WHO team: More studies needed of virus origin


By The Associated Press



GENEVA — Members of an international team that wrote a study into the origins of COVID-19 with Chinese colleagues say it is only a “first start” and more needs to be done.

They appealed for patience as reams of information continues to pour in. The team emphasized that hypotheses, including a possible laboratory leak theory, cannot be fully ruled out.

Team leader Peter Ben Embarek of the World Health Organization says its members remain “open-minded” as it formally presented its long-awaited first-phase look into the possible outbreak the coronavirus. The virus has left nearly 2.8 million people dead and damaged economies and livelihoods since it first emerged in China.

Ben Embarek says international team members faced political pressure from “all sides,” but insisted “We were never pressured to remove critical elements in our report.” He also pointed to “privacy” issues in China that prevented sharing of some data, saying such restrictions would exist in many countries.

Joined by several other members of the 17-member international team for a news conference, Ben Embarek says, “where we did not have full access to all the raw data we wanted, that has been put as a recommendation for the future studies.”

Ben Embarek says it was difficult to know when — if at all — the exact origin of the pandemic will come to light. He says one hypothesis, pushed hard by the Trump administration, that the virus may have leaked from a laboratory wasn’t likely, but “not impossible” either.

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NEW YORK — More than a dozen states will open vaccine eligibility to all adults this week in a major expansion of COVID-19 shots for tens of millions of Americans amid an increase in coronavirus cases.

States opening eligibility to anyone ages 16 and older on Monday included Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Ohio, North Dakota and Kansas.

Meanwhile, the director of the CDC warned of another wave of infections after cases in the U.S. rose 10% over the last week. Several Northeastern states and Michigan have seen the biggest increases, with some reporting hundreds or thousands more new cases per day than two weeks ago.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says New York state residents over 30 are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, and everyone over 16 will be eligible starting April 6.

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CONCORD, N.H — New Hampshire is getting nearly $30.7 million in additional federal money to support COVID-19 vaccines to correct a CDC formula that previously shortchanged small states.

U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan say the money is coming from the December federal aid package, as well as the latest one, known as the American Rescue Plan.

The amount includes an installment Tuesday of more than $12.7 million through the December funding package, and nearly $18 million will arrive through subsequent installments starting in April.

In total, the state will have received nearly $43 million to boost vaccinations, Shaheen and Hassan, both Democrats, said in a statement.

The funding comes in addition to $40.9 million in school-focused vaccination funding from the current plan

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Slovakia’s prime minister and his government have resigned to end the political crisis triggered by a secret deal to buy Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.

The country’s president has accepted the resignation of Igor Matovic and asked Eduard Heger from Matovic’s Ordinary People party to form a new government.

The crisis erupted when a secret deal became known at the beginning of March involving Slovakia’s agreement to acquire 2 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine. The populist prime minister orchestrated the deal despite disagreement among his coalition partners.

Heger served as the finance minister in the outgoing government. It is the first European government to collapse due to its handling of the pandemic. But the move will keep the current four-party coalition in power and avoid the possibility of an early election.

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ROME — Italy has imposed a five-day quarantine on people entering from other EU countries in a bid to deter Easter getaways and limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza says he signed the new ordinance Tuesday. It requires a virus test before arriving in Italy, five days of quarantine once here and another virus test to get out of quarantine for anyone entering Italy from the EU.

Lobby groups, including those representing tour operators, had cheered the now-closed loophole that allowed Italians to travel to low-risk countries for pleasure.

Italy has long required quarantine for people arriving from non-EU countries, though exceptions abound, including for residents returning from short work trips and those flying on flights with tests at departure and arrival.

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MADRID — Spain has tweaked its mask-wearing policy to make them mandatory in all outdoor activities, including exercise, swimming pools or beaches.

Masks were already mandatory in all public spaces, including outdoors, when a distance of less than 1.5 meters (5 feet) couldn’t be kept between people.

The official gazette published on Tuesday a national order that eliminates the social distancing exception starting on Wednesday.

Coronavirus cases are again on the rise, leading to concerns the country could be facing the fourth major COVID-19 resurgence since the pandemic began at a time when Spain is trying to speed up vaccination of its adult population.

The Health Ministry recorded 149 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days on Monday. That’s up from 129 cases per 100,000 a week ago.

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LONDON — More than 20 heads of government and global agencies have called for an international treaty for pandemic preparedness that they say will protect future generations.

But there are few details to explain how such an agreement might actually compel countries to act more cooperatively. World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and leaders who included British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Italian Premier Mario Draghi and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda called for, in a commentary published Tuesday, “a renewed collective commitment” to pandemic preparedness and response that would be rooted in WHO’s constitution.

“The world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one,” Tedros said during a news conference. He said the treaty would provide “a framework for international cooperation and solidarity” and address issues like surveillance systems and responding to outbreaks.

However, International regulations governing health and implemented by WHO already exist and can be disregarded by countries with few consequences. China, Russia and the United States didn’t join in signing the statement.

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HANOI, Vietnam — A Vietnamese court has sentenced a flight attendant to two years of probation for violating COVID-19 quarantine rules and spreading the virus to others, becoming the first person in the country to stand trial for such offenses.

State media reported the flight attendant was found guilty Tuesday of the charges for leaving his home during a mandatory home quarantine after he returned from a trip to Japan while working for the national carrier Vietnam Airlines.

At least three people associating with Hau, including the teacher, later tested positive for the virus, the newspaper said. The outbreak led several schools to temporarily close and more than 2,200 people in the chain of contact were told to quarantine and practice social distancing.

Vietnam has reported 2,594 confirmed coronavirus cases and 35 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

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ROME — The top health care official in Sicily has resigned amid a criminal investigation into allegations he and others knowingly provided false coronavirus data to the Italian government.

Sicily’s health assessor, Ruggero Razza, denied having provided false information to avoid the area being placed in the strictest “red zone” lockdown and insisted every case and death was reported, according to a statement carried by the ANSA and LaPresse news agencies. He noted Sicily had often requested and imposed stricter restrictions than the national government.

Citing telephone intercepts, prosecutors allege a half-dozen regional officials worked to spread out COVID-19 cases and deaths over several days, from November to March, to prevent single-day reports from showing spikes that would have resulted in lockdown, the news agencies said.

The Italian government last year created a tiered system of restrictions based on daily reports from regions of new infections, deaths and virus tests performed. Based on that data, hospital capacity and other criteria, individual regions are evaluated on a weekly basis and placed in the corresponding level of restrictions.

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BERLIN — The German state of Berlin is again suspending the use of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine for people under 60 due to reports of blood clots.

Berlin’s top health official Dilek Kalayci says the decision was taken as a precaution after the country’s medical regulator announced 31 cases of rare blood clots in people who had recently received the vaccine. Nine of the people died.

The Paul Ehrlich Institute says all but two of the cases involved women ages 20 to 63. Reports of an unusual form of blood clot known as sinus vein thrombosis prompted several European countries to temporarily halt the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this month.

Some 2.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been administered in Germany so far.

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopian health authorities on Tuesday received 300,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine.

The shots arrived a day after the East African country introduced stricter lockdown measures to stem a spike in infections.

Earlier in March, Ethiopia received nearly 2.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX initiative that ensures vaccine access for low- and middle-income countries.

Health Minister Lia Tadesse says her country needs more shots. The government-established Public Health Institute announced last week that it was concerned infections had reached “a critical level” amid reports that ICU beds and oxygen tanks across the country were fully occupied.

Ethiopia has confirmed 202,500 coronavirus cases and more than 2,800 deaths.

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BERLIN— German pharmaceutical company BioNTech says that after ramping up its manufacturing and supply systems, it expects to manufacture this year up to 2.5 billion doses of the coronavirus vaccine it developed with U.S. partner Pfizer.

The two companies had previously spoken of being able to make 2 billion doses in 2021.

Mainz-based BioNTech said Tuesday that it had delivered 200 million doses of the vaccine globally as of March 23 and signed orders for 1.4 billion doses for delivery in 2021. Discussions on further orders were ongoing, it said.

The company attributed the increased capacity to optimized production processes and the start of production at a new plant in Marburg, Germany; the expansion of its manufacturing and and supply network; and regulatory approval for six doses to be drawn from each vial, rather than five.

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MADRID — Residents of Spain’s capital ages 60 to 65 are receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine at the Wanda Metropolitan Stadium, home to the Atlético de Madrid football club.

People in that age group started getting vaccinated Tuesday ahead of residents 66 to 79 because Spain has yet to review new data provided by AstraZeneca about how its jab works in older recipients.

Spain is currently using the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for people over 80.

Spanish health authorities have said they hope to speed up the rollout of vaccines with the arrival of the jab developed by the pharmaceutical company Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, which has also been approved for use in Europe and requires one shot only.

Spain has so far fully vaccinated 2.6 million people, or nearly 10% of the target group of 27.4 million people that the government aims to inoculate by the end of September.

Cases are again on the rise in the country. The Health Ministry recorded Monday a cumulative incidence of 149 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days. That’s up from 129 cases per 100,000 a week ago.

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By The Associated Press