Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s coverage of local and global COVID-19 policy news.
How New Zealand is handling its fresh outbreak
On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand had ended its 102 day COVID-19-free streak and that four members of a south Auckland family — none of whom had recently travelled internationally or otherwise been in contact with a known transmission source — had tested positive,
Ardern then put Auckland back into Stage Three restrictions from midday Wednesday to midnight Friday — meaning travelling into the city was prohibited for non-residents, people would be asked to stay home from work and school, bars and many businesses would be closed, and gatherings of more than 10 people were again restricted — while the rest of the country re-entered Stage Two social distancing restrictions.
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Yesterday, New Zealand website Stuff reported that at least a further four residents are considered likely to have the virus, and that millions of masks are set to be released into the community.
Professor Shaun Hendy, who leads a research group that has assisted the government Te Pūnaha Matatini, told Stuff’s ‘Tick Tick’ podcast that computer modelling work began shortly after the confirmation of cases with unknown sources, which predicated that, according to multiple potential scenarios, “there was the possibility of a couple of dozen cases out there.”
“Because we don’t know how the disease has spread to this particular family, there have obviously been other chains of transmission – so what’s the size of that?” Hendy said. “The fact that we’ve found it first in a family where there’s no immediate, obvious connection to the border tells us that actually the epidemic is probably larger than it would be if we’d found it in someone who was working at the border.”
“The later you detect it, the larger the epidemic you’re potentially looking at.”
Restrictions likely to be extended amidst mass testing
As researchers from Canterbury and Auckland universities explain at The Conversation, the family has no obvious links to quarantine or border facilities and work in different places across multiple suburbs.
This means that restrictions “need to apply to the whole city” — researchers specifically cite Melbourne’s failed suburb lockdown approach — and that “until we can identify the chain of transmission, New Zealanders should prepare for restrictions to remain in place for longer.” Further:
“Everyone working at the border or in managed isolation will be tested and pop-up stations have opened across Auckland to carry out mass testing. But it is quite possible someone within the wider contact network of the cases has travelled outside Auckland. People who have travelled to Auckland in the last two weeks should act as if they are under level 3 restrictions and stay home from work.”
What next for the September election?
Following the lockdown, parties have halted public meetings and door-to-door canvassing, while National leader Judith Collins has demanded that Ardern either delay the 19 September election to November or call back MPs to Parliament so they can vote on pushing polling day into 2021.
Collins also argued that Ardern has acted against election-time convention by making decisions without consulting her party, although Ardern has since clarified the government is not yet in “caretaker” mode — the dissolution of Parliament has been delayed until Monday — meaning cabinet is still able to govern independently.
As University of Otago professor of law Andrew Geddis explains in a separate piece at The Conversation, New Zealand’s Electoral Commission had planned for voting to go ahead under level 2 restrictions however locking down Auckland throughout September “would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for something like a quarter of the electorate to vote.”
Legally speaking, Geddis notes that it would not be difficult for Ardern to push the election back as the election writ “has not yet been issued and is not planned to be until August 16.”
“Should the prime minister conclude the planned election date is no longer tenable, she can simply nominate another Saturday instead. It will have to be a Saturday, because by law New Zealand elections must fall on that day. Otherwise, she is free to pick any date until early December, by which point the law says an election must be held as parliament’s three-year term elapses.”
For more on Collins’ arguments about Ardern’s handling of the issue, see Stuff’s analysis piece ‘Judith Collins’ dangerous constitutional game’.
Russia’s vaccine announcement “less than meets the press release”
Also on Tuesday, Russia became the first country in the world to grant regulatory approval to a COVID-19 vaccine, ‘Gam-COVID-Vac’, which, after less than two months of human testing, President Vladimir Putin claimed had not only passed required checks but been administered to one of his daughters. President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Dutertehas, also immediately offered to take the drug himself.
However ‘Gam-COVID-Vac’ — a Gamaleya Institute drug the BBC notes has been nicknamed ‘Sputnik-V’ — is still undergoing clinical trials, even ahead of plans to start mass vaccinations in October. The World Health Organisation immediately expressed skepticism over the drug, which has not made it to their list of phase three clinical trial candidates — the Russian government announced that joint phase one and two clinical trials 1 August, although results have not been made publicly available — and announced it has been in talks with Russian authorities over a review.
Further, Science reporter Jon Cohen outlines in ‘Russia’s approval of a COVID-19 vaccine is less than meets the press release‘, that the registration certificate issued by Russia’s Ministry of Health actually only allows for the drug to be given to “a small number of citizens from vulnerable groups,” including medical staff and the elderly, and stipulates that it cannot be used widely until 1 January 2021.
According to the official ‘Sputnik-V‘ website — which adopts some fittingly “space race” rhetoric — a phase three trial involving more than 2,000 people in Russia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Mexico will start on August 12, and, “under emergency rules adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic can be used to vaccinate the population in Russia.”
But with the only clear public information available in descriptions of two small trials (or just 76 people) global scientists and health officials have denounced the announcement as premature — “We do not know the methodology or the results of their clinical trials,” Isabelle Imbert, a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research — and potentially dangerous:
“It can be dangerous to start vaccinating millions… of people too early because it could pretty much kill the acceptance of vaccination if it goes wrong,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. “Based on everything we know… this has not been sufficiently tested.”
“It’s not about being first somehow – it’s about having a safe vaccine.”
Subsequently, the BBC — which notes the drug “uses adapted strains of the adenovirus, a virus that usually causes the common cold, to trigger an immune response” — reports that Russia’s Health Minister Mikhail Murashko has hit back at this criticism, telling the Interfax news agency that, “It seems our foreign colleagues are sensing the specific competitive advantages of the Russian drug and are trying to express opinions that… are absolutely groundless.”
In a much more interesting, if unconvincing and extremely political defence of the announcement, chief executive officer of the Russian Direct Investment Fund Kirill Dmitriev has hit out at the distrust from “Western media and politicians” in an op-ed at the Sputnik-V website.
Dmitriev says the results from the first two clinical trials will be published in August and “provide detailed information about the vaccine, including the exact levels of antibodies as shown by several third-party tests as well as by Gamaleya’s proprietary test, which identifies the most efficient antibodies attacking the spike of coronavirus.”
“They will also show that all the participants of the clinical trials developed a 100 percent immunity to COVID-19. Studies on Syrian hamsters, animals which usually die from COVID-19, showed 100% protection and an absence of lung-damage after they received a lethal infection dose. After the registration we will conduct international clinical trials in 3 other countries. Mass production of the vaccine is expected to start by September and we already see strong global interest in the vaccine.”
“Skepticism among international media and politicians has surfaced just as Russia announced its plans for mass COVID-19 vaccine production. When I spoke with Western media many refused to include key facts about the Russian COVID-19 vaccine research in their stories. We view this skepticism as an attempt to undermine our efforts to develop a working vaccine, which will stop the pandemic and help to re-open the global economy.”
Music amidst UK’s pandemic
Finally, NME reports that ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ artist Sam Fender has performed the UK’s first socially distanced outdoor gig at Newcastle Racecourse, with 2,500 attendees watching from 500 raised platforms spaced two metres apart.
For context, the UK has brought their daily case loads from between three-to-five thousand across April and May to around/below one thousand in June and August — although, as The Conversation reports, school reopenings risks a US-style second wave.
Still, as far as “new normal” adaptations go amidst community transmission, it looks like Newcastle did a good job of keeping people contained to their immediate households, although how they handled attendees entering/leaving/using restrooms is not immediately clear.
The UK's first socially distanced gig happened in Newcastle last night.
500 separate raised metal platforms, each accommodating up to five people from the same family/household. Hand sanitizer station and mini fridge included. Singing allowed too! pic.twitter.com/49pp1EnVFj
— Ian Dempsey (@IanDempsey) August 12, 2020
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