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Thursday, April 08, 2021, 22:34
COVAX shots reach more than 100 nations despite supply snags
By Agencies
Thursday, April 08, 2021, 22:34 By Agencies

In this March 28, 2021 photo, workers unload Macedonia's first batch of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccines received through the UN-backed COVAX scheme, at Skopje's International Airport. (ROBERT ATANASOVSKI / AFP)

SAO PAULO / SANTIAGO / TUNIS / GENEVA / ALGIERS / BERLIN / PARIS / LONDON / BARQUISIMETO / ATHENS / MADRID / STOCKHOLM / ZURICH / ROME / KIEV / FREETOWN / NICOSIA / NAIROBI / RABAT / HAVANA / BOGOTA / BUENOS AIRES / SOFIA / ADDIS ABABA / SAN SALVADOR / MOSCOW / DUBLIN / WARSAW / BUDAPEST / PRAGUE / LONDON - The COVAX vaccine facility has delivered nearly 38.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 102 countries and economies across six continents, six weeks after it began to roll out supplies, according to a statement on Thursday.

The programme offers a lifeline to low-income countries in particular, allowing them in the first instance to inoculate health workers and others at high risk, even if their governments have not managed to secure vaccines from the manufacturers.

But there have been some delays, the GAVI vaccine alliance and World Health Organization said in a statement.

Reduced availability of delayed some deliveries in March and April, and much of the output of the Serum Institute of India, which makes the AstraZeneca vaccine, is being kept in India, where daily infections surpassed 100,000 for the first time on Monday.

WHO

A causal link between the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and the rare occurrence of blood clots with low platelets is "considered plausible but not confirmed," the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.

Earlier on the day, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) confirmed that the cases of blood clots with low blood platelets were associated with the administration of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, but should still be listed as very rare side effects.

EMA experts told the media that the overall benefits of the vaccine in preventing COVID-19 outweigh the risks of side effects.

The EMA said in a statement that there were no specific risk factors, including age, although most of the cases reported have occurred in women under 60 years of age within two weeks of vaccination.

ALSO READ: Australia to review EU findings on Astra shot & blood clots

The WHO's Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS), in an interim statement, said that the events under assessment were very rare, with low numbers reported among the almost 200 million individuals who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine around the world.

However, specialized studies are needed to fully understand the potential link, and the GACVS said it will continue to gather and review further data.

The WHO said that the side effects, mostly mild and local in nature, are "expected" and "common" within two or three days following vaccination.

"In extensive vaccination campaigns, it is normal for countries to identify potential adverse events following immunization," the GACVS said. "This does not necessarily mean that the events are linked to the vaccination itself, but they must be investigated to ensure that any safety concerns are addressed quickly.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 133.1 million while the global death toll topped 2.8 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

A nurse fills a syringe with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at Ndirande Health Centre in Blantyre Malawi, March 29, 2021. (THOKO CHIKONDI / AP)

Africa

The African Union has dropped plans to buy COVID-19 vaccines from the Serum Institute of India and is exploring options with Johnson & Johnson, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters on Thursday.

The institute will still supply the AstraZeneca vaccine to Africa through the COVAX vaccine-sharing facility, said John Nkengasong, but the African Union would seek additional supplies from Johnson & Johnson (J&J).

The statement comes one day after European and British medicine regulators said they had found possible links between AstraZeneca's vaccine and reports of very rare cases of brain blood clots, but they reaffirmed its importance in protecting people.

Nkengasong said the possible link had nothing to do with the African Union's decision. The bloc of 55 member states shifted its efforts to the J&J vaccine, he said, citing the deal signed last week to secure up to 400 million doses beginning in the third quarter of this year.

"...It was just a clear understanding of how not to duplicate efforts with the Serum Institute, so that we compliment each other rather than duplicate efforts,” he said.

Algeria

Algeria will start producing Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine in September in partnership with Moscow, and part of the production will be intended for African countries, the pharmaceutical industry minister said on Wednesday.

"We must meet the vaccine challenge. We will be ready to produce an Algerian vaccine in September," Lotfi Benbahmed, the minister, said on state radio.

The vaccine will be produced in partnership with state pharmaceutical products firm Saidal in the eastern city of Constantine, Benbahmed said. Saidal will get help from a "leading Indian laboratory specialized in the manufacture of vaccines", Benbahmed added, without naming the laboratory.

Argentina

Argentina tightened movement restrictions on Wednesday including curtailing the leisure industry and blocking nonessential workers from using public transport after the country hit a record number of COVID-19 infections as it struggles with a second wave of the virus. 

President Alberto Fernandez announced a curfew between midnight and 6 am, the closure of bars and restaurants at 11 pm and the suspension of operations for casinos, bingo halls and nightclubs in areas of the country with the highest infection rates.

Sports in enclosed spaces with the participation of more than 10 people were also banned and in the Buenos Aires area, where cases have increased 53 percent in seven days, all but essential workers along with teachers and those with special authorization are prohibited from using public transport.

Argentina registered 22,039 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, the highest number recorded in a single day since March last year.

The new cases took the cumulative tally to 2,450,068, according to the Ministry of Health.

Meanwhile, the death toll rose by 199 to 56,832, the ministry said.

Argentina started its vaccination campaign against COVID-19 on Dec 29 and has already administered 4,713,723 doses.

AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca on Wednesday said it was working with European and British regulators to change the product information on its COVID-19 shot after authorities said they suspected possible brain blood clots were a rare side-effect of the shot.

"Both of these reviews reaffirmed the vaccine offers a high-level of protection against all severities of COVID-19 and that these benefits continue to far outweigh the risks," AstraZeneca said in a statement.

"However, they came to the view that these events have a possible link to the vaccine and requested they be listed as an extremely rare potential side effect ... AstraZeneca has been actively collaborating with the regulators to implement these changes to the product information."

Separately, Oxford University, the co-developer of the vaccine, said the identification of rare blood clots that might be linked to the shot showed safety systems worked, emphasizing that British and European regulators had found its benefits outweigh the risks.

Austria

Austria’s national vaccine panel recommended the country keep using AstraZeneca’s vaccine for all age groups and genders after the European drug regulator said there could be a link between the shots and rare blood clots. 

The benefits still outweighed the risk of the vaccine in all populations, the body said in a statement late Wednesday.

Nurses release balloons representing lives that could be saved by COVID-19 vaccinations on World Health Day outside the national Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, April 7, 2021. (ERALDO PERES / AP)

Americas region

South America is now the most worrying region for COVID-19 infections, as cases mount in nearly every country, the director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the WHO's regional arm, said on Wednesday.

"Nowhere are infections as worrisome as in South America," Director Carissa Etienne said during a weekly news conference.

"The situation in Brazil is concerning countrywide," said COVID-19 incident director Sylvain Aldighieri. "Our concern at the moment is also for the Brazilian citizens themselves in this context of health services that are overwhelmed."

READ MORE: Brazil COVID-19 deaths on track to pass worst of US wave

Brazil needs access to more COVID-19 vaccines now and should be able to receive them through global partnerships, Aldighieri said.

Intensive care units are nearing capacity in Peru and Ecuador, and in parts of Bolivia and Colombia cases have doubled in the last week, Etienne said, adding that the southern cone is also experiencing an acceleration in cases.

The Americas recorded more than 1.3 million new coronavirus cases and over 37,000 deaths last week, Etienne said, more than half of all deaths reported globally.

More than 210 million vaccine doses have been administered across the Americas, Etienne said.

Brazil

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday stood firm on his opposition against a nationwide lockdown despite a surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths.

"We will not accept the policy of staying at home, closing down business, lockdown. The virus, like others, came to stay and will stay. It is almost impossible to eradicate it," Bolsonaro said in a speech in Chapeco.

Occupancy levels at Brazil's intensive care units (ICU) have surpassed 90 percent in 21 of the country's 26 regional capitals, the highest rate since the country's first COVID-19 case was announced.

We will not accept the policy of staying at home, closing down business, lockdown. The virus, like others, came to stay and will stay. It is almost impossible to eradicate it.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian president

Brazil reported on Wednesday 3,829 COVID-19 deaths and 92,625 new cases in the last 24 hours, bringing the toll to 340,776 and infection tally to 13,193,205, said the Ministry of Health.

The country has recorded its first confirmed case of the highly contagious coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa. 

The Federal University of Minas Gerais said in a statement that two samples taken in the city included a previously unseen set of 18 mutations, including some in the same genes modified by the South African variant and Brazil's already prevalent variant, known as P.1.

Scientists warned that yet another new variant could be emerging in Brazil's inland city of Belo Horizonte.

In another development, Brazilian health regulators said on Wednesday they would not limit the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot, saying that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Meanwhile, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge suspended extensions of drug patents in the country, a preliminary decision that could lower costs for drugs critical to treating COVID-19 patients at the expense of pharmaceutical firms.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria's COVID-19 death toll has risen to 14,034 after 116 deaths were reported in the last 24 hours, official data showed Thursday.

The number of confirmed infections rose by 3,556 to 364,419, according to the country's COVID-19 information portal.

During the same period, another 2,477 people recovered from the disease, raising the country's total recoveries to 278,665.

The current numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive-care patients stood at 10,429 and 777, respectively.

Additionally, 13,819 doses of coronavirus vaccines were administered in Bulgaria in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of vaccine doses administered to 533,453.

A man walks past an information board reminding people to practice anti-virus measures outside a school in Toronto, Canada, April 7, 2021. (ZOU ZHENG / XINHUA)

Canada

Ontario declared a state of emergency, forcing most retail stores to operate under new restrictions, and said it would change its vaccine strategy in its fight against a new and more dangerous wave of COVID-19.

Canada’s largest province, home to more than 14.7 million people, issued a stay-at-home order starting April 8 at 12:01 am Toronto time. Most categories of stores will be required to shut their doors, serving customers only through delivery or outdoor pickup. The order is in place for four weeks.

The province reported 3,215 new virus cases on Wednesday and is marching closer to the peak level reached in January during the pandemic’s second wave.

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units rose 25 percent between March 28 and April 5, the provincial government said.

In neighboring Quebec, Premier Francois Legault also announced more restrictions.

Gyms in red zones, which include Montreal, will close Thursday and places of worship will be limited to 25 people at a time. In addition, beginning next week, high school students in Secondary 3, 4 and 5 will again attend class on alternating schedules while extracurricular activities will be stopped.

Chile

Chile's health regulator on Wednesday approved emergency use of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Chinese company CanSino, as the South American country forges ahead with a massive vaccination campaign and fights a second spike of cases.

The vaccine is due to arrive in May and June, the presidency said, and could help inoculate the country's more rural populations since it only requires one injection.

Chile has so far inoculated 7.1 million people with one dose of either the Sinovac or Pfizer BioNTech vaccines and 4.2 million with two doses. It aims to vaccinate nine million people with at least one dose by May 9 and 80 percent of its target population by July.

The health ministry reported on Wednesday 5,134 new COVID-19 infections and 62 more deaths in one day, bringing the total number of cases to 1,043,022 and the toll to 23,796.

Colombia

Colombia registered 11,381 new COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours, taking its nationwide tally to 2,479,617, the Ministry of Health and Social Protection said Wednesday.

The country also reported 243 more deaths, raising the death toll to 64,767, said the ministry.

According to the ministry, a total of 2,578,601 citizens have been vaccinated in the South American country, and 471,789 of them have received the second jab.

Cuba

Cuba reported on Wednesday 961 new COVID-19 infections in one day, a slight decrease after eight consecutive days of seeing more than 1,000 cases.

The new cases took the cumulative caseload to 82,601, the Ministry of Public Health said.

Meanwhile, the death toll increased by two to 442, the ministry said.

Francisco Duran, the ministry's national director of hygiene and epidemiology, confirmed that the coronavirus variants that were first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil are circulating in the country.

Maria Guadalupe Guzman, head of the Reference Center for Research and Diagnosis Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute, explained that the increase in the virus variants was initially detected in travelers arriving on the island, but they were later spread through community transmission.

Cyprus

The government of Cyprus plans to fully reopen the country's economy in June after more than 14 months of on-and-off coronavirus lockdowns, President Nicos Anastasiades said on Wednesday.

The reopening will be based on the successful continuation of the vaccination program, he said during his visit to a vaccination center in the capital to mark World Health Day.

"I hope the vaccination program continues without hindrance so that, by the beginning of mid-May, the above-45 age group would be vaccinated," Anastasiades said. If so, "in June we will be in a position to open the economy completely."

Anastasiades said that the country's health minister has been authorized to buy 50,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine pending its approval by the EMA.

El Salvador

El Salvador announced Wednesday it was ready to distribute more vaccines as part of its national vaccination campaign against COVID-19, after a cargo of doses donated by China arrived late Tuesday.

Following the arrival of the shipment of CoronaVac vaccines, developed by the Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people via a message posted on social media.

El Salvador began Wednesday the second phase of its vaccination plan, which targets those with chronic degenerative diseases, adults over 80, and groups at risk of contracting COVID-19.

The country has so far registered 65,491 COVID-19 cases and 2,037 deaths, according to the government.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia registered 2,163 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 221,544 as of Wednesday evening, the Ministry of Health said.

Another 33 deaths were reported, raising the toll to 3,058, said the ministry.

The East African country also saw 2,179 new recoveries, taking the tally of recoveries to 166,135.

A healthcare worker holds a box of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine vials at the Lux Med oncology hospital in Warszawa, Poland, on Feb 25, 2021. (PHOTO / BLOOMBERG)

EU

European Union (EU) health ministers failed on Wednesday to agree a common guidance on the use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, despite calls for coordination across member states to combat public hesitancy over taking the shot.

Ministers held an extraordinary virtual meeting just after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) changed its guidance on the vaccine as it found possible links with very rare cases of unusual blood clots with low blood platelet counts, although it said the vaccine's advantages still outweighed risks.

European countries should make their own decisions about how to handle the risk of rare blood clots from AstraZeneca's vaccine, based on prevailing infection rates and the availability of alternative vaccines, the EMA said.

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides had called on the bloc’s governments to forge a coordinated strategy, saying it “will be key for us to speak with one voice.” The EU needs “an approach which does not confuse citizens and that does not fuel vaccine hesitancy,” she said.

READ MORE: Moderna says Europe-bound vaccine deliveries on track

France

More than 10 million people in France have now received a first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, with the government’s target for that number reached a week ahead of schedule, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday.

France is hoping a ramp-up of its vaccination campaign along with a month-long nationwide lockdown in place since last weekend will help it regain control over the latest outbreak.

The French health ministry reported on Wednesday that the number of people in intensive care units (ICU) with COVID-19 increased by 103 to a new 2021 record of 5,729 people.

Week-on-week, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care rose by 13.4 percent, the biggest week-on-week increase since Nov 13.

The health ministry also reported 433 additional deaths from COVID-19 in French hospitals and said that more than 13 million people had now been vaccinated against COVID-19, including 9.8 million with a first shot.

In a boost to the vaccination campaign at home and in Europe, French subcontractor Delpharm on Wednesday started packaging the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in its plant in Saint-Remy-sur-Avre, northern France.

Germany

Germany's vaccine regulator said on Thursday it would stick to its guidance to limit the use of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine to those aged over 60.

The Paul Ehrlich Institute said in a statement its recommendation was based on intensive analyses of the current data situation, as well as the current pandemic situation.

Chancellor Angela Merkel supports demands for a short, tough lockdown in Germany to curb the spread of the coronavirus as infection rates are too high, a German government spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

"We need a stable incidence below 100," deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said, referring to the number of cases over seven days per 100,000 inhabitants. It is currently 110.1, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.

She also said the government was looking at whether nationwide, rather than regional, measures were needed.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 20,407 to 2,930,852, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Thursday. The reported death toll rose by 306 to 77,707.

In a separate development, Germany is about to start bilateral negotiations with Russia to obtain its Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, a source told Reuters on Wednesday, adding that any final agreement depended on Russia providing key data to the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Earlier on Wednesday, the premier of Bavaria said the German region will buy 2.5 million doses of the Sputnik vaccine if it is approved by EMA.

Greece

Greece will open high schools next week despite a record number of daily new cases recently, officials said on Wednesday, as the government began mass distribution of home-testing kits it hopes will help control the pandemic and reopen the economy.

With health services still under severe strain in key regions including the capital Athens, small shops were allowed to reopen under controlled conditions on Monday and authorities removed some movement restrictions in response to growing public fatigue over months of lockdown.

Senior high schools, covering the final three years of schooling, will reopen from April 12, Education Minister Niki Kerameus said, provided both pupils and teachers wore masks and took at least two tests a week.

The free home-testing kits began appearing in pharmacists' shops on Wednesday.

Alternate Health Minister Vassilis Kontozamanis said that 2 million self-test kits were already available and there would be another 7 million by the end of next week.

Hungary

Hungary expects to have more than 4 million of its 10 million people vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of April and to further ease lockdown measures in five or six days, when it has inoculated 3 million people, a senior official said on Thursday.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff said that 2.6 million people had already received at least one dose as of Thursday.

"We hope that by the end of May, when we have inoculated everyone... we will have this terrible period behind us," Gergely Gulyas said at a government briefing.

Gulyas also said Hungary would continue the rollout of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine as it considered the vaccine safe.

At the briefing, Gulyas said that Hungary will open schools as planned on April 19 as there are no serious risks around the reopening.

Gulyas said the government was planning for the reopening of sporting events for spectators holding COVID-19 immunity cards.

Ireland

Travelers to Ireland from more European Union countries will be subjected to mandatory hotel quarantine in the coming days in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Thursday.

The government last week added 26 countries to the list of arrivals who must spend up to 14 days in a hotel room but stopped short of a recommendation by health officials to include the United States, Germany, Italy and France, countries where large numbers of Irish nationals live.

Italy

Italy will from now on recommend the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine only for people over aged 60, the country's top health adviser said after the European regulator found possible links between the vaccine and rare cases of blood clots.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza took the decision following consultation with experts and "other institutional figures," Franco Locatelli, head of Italy's Superior Health Council, told reporters on Wednesday.

Locatelli said people who had already taken a first dose of AstraZeneca could proceed with the second dose. Officials said the government was recommending that the product be avoided for under-60s but not prohibiting it.

A health worker receives a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 5, 2021. (SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Kenya

Kenya on Wednesday announced the establishment of an independent COVID-19 vaccine safety monitoring board amid surging public acceptance for inoculation against the virus.

Willis Akhwale, chairman of the national taskforce on vaccination, said that the board will respond to potential side effects of the vaccination of on targeted groups in the initial phase of mass immunization.

Akhwale said that no case of adverse reaction has been reported in the country except for a few individuals who have reported mild side effects like headache and fatigue.

As of Tuesday, 340,121 people in Kenya have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Akhwale.

Mexico

Mexico’s drug regulator, Cofepris, said in a statement that it was investigating the information raised by Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and awaiting further input from Mexico’s counterpart.

“At this time, Cofepris does not plan to limit the use of AstraZeneca vaccines to any age or group,” reads the statement.

Mexico's government reported 5,499 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 596 more fatalities, according to data from the health ministry published on Wednesday, bringing the country's total to 2,261,879 infections and 205,598 deaths.

Morocco

The Moroccan government announced on Wednesday a nationwide night curfew during the Muslim's fasting month of Ramadan to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The curfew will be implemented from 8 pm to 6 a.m. local time, starting from the first day of Ramadan.

Morocco reported on Wednesday 663 new COVID-19 cases, taking the tally in the North African country to 499,688.

The death toll went up by two to 8,867 while the total number of recoveries increased by 641 to 486,349.

So far, 4,410,023 people have received one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 4,038,083 people have received the second dose as well.

Poland

Poland's daily coronavirus-related death report hit a new record of 954 on Thursday though a health ministry spokesman said the figure included deaths from over the Easter weekend and did not represent a 24-hour period.

The largest country in the European Union's eastern wing has been grappling with a damaging third wave of the coronavirus pandemic that has pushed its health service to its limits.

Health ministry spokesman Wojciech Andrusiewicz said the reported figure included 100 deaths from Good Friday, around 130 from Saturday and 130 from Easter Sunday.

The previous 24-hour record was 674, reported in November.

Poland on Thursday also reported 27,887 new infections.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is expanding its nightly curfew and banning all large gatherings from Friday, even as the US territory prepares to open up vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 years and older starting April 12.

Under the new restrictions, the curfew will run from 10 pm until 5 am - rather than beginning at midnight. Establishments will be required to close at 9 pm, rather than 11 pm. And all large gatherings will be banned unless they receive special permission.

Governor Pedro Pierluisi made the announcement Wednesday in his annual address and said the details would be made public Thursday. Puerto Rico is “seeing a dangerous spike in COVID cases that has caused an increase in hospitalization and deaths,” he said.

Russia

Russia on Thursday reported 8,672 new COVID-19 cases, including 2,024 in Moscow, pushing the cumulative caseload to 4,614,834 since the pandemic began. 

The government coronavirus taskforce said that 365 people had died in the last 24 hours, taking the death toll to 101,845.

Sierra Leone

A total of 32,711 people in Sierra Leone have received their first shots of COVID-19 vaccines, the country's health ministry said Wednesday.

Sierra Leone kicked off its mass vaccination campaign on March 15 after receiving 200,000 vaccines from China and 96,000 AstraZeneca vaccines through the COVAX facility.

As of Wednesday, the West African country has registered 3,989 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 79 deaths. 

Slovakia

Slovak drug agency SUKL said on Thursday the Russian vaccine Sputnik V batch delivered to Slovakia differs from those reviewed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and medical journal The Lancet.

The watchdog reiterated that it could not determine the benefits and risks of the vaccine, of which Slovakia imported 200,000 doses last month but has not started using, due to insufficient data provided by the producer.

Spain

Spain will only give AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine to people over 60 years old after European and British regulators found a potential link between the shot and rare brain blood clots.

Health Minister Carolina Darias said a decision would be taken on Thursday on whether to administer the second round of the vaccine to people who had already received their first dose.

The health ministry registered 8,788 new cases, bringing the total to 3.33 million. The death toll rose by 126 to 76,037.

Wary that increased social contact over Easter could trigger a full-blown fourth wave, authorities in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Aragon imposed fresh restrictions on movement.

Sweden

Sweden, which has shunned lockdowns throughout the pandemic, registered 7,822 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, health agency statistics showed.

The country of 10 million inhabitants registered 17 new deaths, taking the total to 13,595. The deaths registered have occurred over several days and sometimes weeks.

Sweden’s death rate per capita is many times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours’ but lower than in most European countries that opted for lockdowns.

Switzerland

Students in the Swiss city of Basel falsified positive COVID-19 results in a bid to skip school, resulting in the entire class being put in quarantine, and now disciplinary measures against the perpetrators after the hoax was discovered.

Three students in Basel's Kirschgarten High School falsified SMS messages from Switzerland's COVID-19 contact tracing app, the Swiss newspaper Blick reported.

That forced about 25 classmates to be confined to their homes for some 10 days. Several teachers were also affected by the incident just before spring break in March.

The school plans to pursue criminal charges for falsifying "health-relevant documents" though it does not plan to expel them. 

Tunisia

Tunisia will extend its nighttime curfew hours and will prevent all gatherings and weekly markets to curb the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic, as intensive care units near maximum capacity in most hospitals, the government said Wednesday.

The curfew will start 7:00 pm to 5:00 am morning starting Friday.

Tunisia also will impose quarantine for all visitors who need to show COVID-19 tests upon arrival, the government spokeswoman Hasna Ben Slimane said.

Beds in intensive care units in Tunisian public hospitals are about 80 percent full as COVID-19 cases surge, the Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi said.

Tunisia on Wednesday reported 1,951 new cases and 48 more deaths, bringing the tally and toll to 264,994 and 9,087, respectively.

UK

The swift rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in England is starting to have a positive impact on the prevalence of the disease, with infection rates dropping steeply in March, according to the findings of a closely watched survey on Thursday.

The REACT study, run by scientists at Imperial College London, found that infections fell by approximately 60 percent from the last study in February, with an average of only 1 in 500 people infected.

Paul Elliott, director of the REACT programme, said the “gratifying fall in infections” was “really good news” and “shows we’re headed in the right direction”.

As well as reflecting the impact of a three-month long lockdown, he said it was also a sign that the COVID-19 vaccination campaign is having an effect.

Overall, national prevalence in England dropped from 0.49 percent in February to 0.20 percent in March.

Britons aged 18-29 will be offered an alternative to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine amid concerns over its possible link with reported rare cases of blood clots, the British government's vaccination advisory body said Wednesday.

The announcement by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) follows a review of the Oxford jab by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

The MHRA said the side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine were extremely rare and the vaccine's effectiveness is proven, adding that the benefits of taking the vaccine are still very favourable for the vast majority.

The British government reported another 2,763 new cases and 45 deaths, bringing the tally to 4,367,291 and the toll to 126,927, according to official figures.

This photo shows vials of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines after delivery to the Ambroise Pare Clinic in Paris, France, on Jan 6, 2021. (NATHAN LAINE / BLOOMBERG)

Ukraine

Ukraine's health ministry has signed a framework agreement with Pfizer on the supply of 10 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said on Wednesday.

According to Stepanov, Ukraine has signed contracts for the supply of 22 million doses of vaccines in total, of which the country will receive 8 million doses under the global COVAX initiative and another 14 million doses in accordance with direct contracts.

As of Wednesday, 320,265 people had been vaccinated in Ukraine.

According to health authorities, the country has recorded 1,784,579 COVID-19 cases, 35,498 deaths and 1,373,851 recoveries.

Uruguay

Uruguay could start to see the benefits of its COVID-19 vaccination program as soon as late April or early May, President Luis Lacalle Pou said.

Some 860,000 people will have received two CoronaVac doses by the end of May, and the government is seeking more vaccines in case it decides to inoculate people under age 18 - or give adults a third dose.

US

The B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus, first found in the UK, has overtaken the initial form of the virus in the US and is now the country’s most common strain, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Wednesday.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing that the version had overtaken other mutations that have emerged, as well as the initial version of the virus in the US.

US COVID-19 cases have ticked up in recent weeks after steadily falling since January, threatening to unleash a fourth wave of infection despite 108 million Americans having received at least one vaccine dose so far. 

The pandemic is erupting anew in youth sports across the US, prompting fresh warnings from President Joe Biden’s health advisers and adding a headwind to his push to reopen classrooms.

Biden will offer COVID-19 vaccine shipments to all of the nation’s community health centers, adding 2,500 delivery sites in a program aimed at closing the racial gap in inoculations.

The White House will announce Wednesday that 520 more such centers will be eligible to receive vaccine shipments, increasing the total to about 1,470 across the US, an official familiar with the plans said, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

Venezuela

A mayor in central Venezuela has begun placing red warning symbols on the homes of people with COVID-19 and also threatened to cut welfare handouts for those breaking quarantine.

"We are protecting our people," said Luis Duque, the mayor of Sucre municipality in Yaracuy state.

The move by Duque, a member of President Nicolas Maduro's ruling Socialist Party, brought accusations of discrimination from the country's opposition and prompted Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab to open an investigation.

The South American country is experiencing a resurgence of the virus after a first peak last August, with 1,526 new cases and 15 deaths reported on Tuesday.

Yaracuy reported 186 new cases on Tuesday, fourth among the 23 states and capital district, official data show.

Duque said his municipality would also fine anyone disobeying quarantine the equivalent of US$9, several months' worth of minimum wage salary in hyperinflationary Venezuela.

World Bank

World Bank President David Malpass on Wednesday said the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Europe was concerning and disappointing, and could even weigh on the economic growth forecasts of Germany, Europe's largest economy.

Malpass said German officials told members of the Group of 20 major economies that vaccination problems could lead to a "softening of GDP forecasts.

Malpass also said he was very concerned about the current situation facing people in Latin America and the Caribbean, but a strong recovery in the United States could help stimulate demand for products from the region.

Zimbabwe

The Zimbabwean government on Wednesday announced the suspension of the June 2021 locally-run Zimbabwe Schools Examinations Council (ZIMSEC) examinations, citing disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Addressing a post-cabinet media briefing, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said the affected Ordinary and Advanced Level learners will sit for their examinations together with the rest of the pupils in November this year.


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