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A lone bugler plays "The Last Post" on the steps of the Sydney Opera House as Australia marked Anzac Day amid coronavirus shutdowns

Capital Health

WHO warns over virus immunity as global death toll tops 200,000

A lone bugler plays “The Last Post” on the steps of the Sydney Opera House as Australia marked Anzac Day amid coronavirus shutdowns © Sydney Opera House/AFP / Daniel BOUD

Geneva, Switzerland, Apr 26 – The global death toll in the novel coronavirus pandemic soared past the grim 200,000 milestone on Sunday, as the World Health Organization warned against “immunity passports” for recovered patients, seen as a possible tool for countries preparing to re-open their economies.

The WHO opposes such “passports” because recovery from the virus might not protect a person from reinfection.

“There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from #COVID19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” the UN health body said in a statement.

Meanwhile hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world spent the second day of the Ramadan holy month out of mosques and avoiding large family meals to break the fast because of sequestration and social distancing policies.

And Australians and New Zealanders marked Anzac Day without the normal parades and public ceremonies to commemorate fallen soldiers. Instead, under social distancing policies, people held dawn vigils in front of their homes.

A woman dances on the beach at Tybee Island, Georgia after the state’s governor ordered a partial reopening of businesses and public places © AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA

Even as governments from Sri Lanka to Belgium to the United States began moving in the direction of partial reopening, the COVID-19 pandemic still had nearly half of humanity under some form of lockdown or confinement.

Total cases around the world rose to 2.86 million and deaths mounted past the 200,000 mark, doubling since April 10, according to an AFP tally.

Europe, the hardest-hit region, has recorded 122,171 coronavirus deaths.

The US toll rose by 2,494 over the past 24 hours to hit 53,511 deaths. The number of coronavirus cases in the United States jumped by nearly 46,000 to 936,293 since Friday.

In Italy, the number of COVID-19 fatalities rose to 26,384; Spain 22,902, France 22,614 and the United Kingdom 20,319.

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– Reinfection warning-

Mosques have been empty during the start of Ramadan as prayers are held at home © AFP / Mohammed ABED

The world remained in wait as companies and governments raced to develop treatments and, eventually, a vaccine for the virus, which first surfaced in China in late 2019.

The WHO warned on Saturday that people who test positive and survive infection cannot be certain they will not be hit again by the coronavirus.

Countries are carrying out more testing in a bid to track the rate of infections © AFP / ZINYANGE AUNTONY

The warning came as some governments study measures such as “immunity passports” for those who have recovered as one way to get people back to work after weeks of economic shutdown.

People holding such a “passport” may tend to ignore public health advice, such as continuing to wear facemasks, assuming they are not a danger to themselves or others, the WHO said.

That is a particular worry as testing becomes more widespread, especially testing for coronavirus antibodies, whose presence indicate a person had previously contracted the virus and recovered.

Graphic on the testing, tracking and tracing COVID-19 infections, according to an OECD report. © AFP / Gal ROMA

“If I’ve already had corona then I’m not infectious,” said Berlin resident Lothar Kopp, hoping to test positive for antibodies as it could allow him to visit his elderly mother.

Germany has carried out tens of thousands of tests and other countries are also working on determining so-called levels of immunity.

– Second round feared –

Despite Saturday’s grim milestone in virus fatalities, the daily toll in Western countries appeared to be levelling off and even falling, a sign hopeful epidemiologists had been looking for.

Likewise, new reported cases appear to have plateaued at about 80,000 a day.

Shoppers clad in protective gear, including face masks and shields and latex gloves, walk through the Tajrish Bazaar in Iran’s capital Tehran during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan © AFP / ATTA KENARE

But in many countries there were worries of a second surge after lockdown restrictions are eased, possibly also coinciding with a new flu season.

In hard-hit Iran, health officials Saturday raised fears of a “fresh outbreak” with another 76 fatalities declared, bringing the country’s official death toll to 5,650.

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Iran has steadily allowed the restarting of businesses that were closed to stop the virus spread. But Alireza Zali, a health coordinator for the capital, criticised “hasty reopenings” that could “create new waves of sickness in Tehran”.

In Washington, the White House’s top pandemic advisor Anthony Fauci said this week that the United States will certainly have a coronavirus problem in the fall, which could be complicated by the return of the seasonal flu toward year-end.

– At the beach –

Amid a heat wave, people flock to the Pacific Ocean during the novel coronavirus pandemic in Huntington Beach, California © AFP / Apu GOMES

Even so, the pressure from broken economies and citizens frustrated by stay-at-home orders had areas pushing to open up.

German police arrested dozens of protesters in Berlin on Saturday for flouting the coronavirus lockdown measures they were demonstrating against.

The governor of the US state of Georgia rejected warnings from top disease experts and allowed businesses like hair dressers, nail salons and bowling alleys to reopen.

On Saturday many Georgians embraced the return to something resembling normalcy by flocking to the beach.

“It feels great — like it’s supposed to feel,” mother and housewife Rachel Lilly, 39, told AFP, barely lifting her head from her watermelon-themed towel as she relaxed under a cloudless sky on Tybee Island.

“I’m not concerned” about catching coronavirus, “as long as it’s not packed,” she said.

“But if everyone does what we’re doing, that’s a problem.”

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In southern California thousands flouted policies to stay indoors and headed to beaches amid a heat wave.

On Friday, Belgium’s Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes announced a staggered plan for reopening businesses and schools in mid-May and restaurants beginning on June 8.

“The spread of COVID-19 has been slowed down, but the virus has not disappeared,” she warned.

Italy, nearing the end of the world’s longest active lockdown, announced plans Saturday to set price limits on face masks and ramp up antibody testing.

Italians are awaiting a decision this weekend about which restrictions will be lifted. They will probably be allowed to leave their homes freely for the first time since March 9 by early May.

Spaniards will be allowed out for exercise and to take walks starting next weekend, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced Saturday.

The government will on Tuesday unveil its broader coronavirus exit plan that will likely be put into action in the second half of May, he said.

“If the pandemic keeps evolving positively as it has been doing until now, from May 2, individual physical activity will be permitted and walks with the people you live with,” he said.

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