The Latest: Israel extends virus shots to those 35 and older
JERUSALEM — Israel on Thursday said it was extending coronavirus vaccinations to adults age 35 and older, an expansion of its world-leading drive to vanquish COVID-19.
Health Ministry Director General Hezi Levy said shots would be available to the new age group starting Friday.
The change reflects Israel’s aggressive drive to inoculate its entire population by the spring and the country is on track to do so. More than a quarter of Israel’s 9.3 million people have been vaccinated so far.
But Israel also is home to one of the developing world’s highest rate of infections, driven by ultra-Orthodox towns that are flouting safety rules and clashing with police trying to enforce them. Some 8,000 new cases are detected each day.
The country is in its third lockdown to contain the virus’ spread. This week it tightened the closures by shuttering its international airport to nearly all flights.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— EU sends experts to inspect vaccine plant in Belgium amid public dispute with AstraZeneca over production of vaccine doses
— ‘Take every shift as it comes:’ No respite for UK hospital workers facing record number of patients
— WHO team in Wuhan departs quarantine for COVID origins study
— EXPLAINER: Why it’s hard to make vaccines and boost supplies
— The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package tests strength of Biden’s new administration and Democratic control of Congress
— Pandemic brings drama on and off screen at the Sundance film festival
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
BRUSSELS — Belgian health authorities announced Thursday they have inspected a pharmaceutical factory in Belgium to find out whether expected delays in the deliveries of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine are due to production issues.
The European Commission had asked the Belgian government to inspect the factory amid a heated public dispute between the 27-nation bloc and the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker. EU officials are under tremendous political pressures because the bloc’s vaccine rollout has been much slower than that of Israel or Britain.
The Novasep’s factory in the town of Seneffe is part of the European production chain for the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
AstraZeneca said last week that it planned to cut initial deliveries in the EU to 31 million doses from the 80 million it had planned due to reduced yields from its manufacturing plants in Europe. The EU claimed Wednesday that it will receive even less than that.
Stella Kyriakides, the European Commissioner for health and food safety, said AstraZeneca should provide vaccines from its U.K. facilities if it it is unable to meet commitments from factories in the EU.
WASHINGTON — More than a 100 economists and policymakers are signing a letter in support of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue and coronavirus relief package.
The letter provided exclusively to The Associated Press says the $900 billion approved in December before Biden took office was “too little and too late to address the enormity of the deteriorating situation” as employers shed workers in December, retail sales have slumped and COVID-19 deaths kept rising.
Among the 124 people signing the letter are: Gene Sperling, former director of the National Economic Council; Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, and former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alan Blinder. All three have previously worked in Democratic administrations.
The letter describes the Biden proposal as “robust,” saying Congress should put aside partisanship to meet the scale of the crisis.
MADRID — Official statistics in Spain show that the coronavirus pandemic destroyed 622,600 jobs in 2020, pushing the jobless rate to 16.1% of the working population.
That was a 2.3% increase from the previous year, the highest since 2012, when Spain suffered the worst effects of the financial crisis.
Thursday’s INE figures showed that despite a better-than-expected performance in the last three months of 2020, the year ended with 3.7 million jobless people and 19.3 million employed, including some 600,000 furloughed workers whose salaries are paid by the state while their business remain closed or affected by the pandemic.
Spain's left-wing ruling coalition this week extended the jobs furlough system until the end of May.
Another worrying piece of the data was that the number of households with all members unemployed shot up from 183,900 to nearly 1.2 million in 2020, although over one third are households with one member.
PARIS —At least two dozen French police officials are facing internal punishment for holding a party inside a police station where they were filmed dancing the Macarena and violating multiple virus protection rules.
A police headquarters spokesperson said Thursday that those involved in the party in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers were ordered to file reports on their actions and that “sanctions are planned.”
In a video of the event posted by online media Loopsider, several people are seen dancing closely together without masks in a crowded room.
The video prompted criticism at a time when French police are out every night enforcing a 6 p.m.-6 a.m. virus curfew, and are under scrutiny for abuses during violent protests and identity checks.
BERLIN — Germany’s interior minister says the country is planning to implement a ban on travel from so-called “mutation areas” where variants of the coronavirus that spread more rapidly have been detected.
Horst Seehofer told reporters Thursday that the government hoped to decide by Friday on restrictions on travel from Portugal, Britain, South Africa, Brazil and possibly other areas in the coming weeks.
He suggested there could be exceptions made for the flow of goods, but said exceptions for things like tourism were out of the question.
The country’s disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, would determine which countries should be determined “mutation areas,” Seehofer said. He refused to speculate on how long the restrictions could be kept in place.
Seehofer added that Germany was in talks in Brussels with other countries about Europe-wide travel restrictions, but that the ban being considered would be a national decision.
AMSTERDAM — The crippling economic effects of the coronavirus lockdown have forced Amsterdam’s zoo to move its three lions to France.
Artis zoo announced Thursday that the two lionesses and a male lion will be moved next month to a zoo in France because plans to build them a bigger enclosure in Amsterdam have been shelved due to a lack of funds.
The zoo’s director, Rembrandt Sutorius, says it was a difficult decision, “because the lions are part of the identity of Artis.”
Ticket sales at the zoo in a leafy Amsterdam neighborhood plummeted by 63% in 2020 amid government lockdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Feeding the animals and maintaining the zoo’s buildings costs 60,000 euros ($73,000) per day.
The zoo launched a national appeal for donations Thursday to help it weather the financial storm.
BERLIN — Germany’s health minister says there are at least “10 hard weeks” ahead amid difficulties in getting large quantities of vaccines.
Health Minister Jens Spahn, who faces political pressure over the slow start to Germany’s vaccination campaign, wrote on Twitter Thursday that Chancellor Angela Merkel and the country’s 16 state governors should hold a special meeting to discuss vaccine strategy.
Spahn said vaccine manufacturers also should be invited to “explain how complex production is.” He stressed that “the quality must be very good” in order to protect people.
Spahn wrote that “we will go through at least another 10 hard weeks with the scarcity of vaccine.”
Germany’s current lockdown, its second, was extended until Feb. 14. New infections are falling, but officials are worried about the impact of coronavirus variants such as the one first detected in Britain.
Some 1.67 million people in Germany have received the first dose of the vaccine.
BERLIN — Countries with the least corruption have been best positioned to weather the health and economic challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a closely-watched annual study released Thursday by an anti-graft organization.
Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the perception of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople, concluded that countries that performed well invested more in health care, were “better able to provide universal health coverage and are less likely to violate democratic norms.”
“COVID-19 is not just a health and economic crisis,” said Transparency head Delia Ferreira Rubio. “It is a corruption crisis - and one that we are currently failing to manage.”
This year’s index showed the United States hitting a new low amid a steady decline under the presidency of Donald Trump, with a score of 67 on a scale where 0 is “highly corrupt” and 100 is “very clean.”
NAIROBI, Kenya — The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says another 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been secured for the continent through the Serum Institute of India.
Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong told reporters that with the new doses, on top of the 270 million doses announced earlier, “I think we’re beginning to make very good progress.”
As with many vaccine deals, there are no immediate details on cost or how much people might pay per dose.
Parts of the African continent are now seeing a strong second surge in coronavirus infections, which Nkengasong calls “very aggressive now.” He warned the wave has not yet peaked.
The continent of 1.3 billion people is racing to obtain enough vaccines for the goal of vaccinating 60% of its population to achieve herd immunity, and officials have repeatedly urged rich countries that have stockpiled vaccine doses to take an equitable approach and share.
Africa has more than 3.4 million confirmed virus cases including more than 87,000 deaths.
HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnam reported 82 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, hours after confirming the first two infections in nearly two months.
Seventy-two of the cases came from an electronic company in Hai Duong province, where a 34-year-old female employee tested positive after her colleague was found to carry the virus from Osaka, Japan, several days earlier, the Health Ministry said.
It said the woman tested in Japan carried the more contagious U.K. variant.
The company with over 2,200 workers was closed for disinfection and the provincial authority locked down surrounding communities to curb the outbreak. The ministry said over 3,000 people in the area will be tested.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Quang Ninh province, 10 people tested positive after a man working at Van Don International Airport was infected.
ISLAMABAD — Pakistani authorities are planning to start the country’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign next week.
Asad Umar, the minister in charge of Pakistan's virus response, said frontline health workers will be the initial recipients.
Umar did not say which vaccine will be used, but the announcement comes days after Beijing promised to give Pakistan 500,000 doses of a Chinese vaccine before Jan. 31. It was expected to get the vaccine made by the Chinese firm SinoPharm.
Pakistan is negotiating with different vaccine manufacturers to get enough doses to protect its population.
Pakistan also Thursday reported another 64 deaths from COVID-19, increasing its total fatalities to 11,514.
BEIJING — Efforts to dissuade Chinese from traveling for the Lunar New Year appeared to be working as Beijing’s main train station was largely quiet and estimates of passenger totals were smaller than in past years.
Thursday started the roughly two-week travel rush ahead of the holiday that falls this year on Feb. 12.
At the Beijing train station, only about a third of the security gates were open, ticket windows had no lines and no passengers were camped on the central plaza. Authorities have offered free refunds on plane tickets and extra pay for workers who stay put. People who do travel must have a negative coronavirus test and may still face local quarantines.
Authorities' failure to restrict Lunar New Year travel last year was blamed for fueling the spread of the virus, especially since Wuhan, the city where the illness was first detected, is a key travel hub.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Travelers returning to New Zealand will face stricter rules at quarantine hotels as health authorities investigate how up to three people got infected with the coronavirus while isolating at Auckland’s Pullman Hotel.
The people were released before testing positive and were potentially contagious, but so far testing has shown no evidence the virus has spread in the community. Health authorities believe they caught the virus from another quarantined traveler. New Zealand has managed to stamp out community transmission of the virus.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said Thursday that as an interim measure, travelers need to stay in their hotel rooms for the final days of their 14-day mandatory quarantine, and would also face stricter controls around leaving their rooms at other times.
Meanwhile, Australia has extended its suspension on quarantine-free travel from New Zealand for another three days. Australia is requiring New Zealanders to quarantine for 14 days in hotels upon arrival.
BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia will ban flights from Brazil effective Friday over concerns of a variant of the coronavirus that is circulating in that country.
Colombia President Ivan Duque on Wednesday announced the 30-day measure. No flights will take off from Colombia to Brazil either.
In addition, anyone who arrived from Brazil to Colombia between Jan. 18 and Wednesday will have to quarantine for 14 days.
The Brazil variant was first identified in four travelers who were tested at an airport outside Tokyo. It contains mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The emergence of variants is linked to ongoing surges since infections give viruses the chance to mutate and spread. It’s another reason experts stress the importance of mask wearing and social distancing.
Colombia has recorded more than 2 million cases and over 52,100 deaths of COVID-19.
TORONTO — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the head of the European Commission has reassured him that any vaccine export controls the EU enacts won’t impact shipments of Canada’s doses from Europe.
Trudeau says commission President Ursula von der Leyen told him that transparency measures taken by the EU will not affect Canada’s Pfizer and Moderna vaccine deliveries from Europe.
The EU has threatened to impose export controls on vaccines produced within its borders, and warned pharmaceutical companies that have developed coronavirus vaccines with EU aid that it must get its shots on schedule. All of Canada’s Pfizer and Moderna vaccines come from Europe.
Canada isn’t getting any deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine made in Europe this week due to an upgrade at a Pfizer plant in Belgium. Shipments are set to resume next week.