It is unrealistic to think that the world will be done with the Covid-19 pandemic by the end of the year, the World Health Organization (WHO) said today.

The WHO's emergencies director Michael Ryan said it might be possible to take the sting of tragedy out of the coronavirus crisis by reducing hospitalisations and deaths.

But the virus remains very much in control, he added, especially given that global new case numbers increased this week after seven consecutive weeks of decline.

"It will be very premature and I think unrealistic to think that we're going to finish with this virus by the end of the year," Dr Ryan told journalists.

"But I think what we can finish with, if we're smart, is the hospitalisations, the deaths and the tragedy associated with this pandemic."

Dr Ryan said the WHO's focus was on keeping virus transmission low, to help prevent the emergence of variants, but also to reduce the numbers of people who get sick.

He also said vaccinating frontline healthcare workers and those most vulnerable to severe disease would "take the fear and the tragedy out of the pandemic".

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wants the vaccination of healthcare workers under way in every country within the first 100 days of 2021 - meaning there are 40 days left to go.

He welcomed the first injections of doses through the global Covax vaccine-sharing facility, which were administered today in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

"It's encouraging to see health workers in lower-income countries starting to be vaccinated, but it's regrettable that this comes almost three months after some of the wealthiest countries started their vaccination campaigns," he said.

"And it's regrettable that some countries continue to prioritise vaccinating younger, healthier adults at lower risk of disease in their own populations ahead of health workers and older people elsewhere," he said, without naming them.

Officials hunt for person in UK with Brazil variant of Covid-19

Health officials in Britain are hunting for a person in the UK who is infected with a worrying Brazil variant of Covid-19 in a bid to stop it spreading into the wider community.

Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director at Public Health England (PHE), said the person was thought to have been tested on 12 or 13 February, possibly via a home postal test or a test collected from a local authority.

She said the individual may not have completed their form completely online, or may have thought they did, and may not have got their results.

"We are looking at where the test may have been sent from and to, working with the postal services and the courier services," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, adding that the public appeal was a "belt-and-braces approach".

In total, PHE has identified six UK cases of the concerning P1 variant first detected in the Brazilian city of Manaus - three in England and three in Scotland.

Three cases are Scottish residents who flew to Aberdeen from Brazil via Paris and London, who all tested positive while self-isolating.

Other passengers who were on the same flight to Aberdeen are now being traced.

The other two cases in England are from the same household in South Gloucestershire after one person returned from Brazil on 10 February - just days before the government's hotel quarantine rule came into force.

Two other people in the same household have also tested positive but are not currently included in the UK case total of six, while tests on their type of coronavirus continue.

Officials are searching for passengers who were on the Swiss Air flight LX318 from Sao Paulo to Heathrow, via Zurich, which landed on 10 February.

Surge testing will now be carried out in the Bradley Stoke, Patchway and Little Stoke areas of South Gloucestershire to capture any potential spread in cases.

Dr Hopkins said the Brazil Manaus variant is similar to the variant from South Africa, with mutations that are thought to increase transmissibility.

There are also concerns that the Manaus variant can re-infect people who have previously had Covid, and that it has the ability to lessen the impact of vaccines.

Dr Hopkins said: "Manaus in particular reported that a number of individuals were re-infected with this variant, and therefore that suggests that having had prior immunity from primary infection wasn't enough to reduce infection and transmission. And that may also impact on the vaccine."

However, she said that although cases have been detected in the UK, it is hoped that it would not become a dominant variant.

"I think the importance here is that, while we're in national restrictions, while we have very transmissible variants that are circulating, then we hope that there are not any other variants that will be able to take over," she said.


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Czech Republic turns to Russian vaccine after EU delays

The hard-hit Czech Republic has requested a batch of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine while awaiting delayed EU-procured shots, the president said, adding that Prague will also consider seeking Chinese jabs.

The EU member has the world's highest infection rate per 100,000 people over the last 14 days and is second only to neighbouring Slovakia in per capita deaths, according to an AFP tally.

The vaccination rollout has been slower than expected with only 650,000 jabs administered since December in the country of 10.7 million people, which Czech politicians blame on slow procurement by the EU.

"After consulting the prime minister, I have sent a letter to (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, asking him for a supply of the Sputnik vaccine," President Milos Zeman said on TV Prima yesterday.

"Information from the Russian embassy suggests it could arrive in the next few days," said the pro-Russian, pro-Chinese leader.

He said he would also welcome China's Sinopharm vaccine in the country that has recorded over 1.2 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and more than 20,000 deaths, arguing that "vaccines have no ideology".

Czechs have shown mistrust towards the vaccines on social networks, driven by their experience with low-quality Soviet-made goods shipped to their country during four decades of Communism in 1948-89.

Neither Sputnik V nor Sinopharm have been approved by the European Union regulator the EuropeanEMA, unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines currently used in the Czech Republic.

But Mr Zeman and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said they would not wait for the European Medicine's Agency (EMA) to give the green light.

Additional reporting AFP