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White House Says COVID-19 Tests Being Shipped 

The White House says some of the at-home, free COVID-19 tests it is offering to Americans have begun shipping via the U.S. Postal Service. 

During a Friday press briefing, Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said shipping started Thursday. 

He said demand has been high and added that there had already been millions of orders through the government website that was launched earlier this week. 

He would not provide specific numbers when asked, saying the White House was waiting on data. 

Americans are allowed to order four of the tests per household.

The Biden administration has faced criticism for a lack of tests during the omicron surge. 

During the briefing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said the average number of omicron cases was down nationally by about 5%, mostly in areas where it began to surge. She said there were about 744,600 cases per day on average in the past seven days. 

She warned that some parts of the country could still see an increase in infections. 

“In some parts of the country we are seeing the number of daily cases caused by the omicron variant beginning to decline,” she said. “The surge in cases started at different times in different regions and (we) may continue to see high case counts in some areas of the country in the days and weeks ahead.” 

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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Judge Blocks Vaccine Mandate for US Federal Workers 

A federal judge on Friday issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting the enforcement of U.S. President Joe Biden’s requirement that federal workers be vaccinated. 

Biden announced the mandate, which required 3.5 million federal workers to be vaccinated or ask for a medical or religious exemption, in September. There was no option to be regularly tested instead. 

When the mandate went into effect in November, the White House said 95% of federal workers had either been vaccinated or applied for medical or religious exemptions. 

Those not conforming to the mandate could lose their jobs. 

Judge Jeffrey Brown of Texas, writing in the injunction, questioned if a president “can, with the stroke of a pen and without the input of Congress, require millions of federal employees to undergo a medical procedure as a condition of their employment.”

He called the mandate a “bridge too far,” citing a recent Supreme Court ruling striking down a mandate on private employers. 

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court struck down the Biden vaccine mandate requiring companies with more than 100 workers to be fully vaccinated. The court allowed a mandate requiring certain healthcare workers to be vaccinated. 

Brown said public health could be adequately protected using masks and social distancing. 

The plaintiff in the suit is a group called Feds for Medical Freedom.

The U.S. Department of Justice said it will appeal the injunction. 

COVID-19 has killed more than 861,000 Americans. 

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

 

 

 

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China Exports Its Traditional Medicine to Africa

Hing Pal Singh is among dozens of patients with daily appointments at the Oriental Chinese Herbal Clinic in Nairobi.

Singh, 85, has been suffering from spinal problems for five years and is now trying herbal remedies.

“There is a slight difference,” Singh said. ” … It’s only a week now. It will take at least another 12 to 15 sessions. Then we see how it goes.”

Traditional Chinese medicine is becoming more popular in Africa, according to a 2020 study by Development Reimagined, a Beijing international consulting firm.

A February 2020 op-ed written by a Beijing think tank researcher and published in the state-run China Daily said such traditional medicine would “boost the Chinese economy, contribute to global health and prove to be a shot in the arm for China’s soft power.”

Potential harm

Conventional medical doctors such as Sultan Mantendechere, though, say patients are overlooking the potential harm that some herbal remedies can cause, especially if used too frequently or at too high a dosage.

“They do work in quite a number of circumstances,” Mantendechere said. “Having said that, our main worry as practitioners, the medical practitioners, is that the use of herbal medicine is not as regulated as we would want it to

Although the safety and effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine is still debated worldwide, herbal practitioners such as Li Chuan continue to gain popularity among those seeking alternative medication.

Li said some of his patients were benefiting from purported COVID-19 remedies, although there is scant scientific evidence that they can help against the disease.

“Many people buy our herbal tea to counter COVID-19,” Li said. “The results are good.” 

Environmentalists fear the growth of traditional Chinese medicine will encourage poachers to go after endangered wildlife such as rhinos and some types of snakes used in making the potions.

Daniel Wanjuki, an environmentalist and the lead expert at Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority, said that “with people saying that the rhino horn may actually be used as an aphrodisiac, this has led to almost the complete eradication of the rhino species in Kenya and in Africa in general.” 

Economical — if effective 

Kenya spends an estimated $2.7 billion each year on health care, according to national statistics.

Kenyan economist Ken Gichinga said herbal medicine could significantly lower African medical expenses if proven effective.

“Africans spend quite a lot of money traveling to countries such as India and the UAE to get treatment” and would benefit if herbal medicine “can provide more natural, cost-effective health care,” he said.

In 2021, Kenya’s national drug regulator, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board, approved the sale of Chinese herbal health products in the country. Practitioners such as Li hope that more nations will give approval to Chinese herbal medicine in the future.

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Austria Set to Make COVID Shots Compulsory After Bill Clears Parliament

Austria’s lower house of parliament passed a bill Thursday making COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for adults as of Feb. 1, bringing Austria closer to introducing the first such sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandate in the European Union.

Faced with a stubbornly high number of vaccine holdouts and a surge in infections, the government said in November it was planning the mandate. Since then it has raised the age as of which the mandate will apply, to 18 from 14.

The bill must now pass the upper house and be signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen, steps which will be largely formalities.

Roughly 72% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

After a fourth national lockdown ended last month, the extremely contagious omicron variant has pushed infections to record levels, but the government wants to avoid another lockdown.

“Making COVID-19 vaccination compulsory is an emergency exit … out of the constant restrictions on our personal and fundamental rights like the ones we have had to endure in the past two years,” the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, who is also a doctor, told parliament.

Many lawmakers from her party and the liberal Neos backed the bill, joining the government coalition of conservatives and Greens, meaning it cleared its main hurdle easily with 137 votes for to 33 against.

The bill imposes fines of up to $680 on holdouts once checks begin on March 15. Those who challenge that initial fine unsuccessfully face a maximum fine of $4,080.

Italy has made COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for those 50 and older, while Greece has done the same for over-60s, and various European countries have done so for some professions like medical staff.

“This vaccine mandate strips people of their rights. In one move, millions of Austrians will be downgraded,” said Herbert Kickl, leader of the far-right and anti-vaccine Freedom Party.

He added that the mandate would make holdouts “second-class citizens” and his party would challenge it in the courts.

 

 

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Superbugs Deadlier Than AIDS, Malaria, Study Shows

More than 1.2 million people are dying every year directly from bacterial infections that are resistant to several antibiotics, according to a new study, making multiresistant bacteria far deadlier than HIV/AIDS or malaria. A further 4.95 million deaths were associated with these multiresistant bacteria.

“It is estimated that if we don’t find alternatives by 2050, millions of lives will be lost and there will be $100 trillion of lost [economic] output,” Antonia Sagona, an expert on bacterial infections at England’s University of Warwick, said in an interview with VOA. 

The study, published in The Lancet and led by the University of Washington in Seattle, analyzed data from 204 countries and territories. It showed that poorer nations were worst hit by antibiotic resistance, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“Lower respiratory infections accounted for more than 1.5 million deaths associated with [antibiotic] resistance in 2019, making it the most burdensome infectious syndrome,” the report said.

The authors cautioned there is an urgent need for more research.

“There are serious data gaps in many low-income settings, emphasizing the need to expand microbiology laboratory capacity and data collection systems to improve our understanding of this important human health threat,” they wrote. 

Antibiotic misuse

Scientists say the misuse of antibiotics over decades has encouraged microorganisms to evolve into “superbugs.”

“For example, people have viral infections, and they have been prescribed antibiotics for very many years now. And this over the years has made the problem very severe, so the bacteria have become really resistant to these antibiotics,” Sagona said.

The World Health Organization last year warned that none of the 43 antibiotics in development or recently approved was enough to combat antimicrobial resistance.

New hope? 

So what can be done? Sagona – along with other scientists around the world – is working on new treatments called phages.

“These are viruses that can specifically target bacteria. And they can be used in combination with antibiotics or on their own to clear bacterial infections of multiresistant strains,” she told VOA.

Despite the promising new treatments, scientists say it’s vital that existing antibiotics are not overused – to help slow down the development of the ever-deadlier superbugs.

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Multi-Resistant Superbugs Deadlier Than AIDS and Malaria, Study Shows

Over 1.2 million people are dying every year from bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics, according to a new study. That makes multi-resistant bacteria far deadlier than HIV/AIDS or malaria. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Will Afghanistan be Polio-Free in 2022?

International health workers say the end of the war in Afghanistan brings new hope to efforts to rid the country of the crippling disease polio. 

For many years, efforts to immunize all Afghan children under five years old were considered unfeasible because of widespread insecurity and threats to health workers. 

But with the end of the war, and Taliban pledges last year to support the polio immunization campaign, aid agencies now say they can access nearly all parts of the country, giving them an opportunity to eradicate poliovirus.  

“If we succeed to implement the planned polio campaigns with high coverage of 95%, we can interrupt the circulation of polio virus by the end of 2022,” Kamal Shah Sayed, a UNICEF spokesman in Afghanistan, told VOA.  

Backed by the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), a three-day nation-wide polio immunization campaign targeting nearly 10 million children was launched in Afghanistan on January 17. Four additional campaigns are planned for this year.  

Taliban back immunization campaign

Once considered a major obstacle in the way of anti-polio efforts because of their indiscriminate attacks as they fought U.S. and Afghan Government forces, the Taliban are now helping U.N. agencies to eradicate polio, Sayed confirmed. The U.S. withdrew all forces from Afghanistan last August as the Taliban fighters toppled the U.S.-backed Afghan government and declared the country an Islamic Emirate.  

Only four cases of poliovirus were confirmed in 2021 in the landlocked country, down from 56 cases a year before.  

However, there are still several challenges for making a polio-free Afghanistan in 2022.  

Poliovirus is still virulent in the neighboring Pakistan and can easily be transferred through the long and porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossings. Polio cases also saw a significant drop in Pakistan from 79 cases in 2020 to only one confirmed case in 2021, according to the Pakistan Polio Eradication Program.  

Poor awareness about poliovirus and how to protect children against it remains another problem, particularly in rural Afghan communities.   

Immunization workers also need to have access to every household across the country, but this has been resisted by some Taliban officials who prefer to conduct immunization campaigns at local mosques.  

“The house-to-house polio campaigns are very important,” said Sayed of the UNICEF adding that such access should be especially ensured in the traditional “key polio reservoir regions of the South and East.”  

The drive to rid Afghanistan from poliovirus is taking place as the country suffers from an economic paralysis and a widespread humanitarian crisis which threatens most of the country’s estimated 35 million population. The U.N. has called for nearly $5 billion to provide life-saving food, health, and shelter assistance to the most vulnerable Afghans in 2022. 

The polio immunization campaigns appear to have no funding shortfalls thanks to some 70,000 Afghan volunteers as well as financial contributions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International, the Canadian government, United Arab Emirates, and the Japanese government, UNICEF said.

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CDC: Prior Infection Plus Vaccines Provide Best COVID Protection

A new study in two states that compares coronavirus protection from a prior infection and vaccination concludes that getting the shots is still the safest way to prevent COVID-19. 

The study examined infections in New York and California last summer and fall and found people who were both vaccinated and had survived a prior bout of COVID-19 had the most protection.

But unvaccinated people with a past infection were a close second. By fall, when the more contagious delta variant had taken over but boosters weren’t yet widespread, that group had a lower case rate than vaccinated people who had no past infection. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the study Wednesday, noted several caveats to the research. And some outside experts were cautious of the findings and wary of how they might be interpreted. 

“The bottom-line message is that from symptomatic COVID infection you do generate some immunity,” said immunologist E. John Wherry of the University of Pennsylvania. “But it’s still much safer to get your immunity from vaccination than from infection.”

Vaccination has long been urged even after a case of COVID-19 because both kinds of protection eventually wane — and there are too many unknowns to rely only on a past infection, especially a long-ago one, added immunologist Ali Ellebedy at Washington University in St. Louis. 

“There are so many variables you cannot control that you just cannot use it as a way to say, ‘Oh, I’m infected, then I am protected,’ ” Ellebedy said.

Other studies

The research does fall in line with a small cluster of studies that found unvaccinated people with a previous infection had lower risks of COVID-19 diagnosis or illness than vaccinated people who were never before infected. 

The new study’s findings do make sense, said Christine Petersen, a University of Iowa epidemiologist. She said a vaccine developed against an earlier form of the coronavirus is likely to become less and less effective against newer, mutated versions. 

However, experts said, there are a number of possible other factors at play, including whether the vaccine’s effectiveness simply faded over time in many people and to what extent mask wearing and other behaviors played a part in what happened. 

Another thing to consider: The “staunchly unvaccinated” aren’t likely to get tested and the study only included lab-confirmed cases, Wherry said. 

“It may be that we’re not picking up as many reinfections in the unvaccinated group,” he said. 

CDC officials noted other limitations. The study was done before the omicron variant took over and before many Americans received booster doses, which have been shown to dramatically amplify protection by raising levels of virus-fighting antibodies. The analysis also did not include information on the severity of past infections or address the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. 

‘Safest strategy’

The study authors concluded vaccination “remains the safest strategy” to prevent infections and “all eligible persons should be up to date with COVID-19 vaccination.” 

The researchers looked at infections in California and New York, which together account for about 18% of the U.S. population. They also looked at COVID-19 hospitalizations in California. 

Overall, about 70% of the adults in each state were vaccinated; another 5% were vaccinated and had a previous infection. A little less than 20% weren’t vaccinated; and roughly 5% were unvaccinated but had a past infection. 

The researchers looked at COVID-19 cases from the end of last May until mid-November and calculated how often new infections happened in each group. As time went on, vaccine-only protection looked less and less impressive. 

By early October, compared with unvaccinated people who didn’t have a prior infection, case rates were: 

— Sixfold lower in California and 4.5-fold lower in New York in those who were vaccinated but not previously infected. 

— 29-fold lower in California and 15-fold lower in New York in those who had been infected but never vaccinated. 

— 32.5-fold lower in California and 20-fold lower in New York in those who had been infected and vaccinated. 

But the difference in the rates between those last two groups was not statistically significant, the researchers found. 

Hospitalization data, only from California, followed a similar pattern. 

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