The World Health Organization said Monday that a variant of the coronavirus circulating in India is of global concern.
"We classify it as a variant of concern at a global level," Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, told a briefing. "There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility."
India’s daily COVID statistics are down slightly but remain high. The health ministry said Monday there were 366,161 new infections and 3,754 deaths caused by the coronavirus in the previous 24-hour period. Public health experts say they believe the new cases and deaths are undercounted.
India has 22.6 million COVID cases so far, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Only the U.S. has more infections, accounting for 32.7 million of the world’s 158.3 million COVID cases, the center reported.
There is growing concern in India about a fungal infection affecting COVID patients and people who have recovered from the disease. Mucormycosis is caused by mold and can affect a person’s facial structure and in some cases cause blindness. COVID patients with diabetes are particularly susceptible to mucormycosis, medical experts said.
Nepal, struggling to combat an outbreak of the pandemic, is running short of oxygen and oxygen tanks. The Himalayan country has asked Mount Everest climbers and guides not to abandon their oxygen cylinders on the mountain and instead bring them back down so that medical facilities can fill them to give to COVID patients.
Kul Bahadur Gurung, a senior official with the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told Reuters, “We appeal to climbers and Sherpas [Himalayan people living around Nepal and Tibet, well known for climbing mountains] to bring back their empty bottles wherever possible as they can be refilled and used for the treatment of the coronavirus patients who are in dire needs.”
A Nepal health ministry official said the country needs 25,000 oxygen tanks immediately, speaking to Reuters.
EU summit, U.S. criticism
On the second day of a summit in Portugal on Saturday, the European Union approved a contract extension with Pfizer-BioNTech to provide up to 1.8 billion additional doses of its vaccine through 2023.
Pfizer has already provided the EU with 600 million doses, as required in the initial contract.
Also at the summit, the U.S. faced mounting criticism from EU leaders over President Joe Biden’s surprise endorsement last week of lifting COVID-19 vaccine patents to make more doses available to poorer countries.
“We don’t think, in the short term, that it’s the magic bullet,” said EU Council President Charles Michel.
Michel and other EU leaders said the U.S. should, instead, start boosting vaccine exports to have maximum impact on the global pandemic.
“I’m very clearly urging the U.S. to put an end to the ban on exports of vaccines and on components of vaccines that are preventing them being produced,” French President Emmanuel Macron said.
The U.S., like Britain, has limited exports of domestically developed vaccines so it can inoculate its population first. The EU has become the world’s leading vaccine provider, distributing about 200 million doses to the 27-nation bloc and roughly an equal number to nearly 90 countries around the world.
Pope Francis said that he supports the temporary suspension of vaccine patents, according to news reports. He added that market forces, as they relate to vaccines, must not predominate.