A man waits to get vaccinate near a sing indicating an Astra Zeneca vaccination area at the COVID-19 vaccination center in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, outskirts of Paris, on April 24, 2021. (PHOTO /AFP)
BERLIN / LONDON / NEW YORK / CAIRO / PARIS - Europe's medicines regulator said on Friday it was reviewing reports of a rare nerve-degenerating disorder in people who received AstraZeneca's COVID-19 shots, as authorities worldwide aim for transparency over coronavirus vaccine safety.
As part of a regular review of safety reports for AstraZeneca's vaccine, Vaxzevria, the safety committee of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is analyzing data provided by the company on cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), it said.
The regulator's heightened attention to the rare immune condition raises new questions about the potential side effects of COVID-19 vaccines after it found last month that the shots of AstraZeneca and US-based Johnson & Johnson may have caused very rare blood clotting cases.
The European Commission is expected sign off on a new COVID-19 vaccine contract with Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE as soon as Friday, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The EU concluded negotiations with the drug makers last week and told the bloc’s ambassadors on Wednesday that the deal was ready for signatures. The people said that once approved the contract could be signed as early as today.
The new agreement is for 1.8 billion doses for 2022 and 2023. It includes clauses to allow the donation and reselling of doses, according to a diplomatic memo seen by Bloomberg. It also foresees monthly delivery schedules and sanctions for potential delays.
European Union leaders are divided over whether to follow Washington in supporting a waiver of patent rights to COVID-19 vaccines, as many argue this would take years and not address the immediate issue of making more shots to end the pandemic.
Leaders of the 27-nation bloc will discuss the patent waiver idea at a two-day summit that starts in the Portuguese city of Porto on Friday, but are unlikely to formulate a strong united position apart from a general readiness to discuss the topic.
France is delaying a European Union order for 1.8 billion doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine planned for the next two years, Germany's Die Welt daily newspaper reported on Friday, citing EU diplomats.
The paper said it was unclear what the reason was for hesitation from Paris, but diplomats had speculated that it might want French companies to play a bigger part in the vaccine production.
The paper reported that at recent meetings about vaccine orders, French representatives had held up decision-making by posing technical questions and requests for clarifications.
The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (ICU) in France fell by 171 to 5,231, the biggest one-day drop in 12 months, health ministry data showed on Thursday, as the government starts unwinding the country's third lockdown.
The total number of people hospitalised with the disease dropped by more than 700 for the second day in a row, to 26,985. The number has fallen by 1,965 over the last three days, a magnitude not seen since last November when France was in its second lockdown.
Germany's vaccine committee, known as STIKO, plans to recommend Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine only for people over the age of 60, German magazine Der Spiegel reported on Friday, citing no sources.
Europe's drug regulator approved J&J's vaccine last month after examining cases of a rare blood clotting issue in US adults who received a dose. But it left it up to the European Union's member states to decide how to use it.
A spokeswoman for the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases said the institute expects STIKO to make a recommendation on J&J's vaccine next week. She declined to comment further.
Germany limited the shot from Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca to people over 60 after post-vaccination monitoring found rare - and sometimes fatal - cases of blood clotting, with younger women disproportionately affected.
The third wave of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be broken, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Friday, as social distancing measures and an accelerating vaccination campaign help lower the infection rate.
"The third wave appears to be broken," Spahn told a regular weekly news briefing on Germany's pandemic management. The head of the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases, Lothar Wieler, said the incidence of COVID-19 infections was falling across all age groups, and he was hopeful of soon controlling the pandemic in Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed in against a US proposal to waive intellectual-property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, casting doubt on whether the idea has enough international support to become a reality.
“The limiting factor in the manufacture of vaccines is production capacity and the high quality standards, not the patents,” a government spokeswoman in Berlin said by email. “Protecting intellectual property is the wellspring of innovation and it must remain so.”
Germany will allow AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine to be administered to adults of all ages and aims to offer 12-18 year olds a vaccine by the end of August as it seeks to speed up its rollout, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Thursday.
The country's 16 regional health ministers have agreed with Spahn to reverse a previous decision to restrict the AstraZeneca shot to people over 60 years old. He also said that the current 12-week gap between first and second doses of AstraZeneca vaccinations could be shortened.
The German Bundestag (lower house of Parliament) on Thursday approved the easing of COVID-19 restrictions for people who have been fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19.
They will be allowed to enter stores, for example, without prior testing as early as next weekend, according to a statement issued by the Bundestag. A visit to the zoo or the hairdresser would also not require a valid negative COVID-19 test anymore.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 18,485 to 3,491,988, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Friday. The reported death toll rose by 284 to 84,410, the tally showed.
Pfizer and BioNTech have capacity to make as many as 3 billion doses of their COVID -19 vaccine this year, more than double the amount the partners had predicted less than six months ago.
The partners will further increase their capacity for 2022 to more than 3 billion doses, BioNTech said in an e-mailed statement.
The increase is the latest in a series of production target boosts and comes amid increased demand for messenger RNA Covid vaccines around the world.
Novavax Inc said on Thursday it has agreed to start shipping doses of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate to the COVAX program in the third quarter of 2021 in an effort to deliver on its promise to provide 1.1 billion shots to the global vaccination program.
Novavax said it will manufacture and ship 350 million shots itself. India's Serum Institute (SII) will provide the remainder of the 1.1 billion shots to COVAX through a separate agreement.
The COVAX facility is a global initiative aimed at access to COVID-19 vaccines for poorer countries. It is co-led by GAVI, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
Russia reported 8,386 new coronavirus cases on Friday, including 2,846 in Moscow, which took the national tally of infections to 4,863,514.
The government coronavirus task force said that 376 more deaths of coronavirus patients had been confirmed in the last 24 hours, bringing the official death toll to 112,622.
The federal statistics agency has kept a separate count and reported a toll of around 250,000 deaths related to COVID-19 from April last year to this March.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Thursday appealed for a boost in global production of safe coronavirus vaccines, as the pandemic kept a stable curve in the country.
"Vaccines are a global common good," Draghi stressed in a statement issued by his office.
"The priority is to increase their production while ensuring their safety and removing the obstacles currently hampering vaccination campaigns at the same time."
As of May 6, the Italian vaccination campaign saw 22.3 million doses administered (82.9 percent of those currently available) and over 6.7 million people fully immunized.
Lately, after a slow start and several setbacks due to delivery delays by production companies, the campaign has shown progress, and for a few days last week it reached the target of 500,000 doses administered per day, according to coronavirus emergency commissioner Francesco Figliuolo.
Spain's government said on Thursday a US proposal to waive patents on coronavirus vaccines signals the "way forward" but will not be enough to guarantee supplies to developing countries.
Such a suspension of intellectual property rights will take time to be approved and, in the meantime, pharmaceutical companies should be flexible in granting voluntary licences, it said in a statement.
Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev was vaccinated here on Thursday with the first shot of COVID-19 vaccine by the Chinese manufacturer Sinopharm.
Zaev told reporters that he did his personal and civic duty and received the first dose of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine against COVID-19.
"I feel great and will continue my daily work agenda," he said after being vaccinated at the Boris Trajkovski sports hall.
Zaev encouraged all citizens to register for the vaccination as it is the only effective way to protect themselves from the pandemic, adding that the vaccines are safe, checked and tested.
The Sinopharm vaccines arrived in North Macedonia on April 30, leading the way to mass vaccination of the population in the country.
Following his vaccination, Zaev, along with Chinese Ambassador to North Macedonia Zhang Zuo, went to Polyclinic Jane Sandanski in Skopje for an inspection on the vaccination with Chinese vaccines there.
During the inspection, Zaev said that North Macedonia thanked China for its strong support and help for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UK plans to offer under-40s an alternative to the AstraZeneca Plc Covid-19 vaccination because of concerns about blood clots that so far have affected a tiny proportion of those receiving shots, a person familiar with the matter said.
The decision following a recommendation by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation may be announced as soon as Friday, according to the person.
The Indian variant of the virus was found across England, the Guardian reported, citing leaked emails on the latest case count.
The variant was uncovered in care homes, the paper said, raising concerns that it’s spreading quickly across communities. Public Health England is set to escalate one of the variants to one “of concern,” the newspaper said.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he is working with state officials to offer free vaccines to visitors as a way to encourage them to visit and spur tourism.
Mobile vans will bring Johnson & Johnson one-dose shots to Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge Park and other popular locations, de Blasio said Thursday during a briefing.
“We think this is a positive message to send to tourists,” the mayor said. “Come here and we’re going to take care of you.”
Georgia on Friday reported 1,547 new COVID-19 cases, taking its total to 319,266, according to the country's National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC).
Data from the NCDC showed that 1,131 more patients have recovered in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of recoveries to 298,807.
Meanwhile, 18 people died in the last 24 hours, raising the death toll to 4,245.
The NCDC said 25,541 tests have been conducted in the past 24 hours around the country.
Swiss voters are set to back government measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic and to support a crackdown on pesticide use -- in defiance of Bern's wishes -- in binding referendums next month, a poll for broadcaster SRF showed on Friday.
Parliament passed the COVID-19 act in September, but critics of the steps to restrict public life and provide financial support to the economy forced a vote on them under the Swiss system of direct democracy. The SRF poll showed two-thirds of voters backed the measures, 27 percent opposed them and 6 percent were undecided or had no opinion.
Malta will continue the gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions as the number of new COVID-19 cases remains low, Health Minister Chris Fearne said on Thursday.
Fearne told a press conference that restaurants and snack bars can reopen until 5 p.m. from Monday, with the plan for their opening times to be extended until midnight from May 24.
From Thursday, public swimming pools can reopen until 8 p.m. but will be limited to individual swimming. Gyms will also be allowed to reopen with several restrictions.
Day centers for the elderly can start welcoming guests again while contact sports for those over 17 years old can resume, except for team sports.
Romania administered 100,454 COVID-19 vaccine doses on Thursday, a single-day record in the country, the authorities said.
Since the country started its vaccination campaign in late December last year, 5,688,721 vaccine doses have been administered to 3,491,189 Romanians, 2,197,532 of whom have received both doses, the National Coordinating Committee for Vaccination Activities against COVID-19 (CNCAV) said.
According to official figures, 14,522 adverse reactions to the vaccines have been recorded.
Mexico's Health Ministry on Thursday reported 2,846 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 166 more deaths, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 2,358,831 and fatalities to 218,173.
Separate government data published in March suggested the real death toll may be at least 60 percent above the confirmed figure.
Brazil on Thursday reported 2,550 more deaths from COVID-19, raising the national count to 416,949, the Ministry of Health said.
The ministry said 73,380 more cases were detected, raising the nationwide tally to 15,003,563.
Brazil has the world's second-highest COVID-19 death toll, after the United States, and the third-largest caseload, behind the United States and India.
The South American country is experiencing a new wave of infections, which has resulted in an increase in cases and deaths as the number of patients overwhelms hospital capacity.
Argentina's Health Minister Carla Vizzotti said on Thursday that the number of COVID-19 cases has stabilized in the country, but at a high number.
During a press conference on the epidemiological situation, Vizzotti said that the exponential increase in the number of infections in Argentina has stopped.
"The number of cases has stabilized at a still significant amount, a high number," the minister pointed out, adding that "this trend is good news, but in no way does it mean that the situation is resolved."
"We need to continue working so that the cases drop faster, because our health system is still under stress," the minister said.
Argentina reported on Thursday 24,086 new COVID-19 infections and 399 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the tally to 3,095,582 cases and 66,263 deaths.
The province of Buenos Aires, with 1,353,376, and the city of Buenos Aires, with 356,170, have the highest numbers of cases.
Chilean Health Minister Enrique Paris said Thursday that lockdown will be lifted in 28 towns from April 10, joining the 21 towns where the measure was removed earlier in the day, following a decline in COVID-19 cases.
Chile reported 6,202 new COVID-19 cases and 169 more deaths over the past 24 hours, taking the national counts to 1,229,248 and 26,895 respectively.
Other towns, including southern cities of Concepcion, Pucon and Talcahuano, and Calama to the north, will transit to phase 2 measures, meaning lockdowns will apply only on weekends.
Cuba reported on Thursday more than 1,000 new COVID-19 infections for the third consecutive day, with 1,060 cases, to total 112,714, the Ministry of Public Health said, adding that there were another seven deaths reported, bringing the total to 701.
The ministry's director of hygiene and epidemiology Francisco Duran reported during his daily broadcast that of the new cases, 35 were imported ones.
Havana registered 636 cases in the last day, recording the highest rate of infection on the island, with 454.7 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Rwanda, South Africa and Senegal are among countries calling for the establishment of full vaccine-manufacturing plants to prepare for future pandemics after Africa found itself at the back of the queue for COVID-19 shots.
While many developed nations are well advanced with their vaccination rollouts, most African countries are almost out of initial supplies and the continent accounts for just 2 percent of global administered shots, data from the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.
A total of 360 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Morocco on Thursday, taking the national tally of infections to 513,016, the Moroccan Ministry of Health said.
In the past 24 hours, six people died from the disease, taking the death toll to 9,049 in the country, while 293 people were in intensive care units, the ministry said in a statement.
Tunisia will impose a full lockdown against COVID-19 for one week from Sunday, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi said on Friday.
Ghana on Friday took delivery of some 350,000 doses of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine at the Kotoka International Airport, in a boost to the country's fight against the pandemic.
Receiving the vaccines on behalf of the government, Chief Director of the Ministry of Health Kwabena Boadu Oku-Afari told journalists that the arrival of the vaccines was a "big relief" for Ghana.
"Even if you have the money to buy, it is not easy these days to get them," he said. "So this is very timely and a big relief for the country."
Ghana's COVID-19 immunization program suffered setbacks early this year due to inadequate vaccine supplies.
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