The Latest: Slovakia asks EU to send in medical workers
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Slovakia is asking other European Union countries to deploy their medical personnel in the hard-hit country to help treat COVID-19 patients as its hospitals struggle under the load.
The government has initially requested a deployment of 10 doctors and 25 nurses to work in intensive care units for at least one month.
Slovakia has the most COVID-19 deaths by size of population in the world amid a surge of a highly contagious coronavirus variant first seen in the U.K. Another 105 people died Tuesday, giving the nation of 5.4 million a total of 6,168 confirmed virus deaths.
The seven-day rolling average of daily has risen over the past two weeks from 1.37 deaths per 100,000 people on Feb. 2 to 1.78 deaths per 100,000 people on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
A total of 3,835 COVID-19 patients were in Slovak hospitals, about a hundred less than a record high recorded on Sunday.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— Japan begins COVID-19 vaccination drive amid Olympic worries
— Pfizer and BioNTech finalize deal to supply European Union with 200 million more doses of their vaccine
— Native Americans embrace vaccinations and other virus containment measures
— Latinos in U.S. face fear and other barriers to getting COVID-19 vaccines
— Pandemic stresses take a huge toll on college students, who struggle to pay for food and housing as jobs and internships dry up
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
BERLIN — Germany’s health minister says variant of the coronavirus first detected in Britain now accounts for more than a fifth of all positive tests in his country.
Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that the share of the variant has increased from 6% to more than 22% in two weeks. Spahn said this showed the share of the variant roughly doubles each week, a trend also seen in other countries.
Scientists say the variant first found in Britain appears to spread more easily and is likely more deadly than the original virus. Spahn said it can be expected that the U.K. variant will become the dominant variant in Germany soon.
Germany has seen over 66,000 deaths in the pandemic and recently put strong controls on its borders with Austria and Italy's Tyrol region to try to keep virus variants from spreading further.
ZAGREB, Croatia — Croatia’s health minister says around 1 million doses of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine could be imported into the European Union nation even without its approval from the bloc's drug regulator.
Health Minister Vili Beros said Wednesday that because Croatia, like many other EU countries, is struggling to get agreed doses of EU-approved vaccines, Croatia’s drug agency will decide on the effectiveness of Sputnik V.
Sputnik V has yet to be approved by the European Medicines Agency.
Beros said the final decision on the procurement of the Russian vaccine will depend on how quickly it could arrive in Croatia.
“If it is in the summer, we won’t need it,” Beros told reporters. “If it can arrive in a week or two, we would need a million doses.”
Neighboring Hungary has so far been the only one of the EU's 27 nations to start administering Russian and Chinese vaccines without waiting for the approval from EMA.
LONDON — British regulators have approved the world’s first coronavirus human challenge trial, in which volunteers will be deliberately exposed to the virus to study how infection spreads.
The government said Wednesday that the U.K.’s clinical trials ethics regulator has approved the trial and it will start within a month. The aim is to develop more effective vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.
Researchers are seeking up to 90 volunteers aged 18-30, who will be exposed to COVID-19 “in a safe and controlled environment.” The study will try to determine the smallest amount of virus needed to cause infection.
Young people are being asked to volunteer because they have the lowest risk of serious illness from the coronavirus. Participants in the study will be monitored 24 hours a day.
PRAGUE — Coronavirus infections in the hard-hit Czech Republic are rising and putting hospitals under even greater pressure, even as new cases are falling in some parts of Europe.
Three Czech counties on the borders with Germany and Poland have been under a complete lockdown due to a high occurrence of a contagious coronavirus variant first discovered in Britain. Health Minister Jan Blatny said Wednesday that if infection trend continues, the lockdowns might need to be expanded to other parts of the country in the coming weeks.
With 6,171 COVID-19 patients in hospitals and 1,196 in intensive care, the country’s health system is reaching its limits, Blatny said.
He said the ministry is considering ordering medical students to work in hospitals and planning to ask neighboring countries to treat Czechs once the hospital capacity reaches 90%.
The nation of 10.7 million had over 1.1 million confirmed cases with 18,596 deaths.
BERLIN — Pfizer and BioNTech said Wednesday they have finalized an agreement to supply the European Union with another 200 million doses of their COVID-19 vaccine.
The U.S. and German companies said in a statement that the doses come on top of the 300 million vaccine doses initially ordered. The EU’s executive Commission has an option to request a further 100 million doses.
They said the 200 million doses are expected to be delivered this year, with an estimated 75 million of them in the second quarter.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first of three so far to be approved for use in the EU, which faces criticism for a slow start to its vaccination campaign compared with countries such as Israel, Britain and the United States. The other two EU-approved vaccines are from Moderna and AstraZeneca.
BERLIN — Authorities in Berlin have opened the German capital’s fifth coronavirus vaccination center, located inside an indoor cycling arena.
The Velodrom, which was built as part of Berlin’s failed bid for the 2000 Olympics, started with just 120 vaccinations Wednesday. The goal is to steadily increase that number to up to 2,200 per day.
The vaccine rollout in Germany has been slower than in Britain and the United States, but Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged that everybody who wants to get the shot will be offered one by the end of the summer.
Berlin’s top health official, Dilek Kalayci, stressed that all three vaccines authorized in the European Union — Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca — are effective.
STOCKHOLM — The Swedish government warned Wednesday of possible local lockdowns for the first time in the pandemic as it fears a new wave following an increase of cases in some regions after weeks of a relatively stable spread of the coronavirus.
“The situation is still serious,” Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said. “There is a clear risk of a third wave.”
In recent weeks, nationwide numbers in Sweden have been dropping slowly but certain regions are now on the rise.
She added that Sweden didn’t plan a shutdown today but “we do not intend to wait until it is too late.”
Last month, the Swedish parliament adopted a temporary COVID-19 -pandemic law that would allow the closing of shopping centers and shops and a halt to public transport and public activities to curb the spread of the virus. Those breaking it would face a fine.
Sweden has so far adopted mild coronavirus restrictions without enforced lockdowns and relied mainly on citizens’ own social distancing and other measures to fight the pandemic.
UNITED NATIONS -- British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says he will urge the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution calling for cease-fires in conflict zones to allow the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.
Britain holds the council presidency this month and Raab is chairing a virtual high-level meeting of the U.N.’s most powerful body on the problem of ensuring access to vaccines in conflict areas on Wednesday. Diplomats said 11 foreign ministers are expected to speak, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Britain says more than 160 million people are at risk of being excluded from coronavirus vaccinations because they live in countries engulfed in conflict and instability including Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.
“Global vaccination coverage is essential to beating coronavirus,” Raab said ahead of the meeting. “That is why the U.K. is calling for a vaccination cease-fire to allow COVID-19 vaccines to reach people living in conflict zones and for a greater global team effort to deliver equitable access.”
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that Mexico will stress the importance of equal access for all countries to COVID-19 vaccines at the council meeting.
TOKYO — Months after other major economies, Japan has begun giving its first coronavirus vaccines to front-line health workers. Many are wondering if the campaign will reach enough people, and in time, to save a Summer Olympics already delayed a year by the worst pandemic in a century.
Despite recent rising infections, Japan has largely dodged the kind of cataclysm that has battered other wealthy countries’ economies, social networks and healthcare systems.
But the fate of the Olympics, and the billions of dollars at stake should the games fail, makes Japan’s vaccine campaign crucial. Japanese officials are also well aware that China, which has had success eradicating the virus, will host next year’s Winter Olympics, something that heightens the desire to make the Tokyo Games happen.
A big problem as the vaccines roll out — first to medical workers, then the elderly and then, possibly in late spring or early summer, to the rest of the population — are worries about shortages of the imported vaccines Japan relies on. There is also a long reluctance among many Japanese to take vaccines because fears of relatively rare side effects have been played up by the media in the past.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A lockdown in the New Zealand city of Auckland will end at midnight, the government announced Wednesday after concluding a coronavirus outbreak had been contained.
“This is good news,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.
The nation’s largest city was put into lockdown on Sunday after three unexplained cases were found in the community. It was the first lockdown in six months in a nation which so far has managed to successfully stamp out the spread of the disease.
The move to end the lockdown came as health authorities said the outbreak had grown by three cases to six in total. But Ardern said the additional cases were to be expected because they involved close contacts.
Ramped-up testing indicates the outbreak hasn’t spread far. Laboratories processed more than 17,000 individual tests on Tuesday, authorities said, and they also tested wastewater samples, which came back negative.
NEW DELHI — Health officials in India say cases of the coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa and Brazil have been found in India.
They said Tuesday that the variant was detected in four travelers last month. Over 150 cases of another variant first detected in the United Kingdom have previously been found in India.
Cases in India have been falling dramatically and uniformly across the country for months. But the detection of the more infectious variants comes amid some worrying but so far isolated outbreaks.
A cluster of over a 100 cases has been detected in the southern India city of Bengaluru at an apartment complex. Another spike was detected by health officials in several pockets of Maharashtra state, including in Mumbai, the country’s financial capital.
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — El Salvador’s government says the Central American nation will receive its first shipment of coronavirus vaccine from India on Wednesday.
The office of President Nayib Bukele says the shipment of AstraZeneca vaccine will arrive on a flight from an Indian plant where it is produced.
Bukele’s office says the first doses will be used to vaccinate health care workers. The office did not say how many doses will be in the shipment, but says it will be used to vaccinate “thousands” of health care professionals.
The country has recorded about 58,000 coronavirus infections and 1,758 deaths from COVID-19 so far in the pandemic.
MEXICO CITY — Mexico has topped 2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 175,000 deaths, though officials concede that the country’s extremely low rate of testing means the real figures are much higher.
The Health Department said Tuesday that 8,683 more cases and 1,329 more deaths had been confirmed in the previous 24 hours.
Mexico’s 175,986 test-confirmed deaths so far is the third-highest toll in the world, behind the U.S. and Brazil. But estimates of the country’s excess deaths for 2020 suggest the real death toll from the pandemic is more than 220,000.
And excess death figures for January and early February — when the highest wave of cases came — have not yet been posted.
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea is reporting 621 new coronavirus cases. It’s the country’s biggest daily jump in more than a month and is causing worries about a viral resurgence amid relaxed distancing rules.
Earlier this week, South Korea slightly eased its stringent distancing rules after the caseload showed a gradual decline for weeks. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops in the greater Seoul area are now allowed to stay open an hour longer, while dining curfews elsewhere are lifted.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun is urging people not to lower their guard. He says the rules were relaxed to help struggling small business owners, not to ease the fight against the virus.
The numbers reported Wednesday raised South Korea’s total caseload for the pandemic to 84,946, with 1,538 deaths.