Millions face new virus curbs, but hope rises for US vaccine

Washington (AFP) –


Millions of people faced new coronavirus restrictions Wednesday as infections surged, but in one sign of hope, a US firm said it would soon start final-stage human trials for a possible vaccine.

Countries around the world reimposed lockdowns and curbs to contain new outbreaks, as global cases surged past 13.2 million with more than 578,000 deaths reported since the pandemic emerged late last year in China.

Parts of the Asia-Pacific region, which had been somewhat successful in fighting the pandemic, provided fresh evidence of the deadly threat still posed by the virus.

Hong Kong's bars, gyms, and beauty salons closed again Wednesday and a ban on gatherings with more than four people came into force as the city battled a fresh outbreak after months of success against the virus.

Most of the city's residents voluntarily adopted facemasks as a barrier against the virus when it was first detected in mainland China, but the Hong Kong government now requires passengers on public transport to wear them or risk a US$650 fine.

There was alarm in Japan too, where Tokyo's governor warned that the capital was on its highest coronavirus alert level after a spike in infections.

- 'Please stop' -

That came after the Indian state of Bihar, with a population of around 125 million, announced a 15-day virus lockdown starting Thursday. India's IT hub Bangalore has already started a week-long lockdown.

Thousands packed markets in Bihar's Patna city to stock up before the restrictions begin at midnight.

"During the earlier lockdown, we ran out of rice and flour because failed to purchase ahead of lockdown," said Neelam Devi as he bought sacks of rice and flour. "This time we decided not to repeat the mistake."

Authorities in Australia, meanwhile, pleaded Wednesday with the public to heed social distancing guidelines, with roughly five million people in Melbourne in lockdown since last week in a bid to contain a new outbreak.

That request came just days after a group was fined Aus$26,000 (US$18,200) when their house party was exposed by an unusually large order of KFC.

"A particular concern for us is the ongoing parties and gatherings -- people playing poker, people holding parties," said Rick Nugent, acting assistant commissioner of Victoria state.

"Please stop."

- 'You are part of the problem' -

Such pleas from experts and authorities have been ignored and even mocked in many of countries, including the United States -- the worst-hit nation in the world.

Tens of thousands of cases are now being reported every day in the US and the authorities are scrambling to roll back reopenings. The national 24-hour infection count was more than 63,000 on Tuesday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, again warned Americans against carelessness -- especially young people who may feel they are not vulnerable and would rather be "sipping my margarita at a bar in a crowd".

"You are inadvertently propagating the pandemic, you are part of the problem and not the solution," Fauci said at an online Georgetown University event Tuesday.

Hopes rose, however, when American biotech firm Moderna said it would start the final stage of human trials for its vaccine candidate on July 27, after promising results from earlier testing.

Moderna is considered to be in a leading position in the global race to find a vaccine, and while its study should run until October 2022, preliminary results should be available long before then.

- 'Less work, less money' -

With no vaccine or effective treatment widely available, experts have advised lockdowns and social distancing measures in some form to prevent the deadly pandemic from gaining even more momentum.

Face masks will become compulsory in England's shops and supermarkets from next week, while South Africa reimposed a nationwide curfew to prevent a "coronavirus storm".

Disneyland Paris, Europe's biggest private tourist attraction, reopened its gates, but also with limited access, a ban on hugging the famous characters and no princess makeovers.

European officials warned governments to prepare for a feared second wave of infections coinciding with the winter flu season on the continent that has seen a few spikes in cases since emerging from a peak of the pandemic.

"The virus is still with us," EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas said.

The Maldives reopened its tourist resorts Wednesday and welcomed its first international flight in more than three months even as the Indian Ocean holiday hotspot records a steady rise in infections.

Maldives officials say visitors will not be required to be tested.

In Cairo, Zeinab, a young mother, was struggling to survive by selling tissues when the coronavirus hit -- leaving her and thousands of other homeless people and street children even more vulnerable.

With fewer people in the streets, she said, "we have less work and less money".