Mass shooting insurance in high demand as U.S. emerges from lockdown

By Noor Zainab Hussain and Carolyn Cohn

(Reuters) – As normality filters back into American lives after a year of lockdowns, hospitals and other institutions are busy making provisions for one aspect of that old normal they would rather consign to the past – mass shootings.

Last year was the least deadly for U.S. mass shootings in a decade, a Reuters tally shows.

But spring has brought a resurgence and insurers are reporting a jump in demand for protection against such events, at a time when the pent-up traumas and frustrations of living through a pandemic are also re-entering the public domain.

Client inquiries for what the industry calls active shooter policies have risen 50% year on year in the past six weeks, said Tarique Nageer, Terrorism Placement Advisory Leader at Marsh, the world’s biggest insurance broker.

Such policies gained popularity in recent years following a spate of school shootings. They typically cover victim lawsuits, building repairs, legal fees, medical expenses and trauma counseling.

This year, however, even though fatal shootings in U.S. hospitals are comparatively rare and mass ones one-in-a-decade events, Nageer says demand has been particularly strong from the healthcare sector.

That finding is supported by Tim Davies, head of crisis management at Canopius, a Lloyd’s of London global specialty insurer.

Most hospitals are open to the public and their emergency wards, where patients with COVID-19 and other severe illness and injuries get treatment, can become triggers for potentially volatile behavior.

“Those are places where you could see people who are disgruntled that members of their family might have died and didn’t get a vaccine or weren’t treated properly,” Davies said.

Such concerns have led to an about 25% to 50% hike in active shooter insurance prices compared to last year for healthcare firms, while overall rates have remained steady, he said.

Chris Kirby, head of political violence cover at insurer Optio, said active shooter policy rates had risen by as much as 50% for some clients, without specifying any industry sector.

SCHOOLS AND CHURCHES TOO

Brokers say that, besides hospitals, retail establishments, schools, universities, restaurants and places of worship are other prominent clients, buying cover ranging from $1 million to as high as $75 million.

The United States witnessed 200 mass shootings in the first 132 days of this year, according to a report by the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research group that defines them as any event involving the shooting of four or more people other than the assailant.

Hart Brown, senior vice president of R3 Continuum, a crisis management consultancy that helps clients deal with the aftermaths of about 800 shootings a year, said violence had migrated from public spaces into homes in 2020.

But this year, demand for R3 Continuum’s services is up 15% to 20%, he says, with the gradual reopening of offices having brought violence back to the workplace – compounded by pandemic-induced stresses and economic insecurities often endured in isolation.

“The environment that was created by the pandemic, with the social distancing, the lockdown, and so forth and the compounding stressors is really what’s driving much of the violence that we’re seeing right now,” he said.

A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation backs up that assessment, showing 41% of U.S. adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders in January, compared with 11% in the first half of 2019.

(Reporting by Noor Zainab Hussain in Bengaluru and Carolyn Cohn in London; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and John Stonestreet)

‘A hell out here’: COVID-19 ravages rural India

By Danish Siddiqui and Sanjeev Miglani

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India’s coronavirus death toll crossed 250,000 on Wednesday in the deadliest 24 hours since the pandemic began, as the disease rampaged through the countryside, leaving families to weep over the dead in rural hospitals or camp in wards to tend the sick.

Boosted by highly infectious variants, the second wave erupted in February to inundate hospitals and medical staff, as well as crematoriums and mortuaries. Experts still cannot say for sure when the figures will peak.

Indian state leaders clamored for vaccines to stop the second wave and the devastation that it has wrought, urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stop exporting vaccines, ramp up production and help them procure urgent supplies from overseas.

“People will die in the same way in the third and fourth waves as they have this time” without more vaccines, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia told reporters.

Deaths grew by a record 4,205 while infections rose 348,421 in the 24 hours to Wednesday, taking the tally past 23 million, health ministry data showed. Experts believe the actual numbers could be five to 10 times higher.

Funeral pyres have blazed in city parking lots, and bodies have washed up on the banks of the holy river Ganges, immersed by relatives whose villages were stripped bare of the wood needed for cremations.

Lacking beds, drugs and oxygen, many hospitals in the world’s second-most populous nation have been forced to turn away droves of sufferers.

“We seem to be plateauing around 400,000 cases a day,” the Indian Express newspaper quoted virologist Shahid Jameel as saying. “It is still too early to say whether we have reached the peak.”

‘HERE AND NOW’

India is using the AstraZeneca vaccine made at the Serum Institute in the western city of Pune and Covaxin by Bharat Biotech but has fully vaccinated barely 2.5% of the population.

Indians need vaccines “here and now”, the chief minister of West Bengal state, Mamata Banerjee, said in a letter to Modi.

The country accounts for half of COVID-19 cases and 30% of deaths worldwide, the World Health Organization said in its latest weekly report.

The full impact of the B.1.617 variant found in India, which the WHO has designated as being of global concern, is not yet clear, it added.

The variant has been detected in six countries in the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization said, adding that it was worried that it was highly transmissible.

Britain, which has also detected the variant, is looking at all possible solutions to tackle a surge of related cases, including in the northern English town of Bolton, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament.

RURAL SPREAD

Daily infections are shooting up in the Indian countryside in comparison to big towns, where they have slowed after last month’s surge, experts say.

More than half the cases this week in the western state of Maharashtra were in rural areas, up from a third a month ago. That share is nearly two-thirds in the most populous, and mainly rural, state of Uttar Pradesh, government data showed.

Television showed images of people weeping over the bodies of loved ones in ramshackle rural hospitals while others camped in wards tending to the sick.

A pregnant woman was taking care of her husband who had breathing difficulties in a hospital in Bhagalpur in the eastern state of Bihar, which is seeing a case surge its health system could barely have handled at the best of times.

“There is no doctor here, she sleeps the whole night here, taking care of her husband,” the woman’s brother told India Today television.

In a corridor outside, two sons were wailing over the body of their father, saying repeatedly that he could have been saved if only he had been given a bed in an intensive care unit.

At the general hospital in Bijnor, a town in northern Uttar Pradesh, a woman lay in a cot next to a garbage can and medical waste.

“How can someone get treated if the situation is like this?” asked her son, Sudesh Tyagi. “It is a hell out here.”

(Reporting by Anuron Kumar Mitra and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, Shilpa Jamkhandikar and Aishwarya Nair in Mumbai, Tanvi Mehta in New Delhi, Subrata Nagchoudhary in Kolkata and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Clarence Fernandez, Mark Heinrich and Giles Elgood)

Latin America’s pandemic tragedy as death toll nears one million

By Anthony Marina

PISCO, Peru (Reuters) -Hellen Ñañez has suffered enough tragedy for a lifetime. The Peruvian 28-year-old mother has mourned the death of 13 close relatives since the pandemic struck last year: uncles, cousins, a grandfather. Now her dad is fighting for his life.

On a recent day in a dusty cemetery in the Pacific port town of Pisco, Ñañez visited the graves of relatives lost to COVID-19.

“The truth is, I don’t have any more tears,” said Ñañez, who dropped out of studying psychology to work and help pay her father’s medical bills. “This is taking away our family. It’s taking away our dreams, our tranquility and stability.”

Ñañez’s story is a grim reflection of the tragedy unfolding in Latin America, a resource-rich but politically volatile region of some 650 million people stretching from Mexico to the near-Antarctic southern tips of Chile and Argentina.

The region has recorded 958,023 coronavirus-related fatalities, a Reuters tally shows, some 28% of the global death toll. It is set to hit the 1 million mark this month, which will make it the second region to do so after Europe.

But unlike wealthier Europe and North America, Latin American nations have lacked the financial firepower to keep people from sliding deep into poverty; underfunded healthcare systems have strained and inoculation programs have stalled.

Regional leaders from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Argentina’s Alberto Fernandez and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador have come under fire for their handling of the pandemic, while a string of health ministers have been fired.

“We Peruvians are dying, Mr. President. We are dying every day,” Miriam Mota, a relative of a coronavirus patient in Lima told Reuters, beseeching the country’s leader, Francisco Sagasti, to do more to help bring the crisis under control.

“There are no vaccines. There are no intensive care beds. There are no medicines. Please, for humanity’s sake, help us!”

Peru has officially confirmed 1.85 million COVID-19 cases and some 64,000 deaths, but that toll could be three times as high in reality, experts say. The country’s national death register has linked 171,000 deaths to the virus.

‘PEOPLE ARE FED UP’

Latin America’s crisis has been driven by regional juggernaut Brazil, which has recorded the most deaths globally after the United States and where right-wing President Bolsonaro has long railed against lockdown measures and backed unproven cures.

The emergence of virus mutations in the country, including the more transmissible P1 variant, has been linked to the severity of Brazil’s outbreak. It has also driven surges in infections in neighboring countries, including Uruguay and Bolivia.

Now there are signs that the pandemic, which has torn through regional economies and driven a spike in poverty, will have a longer-term ripple effect, stoking unrest, rattling industries and driving voters at the polls.

Colombia has been roiled by deadly protests over a now-shelved tax reform and poverty; Chile is moving towards a sharp tax hike on copper miners; Peru’s polarized presidential election race is being led by a socialist teacher who is a political outsider.

“People are fed up and obviously tired of everything that has happened lately,” Paula Velez said in front of a burned-out police station in Colombian capital Bogota, set on fire in the protests.

‘I DON’T WANT TO LOSE HIM’

Public health experts say Latin America has suffered an outsized hit from the pandemic, both in terms of health and growth, rattling fragile economies with high debt levels, steep inequality and where many work in less secure informal jobs.

Unlike North America, Europe or Asia, the region has also lacked the high-tech infrastructure to rapidly develop or manufacture vaccines.

A deal to produce the Oxford University-AstraZeneca Plc COVID-19 vaccine by firms in Argentina and Mexico has been stalled by manufacturing hold-ups, and many Latin American countries are reliant on insufficient supplies of Chinese and Russian vaccines.

A cottage industry has developed for wealthier Latin Americans to travel to Florida and Texas to get their shots. But for the less affluent, that is not an option.

“I have been looking for work for a year and a half and I can’t wait for my vaccine,” said Rio de Janeiro resident Marco Antonio Pinto, who like others in the city was disappointed last week when an immunization center quickly ran out of vaccines.

“They are playing with the people, thinking that we are animals. We aren’t animals: we are human beings. We pay taxes. We pay for everything,” he said.

Back in Peru, Ñañez is now fighting to save the life of her father, who has been in the intensive care unit of a hospital for more than two weeks, receiving medicine to reduce the ravages of the disease and on a mechanical respirator.

Ñañez, who has a two-year-old child, has turned to making soap at home and selling it on the street or in shops in Pisco, a coastal town set amid arid desert landscapes.

She said her bank loans had run dry and the family had incurred enormous debts of some 100,000 soles ($26,500) to buy medicines, medical oxygen – and funeral expenses. While hope was low, she was determined to battle for her dad.

“I’m not going to lose him. I don’t want to lose anyone else. My dad can’t leave me,” Ñañez said, sobbing, outside the hospital where she has come to check on the health of her father, who is in a coma.

“I have been standing here for 17 days in front of the hospital and I know that he is going to make it. I do not think that life can be so unfair if it has taken so much from me and now it also wants to take away my father.”

(Reporting by Anthony Marina in Pisco; Additional reporting by by Herbert Villarraga and Javier Andres Rojas in Bogota, Enrique Mandujano in Lima and Sergio Queiroz in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Marco Aquino and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien)

Pandemic’s labor reshuffle likely just starting for U.S. workers

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – If the coronavirus pandemic produced its own brand of anxiety for American workers trying to stay healthy while balancing job and family demands, the coming return to “normal” will pose a new set of challenges.

Like whether to first try to claw back all the free hours of labor donated to companies during the crisis, or shift to a “future-proof” occupation to insure against the next one, or figure out how to compete with the robots being deployed more widely because of the pandemic.

The workforce fallout from the coronavirus outbreak, in other words, may have only just begun.

Some industries are recovering faster than others, with the worst-hit sectors continuing to lag. Even though U.S. gross domestic product is near its pre-pandemic peak, jobs are rebounding more slowly, suggesting a potentially prolonged period of adaptation ahead for both workers and companies.

Payroll processor ADP set a baseline of sorts in a recent survey of more than 32,000 workers globally that showed just how unsettled the landscape is as the pandemic, at least in the major developed economies, reaches its endgame.

Over the past year, for example, workers often said they benefited from the flexibility of working from home and wanted it to continue. Companies and their employees have both reported improved productivity.

But it turns out some of that “flexibility” was consumed by a substantial increase in unpaid overtime, according to the ADP survey, which was conducted last fall. That means the higher productivity may be something of a mirage, not the outcome of better work-life balance but value donated to firms by workers worried about staying employed. Workers globally reported unpaid hours rose about 25%, from 7.2 to 9.3 per week. In the United States, it more than doubled from 4.1 to 9.

SPREAD OF AUTOMATION

People, and women in particular, “may be returning to a corporate landscape that expects more hours worked with less compensation,” said Nela Richardson, ADP’s chief economist. “That’s a post-COVID burden,” which could potentially frustrate hopes to reemploy the roughly 2 million U.S. women still absent from the labor force compared with February 2020.

More than three-fourths of workers globally said job insecurity had prompted them to work more during the week or on their days off, and take on new tasks including ones they were not comfortable performing. Richardson said those results mean companies and their workers will need to find a new post-pandemic relationship. Many workers took on new duties, for example, but often without a raise or extra training, an outcome particularly true for women.

The ADP survey found 15% of respondents said they were planning to shift occupations altogether to something more “future-proof,” a finding with implications for how companies and workers match up if large shares of people in, say, the restaurant sector decide they want to do something else.

The U.S. labor market’s weak performance in April – it added only about a quarter of the jobs that had been expected by a Reuters poll of economists – may be related at least in part to people’s reluctance to return to jobs they no longer see as rewarding or worth the health risk.

Defining what future-proof means, however, is challenging as the pandemic shifts consumer behavior in potentially permanent ways – the rush to online shopping and a preference for buying goods or participating largely in “distanced” activities – and automation spreads deeper into the service sector.

The Association for Advancing Automation last week reported a nearly 20% increase in purchases of industrial robots in the first three months of 2021 versus 2020, and most went to companies outside the auto sector where they are already prevalent. Orders by consumer companies rose 32%.

The pandemic has motivated hotels, restaurants and other consumer-facing, “high-touch” companies to build social distancing into their business models, possibly resulting in fewer employees than before.

In an analysis last week, Bank of America’s Ethan Harris and Jeseo Park argued that over time people will find jobs nevertheless, just as they have during past technological upheavals.

“While the COVID crisis has likely sped up structural changes in the labor market, these multi-decade changes are much slower than the dynamics of the business cycle,” wrote Harris, the bank’s head of global economics, and Park, a global and U.S. economist. “Over time the labor market will re-invent itself as it has done repeatedly across history.”

The interim can still be tough, and a slow adjustment may mean higher-than-expected unemployment while it plays out.

A recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study indicated the burden may fall hardest on the same workers most affected by the pandemic recession. If the dislocation is deep, the U.S. economy may have 3 million jobs fewer than it would otherwise by 2029, with many of the losses among waiters, retail clerks and other front-line service occupations.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)

Poland tightens quarantine rules after cases of Indian COVID-19 variant

WARSAW (Reuters) – People travelling to Poland from Brazil, India and South Africa will have to quarantine, the Polish health minister said on Tuesday, as he announced cases of a COVID-19 variant first detected in India in the Warsaw and Katowice areas.

The outbreaks poses a fresh risk to Poland just as it starts to emerge from a highly damaging third wave of the pandemic.

“In the case of Brazil, India and South Africa, people travelling from these locations will automatically have to quarantine without the possibility of getting an exception due to a test,” Health Minister Adam Niedzielski told a news conference.

The number of infections involving the Indian variant in Poland has now reached 16, including two cases in the family of a Polish diplomat who had returned from India, Niedzielski said.

Poland has so far reported 2,808,052 cases of COVID-19 and 68,133 deaths.

Poland reopened shopping centers on Tuesday, the beginning of a gradual unfreezing of the economy that will see restaurants, hotels and schools reopening at different points in May.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Pawel Florkiewicz; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Sticking with remote work? Businesses are betting on it

By Ann Saphir

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – U.S. businesses have been spending more on technology than on bricks and mortar for more than a decade now, but the trend has accelerated during the pandemic, one more sign that working from home is here to stay.

As spending on home-building has risen, spending on nonresidential construction has dropped, with that on commercial, manufacturing and office space slumping to under 15% of total construction outlays in March, Commerce Department data showed Monday.

Business spending on structures fell in the first quarter, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis showed last week. It was the sixth straight quarterly decline, showcasing one of the few weak spots in the economy as it regains steam amid a receding pandemic.

Meanwhile, spending on technology rose, with investments in software and information processing equipment contributing more than 1 percentage point to the economy’s overall 6.4% annualized rise in economic output in the quarter, the BEA data showed. Technology spending has added to growth in all but two of the past 32 quarters, back to 2013. Spending on structures has pulled GDP downward in 14 of those quarters.

The implications of the shift are broad: the economy emerging from the depths of the pandemic will be more technology-driven and less reliant on in-person transactions, leaving jobs permanently changed and potentially fewer in number.

Accelerated by the pandemic, the divergence between the two types of business spending is here to stay, says Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom.

“This is the surge in (work-from-home) which is leading firms to spend heavily on connectivity,” Bloom said.

He and colleagues have been surveying 5,000 U.S. residents monthly, and found that from May to December about half of paid work hours were done from home.

Workers’ own spending to equip their home offices with computer connectivity, desks and other necessities comes to the equivalent of 0.7% of GDP, their surveys found, suggesting the business investment data likely underestimates what’s actually being spent on technology.

Those sunk costs are one reason that on average Americans will work one day a week from home even after the pandemic, up from about one day a month before, Bloom says.

American firms’ reliance on hybrid working should continue to lift business spending on technology for the foreseeable future, said ING chief international economist James Knightley.

Spending on office buildings particularly will likely remain weak at least until the end of the summer, he predicted, when the return of most kids to school should allow more parents to return to work.

Even then, he said, businesses will need to continue to spend more than ever on connectivity and computers to support the remote, or partially remote, workforce.

“I think there’s still a lot more to do there,” he said.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir, Howard Schneider, Dan Burns; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

New U.S. COVID cases fall for third week, deaths lowest since July

(Reuters) – New cases of COVID-19 in the United States fell for a third week in a row, dropping 15% last week to 347,000, the lowest weekly total since October, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county data.

Nearly a third of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated as of Sunday, and 44% has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Michigan again led the states in new cases per capita, though new infections fell 26% last week compared with the previous seven days, the Reuters analysis showed. New cases also fell in Colorado and Minnesota, the states with the next highest rates of infection based on population.

Health officials have warned that more contagious variants of the coronavirus are still circulating, such as the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom and partly responsible for the surge in Michigan.

In Oregon, where the B.1.1.7 variant is now the dominant strain, the governor last week placed nearly half the state’s counties in the extreme risk category for COVID-19, banning indoor dining and restricting capacity at other businesses.

Oregon reported a 1.2% rise in new cases last week to about 5,600, double the weekly cases seen in early April.

Nationally, deaths from COVID-19 fell 3% to 4,819 in the week ended May 2, the fewest deaths in a week since July.

The average number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals fell 8%, the first weekly decrease after rising or holding steady for four weeks.

Vaccinations fell for a second week in a row, dropping 12% after falling 14% in the previous week.

(Graphic by Chris Canipe, writing by Lisa Shumaker, editing by Tiffany Wu)

India’s vaccinations plummet as coronavirus infections soar

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India’s daily COVID-19 shots have fallen sharply from an all-time high reached early last month as domestic companies struggle to boost supplies and imports are limited, even as the country fights the world’s worst surge in infections.

Daily inoculations have averaged 2.5 million since hitting a peak of 4.5 million on April 5. A quadrupling of coronavirus cases during the period has collapsed the public health system in many regions of the country.

India, with the world’s biggest vaccine making capacity, has partially or fully immunized only 12% of its 1.35 billion people, according to data from the government’s Co-Win.

Public forecasts by its only two current vaccine producers show their total monthly output of 70-80 million doses would increase only in two months or more, though the number of people eligible for vaccines has doubled to an estimated 800 million since May 1.

India on Saturday received 150,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and the government said “millions of doses” more will come in.

Pfizer said on Monday it was in discussions with the Indian government seeking an “expedited approval pathway” for its vaccine.

“Unfortunately, our vaccine is not registered in India although our application was submitted months ago,” CEO Albert Bourla said.

“We are currently discussing with the Indian government an expedited approval pathway to make our Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine available for use in the country.”

Pfizer was the first company to seek emergency use authorization for its vaccine in India late last year. It withdrew its application in February after the drugs regulator sought a small, local safety study for the shot before considering its request.

But as cases surged, India said last month it would fast-track approval for some foreign shots, with companies now required to do a local trial within 30 days of approval, not before.

GlobalData analyst Prashant Khadayate said Pfizer will become a “vaccine of choice among people who can afford it” but that its need to be stored in ultra-low temperatures would be a challenge.

India has also invited Johnson & Johnson and Moderna to sell their vaccines to the country.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Manash Mishra; Editing by Tom Hogue and Nick Macfie)

EU aims to open up to foreign tourists this summer amidst COVID-19

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union’s executive has recommended easing COVID-19 travel restrictions next month to let foreign travelers from more countries enter the bloc, hoping to boost the stricken tourism industry this summer.

Under current restrictions, people from only seven countries, including Australia and Singapore, can enter the EU on holiday, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated but subject to tests or quarantine.

New proposals from the European Commission on Monday, but still requiring approval by the EU’s 27 member states, would allow in fully vaccinated foreign citizens and those from countries with a “good epidemiological situation”.

“Time to revive tourism industry and for cross-border friendships to rekindle – safely,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter.

People arriving from Britain, Russia and a number of other countries would meet the new criteria, according to data provided by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). U.S. citizens would not currently do so.

“We want to have this done before the mass summer travel starts,” an EU official said.

EU member states are due to start discussing the proposal on Tuesday and the official hoped it would be approved this month.

BIG LOSSES

Travel restrictions because of COVID-19 have inflicted heavy losses on the tourism industry in the EU, which at times has struggled to agree a common response to the pandemic.

If the new proposals are agreed, specific EU countries would be expected – but not legally obliged – to follow the new joint approach. Greece has already agreed to welcome vaccinated tourists from Israel.

Other measures to support tourism this summer include a central EU register allowing free travel for the bloc’s citizens holding a so-called “green certificate” proving they have been vaccinated, have had a negative COVID-19 test or have immunity after recovering.

“The green certificate, for the Luxembourg government is one of the elements that would allow us to get back to normality as fast as possible,” Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said in separate comments on Monday.

The Commission recommended allowing people fully inoculated with EU-recognized vaccines to be able to enter from any country, and said other vaccines could be added if they are approved by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The European Medicines Agency has authorized the use of shots by Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca in the EU.

The WHO has also approved those vaccines for use and is expected to decide on the use of two Chinese vaccines this week. Both agencies are considering Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

The Commission said reciprocity should be considered when deciding to allow leisure travel from third countries.

To limit the risk of importing new coronavirus variants, the Commission also proposed a new “emergency brake” that would allow the swift introduction of travel restrictions from countries where the health situation deteriorates sharply.

EU countries would review the situation every two weeks.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by John Chalmers, Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood)

Vaccine protects COVID-19 survivors against variants; virus’ spike protein damages blood vessels

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Vaccine protects COVID-19 survivors against variants

In COVID-19 survivors, the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine protects not only against the original virus strain but also against worrisome variants, two studies show. UK researchers analyzed immune responses after a single dose of the vaccine in 51 people, including 25 people previously infected with an early version of the novel coronavirus. Survivors showed enhanced antibody responses against the newer, more infectious variants first seen in the UK and South Africa, whereas people who had not previously been infected did not produce antibodies that could neutralize the variants, according to a report on Friday in Science. Separately, U.S researchers studied 30 people after two doses of the vaccine. Immune responses were 3.4 times better at neutralizing the coronavirus in the 10 COVID-19 survivors than in the 20 who were not previously infected, they reported on medRxiv on Thursday ahead of peer review. The difference was even greater when looking at neutralization of new variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil, said coauthor Fikadu Tafesse of Oregon Health & Science University. “For example, the South African variant, which is the best at evading neutralizing antibodies, was 6.5 times better blocked,” or neutralized, in blood samples from people who were vaccinated after infection, he said. “Our findings give people another reason to go out and get vaccinated even if they have already had COVID-19.”

COVID-19 spike protein damages blood vessels

The “spike” proteins that the coronavirus uses to help it break into cells inflicts other damage as well, according to a new study that shines a spotlight on the many ways COVID-19 attacks organs other than the lungs. The spike proteins themselves cause direct damage to the cells that line the blood vessels, scientists found in test tube experiments using an engineered version of the spike and artery-lining cells obtained from mice. After attaching itself to the ACE2 protein on healthy cells, the spike disrupts signaling from ACE2 to the mitochondria – the cell’s energy-generating structures – causing the mitochondria to become damaged, researchers reported on Friday in Circulation Research. COVID-19 is really a disease of the blood vessels, coauthor Uri Manor of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California said in a statement. The new findings could help explain the blood clots associated with COVID-19. They could also explain “why some people have strokes, and why some people have issues in other parts of the body,” Manor said. “The commonality between them is that they all have vascular underpinnings.”

Cancer screenings in U.S. plummeted during pandemic

Nearly 10 million screenings for three common cancers were missed in the U.S. because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study suggests. Researchers who compared monthly spring and summer screening rates in 2020 to rates in 2018 and 2019 found a 90.8% decline in breast cancer screening, a 79.3% decline in colorectal cancer screening and a 63.4% decline in prostate cancer screening just in the month of April 2020, researchers reported on Thursday in JAMA Oncology. “There was a deficit of 9.4 million in screening for the three major cancers across the United States that was most likely related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said coauthor Dr. Ronald Chen of the University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City. “This is a deficit we have to make up for in 2021.” One bit of good news from the study: telehealth visits seemed to be associated with getting cancer screenings back on track. Healthcare teams that could reach patients through telehealth “were able to come up with a plan for screening,” Chen said. “This emphasizes the importance of telehealth and the importance of continuing it after the pandemic is over.”

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid and Linda Carroll; Editing by Bill Berkrot)