The Latest: UK supports vaccines to combat new variants


LONDON — The UK government says it will support a German biopharmaceutical company’s effort to develop vaccines to combat new variants of the coronavirus.

Tuebingen, Germany-based CureVac will produce the vaccines in the U.K. and supply the government with 50 million doses of the shots if they gain regulatory approval. It comes as public health officials around the world raise concerns about new virus variants that are possibly more contagious or resistant to existing vaccines. While viruses mutate constantly, most of the changes cause little concern. But scientists are closely tracking these mutations to make sure they quickly identify variants of concern.

Earlier this week, drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline said it would invest in CureVac for the development of new vaccines targeting emerging variants, using its messenger RNA technology to attack the disease. GSK said it plans to invest 150 million euros ($181 million) in the project.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

UK regulator backs benefits of COVID-19 vaccines. Israel, a global leader in COVID vaccinations, finds limits. “Hug tent” provides safe space to embrace in Colorado. Desperation grows as Mexico runs out of vaccines. Opposition legislators are accusing Turkey’s leaders of secretly selling out Uighurs to China as a quid pro quo for getting coronavirus vaccines. Burundi has become at least the second African country to say it doesn’t need COVID-19 vaccines. A 76-year-old nurse practitioner in California is working to save lives during a deadly pandemic, just as her mother did more than a century ago.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

ATHENS, Greece — Greece has approved the use of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine for use in people under 65.

The health ministry says the country’s National Vaccination Committee unanimously approved the vaccine’s use for people 18 to 64 and recommended a 12-week interval between the first and second doses.

The committee says the guidance could be amended as more data on the vaccine becomes available.

Vaccinations with the AstraZeneca vaccine are expected to begin in Greece after Feb. 12, according to the secretary general of primary healthcare Marios Themistokleous.

Greece, a country of 11 million people, is currently vaccinating those 80 and over, as well as health care workers. A total of 359,723 shots have been administered, with 68,464 people having received both doses of the vaccine.

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PARIS — France is urging people to use the option of working from home.

Labor Minister Elisabeth Borne told Bleu radio on Friday as many as 2.5 million workers who could “easily work from home” are going to the office instead. “If your job can be done remotely, you should be working remotely five days a week.”

The government has been urging work from home for those professions that allow it since the coronavirus resurged in October. But unlike during France’s first lockdown last spring, many offices have stayed open.

The government plans to step up inspections of companies to ensure that anyone able to work from home is doing so.

France has imposed 12-hour-a-day nationwide curfew but has stopped short of imposing a third lockdown because current virus infections have stabilized, although cases remain high.

France has registered 3.3 million cases and 78,000 confirmed deaths, the third highest in Europe and seventh globally.

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LONDON — Britain’s drug regulator says the coronavirus vaccines being used across the country appear safe and that “the benefits continue to far outweigh any risks,” according to its latest monitoring data.

In a statement published on Friday, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said that of the more than 10 million COVID-19 vaccines administered, there have been 22,820 reports of suspected side effects, for a rate of about 3 per 1,000 doses.

The figures are based on vaccines given to people from December 9, 2020 to January 24. The COVID-19 vaccines currently being used in Britain are made by Pfizer and BioNTech, and AstraZeneca, which were both approved for use in December.

“The vast majority of side effects are mild and all are in line with most types of vaccine, including the seasonal flu vaccine,” the agency said. It noted the most commonly reported side effects were sore arms and mild flu-like symptoms.

Last month, Norwegian authorities told doctors to consider whether the risks of the Pfizer vaccine were warranted before giving the shot to extremely frail or terminally ill patients. The recommendation came after there were deaths reported of people who had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The European Medicines Agency issued a report last week saying it had no evidence the Pfizer vaccine was responsible for the deaths and that it appeared safe and effective.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A Sri Lankan official says Russia has offered to help produce its COVID-19 vaccine locally and that the government is looking into the possibility of packaging it in two factories.

Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva. secretary to the ministry of COVID-19 prevention, told media that Russia made the offer during negotiations for vaccines.

“ We have two good factories in Sri Lanka, and we are studying…(if) we are able to bring the Sputnik V vaccine here and vial it. If we manage to do that, we will move from being a country that imports vaccines to an exporter of vaccines,” he said.

Sri Lanka has so far approved only the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for domestic use and has received 500,000 doses from India, which produces the jab developed in Britain under license.

China has offered Sri Lanka a grant of vaccines, but the ones developed in China have not been approved by Sri Lankan regulators yet.

Sri Lanka has reported a total of 67,115 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 339 deaths.

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WARSAW, Poland – Poland’s prime minister says hotel, theaters, ski lifts, swimming pools and other facilities will be allowed to reopen with conditions starting next week.

Prime Minster Mateusz Morawiecki said Friday that the country’s existing pandemic restrictions have led to a “fragile stabilization” in the number of new COVID-19 cases but the number of deaths, around 400 daily, remains “very disturbing.”

He says that’s why the government is acting with caution and lifting restrictions in small steps.

Starting Feb. 12, indoor facilities like hotels and theaters will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity and strictly adhere to infection-control measures such as social distancing and mask use. Hotels will be able to offer food only through room service.

Restaurants and fitness centers will remain closed.

Morawiecki said decisions on opening more businesses are conditioned on how well people observe the rules for curbing infections.

A nation of some 38 million, Poland has confirmed over 1.5 million COVID-19 cases, including almost 39,000 deaths.

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BERLIN — Germany’s health minister says first batches of the newly authorized AstraZeneca vaccine for will be delivered to the country’s 16 states Friday.

Jens Spahn said the addition of a third vaccine would “make a real difference” to Germany’s immunization campaign, which has so far been sluggish compared to the United States or Britain.

But Spahn said that, for now, the AstraZeneca shot will only be given to people aged 18-64, due to lack of data on older age groups.

He cited the additional vaccine as one of several positive signs for the country’s fight against the pandemic, along with the fact that for the first time in two months Germany has fewer than 200,000 people infected with COVID-19 and the nationwide number of newly confirmed cases per week has dropped to 80 per 100,000 inhabitants.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted Thursday that the target remains 50 cases per week for every 100,000 people.

Klaus Cichutek, the head of Germany’s medicines regulator, said his agency doesn’t currently recommend stretching the time period between first and second doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, as practiced in Britain, where about 10.5 million people have received a first shot, compared to 2.1 million in Germany.

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BUDAPEST — Hungary could be the first country in the European Union to administer a Russian COVID-19 vaccine as early as next week.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban said during a radio interview that health authorities were performing the final tests on the vaccine Sputnik V, and that a Chinese shot produced by state-owned company Sinopharm was also undergoing late-stage evaluations. Hungary has purchased 2 million doses of the Russian and 5 million doses of the Chinese vaccine.

All people over the age of 60 who wish to be vaccinated will receive an injection by March 15, Orban said, adding that around 2 million Hungarians could be vaccinated by April 1. That’s roughly 20% of the population.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis will meet Orban in Budapest on Friday where the leaders will discuss Hungary’s experiences with Sputnik V, according to a tweet by Babis.

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LONDON — British officials say everyone arriving in the country from coronavirus hot spots will have to spend 10 days in hotel quarantine starting Feb. 15 in a bid to stop new variants of the virus reaching the U.K.

The government is facing criticism for the delay in implementing the policy, which it first announced in late January.

Arrivals from high-risk countries will have to quarantine in approved hotels patrolled by security guards, and will be billed for their stay. The U.K. says it has sought advice from Australia and New Zealand, where quarantine hotels have been used to contain COVID-19.

The main opposition Labour Party said Friday it was “beyond comprehension” that the policy was being introduced so late, 50 days after a new, more transmissible strain of the virus from South Africa had been identified. Labour borders spokesman Nick Thomas-Symonds said the government was doing “too little, too late.”

Britain has experienced Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak with more than 110,000 confirmed deaths.

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PRAGUE — The Czech Republic is further tightening entry rules in an effort to limit the growing spread of highly contagious variants of the coronavirus.

Travelers from high-risk countries have to present a negative PCR test on arrival that is not older than 72 hours and must go into quarantine for at least five days before another PCR test. They also have to fill in an online form before their trip and wear a respirator for the first 10 days of their visits.

High-risk countries include Britain, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Baltics states and most other countries outside the EU.

Those traveling from less risky countries are asked to present a fast antigen test on arrival.

The measure becomes effective on Friday. The Czech Republic has already banned all tourist trips.

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JERUSALEM — Israel plans to begin slowly easing its latest coronavirus lockdown on Sunday, hoping that its rapid vaccination campaign helps to contain an outbreak accelerated by new variants.

A government statement released early Friday details the lifting of restrictions. People will no longer have to remain within 1,000 meters (yards) of home, national parks will reopen and restaurants can offer takeout. Workplaces not open to the public can also reopen.

Israel has launched one of the world’s most successful vaccination drives, inoculating more than a third of its population of 9.3 million in a matter or weeks. But the rate of new cases has remained high, in part because of more contagious variants from Britain and South Africa.

Israel has been reporting some 7,000 new infections a day, one of the highest in the developed world. Nearly 5,000 people have died, more than a quarter of them in January alone. There have been three nationwide lockdowns since the start of the pandemic.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is urging Israelis to get vaccinated, with a particular focus on people over 50. The rate of vaccinations has slowed recently, with some apparent hesitancy among Arab citizens, ultra-Orthodox Jews and younger people.

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BERLIN — Germany’s death toll in the coronavirus pandemic has topped 60,000 even as new infections decline significantly.

The country’s disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said Friday that 855 more deaths were reported over the past 24 hours. That brought Germany’s total so far to 60,597.

In Europe, the U.K., Italy, France, Russia and Spain have reported more deaths. Germany had a relatively low death rate in the pandemic’s first phase, but saw much more infections in the fall and winter — peaking around a month ago — and hundreds of deaths per day in recent weeks. The death toll hit 50,000 two weeks ago.

A partial shutdown that started at the beginning of November was widened into a second lockdown in mid-December and is still in place. Chancellor Angela Merkel and state governors are due to discuss on Wednesday what, if any, restrictions can be lifted after its current expiry date of Feb. 14.

The Robert Koch Institute said Friday that 12,908 new coronavirus cases were reported in the past day, compared with 14,022 a week earlier. There were 79.9 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days — down from a peak of nearly 200 in late December but still above the government’s target of a maximum 50.

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NEW DELHI — Pfizer says it has withdrawn its application for emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine in India.

On Feb. 3, a committee of experts declined to accept Pfizer’s request because there wasn’t a local study done of the American company’s vaccine. The experts also noted that some serious side effects were still being investigated.

Indian health ministry officials point out the Pfizer vaccine isn’t necessarily the best-suited for India due to its high cost and requires ultra-cold storage freezers, which aren’t easily available.

In a statement issued Friday, Pfizer say it had decided to withdraw its application based on its “understanding of the additional information that the regulator may need.”

The company was the first to approach the Indian regulator in December for its messenger RNA vaccine that it has developed with Germany’s BioNTech. Its application was closely followed by ones for two other vaccines — a version of the AstraZeneca made by Serum Institute of India and another by Indian company Bharat Biotech — which eventually got the nod for emergency use on Jan. 3.

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MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador posted a video Thursday saying he had tested negative on an antigen test, after testing positive for the coronavirus about 12 days ago.

“I am well now,” López Obrador said, walking down a flight of stairs in the National Palace to prove his point. He didn’t say when he would end his isolation and return to public appearances.

The country posted a near-record daily coronavirus death toll of 1,682 Thursday, bringing the confirmed total to 162,922. Authorities also announced that about five cases of the U.K. variant had been found in Mexico, some apparently through local transmission.

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WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials are weighing sending masks to every American as they hope to nudge individuals to do their part in lowering coronavirus transmission rates.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain told NBC News the administration officials are looking at using mask supplies the government already has in its stockpile.

Klain says the administration hopes to make an announcement on a potential move “in the next few days or next week.”

Biden has pleaded for Americans to wear masks during the first 100 days of his administration. It’s a step he said could help save thousands of lives as Americans await their turn to be vaccinated.

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