GENEVA — It’s nearly launch time for COVAX, the United Nations’ unprecedented program to deploy COVID-19 vaccines for hundreds of millions in need around the globe.
More than two months after countries like Britain and the United States started immunizing their most vulnerable people, the U.N.’s health agency gave its approval to a vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, which should trigger the release of hundreds of millions of doses by COVAX.
COVAX missed its own target of starting vaccination in poor countries at the same time as immunizations were rolled out in rich countries, and numerous developing countries have signed their own deals to buy vaccine, fearing the program won’t deliver.
The World Health Organization and partners hope COVAX can finally start shipping out vaccines later this month.
WASHINGTON— A top American epidemiologist says Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic are sufficient but schools will face major challenges in the coming weeks because of virus variants.
Michael Osterholm is head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and was named to Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force before Biden became president. Osterholm says there’s low virus transmission at schools, especially for younger students, but virus variants are “a real red flag coming down the road.”
Osterholm told CBS on Monday he thinks a virus variant from the United Kingdom in particular is going to cause such a surge in U.S. cases over the next 14 weeks that “a lot of schools are going to WASHINGTON — The makers of COVID-19 vaccines are figuring out how to tweak their recipes against worrisome virus mutations — and regulators are looking to flu as a blueprint if and when the shots need an update.
“It’s not really something you can sort of flip a switch, do overnight,” cautioned Richard Webby, who directs a World Health Organization flu center from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Viruses mutate constantly and it takes just the right combination of particular mutations to escape vaccination. But studies are raising concern that first-generation COVID-19 vaccines don’t work as well against a mutant that first emerged in South Africa as they do against other versions circulating around the world.
The good news: Many of the new COVID-19 vaccines are made with new, flexible technology that’s easy to upgrade. What’s harder: Deciding if the virus has mutated enough that it’s time to modify vaccines — and what changes to make.
The CDC said Friday in-person schooling can resume safely with masks, social distancing and other strategies. The nation’s top public health agency says vaccinating teachers is important but isn’t a prerequisite for reopening schools.
Osterholm says health authorities don’t have enough vaccine doses for everyone so he’d prioritize vaccinating older people over teachers.
MEXICO CITY — Mexico began vaccinating senior citizens in more than 300 municipalities across the country Monday after receiving some 870,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
Most of the effort was concentrated in remote rural communities, but in a few far-flung corners of the sprawling capital, hundreds of Mexicans over the age of 60 lined up before dawn for the chance to get vaccinated.
The government has designated 1,000 vaccination sites, including schools and health centers, mostly in the country’s poorest communities.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador conceded Monday that bad weather and snow had kept the vaccine from arriving to some isolated areas in Mexico’s northwest. He said the armed forces, which are in charge of logistics for the vaccination campaign, were working to access those areas.
Mexico started vaccinating health workers in mid-December with some 726,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
MADRID — Spanish hospitals are starting to discharge more COVID-19 patients than the ones they admit in, although authorities say that a waning rate of infection remains too high to relax pandemic restrictions.
Health Ministry data showed that the share of hospital beds treating COVID-19 patients went from a 25% peak on Feb. 1 to 16.5% on Monday, with intensive care unit occupation in the same period dropping from 45% to 38% of the total, expanded capacity.
Spain has halved its 14-day of infection rate following a sharp post-Christmas contagion surge by avoiding a strict lockdown and choosing instead to restrict inter-regional mobility, impose night-time curfews and limit social gatherings. The two-week rate dropped from nearly 900 cases per 100,000 residents at the end of January to 417 infections on Monday.
The level is still considered of high risk and, according to Spain’s top coronavirus expert, Fernando Simón, “well above the goals established to relax some of the measures.”
PRAGUE — The Czech government has approved a plan for children and students to gradually return to schools in March.
Education Minister Robert Plaga says the first to return on March 1 should be the students of the final grade at high schools and schoolchildren of the final grade of elementary schools.
All students still will have to get tested at schools on a regular basis with the government ready to supply all the necessary tests.
Monday’s announcement comes a day after the heads of all 14 regions in the country made it possible for the government to extend the state of emergency and keep in place coronavirus restrictions despite a previous refusal of Parliament to do so. The school reopening was one of the key conditions requested by the governors.
Coronavirus infections in the Czech Republic remain at high levels. The nation of 10.7 million, has had more than 1 million confirmed cases, with 18,250 deaths.
LONDON — The daily number of people in the U.K. testing positive for the coronavirus has fallen below 10,000 for the first time since Oct. 2.
Government figures on Monday show that 9,765 people tested positive for COVID-19.
Infections have fallen sharply over the past few weeks from a high of 68,053 largely as a result of lockdown measures. The U.K.’s rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines to the most at-risk groups has also helped. As of Monday, 15.3 million people in the U.K. have had their first dose of vaccine, or a little more than a quarter of the adult population.
In addition to the fall in infections, the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 and dying have also come down.
The government said another 230 people have died after testing positive for COVID-19, the lowest figure since Dec. 26 when the number of deaths was also 230.
The U.K. has witnessed Europe’s deadliest outbreak, with 117,396 people dying in the 28 days after testing positive for the virus.
BERLIN — The European Union’s health agency is urging countries to address what it calls “pandemic fatigue” that is leading to increasing protests and unwillingness to follow virus restrictions.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said Monday that properly addressing pandemic fatigue was “a matter of urgency if further waves of infection are to be avoided.”
The Stockholm-based agency said governments should emphasize the risk of more cases and deaths if hygiene measures are ignored and be transparent about uncertainties regarding issues such as the vaccine rollout, which has raised widespread hopes of an imminent end to lockdowns.
ECDC said that the appearance of variants of the virus in the Europe posed a particular concern and could undo the drop in cases seen on the continent in recent weeks.
The agency said countries should increase testing sequencing of samples for variants, warning that its analysis suggests unless pandemic restrictions such as mask wearing are continued or strengthened during the coming months, “a significant increase in COVID-19-related cases and deaths” in Europe can be expected.
GENEVA, Switzerland — The World Health Organization granted an emergency authorization to the coronavirus vaccine made by AstraZeneca, a move that should allow its partners to ship millions of doses to countries worldwide as part of a U.N.-backed program to stop the pandemic.
In a statement on Monday, the U.N. health agency said it was greenlighting the AstraZeneca vaccines made by the Serum Institute of India and South Korea’s AstraZeneca-SKBio.
“Countries with no access to vaccines to date will finally be able to start vaccinating their health workers and populations at risk,” said Dr Mariângela Simão, WHO Assistant-Director General for Access to Medicines and Health Products.
ZAGREB, Croatia – Croatia is another European Union state after Hungary that has shown interest in procuring Russian developed Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine after hiccups in deliveries of Western-made shots.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said Monday that Russia is ready to provide the vaccine and Croatia’s health authorities will decide on its use after approval from the European Medicines Agency.
Croatia earlier this month launched its vaccination campaign with AstraZeneca shots, imposing none of the age limits that have been put in place by some other EU states.
Hungary has become the first EU member to start using Sputnik V and hopes to deploy China’s Sinopharm vaccine soon, despite neither having received approval from EU’s medicines regulator.
Non-EU member Serbia has been the first to start administering both the Russian as well as Chinese vaccines in Europe, helping it become one of the top states on the continent in the speed of the vaccination rollout.
BEIRUT — Coronavirus case numbers are stabilizing in parts of the Middle East but the situation remains critical, with more than a dozen countries reporting cases of new variants, the World Health Organization said Monday.
Ahmed al-Mandhari, director of WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region, which comprises most of the Middle East, said in a press briefing from Cairo that at least one of the three new coronavirus variants was reported in the 13 countries in the region. He did not name the countries.
All three of the new variants are more contagious, according to WHO.
Al-Mandhari said there are nearly 6 million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the region and about 140,000 deaths. WHO urged people to continue taking precautionary measures against the virus.
LONDON — Britain’s newly established quarantine hotels have received their first guests as the government tries to prevent new variants of the coronavirus from derailing its fast-moving vaccination drive.
Passengers arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport on Monday morning were escorted by security guards to buses that took them to nearby hotels.
Britain has given a first dose of coronavirus vaccine to almost a quarter of the population, but health officials are concerned that vaccines may not work as well on some new strains of the virus, including one first identified in South Africa.
Under the new rules, people arriving in England from 33 high-risk countries must stay in designated hotels for 10 days at their own expense, with meals delivered to their door. In Scotland the rule applies to arrivals from any country.
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Some 500 people have gathered in a theater in the central Dutch city of Utrecht for the first in a series of test events aimed at charting a path toward a post-pandemic normality for large-scale gatherings.
Economic Affairs Minister Mona Keijzer says that, “returning to normal, whether it’s a conference with your colleagues, a sports match or a concert: everyone wants that.”
When that might be possible remains unclear. The Netherlands is in a tough lockdown until at least next month, with large-scale gatherings banned altogether, shops, bars, restaurants and museums closed and sports like professional soccer happening behind closed stadium doors.
Participants in Monday’s trial had to present a negative COVID-19 test result, had their temperatures taken on arrival and will have to undergo another test after attending the event.
The government says it will use data gathered at the event to help decide “how to work toward safe and responsible events” in the future.
The event came with Dutch infections on a gradual downward trend in recent weeks and vaccinations ramping up after a slow start that made the Netherlands become the last of the 27 European Union nations to begin its vaccination campaign.
BRUSSELS — The EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, is urging member states to be vigilant against scammers offering to sell fake COVID-19 vaccines as the 27-nation bloc faces delays in the supply of shots.
In a statement Monday, OLAF said it was made aware of a number of reports of scammers offering to sell vaccines in a bid to defraud EU governments trying to speed up the pace of vaccination.
The EU has been criticized for a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in comparison with other parts of the world, lagging behind the pace of countries like Britain or Israel. The EU commission has signed six contracts for more than 2 billion doses of various coronavirus vaccines, but only three of them have been approved for use so far and the delivery of shots has been disturbed by production delays.
BERLIN — Officers trying to bust a clandestine Carnival celebration in eastern Germany were left red-faced when most of the revelers escaped police on skis.
German news agency dpa reported Monday that police in the town of Marienberg, near the border with the Czech Republic, received information that about 100 people were partying Sunday without abiding by the requirements to wear face masks or respect minimum social distancing.
Police were unable to determine how many people had broken the law, however, because their arrival prompted a hasty on-ski departure by most of the party-goers.
Saxony, where Marienberg is located, has the second-highest infection rate of Germany’s 16 states.