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The Latest: Germany's Merkel against relaxing of virus rules

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken out against further relaxing coronavirus restrictions in the country, citing the recent rise in the number of new cases.

Merkel says Germany is “in the middle of the pandemic” and called on Germans to respect social distancing and hygiene rules.

Speaking after a meeting with the governor and ministers of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, Merkel expressed support for uniform rules for some aspects of the pandemic.

Germany’s 16 states largely set their own rules, often leading to a mix-mash of differing regional regulations that have prompted confusion and frustration in the country of 83 million.

Merkel and Gov. Armin Laschet say possible future lockdowns shouldn’t unduly burden children and students.

Germany’s disease control agency on Tuesday reported 1,390 new confirmed coronavirus cases.

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HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— WHO: Herd immunity requires effective vaccine

— South Africa loosens coronavirus restrictions

— Washington's National Zoo awaits birth of pandemic panda cub

— New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gained a national following through his management of the coronavirus pandemic. Now he’s writing a book about it.

— South Korea will ban large public gatherings and shut down churches and nightspots in the greater capital area following an alarming surge in viral infections.

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— Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

HELSINKI — Finnish prime minister says she has self-isolated and will take a corona test due to mild symptoms of an infection.

Prime Minister Sanna Marin tweeted on Tuesday: “I have mild respiratory symptoms. I will take a corona test and work remotely.”

The 34-year-old Marin, who assumed Finland’s top job in December and was the world’s youngest serving head of government at the time, told the Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat that her child attended a daycare center after a summer break.

In recent weeks, the number of corona cases have gradually increased in Finland. Last week, the government for the first time recommended the use of masks in public.

Finland, a nation of 5.5 million, has so far recorded 7,776 confirmed corona cases with 334 deaths.

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LONDON — The British government is scrapping a public health agency that’s taken some of the blame for the country’s uneven response to the coronavirus.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock says the work of Public Health England will become part of a new body, the National Institute for Health Protection, which will guard against infectious diseases and biosecurity threats.

The new institute will be headed by Dido Harding, a former telecoms executive who leads the much-criticized test and trace program set up in recent months to help contain the coronavirus.

Hancock says it can learn from public health agencies in South Korea and Germany, which have been praised for their strong response to the pandemic.

Public Health England has been criticized for taking an overly centralized approach to testing and contact-tracing and abandoning widespread testing for the virus in mid-March because it lacked the diagnostic capacity.

Its defenders argue that Britain’s Conservative governments have been cutting public health budgets for years, leaving the country ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic.

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ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s Civil Protection deputy minister says tourism is not to blame for a recent increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the country.

Nikos Hardalias says the increase in confirmed infections was due mainly to a domestic spread from large gatherings and lax adherence to protective measures. Hardalias says 83% of the new cases were attributable to domestic transmission and 17% to arriving travelers.

New daily cases above 200 for several days have alarmed health officials and led to new restrictive measures imposed in certain areas, including popular holiday islands.

Hardalias says more than 2 million people had arrived in the country during the tourist season, with more than 319,000 coronavirus tests carried out on arriving travelers. Of those, 615 were positive.

Greece has a total of 7,222 confirmed cases and 230 deaths in the country of 11 million people.

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LONDON — The World Health Organization says the planet is nowhere near the amount of coronavirus immunity needed to induce herd immunity, where enough of the population would have antibodies to stop the spread.

Herd immunity is typically achieved with vaccination and most scientists estimate at least 70% of the population must have antibodies to prevent an outbreak. But some experts have suggested that even if half the population had immunity, there might be a protective effect.

WHO’s emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan largely dismissed that theory at a press briefing on Tuesday, saying we should not live “in hope” of achieving herd immunity.

“As a global population, we are nowhere close to the levels of immunity required to stop this disease transmitting,” he said. “This is not a solution and not a solution we should be looking to.”

Most studies conducted to date have suggested only about 10% to 20% of people have antibodies.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to WHO’s director-general, added that any mass immunization campaign with a COVID-19 vaccine would aim to cover far more than 50% of the world’s population.

“We don’t want to be wrong,” he said. “You want to plan to get high coverage and not get lulled into a dangerously seductive suggestion that (the herd immunity threshold) could be low.”

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JOHANNESBURG — South Africa, which had one of the world’s strictest anti-coronavirus lockdowns for five months, relaxed its restrictions on Tuesday in response to a decrease in new cases.

The country loosened its regulations to permit the sales of alcohol and cigarettes, and the reopening of bars, restaurants, gyms and places of worship, all limited to no more than 50 people. Schools will reopen gradually starting Aug. 24.

With more than 589,000 confirmed cases, South Africa has more than half of all reported cases in Africa. The 54 countries of the continent reported a total of more than 1.1 million cases on Tuesday, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Africa has recorded more than 11,900 deaths from COVID-19, while overall the continent has reported just over 25,800 deaths. The actual numbers of cases and deaths are estimated to be much higher, say health experts.

South Africa’s new confirmed cases have dropped from an average of 12,000 per day at the peak in July to less than 5,000 per day last week. The country confirmed 2,541 new cases on Tuesday.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea will ban large public gatherings and shut down churches and nightspots in the greater capital area following an alarming surge in coronavirus cases.

In a nationally televised announcement on Tuesday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said strengthening social distancing restrictions for the Seoul metropolitan area — home to around half of the country’s 51 million people — was inevitable because a failure to slow transmissions there could result in a major outbreak nationwide.

The measures, which will take effect Wednesday in Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province and the city of Incheon, prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors. Nightclubs, karaoke rooms, buffet restaurants, computer gaming cafes and other “high-risk” facilities will be shut, while churches will be required to entirely convert their worship services online.

Chung or other government officials didn’t immediately say how long the measures would be in place.

South Korea reported 246 new cases of the coronavirus on Tuesday, raising its total for the last five days to 959. The national caseload rose to 15,761, including 306 deaths.

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BERLIN — German soccer club Union Berlin is hoping that coronavirus tests for fans will allow it to hold a preseason friendly match with 3,000 spectators.

The Bundesliga side says it has applied to local Treptow-Köpenick health authorities for permission to hold the game with an altered hygiene plan including the new measure on Sept. 5.

“A preventative test for all spectators is intended to replace the currently valid social distancing rules,” Union said in a statement Tuesday.

German soccer clubs previously outlined plans to resume games with some socially distanced fans attending in seated areas, but Union’s Stadion An der Alten Försterei has mostly standing terraces, meaning it could have far fewer fans attending than its competitors.

Union announced in July it was working toward having a full stadium for its first home game of the new season, and that it can achieve that aim by testing all staff and 22,012 ticket holders in the 24 hours before kickoff.

“We want to ensure as best we can that nobody is infected at our sold-out stadium – this applies to Union club members and the away supporters,” Union president Dirk Zingler said at the time.

It’s unlikely that any fans will be allowed attend Bundesliga games before Oct. 31 at the earliest after health officials rejected the clubs’ plans. National health minister Jens Spahn warned against taking “unnecessary risks.”

Germany has reported 226,804 coronavirus infections, and a relatively low 9,240 deaths compared to France, Spain and Italy. But concern has been growing about a recent increase in the daily rate of new infections.

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LONDON — Rates of depression appear to have almost doubled in Britain since the country was put into lockdown in late March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the country’s official statistics agency.

The Office for National Statistics said 19.2% of adults were likely to be experiencing some sort of depression in June, up from 9.7% between July 2019 and March.

The agency, which assessed the same 3,527 of adults before and during the pandemic, said feeling stressed or anxious was the most common way adults were experiencing some form of depression.

During the height of the lockdown, which has been eased over the past couple of months, people were isolated from friends and family. Many also fretted about their jobs and future financial well-being as the economy nosedived in the face of the restrictions on everyday life.

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ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s health minister says his country will receive around 3 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, in batches beginning in December.

Speaking on Greece’s Skai TV on Tuesday, Vassilis Kikilias said the country of around 11 million people would initially receive 700,000 doses of the vaccine, which is currently in advanced trials, at the end of December, and would receive the rest in batches in the following months.

Kikilias referred to an announcement by European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, who tweeted on Aug. 14 that the Commission had concluded the “first agreement” on the purchase of up to 400 million doses of the future vaccine.

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TOKYO — Japanese Emperor Naruhito, his wife, Empress Masako, and their daughter Aiko have canceled their annual trip to a summer resort, citing social distancing challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Every year, the imperial family has taken a week or two off and gone to Nasu, an area with forested mountains and “onsen” hot springs, about 190 kilometers (110 miles) north of Tokyo.

The getaway was canceled this year because a large crowd usually gathers to catch a glimpse of them, and travel involves a large staff and security, the Imperial Household Agency said Tuesday.

Naruhito ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne after his father stepped down last year. Unlike the wartime emperor, Naruhito’s grandfather, the imperial role holds no political power but is widely recognized as a cultural and emotional symbol for Japan.

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BEIJING — The head of a major state-owned Chinese pharmaceutical company says its coronavirus vaccine will be commercially available by the end of the year.

Liu Jingzhen, the chairman of SinoPharm, told a Chinese Communist Party newspaper that the vaccine would cost less than 1,000 yuan ($140) and be given in two shots, 28 days apart. He said that students and workers in major cities would need to get the vaccine, but not those living in sparsely populated rural areas.

“Not all of the 1.4 billion people in our country have to take it,” he said in an interview published Tuesday in the Guangming Daily.

SinoPharm, which has two vaccines in trial, has an annual manufacturing capacity of 220 million doses, Liu said.

Liu, who is also the company’s Communist Party secretary, told the paper that he had been injected with the vaccine. Reports that Chinese researchers and executives have received shots of their vaccines have raised ethical questions in some scientific circles.

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand’s leader has hit back at President Donald Trump’s claim that New Zealand is experiencing a big surge in coronavirus cases.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Tuesday that Trump’s comments were “patently wrong.”

“I think for anyone who’s following COVID and its transmission globally will quite easily see that New Zealand’s nine cases in a day does not compare to the United States' tens of thousands,” Ardern told reporters.

Trump made the comments Monday at a campaign stop in Mankato, Minnesota. He said some countries held up as models for their virus response were now saying “whoops.”

“You see what’s going on in New Zealand,” Trump said. “They beat it, they beat it. It was like front page, they beat it. Because they wanted to show me something. The problem is, big surge in New Zealand. So, you know, it’s terrible, we don’t want that.”

The U.S., with a population of about 330 million, has reported more than 170,000 virus deaths. New Zealand, with a population of 5 million, has reported 22 deaths.

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NEW DELHI — India reported more than 55,000 new cases on Tuesday, putting its total virus caseload past 2.7 million.

India has the third-most cases, behind the U.S. and Brazil. It also has the fourth-most deaths from the coronavirus, with 51,797.

But India's deaths per million people stands at 34 — far lower than what has been reported in some North American and European countries.

India has been recording at least 50,000 new infections per day since mid-July as the disease has spread from cities like Mumbai and New Delhi into densely populated states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

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JAKARTA, Indonesia — The World Health Organization says countries in the Western Pacific — a vast region comprising nearly 1.9 billion people — have entered a new phase of coronavirus pandemic response and urged regional governments to continue to promote behavior that protects community health.

This is “the phase where governments will need to deal with multiple increases or surges, but in a sustainable way,” said Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the WHO’s regional director for the Western Pacific.

He said governments will need to have earlier targeted responses to outbreaks, continue to improve health care systems, and promote healthy “new normal” habits that will help prevent the spread of the virus.

“Approaches like this could be more effective and minimize social disruptions and impact on economies,” Kasai said.

The WHO also warned that countries in the region — including Australia, the Philippines and Japan — are reporting increasing numbers of people under 40 contracting the virus.

“Many are unaware they are infected with very mild symptoms, or none at all,” Kasai said. “This can result in them unknowingly passing on the virus to others.”

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MELBOURNE, Australia — An epidemiologist told an inquiry on Tuesday that almost all of a second wave of coronavirus infections in Australia’s hard-hit Victoria state can be traced back to returned travelers quarantined in two Melbourne hotels.

Department of Health and Human Services epidemiologist Charles Alpren was testifying at a state government-appointed inquiry into failures in a quarantine system that required Australians returning from overseas to isolate in Melbourne hotels for two weeks.

Alpren said “99%” of Victoria’s current coronavirus infections were linked to the Rydges on Swanston and Stamford Plaza hotels.

He said the Rydges outbreak started with a family of four who returned from overseas on May 9.

Some 46 workers from the Stamford Plaza and their close contacts were found to have caught COVID-19 from a man who returned from overseas on June 1 and a couple who returned on June 11, Alpren said.

Melbourne has been locked down for a second time due to the second wave of infections that has resulted in as many as 725 new cases and 25 deaths in a day.

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MANILA, Philippines -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to ease a mild lockdown in the capital and four outlying provinces to further reopen the country’s battered economy in a high-risk gamble despite having the highest number of coronavirus infections in Southeast Asia.

Duterte’s decision, which he announced late Monday, would allow most businesses, including shopping malls and dine-in restaurants, and Roman Catholic church services to partially resume on Wednesday with restrictions, including the wearing of face masks and keeping people safely apart.

Duterte shifted metropolitan Manila and the nearby provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal, a region of about 25 million people, back to a mild lockdown two weeks ago after leading groups of doctors warned hospitals were being overwhelmed again by COVID-19 patients and pleaded for a “time out.” They also asked the government to recalibrate its response to the pandemic.

The Philippines has reported more than 164,000 of confirmed cases, including 2,681 deaths.

Duterte’s administration has been under intense pressure to revive the economy after it fell into a recession in the second quarter and millions lost their jobs.

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MELBOURNE — Australia’s coronavirus hot spot Victoria state on Tuesday reported its lowest tally of new infections in a month.

Victoria’s Health Department reported 222 news cases, the lowest daily tally since 217 were recorded on July 18.

The state also reported 17 deaths following a daily record of 25 deaths on Monday.

Infections have been trending down after a second lockdown came into force in the state capital Melbourne in early August that included a curfew and mandatory mask-wearing.

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