The Latest: US catching up detecting coronavirus mutations

NEW YORK — Health experts say the U.S. is behind in detecting dangerous coronavirus mutations but trying to catch up.

President Joe Biden is proposing a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that calls for boosting federal spending on sequencing of the virus.

Viruses mutate constantly. Less than 1% of positive specimens in the U.S. are being sequenced to determine whether they have mutations. Other countries do better — Britain sequences about 10%.

After the slow start, public health labs in at least 33 states are doing genetic analysis to identify emerging coronavirus variants. The CDC believes 5,000 to 10,000 samples should be analyzed weekly in the U.S. to adequately monitor variants, said Gregory Armstrong, who oversees the agency’s advanced molecular detection work. The nation is now hitting that level, he says.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

Health experts say the U.S. is behind in detecting dangerous coronavirus mutations. Study finds 21.4% of adults in India had coronavirus. WHO team in Wuhan says discussions open, meetings frank. Gulf Arab states launch new restrictions over virus fears. Many small businesses owners face a tough decision on whether and when to take on employees. The coronavirus has hit parts of east London much harder than most places in the U.K.

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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:

OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska will receive 21% more doses of coronavirus vaccines this week as the state continues to work to speed up distribution of the shots.

The state says it is scheduled to receive 55,950 doses of the vaccines this week. That’s up from 46,400 a week ago. The increase in doses should help boost distribution of the vaccine statewide.

The 19 local health districts across Nebraska are finishing up the first phase of the campaign, focusing on health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. Now they’re starting to vaccinate people 65 and older and some essential workers.

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PARIS — The French Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte has ordered a three-week lockdown because of sharply rising cases of the virus variant identified in South Africa.

The top government official on Mayotte announced all non-essential businesses will close and non-essential travel around the island will be prohibited starting Friday for three weeks.

Mayotte is one of France’s poorest regions and was among the last to get shipments of vaccines, which arrived a month after the rollout in mainland France. It’s facing a sudden surge of virus cases in the past month, and has a weekly infection rate twice France’s nationwide rate.

Patients with COVID-19 occupy all but one of Mayotte’s 16 intensive care beds, the regional health service said Thursday.

The slow vaccine rollout and sudden lockdown in Mayotte are frustrating local authorities, who say their difficulties in fighting the virus reflect long-standing inequalities between the majority-white French mainland and people of color from far-flung former colonies.

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WASHINGTON — A majority of Americans say they have at least some confidence in President Joe Biden and his ability to manage the crises facing the nation, including the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Overall, the survey shows 61% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of his job in his first days in office. That includes about a quarter of Republicans who say they approve of how the Democrat has tackled the opening days of his presidency.

About three-quarters of Americans say they have at least some confidence in Biden’s ability to handle the pandemic, which has killed more than 450,000 people in the U.S.

He’s urgently pressing Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion relief package that would include funds for vaccine distribution, school reopening and state and local governments buckling under the strain of the pandemic.

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TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has received its first batch of the Russian coronavirus vaccine.

The shipment consists of 500,000 doses of Russian-made Sputnik V vaccines, Fars news agency reported. They arrived at Tehran’s Imam Khomeieni International Airport on Thursday from Moscow. Iranian state TV quoted Tehran’s ambassador to Russia, Kazem Jalali, as saying Iran has ordered 5 million doses from Russia.

Last month, Iran announced it was banning the import of American and British vaccines and had started the human test phase of its homemade vaccine in December.

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WUHAN, China — World Health Organization investigators looking for clues into the origin of the coronavirus in Wuhan say the Chinese side has provided a high level of cooperation but caution against expecting immediate results from the visit.

Along with the key Wuhan Institute of Virology, the WHO team that includes experts from 10 nations has visited hospitals, research institutes and a traditional market tied to the outbreak.

The team on Thursday spent 2 hours meeting with managers and residents at the Jiangxinyuan community administrative center in Wuhan’s Hanyang District. Official statistics shows there were at least 16 confirmed coronavirus cases in the community last year among nearly 10,000 people living there when the virus broke out.

Zoologist and team member Peter Daszak praised Wednesday’s meetings with staff at the Wuhan institute, including with its deputy director who worked with Daszak to track down the origins of SARS that originated in China and led to the 2003 outbreak.

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MELBOURNE — The Australian Open tournament director expects the year’s first tennis major to start as scheduled on Monday.

That’s despite 160 players among the 507 people forced back into isolation after a hotel quarantine worker tested positive for COVID-19. Those at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Melbourne were deemed to be casual contacts of the 26-year-old infected worker.

Director Craig Tiley says “We will be starting on Monday and we have no intention of changing times.”

All matches in all six warmup events were postponed Thursday after the state government announced the new coronavirus case overnight.

Tiley says all 160 players would undergo testing and the tuneup tournaments will resume Friday. The Australian Open chartered 17 flights and used three hotels in Melbourne for the bulk of the players to quarantine for 14 days.

It provided other secure accommodation and facilities in Adelaide, South Australia state, for some of the biggest stars, including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

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NEW DELHI — India’s third nationwide study of prevailing coronavirus infections found that 21.4% of adults had already been infected before vaccinations started in January.

Nearly one-third of the people living in India’s urban slums were found to have antibodies for the virus. The study estimated that in other urban areas, 26.2% of residents had been infected.

The survey also estimated that over one-quarter of all children between the ages of 10 and 17, and more than 25% of all health workers in India had been infected with the virus.

The results of the study were announced by India’s health ministry at a press briefing on Thursday.

Health ministry officials said the results indicate that a large section of India’s population of nearly 1.4 billion remains vulnerable. They say the study underlines the importance of vaccination and a continued focus on wearing masks and maintaining physical distance.

India has recorded the second-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases after the U.S., over 10.7 million, and reported more than 150,000 deaths.

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GENEVA — A top international Red Cross organization has announced a 100-million Swiss franc ($110 million) plan to help support the immunization of 500 million people worldwide against COVID-19 amid concerns about vast inequalities in the rollout of coronavirus vaccines between rich and poor countries.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an umbrella organization of national groups, says the world’s 50 poorest countries have received only 0.1% of the total vaccine doses that have been administered worldwide so far — with 70% administered in the 50 richest countries.

The federation on Thursday warned such inequality “could potentially backfire to deadly and devastating effect” because areas of the globe that remain unvaccinated could allow the virus to spread and mutate.

The plan involves rolling out national vaccination campaigns, steps to build trust in vaccines and efforts to “counteract misinformation about their efficacy,” it added. The initiative is to begin with 66 national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and others are in talks with their respective governments.

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LISBON, Portugal — The new head of Portugal’s COVID-19 vaccination task force is due to start work Thursday amid scandals over vaccine queue-jumping and frustration over a sluggish rollout similar to that seen in other European Union countries.

Rear Adm. Henrique Gouveia e Melo is taking charge a day after his predecessor resigned.

At the current rate of vaccination of just over 10,000 doses a day on average, Portugal will reach its target of 70% of vaccinated adults only by 2023. Its goal was to reach that milestone in late summer this year by inoculating around 50,000 people a day.

Portuguese officials note that they have received fewer vaccines than promised from manufacturers and say EU authorization of more vaccines will help accelerate the program.

The European Center for Disease Control, an EU agency, said in weekly data published Thursday that Portugal has received almost 387,000 vaccine doses.

The country of 10.3 million people has administered 310,000 inoculations, or around 80% of what it has received — the seventh-highest rate among the EU’s 27 member countries, it said.

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NAIROBI, Kenya — The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the COVID-19 case death rate on the continent “is becoming very troubling” as it creeps ever higher than the global one.

John Nkengasong told reporters that the death rate on the 54-nation continent is now 2.6% while the global one is 2.2%.

Twenty African countries including South Africa, Sudan and Congo have rates higher than the global average as a resurgence of cases in parts of the continent has a far deadlier toll than the initial wave of infections last year.

Africa’s confirmed deaths in the pandemic are approaching 100,000, with more than 3.6 million cases overall.

Nkengasong says “it would be a tragedy if we begin to normalize these deaths.”

As COVID-19 vaccines finally begin to arrive on the continent, he says 16 countries have put in requests for a total of 114 million doses of the 670 million doses the African Union has secured from various sources.

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STOCKHOLM — Sweden says it will develop a digital vaccination certificate this summer to allow people who have been vaccinated to travel.

Digitalization Minister Anders Ygeman said three authorities in Sweden had been asked to work on producing the certificate, and the plan is to coordinate it with the World Health Organization and the European Union.

On Wednesday, Denmark said it was joining forces with the country’s business community to develop a digital corona passport that would be ready for use later this year.

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority says it will receive 10,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, allowing it to step up a vaccination campaign launched earlier this week.

Health Minister Mai al-Kaila says in a statement that the doses will arrive Thursday. The Israeli military body responsible for coordinating imports into the occupied territories did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Palestinians began vaccinating medical workers after Israel agreed to transfer 5,000 doses of its own Moderna vaccines. The Palestinians hope to receive tens of thousands of doses later this month through the World Health Organization.

Israel, which has vaccinated around a third of its population of more than 9 million, has faced criticism for not including Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Israel captured both territories in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians want them to be part of their future state. They are home to more than 4.5 million Palestinians.

Israel says it is prioritizing its own citizens. Under interim peace agreements, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for health care in the territories it administers but both sides are supposed to cooperate to combat epidemics.

The Palestinian Authority has not publicly requested vaccines from Israel and has not acknowledged that Israel provided the doses it received earlier this week.

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NAIROBI, Kenya — South Sudan has joined a growing list of African countries reimposing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions as infections rise again.

A statement by the national COVID-19 task force bans all social gatherings including religious and sporting events, and it closes schools.

Businesses attracting crowds including bars and nightclubs are closed, and public transport is limited to half capacity. All incoming air passengers must show proof of a negative coronavirus test.

And law enforcement officers have been told to take immediate action to impose the order. South Sudan has more than 3,900 confirmed virus cases but has limited testing capacity.

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MEXICO CITY — Mexico reported a near-record 1,707 confirmed coronavirus deaths Wednesday, as the country runs out of vaccines.

The Health Department reported Mexico’s COVID-19 deaths now total 161,240, and confirmed infections rose by 12,153 to nearly 1.89 million. Estimates based on excess-death statistics suggest the real death toll is over 195,000.

Mexico approved Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine Tuesday, but has not yet signed a purchase contract and does not have a firm date for its first delivery. The government had hoped to get 400,000 doses by the end of February.

Mexico has received about 766,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and has administered about 686,000 shots, with much of the remainder set aside for second doses. The next Pfizer shipment is not expected until mid-February.

Meanwhile, the government website set up to register people for vaccines when they do arrive was overwhelmed and inoperable for a second straight day.

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TORONTO — Canada’s most populous province of Ontario will reopen all schools for in class learning this month despite the presence of new coronavirus variants and a high number of infections in Toronto and its suburbs.

The majority of schools will reopen Monday while those in Toronto and its suburbs will resume in-person learning on Feb 16. There are no plans to vaccinate teachers.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce says returning kids to school safely is crucial for their development and mental health. All students in Ontario began in January with online learning as part of a provincial lockdown. The Ontario government previously said that all students currently learning online would be able to return to classrooms by Feb. 10.

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LONDON — People up and down the U.K. took to their doorsteps to honor Captain Tom Moore with a national clap, a day after the 100-year-old died after testing positive for COVID-19.

The British World War II veteran walked into the hearts of the nation during the first coronavirus lockdown last April when he shuffled up and down his garden to raise an astonishing 33 million pounds ($40 million) for health care workers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had earlier urged the public to join in the clapping on Wednesday night “to show our appreciation for him and all that he stood for and believed in.”

Captain Tom’s family said they were “incredibly touched” by the gesture and took part outside their home in the village of Marston Moretaine in Bedfordshire.

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