The Latest: Merkel sees signs of virus decline in Germany

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel says there are promising signs that coronavirus infections are declining in Germany and that fewer people require intensive care. But she says Germany “has to take very seriously” the risk posed by a more contagious variant first detected in Britain.

Merkel and Germany’s 16 state governors on Tuesday decided to extend the country’s lockdown by two weeks until Feb. 14 and tighten some measures, for example requiring surgical masks — rather than just fabric face coverings — in shops and on public transport.

On Thursday, Germany’s disease control center said that 20,398 new cases were reported over the past 24 hours, nearly 5,000 fewer than a week ago. The number of new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days stood at 119, the lowest since the beginning of November — though still well above the level of 50 the government is targeting. There were 1,013 more deaths, bringing Germany’s total so far to 49,783.

Merkel said it’s important to prevent the new variant, which has been detected in Germany but isn’t yet dominant, from spreading. She pointed to the danger of a “third wave” of infections but said “there is still some time” to ward off that danger.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

Britain hits another record daily virus deaths. Ontario's leader asks Biden for 1 million vaccine shots due to Pfizer shortfall for Canada. India to start delivering Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines to neighboring countries. Expert panel says both China and the WHO should have acted faster to prevent the pandemic. Surging infections give Spain’s new emergency hospital in Madrid a chance for use. Italy ponders suing Pfizer for vaccine delays.

__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:

LONDON — A coronavirus vaccine manufacturer says one of its facilities in Britain was threatened by floods triggered by a winter storm, but that manufacturing was not disrupted.

Drugmaker Wockhardt U.K. says its site producing the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine in Wrexham, Wales, was surrounded by water on Wednesday, but that “all necessary precautions were taken, meaning no disruption to manufacturing or inlet of water into buildings.”

“The site is now secure and free from any further flood damage and operating as normal,” the firm said in a statement Thursday.

Wales and northwest England have been battered by heavy winds and rain from a storm that has seen some rivers surge to record levels.

Britain has ordered 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and is relying heavily on it in a campaign to inoculate the whole adult population by the autumn. So far almost 5 million people in the U.K. have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

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ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey on Thursday expanded its COVID-19 inoculation campaign to include people aged 85 and older.

The country of 83 million rolled out its vaccination drive a week ago, starting with health care workers as well as nursing home residents and their care-givers. More than 1 million people received the first of two doses of the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac pharmaceutical company in the first week.

On Thursday, the more frail among those aged 85 and above were receiving their shots at home, while others made their way to health centers.

Turkey has so far received 3 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey is scheduled to receive between 25 and 30 million more doses, although there has been no word on when the additional doses will arrive.

Turkey has reported close to 2.4 million infections and more than 24,000 deaths since March.

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DHAKA, Bangladesh — India on Thursday sent 2 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine to Bangladesh, a gift that is likely to foster bilateral relations further between the two South Asian neighbors.

Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen and Health Minister Zahid Maleque received the consignment from Indian High Commissioner to Dhaka Vikram Doraiswami in Bangladesh’s capital.

The AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine, manufactured under license by Serum Institute of India, will be given to frontline workers including doctors and nurses. The government says the inoculations are expected to start early next month.

Momen praised India for the gesture.

“This proves the true friendship between Bangladesh and India,” he said.

For decades Bangladesh has established a strong network of volunteers and health workers for vaccination.

More vaccines are expected from India under other arrangements soon, officials said.

Bilateral relations between the two neighbors have reached new heights over Bangladesh’s support for India in many regional and international affairs, while India is a major trade partner.

Bangladesh usually balances diplomatically between two Asian powers — China and India — as both the countries are close allies. Officials say Bangladesh is also expecting to have Chinese vaccines in the future.

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GENEVA — President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser on COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says the United States will cease reducing U.S. staff counts at the World Health Organization and pay its financial obligations to it as it vows to stay fully engaged with the U.N. health agency to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am honored to announce that the United States will remain a member of the World Health Organization,” Fauci told the WHO’s executive board meeting in Geneva via videoconference. The administration announced just hours after Biden’s inauguration that the United States would revoke a planned pullout from the WHO in July that had been announced by the Trump administration.

Fauci’s quick commitment to WHO -- whose response to the coronavirus outbreak was repeatedly berated by the Trump administration -- marks a dramatic and vocal shift toward a multilateral approach to fighting the pandemic.

He said the administration will “will cease the drawdown of U.S. staff seconded to the WHO” and resume “regular engagement” with WHO. He added: “The United States also intends to fulfill its financial obligations to the organization.”

He also referred to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, as “my dear friend.”

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NAIROBI, Kenya — The director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says access to medical oxygen is a “huge, huge critical need” across the continent as Africa’s case fatality rate from COVID-19 is now above the global average and health centers are overwhelmed.

John Nkengasong said the case fatality rate across the African continent is 2.5% while the global average is 2.2%. And while confirmed coronavirus cases in the past week across Africa dropped by 7%, deaths rose by 10%.

“It’s beginning to be very worrying,” Nkengasong told reporters Thursday. He noted that a Nigerian colleague has said struggling health workers are having to decide which cases to manage and which not to manage in Africa’s most populous country.

Twenty-one of Africa’s more than 50 countries have case fatality rates above the global average, led by Sudan at 6.2%. The continent has seen more than 6,000 deaths in the past week, with more than 81,000 overall. Africa has had more than 3.3 million confirmed virus cases. Almost all African countries are still waiting for COVID-19 vaccines.

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BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungarian authorities have approved a Russian coronavirus vaccine, moving the country closer to becoming the first in the European Union to administer the shot to its population.

The vaccine, Sputnik V, received a six-month authorization Wednesday from Hungary’s National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition, institute director Matyas Szentivanyi told public television. It must now be approved by the country’s National Public Health Center, a process which could take several weeks.

Hungary was the first EU country to receive samples of the Russian vaccine in November.

Around 134,000 people have been vaccinated with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in Hungary so far. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been critical of the speed of the EU’s vaccine rollout, and pursued separate agreements with Russia and China in an effort to get more doses to the central European country.

“There are not enough vaccines in Europe, which raises the question of whether we made a good decision together with the 26 prime ministers when we decided to procure vaccines together,” Orban said in a Jan. 15 interview on public radio.

Sputnik V -- hailed in August by Russian President Vladimir Putin as the world’s first registered COVID-19 vaccine -- has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency, the bloc’s medicines regulator. But member states may negotiate separately with manufacturers not covered by the bloc’s joint procurement program, and issue temporary emergency use approval to such vaccines.

The Russian vaccine has been approved in six countries including Argentina, Belarus, and Serbia, Hungary’s non-EU neighbor, which began administering Sputnik V early this month.

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BERLIN — Germany is pushing its partners in the European Union to reduce coronavirus infections in an effort to keep a new variant first detected in Britain at bay, and says new border checks might be needed if they don’t coordinate.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s 16 state governors agreed on Tuesday to extend the country’s lockdown by two weeks until Feb. 14. Although Germany’s infection figures are finally declining, officials worry that more infectious variants could push them back up quickly if allowed to take hold.

Merkel said on Tuesday: “If countries were to go very different ways -- which I don’t see at the moment, but it could happen, then we would have to be prepared … (to) say, then we have to reintroduce border controls.” She stressed that “we don’t want this.”

Her chief of staff, Helge Braun, on Thursday emphasized the need to push infections down “to keep the mutation out of core Europe.”

Braun told ARD television: “All countries must do this, and if a neighboring country doesn’t do this we can hardly protect ourselves against the mutation, and then even tougher entry measures on our internal borders are unavoidable. And since everyone doesn’t want that, it’s important that we act together now.”

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STOCKHOLM — Sweden’s government extended on Thursday several national COVID-19 restrictions, including requirements to work from home and a ban on selling alcohol after 8 p.m. Both were extended to Feb. 7.

A requirement that face masks be worn on public transportation was also extended through the spring.

A national recommendation on remote education also was extended to April 1 but adjusted so that distance learning and teaching on site will be mixed. It will be up to local principals to work that out.

“To Sweden’s high school students: now a tough time continues. But you have shown that you can meet this challenge,” said Sweden’s Education Minister Anna Ekstrom.

The country of 10 million has opted to keep parts of its society open and lifted in September a national ban on visiting elderly care homes. It has reported 537,967 cases, including 10,797 deaths.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka is welcoming tourists again after keeping the doors closed to visitors for nearly 10 months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The government’s action Thursday is seen as an effort to revive the island nation’s tourism industry, which has been badly hit by the pandemic. Tourism accounts for about 5% of Sri Lanka’s economy and before the pandemic employed 250,000 people directly and up to 3 million indirectly.

Under the reopening, visitors must be tested in their country 72 hours prior to their flight, when they arrive at their hotel and again seven days later. They will be allowed to travel in 14 tourism zones in a “travel bubble,” without mixing with local people. About 180 hotels have been earmarked to provide accommodations for the tourists.

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SYDNEY — People traveling to Australia from most other countries will need to test negative for the coronavirus before they depart, as of Friday.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said Thursday that he has signed orders that require international travelers to have a negative test within three days of leaving for Australia. All internationals passengers will also have to wear masks on their flights.

New Zealand and a handful of Pacific Island countries are exempt from the new rules.

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TOKYO — Japanese electronics maker Panasonic Corp. says it is using its refrigerator technology to develop special boxes for storing the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, which must be kept at ultracold temperatures.

The company said Thursday that samples will be ready in March, with a product to follow a month or two later.

The box will use dry ice to maintain the temperature at the minus-70 degrees Celsius required for the Pfizer’s vaccine. It does not need to plug in.

Japan’s government has deals with various drug companies, including one with Pfizer for enough vaccine to inoculate 72 million people this year. That is more than half the nation’s population.

Japan is pushing a vaccine rollout after a surge in coronavirus cases, including a more than doubling of its pandemic death toll in the last three weeks to more than 4,600.

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BEIJING — China is imposing some of its toughest travel restrictions yet as coronavirus cases surge in several northern provinces ahead of the Lunar New Year.

Next month’s festival is the most important time of the year for family gatherings in China, and for many migrant workers it is often the only time they are able to return to their rural homes.

This year, however, travelers must have a negative virus test within seven days of departure, and many local governments are ordering quarantines and other strict measures on travelers.

A national health official had this message Wednesday for Chinese citizens: “Do not travel or have gatherings unless it’s necessary.”

Officials are predicting Chinese will make 1.7 billion trips during the travel rush. That is down 40% from 2019.

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MEXICO CITY — Mexico has had a second consecutive day of COVID-19 deaths surpassing 1,500. Officials reported 1,539 such deaths Wednesday, a day after 1,584 deaths were listed. There was also a near-record one-day rise in new virus cases of 20,548.

Mexico has seen almost 1.69 million confirmed coronavirus infections and over 144,000 test-confirmed deaths related to COVID-19. With the country’s extremely low testing rate, official estimates suggest the real death toll is closer to 195,000.

Mexico City is the current epicenter of the pandemic in the country, and 89% of the capital’s hospital beds are in use. For the nation as a whole, 61% of hospital beds are filled.

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ATLANTA — Judges say Georgia’s court system could take years to dig out of a backlog of jury trials delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton told lawmakers during hearings Wednesday that it could take one to two years to catch up. Superior Court Judge Wade Padgett estimated it could be more like three years.

Under state law, Melton has been renewing a declaration of judicial emergency every 30 days, limiting what court cases can happen in person. He says he’s eager to resume jury trials as soon as possible.

For a period late last year, Melton allowed some jury trials to go ahead. But Melton says rising infection rates forced another shutdown.

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NEW YORK — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that he expects the state to exhaust its supply of vaccine available to people receiving their first dose within two or three days.

“What’s clear now is we’re going to be going from week to week and you will see a constant pattern of basically running out, waiting for the next week’s allocation, and then starting up again,” the Democrat said.

He urged health care facilities to be careful not to schedule appointments to give away vaccine they haven’t been allocated yet, “because we don’t know what we’re going to get next week and we don’t know where we’re going to distribute it next week.”

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