The Latest: Italy lifts AstraZeneca ban, will restart shots
ROME — Italy’s pharmaceutical agency has formally lifted its temporary ban on AstraZeneca vaccinations after the European Medicines Agency ruled the shots were safe and effective.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the first jabs would be administered, but officials said Friday the speed with which they were proceeding with the administrative restart of AstraZeneca shots was a sign of their confidence in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.
The head of prevention at the Health Ministry, Dr. Giovanni Rezza, told a press conference that Italy only reluctantly halted the campaign out of an abundance of caution. But he said Italy needed to ramp it back up quickly to make up for lost time now that EMA had ruled.
He said Italy needed to more than double the 200,000 vaccinations per day the country had reached before the suspension to reach its goal of inoculating 80% of the population by September.
Top Italian public health officials held a press conference Friday to insist on the safety of the AstraZeneca shot in a bid to build confidence among the general population. They also defended their decision to suspend it as purely precautionary and done in consultation with other European countries in an effort to give EMA a chance to definitively rule on it.
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— For some developing countries, it's the AstraZeneca vaccine or nothing
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia’s Health Ministry announced the country’s second confirmed death from COVID-19 on Friday.
It said the 62-year-old victim was a Cambodian woman admitted Wednesday to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in the capital Phnom Penh with underlying health issues, including diabetes, high blood pressure and lung problems.
Cambodia confirmed its first virus-related death on March 11, a 50-year-old Cambodian man infected last month while working as a driver for a Chinese company in the coastal city of Sihanoukville.
Cambodia has confirmed 1,578 virus cases during the pandemic.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced in an audio message posted on social media Friday that his government has purchased 1.5 million doses of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine. He said the shipment will arrive March 26 and be dispensed nationwide.
Hun Sen said 400,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China will arrive sometime in April. A first batch of 600,000 already is being used in outbreak areas. Cambodia also received 324,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the World Health Organization this month.
BRUSSELS — Belgian health authorities are urging residents to limit their social contacts to a bare minimum and to opt for remote working to the greatest extent possible to prevent another big wave of COVID-19 infections.
Virologist Yves van Laethem said during a news conference on Friday that the number of positive virus cases in Belgium rose by a third over the past week, or 3,226 confirmed daily cases on average.
Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 also rose by 27% over the same period, and Van Laethem warned that the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units could reach a critical level by April 10 if the pace of infections does not slow down.
The trends led the Belgian government to move up a meeting of Belgium’s Consultative Committee, which on Friday is expected to reconsider its decision to relax public health restrictions starting next month.
Van Laethem said Belgian residents can help ensure the new spike of infections becomes “a mini-wave” by adhering to prevention measures.
A total of 22,624 people have died of coronavirus-related causes in Belgium, a country of 11.5 million residents. The number of virus-related deaths reported daily dropped by more than 10% over the past week, which officials attributed to an intensive vaccination campaign in nursing homes.
SOFIA, Bulgaria — Bulgaria on Friday resumed administering the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine after the European Union's drug regulator confirmed the vaccine was safe.
Bogdan Kirilov, executive director of the Bulgarian Drug Agency, cited an official statement from the European Medicines Agency confirming the effectiveness of the vaccine.
“The benefits of AstraZeneca’s vaccine outweigh any potential risks,” he said.
Bulgaria temporarily suspended the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine a week ago. Authorities hope the pause has not undermined public confidence in the country's overall vaccination drive, which already was not very high.
In the Balkan nation of 7 million, only some 355,000 people have been vaccinated with a first dose so far, which is the lowest number in the European Union.
PRISTINA, Kosovo — Scores of buses without passengers drove through the streets of Kosovo's capital in a protest strike held by private transportation companies complaining of the lack of government support during the pandemic.
The Road Passenger Transport Association said it wants Kosovo's government to make up some of the financial losses its members suffered in the last year due to virus restrictions. Association head Ruzhdi Kurtishaj said the government has not complied with an agreement it signed with the Chamber of Commerce, which includes transportation companies.
“Its main goal was the support, precisely subsidizing the road transport sector," Kurtishaj told the Associated Press.
The government has said it offered financial assistance but cannot fulfill all the companies' lost revenue.
Kosovo has reported 79,793 confirmed virus cases as of Thursday, including 1,736 deaths, according to government data. To try to limit new infections, the government has ordered an overnight curfew and banned public gatherings of over 50 people.
Daily cases have slightly increased in the last week, and the country has yet to start a vaccination program.
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines reported its highest daily jump in coronavirus cases Friday at more than 7,100.
Officials shut down movie houses, video game arcades and cockfighting arenas anew amid an alarming surge in infections.
The cases reported by the Department of Health Friday brings the total number of infections to more than 648,000 and 12,900 confirmed deaths. The totals are the second highest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has been gradually reopening businesses to revive the economy and ease unemployment and hunger but it has started to roll back those actions after infections spiked this month. Manila’s economy has been hit by one of the worst recessions in the region due to more than a year of lockdowns, quarantine restrictions and business shutdowns.
Other businesses and activities being suspended from Friday to April 4 were driving schools, libraries, museums, cultural centers and some tourist attractions in metropolitan Manila and other key cities under a general quarantine.
The government has also decided to temporarily ban the entry of foreigners for a month, except diplomats and authorized officials of international organizations, starting Monday. Officials have blamed the infection spike to the spread into the Philippines of coronavirus strains from other countries and public complacency.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Denmark is opening up a bit more, allowing upper school classes and vocational education to return to classes if there is no local outbreak, and increasing the number of people who can gather outdoor to 10, up from five.
At the same time, the ceiling for people who can attend leisure activities and competitions organized by local sports clubs is raised from 25 to 50. Religious services can be held outdoor with a maximum of 50 people, but indoor services are still banned.
In neighboring Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg apologized for holding a birthday party last month in a restaurant with 13 people for her 60th birthday, thereby violating a recommendation of maximum 10 people gathering for one event.
“If you think you know the rules, you don’t check them, and I thought I knew them. I apologize for not knowing them well enough,” Solberg told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — Slovenia has reversed its suspension of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines after the European Medicines Agency declared the shots are safe.
Slovenian officials say they will notify vaccination centers to resume vaccination with the jabs after it was halted earlier this week following reports of blood clotting in some people who received the shots.
In an apparent bid to disperse public concerns about the vaccine, Slovenia’s top officials were set Friday to publicly receive the AstraZeneca shots.
The Alpine state of 2 million people has recently seen a surge in new coronavirus cases and deaths despite strict lockdown measures and a relatively successful vaccination campaign when compared to some other European Union states.
BUDAPEST — Officials in Hungary have extended lockdown restrictions for another week as a powerful surge of the coronavirus pandemic breaks records each day.
In a Friday radio interview, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said lockdown measures would be maintained for at least a week, starting from Monday. Those include business and school closures, and a nighttime curfew
“The epidemiological experts say this is not the moment when we can ease the restrictions currently in place,” Orban said.
Lockdown restrictions, which have been in place since Nov. 11 and were tightened further two weeks ago, could be gradually lifted once Hungary has vaccinated 2.5 million people, about a quarter of its population, Orban said. As of Friday, nearly 1.5 million people had received at least a first shot, giving Hungary the 2nd highest vaccination rate in the European Union.
Hungary reported 10,759 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, the highest daily total since the beginning of the pandemic.
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Authorities in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo have implemented lockdown measures to counter soaring coronavirus infections.
The Sarajevo government said a nighttime curfew will start on Friday, from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m.
All bars and restaurants will shut down starting Saturday, except for food deliveries.
Authorities say the measures are necessary because of a “drastically worsened” epidemiological situation in the city.
Bosnia has seen a huge spike in daily new infections which have soared to over 1,700 from just a few hundred a few weeks ago. This has put pressure on the already weak health system and caused a spike in deaths from COVID-19.
The Balkan nation of 3.3 million is yet to start mass vaccination of its citizens. The country has kept relaxed measures and ski resorts open throughout the winter season.
Many parts of Central and Eastern Europe are also seeing surges in new infections, which experts blame on more transmissible virus variants like the one first found in Britain.
BERLIN — Germany is resuming vaccinations with the coronavirus vaccine made by AstraZeneca, following a recommendation by European regulators that the benefits of the shot outweigh the risks.
The European Medicines Agency had said Thursday that it can’t rule out a link between the vaccine and a small number of rare blood clots reported on the continent, and patients should be told to look out for any warning signs.
The move paved the way for more than a dozen European countries, which had suspended use of the shot over the past week, to begin using it again.
Authorities in Berlin said two large vaccination centers that offer the AstraZeneca shot to people in the German capital will reopen Friday, and people whose appointments were canceled this week will be able to get the vaccine over the weekend without making a new appointment.
The suspension of the AstraZeneca shot further slowed Germany’s already sluggish vaccine campaign this week. So far, about 10 million doses have been administered in the country, with 8.4% of the population receiving at least one shot and 3.7% getting both doses.
Germany’s disease control agency reported 17,482 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 overnight, and 226 deaths.
SEOUL, South Korea — Following complaints about discrimination, South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission says it’s reviewing decisions by health officials to mandate coronavirus tests for all foreign workers in the capital of Seoul and a nearby province.
The commission’s chairperson, Choi Young-ae, said in a statement Friday it plans to issue “swift judgment” on whether the measures are discriminatory and infringing rights.
If the commission concludes the measures are discriminatory, it could recommend government officials to change related policies or laws. But its proposals are non-binding.
The testing campaigns came in response to outbreaks among low-skilled foreign workers employed at Gyeonggi factories, who often face hash working and living conditions.
Critics question why authorities are mandating broad tests based on nationality instead of specifically targeting people with vulnerable working conditions.
Lim Sun-young, an official from the commission, said more than 20 individuals, including foreigners, have submitted complaints to the commission over the tests.
CANBERRA, Australia — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he is working with U.S., Indian and Japanese partners to provide emergency coronavirus vaccine to Papua New Guinea.
Australia has provided 8,000 AstraZeneca doses from its own stockpile to its nearest neighbor after an explosion of infections in the South Pacific island nation in recent weeks.
Morrison said Friday that the European Union has yet to respond to his recent request for 1 million AstraZeneca doses contracted by Australia to be sent to Papua New Guinea as soon as possible.
He says that “it’s not right for advanced countries in Europe to deny the supply of vaccines to developing countries who need it desperately like Papua New Guinea.”
WASHINGTON — The U.S. is finalizing plans to send a combined 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to Mexico and Canada in its first export of shots.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki says the Biden administration is planning to send 2.5 million doses to Mexico and 1.5 million to Canada as a “loan.”
The AstraZeneca vaccine has not been authorized for use in the U.S. but has been authorized by the World Health Organization. The premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, thanked Biden for his willingness to share the vaccines.
Canadian regulators have approved the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, but acquiring them has proven difficult. Canada ranks about 20th in the number of doses administered, with about 8% of the adult population getting at least one shot. That compares with about 38% in the U.K. and 22% in the U.S.
Mexico has fully vaccinated more than 600,000 people and more than 4 million have received a single dose in a country of 126 million.