The Latest: Pfizer studying effects of 3rd vaccine dose
NEW YORK -- Pfizer announced Thursday that it has begun studying a third dose of its COVID-19 vaccine, part of a strategy to guard against mutated versions of the coronavirus.
Health authorities say first-generation COVID-19 vaccines still protect against variants that are emerging in different parts of the world. But manufacturers are starting to prepare now in case a more vaccine-resistant mutation comes along.
Pfizer said it will offer a third dose to 144 volunteers, drawing from people who participated in the vaccine’s early-stage U.S. testing last year. It wants to determine if an additional booster shot given six to 12 months after the first two doses would rev up the immune system enough to ward off a mutated virus.
Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, also are tweaking their vaccine recipe. The companies are in discussions with U.S. and European regulators about a study to evaluate doses updated to better match variants such as the one first discovered in South Africa.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— Medical oxygen scarce for coronavirus patients in Africa, Latin America
— Republicans solidly against $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill with decision looming on minimum wage increase
— Flu virtually disappears in U.S. this season, with COVID-19 precautions likely preventing both illnesses
— EU summit to tackle why the 27-nation bloc's vaccine rollout has been so slow
— Qantas expects to resume international flights in October, after Australian population is vaccinated
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
BUDAPEST — Hungary’s government is maintaining pandemic restrictions until at least March 15 as rising COVID-19 cases and deaths are expected to worsen in coming weeks.
Experts expect hospitalizations to increase drastically in the next two weeks as the pandemic’s “third wave” hits Hungary, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said Thursday.
The restrictions in place since Nov. 11 - including an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, limiting restaurants to take-out and delivery service, and the closure of theatres, spas, hotels and other establishments - must be kept in place, he said.
The Hungarian government last week launched a survey asking for citizens’ opinions on lifting pandemic restrictions, and on the possibility of issuing immunity certificates to those who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19.
Such certificates will become available after March 1, Gulyas said, and the government will later decide what special rights will be afforded to certificate holders.
GENEVA — The World Health Organization’s Europe unit is reporting that about one in 10 people who contracted COVID-19 continue to show “persistent ill health” 12 weeks after infection.
Dr. Hans Kluge, the head of WHO Europe, says much about so-called “long COVID” remains unknown, but the “burden is real, and it is significant.”
In a policy brief released on Thursday, WHO Europe urged policymakers to do more to acknowledge and treat long COVID, which can bring severe fatigue, chest pain, heart inflammation, headache, forgetfulness, depression, loss of smell, recurrent fever, diarrhea and ringing in the ears.
It said available data showed that about one in four people with COVID-19 show symptoms about a month after testing positive, while one in 10 experience symptoms after 12 weeks.
Kluge told reporters that the coronavirus is still spreading at “very high rates” across the 53-country European region, citing two variants of concern. However, he said fewer than 1 million new cases have been reported for a second straight week and transmission is slowing.
PARIS — Family doctors in France have started giving COVID-19 vaccine shots vulnerable people between the ages of 50 and 64 as the country works to speed up its vaccination program against the coronavirus.
Vaccines administrated by doctors are reserved to those with pre-existing health condition that make them more susceptible to complications of COVID-19 if they become infected.
France has started its vaccination campaign on Dec. 27 in nursing homes. Since then, it has opened hundreds of vaccination centers across the country to provide vaccines to people over age 75 and health care workers.
Making vaccines available to the next category of recipients through family doctors starting Thursday marks the next step in the vaccination rollout. Doctors are allowed to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine at their practice offices or at patients' workplaces.
French authorities have reported over 85,000 deaths from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, one of the highest tolls in Europe.
ALGIERS, Algeria — Algeria’s national public television network says the country has received a batch of COVID-19 vaccines donated by China to help fight the pandemic.
Images broadcast on TV showed a military jet carrying the Sinopharm vaccines had landed on Wednesday evening in the presence of Algerian Minister of Communication Ammar Belhimer and Chinese Ambassador Li Lianhe.
China has donated 200,000 vaccines to Algeria.
They come in addition to the North African nation’s purchase of 50,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and 50,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Algerian has reported 2,967 coronavirus-related deaths and more than 112,000 confirmed cases.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Finland plans to reintroduce a state of emergency that would allow the Nordic country to close restaurants for a three-week period starting March 8 as it fights the variant first discovered in Britain.
“I know you’re tired. So am I. But we have to be strong and now the situation is more difficult,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin told a press conference on Thursday. The variant “is more difficult to tackle, the old tools are not enough. Closed borders are not enough.”
The new measures require students over 13 to switch to distance learning and halts their leisure activities. A public meeting ban for more than six people is introduced and people are urged to avoid private gatherings. People in Finland would still have to work remotely and wear face masks.
A formal text will be presented next week before parliament.
In March, Finnish lawmakers adopted the emergency powers to tackle the coronavirus crisis. The country has seen 757 virus deaths in the pandemic
AMSTERDAM — Amsterdam is restricting access to a large park after thousands of people gathered there Wednesday, many of them flouting social distancing rules.
With warm spring weather in the Netherlands expected to continue through much of Thursday, the side entrances to Amsterdam’s Vondelpark will be closed and City Hall says it is closely monitoring the main gates.
The municipality says if it gets too busy in the lawns and ponds close to the city’s museums neighborhood then the park will be completely closed. The city says it “will not accept deliberate breaches of the rules with all the ensuing risks to public health.”
The Netherlands has been in a tough lockdown since mid-December. Public support for the measures has been eroding in recent weeks as numbers of infections have steadily declined.
Despite a rise in infections over the past week, the government on Tuesday announced that high school students will be allowed back to their classrooms starting next Monday for at least one day per week. Businesses such as hair and beauty salons also will reopen.
BERLIN — A silver lining to coronavirus lockdown measures: with fewer motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians out on the streets, German authorities are reporting the lowest number of traffic fatalities since they started keeping statistics.
The Federal Statistical Office reported Thursday that in 2020, 2,724 people died due to traffic accidents in Germany, 10.6% fewer than in 2019 and the lowest number since the Wiesbaden-based agency started keeping such tallies more than 60 years ago.
“This is in particular due to the fact that due to the coronavirus pandemic, significantly fewer kilometers were driven on German roads in 2020 than the previous year,” the agency said.
The numbers were particularly low during the early part of the year and at the end of the year when Germany had instituted strict lockdown measures, and ticked upward in the summer when the measures were relaxed.
PRAGUE — The Czech government is barring its citizens and residents from traveling to countries hit by highly contagious coronavirus variants and is tightening rules for face coverings.
Starting Thursday, people are required to wear better masks in places where large numbers gather, including stores, hospitals and public transportation. Cloth masks will no longer be good enough and medical-grade masks, safety respirators or two surgical masks will have to be used instead.
The changes come as one of the hardest-hit European Union countries faces a surge of a fast-spreading coronavirus variant originally found in Britain.
As of Friday, Czechs and foreign residents are not allowed to travel to 11 countries amid concerns over coronavirus variants first detected in South Africa and Brazil.
The Cabinet is also preparing new restrictions that Prime Minister Andrej Babis indicated will include limits on movement.
The country’s day-to-day increase in new confirmed cases reached 13,657 on Wednesday, about 2,700 more than a week ago. The nation of 10.7 million had almost 1.2 million cases with 19,835 deaths.
NAIROBI, Kenya — The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director is warning it would be a “fatal mistake” if the developed world takes the attitude of “we’ll vaccinate our people, and people in other parts of the world can take care of their own."
John Nkengasong, speaking Thursday to reporters, added that “it’s in no one’s interest we continue to be in this tense situation” and said more could have been done to address the global COVID-19 vaccine inequality.
But he celebrated that Ghana has become the first country in the world to receive vaccines via the global COVAX effort aimed at distributing doses to low-income countries. He said he hoped vaccinations would start Thursday in Ghana and that vaccine deliveries to other African countries will arrive in the coming days.
Africa over the past month has seen a decrease in the number of new cases after a strong resurgence in infections driven by a more infectious variant of the coronavirus discovered in South Africa. The continent surpassed 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths this month.
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan will resume regular classes five days per week at all schools from March 1 amid a steady decrease in COVID-19 deaths and cases from coronavirus.
Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood made the announcement Thursday on Twitter.
Pakistan closed classrooms in November amid a surge in infections. Later schools were opened in phases, but regular classes had not been allowed.
Authorities said Wednesday that they will allow opening of parks, cinemas and indoor dining and wedding receptions beginning on March 15.
Pakistan has reported 12,772 deaths from the coronavirus. Pakistan is currently vaccinating health workers and elderly people using the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China.
TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan will begin slightly easing restrictions on foreign visitors coming to the island beginning Monday.
The Central Epidemic Command Center says foreign nationals wishing to come to Taiwan for business can apply for special permission at the island’s representative offices abroad.
They will need to show negative coronavirus test results obtained three days before they travel and will be tested again after undergoing two weeks of quarantine. Travelers from a list of countries and regions classified as being of low or medium risk for COVID-19 can apply for shortened quarantine periods of between five and seven days.
Those include New Zealand, Macao, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Rule changes will also allow for foreigners in travel groups to change flights in Taiwan, and make it easier for Chinese citizens to visit for personal reasons and for Chinese students to return to Taiwanese institutions of higher education.
Taiwan instituted stricter measures on Jan. 1 to guard against variants of the coronavirus. The island of 23 million has recorded just 946 cases and nine deaths from COVID-19.
JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska House Speaker Louise Stutes says a member of the Alaska House has tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.
She asked members and staff not to enter the Capitol on Thursday unless necessary to allow for contact tracing and cleaning to occur. Further details weren’t immediately available.
The announcement came the same day that Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office announced he had COVID-19. His office says the 59-year-old Republican is in quarantine at his home with mild symptoms.
At least nine U.S. state governors have tested positive for the coronavirus.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand’s success in battling the coronavirus has unleashed an unanticipated problem: skyrocketing house prices.
When the pandemic first hit, most experts predicted house prices would fall. Instead, prices have risen by more than 19% over the past year, putting them out of reach for many people wanting to buy their first home.
The government, which has come under increasing criticism for its response to the housing squeeze, on Thursday announced the first of what it says will be a series of moves to address the issue by ordering the nation’s central bank to consider the impact on house prices when making decisions.
Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr said it welcomed the new directive, which is “in tune” with its own advice to the government.
New Zealand has managed to stamp out community spread of the virus, allowing most aspects of life to return to normal, and its economy has rebounded strongly as a result. GDP grew by a record 14% in the December quarter, erasing most of the virus-induced contraction from earlier last year. Unemployment remains at a relatively low 4.9%.
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County is reporting another 806 deaths from coronavirus during the winter surge, pushing California’s toll above 50,000, or about one-tenth of the U.S. total from the pandemic.
The county, which has a quarter of the state’s 40 million residents, said Wednesday that it checked backlogged death records and found the deaths, most of which occurred between December and early this month.
Johns Hopkins University puts California’s overall COVID-19 death toll at 50,890. The grim figure comes just days after the U.S. recorded a half-million deaths.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden plans to distribute millions of face masks to Americans in communities hard-hit by the coronavirus.
It’s part of his effort to ensure equity in the government’s response to the pandemic. Biden is aiming to reach underserved communities and those bearing the brunt of the outbreak. His plan will distribute masks not through the mail, but through Federally Qualified Community Health Centers and the nation’s food bank and food pantry systems.
The White House announced it expects more than 25 million American-made cloth masks in both adult and kid sizes will be distributed.
Biden has asked everyone to wear face masks for the first 100 days of his term. He’s also required mask-wearing in federal buildings and on public transportation.