Coronavirus live news: Covid death rates 10 times higher in countries where most adults overweight

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Cyprus to allow fully vaccinated British tourists – as it happened” was written by Lucy Campbell (now); Mattha Busby, Sarah Marsh, Kevin Rawlinson and Helen Sullivan (earlier), for theguardian.com on Friday 5th March 2021 00.14 UTC

12.14am GMT

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11.07pm GMT

The Japanese government plans to extend a state of emergency for Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures to combat Covid-19 until 21 March, two weeks longer than originally scheduled, the economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said on Friday.

Nishimura, who is in charge of the government’s coronavirus response, made the comment at the start of an early-morning meeting with advisers to seek approval for the move.

Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, which make up 30% of the country’s population, sought the extension past the originally scheduled end date of 7 March as new coronavirus cases had not fallen enough to meet targets.

Still, new case numbers are at a fraction of their peak in early January, when the state of emergency took effect. Tokyo reported 279 cases on Thursday, compared with a record high 2,520 on 7 January.

Nationwide, Japan has recorded some 433,000 cases and 8,050 deaths from Covid-19 as of Wednesday.

10.54pm GMT

An anti-corruption watchdog on Thursday publicly urged Honduras to come clean about a snag in its plans to buy millions more vaccine doses through the Covax mechanism, increasing pressure on the government over its management of the pandemic.

Honduras originally had said it planned to purchase the extra doses through Covax and the Pan American Health Organization to cover about 2 million people this year to ramp up its Covid-19 vaccine campaign.

That is in addition to donated doses for which the government is eligible through Covax, the scheme led by the GAVI vaccines alliance, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. The Covax-donated doses will cover 20% of Honduras’ population.

The National Anti-Corruption Council, a government watchdog, sent a letter dated 3 March, which it shared on Twitter on Thursday, saying the government was aware the purchase of additional vaccines from Covax was not going to happen and it should tell the public.

“Said information has not been shared with the Honduran people, who have an inalienable right to know the advances and setbacks that are presented during the acquisition process,” the council said in the letter.

The health ministry issued a statement in response to the council’s letter, saying it had not received any official notice from Covax that eliminated the opportunity “to acquire vaccines.” The statement said the donated vaccines through Covax were secured, but did not address the additional planned purchases.

The health minister, Laura Flores, said on local television on Thursday the government had sent a letter to Covax about the purchases, and that the programme had replied it would not be possible to obtain the 4 million doses until later in 2021 or next year due to high demand in over 90 countries.

When asked about Honduras’ request, a spokeswoman for GAVI said the priority of Covax was to supply coverage for 20% of the population of all participating countries.

“Once this initial goal is achieved we will seek to help all participants that wish to achieve greater coverage,” she said.

Cases have been rising in the country in recent weeks, even as they declined in neighbouring nations. At least 4,214 people have died from the virus, official data showed.

The first batches of donated vaccines from Covax are expected in March, officials said. The government also secured 1.4 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine and plans to acquire 70,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V. Flores said the government is in talks with other companies, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Updated at 11.40pm GMT

10.05pm GMT

A health worker passes in front of a mural painted to honour the work of medical teams against the Covid-19 pandemic at the Ana Francisca Perez de Leon State Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela. The president, Nicolas Maduro, announced on Wednesday the presence of the Brazilian variant in the country.
A health worker passes in front of a mural painted to honour the work of medical teams against the Covid-19 pandemic at the Ana Francisca Perez de Leon state hospital in Caracas, Venezuela. The president, Nicolas Maduro, announced on Wednesday the presence of the Brazilian variant in the country.
Photograph: Yuri Cortéz/AFP/Getty Images

9.05pm GMT

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has said the state would set aside 40% of its Covid-19 vaccine doses for the hardest-hit communities and establish a “vaccine equity metric” to make sure that inoculations are conducted fairly.

Newsom, a first-term Democrat facing a recall effort and criticism of his strict lockdown measures, said the move was necessary because lower-income households were suffering coronavirus infections at double those of families making 0,000 or more.

Newsom said California’s wealthiest populations were also being vaccinated at nearly twice the rate of those at the bottom of the income scale. “Vaccinating our most impacted communities, across our state, is the right thing to do and the fastest way to end this pandemic,” he said in announcing the plan.

Updated at 9.27pm GMT

8.55pm GMT

Health officials in Ireland are investigating four stillbirths potentially linked to Covid-19, the country’s deputy chief medical officer said on Thursday.

Ronan Glynn said officials have been “made aware of four preliminary reports of stillbirths potentially associated with a condition called Covid Placentitis”.

Glynn told reporters in Dublin that coroners had reported the cases, in which pregnant women have tested positive for the coronavirus and subsequently suffered stillbirths. The cause of the stillbirth in such cases is infection of the placenta, he said.

Glynn cautioned that “further work needs to be done” before the findings can be confirmed. “I can’t give too much detail because there’s not too much more details to give at this point,” he said.

Ireland has suffered 4,396 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic according to latest official figures. The nation is in the midst of its third lockdown after suffering the highest rate of infection per capita in the world in early January.

Updated at 9.28pm GMT

8.53pm GMT

Brazil’s health ministry is in talks to receive 13m doses of Moderna Inc’s Covid-19 vaccine in 2021, plus an additional 50m for delivery by the end of January 2022, according to a ministry document seen by Reuters.

An initial 1m Moderna shots would arrive by the end of July, according to the document, which was delivered to senators by a ministry official discussing immunisation plans with lawmakers.

More on this as we get it.

Updated at 8.58pm GMT

8.39pm GMT

Cyprus will allow British tourists who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 into the country without restrictions from 1 May, its tourism minister said on Thursday.

British visitors are the largest market for Cyprus’s tourism industry, which has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic. Arrivals and earnings from the sector, which represents about 13% of the Cypriot economy, plunged on average 85% in 2020.

“We have informed the British government that from May 1 we will facilitate the arrival of British nationals who have been vaccinated … so they can visit Cyprus without a negative test or needing to quarantine,” the deputy tourism minister Savvas Perdios told the semi-official Cyprus News Agency.

Visitors would need to be inoculated with vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency, he said. The second dose of a vaccine should be administered at the latest seven days before travel.

Authorities would still reserve the right to carry out random tests on arrivals, he added.

Cyprus has been in and out of lockdown for about a year, but its coronavirus outbreak has been mild compared with other countries. By Thursday, it had recorded a total of 36,004 infections and 232 deaths.

Authorities have also introduced widespread testing, with almost everyone obliged to take a test once a week.

Updated at 8.42pm GMT

8.25pm GMT

New coronavirus variant under investigation in UK

Scientists have identified 16 cases of a new coronavirus variant in the UK, Public Health England (PHE) has announced.

Cases of the variant, referred to as VUI-202102/04, were first identified on 15 February through genomic horizon scanning. PHE said on Thursday that all individuals who tested positive and their contacts have been traced and advised to isolate. The variant, which is understood to have originated in the UK, was designated a “variant under investigation” (VUI) on 24 February.

Variants of Covid-19 can be identified as VUIs or “variants of concern” (VOCs). New variants emerge regularly and experts are conducting frequent analysis to see which are of concern, and which are not.

The latest identified variant, also known as B.1.1.318, contains the E484K mutation, which is found in two other VUIs present in the UK, but it does not feature the N501Y mutation that is present in all VOCs, PHE said.

The findings mean there are now four VUIs and four VOCs being tracked by scientists in the UK. Other VUIs include one from Brazil, known as P2, which has had 43 probable or confirmed cases identified in the UK, but is not causing scientists serious concern. PHE said that, as of Wednesday, a total of 26 cases of P2 had been found in England where no travel links could be established.

Two further VUIs – dubbed A.23.1 with E484K and B.1.525 – have seen 78 and 86 probable or confirmed UK cases detected respectively. Both were first detected in the UK in December.

Additional testing is currently being made available for targeted areas of England to suppress the spread of VOCs. This includes surge testing in South Gloucestershire after cases of the Manaus variant of coronavirus were discovered.

This variant of concern – known as P1 – was detected in Brazil and in travellers from Brazil to Japan, and was associated with a surge of cases in Manaus late last year. Six cases of this variant of concern have been found in the UK – three in Scotland and three in England.

On Tuesday, the hunt for a missing person infected with the Manaus variant of coronavirus had been narrowed down to 379 households in the south east of England, the health secretary Matt Hancock said.

Elsewhere, additional testing in targeted parts of London and Stockton-on-Tees aims to suppress the spread of the South African variant of concern, which was first sequenced in the UK in December last year. PHE said that, as of Wednesday, a total of 59 cases of the South African variant have been found in England where there were no travel links.

Another VOC is the UK/Kent variant called B117 which was first detected in the UK and first sequenced in the country in September 2020. A fourth VOC is the UK/Kent variant + E484K mutation, which was first detected in Bristol and is the B117 variant with the genetic change also found in both the South African and Brazilian VOCs, E484K.

Updated at 8.41pm GMT

7.59pm GMT

Alabama’s governor said on Thursday she was extending the state’s mask mandate for another month, heeding the advice of public health experts and breaking with decisions by the neighbouring states of Mississippi and Texas this week to lift their requirements.

Alabama’s mask mandate, due to expire on Friday, will remain in effect to 9 April, but no longer, Kay Ivey said. “After that, it’ll be personal responsibility.” The Republican added that she plans to continue wearing her mask beyond that date.

Folks, we’re not there yet, but goodness knows we’re getting closer.

The contrasting moves on masks in the three Republican-led southern states comes at a time when the number of new coronavirus infections, hospitalisations and deaths had been sharply falling in the US after a surge that followed the holiday season. At the same time, governors around the country are easing many restrictions that had been in place to curb the infection rate.

However, health authorities have stressed the need for caution, urging Americans to keep wearing masks, practice social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus amid concerns that declines in new infections was plateauing with highly contagious newer virus variants widely circulating.

“Now is not the time to pull back,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official and the president’s Covid-19 medical adviser, told MSNBC on Thursday in an interview. Referring to the announcements that Texas and Mississippi were lifting mask mandates, Fauci said:

We were going in the right direction. Now is the time to keep the foot on the accelerator and not pull off.

The White House on Thursday continued to push back against the lifting of mask mandates and other public health measures, and called for cooperation from the public.

“He can’t do this alone. The federal government can’t do this alone. This is going to require additional sacrifice from the American people,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing, adding that the administration welcomed Alabama’s move to maintain its mask mandate.

Since the pandemic reached the US early last year, the country has recorded 28.9 million cases and more than 519,000 deaths, more than any other country in the world.

Texas’s governor Greg Abbott on Thursday defended the decision to discontinue requiring Texans to wear masks in public, effective 10 March. In an interview on CNBC, he said:

Before now, there actually has not been any enforcement of the mask requirement. We continue to make wearing a mask a suggestion, and we urge all Texans to wear a mask when they are out.

Texas, Mississippi and Alabama are near the bottom of the list of states in administering vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based on the number of people per thousand who have had at least one dose.

The three states are also near the top of the list in percentage of people who test positive for Covid-19, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Alabama’s delay in lifting its mandate will enable more of its 4.9 million residents to be inoculated after the state just administered its one millionth dose of vaccine, Ivey said.

She did announce an end to indoor dining restrictions on restaurants and said summer camps can plan to reopen. She is also permitting senior centres to resume outdoor programmes and increase the maximum number of visitors from one to two.

Among the improvements she cited was a 77% drop in hospitalisations from its 11 January peak to its lowest level since last June, adding:

While I’m convinced that a mask mandate has been the right thing to do, I also respect those who object, and believe that this was a step too far in government overreach.

Updated at 8.09pm GMT

7.50pm GMT

Spanish authorities said Thursday they planned to ban travel between different regions of the country during Easter to curb the spread of the coronavirus, AFP reports.

Spain’s 17 regions agreed to close their borders during the week leading up to Easter Sunday, which this year falls on 4 April, during a meeting with the central government, the health ministry said in a statement.

The measure – which still must be officially approved next week – means people will not be able to leave their home region to visit family or go to holiday homes in another region during what is traditionally a peak travel period.

The travel restrictions are needed to prevent the spread of new virus variant , said secretary of state for health, Silvia Calzón. “We are at an absolutely critical moment,” she told a news conference.

Spain saw a huge spike on coronavirus infections in January after travel restrictions were eased over Christmas to allow families to get together.

But after a post-Christmas surge in which daily infections exceeded 40,000, Spain’s third wave is receding, with the two-week incidence rate falling to 153 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday from 900 at the end of January.

Spain’s traditional Easter processions, featuring flower-covered floats topped with effigies of Christ or the Virgin Mary and penitents in distinctive pointy hoods, have been cancelled this year for the second year in a row because of the pandemic.

The country has been hard-hit by the pandemic, recording over 70,000 deaths from more than 3.1 million cases.

7.47pm GMT

Zimbabwe has approved the use of an Indian Covid-19 vaccine Covaxin, becoming the first African country to sanction the jab, the Indian embassy in Harare announced on Thursday.

The news came after the ambassador Vijay Khanduja, held talks with the country’s vice president, who is also the health minister, Constantino Chiwenga.

In a clip posted on the health ministry’s YouTube channel, Chiwenga said the Indian government had donated 75,000 doses of Covaxin and that Zimbabwe would buy more.

“We are going to be purchasing vaccines,” from India, he said without giving details.

The vaccine, developed by Bharat Biotech, has been approved for use in India even though the late stage data from trials on 25,800 volunteers have not yet been released.

Despite criticism from some Indian doctors and health workers, the country’s drug regulator and the company insist it is safe for use.

The embassy said on Twitter that it was “trying to get it to Zimbabwe at an early date”.

Two weeks ago Zimbabwe started administering the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm, making it the first country in Southern Africa to use the jabs.

But a nurses’ association said some health workers were reluctant to receive the Sinopharm jab citing lack of information on the likely side effects.

The union also expressed concern that the vaccine’s protection from the variant that emerged from neighbouring South African, and which constitutes 61% of all infections, was unknown.

Covid-19 has claimed 1,478 lives in Zimbabwe from more than 33,000 diagnosed cases.

7.33pm GMT

After two consecutive days of record Covid-19 deaths in Brazil, the president Jair Bolsonaro on Thursday told Brazilians to stop “whining” and move on, in his latest remarks attacking distancing measures and downplaying the gravity of the pandemic.

The country has the world’s second-highest death toll over the past year, after the US. While the US outbreak is ebbing, Brazil is facing its worst phase of the epidemic yet, pushing its hospital system to the brink of collapse.

“Enough fussing and whining. How much longer will the crying go on?” Bolsonaro told a crowd at an event. “How much longer will you stay at home and close everything? No one can stand it anymore. We regret the deaths, again, but we need a solution.”

Brazil’s surging second wave has triggered new restrictions in its capital, Brasilia, and its largest city, São Paulo. Tourist mecca Rio de Janeiro on Thursday announced a city-wide curfew and early closing time for restaurants.

Particularly worrying to health authorities is the emergence of a new coronavirus variant from the Amazonas region that appears more contagious and more able to reinfect those who previously had Covid-19.

“We are experiencing the worst outlook for the pandemic since it started,” said Gonzalo Vecina Neto, a medical doctor and former head of Brazilian health regulator Anvisa. “Mutations are the result of the increased reproduction of the virus. The greater the number of viruses, the faster the transmission, the more mutations we have.”

State governors and doctors have complained that the federal government has mismanaged the coronavirus crisis, as Bolsonaro has downplayed its severity and opposed lockdowns. The government’s delay in acquiring and distributing vaccines means that less than 3.5% of the population have had at least one shot.

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro’s popularity has been supported by 322 billion reais (.7 billion) in emergency aid payments to poorer Brazilians last year.

The senate voted on Thursday to renew the aid program at a smaller scale, handing out 250 reais per month for four months, at a cost of up to 44 billion reais. The proposal must still be approved by Brazil’s lower house of Congress.

A worker handles a coffin at a coffin factory, amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Nova Iguaçu, Rio de Janeiro state.
A worker handles a coffin at a coffin factory, amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Nova Iguaçu, Rio de Janeiro state.
Photograph: Pilar Olivares/Reuters

7.15pm GMT

The French government spared the Paris region from a weekend coronavirus lockdown for now, determined to keep the economy as open as possible even though the infection rate is still creeping higher there.

The prime minister Jean Castex announced on Thursday a weekend lockdown for the northerly Pas-de-Calais area, like that already imposed on the French Riviera. Explaining why Paris will be spared, he told a news conference such a measure was “not a preventative step to be taken because of doubts”.

The president Emmanuel Macron is hoping to avoid another setback for the economy in the expectation that the country’s vaccination programme, which has targeted the most vulnerable but been slow, will gradually bring down the numbers of people falling sick and dying.

Castex said the vaccine was already having an impact. Infections were down 17% among over-80s, he said.

While some neighbours such as the UK and Germany have resorted to sweeping national lockdowns to fight a resurgence in the virus spurred by new variants, France has opted for a less severe nightly curfew and the closure of bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.

France expects to deliver 10 million first-round shots by the end of April and 30 million – or to two thirds of all adults – by the summer, Castex added. Pharmacists will be permitted to deliver shots from mid-March.

France registered 25,279 new coronavirus infections on Thursday, bringing its total of cases to 3.84 million, and 293 more deaths, for a total death toll of 87,835. Cases have been rising at a steady weekly rate of just above 4% since early January, although this is far below rises of more than 20% seen before and during a nationwide lockdown in November.

In Ile-de-France, a region of 12 million people centred on Paris and which accounts for a 30% of national income, there were 388 Covid-related deaths in hospitals in the week to March 3, compared to 379 and 374 in the preceding weeks.

The prime minister urged health workers who were spurning the vaccine to get inoculated. Fewer than half of nursing home workers and only one third of medical staff who have been offered the shot have been vaccinated. “That’s not how it should be and it compromises our ability to fight the virus,” Castex said.

6.56pm GMT

Summary

  • Sweden (see 1.32pm) and Germany (see 12.57pm) extended their recommendation for the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine to cover people aged over 65 after previously said lacked sufficient data, until recent studies.
  • Russia expects several EU countries to approve the use of its Sputnik V vaccine this month and Moscow could provide vaccines for 50 million Europeans starting from June if the shot wins EU-wide approval, Russia’s RDIF fund said (see 9.21am).
  • The majority of global Covid-19 deaths have been in countries where many people are obese, with coronavirus fatality rates 10 times higher in nations where at least 50% of adults are overweight, a global study found.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported that a World Health Organization team investigating Covid’s origins is planning to scrap an interim report on its recent mission to China amid mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington over the investigation and an appeal from one international group of scientists for a new inquiry (see 2.15pm).
  • Italy halted a shipment of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine due for Australia (see 3.03pm). It came after the EU introduced new rules governing the shipment of vaccines outside the bloc, although this is the first intervention of its kind.
  • Cuba has begun late-stage trials of its most advanced experimental Covid-19 vaccine, edging closer to a potential home-grown inoculation campaign after shunning foreign jabs (see 5.02pm).
  • Brazil’s second biggest city of Rio de Janeiro will be the latest to adopt new Covid restrictions from tomorrow, including a night curfew, in a bid to stall a second wave of the virus (see 12.19pm).
  • Italy and Germany will administer just a single coronavirus vaccine dose to people who have been infected with the virus up to six months beforehand, amid a scramble to save shots (see 3.32pm).
  • More than four in 10 over-80s in England may have met with someone outside of their support bubble within three weeks of receiving the first jab, an official survey suggested (see 11.27am).
  • The San Diego zoo gave nine orangutans and bonobos an experimental coronavirus vaccine, the first known non-human primates to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in the US (see 4.05pm).

Updated at 7.08pm GMT

6.20pm GMT

The Spanish government has banned marches to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March in Madrid and proposed travel restrictions to prevent Covid infections.

Reuters reports:

Last year’s marches, which were attended by tens of thousands and promoted heavily by the left-wing coalition government, stirred a bitter row over whether they were super-spreader events for the coronavirus.

“The problem is the size of the crowds that would build up in a few hours and in a few places,” the central government’s chief representative to the region told a news conference. Jose Manuel Franco said proposed marches on 7-8 March, would have brought at least 60,000 people to the capital’s streets.

Wary of celebrations in the run-up to Easter Sunday on 4 April causing a similar spike, the health ministry proposed banning travel between different regions and limiting social events to four people during Holy Week.

The plan, which needs to be ratified by Spain’s 17 regions, is likely to face opposition from some quarters, including Madrid, whose conservative regional leader, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, has said she would prefer to avoid any lockdowns.

Updated at 6.28pm GMT

5.58pm GMT

Kuwait is to impose a 12-hour curfew from 5pm to 5am and close parks from Sunday until 8 April in an attempt to reduce coronavirus transmission, the government’s spokesman said on state TV.

The Gulf state today registered a record daily toll of 1,716 cases. It had seen daily cases fall below 300 late last year from close to 1,100 in May.

Updated at 6.28pm GMT

5.45pm GMT

Italian municipal and regional elections planned for late spring will be delayed because of the pandemic, two government sources told Reuters, after signs of a surge in cases due to new variants.

Mayoral elections in many of Italy’s major cities – including Rome, Milan, Turin and Naples – will now be held between 15 September and 15 October, the sources said, adding that the decision was approved by the cabinet in a decree. A regional vote in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, would also be postponed, they said.

Local ballots are crucial in Italy as they often influence national politics, with party leaders drawing much of their clout from their control of cities and powerful regions.

Most parties from across the political spectrum back a government of national unity led by former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, meaning local administrations are one of the few areas where individual parties can apply their own policies.

Updated at 5.50pm GMT

5.43pm GMT

France aims to vaccinate at least 10 million people by mid-April, 20 million by mid-May and 30 million by the summer, the prime minister, Jean Castex,has said. Castex added that so far 3.2 million people have been vaccinated, including 1.8 million who have received two doses.

Updated at 6.40pm GMT

5.34pm GMT

Tributes have been paid to prominent South African journalist Karima Brown, 54, who died of Covid-19 in hospital earlier today, AP reports.

“We are enormously proud of the fierce determination she had shown, since her early years, to get involved in bringing about a more inclusive, and anti-racist South Africa,” her family said in a statement.

“This determination also shaped her fearless approach to journalism. She was driven by a conviction that journalism must be in service of justice.”

In the 1980s, Brown was involved in the struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s now-abolished system of racist minority rule, as a member of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-apartheid organisations which supported the then-banned African National Congress.

Karima Brown is photographed during a protest in Johannesburg, on 21 January.
Karima Brown during a protest in Johannesburg, on 21 January.
Photograph: AP

Although proud of her support for the ANC, as a journalist Brown was critical of its policies as South Africa’s ruling party. She also challenged the country’s opposition parties, AP reports.

She recently won a court case against the popular leader of the leftist Economic Freedom Front party Julius Malema after he published her cellphone number on social media, leading his supporters to harass and threaten Brown.

Brown’s lively television show, The Fix, about South Africa’s politics, was widely watched and she was known for pithy, outspoken comments on corruption, women’s rights, racial inequality, and other issues.

Updated at 6.40pm GMT

5.02pm GMT

Cuba has begun late-stage trials of its most advanced experimental Covid-19 vaccine, edging closer to a potential home-grown inoculation campaign.

The country started this week recruiting around 44,000 volunteers in Havana aged between 19 and 80 for its randomised, placebo-controlled trial of the two-shot vaccine in which some will receive a third booster shot with another Cuban vaccine candidate, Reuters reports.

If the vaccine proves effective, Cuba has said it would inoculate its entire population of 11 million with what would be the first Covid-19 jab developed and produced in Latin America. Cuba said it would also export the vaccine and offer it to tourists.

While Latin American and Caribbean countries are largely competing with richer nations to access limited vaccine supply produced abroad, Cuba has chosen to bet on its own shots even as it faces its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic.

The country’s most advanced experimental vaccine is Soberana, which means sovereignty, 2, reflecting national pride in Cuba’s relative self-reliance in areas like healthcare in spite of the crippling decades-old US trade embargo.

Neighbouring countries like Mexico, Venezuela and Jamaica have already expressed an interest in acquiring Soberana 2 should it succeed. The large phase 3 trial should be complete in November, with final results available in January 2022, according to Cuba’s official registry of clinical trials.

Updated at 5.26pm GMT

4.48pm GMT

Italy reported 339 coronavirus-related deaths on Thursday, compared with 347 on Wednesday, the country’s health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 22,865 from 20,884.

A total of 339,635 tests for Covid-19 had been carried out in the past day, compared with a previous 358,884, the health ministry said. Italy has registered 98,974 deaths linked to Covid-19 since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the seventh-highest in the world. The country has reported just under 3 million cases to date.

The number of patients in hospital with Covid-19 – not including those in intensive care – stood at 20,157 on Thursday, up from 19,763 a day earlier. There were 232 new admissions to intensive care units, up from 222 on Wednesday. The total number of intensive care patients increased to 2,475 from a previous 2,411.

When Italy’s second wave of the epidemic was accelerating quickly in the first half of November, hospital admissions were rising by about 1,000 per day, while intensive care occupancy was increasing by about 100 per day, Reuters reports.

Updated at 4.52pm GMT

4.31pm GMT

There is growing optimism over the efficacy of an Indian state-backed coronavirus vaccine that was given emergency approval in January without the completion of a late-stage trial, making people reluctant to receive the shot.

An interim analysis of the late-stage trial released yesterday suggested it was 81% effective, its developer Bharat Biotech said. Indian doctors and politicians have welcomed the news.

Government data shows that only 10% of about 13.3 million people immunised in India have taken the Covaxin shot. Bharat Biotech said 40 countries were interested in the jab, with Zimbabwe today becoming the first country outside India to approve it, according to the Indian embassy.

4.17pm GMT

The UK government has said that a further 242 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Thursday, bringing the country’s total to 124,025.

Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies for deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days, show there have been 145,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.

The government also said that, as of 9am on Thursday, there had been a further 6,573 lab-confirmed cases. It brings the cumulative total to 4,201,358.

The most recent data from the week ending 19 February shows that there were 20% more deaths from all causes than expected compared with the five-year average.

Updated at 4.22pm GMT

4.05pm GMT

The San Diego zoo has given nine orangutans and bonobos an experimental coronavirus vaccine after a troop of gorillas tested positive for the virus, and later recovered.

National Geographic reports the apes became the first known non-human primates to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in the US in February and that the animals were distracted from the needles with treats.

It was unclear whether the vaccine would be effective or if it would trigger an adverse immune reaction, according to the report. But there were no bad reactions and it was said they were doing well. Blood from one of the orangutans and one of the bonobos would soon show whether or not they had developed antibodies.

Nadine Lamberski, the head of wildlife health at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, said:

It’s not like we randomly grab a vaccine and give it to a novel species. A lot of thought and research goes into it – what’s the risk of doing it and what’s the risk of not doing it. Our motto is, above all, to do no harm … We commonly use vaccines designed with dogs and cats for lions and tigers [and apes at the zoo get human flu and measles vaccines].

The jab was developed by Zoetis, a major veterinary pharmaceuticals company. Mahesh Kumar, the senior vice president of global biologics, told National Geographic that the company was increasing production, primarily for its pursuit of a license for a mink vaccine.

Updated at 4.23pm GMT

3.47pm GMT

Europeans need to “get back to basics” and use quarantining to battle the rise in infection rates that has emerged in half the region over the last week, according to the World Health Organization.

Hans Kluge, the WHO’s director for Europe, said the latest data showed a 9% rise in new cases of Covid-19, in what would be a worrying development for overstrained health services across the continent.

Vaccinations have begun in 45 countries in the European region, according to the WHO. But the level of coverage remains low even among the 27 member states of the EU, where just 7% of the population has received a jab.

3.32pm GMT

Italy and Germany will administer just a single coronavirus vaccine dose to people who have been infected with the virus up to six months beforehand, amid a scramble to save shots.

The Italian health ministry recommendation applies to people who fell ill or who were diagnosed as infected but had no symptoms between three and six months earlier. In its recommendation, Germany’s vaccine commission said the single dose should be given six months after a person has been diagnosed.

They are the latest European Union countries after France and Spain to follow this path at a time when EU nations are struggling to boost their vaccination campaigns due to supply shortages.

Charles Bangham, a professor and chair of Immunology at Imperial College London, said:

It does make a certain amount of sense, because, their immune system has been primed, and so the vaccine would be acting rather like a booster second dose.

However, the EU’s drug regulator said yesterday it had not yet seen enough evidence to recommend changes to the dosage regime for Covid vaccines.

3.03pm GMT

Italy halts shipment of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine due for Australia

Italy has halted a shipment of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine due for Australia.

It comes after the EU introduced new rules governing the shipment of vaccines outside the bloc, although this is the first intervention of its kind.

Rome stopped the export of 250,000 doses of the vaccine, officials said, with Italy notifying Brussels of its proposed decision at the end of last week. The commission did not object to the decision, officials said.

The move threatens to heighten global tensions over vaccine procurement after EU allies objected to the introduction of its export regime. The system was announced by the European commission at the end of January, and it means EU-based vaccine manufacturers must seek authorisation from their national government where their Covid-19 vaccine is produced before exporting it out of the EU.

Updated at 3.26pm GMT

2.39pm GMT

The European Union’s coronavirus vaccination campaign should be able to inoculate “all those who need” by the end of summer or perhaps sooner, an EU official pledged.

The EU industry commissioner, Thierry Breton, said he was confident that “by the end of the summer, and I hope even sooner, all those who need to be vaccinated will have been”.

The EU has faced sharp criticism over delays in vaccine rollouts, partly due to production bottlenecks, while other countries such as Israel, Britain and the US have been much faster.

Speaking in Rome after talks with the Italian economic development minister, Giancarlo Giorgetti, Breton said he was “very impressed” by how pharmaceutical companies had managed to accelerate vaccine production.

“The issue is no longer about [having enough] vaccines; in Europe we have plenty of vaccines available,” said the French EU official, a former businessman.

Updated at 2.41pm GMT

2.31pm GMT

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2.30pm GMT

The majority of global Covid-19 deaths have been in countries where many people are obese, with coronavirus fatality rates 10 times higher in nations where at least 50% of adults are overweight, a global study has found.

The report, which described a “dramatic” correlation between countries’ Covid-19 death and obesity rates, found that 90% or 2.2 million of the 2.5 million deaths from the pandemic disease so far were in countries with high levels of obesity.

The study analysed the death figures from Johns Hopkins University in the US and the World Health Organization’s Global Health Observatory data on obesity.

Strikingly, the authors said, there was no example of a country where people are generally not overweight or obese having high Covid-19 death rates.

“Look at countries like Japan and South Korea, where they have very low levels of Covid-19 deaths as well as very low levels of adult obesity,” said Tim Lobstein, an expert advisor to the World Obesity Federation and visiting professor at Australia’s Sydney University who co-led the report.

“They have prioritised public health across a range of measures, including population weight, and it has paid off in the pandemic.”

Updated at 2.42pm GMT

2.15pm GMT

WHO to scrap interim report on virus origins – report

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that a World Health Organization team investigating Covid’s origins is planning to scrap an interim report on its recent mission to China amid mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington over the investigation and an appeal from one international group of scientists for a new inquiry.

It reports that a group of two dozen scientists have written an open letter calling for a new international inquiry, claiming that the WHO team that was in Wuhan last month had insufficient access to investigate conceivable sources of the virus, including a possible laboratory leak.

In Geneva, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in via email: “The full report is expected in coming weeks”. No further information was immediately available about the reasons for the delay in publishing the findings of the WHO-led mission.

China refused to give raw data on early Covid-19 cases to a WHO-led team probing the origins of the pandemic, Dominic Dwyer, one of the team’s investigators said last month, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the outbreak began.

The WHO team all but dismissed the suggestions that the virus may have leaked from a laboratory in a press conference afterr their mission. But later that week the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said “all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and studies”.

Updated at 5.39pm GMT

2.06pm GMT

Slovakia has transferred its first coronavirus patients abroad, to Poland, as the central European country’s hospitals come under growing pressure.

It has reported the world’s highest number of Covid-related deaths per capita over the past week as the government’s restrictions have failed so far to tame the spread of the coronavirus.

“First patients were transported to [Poland’s] Gorlice,” the health ministry state secretary Peter Stachura said on Facebook. He said that Poland and Germany had offered to take 10 patients each from Slovakia. Romania helped with transforming some beds in Slovak hospitals so that they could be used for Covid patients whose lungs could not cope.

Slovakia’s hospitals have been stretched by record numbers of coronavirus patients, about 4,000. The country of 5.5 million has reported 7,560 coronavirus deaths.

Updated at 2.27pm GMT

1.46pm GMT

Ukraine has confirmed two cases of the British coronavirus variant, detected in the west of the country, the Ukrainian institute of epidemiology and infectious diseases said.

An institute official told Reuters two cases, a man and a woman, were registered in the Ivano-Frankivsk region. The official said tests were taken on 18-19 February, despite Ukrainian health authorities saying earlier this week there was no such variant in the country.

Ukraine has faced a sharp jump in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, which the prime minister, Denys Shmygal, called a “third wave” of the pandemic. He said three regions had already imposed serious restrictions, which may be introduced elsewhere in coming days. Shmygal said the country could return to national lockdown if things became worse.

Updated at 2.17pm GMT

1.32pm GMT

Sweden is latest country to recommend AstraZeneca/Oxford jab for elderly people

Sweden has also extended its recommendation for the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid vaccine to cover people aged over 65.

Along with a number of other European countries who are now changing their policy, Sweden had previously held off recommending the vaccine for elderly people, citing a lack of research on that group.

A health agency official, Sara Byfors, told a news conference.

There are new studies, from England and Scotland for instance, showing that AstraZeneca’s vaccine offers a very good protection in these age groups.

Sweden, which has avoided imposing lockdowns throughout the pandemic, registered 4,838 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, health agency statistics show. The country of 10 million people registered 13 new deaths, taking the total to 12,977.

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

Updated at 1.37pm GMT

1.17pm GMT

Lebanon’s health ministry has rejected a court order for it to swiftly vaccinate an elderly man against Covid, accusing the judge of trying to score points in the media following a scandal over queue-jumping by politicians.

Reuters reports:

Wednesday’s court order followed a complaint by 80-year-old Joseph al-Hajj, who filed suit after about a dozen members of parliament – most younger than him – received their jabs last week, violating the country’s rollout plan.

Rejecting the ruling by the judge Carla Chawah, who said Hajj should be vaccinated within 48 hours, the health ministry said he would receive the vaccine “sooner or later”. “[Chawah’s ruling was] a decision formulated for the media,” the ministry added in a statement.

Soon after the vaccination of the lawmakers came to light, the World Bank threatened to suspend its funding of Lebanon’s immunisation programme. The ongoing row has fuelled widespread public anger over corruption and perceived state mismanagement amid a political and economic crisis.

In her ruling, Chawah said the ministry had violated “the principle of equality” before the law and Hajj’s right to life and health.

Updated at 1.39pm GMT

12.57pm GMT

The confirmation of the announcement in Germany comes after Angela Merkel broke the news yesterday (see 11.51am), which itself follows similar reversals in the Belgian and French policies on the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine after they also said there was insufficient data about the effect of the vaccine on older age groups

In a separate development, the German biopharmaceutical group CureVac has said it has signed a deal with Novartis for the Swiss pharmaceutical giant to help in its production of the Covid-19 vaccine it is developing.

The Swiss giant will make up to 50m doses of Curevac’s mRNA vaccine by the end of 2021 and up to 200m doses in 2022, said the German company.

The EU’s medicines regulator said in February that it had started a “rolling review” of CureVac’s vaccine, in a first step towards possible authorisation for use in the bloc.

Updated at 1.02pm GMT

12.45pm GMT

German authorities now recommend AstraZeneca/Oxford for over 65s

Germany’s vaccine commission has now recommended the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine for people over the age of 65.

“The vaccine commission now recommends the AstraZeneca vaccine for people over 65 as well. This is good news for older people who are waiting for a jab,” said the health minister, Jens Spahn.

Germany had previously said it lacked sufficient data to approve the vaccine for older people, but has changed its position following recent studies. “The new data also shows that the vaccine is even more effective when the first and second jabs are administered 12 weeks apart,” said Spahn.

Updated at 1.03pm GMT

12.35pm GMT

American singer-songwriter David Crosby has sold the recorded music and publishing rights to his entire music catalogue – including the works of the Byrds, Crosby & Nash, Crosby Stills and Nash, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young – citing the pandemic.

“Given our current inability to work live, this deal is a blessing for me and my family and I do believe these are the best people to do it with,” he said in a press release. “I can’t work … and streaming stole my money,” he tweeted on 7 December.

Updated at 12.35pm GMT

12.19pm GMT

Brazil’s second biggest city of Rio de Janeiro will be the latest to adopt new Covid restrictions from Friday, including a night curfew, in a bid to stall a second wave of the virus.

The city of 6.7 million people will impose a curfew from 11pm to 5am and order restaurants to close at 5pm. Certain businesses, such as clubs, will be shut altogether until 11 March, according to information published in the city’s official bulletin.

A record 1,910 deaths related to the virus were recorded yesterday in Brazil. In response, various states and cities have adopted new restrictions on commerce in recent days, including the federal district, home of the capital, Brasilia, and Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s most populous.

Updated at 12.33pm GMT

12.01pm GMT

Reuters is citing anonymous EU sources saying the bloc is planning to extend its export authorisation scheme for Covid vaccines to the end of June.

The news agency reports:

The mechanism was set up at the end of January as a reaction to vaccine makers’ announcements of delays in the deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines to the EU. It is due to expire at the end of March, but the European Commission wants to extend it through June, two officials said.

“The commission will propose its extension into June. And that was greeted by the member states with approval, not necessarily enthusiasm, but there is a feeling that we still need that mechanism,” one senior EU diplomat said.

When the EU’s export control mechanism was introduced in late January it triggered an outcry from importing countries who feared their vaccine supplies might have been hampered. Under the scheme, companies must get an authorisation before exporting Covid-19 shots, and may have export requests denied if they do not respect their supply commitments with the EU.

However, the EU has authorised all requests for export since the scheme’s debut on 30 January to 26 February, which amounted to 150 requests for millions of shots to 29 countries, including Britain, the United Arab Emirates and Canada, a commission spokeswoman said. She added, however, that at least one request was withdrawn by an exporting company.

Updated at 12.11pm GMT

11.51am GMT

Germany is expected to authorise the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine for people over the age of 65, after Belgium yesterday authorised its rollout to seniors.

The countries had previously said there was insufficient data about the effect of the vaccine on older age groups. But the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Belgian health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, said recent studies had now provided that data, leading to their respective policy changes.

“The [German] vaccine commission, whose recommendations we are happy to follow, will authorise AstraZeneca for older age groups,” Merkel told reporters yesterday.

Vandenbroucke said recent studies in Britain and Israel had shown the shot did give that age group protection against Covid-19.

Belgium, a country of 11.5 million, has reserved 7.7m doses of the AstraZeneca jab, the largest order it has made of any of the available Covid-19 vaccines.

France, which had also limited the AstraZeneca jab to younger age groups, said earlier this week that it, too, would allow the vaccine to be given to over-65s.

Updated at 12.14pm GMT

11.27am GMT

More than four in 10 over-80s in England breaking lockdown rules after receiving one vaccine dose

More than four in 10 over-80s in England may have met with someone outside of their support bubble within three weeks of receiving the first jab of the Covid vaccine, an official survey suggests.

The Office for National Statistics has reported that almost half (49%) of the 2,070 over-80s surveyed perceived Covid to be a major or significant risk to them personally without vaccination, but this decreased to 5% if they were to receive both doses of the vaccine.

Among those who had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, 41% reported having experienced side effects. But this has not discouraged the vast majority from obtaining the second dose and about 19 in 20 would be likely to encourage others to be vaccinated.

The risk of mortality from Covid-19 increases substantially with age and the most recent data from the last three months of 2020 shows that the average age of death related to Covid in England and Wales was 81.

Tim Gibbs, public services analysis team at the ONS, said:

The rollout of the Covid vaccination is, no doubt, a huge relief to many people aged over 80, as we can see that almost half of all them, when asked, considered Covid to be a major or significant personal risk before receiving the vaccination – this decreases to just 5% having the same concern after hypothetically receiving both doses of the vaccine.

It will hopefully also improve a wider quality of life for this group. We can see that one third of over 80s who had received two or more doses of the vaccine reported they would be more likely to attend a hospital for a medical reason since being vaccinated.

We hope to start to see these wider positive effects of the vaccine rollout as it continues across more age groups in the coming weeks.

Updated at 11.43am GMT

11.12am GMT

Germany has told the EU it would uphold its latest border restrictions imposed in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid variants, rebuffing calls from the bloc’s executive European Commission, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The Brussels-based executive last week asked Germany and five other countries to ease unilateral restrictions on movement of goods and people, saying they have “gone too far” and were putting a strain on the functioning of the bloc’s single market.

But Germany’s EU ambassador replied in a 1 March letter, seen by Reuters: “We have to uphold the measures taken at the internal borders at the moment in the interest of health protection.”

Germany last month introduced tighter checks along its normally open frontiers with the Czech Republic and Austria, both of which have experienced a surge in more easily transmissible Covid variants.

Long lines of trucks have formed at some of the crossings in a symbol of the EU’s challenges in upholding a joint approach to tackling the pandemic.

Similarly, Belgium, which was singled out by the commission over its blanket ban on all non-essential travel in and out of the country, has since refused to ease restrictions, quoting higher Covid-19 hospitalisation numbers.

Its Mattha Busby here, taking over from my colleague Kevin Rawlinson. Good morning, good afternoon and good evening to everyone reading. Please drop me a line on Twitter or via email on mattha.busby.freelance@guardian.co.uk with any thoughts or tips.

10.47am GMT

Hungary will close all shops except food stores and pharmacies and shift to remote learning in primary schools as cases are spreading fast, Viktor Orbán’s chief of staff has now confirmed.

Gergely Gulyás told a government briefing that the government would extend state income support to sectors that have to close down from 8 March until 22 March, Reuters reports.

Updated at 10.55am GMT

10.24am GMT

Egypt is expanding its vaccination rollout to include elderly people and those with chronic diseases after several weeks of vaccinating medical staff, Reuters quotes the country’s government ministers as saying. The news agency reports:

Nearly 153,000 people have applied for vaccinations since Sunday, when the north African country opened online registration, the cabinet said in a statement.

Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country with more than 100 million, has prepared 40 vaccination centres and plans to increase that number after the arrival of more vaccine batches, the prime minister Mostafa Madbouly said.

Egypt received 350,000 doses of a coronavirus vaccine developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) in two batches since December, in addition to 50,000 doses of a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca in February.

It is hoping to receive vaccines through the Covax facility, a global initiative aimed at providing equitable distribution of vaccines, in the coming weeks.

On 24 February, the Egyptian Drug Authority approved Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine for emergency use. Egypt’s Prime Speed Medical Services said it had obtained the right to provide Sputnik V in Egypt in a statement to the stock exchange, without giving details.

Egypt began vaccinating frontline medical staff against Covid-19 on 24 January using the Chinese vaccine.

Those getting the Sinopharm jab have a second dose after 21 days while those who receive the AstraZeneca vaccine wait 12 weeks for the second dose, said the health minister Hala Zayed.

As of Wednesday, Egypt had confirmed 184,168 coronavirus cases, including 10,822 deaths, since the start of the pandemic.

However, health officials say the real number is likely far higher due to a relatively low rate of coronavirus testing and the exclusion of private test results.

Updated at 10.48am GMT

10.17am GMT

France has criticised a push by Austria and Denmark to coordinate with Israel on developing new Covid-19 jabs, as EU unity frays even further over its troubled vaccine rollout, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports. It says:

The Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced the Israeli partnership on Monday, saying the European Medicines Agency (EMA) was “too slow in approving vaccines” leaving the bloc vulnerable to supply bottlenecks at pharmaceutical companies.

But France’s foreign ministry defended the agency and insisted that “the most effective solution for meeting our vaccination needs must remain within a European framework”.

“This is what guarantees the solidarity among member states that is more essential than ever,” it said on Wednesday.

European officials are under pressure to step up vaccination drives that have lagged behind those of other countries, including Israel and Britain, which approved coronavirus vaccines several weeks before the EMA.

“We should not be solely dependent on the EU any more,” Kurz said ahead of a trip to Israel with his Danish counterpart Mette Frederiksen on Thursday to agree on common production of future vaccines and cooperation on research.

Austria’s neighbours Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic have already bypassed the EMA to approve Russian and Chinese coronavirus vaccines.

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian acknowledged “significant” shortcomings in the EU’s vaccination policies on Wednesday, but criticised what he called “attempts at secession”.

European nations should instead pool their resources to increase vaccine production capacity in Europe, “something we are in the process of doing”, the ministry said in its statement.

“The approval process for the European market has also been reviewed, with the introduction of ‘emergency procedures’ for vaccines targeting new variants,” it added.

Updated at 10.28am GMT

10.13am GMT

Resurgence of cases hits Europe

The World Health Organization (WHO) is seeing a resurgence of cases in central and eastern Europe, as well as a rise of new cases in several western European countries, Reuters is quoting the head of its European office as saying. Hans Kluge told reporters:

Continued strain on our hospitals and health workers is being met with acts of medical solidarity between European neighbours. Nonetheless, over a year into the pandemic our health systems should not be in this situation.

10.09am GMT

Poland could loosen coronavirus restrictions in May, provided a third wave of the pandemic peaks between March and April, the health minister Adam Niedzielski is reported to have said.

Poland’s new daily cases will reach 15,250 on Thursday, he said, having jumped to 15,698 on Wednesday in one of the biggest spikes since November. Niedzielski told Polish web portal WP.pl:

Maybe after (the Easter holidays) we will be able to make more forthright decisions about loosening restrictions if we see that the pandemic’s peak is behind us … If we see the peak of the pandemic at the cusp of March and April then we probably have a loosening path ahead of us.

Reuters reports that Poland eased some restrictions last month, reopening ski slopes as well as cinemas, hotels and theatres for up to 50% capacity, but authorities say the measures may have to be rolled back as cases rise again.

Niedzielski said people who have already had coronavirus and are immune will only get one dose of the vaccine, while the government is looking to extend the period between receiving the first and second dose for everyone else.

This will help us speed up the pace of vaccination.

As in other European Union countries, Poland’s vaccination programme has been hampered by delays in deliveries from producers, such as Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech.

9.57am GMT

The UK’s chancellor has said it is “too early” to say whether he would be minded to support the rollout of vaccine passports given a review is currently under way. Speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Rishi Sunak said:

It is a difficult and complicated question because it raises various practical, legal and ethical issues.

We are working through those, so the prime minister has a committee and we have not just ethicists but doctors and business people working together to look at that particular question, to consider all the issues in the round and come up with some recommendations in a few months’ time and we will see if they can play a part.

Asked whether he was “minded to back” so-called vaccine passports, he said:

It would be too early for me to use a phrase like ‘minded to’. It is a committee to look at the various issues that it throws up – there are some obvious challenges – some people are not able to, for health reasons, to get vaccinations.

And then there is the practical aspect – how do we verify it, what kind of technology would one use, what circumstances would it be appropriate to use it?

It is too early to say anyone is minded to do anything – that is quite a specific phrase – but I think it is right we go through all of that to surface what some of the issues and benefits might be and then we can decide and make a decision in the round in the coming months.

9.52am GMT

The human medicines committee of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will handle the review of data from ongoing trials of the vaccine until there is enough clinical data for approval, Reuters reports.

Sputnik V was almost 92% effective, based on peer-reviewed late-stage trial results published in The Lancet medical journal last month. The two-shot vaccine uses two different weakened common cold viruses to deliver immune-building protein to the human body.

The EMA’s “rolling reviews” are aimed to speed up the process of approving a successful vaccine by allowing researchers to submit findings in real-time, even before final trial data is ready.

Europe currently has approved vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca, while ongoing reviews for CureVac and Novavax’s candidates are already underway. The EMA is also expected to give its verdict on J&J’s single-shot vaccine on 11 March.

9.21am GMT

EU countries to approve Russian vaccine – Moscow

Russia expects several European Union countries to approve the use of its Sputnik V vaccine this month and Moscow could provide vaccines for 50 million Europeans starting from June if the shot wins EU-wide approval, Russia’s RDIF fund has said.

Reuters quoted Kirill Dmitriev, the chief executive of the fund tasked with promoting Sputnik V internationally, as saying the shot could act as a bridge between Russia and Europe – and that its potential roll-out should not get bogged down in politics.

He was speaking after the European Medicines Agency said it had begun a rolling review of Sputnik V.

9.18am GMT

The German chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders have agreed a phased easing of coronavirus curbs along with an “emergency brake” to let authorities reimpose restrictions if case numbers spike again, Reuters reports.

With elections looming, Merkel and the regional leaders have faced growing pressure to set out plans to restore normal activities after four months of lockdown. However, daily cases are creeping up again and only around 5% of the population have received a first vaccine shot.

“We are at the threshold of a new phase of the pandemic that we can go into not carelessly but still with justified hope,” Merkel told reporters on Wednesday after what she described as “tough negotiations” with the regional chiefs.

According to Reuters, the leaders agreed to use the full length of the approved interval between first and second vaccinations and to minimise stockpiling of booster shots to get more people started on the two-shot course.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommends giving Pfizer and BioNTech’s injections three weeks apart and AstraZeneca’s up to 12 weeks apart.

They also said they expected a decision soon from Germany’s standing committee on vaccination on administering the AstraZeneca shot to over-65s, “in order to be able to adjust the vaccination schedule accordingly”.

Germany currently only allows the AstraZeneca vaccine to be given to people aged 18 to 64, which has led to a low take-up of available doses, slowing vaccination efforts.

9.16am GMT

The UK’s health secretary Matt Hancock has outlined the fast-track approach to approving new vaccines for coronavirus variants, according to PA Media. During a visit to Glasgow Lighthouse Lab, he said:

We will have a fast-track approach to safely approving future vaccines that work against a variant of Covid-19.

The vaccine programme has clearly been a huge UK success story, and part of the reason that we have been able to develop the vaccines so far so quickly is because of the MHRA’s rigorous yet flexible approach, which has been based entirely on looking as quickly as possible at the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

I’m delighted that they’re taking that same principled approach to the approval process for vaccines that may work against variants.

The MHRA’s chief executive Dr June Raine said there’s no evidence current vaccines are lacking effectiveness against known variants.

Since December last year, we have all been concerned about the appearance of variants – Kent, South Africa, more recently Brazil – and, therefore, we’re well-prepared to look at, when it’s needed, updates to ensure the vaccines being used in citizens are fully effective.

Our goal is to ensure that the vaccine modifications in future that respond to the new variants can be available in the shortest possible time but without compromising in any way on safety, on quality and on effectiveness.

What I would emphasise at the outset is that we don’t have evidence at the moment that the vaccines in use in the UK are significantly lacking in effectiveness but we are now well-prepared.

9.12am GMT

Here’s a little more detail on the reports that Hungary has recorded its worst daily caseload in three months.

According to Reuters, the surgeon general Cecilia Muller flagged the possibility of further restrictions in response to the jump in case numbers and deaths.

Current restrictions in place since November include a night-time curfew, the closure of hotels and restaurants, a ban on all gatherings and remote learning in secondary schools.

The prime minister Viktor Orbán’s chief of staff is due to hold a briefing later in the day where he is expected to outline decisions made at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Reuters said The report added:

The PSZ teachers’ union on Tuesday urged the government to launch remote learning in primary schools as infections are spreading rapidly.

Last week, Hungary became the first European Union member to start inoculating people with China’s Sinopharm vaccine after rolling out Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine as well, even though neither has been granted approval for emergency use by the bloc.

The Russian and Chinese shots are being administered along with the Pfizer-BioNTech, vaccine and shots developed by US company Moderna and AstraZeneca; all of which have received the EU green light.

As of Thursday, more than 785,000 people in Hungary had received at least one dose of a vaccine. The virus has infected 446,178 people in the country of 10 million so far and killed 15,476.

9.01am GMT

Italy will administer a single vaccine dose to those who have already been infected, the health ministry said late on Wednesday. Reuters quoted the ministry as saying:

A single dose of vaccine may be considered for individuals with previous SARS-CoV-2 infection, symptomatic or asymptomatic.

The recommendation applies to people diagnosed with Covid between three and six months previously.

The news agency said France and Spain announced a similar policy last month, in a move that also appears to be aimed at saving vaccine shots and boosting supplies while EU countries are struggling to run their vaccination campaigns due to supply cuts imposed by drugmakers.

Italy, which has a population of around 60 million people, had administered 4.76m doses of vaccines as of early Thursday, with some 1.5 million people receiving the recommended two shots.

Updated at 9.17am GMT

8.40am GMT

Here’s a little more detail on the reports that Pakistan was suspending its HBL Pakistan Super League (PSL) 6 after team personnel tested positive.

A Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) official has told Reuters that three international players were among the seven who tested positive. Officials did not immediately give a resumption date.

The news agency reports that Pakistan has recorded 585,435 cases and more than 13,000 deaths. The last two days have seen over 130 deaths, according to government data.

Pakistan imposed a lockdown only for a few weeks after the first case was detected in March last year, and has gradually lifted the few restrictions it had in place since then. Authorities gave permission for the PSL tournament to increase crowd sizes from 20% to 50% stadium capacity last week.

8.28am GMT

Russia has reported 11,385 new cases, including 2,150 in Moscow, taking the national case total to 4,290,135, Reuters reports. Local authorities said 475 people had died in the last 24 hours, pushing the official death toll to 87,823.

8.13am GMT

Hungary has reported 6,278 new cases; its highest daily tally in three months, while the number of deaths also increased sharply to 152, government data shows.

8.10am GMT

The real earnings of UK workers will fall this year and remain stagnant after that even as the economy recovers from the pandemic, according to analysis of the budget that suggests the government will oversee one of the worst periods for UK living standards on record.

Incomes will lag behind inflation during 2021-22 – meaning living standards will drop – and will only rise by an average of 0.3% annually over the course of the next four years, according to the Resolution Foundation, an independent thinktank.

It will be the worst inter-election period for real household disposable income on record, barring the short parliament of 2015-17, when David Cameron and then Theresa May were prime ministers. That parliament was marred by a spike in inflation following the Brexit referendum result.

7.58am GMT

Reuters reports that Pakistan is suspending its flagship cricket tournament that started last month after seven team personnel tested positive.

It quotes the cricket board as saying: “The health and wellbeing of all participants is paramount,” adding that the decision to suspend the HBL Pakistan Super League 6 with immediate effect was made following a meeting with the team owners.

It added that the decision was made after seven cases were reported in the competition, which started on 20 February.

7.34am GMT

Regulators prepare to fast-track vaccines against new variants

Authorised vaccines that are modified to protect against new variants will not need to start a new approval process or undergo in-depth clinical studies, regulators in the UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland have said.

Manufacturers will need to provide “robust evidence that the modified vaccine produces an immune response, but time-consuming clinical studies that do not add to the regulatory understanding of a vaccine’s safety, quality or effectiveness would not be needed”, bringing the process into line with that already used for updated flu jabs.

According to the UK’s Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), members of the ACCESS Consortium of regulators in the nations decided it is no longer necessary to wait to see whether patients become ill after being inoculated because researchers now have a better understanding of how to detect the presence of antibodies in the blood. The MHRA said:

Alongside data on the immune response, the vaccine manufacturer would also be expected to provide evidence showing the modified vaccine is safe and is of the expected quality. In addition, data from the original robust clinical trials and the ongoing studies on real-world use in millions of people could be used to support any decision by the regulators.

This approach is based on the tried and tested regulatory process used for seasonal flu vaccines, for which annual modifications are needed to match the strains circulating each year.

The MHRA’s chief scientific officer Dr Christian Schneider said:

Our priority is to get effective vaccines to the public in as short a time as possible, without compromising on safety. Should any modifications to authorised Covid-19 vaccines be necessary, this regulatory approach should help to do just that.

The announcement today also demonstrates the strength of our international partnerships with other regulators and how our global work can help ensure faster access to life-saving vaccines in the UK and around the world.

The public should be confident that no vaccine would be approved unless the expected high standards of safety, quality and effectiveness are met.

7.01am GMT

Immune system T cell responses to variants remain potent

While worrisome coronavirus variants identified in Brazil, South Africa, and California have mutations that might help them resist antibody treatments and vaccines, the immune system’s T cell responses to the variants are unaffected in recovered patients and in people who have received the Moderna Inc or Pfizer Inc/BioNTech vaccines, new data show.

Reuters: The T cells induced by vaccines can recognise pieces of the virus spike protein, while T cells induced by previous infection recognise multiple parts of the virus, including the spike and other proteins, said Alessandro Sette of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology.

“These pieces are largely not changed/mutated in the variants,” he explained. “This means that the T cell responses recognise the ‘ancestral’ sequence and the variants equally well.”

7.00am GMT

That may be it from me, Helen Sullivan for today, but these MC Hammer-loving baby fish are just getting started:

6.49am GMT

Summary

Here are the key developments from the last few hours:

  • Covid death rates 10 times higher in countries where most adults overweight. Countries with high levels of overweight people, such as the UK and the US, have the highest death rates from Covid-19, a landmark report reveals, prompting calls for governments to urgently tackle obesity, as well as prioritising overweight people for vaccinations.
  • English prevalence dropping at slower rate, study finds. The prevalence of Covid infections in England has dropped since January, but the rate of decline has slowed and cases might be on the rise in some areas, researchers at Imperial College London said on Thursday.
  • Brazil suffered another day of record Covid deaths. Brazil has suffered yet another day of record Covid losses with at least 1,910 new fatalities reported in the crisis-stricken South American country. On Wednesday evening the National Council of State Health Secretaries said those deaths took the country’s total death toll to 259,271 – about 10% of the global total. A record 1,726 deaths were reported on Tuesday.
  • Fake Covid-19 vaccines were seized in South Africa, China: Interpol. Police in China and South Africa have seized thousands of fake doses of Covid-19 jabs, global police organisation Interpol said on Wednesday, warning this represented only the “tip of the iceberg” in vaccine-related crime.
  • Greece prolonged its lockdown to 16 March after reporting the highest number of new cases recorded so far in 2021. Health officials reported 2,702 new infections and 40 deaths on Wednesday.
  • Australia recorded its biggest monthly trade surplus ever as household spending drives growth. Australia recorded the biggest monthly trade surplus in history as the economy continued to rack up records in a marked rebound from last year’s deep recession.
  • Germany announced that it will relax Covid curbs. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday unveiled plans to gradually ease coronavirus curbs in Europe’s top economy.

6.27am GMT

English prevalence dropping at slower rate, study finds

The prevalence of Covid infections in England has dropped since January, but the rate of decline has slowed and cases might be on the rise in some areas, researchers at Imperial College London said on Thursday.

Reuters: Interim findings for February compared to that of January shows estimated prevalence has risen in London and the South-East, as well as the East and West Midlands. The easing of England’s national lockdown is set to begin on Monday, when schools reopen. Britain has given more than 20 million people a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

6.13am GMT

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen received on Thursday a shot of the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine supplied by India, about three weeks into the launch of his country’s inoculation programme, which initially relied only on Chinese vaccines, Reuters reports.

Hun Sen, 68, had vowed to be the first to receive the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China, but later said he was too old. His sons and the justice and environment ministers were among the first to get it instead.

China is one of Cambodia’s closest allies, and Hun Sen dismissed public hesitance about the safety of the Sinopharm vaccine.

“The Chinese vaccine has gone to more countries than the AstraZeneca vaccine, even countries that are allies of the West also use the Chinese vaccines,” Hun Sen told a news conference after getting his shot.

He urged people below 60 to get the Sinopharm vaccine and those older than 60 to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he receives the AstraZeneca vaccine during a vaccination campaign against the Covid-19 coronavirus at Calmette hospital in Phnom Penh on March 4, 2021.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he receives the AstraZeneca vaccine during a vaccination campaign against the Covid-19 coronavirus at Calmette hospital in Phnom Penh on March 4, 2021.
Photograph: Kok Ky/AFP/Getty Images

The Southeast Asian nation of about 16 million has reported among the lowest number of coronavirus cases and no deaths, though last month saw a rise in cases that took the cumulative total detected to 909.

Cambodia received its first batch of 324,000 doses of the India-made AstraZeneca vaccine and supplied through the World Health Organization-backed Covax vaccine-sharing programme on Tuesday.

India and China have been engaged in vaccine diplomacy to bolster their standing in the region, with both donating shipments to smaller and poor countries.

China’s first consignment of 600,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine had arrived in Phnom Penh on 7 February and an additional 400,000 doses are set to arrive in April.

5.40am GMT

Germany to relax Covid curbs

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday unveiled plans to gradually ease coronavirus curbs in Europe’s top economy, AFP reports.

Merkel and Germany’s 16 regional leaders revealed a step-by-step plan to relax restrictions, despite concern over the spread of more aggressive virus variants, as Merkel caved to political pressure and public discontent.

“Today, we can talk of hope and a transition to a new phase” in the fight against the pandemic, she told a Berlin press conference, citing the imminent ramp-up in vaccinations and the arrival of mass rapid testing.

The relaxations will happen gradually and many of the current virus restrictions will stay in place until March 28, but from Monday, Germans will be allowed to socialise more, with up to five adults from two households allowed to meet up.

The desire to leave pandemic regulations behind is widespread throughout the rest of Europe too, as the Swiss government said a referendum would be held in June on the legality of government powers to order lockdowns.

In the Dutch town of Bovenkarspel, a suspected bomb went off at a coronavirus testing centre, breaking windows but not causing any injuries.

The Netherlands has been shaken by riots against coronavirus curfews and the torching of another testing centre in January.

5.09am GMT

Indian doctors and politicians on Thursday welcomed efficacy data for a state-backed coronavirus vaccine that was given emergency approval in January without the completion of a late-stage trial, making people reluctant to receive the shot, Reuters reports.

Government data shows that only 10% of about 12.6 million people immunised in India have taken the Covaxin shot, which was found to be 81% effective in an interim analysis of the late-stage trial, its developer Bharat Biotech said on Wednesday.

Any boost to the vaccine’s acceptance in India, which on Thursday reported a new Covid cases at their highest in five weeks, could also brighten its export prospects. Bharat Biotech said 40 countries were interested in Covaxin.

Many Indian doctors and opposition politicians had rejected Covaxin because it was approved by the drug regulator only on the basis of data from intermediate trials. The regulator has also authorised the use of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, marketed as Covishield in India, which was found to be 70.42% effective based on overseas trials.

4.41am GMT

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 11,912 to 2,471,942, data from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases showed on Thursday.

The reported death toll rose by 359 to 71,240, the tally showed.

3.36am GMT

South Africa medics celebrate after sharp drop in Covid cases

After a year battling coronavirus, exhausted health workers in South Africa are celebrating a drop in cases but dread another wave of infections – a scenario that could strike just months from now.

Via AFP: “We are relieved now because the numbers are down and patients are no longer that sick,” nurse Constance Mathibela told AFP at Thembisa Hospital, in a township east of Johannesburg.

After the epidemic hit its stride, the hospital “was almost full everyday,” she recalled.

“There was no time when we had an empty (Covid) ward. It was just a continuous (flow of) things.”

South Africa recorded its first case of coronavirus on March 5 last year.

Health workers screen visitors for Covid-19 symptoms at the Tembisa Hospital in Tembisa, on 1 March 2021.
Health workers screen visitors for Covid-19 symptoms at the Tembisa Hospital in Tembisa, on 1 March 2021.
Photograph: Guillem Sartorio/AFP/Getty Images

It has since been through two virus storms, recording over 1.5 million cases and more than 50,000 deaths – the highest in all of Africa.

But on Sunday President Cyril Ramaphosa declared that the second wave, fuelled by a new, more contagious, variant, was now over.

The nationwide tally of daily new infections fell to just over 500 this week after peaking at more than 21,000 on January 7.

Ramaphosa’s announcement was welcome news for many medical workers who have been driven to the brink of burnout.

But with a vaccination drive having started only last month, they are also bracing for a possible third wave.

Scientists believe it could land with the onset of the southern hemisphere winter, around May or June.

2.59am GMT

Australia records biggest monthly trade surplus ever as household spending drives growth

Australia recorded the biggest monthly trade surplus in history as the economy continued to rack up records in a marked rebound from last year’s deep recession.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics said the trade balance of goods and services was a record .1bn in January and was up more than bn compared with December.

This was the result of a 6% jump in exports, while imports declined 2%.

Economists had forecast a surplus of around bn based on preliminary data released last month, with export earnings rising on higher commodity prices, in particular those for iron ore on strong demand from China:

2.33am GMT

Brazil set a daily record for Covid deaths for a second straight day on Wednesday, as a raging resurgence of the virus led Sao Paulo state to shutter businesses and the government to try to close vaccine deals with Pfizer and Janssen, Reuters reports.

With a new coronavirus variant from the Amazon spurring more infections, according to studies, 1,910 people died from the virus in the past 24 hours, according to Health Ministry data. In a year, Brazil’s death toll has nearly topped 260,000, the world’s second-worst after the United States.

A sputtering vaccination campaign has also put pressure on Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, who said on Wednesday he was close to an agreement with Pfizer Inc, effectively overcoming a dispute over liability clauses.

The government said it intended to buy 100 million doses from Pfizer and 38 million from Janssen, the pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

Healthcare workers prepare to take a patient suspected of having Covid into the HRAN Hospital in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, 3 March 2021.
Healthcare workers prepare to take a patient suspected of having Covid into the HRAN Hospital in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, 3 March 2021.
Photograph: Eraldo Peres/AP

“We’ve reached a grave moment of the pandemic. The coronavirus variants are hitting us aggressively,” Pazuello said in a video posted on social media, adding that he expected the Pfizer doses to arrive in May.

In another video, he said the ministry was close to a contract to receive the “first rate” Janssen vaccine by August.

The partial lockdown in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most-populous state, underscored mounting concerns about a surging new wave of infections. The country is facing its deadliest stretch since the pandemic began due to a homegrown variant dubbed P1, scarce restrictions to slow the virus and the patchy vaccine rollout.

Brazil is setting single-day death records as outbreaks ebb in North America and parts of Western Europe. That risks internationally isolating Latin America’s biggest country as other nations seek to shore up their gains against the virus.

The Sao Paulo announcement, made by state Governor João Doria, irked far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who opposes lockdowns and has long sought to diminish the gravity of the virus. But more states and cities are likely to follow Sao Paulo’s lead as health systems are pushed to the breaking point.

Bolsonaro attacked the lockdowns again on Wednesday.

“You cannot panic, like resorting once again to this stay-at-home policy. People are going to die of hunger and depression,” he told a group of supporters.

2.14am GMT

A national panel of vaccine experts in Canada recommended Wednesday that provinces extend the interval between the two doses of a Covid shot to four months to quickly inoculate more people amid a shortage of doses in Canada, AP reports.

A number of provinces said they would do just that.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also expressed optimism that vaccination timelines could be sped up. But one top health official called it an experiment and noted no other country is doing it.

The current protocol is an interval of three to four weeks between doses for the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines. Johnson & Johnson is a one dose vaccine but has not been approved in Canada yet.

Anita Anand, left, Canada’s Minister of Public Services and Procurement and the High Commissioner of India to Canada Ajay Bisaria pose with some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India.
Anita Anand, left, Canada’s Minister of Public Services and Procurement and the High Commissioner of India to Canada Ajay Bisaria pose with some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India.
Photograph: Carlos Osorio/AP

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization said extending the dose interval to four months would allow as many as 80% of Canadians over the age of 16 to receive a single dose by the end of June simply with the expected supply of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

Second doses would begin to be administered in July as more shipments arrive, the panel said, noting that 55 million doses are expected to be delivered in July, August and September.

1.53am GMT

And now for very important breaking news – these baby fish dance to MC hammer:

Updated at 1.54am GMT

1.51am GMT

Joe Biden sharply criticized the Republican governors of Texas and Mississippi, who announced yesterday that they were rescinding their mask mandates, despite public health experts’ concerns about another surge in coronavirus cases.

“We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we are able to get vaccines in people’s arms,” Biden said.

“The last thing we need is neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine,” Biden said. “It still matters”:

1.31am GMT

The coronavirus is still around and dangerous and people should keep to the rules, the UK health secretary Matt Hancock has warned, as new data showed a slowing in the decline of infections and a possible slight increase in London, the south-east and the Midlands.

The latest REACT1 study, which collects swab samples from people around the country on a continuous basis, found a drop of two-thirds in infections since the last report on swabs collected from 6-23 January.

But the decline has slowed, say the Imperial College London team who run the study. In January to February, prevalence of the virus halved in 15 days. Since then, it has halved in 31 days.

While the R number is firmly below 1, the scientists warn that infection levels are still too high. One person in every 200 still has the virus:

12.47am GMT

Fake Covid-19 vaccines seized in South Africa, China: Interpol

Police in China and South Africa have seized thousands of fake doses of Covid-19 jabs, global police organisation Interpol said on Wednesday, warning this represented only the “tip of the iceberg” in vaccine-related crime, AFP reports.

The Lyon-based Interpol said 400 vials – equivalent to around 2,400 doses – containing the fake vaccine were found at a warehouse in Germiston outside Johannesburg in South Africa, where officers also recovered fake masks and arrested three Chinese and a Zambian national.

In China, police successfully identified a network selling counterfeit Covid-19 vaccines in an investigation supported by Interpol which has 194 member countries, it said.

They raided the manufacturing premises, resulting in the arrest of some 80 suspects and seized more than 3,000 fake vaccines on the scene, it said.

Interpol earlier this year issued an “Orange Notice” warning authorities worldwide to prepare for organised crime networks targeting Covid-19 vaccines, both physically and online.

“Whilst we welcome this result, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Covid-19 vaccine related crime,” said Interpol Secretary General Juergen Stock.

Interpol said that in addition to the arrests in South Africa and China it was also receiving additional reports of fake vaccine distribution and scam attempts targeting health bodies such as nursing homes.

12.36am GMT

Greece prolongs lockdown to 16 March

Greece has extended its coronavirus lockdown to 16 March as it reported the highest number of new cases recorded so far in 2021.

“We are at the toughest part of this pandemic,” health minister Vassilis Kikilias told reporters as he warned that public health resources in Athens had been under “unbearable pressure” for weeks.

Health officials reported 2,702 new infections and 40 deaths on Wednesday.

“At the rate of new hospitalisations, the health system is stretched beyond its limits in terms of infrastructure and staff,” he said, adding that there was an “important rise” in cases of the more transmissible virus variant first detected in the UK.

A military hospital and two private hospitals in Athens will take in extra non-Covid patients in order to free up hundreds of beds in the capital’s state-run hospitals for coronavirus cases.

Restrictions will also be tightened from Thursday to 16 March to stop people from crossing municipal boundaries for shopping and exercise.

“The measures aim to reduce mobility…we stay at home, in our own neighbourhoods,” civil protection deputy minister Nikos Hardalias told reporters.

11.57pm GMT

Brazil suffers another day of record Covid deaths

Brazil has suffered yet another day of record Covid losses with at least 1,910 new fatalities reported in the crisis-stricken South American country.

On Wednesday evening the National Council of State Health Secretaries said those deaths took the country’s total death toll to 259,271 – about 10% of the global total. A record 1,726 deaths were reported on Tuesday.

The announcement came as hospitals all across Brazil struggled to cope with a wave of new infections and criticism of the president Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis intensified. Pot-banging protests are planned for Wednesday night.

Earlier, Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly undermined containment measures and trivialised the coronavirus, defended his response to the public health calamity. He accused journalists of “creating panic” and unfairly blaming him for the rising death toll. “For the media, I’m the virus,” the far-right politician said.

Political rivals have dialled up their attacks on Bolsonaro in recent days as the situation has deteriorated. On Tuesday, the centre-right politician Eduardo Leite told reporters:”It’s hard to understand Bolsonaro’s mind, harder still his heart because this is a question of inhumanity, contempt for life.”

“Leaders who spurn public health guidelines and confuse people are killing them, I’m afraid. That’s what’s happening in Brazil right now,” Leite added

11.44pm GMT

Covid death rates 10 times higher in countries where most adults overweight

Countries with high levels of overweight people, such as the UK and the US, have the highest death rates from Covid-19, a landmark report reveals, prompting calls for governments to urgently tackle obesity, as well as prioritising overweight people for vaccinations.

About 2.2 million of the 2.5 million deaths from Covid were in countries with high levels of overweight people, says the report from the World Obesity Federation. Countries such as the UK, US and Italy, where more than 50% of adults are overweight, have the biggest proportions of deaths linked to coronavirus.

The issue is not just obesity, but levels of weight that many assume are now normal in many countries. Death rates are 10 times higher in those where more than half the adults had a body mass index (BMI) of more than 25kg/m2 – the point at which normal weight tips into overweight.

People who are overweight should be given greater priority for vaccinations and tests because of their increased risk of death, says the World Obesity Federation:

11.34pm GMT

Summary

Hello and welcome to today’s live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic with me, Helen Sullivan. I’m on Twitter @helenrsullivan if you need me.

Coronavirus death rates are 10 times higher in those where more than half the adults had a body mass index (BMI) of more than 25kg/m2 – the point at which normal weight tips into overweight, a new study shows. More on this shortly, in the meantime here are the other key recent developments.

  • A further 208,968 Covid-19 vaccinations have been carried out in England, according to provisional NHS England data, including first and second doses.
  • Police in China and South Africa have seized thousands of fake doses of Covid-19 jabs, adding that Interpol has warned this represented only the “tip of the iceberg” in vaccine-related crime.
  • Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, on Wednesday announced tough new measures to slow a snowballing coronavirus pandemic in the country with the world’s second highest death toll.
  • The Czech Republic and Slovakia, which have come under severe strain in recent weeks, will be given an extra 100,000 Covid-19 vaccine doses each by the EU.
  • Serbia is struggling to contain a wave of new cases triggered by more infectious strains and health experts have urged the government to impose another lockdown despite the country’s massive vaccine rollout.
  • Greece has extended its coronavirus lockdown to 16 March as it reported the highest number of new cases recorded so far in 2021.
  • Estonia has imposed new restrictions on restaurants and non-essential shops as part of efforts to curb rising infections.
  • New infections are dropping in the United States, Canada and Mexico but vaccinations have hardly begun in Latin America, raising the risk of dangerous new variants emerging, the Pan American Health Organization has said.
  • Indian pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech has said its Covid-19 vaccine is almost 81% effective at preventing infection following interim phase 3 trials.

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