than 33,000 infections and 921 Covid-related deaths in a population of 25 million.Meanwhile, daily virus cases in Tokyo topped 3,000 for the first time on Wednesday, as several neighbouring regions weighed emergency restrictions to tackle a surge in infections.

Tokyo, which is already under a virus state of emergency as it hosts the Olympics, reported 3,117 cases, and Governor Yuriko Koike called on people to avoid "unnecessary, non-urgent outings." Japan’s vaccination programme started slowly, and only just over 25 percent of the population has had two jabs.

"I want young people to get vaccinated. Young people’s behaviour is the key. I’m asking them please for their cooperation," Koike said. Japan has seen a comparatively small coronavirus outbreak, with around 15,000 deaths despite avoiding harsh lockdowns.

The state of emergency in place in Tokyo mostly limits bar and restaurant opening hours and bans them from selling alcohol, though experts have warned compliance is dropping and cases are surging among young people.

Cases are also rising elsewhere, and three regions surrounding Tokyo -- Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa -- are now considering seeking a virus emergency from the national government. The spike in cases is likely to increase scrutiny of the Olympic Games, with persistent concerns over whether the event could drive infections.

Olympic participants face various restrictions, including regular testing and limits on their movement. And 124,358 tests of Olympic athletes and team officials this month revealed just 22 confirmed positive cases, according to Tokyo 2020 organisers. The figure does not include tests at airports.

Government spokesman Katsunobu Kato called on Japanese to avoid meeting and drinking in groups, suggesting people "watch the Olympic Games at home." Fans are barred from almost all Olympic venues, though people have been showing up at competitions on public roads.

But Tokyo resident Takahiko Nimomoya said he was worried about the rising cases. "I think the government isn’t feeling the seriousness of the situation," the 55-year-old told AFP.

"They are just focusing on the Olympics."In a related development, Pfizer sharply increased its 2021 projection for revenues tied to its Covid-19 vaccine on Wednesday, forecasting the delivery of 500 million more doses compared with earlier expectations. The US drugmaker, which has partnered with Germany’s BioNTech on the vaccine, estimates delivering 2.1 billion doses, generating $33.5 billion in sales. The company’s May forecast was for $26 billion in sales. Pfizer also lifted its full-year profit outlook as well as the expected range for 2021 revenues.

Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla said more than a billion doses of the vaccine have been delivered, saying "the speed and efficiency of our efforts with BioNTech to help vaccinate the world against Covid-19 have been unprecedented."

Pfizer said the pre-tax profit margin on the Covid-19 vaccine sales was in the "high-20s" in terms of percent, the same as the earlier forecast. Pfizer reported second-quarter profits of $5.6 billion, up 59 percent from the year-ago period on 92 percent increase in revenues to $19 billion.

Pfizer has launched clinical studies on a possible third dose of the Covid-19 vaccine as a booster shot. Bourla has said such boosters could amount to a "durable" revenue stream for the company.

US health officials have thus far not far backed a third shot for the broad population, but officials are studying the need for a third shot in immunocompromised people. Shares of Pfizer declined 0.5 percent to $41.88 in pre-market trading.