The Latest on COVID-19 worldwide: Fauci: Virus shot categories to open up by April


The Associated Press



WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci predicts by April it will be “open season” for vaccinations in the U.S., as supply boosts allow most people to get shots to protect against COVID-19.

Speaking to NBC’s “Today Show,” Fauci, who serves as science adviser to President joe Biden, says the rate of vaccinations will greatly accelerate in the coming months. He credits forthcoming deliveries of the two approved vaccines, the potential approval of a third and moves taken by the Biden administration to increase the nation’s capacity to deliver doses.

He says, “by the time we get to April,” it will be “open season, namely virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated.”

He cautioned it will take “several more months” to logistically deliver injections to adult Americans but predicted herd immunity could be achieved by late summer.

___

HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

GENEVA — The World Health Organization’s chief for Europe says it’s launching with the European Union a 40-million euro ($48.5 million) program to help deploy COVID-19 vaccines in six countries that were once Soviet republics.

Dr. Hans Kluge, who also highlighted a drop in coronavirus cases in recent weeks while warning case counts remain too high, says the program complements work through an existing EU program and the WHO-backed COVAX Facility that aims to deploy vaccines for people in all countries in need whether rich or poor.

The program will involve Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.

“Vaccines offer a way to emerge faster from this pandemic. But only if we ensure that all countries, irrespective of income level, have access to them,” Kluge told reporters from Copenhagen, Denmark.

“Unfair access to vaccines, can backfire. The longer the virus lingers, the greater the risk of dangerous mutations,” he added.

Kluge hailed “good news” that new infections in the 53-country WHO Europe region has declined for four straight weeks, and said COVID-related deaths have fallen in each of the last two weeks. He also pointed to declining hospitalization rates.

In the region, some 7.8 million people have completed their immunization, Kluge said.

___

BUDAPEST— Hungary expects to receive 500,000 doses of a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine next week and will begin administering them as soon as possible, a government official told a press conference in Budapest on Thursday.

Gergely Gulyas, chief of staff to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, said the Sinopharm vaccine would undergo assessment by Hungary’s National Public Health Center before being put into circulation.

“This is the safest vaccine given that it has already been administered to 30 million people in the world,” Gulyas said.

Hungary, which has been critical of the European Union’s sluggish vaccine rollout, also expects 200,000 doses of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V to arrive this month. Doctors in Budapest were instructed this week to choose patients under 75 and with no chronic health conditions to receive the first round of Sputnik V jabs.

___

NAIROBI, Kenya — Tanzania’s president denies that COVID-19 is in his country, but the World Health Organization says two travelers from Tanzania have been found to have the virus now dominant in South Africa.

WHO Africa chief Matshidiso Moeti tells reporters the travelers went to the U.K. She again encouraged Tanzania’s government to share information on the pandemic, and she counts Tanzania as one of eight African countries that has the variant.

The East African nation has not updated its number of virus cases since April, and populist President John Magufuli has not only claimed that God has helped to defeat COVID-19 there but also has expressed doubts about its vaccines.

The U.S. Embassy on Wednesday reported a “significant increase” in the number of COVID-19 cases in Tanzania since last month, with no details. The Catholic church in Tanzania also has been outspoken in warning that COVID-19 is present and encouraging citizens to take precautions.

___

LISBON, Portugal — Portugal has started inoculating the country’s about 15,000 firefighters against COVID-19.

Portuguese firefighters commonly operate ambulances, and they will be vaccinated over a two-week period starting Thursday.

Meanwhile, the health ministry says antigen tests will be more widely used at schools, factories and other places where people gather as part of a new strategy to contain the pandemic.

Parliament is expected later Thursday to extend Portugal’s state of emergency decree, which allows the government to impose the current lockdown, through March 1.

The seven-day average of daily deaths in Portugal is the highest in the world, at 2.05 per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University. But the seven-day average of daily new cases has fallen from a peak of 122.37 new cases per 100,000 people on Jan. 27 to 47.56 per 100,000.

___

WASHINGTON — The meetings begin each day not long after dawn. Dozens of aides report in, coffee in hand, joining by Zoom from agency headquarters, their homes or even adjacent offices.

The sessions start with the latest sobering statistics meant to focus the work and offer a reminder of what’s at stake: new coronavirus cases, people in hospitals, deaths. But they also include the latest signs of progress: COVID-19 tests administered, vaccine doses shipped, shots injected.

Where the last U.S. administration addressed the pandemic with the vernacular of a natural disaster — using the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mantra of a “federally supported, state managed and locally executed” response — President Joe Biden’s team is borrowing from the Pentagon and the doctrine of overwhelming force.

We’re at war with this virus,” COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients told The Associated Press. “We’re taking every resource and tool the federal government has to battle on every front.”

For Biden, beating back the pandemic is a defining challenge of his presidency. The U.S. has seen the most confirmed virus deaths in the world at over 471,000.

___

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel says Germany didn’t act quickly enough last fall to prevent a second surge in coronavirus infections.

“We didn’t shut down public life early enough or systematically enough amid signs of a second wave and warnings from various scientists,” she told lawmakers Thursday.

Merkel and the governors of Germany’s 16 states agreed late Wednesday to extend the current lockdown until at least March 7. Schools and hairdressers will be able to open earlier, albeit with strict hygiene measures.

Merkel defended a decision to set a target of pushing the number of new weekly cases per 100,000 inhabitants below 35 before the lockdown is eased further.

“The virus doesn’t follow dates, the virus follows infection numbers,” she said.

Germany’s disease control agency said there were just over 64 cases per 100,000 inhabitants nationwide in the past week.

The Robert Koch Institute said there were 10,237 new cases and 666 deaths in the past day, taking the total to 2.31 million, including 63,635 deaths.

___

BRUSSELS — With the coronavirus still widely circulating across Belgium, health authorities were relieved to announce Thursday that the country is being spared a bad flu season.

Even better, they said there is no flu outbreak this winter as fears of a “twindemic” that would have combined an annual flu season and the COVID-19 pandemic have not been realized.

“Despite the quantity of samples analyzed, the number of positive tests for influenza is much lower than during the previous winters,” the Sciensano public health institute said.

Usually in Belgium, the number of visits to general practitioners and the number of positive flu tests rises simultaneously from December to a peak between mid-January and mid-March.

According to Sciensano, the low number of flu cases has also been seen in across the globe, likely due to measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, including wearing masks, social distancing and more hand washing.

___

LONDON — AstraZeneca said Thursday it’s working with the University of Oxford to adapt its COVID-19 vaccine to protect against new strains of the virus as public health officials raise concerns about mutations that may make the virus more resistant to existing vaccines.

The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker worked with Oxford to develop one of the first COVID-19 vaccines authorized for widespread use. AstraZeneca said it hopes to cut the time needed to produce large amounts of any new vaccine to between six and nine months.

The comments came as Astra-Zeneca said fourth-quarter net income rose to $1.01 billion from $313 million in the same quarter a year earlier. Drug sales increased 11% to $7.41 billion, driven by a 24% increase in cancer treatments.

The company posted $2 million of revenue from its COVID-19 vaccine, which it has pledged to supply on a non-profit basis during the pandemic.

___

NAIROBI, Kenya — The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director says African countries that have not found cases of the coronavirus variant dominant in South Africa should go ahead and use the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

John Nkengasong spoke to reporters a day after South Africa announced that it would not use the AstraZeneca vaccine, citing a small study that suggested it was poor at preventing mild to moderate disease caused by the variant.

Nkengasong said just seven countries on the 54-nation African continent have reported the variant and none besides South Africa is being “overwhelmed” by the variant. None has expressed concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine except for South Africa.

Africa has had more than 96,000 confirmed deaths.

___

JERUSALEM — Israel began reopening its education system on Thursday after a more than six-week closure due to the country’s worrying surge in coronavirus infections.

Kindergartens and first to fourth grades opened in cities with low infection rates, with around one-fifth of the country’s pupils returning to classrooms. Middle schools and high schools remained closed.

Israel began easing restrictions on Sunday after more than a month of nationwide lockdown. It has vaccinated more than 3.5 million citizens with an initial dose of the Pfizer vaccine, but infection rates remain high.

The Health Ministry reported more than 711,000 confirmed cases, including at least 5,265 deaths.

___

PRAGUE — The Czech government has imposed a complete lockdown on the three hardest-hit counties to help contain a more contagious variant of the coronavirus.

Health Minister Jan Blatny says the measure will become effective Friday for two counties in western Czech Republic on the German border — Cheb and Sokolov — and another in the northern part of the country — Trutnov — on the border with Poland.

Residents of the counties are barred from leaving those places, while people without residency can’t travel there. Exceptions include travel to work. Police will be deployed to enforce the measure.

The counties have been facing the highest occurrence of the fast-spreading coronavirus variant found in Britain. Local hospitals have reached their capacity and COVID-19 patients have to be transported to hospitals in other parts of the Czech Republic.

The number of infected people is around 1,100 per 100,000 in the three counties in the last seven days, several times higher than the rest of the country.

___

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has reported 504 new coronavirus cases for the latest 24-hour period. It is the highest daily jump in about two weeks and raising worries about a potential surge as the country begins the Lunar New Year’s holidays.

Health officials said Thursday the newly reported cases took the country’s total for the pandemic to 82,434, with 1,496 deaths.

In recent weeks, South Korea’s caseload has displayed a gradual downward trajectory largely thanks to stringent distancing rules such as a ban on social gatherings of five or more people.

Officials have urged the public to maintain vigilance and stay at home during the four-day Lunar New Year’s holidays that began Thursday. Millions of people were expected to travel across the country to visit hometowns and return home during the holidays.

___

MEXICO CITY — Mexican regulatory authorities have granted approval for the use of two Chinese coronavirus vaccines — the Coronavac made by Sinovac and another made by CanSino.

The assistant health secretary says the first bulk shipment of an expected 2 million CanSino doses is to arrive Thursday to be finished and bottled in Mexico.

Mexico has so far received only about 760,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which have almost all been used.

The CanSino vaccine reportedly has an efficacy rate of around 65.7%, while the Sinovac dose has been rated as low as 50.65% at preventing infections.

Mexico also expects to get its first AstraZeneca shipment of 500,000 doses Sunday.

___

TOKYO — Japan is reporting its worst one-day death toll for the pandemic — 121 people who died from COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours.

The number reported Thursday by Japan’s Health Ministry raised the country’s pandemic death toll to 6,678.

Japan has not started coronavirus vaccinations. Shots for medical workers are set to begin this month.

The country also has never had a lockdown, but a government-backed state of emergency is now in place for Tokyo and other urban areas that urges people to stay home and restaurants to close at night.

Although coronavirus cases stayed relatively low in Japan last year compared to the United States and Europe, infections have been climbing recently. Demands are growing to cancel the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which are scheduled to start in July.

___

GENEVA — Independent experts advising the World Health Organization about immunization on Wednesday recommended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine even in countries that turned up worrying coronavirus variants in their populations.

The WHO experts’ advice is used by health care officials worldwide, but doesn’t amount to a green light for the United Nations and its partners to ship the vaccine to countries that have signed up to receive the shots through a global initiative. That approval could come after separate WHO group meetings on Friday and Monday to assess whether an emergency-use listing for the AstraZeneca vaccine is warranted.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is important because it forms the bulk of the stockpile acquired so far by the U.N.-backed effort known as COVAX, which aims to deploy coronavirus vaccines to people globally. COVAX plans to start shipping hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine worldwide later this month.

___

CHICAGO — The Chicago Teachers Union has approved a deal with the nation’s third-largest school district to get students back to class during the coronavirus pandemic, union officials announced early Wednesday.

The vote ends the possibility of an immediate teacher lockout or strike. The agreement follows months of negotiations with Chicago Public Schools, which had intensified in recent weeks, with plans that included more teacher vaccinations and metrics to allow school closures when COVID-19 infections spike.

The union said 13,681 members voted to approve the agreement and 6,585 voted against it. Despite the approval, the union characterized it as the “absolute limit to which CPS was willing to go at the bargaining table to guarantee a minimum number of guardrails for any semblance of safety in schools.”

The Associated Press