SAO PAULO — Brazilian health officials are urging nationwide lockdowns and curfews because hospitals are running short of intensive-care unit beds as COVID-19 claims more than 1,000 lives each day in the country.

“The return of the pandemic in several states is making their private and their public assistance networks collapse and has brought imminent risk of spreading it to all regions of Brazil,” Brazil’s National Council of Health Secretaries said Monday in an open letter, adding that the nation is experiencing its worst moment since the pandemic began.

Last week was Brazil’s deadliest of the pandemic, with 8,244 deaths from the virus.

The letter from the council, which represents the nation’s 27 health secretaries, suggested lockdowns in cities where no ICU beds are available and in the rest, curfews between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Less than 4% of Brazil’s population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Almost 260,000 people have died from the disease in the South American country.

China says it aims to vaccinate 40% of population by June

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Health experts in China say their country is lagging in its coronavirus vaccination rollout because it has the disease largely under control, but plans to inoculate 40% of its population by June.

Zhong Nanshan, the leader of a group of experts attached to the National Health Commission, said the country has delivered 52.52 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines as of Feb. 28. He was speaking Monday at an online forum between U.S and Chinese medical experts hosted by the Brookings Institution and Tsinghua University.

The target is the first China has offered publicly since it began its mass immunization campaign for key groups in mid-December.

China has been slow to vaccinate its people relative to other countries, inoculating only 3.56% of its population of 1.4 billion so far, according to Zhong. Ranked first in the world in terms of percentage of population is Israel, which has vaccinated over 90% of its people. The U.S. has vaccinated about 22% of its population.

Chinese health experts say the country has enough vaccine supply for its population, although the country has pledged to provide close to half a billion doses abroad, roughly 10 times the number it has delivered at home.

“The current vaccination pace is very low due to outbreak control (being) so good in China, but I think the capacity is enough,” said Zhang Wenhong, an infectious diseases expert based in Shanghai who also spoke on the panel.

Developers of China’s four currently approved vaccines have said they could manufacture up to 2.6 billion doses by the end of this year. Still, vaccinating China’s massive population will be a daunting task.

Even at the rate of vaccinating 10 million people a day, it would take roughly seven months to vaccinate 70% of its population, Zhang noted.

Royal Caribbean is starting ‘fully vaccinated’ cruises from Israel

As cruise lines await an uncertain future in the United States, one major player is announcing plans to sail from Israel with vaccinated passengers and crew.

Royal Caribbean International announced Monday morning that its newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas, will start sailing from Haifa in May with Israeli passengers. The operator said it will be the first to offer “fully vaccinated sailings,” with crew and passengers older than 16 required to have a full course of the vaccine against covid-19.

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The Quantum of the Seas cruise ship is docked at the Marina Bay Cruise Center in December in Singapore. Danial Hakim/Associated Press

“Thanks to the millions of vaccines we have brought, I am proud that Israel will be the first country in the world to launch Royal Caribbean’s new flagship,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “Royal Caribbean’s decision to come to Israel is a significant expression of confidence in our policy. This is an important economic, touristic moment for the State of Israel.”

Cruises will visit Greece and Cyprus. Both countries announced tourism agreements with Israel last month for vaccinated travelers, according to the Associated Press.

The Washington Post reported on Sunday that Israel has the fastest per capita pace of vaccinations of any country, with 4.6 million people – out of a population of about 9 million – getting at least one shot so far. More than a third of the population has gotten both doses.

“We continue to work closely with local authorities and governments around the world for a healthy return to sailing in various markets,” Royal Caribbean International spokeswoman Lyan Sierra-Caro said in an email. “The health and safety of our guests, crew and the communities we visit will remain our top priority, and we will not sail until we are ready. With the vaccine rollout in Israel going so well, we felt it was wonderful opportunity to work with Israel and offer sailings for the market.”

It will be the company’s first time sailing a ship from Israel, though ships have stopped in the destination in the past.

Tensions over vaccine equity pit rural against urban America

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Rita Fentress was worried she might get lost as she traveled down the unfamiliar forested, one-lane road in rural Tennessee in search of a coronavirus vaccine. Then the trees cleared and the Hickman County Agricultural Pavilion appeared.

The 74-year-old woman wasn’t eligible to be vaccinated in Nashville, where she lives, because there were so many health care workers to vaccinate there. But a neighbor told her the state’s rural counties had already moved to younger age groups and she found an appointment 60 miles away.

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A National Guard soldier directing drivers is reflected in the mirror of a car waiting in a COVID-19 vaccination line last month in Shelbyville, Tenn. Tennessee has continued to divvy up vaccine doses based primarily on how many people live in each county, and not on how many residents belong to eligible groups within those counties. Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

“I felt kind of guilty about it,” she said. “I thought maybe I was taking it from someone else.” But late that February day, she said there were still five openings for the next morning.

The U.S. vaccine campaign has heightened tensions between rural and urban America, where from Oregon to Tennessee to upstate New York complaints are surfacing of a real — or perceived — inequity in vaccine allocation.

In some cases, recriminations over how scarce vaccines are distributed have taken on partisan tones, with rural Republican lawmakers in Democrat-led states complaining of “picking winners and losers,” and urbanites traveling hours to rural GOP-leaning communities to score COVID-19 shots when there are none in their city.

In Oregon, state GOP lawmakers walked out of a Legislative session last week over the Democratic governor’s vaccine plans, citing rural vaccine distribution among their concerns. In upstate New York, public health officials in rural counties have complained of disparities in vaccine allocation and in North Carolina, rural lawmakers say too many doses were going to mass vaccine centers in big cities.

In Tennessee, Missouri and Alabama, a dearth of shots in urban areas with the greatest number of health care workers has led senior citizens to snap up appointments hours from their homes. The result is a hodgepodge of approaches that can look like the exact opposite of equity, where those most likely to be vaccinated are people with the savvy and means to search out a shot and travel to wherever it is.

“It’s really, really flawed,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who noted there are even vaccine hunters who will find a dose for money. “Ideally, allocations would meet the population’s needs.”

With little more than general guidance from the federal government, states have taken it upon themselves to decide what it means to distribute the vaccine fairly and reach vulnerable populations.

Read the full story here.

FDA gives emergency approval to at-home COVID-19 test

An at-home test for coronavirus won emergency use approval Monday from the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The Quidel QuickVue test got the green light as the government seeks to make it easier for Americans to determine if they have been infected with the deadly virus.

“The FDA continues to prioritize the availability of more at-home testing options in response to the pandemic,” said Dr. Jeff Shuren, an FDA official.

The nasal swab test can be self-administered by anyone over 14 years old or performed by a parent on anyone over 8 years old.

It’s designed for use by patients whose health care providers believe have been infected.

The FDA said it can detect the presence or absence of COVID-19 within the first six days of when the patient experiences symptoms.

It’s the second approval for tests outside of hospitals by Quidel.

The company won approval for their QuickVue SARS Antigen Test which is designed for use in laboratories as well as for point-of-care testing.

Some public health experts are concerned that fewer COVID tests are being administered as infection rates decline after a major holiday surge.

States easing virus restrictions despite experts’ warnings

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — With the U.S. vaccination drive picking up speed and a third formula on the way, states eager to reopen for business are easing coronavirus restrictions despite warnings from health experts that the outbreak is far from over and that moving too quickly could prolong the misery.

Massachusetts on Monday made it much easier to grab dinner and a show. In Missouri, where individual communities get to make the rules, the two biggest metropolitan areas — St. Louis and Kansas City — are relaxing some measures. Iowa’s governor recently lifted mask requirements and limits on the number of people allowed in bars and restaurants, while the town of Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, now lets establishments stay open until midnight.

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An employee with the McKesson Corporation packs a box of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine into a cooler for shipping from their facility in Shepherdsville, Ky., Monday, March 1. AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, Pool

“Restaurateurs have been down in the dumps for such a long time. It is good to see them start to get excited again and be optimistic,” Bill Teel, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association, said of the mayor’s decision to allow restaurants and bars to resume normal hours.

The push to reopen comes as COVID-19 vaccine shipments to the states are ramping up. Nearly 20% of the nation’s adults — or over 50 million people — have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 10% have been fully inoculated 2 1/2 months into the campaign to snuff out the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Johnson & Johnson shipped out nearly 4 million doses of its newly authorized, one-shot COVID-19 vaccine Sunday night to be delivered to states for use starting on Tuesday. The company will deliver about 16 million more doses by the end of March and a total of 100 million by the end of June.

That adds to the supply being distributed by Pfizer and Moderna and should help the nation amass enough doses by midsummer to vaccinate all adults. The White House is encouraging Americans to take the first dose available to them, regardless of manufacturer.

In New York City, where limited indoor dining has resumed, officials said the J&J vaccine will help the city to inoculate millions more people by summer, including through door-to-door vaccinations of homebound senior citizens.

But the efforts come with strong warnings from health officials against reopening too quickly, as worrisome coronavirus variants spread.

On Monday, the head of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, urgently warned state officials and ordinary Americans not to let down their guard, saying she is “really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures that we have recommended.”

“I remain deeply concerned about a potential shift in the trajectory of the pandemic,” she said at the White House. “We stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground that we have gained.”

Read the full story here.

Countries urge drug companies to share vaccine know-how

PARIS — In an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s largest city lies a factory with gleaming new equipment imported from Germany, its immaculate hallways lined with hermetically sealed rooms. It is operating at just a quarter of its capacity.

It is one of three factories that The Associated Press found on three continents whose owners say they could start producing hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccines on short notice if only they had the blueprints and technical know-how. But that knowledge belongs to the large pharmaceutical companies who have produced the first three vaccines authorized by countries including Britain, the European Union and the U.S. — Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. The factories are all still awaiting responses.

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A member of production checks cell growth and viability of a bioreactor sample under an inverted microscope inside the Incepta plant on the outskirts of Dhaka in Bangladesh Saturday Feb. 13. AP Photo/Al-emrun Garjon

Across Africa and Southeast Asia, governments and aid groups, as well as the World Health Organization, are calling on pharmaceutical companies to share their patent information more broadly to meet a yawning global shortfall in a pandemic that already has claimed over 2.5 million lives. Pharmaceutical companies that took taxpayer money from the U.S. or Europe to develop inoculations at unprecedented speed say they are negotiating contracts and exclusive licensing deals with producers on a case-by-case basis because they need to protect their intellectual property and ensure safety.

Critics say this piecemeal approach is too slow at a time of urgent need to stop the virus before it mutates into even deadlier forms. WHO called for vaccine manufacturers to share their know-how to “dramatically increase the global supply.”

“If that can be done, then immediately overnight every continent will have dozens of companies who would be able to produce these vaccines,” said Abdul Muktadir, whose Incepta plant in Bangladesh already makes vaccines against hepatitis, flu, meningitis, rabies, tetanus and measles.

All over the world, the supply of coronavirus vaccines is falling far short of demand, and the limited amount available is going to rich countries. Nearly 80% of the vaccines so far have been administered in just 10 countries, according to WHO. More than 210 countries and territories with 2.5 billion people hadn’t received a single shot as of last week.

The deal-by-deal approach also means that some poorer countries end up paying more for the same vaccine than richer countries. South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and Uganda all pay different amounts per dose for the AstraZeneca vaccine — and more than governments in the European Union, according to studies and publicly available documents. AstraZeneca said the price of the vaccine will differ depending on local production costs and how much countries order.

“What we see today is a stampede, a survival of the fittest approach, where those with the deepest pockets, with the sharpest elbows are grabbing what is there and leaving others to die,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS.

Read the full story here.

Nearly 4 million doses of 1-shot vaccine headed to states Tuesday

WASHINGTON — Nearly 4 million doses of the newest COVID-19 vaccine are being delivered to U.S. states for injections starting on Tuesday.

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Vials of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. Johnson & Johnson via AP

The White House said the entire stockpile of the newly approved single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine will go out immediately. J&J will deliver about 16 million more doses by the end of March and 100 million total by the end of June, but the distribution would be backloaded.

Though the new shot is easier to administer and requires only one dose, the administration is not altering its distribution plans.

The White House is encouraging Americans to take the first dose available to them, regardless of manufacturer.

Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted overwhelmingly Sunday to recommend the vaccine for adults 18 years old and up. It adds to the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that were authorized in December.

Serb part of Bosnia gets Russian Sputnik V shots

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — A shipment of 20,000 Russian Sputnik V vaccines has arrived in the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia that has launched inoculation separately from the rest of the Balkan country.

This is the second shipment of the Russian vaccines to the Serb entity in Bosnia that has close relations with Moscow. The remaining part of Bosnia has been run by the country’s Bosniaks and Croats since the ethnic war during the 1990s’.

Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Radovan Viskovic on Monday welcomed the shipment. He says Republika Srpska, which is the name for the Serb entity in Bosnia, has moved to acquire the Russian vaccines because of delays in the arrival of vaccines through the international COVAX program.

Bosnia has threatened to sue COVAX unless the vaccines are shipped by an agreed term. The COVAX officials have said they need to make sure that Bosnia has fulfilled all the conditions first.

Bosnian Serb PM Viskovic says his government is working to acquire the Chinese vaccines as well. Bosnian Serb medical staff also have been crossing into neighboring Serbia to receive vaccines there.

France using COVID-19 saliva tests on young children

PARIS — France is rolling out coronavirus tests for young schoolchildren that use saliva samples rather than eye-watering nasal swabs, hoping they will help prevent school closures as the country’s epidemic steadily worsens again.

Visiting a primary school in eastern France that was deploying the new tests, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said Monday that keeping schools open is a “fundamental goal” for the French government.

Health authorities expect the saliva tests will help prevent infections spreading in schools by identifying pupils who already have the virus.

Blanquer said France will be able to carry out 300,000 saliva tests per week on school pupils by mid-March. They primarily target younger schoolchildren, with their parents’ consent.

Hungary to issue ‘vaccine passports’

BUDAPEST — Hungary has changed its protocols for issuing “vaccine passports” proving immunity to COVID-19 to ensure that the type of vaccine issued will not appear on the document.

The amended regulation published by the government requires that a vaccinated person’s name, identity card or passport number and the date of vaccination appear on the vaccine passport, but no longer requires the vaccine type to be specified.

Hungary is the only country in the European Union to have used vaccines developed in Russia and China, which have not been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the EU’s drug regulator.

Last week, Polish health minister Adam Niedzielski announced that those entering Poland from the Czech Republic or Slovakia would be required to quarantine unless they can produce a negative PCR test or proof that they’ve been vaccinated with an EMA-approved jab.

Such requirements would prevent Hungarians who have received China’s Sinopharm or Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine jabs from entering Poland without going into quarantine.

Hungary plans to begin issuing immunity documents on Monday.

UK officials identify cases involving highly contagious Brazilian variant

LONDON — Health officials in Britain have identified six cases of a highly contagious coronavirus strain first identified in the Brazilian city of Manaus — including one in a person who has not been traced.

Scientists say the variant is more transmissible and may be more resistant to existing vaccines than the original virus, and may be able to infect people who have previously had COVID-19.

Direct flights from Brazil to the U.K. have been halted, but the newly identified cases have been linked to people who came to the U.K. from Brazil through other European cities in early February.

The arrivals came days before the U.K. imposed a 10-day hotel quarantine on people arriving from high-risk countries, including Brazil.

Three of the cases of the variant are in Scotland and two in southwest England. The sixth individual has not been identified because they did not correctly fill in a form with their contact details. Public Health England said it was working to find the person and is conducting local mass testing to see whether the variant has spread in the community.

Hair salons in Germany reopen

BERLIN — Hairdressers across Germany are reopening for business after a 2 ½ month closure, another cautious step as the country balances a desire to loosen restrictions with concern about the impact of more contagious coronavirus variants.

Monday’s move came after many elementary students returned to school a week ago. It follows a decision Feb. 10 by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s 16 state governors. They will meet on Wednesday to decide how to proceed with the rest of Germany’s coronavirus restrictions, which at present run until March 7.

Some states also are allowing businesses such as flower shops and hardware stores to open. Most shops have been closed nationwide since Dec. 16. Restaurants, bars, sports and leisure facilities have been closed since Nov. 2 and hotels allowed only to accommodate business travelers.

Germany is expected to remain cautious because a decline in infection figures has stalled, and even been reversed in some areas, as a more contagious variant first discovered in Britain spreads.

On Monday, Germany’s disease control center reported 4,732 new coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours, compared with 4,369 a week earlier. Another 60 deaths were reported, bringing the total to 70,105.

Hospitalizations in Greece jump, nearly fill available ICUs

ATHENS, Greece — Greek health authorities have announced that 70 specialized intensive care units will be added to Athens hospitals as high hospitalization rates have nearly filled the available ones.

The Athens area along with several others across the country are under lockdown until March 8, with most shops closed, schools operating on distance learning and a 9 p.m. curfew, but many experts talk of extending this for at least another week.

On Sunday, authorities announced 1,269 new COVID-19 cases, along with 36 deaths. This brings the number of confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic to 191,100, with 6,504 deaths. There are 391 patients on ventilators in ICUs, close to a record high.

Rio de Janeiro enters 2-week lockdown

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s capital has entered a two-week lockdown, joining several states in adopting measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 as intensive care beds begin to fill in some important cities.

At least eight Brazilian states adopted curfews over the past week due to the rise in cases and deaths from COVID-19. Thursday was Brazil’s deadliest day since the beginning of the pandemic, with 1,541 deaths confirmed from the virus. So far 254,000 people have died overall.

Brasilia Gov. Ibaneis Rocha decreed the total closure of bars, restaurants, shopping malls and schools until March 15 and prohibited gatherings of people. Sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited after 8 p.m.

In the federal district, 85% of hospital beds were occupied on Sunday, according to the local health ministry.

President Jair Bolsonaro again criticized such measures, saying on his Twitter account: “The people want to work.” He threatened on Friday to cut off federal emergency pandemic assistance to states resorting to lockdowns.

 


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