European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addresses a press conference after a visit to oversee the production of the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at the factory of US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, in Puurs, on April 23, 2021. (PHOTO / AFP)
SAO PAULO / CARACAS / MEXICO CITY / HAVANA / LONDON / GENEVA / PARIS / ADDIS ABABA / BUENOS AIRES / PRAGUE / RIGA / RABAT / BRUSSELS / TUNIS / SANTIAGO / QUITO / BERLIN / KYIV / BUDAPEST / TBILISI / MOSCOW - The European Commission said it expects to seal the world's biggest vaccine supply deal within days, buying up to 1.8 billion doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for the next few years as a debate rages over unfair access to shots for the world's poorest people.
The vaccines from the US drugmaker and its German partner BioNTech would be delivered over 2021-2023, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a visit to Pfizer's vaccine plant in Puurs, Belgium.
The agreement would be enough to inoculate the 450 million EU population for two years and comes as the bloc seeks to shore up long-term supplies.
This is the third contract agreed by the bloc with the two companies, which have already agreed to supply 600 million doses of the two-dose vaccine this year under two previous contracts. Brussels is aiming to inoculate at least 70 percent of EU adults by July.
The move comes as the Commission looks to sever ties with AstraZeneca after the drugmaker slashed its delivery targets due to production problems. On Friday it was deciding whether to take legal action against the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company.
An EU official said the supply deal was agreed in principle but that both sides needed a few days to iron out final terms.
Representatives of European Union (EU) members states have agreed on the technical specifications for the implementation of the Digital Green Certificate, the European Commission said in a press release on Thursday.
The agreed technical specifications cover data structure and encoding mechanisms, including the QR code, which will ensure that all certificates, whether digital or on paper, can be read and verified across the EU.
The guidelines also describe the EU gateway, which will allow the sharing of electronic signature keys so that the authenticity of the certificates can be verified anywhere in the bloc.
Describing it as a "further crucial step," the Commission encouraged the member states to deploy the needed technical solutions at a national level to ensure the rollout of the unified system by June.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating the death of an Oregon woman and the hospitalisation of another in Texas after receiving Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine, state health officials said.
The incidents come as advisers to the CDC are set to meet on Friday to consider whether it is safe to resume injections of the single-dose vaccine, while senior health officials prepare for a green light.
Last week, US health agencies recommended a pause in the use of the J&J vaccine over the six rare cases of blood clots, among roughly 7 million people who have received the shot.
Both states confirmed that the new cases were separate from the previous six incidents.
In another development, the US State Department has added at least 116 countries this week to its “Level Four: Do Not Travel” advisory list, putting the UK, Canada, France, Israel, Mexico, Germany and others on the list, citing a “very high level of COVID-19.”
Other countries in the "Do Not Travel" list include Finland, Egypt, Belgium, Turkey, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain.
Before Tuesday, the State Department listed 34 out of about 200 countries as "Do Not Travel." The State Department now lists 150 countries at Level Four. It declined to say when it would complete the updates.
Separately, the administration of US President Joe Biden is weighing an appeal from progressive Democrats to accelerate global access to COVID-19 vaccines by supporting a waiver of intellectual-property protections, a move opposed by big drugmakers.
Meanwhile, New York on Thursday surpassed 2 million COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. The state is third behind Texas, with 2.9 million, and California with more than 3.7 million reported cases, according to Bloomberg data.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) called on governments and companies that “control the global supply” to share doses and know-how to increase equitable vaccine distribution.
"Nearly 900 million vaccine doses have been administered globally, but over 81 percent have gone to high- or upper middle-income countries, while low-income countries have received just 0.3 percent," WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said in a report on Friday about the ACT (Access to COVID-19 Tools) Accelerator set up a year ago.
“Scarcity drives inequity and puts the global recovery at risk,” Tedros said in a New York Times op-ed.
Even with almost 1 billion doses administered, many countries face a crisis of high COVID-19 transmission and intensive care units overflowing with patients and running short on essential supplies such as oxygen, he said.
In another development, technical experts from the WHO are due to start the next round of their review of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19 jointly with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on May 10, the WHO said on Thursday.
A joint team from the WHO and EMA are currently carrying out inspections for good clinical practices related to Sputnik, the WHO told Reuters in reply to a query.
Asked about clinical data from Sputnik vaccine trials, the WHO said: “We are still receiving information from the producer.”
Russian deputy health minister Sergei Vershinin held talks in Geneva on Tuesday with the WHO chief, who later wrote on Twitter: “@WHO appreciates Russia’s efforts to fulfill the Emergency Use Listing criteria for vaccines”.
The COVAX vaccine-sharing plan said on Thursday it is seeking to bolster its supplies of COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries from new manufacturers as it aims to mitigate supply problems of the AstraZeneca shot from India.
The global program - co-led by the GAVI vaccine alliance and the World Health Organization (WHO) - said that while it was hoping to restart deliveries of doses from India’s Serum Institute to COVAX participating countries “as soon as possible”, it was also looking for additional potential supplies.
COVAX’s rollout of vaccines has been disrupted by supply and production hold-ups of the AstraZeneca shot, and aggravated by a temporary hold on exports of the Serum Institute-made version of the vaccine as India battles to contain surging infections.
Serum said on Wednesday it hoped to raise its monthly output of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot to 100 million doses by July from 60-70 million now, later than a previous timeline of end-May.
“Anticipating these types of barriers is one of the reasons COVAX has sought to diversify its portfolio from the beginning,” a GAVI spokesperson told Reuters. “We are in conversations with other manufacturers of other candidates on supply schedules.
“We also anticipate announcing new deals for vaccines and vaccine candidates,” the spokesperson added, but gave no further details of when and with which manufacturers such deals would be agreed.In this March 9, 2021 file photo, a nurse fills a syringe with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and provided through the global COVAX initiative, at the Coast General Teaching & Referral Hospital in Mombasa, Kenya. (GIDEON MAUNDU / AP)
Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 144.35 million while the global death toll toppped 3.06 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
African countries have conducted 42,919,858 COVID-19 tests, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said Thursday.
The number of COVID-19 tests that were conducted by African countries during the past week registered a 1.5 percent increase from tests carried out in the previous week, the agency announced in its latest continental update.
The Africa CDC said 78,434 new COVID-19 cases were registered over the past week, a decrease of 0.1 percent from the previous week.
According to the agency, a total of 2,155 COVID-19 deaths were recorded over the past week, registering a 15 percent increase compared to the previous week.
A total of 4,467,666 confirmed cases and 118,937 deaths had so far been reported in Africa as of Thursday, the Africa CDC said.
Argentina on Thursday reported 537 deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, the highest number of daily fatalities since the start of the outbreak in the country.
The additional deaths took the country's pandemic toll to 60,620, the health ministry.
The ministry also said that 27,216 new cases were detected in the past 24 hours, bringing the total caseload to 2,796,768.
Some 2,449,793 people have recovered from the disease while another 286,355 remain in the active stage.
A total of 4,791 patients are currently in intensive care units, where the occupancy rate stands at 65.6 percent nationwide and 75.3 percent in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area, an area including the nation's capital and some 40 surrounding municipalities.
Brazil on Thursday reported 45,178 new COVID-19 cases, bringing its total caseload to 14,167,973.
Another 2,027 deaths were reported, raising the death toll to 383,502, the Ministry of Health said.
The country has so far administered 38,470,541 vaccine doses.
During a Senate hearing Thursday, Carlos Lula, head of the National Council of State Health Secretariats, proposed suspending all elective non-urgent surgeries at public and private hospitals to lessen hospital occupancy, as surging COVID-19 cases continue to demand large number of hospital beds.
Canada is banning direct flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days to help control the spread of new variants of COVID-19.
The restriction, which comes into effect at 11:30 pm Ottawa time on Thursday, came after India saw the world’s biggest one-day jump in coronavirus cases ever, with 314,835 new infections.
Some Canadian provinces have already recorded some cases of the Indian variant. Health Minister Patty Hajdu said India accounts for 20 percent of recent air travel volumes to Canada, but more than 50 oercent of all positive tests conducted at the border.
Chile reported 6,832 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, reversing a five-day consecutive decline in new cases, the health ministry said Thursday.
The latest increase brought the national count to 1,148,320.
Meanwhile, 179 more people died from the disease, raising the death toll to 25,532, said the ministry.
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic on Thursday urged all citizens to register for COVID-19 vaccination, saying that the state has fulfilled its duty and provided enough doses.
Plenkovic said that Croatia should have 3.1 million doses of vaccines by summer, which is enough to vaccinate between 50 and 55 percent of the population.
From May 1, 230,000 doses of vaccines would be arriving in the country every week, Health Minister Vili Beros said.
As of Thursday, some 600,000 people have been vaccinated with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines. More than 40 percent of those aged 65 and above have been vaccinated.
In the last 24 hours, the southeastern European country registered 2,885 new COVID-19 cases and 46 related deaths, bringing the tally to 316,308 and the toll to 6,738 respectively, according to the Croatian Institute of Public Health.
Cuba reported a record 1,207 new coronavirus cases on Thursday as the arrival of more contagious new virus variants like the one first discovered in South Africa fuels its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic.
The new cases took the the cumulative caseload to 97,967.
Twelve more deaths were also reported, pushing the toll to 559.
Cuban health authorities are getting ready to launch a mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 in May in Havana, home to over 2 million residents, the Ministry of Public Health said.
The head of the National Department of Primary Health Care at the ministry, Maria Elena Soto, said in a televised broadcast that Cuban vaccine candidates Soberana-02 and Abdala will be applied in several Havana districts.
The Czech Republic will reopen shops, markets and some services from May 3 if the current "favorable trend" in the COVID-19 pandemic persists, and continue lifting measures as infections drop, government officials said on Thursday.
In an initial easing of restrictions, first- to fifth-graders returned to classrooms while libraries and a limited amount of retail shops opened on April 12.
Officials want to see the number cases per 100,000 people at below 100 a week. The figure on Wednesday dropped to 177 and is down from over 400 at the end of March.
If the infection rate stays below 100 per 100,000 a week, the number of people at weddings or funerals could then rise and other services could return later.
Another phase including opening restaurant terraces, outdoor performances, hotels and allowing outdoor sports in groups – all with capacity limits - could happen when the infection rate falls below 75 per 100,000.
Patients undergo treatment for COVID-19 inside a tent set up outside the Social Security Hospital in Quito, Ecuador, April 22, 2021. (DOLORES OCHOA / AP)
Ecuador's Ministry of Health reported on Thursday 2,550 new COVID-19 cases and 120 more deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the tally to 365,393 and the toll to 12,915.
The provinces of Pichincha, Guayas and Manabi had the highest concentration of new infections in the last 24 hours.
Most cases in Pichincha were in the capital Quito, epicenter of the pandemic, which reported 780 cases in the last day.
Meanwhile, the ministry reported that since the beginning of the country's national vaccination plan against COVID-19, 604,737 people have been immunized, of whom 425,445 had received their first dose and 179,292 had received both jabs.
France will lift domestic travel restrictions from May 3 but a 7 pm curfew will remain in place until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, the prime minister said, noting that the third wave of the disease "is behind us".
In a first step towards ending a third nation-wide lockdown, which has been in place since early April, Jean Castex said schools would reopen on Monday and people would be able to travel all over the country after being confined to their own region and within 10 km of their residence.
He also said some businesses and cultural venues, as well as the open-air terraces of bars and restaurants might be allowed to reopen around mid-May if the COVID-19 situation is improving.
Health ministry data on Thursday showed the circulation of the virus had slowed slightly, but the country still registered 34,318 new infections.
While this was the lowest week-on-week rise since March 13, the number of people in intensive care with COVID-19 nonetheless rose by 22 to 5,981 people, the second-highest total of 2021.
French President Emmanuel Macron talks with medical staff members and a long-term COVID-19 patient at the rehabilitation service of the Foch hospital in Suresnes near Paris, April 22, 2021. (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN / POOL PHOTO VIA AP)
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said that to prevent the arrival of more contagious variants of the virus, a 10-day quarantine will be imposed from Saturday for travelers arriving from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India and South Africa.
Castex said 14 million people will have received a first vaccination shot by end of this week and 20 million by mid-May.
Health Minister Olivier Veran said the government was considering granting early access to COVID-19 vaccine to people suffering from obesity, possibly from mid-May.
From Monday, people living with someone at high risk of catching COVID-19 will also get access to vaccine.
One in every four people in Germany will have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine by early May, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Friday.
Spahn said around 18.5 million people have been vaccinated in Germany so far, around 22 percent of the population.
Johnson & Johnson's (J&J) vaccine is safe and effective and its side effects are very rare, the head of Germany's vaccine regulator said, adding that the country's vaccination expert panel, known as STIKO, had not put any restrictions on the use of the vaccine.
The number of new coronavirus cases does not appear to be rising as rapidly, the vice-president of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases said on Friday, but warned that case numbers remained too high.
Lars Schaade said the number of new infections was rising in particular among those aged between 30 and 59, noting that the virus was "not harmless" even for younger and healthier people.
Germany's coronavirus cases increased by 27,543 to 3,245,253 while the death toll rose by 265 to 81,158, RKI data showed Friday.
Georgia on Friday reported 1,271 new COVID-19 cases, taking the country’s infection tally to 301,535, according to the center for disease control.
Data from the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health showed that 729 more patients have recovered in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of recoveries to 284,286.
Meanwhile, 11 more people died in the last 24 hours, raising the toll to 3,992.
Hungary will reach a 40 percent inoculation rate by the middle of next week, Prime Minister Viktor Orban told public radio on Friday, a milestone that would allow it to reopen a wide range of activities in the services sector on the way to normalcy.
"At four million people vaccinated, and I think that will come next Wednesday or Thursday, we will open a wide range of services for those who have vaccination cards," Orban said.
These will include hotels, indoor restaurants, theaters, cinemas, gyms, sports events, baths, swimming pools, museums, libraries and zoos, Orban said, adding, "Sounds like a normal life."
Hospitalization rates and the number of those on ventilators have fallen from April peaks as Hungary pushed through Europe's most rapid inoculation programme, according to EU data.
Italy reported 360 coronavirus-related deaths on Thursday against 364 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 16,232 from 13,844.
In total, Italy has registered 118,357 deaths linked to COVID-19 and 3.9 million cases to date.
Patients in hospital with COVID-19 - not including those in intensive care - stood at 22,094 on Thursday, slightly down from 22,784 a day earlier.
There were 174 new admissions to intensive care units, marginally up from 155 on Tuesday. The total number of intensive care patients edged down to 3,021 from a previous 3,076 .
Latvian President Egils Levits on Thursday voiced support for using "live queues" to speed up the country's COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.
"We need to get a certain percentage of people vaccinated so that we could exit the crisis ... I support using the live queues," Levits told reporters after a meeting with Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins.
COVID-19 vaccines in Latvia are currently available for priority groups such as medics, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, and teachers.
Latvia tested "live queuing" at its mass vaccination centers on the last two weekends, allowing anyone to walk in without prior registration and get the jab.
Mexico's health ministry on Thursday reported 3,708 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country and 498 more fatalities, bringing its total to 2,319,519 infections and 214,095 deaths.
Morocco's COVID-19 tally rose to 507,938 on Thursday after 600 new cases were registered during the past 24 hours.
The death toll went up by seven to 8,976, and there were 381 people in intensive care units, according to a statement by the Ministry of Health.
The total number of recoveries increased by 520 to 493,873, according to the statement.
So far, 4,707,658 people have been vaccinated, including 4,207,298 who have received both jabs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday he would sign a decree to make May 4-7 non-working days this year and extend a public holiday period at the beginning of the month due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Russian leader was asked to consider the move at a televised government meeting about COVID-19.
Russia has administered both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine to 6.8 million people, while 11.1 million have received the first shot, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said on Friday.
Russia, she said in televised comments, has produced 27.9 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and 15 million have been made available on the civilian market.
Russia reported 8,840 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, including 2,502 in Moscow, taking the national tally to 4,744,961 since the pandemic began.
The government coronavirus taskfore said that 398 people had died in the last 24 hours, taking the death toll to 107,501.
Bulgaria, eager to encourage holiday-makers to its Black Sea resorts, will ease rules for entry to the Balkan country from May 1, its outgoing health minister Kostadin Angelov said on Friday.
“From May 1, when the tourist season starts, we will allow entry in the country in three ways: with a vaccination certificate, with a negative test result from a PCR or an antigen test,” Kostadin Angelov told reporters.
“The third option is a document proving that the person has recovered from the coronavirus infection in the past six months,” he said.
Foreign tourists provide the biggest chunk of revenues for Bulgaria’ tourism sector, which has been hard hit by the travel restrictions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The country’s Black Sea resorts hope that with increased vaccinations and eased entry rules, tourists from Germany, Ukraine and the United Kingdom will return this year.
South Africa has for the first time contracted private companies to help with importation and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines as it seeks to step up vaccination nationwide.
The government awarded tenders to state-backed Biologicals Vaccines Institute of Southern Africa Ltd. and Imperial Logistics Ltd. to import an unspecified quantity of doses, the Department of Health said in a document on its website. DSV Healthcare Ltd. was contracted to store and distribute the doses countrywide.
On April 26, Biovac will handle delivery of South Africa’s first batch of 1 million Johnson & Johnson shots being produced locally by Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd., Chief Executive Officer Morena Makhoana said by phone.
In addition, the organization will also manage imports from Pfizer Inc., Makhoana said. The quantities that Biovac and Imperial will import will be announced by the Department of Health, he said.
The government, which has been slow to rollout its vaccination program, has so far given 292,623 doses to health workers. Dispensing shots to people over 60 years and other vulnerable groups is expected to start on May 17 after delivery of the J&J vaccines on Monday, the government said.
Tunisia's health ministry on Thursday announced that the death toll from COVID-19 rose by 70 to 10,063.
According to a ministry statement, 2,305 new cases were detected, raising the total number of infections in the country to 294,138.
The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the North African country reached 2,630, including 498 in intensive care units, while the total number of recoveries reached 244,517, it said.
So far, a total of 265,365 Tunisians have received the vaccines, according to the latest figures published by the ministry.
The United Kingdom on Thursday reported 2,729 new coronavirus cases and another 18 deaths, bringing the tally to 4,398,431 and the toll to 127,345, according to the latest official data.
A further 55 cases of the coronavirus "double mutation" variant first detected in India have been discovered in Britain in the week to April 21, Public Health England (PHE) said. The new cases took the total number of B.1.617 infections to 132, Sky News reported, citing the latest PHE figures.
The new PHE figures came just hours before India is added to Britain's travel "red list" on Friday, which means arrivals will have to quarantine in government-approved hotels for 10 days. Under the new rules, travel from India to Britain is being banned for non-British and Irish citizens from 4:00 am BST (0300 GMT) on Friday.
Earlier Thursday, the British government said coronavirus passports, or health certificates, will be available "as soon as possible" in the country.
People sit on the grass and enjoy the Spring sunshine in Victoria Park, east London, on April 22, 2021. Under the relaxed COVID-19 rules, gatherings of up to six people are allowed in England. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)
More than 33.2 million people have been vaccinated in the country, according to the latest official figures.
COVID-19 infections in adults of all ages fell by 65 percent after a first dose of AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine in UK research, which scientists said showed the real-world impact of the nation's immunization campaign against the pandemic.
"These real-world findings are extremely promising," health minister James Bethell said in a statement as the data were published. He said they showed Britain's COVID-19 vaccination program - one of the world's fastest - was having a "significant impact".
The data come from two studies that are part of the COVID-19 Infection Survey - a collaboration between Oxford University, the government's health department, and the Office of National Statistics. Both studies were published online as preprints on Friday and have not yet been peer-reviewed.
The total number of coronavirus cases in Ukraine exceeds 2 million, Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said on Friday.
He said on Facebook the COVID-19 death toll had reached 41,700 so far in the pandemic.
Venezuela's opposition on Thursday agreed to use US$100 million in funds frozen in the United States to pay for coronavirus vaccines via the COVAX program, as the South American nation remains one of the slowest in inoculating against the disease.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido and allies have for months been negotiating with the government of President Nicolas Maduro to pay for vaccines using the funds.
The additional funds add to US$30 million previously approved for COVAX payments from the same pool of funds, Guaido's allies said in a statement.
Using the funds requires approval by the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control, or OFAC. Opposition leaders say they have requested a license to use those funds for vaccine payments.
Venezuela has so far received just 800,000 vaccine doses, which have come from Russia and China.
The country has reported a relatively low level of coronavirus infections, with around 187,000 cases and some 2,000 deaths.
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