BERLIN — Germany’s health minister says the country’s independent vaccine committee has formally approved giving the AstraZeneca shot to people age 65 and over.
Minister Jens Spahn says the decision was “good news for older people who are waiting for a vaccination. They will get vaccinated faster.”
The vaccine made by British-Swedish company AstraZeneca is one of three authorized for use in the 27-nation European Union. But several countries, including Germany, initially restricted it to people under 65, or in some cases under 55, citing a lack of data on its effectiveness in older people.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— The EU’s medicines agency will review Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine
— Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires diverged on social distancing, and those choices took the 2 cities in opposite directions
— Germany extends its coronavirus shutdown but easing restrictions in some areas
— California will set aside 40% of vaccine doses for the state’s most vulnerable neighborhoods
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
PRAGUE — The vaccination program in the Czech Republic is picking up speed with a record nearing 30,000 inoculated in one day.
Health Ministry says 28,890 people received a shot Wednesday for a total of 735,131. Over a quarter of million got both shots in the nation of 10.7 million.
After an initial slow rollout of Western vaccines, the government says the country is expected more than 1 million doses in March and around 2.5 million in April. By June, more than a total of 10 million should be available.
Extra 100,000 Pfizer vaccines from the EU expected to arrive next week will help speed up the vaccinations.
Health Minister Jan Blatny says about 35,000 a day will be inoculated in March, and up to 100,000 a day in April.
Blatny told Parliament “there’s no reason to seek unauthorized vaccines,” such as Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm.
President Milos Zeman known for his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese views has asked his Russian and Chinese counterparts to send their vaccines to his country. Prime minister Andrej Babis says they should be used on a voluntary basis. The parliamentary opposition rejects using vaccines unregistered in the EU.
LISBON, Portugal — A Portuguese Navy patrol boat has transported 1,200 liters of oxygen to the main hospital in São Tomé e Príncipe amid an increase in COVID-19 patients in the twin-island nation off West Africa.
The Portuguese armed forces say the boat carried the oxygen cylinders in three trips over the course of a week from the African country’s only functioning oxygen plant, on the island of Príncipe, to Ayres de Menezes Hospital on São Tomé island.
The São Tomé e Príncipe government said Wednesday that Gabon is sending a transport ship with oxygen, but it will take three weeks to arrive.
São Tomé e Príncipe, which has a population of around 200,000 people, is a former Portuguese colony. Numerous nations in Africa have encountered problems with the supply of medical oxygen for coronavirus patients.
GENEVA — Coronavirus cases rose 9% last week over a 53-country region of Europe, snapping a six-week run of declines, the World Health Organization said Thursday as its European chief insisted countries get “back to the basics.”
Dr. Hans Kluge says more than 1 million cases were tallied over the last week in the region. He says the resurgence was particularly noticeable in central and eastern Europe, but some Western European countries saw increases as well.
More than half of the region noted increasing numbers of new infections, he says.
Alluding to the “solidarity” shown by some European countries that have taken in patients from hard-hit neighbors, Kluge said “over a year into the pandemic, our health systems should not be in this situation.”
“We need to get back to the basics,” he said WHO Europe headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Klug called for increased vigilance to fend off variants, improved testing and isolation of cases, more efforts to counter public “pandemic fatigue” and an accelerated rollout of vaccines.
AMSTERDAM — The European Medicines Agency said it has started a rolling review of Sputnik V, many months after the vaccine was first approved for use in Russia and after dozens of countries around the world have authorized it.
In a statement Thursday, the European regulator said the review is based on results from lab studies and research in adults, which suggests the vaccine may help protect against coronavirus.
Despite skepticism about Russia’s hasty introduction of the vaccine, which was rolled out before it had completed late-stage trials, the vaccine appears to be safe and effective. According to a study published in the journal Lancet, Sputnik V was about 91% effective in preventing people from becoming severely ill with COVID-19.
The EMA has not set a date for when its expert group might meet to assess Sputnik V data to decide if it should be approved across the European Union,
LONDON — Regulators in the U.K. and four other countries have announced new rules to fast-track the development of modified COVID-19 vaccines to ensure drugmakers can move swiftly to target emerging variants of the disease.
Previously authorized vaccines that are modified to combat new variants “will not need a brand new approval or ‘lengthy’ clinical studies,” Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said Thursday.
“The clear goal is that future vaccine modifications that respond to the new variants of coronavirus can be made available in the shortest possible time to U.K. recipients without compromising at any stage on safety, quality or effectiveness,” Dr. June Raine, the head of the agency, said in a briefing.
The new guidance is based on the model already used to modify the seasonal flu vaccine to keep up with annual changes in the virus and was issued jointly by regulators in the U.K., Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency have issued similar guidance.
HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s government says a court has sentenced a woman to 10 days in jail for breaching coronavirus quarantine requirements.
A news release Thursday said the 61-year-old, who wasn’t further identified, had been ordered to quarantine at home for 14 days last June. However, she left the place of quarantine on June 26 “without reasonable excuse nor permission given by an authorized officer,” the news release said.
Hong Kong requires all those arriving from Macao, mainland China and Taiwan to undergo 14 days of compulsory quarantine, while those who have visited a foreign country within 21 days of their arrival must undergo 21 days of quarantine at a designated hotel.
A total of 115 people in Hong Kong have been convicted for violating quarantine rules and received fines and sentences of up to 14 days
Taiwan, mainland China and Macao have virtually eliminated local transmission of the virus, while Hong Kong on Thursday reported 14 new local cases for a total of 11,047 with 200 deaths.
LONDON — Britain says it will receive 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that will be delivered from the Serum Institute of India, a company that was meant to be producing vaccines for the world’s developing countries.
The 10 million doses being shipped to the U.K. are part of a larger order of 100 million doses that was part of the U.K.’s original deal for COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca.
In a statement Thursday, a U.K. government spokesman said the Serum Institute “is one part of our supply chain for the AstraZeneca vaccine,” which also includes facilities in Britain and Europe.
The government said Britain’s Medicines and Health products Regulatory agency had carried out an inspection of the Serum Institute’s facilities and confirmed that “globally-recognized quality standards are being met.”
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s drug regulatory body has approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine as the second available for use in the Indian Ocean island nation.
The state minister overseeing pharmaceutical products, Channa Jayasumana, said Sri Lanka has requested doses from Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and was awaiting confirmation of the amount it would get.
Sri Lanka already is administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute in India. It received 1 million doses, half donated and half purchased from the institute.
Starting in January with frontline health workers, Sri Lanka has given the vaccine to more than 550,000 people.
Sri Lanka has counted 84,225 cases of COVID-19 with 484 fatalities.
BRUSSELS — Brussels Airlines reported a loss of 293 million euros in the financial year 2020 mainly due to travel disruptions linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
The company on Thursday announced revenues down by 72% to 414 million euros while passenger numbers decreased by 77% to 2.4 million. It said the summer season will be essential as 2021 remains “a challenging year.”
After grounding its planes for 12 weeks last year, the airline resumed operations on a reduced schedule during the summer. Hard-hit by the crisis, Brussels Airlines has reduced its fleet by 25% and its workforce by 20% after the Belgian government and Lufthansa, the airline’s parent company, agreed on a rescue plan.
SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s top insurance regulator is putting medical providers on notice that people cannot be charged for coronavirus testing after reports that residents have been required to pay for coronavirus rapid-result tests.
Insurance Superintendent Russell Toal said Wednesday that his office is preparing an administrative bulletin to ensure testing costs are not passed directly on to consumers as state health officials push for robust testing to track infection rates and new strains of COVID-19.
Toal says the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance has received reports of people being charged in excess of $100 for testing services that should be free.
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s central bank says the country’s economy shrank for the first time in 22 years in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic destroyed service industry jobs and depressed consumer spending.
Preliminary data released by the Bank of Korea on Thursday showed that the country’s gross domestic product last year contracted 1% from 2019. It marked the first annual contraction for the country’s economy since 1998, when it was in the midst of a crippling financial crisis.
The economy would have been even worse if not for the country’s technology exports, which saw increased demand driven by personal computers and servers as the pandemic forced millions around the world to work at home.
The bank expects South Korea’s economy to manage a modest recovery this year driven by exports. But it says it would take a longer time for the job market to recover from the damage to services industries such as restaurants and transportation.
The country reported another new 424 cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, bringing its national caseload to 91,240, including 1,619 deaths.
TORONTO — An expert panel is recommending Canadian provinces extend the interval between doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to quickly inoculate more people.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization says extending the dose interval to four months would create opportunities to protect the entire adult population within a short time.
The panel says many as 80% of Canadians older than 16 could receive a single dose by the end of June simply with the expected supply of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. In comparison, the federal government previously said 38% of people would receive two doses by the end of June.
The committee’s recommendation came hours after Newfoundland and Labrador said it will extend the interval between the first and second doses to four months, and days after health officials in British Columbia announced they were doing so.
Manitoba and Quebec also say they will delay second doses. Ontario previously said it was weighing a similar move but would seek advice from the federal government. The provinces administer health care in Canada.
BERLIN — Germany is extending its coronavirus shutdown by three weeks until March 28, but easing some restrictions to allow nonessential stores and other businesses to reopen in areas with relatively low infection rates.
After about nine hours of talks, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governors of the country’s 16 states agreed Wednesday to measures aimed at balancing concern over the impact of more contagious coronavirus variants with a growing clamor for a return to a more normal life.
The first moves have already been made: many elementary students returned to school last week. And on Monday, hairdressers opened after a 2 1/2-month break. Current lockdown rules were set to run through Sunday.
On Wednesday, Merkel and the state governors — who in highly decentralized Germany have the power to impose and lift restrictions — set out a phased plan that allows for a gradual, if limited, relaxation of restrictions.
“These should be steps toward opening but at the same time steps that do not set us back,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin. “There are a great many examples in Europe of a dramatic third wave.”
She pledged that “spring 2021 will be different from spring a year ago.”
ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp said Georgia’s government will open five more mass-vaccination sites later this month as he defended the state’s performance in delivering COVID-19 vaccines.
The state will open sites beginning March 17, joining four sites the state is already running. The Republican governor said Wednesday that the sites are being set up in advance of a further expansion of vaccine eligibility in the state to be announced later this month.
Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Georgia has administered only 68% of the vaccines it has received and has 1 million unadministered doses. The data show only the District of Columbia and Kansas lag further behind.
Georgia officials have disputed the CDC data for weeks. The state’s own numbers show it has given 76% of available vaccines.
“We can’t control who’s holding second doses,” Kemp said. “I don’t think they should be doing that. They should be giving those doses.”