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UK to start human trials of vaccine as virus cases pass 2.5m

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Human trials of a coronavirus vaccine will begin in the UK this week, as the pandemic toll approaches three million cases, including 170,000 deaths.

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The UK government said it was “throwing everything” at developing a coronavirus vaccine, with “rapid progress” being made by scientists at Oxford and Imperial College London.

Oxford has said it hopes to have at least a million doses of its vaccine ready in September, while Imperial hopes to start clinical trials in June.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said the UK is at the “front of the global effort” to find a vaccine that is effective against coronavirus.

Hancock pledged a further STG22.5 million ($A43.9 million) to Imperial, while Oxford will be granted STG20 million to fund its clinical trials.

He said the process of finding a vaccine would involve “trial and error” but told UK scientists he would “back them to the hilt and give them every resource they need” to succeed.

“After all, the upside of being the first country in the world to develop a successful vaccine is so huge that I am throwing everything at it,” he said.

Britain’s virus death toll has passed 17,000 after another 828 fatalities overnight, while confirmed cases rose to 129,000.

But it’s believed the UK death toll is much higher, as it only counts deaths in hospitals and excludes care homes, private residences and hospices.

Data published on Tuesday indicated the number of deaths was more than 40 per cent higher than the government’s daily figures indicated as of April 10, putting the country on track to become among the worst-hit in Europe.

A Reuters tally puts global COVID-19 infections at more than 2.5 million, with US cases surpassing 800,000.

The figure includes more than 170,000 deaths, two-thirds of which have been reported in Europe.

It took around 75 days for the first 500,000 cases to be reported, and just six days for the most recent half million to be registered.

The first 41 cases were confirmed on January 10, just over three months ago, and new cases have accelerated to over 70,000 a day in April.

It compares to three million to five million cases of severe illness caused annually by seasonal influenza, according to World Health Organisation estimates.

While experts say actual cases of the new coronavirus are likely higher than current reports, the number still falls far short of the Spanish flu, which began in 1918 and infected an estimated 500 million people.

Despite the growing number of cases in the current pandemic, there are signs that the spread of the coronavirus is slowing with many countries exercising lockdown measures.

At the beginning of April, the total case figure grew at a rate of 8-9 per cent per day and this has since slowed to between 3-4 per cent per day in the past week.

More than 1.1 million cases have been reported in Europe, including almost 400,000 cases in Italy and Spain, where over 10 per cent of reported cases have been fatal.

North America accounts for a third of all cases, though so far the region has reported lower death rates. In both the United States and Canada, 5.0 per cent of reported cases have been fatal.

Cases in Latin America continue to grow faster than other regions, and topped 100,000 in the past 24 hours.

In China, where the virus is thought to have originated, daily new cases have dwindled to less than 20 a day over the past three days and no new deaths have been reported this week.

However, last week China raised its official death toll by 40 per cent, adding another 1,290 fatalities which health authorities said were not reported earlier.

Currently, many countries continue to experience a shortage of testing resources, artificially lowering case numbers and excluding infections in nursing homes.

New reported US cases appear to be slowing this week, rising by less than 30,000 a day for the past three days. The United States had a record 35,392 cases on April 4.

Medical experts have warned that increased testing will be necessary for the lifting of stay-at-home measures, which experts say are essential to slowing the spread of the highly contagious respiratory illness.

However, the measures have ground the economy to a standstill and forced more than 22 million people to apply for unemployment benefits in the last month.

Lockdown lifting debate

Italy is likely to start cautiously easing its coronavirus lockdown from May 4 due to concerns about its economic impact.

The country has been one of the hardest hit in the world by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the virus killing more 24,100 people since erupting there in February.

The government introduced sweeping curbs in March, telling Italians to stay at home and shutting schools, businesses and industries nationwide.

The restrictions have put a major strain on the euro zone’s third largest economy but with the number of new cases gradually slowing, Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte said he would unveil by the weekend government plans to loosen the shutdown.

“I wish I could say: let’s reopen everything. Immediately. We start tomorrow morning…But such a decision would be irresponsible,” he said.

He promised “a serious, scientific plan” that would include a “rethinking of modes of transport” to enable workers to travel in safety, new business rules and measures to check whether the loosening was leading to an uptick in infections.

“It is reasonable to expect that we will apply it from May 4,” he said, adding that a rushed, disorganised exit strategy would make a mockery of the sacrifices Italians had accepted.

Italian business leaders have been clamouring for a relaxation of restrictions, which are among the toughest in the world, warning of economic catastrophe if the lockdown drags on.

Italy’s Treasury expects the economy to contract by around 8.0 per cent this year, which would be the country’s worst recession since World War Two.

France has entered its fifth week of lockdown, which will remain in place until May 11, but after that date children will go back to school in stages and in much smaller classes in order to minimise infection risk.

France recorded another 531 virus deaths overnight to lift its toll to nearly 21,000 – the world’s fourth-highest tally after the US, Italy and Spain – with 117,000 infections.

But the number of patients in intensive care registered its sharpest overnight decline since the beginning of the outbreak, falling 4.4 per cent to 5,433, the lowest since March 30 and the 13th consecutive daily decline.

Public health chief Jerome Salomon said on Tuesday the rate of increase of confirmed coronavirus cases was up for the second day running, but the number of people in hospital was down for the seventh consecutive day.

“This pandemic is massive. The virus is still circulating at a high level. We must keep up our full commitment,” he said.

-with AAP

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