Coronavirus live news: Fauci says Americans may still be wearing masks in 2022; variant cases falling in UK

 

This article titled “Coronavirus live news: Fauci says Americans may still be wearing masks in 2022; variant cases falling in UK” was written by Jessica Murray (now); Jedidajah Otte and Helen Davidson (earlier), for theguardian.com on Sunday 21st February 2021 15.29 UTC

A free app allowing access to 30,000 radio stations has proven a hit for audiences stuck at home during coronavirus restrictions.

Radio Garden, which carries tens of thousands of radio stations broadcasting live 24 hours a day, has seen a huge spike in popularity during the Covid crisis. Its founders say in the past 30 days they had 15 million users, a 750% increase on the visitors they normally get in a month.

One of the app’s founders, Jonathan Puckey, said he was confused as to where the sudden interest has come from. “To be honest, I don’t know … We do go viral every now and again, but this is the largest spike we have had to date,” he said. The popularity appears to have come from people sharing the platform with friends on social media websites.

The app launched in 2016 as the brainchild of the Amsterdam-based studios Puckey and Moniker. It was originally commissioned as a temporary project by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision as part of a research that looked at how radio has fostered “transnational encounters”. It started out as a a web-only offering, but has been available as an app since 2018.

The concept is simple: you look around a global map and select an area that interests you. When you click on that region and select a green dot signifying a radio station, the feed will automatically start playing, telling you the name of the station you are listening and where it is. You can listen to stations from all over, as far and wide as Italy’s Sicily to Texas in the US.

The platform gets hundreds of submissions every week and has grown its collection of live radio stations from 7,000 to more than 30,000.

Nurses prepare doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at a mobile vaccination centre in a modified bus in Großhartmannsdorf, Germany, in an effort to better reach rural communities
Nurses prepare doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at a mobile vaccination centre in a modified bus in Großhartmannsdorf, Germany, in an effort to better reach rural communities Photograph: Matthias Rietschel/Getty Images

In the UK, the former neighbour of the health secretary Matt Hancock is under investigation by the UK’s medical regulator, the Guardian can reveal.

Alex Bourne, a former publican, secured lucrative work producing millions of vials for NHS Covid tests. Now the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) confirmed it has launched an investigation into Bourne’s company.

“We take all reports of non-compliance very seriously,” said Graeme Tunbridge, director of devices at the MHRA. “We are currently investigating allegations about Hinpack and will take appropriate action as necessary. Patient safety is our top priority.”

Read the full story here:

Updated

Gaza received 20,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine from the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, a move secured by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s rival, Mohammad Dahlan, who is based in the Gulf state.

Reuters reports:

Gaza health officials said they would begin vaccination on Monday, with priority for medical workers and those with chronic diseases. Many patients were contacted in advance and asked to give their consent.

The step by Dahlan, whom Abbas had dismissed from his Fatah party a decade ago and forced into exile, was seen by analysts as an attempt to score points ahead of a planned Palestinian election later this year.

“The shipment is a generous offer from the brotherly UAE,” Dahlan, long considered a potential Abbas successor, said on Facebook. “We promise our people that we will exert every possible effort to secure more.”

Gaza received its first 2,000 doses of Sputnik V on Wednesday, sent by Abbas’s government after Israel approved the transfer through its border with the territory, which is controlled by the Palestinian leader’s Islamist Hamas rivals.

Gaza, an impoverished enclave of two million people, has registered more than 54,000 cases with 543 deaths.

US: Fauci says Americans may still be wearing masks in 2022

US infectious diseases official Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that it is possible Americans will still be wearing masks in 2022, but that measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 would be increasingly relaxed as more vaccines are administered.

Roughly one year since the first known death caused by Covid-19 was recorded in the US, the country is approaching 500,000 deaths from the virus.

The US has recorded 497,670 deaths from coronavirus to date, accordin to Johns Hopkins University.

On Saturday, the country recorded 1,831 further deaths, and 1,080 a week ago.

Updated

A further 258 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in hospital in England, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths reported in hospitals to 81,304, NHS England said on Sunday.

Patients were aged between 29 and 101. All except 17, aged between 52 and 100, had known underlying health conditions.

The deaths occurred between 10 December and 20 February.

There were 31 other deaths reported with no positive Covid-19 test result.

Lorry drivers will no longer need tests to go from UK to France if they stayed less than 48 hours

Lorry drivers returning to France from the UK will not now need to have a coronavirus test if they have spent less than 48 hours in the country, UK transport secretary Grant Shapps said on Sunday.

Reuters reports:

France demanded in December that lorry drivers travelling from Britain to France must carry a negative Covid test result to reduce the spread of a more infectious coronavirus variant that had been found in Kent in southeast England.

“I’ve agreed more flexibility in testing for hauliers travelling from the UK to France,” Shapps said on Twitter.
“From 11 p.m. (2300 GMT) tonight, lorries returning to France from UK having spent less than 48 hours in the UK will no longer require a coronavirus test.”

Updated

Decisions over coronavirus restrictions are political ones and should not just be based on data, the British statistician professor Sir David Spiegelhalter said.

He told Times Radio:

These are political decisions. Data does not tell you what to do at all.

It guides you, it helps you, of course you look at this, but you have to balance and weigh it up in among everything else, about what the effect of your interventions might be, and so on.

These are political judgements and, as a statistician, I would never say that there should be some algorithm if this is the case, then do that, the computer says no, the computer says yes, because we know how that can lead to … a rigidity of behaviour, lack of flexibility to local circumstances, and so on.

A further 336 coronavirus cases have been recorded in Wales, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 201,688.

Public Health Wales reported another 16 deaths, taking the total in the country since the start of the pandemic to 5,237.

The agency said a total of 860,083 first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine had now been given, an increase of 6,179 from the previous day.

Public Health Wales said 37,773 second doses have also been given, an increase of 5,771.

Partygoers hid under mattresses and in a cupboard at a packed house in Madrid in an attempt to avoid police at one of 227 illegal parties raided in the city over the weekend for breaches of Covid-19 restrictions.

Reuters reports:

Police video showed the hiding revellers, who were arrested. Another raid took place a bar which was not complying with restrictions to try and contain the spread of the virus.

“Two hundred and twenty seven illegal parties have been detected in Madrid on Friday and Saturday. People were not complying with the curfew, not using masks or were in premises without any security measures,” Madrid’s Municipal Police force in a statement issued on Saturday.

“We keep asking you for collaboration and responsibilty.”

Madrid has the second highest two-week infection rate in Spain at 427 cases per 100,000 people on Friday, while the national rate is 294, a marked decline from 900 at the end of January.

Statistician professor Sir David Spiegelhalter said the UK government may still need to use “highly local” measures when it approaches the easing of lockdown.

Speaking to Times Radio, Spiegelhalter, of the statistical laboratory at Cambridge University, said recent coronavirus data indicating drops in hospital admissions, death rates and cases across the country were “very encouraging”, but there were pockets around the country with still “quite a lot of cases” and “really quite substantial numbers”.

Spiegelhalter, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said some “scattered” areas were seeing above 200 new cases per 100,000 per week, which was “of concern”.

He warned that unless there was greater take-up of coronavirus vaccine in some communities, in particular some ethnic communities, where it has been slower, it could become an “increasing issue”.

Commenting on what prime minister Boris Johnson might announce on Monday about his plans to ease lockdown restrictions, he added:

What I understand is that they’re going to try to have national measures rather than regional tiered systems since that caused such a lot of problems.

It seems to me that there’s still going to be a need for highly local measures that might have to take place.

The Czech Republic on Saturday recorded 6755 confirmed cases of coronavirus, about 1,600 more than a week ago.

  • The share of newly infected in the number of tests performed was also higher, reaching almost 38%, which is the highest share since 9 January. It was 30% last Saturday, the news website Aktuálně reported.
  • The number of hospitalised people with Covid-19 fell to 6,000 on Saturday, but the number of patients in serious condition remains at a record number of around 1,300.
  • Currently, almost 119,000 people in the country are infected, the highest number since last October.
  • In the Karlovy Vary region, 394 new cases were recorded on Saturday, 25 percent more than on Friday. 35,200 people have already become infected in the region, and 1,029 have died.

Surge testing is being rolled out in an area of Essex, England after a case of the South African coronavirus variant was found.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said:

Working in partnership with the local authority, additional testing and genomic sequencing is being deployed to the CM13 postcode in Brentwood, Essex, where a single case of the Covid-19 variant first identified in South Africa has been found.

People living in the postcode area are “strongly encouraged” to take a test when offered, whether or not they have any symptoms of the virus.

Eighteen new cases of the UK Covid-19 variant first discovered in Kent, England have been detected in the Philippines.

According to the country’s department of health, 13 of these cases are returning overseas Filipinos who entered the country between 3 and 27 January.

“All of these cases are now tagged as recovered and the DOH is currently investigating compliance to isolation protocols and the contact tracing done for these ROFs,” the ministry said.

The Philippines’ Covid-19 infections tally rose past 561,000 on Sunday after the Department of Health announced 1,888 new patients.

A week ago, the country registered 1,921 new daily infections.

CNN Philippines reports:

The case count now stands at 561,169, of which 26,238 or 4.7% are active cases, the latest report showed. This update does not yet include data from two testing laboratories which failed to submit on time.

The DOH said 9,737 patients were also cleared of the infection, raising the number of recoveries to 522,843.

Meanwhile, the death toll climbed to 12,088 with 20 more fatalities, including 12 which were previously tagged as recoveries.

The British health secretary Matt Hancock has refused to apologise after the High Court ruled he unlawfully failed to publish details of billions of pounds’ worth of coronavirus-related contracts.

Asked if he had anything to apologise for despite losing the case, he told the BBC:

People can make up their own view about whether I should have told my team to stop buying PPE and spend the time bringing forward those transparency returns by just over a fortnight.

Or whether I was right to buy the PPE and get it to the front line. You tell me that that is wrong. You can’t. And the reason you can’t is because it was the right thing to do.

Legal cases about timings of transparency returns are completely second order compared to saving lives.

There is no health secretary in history who would have taken the view that they needed to take people off the project of buying PPE in order to ensure that nine months later the Health Secretary didn’t have a slightly bumpy interview on the Marr programme.

It is not what it is about, Andrew [Marr], it is about doing the right thing.

The opposition leader Keir Starmer told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday:

I don’t want to call for him to resign. I do think he is wrong about the contracts – there have been problems with the contracts, on transparency, on who the contracts have gone to.

There’s been a lot of wasted money and I think that is a real cause for concern.

But, at the moment, at this stage of the pandemic, I want all government ministers working really hard to get us through.

New York City has fewer than 1,000 Covid-19 doses for first jabs left because of shipment delays caused by snowstorms across the country, the city reported on Saturday.

The delays brought the city’s “entire vaccination effort” to a “standstill,” Avery Cohen, a spokeswoman for mayor Bill de Blasio, wrote on Twitter.

The New York Times reports:

Vicious winter weather has snarled vaccine deliveries nationwide. The White House estimated that the weather had created a backlog of six million doses, and pleaded with local officials to extend hours at vaccination sites and schedule additional appointments.

The bad weather has slowed two vaccine shipping hubs — a FedEx center in Memphis and a UPS site in Louisville, Ky. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency said this week that more than 2,000 vaccine sites were in areas with power outages.

In Texas, where millions of residents lost power during this week’s powerful storm, state health officials said that more than 100,000 first doses and 300,000 second doses that were supposed to be delivered this week were still waiting to be shipped to Texas from out-of-state warehouses, citing data from the federal vaccine tracking system. The missed doses are expected to be delivered during the first half of next week.

In the Houston area, some vaccination sites began reopening at the end of this week. […]

Mr. de Blasio said on Friday that New York City had delayed scheduling up to 35,000 first dose appointments because of the shortage.

A man rides an electric scooter on the Brooklyn Bridge during a snow storm in New York City, US, on 19 February, 2021.
A man rides an electric scooter on the Brooklyn Bridge during a snow storm in New York City, US, on 19 February, 2021. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Coronavirus restrictions in England will be eased with “weeks between the steps”, in a sign that the government might be too cautious in their easing of restrictions to win the support of a group of Conservative MPs lobbying for all legal restrictions to fall away by the end of April.

The health secretary Matt Hancock told Times Radio it would take a few weeks for the impact of lifting measures to be seen, and that hence there will be weeks between the steps so the effects of eased restrictions could be carefully studied.

Hancock added that social distancing measures and the wearing of face coverings were likely to remain for a while.

“I want to see it more about personal responsibility over time as we have vaccinated more and more of the population,” he said.

The former chief whip and Conservative MP Mark Harper said he hoped the prime minister’s road map would be one the Covid Recovery Group of Tories can support.

Harper told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show:

We think by the end of April the case for domestic legal restrictions, limiting what people can do, falls away. We think at that point people should be able to get on with their lives.

The government may still give them health advice and there may be things people do voluntarily, but the legal restrictions should fall away at the end of April.

Asked if there could be a Commons revolt over the continuation of the current restrictions if the road map fails to meet their demands, Harper said:

I’m hoping what the prime minister announces tomorrow will be something that I and my colleagues can support.

One in three UK adults has had vaccine

One in three adults in the UK has had a coronavirus vaccine, the health secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday.

He told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show:

As of this morning, one in three adults of all adults in the whole country have been vaccinated – it’s great news.

We are confident that the vaccine works effectively against both the old strain that has been here for some time and the so-called Kent variant, which is now the main source of infection in this country.

We do not yet have the confidence that the vaccine is as effective against the South Africa variant and the variant first seen in Brazil, but we do think that the measures that we have taken – both the enhanced contact tracing and the measures at the border – are reducing those new variants here.

Hancock said the latest data showed “around a dozen” new cases of the South African variant had been found in the country. In total, there have been around 300 cases, he said.

UK teachers won’t be prioritised in getting vaccine

The British health secretary Matt Hancock again rejected calls for teachers to be given priority in the vaccine queue before schools return.

He told Sophy Ridge on Sunday:

We’ve asked the expert group, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, what order we should vaccinate in, broadly in order to reduce the number of deaths as fast as possible.

I think everybody can understand why we asked that as the question.

They set out the priority groups one to nine, which includes those who are clinically most vulnerable and their carers, and includes the over-50s, going down the age range.

They are currently considering, after that, what might be the best order in terms of clinical priority.

There isn’t strong evidence that teachers are more likely to catch Covid than any other group, but I’ll leave it for the JCVI to set out what they think is the best order in which to do this that minimises the number of deaths.

Hancock said there was evidence the vaccines could reduce transmission by two-thirds, which could be a factor in deciding whether to vaccinate children against Covid-19.

He said:

There’s clinical trials under way as to whether children should be vaccinated.

There are two points here. One is that it absolutely must be safe, specifically for children, so that is being currently investigated.

The second is – because children very, very rarely get symptoms or serious illness from the disease – the value, the importance, of vaccinating children is to try to stop the spread of the disease.

[…] It looks like the first jab reduces your impact of transmitting the disease by about two-thirds, but we need more evidence on that as well.

Professor Adam Finn, from the University of Bristol and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said cases in the UK are going down “impressively fast” but that that is “primarily the lockdown and not the vaccine programme”.

He told BBC Breakfast:

The vaccine programme is beginning to have an impact now, I think, on the rates of hospitalisation, according to the studies we’re doing here in Bristol, but it’s only just starting.

The reason we’re seeing this impact at the moment is not the vaccine programme.

But, conversely, getting the vaccine programme done and rolling it out across the population will be really important, as we go forward, in continuing to bring the virus circulation down and reducing the chance of emergence of new variants that might escape that immunity.

Finn said he expected an announcement to be made around vaccine priorities in the UK some time in the next week.

Asked about a new priority list for people under 50, he said:

The strategy from JCVI that’s being provided as advice to the government is just being finalised at the moment, and then government will make their decision as to how to do this during the coming days, so I think there’ll be some kind of public announcement around that in the next week or so.

He said he could not say what he expected the priorities would be because that is something to be announced by the government.

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said any easing of the lockdown must be gradual to prevent a surge in hospital admissions and deaths.

He said vaccinating all adults by the end of July will make a “huge difference” but cautioned the vaccine will not give 100% protection.

Edmunds told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show:

If we eased off very rapidly now, we would get another surge in hospitalisations, so we have to ease very gradually.

Otherwise we will put the health service under pressure again and we’ll get a surge in hospitalisations, and indeed deaths.

He said the South African variant is being “held in place now, as everything else is being held in place by the lockdown”.
He added: “The risk comes really when we release the lockdown.”

UK number of infections with South African and Brazilian virus variants is falling

The number of cases of South African and Brazilian variants of Covid-19 in the UK appears to be falling, the British health secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday.

Hancock said there was evidence that enhanced contact-tracing and stricter border measures were helping to control the number of people being infected by those new variants first discovered abroad.

He told Sky News’ Sophie Ridge show:

We’ve now got a much stronger vigilance in place, because everybody coming into the country has to be tested and we sequence the results of those tests.

And we’ve also got a very strong set of actions working with the local authorities very specifically in the areas where a new variant is found.

We hit it hard and send in enhanced contact-tracing and go door-to-door.

We’ve now got this programme in place to be able to really, really try to stamp out a new variant where we see it.

There is evidence that is working.

But Hancock added the UK needed to be “vigilant” against the spread of new variants.

If one of these new variants doesn’t respond to the vaccine as well as the others – as well as the standard variant in the UK, which is the Kent variant – then, if that’s the case, then that’s obviously a very serious risk for the vaccination programme.

We’re doing a lot of work to find out the impact of the vaccine on these new variants – especially the ones discovered in Brazil and South Africa – because, clearly, the answer to that question is critical to understanding how much of a risk the new variants pose.

But the good news is the actions we’re taking right now do appear to be working.

Hancock reiterated that the easing of lockdown restrictions must be “cautious”, and said there were still almost 20,000 people in hospital with Covid-19 and that – despite the jabs rollout going “very well” – time must be taken to “get this right”.

Matt Hancock speaking on SkyNews on 21 February, 2021.
Matt Hancock speaking on SkyNews on 21 February, 2021. Photograph: SkyNews

Updated

The leader of the UK Labour party Sir Keir Starmer said he wanted all pupils in England back in school on 8 March, despite calls from education unions for a phased return.

He told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday that more coronavirus testing and “Nightingale classrooms” could address some of the issues.

Starmer said:

Ideally, I would like to see all schools back open on March 8 and all children back into schools on March 8. I have been worried through the pandemic – a number of people have – about the impact that being out of school has on, particularly, vulnerable children and the attainment gap is getting bigger.

He said the government would have to follow the data and the scientific advice on the issue, “but that’s what we should be working towards”.

If that means more testing, if that means Nightingale classrooms, if it means other measures, let’s do that because I want to get our kids back into school.

The leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, during a statement on the UK economy on 18 February, 2021 in London, England.
The leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, during a statement on the UK economy on 18 February, 2021 in London, England. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Updated

Outbreaks in schools and nurseries in the Danish city of Kolding do not bode well for the country’s planned partial reopening of schools and childcare facilities in March, experts have warned.

There are currently 214 infections per 100,000 people in Kolding, making it the second most infected municipality in the country after Ishøj.

The Copenhagen Post reports:

Two schools and eight daycare institutions Kolding will remain closed until Friday 26 [February] following coronavirus outbreaks that experts claim underline the devastating potential of the British variant of Covid-19.

At the last count the two schools had a total of 69 infections among staff and students, while up to 20 have been infected at the daycare institutions.

Speaking to DR, Viggo Andreasen, an associate professor at Roskilde University who is swiftly becoming the nation’s favourite mathematical epidemiologist, questions whether there is “something going on with the infection of [the British variant] B117 among children that we have not seen with the old coronavirus”.

“If we see more examples like this, then we must ask ourselves whether it is too risky to open the schools to the little ones,” he continued.

[…]

Professor Allan Randrup Thomsen, a virologist connected to the University of Copenhagen who advises the government, questions whether there can be a partial reopening of society on March 1.

“Based on what has happened in Kolding, we can see that there is a great potential for infection with the British variant – even under the restrictions we have now.

“When the British variant takes over, there will be a marked increase in the number of infected and hospitalised in April.”

Denmark has recorded 2,333 deaths to date, and over 207,000 infections.

In Lubuskie, the relatively sparsely populated west-central Polish province, about a thousand coronavirus tests are performed daily, and every third of them is positive.

The Wyborcza newspaper reports:

There have been exactly 7,038 new and confirmed cases of coronavirus infections across Poland. Most of them in the following [provinces]: Mazowieckie (1,339), Pomorskie (727), Wielkopolskie (673), Śląskie (662), Kujawsko-Pomorskie (459). Lubuskie, with 294 [cases], is in the middle of the table. The Opole region of a similar size has half as many infections.

The return to school of year eight and A-level exam students may be possible in March, though not at the beginning of the month, Poland’s health minister said on Saturday.

Speaking on radio, Adam Niedzielski said:

At the beginning of the month for sure it won’t happen, however in March it may happen, because we’re asking ourselves the question where the peak of the third wave will be.

We can plot black scenarios, but there are also more optimistic scenarios, which say that the peak of this third wave will be at the level of average weekly infections in the order of 10,000, which seems […] not to be a problem for the capacity of the health care system,” Niedzielski added.

Teachers and school staff in Malta will start being vaccinated next week, after they were pushed up the vaccine list back in January following a two-day strike.

The country’s over 70s are however still waiting for their jabs, the Times of Malta reports:

People aged between 70 and 79 will be vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine once all those in 80 to 85 age group have been vaccinated, Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci told Times of Malta.

She said that since the AstraZeneca vaccine is not being given to the elderly, the health department does not want to keep any vaccine doses aside or on hold.

“There are two processes ongoing: elderly groups are being given the Pfizer vaccine and essential workers such as teachers are to be vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

She said this should be considered as “two parallel streams” so that all the vaccines in hand are used.

On Friday, during her weekly update on the COVID-19 situation, she explained that at present the second and third groups of people are being vaccinated. These groups include people aged 80 to 85 and clinical setting workers, and non-medical frontliners, such as police.

Germany could face third wave as experts say variants to blame for infections plateauing

Shortly before schools will reopen in ten of Germany’s federal states on Monday, there are increasing indications that a third coronavirus wave could be imminent in the country.

Despite the strict lockdown, the number of new infections every day has hardly or not decreased at all recently. Experts attribute this to the spread of much more contagious virus variants.

This development has fuelled a debate about teachers and educators being prioritised for vaccinations.

The German Press Agency reports that daycare and primary school employees are in group three and would therefore probably not be getting jabs until the summer.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of government of the federal states had asked the Ministry of Health at their latest meeting to check whether these employees could be brought forward on the priority list.

Picture shows a stuffed toy wearing a face mask in an improvised classroom prepared for a primary school class in a recreation hall on 20 February, 2021 in Wessling, Germany.
Picture shows a stuffed toy wearing a face mask in an improvised classroom prepared for a primary school class in a recreation hall on 20 February, 2021 in Wessling, Germany. Photograph: Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

Updated

A shipment of 150,000 Covid-19 vaccines developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University arrived at Belgrade airport on Sunday, making Serbia the first country in the Western Balkan region to receive supplies of the shot.

Reuters reports:

The vaccines, which arrived on a Turkish Airlines plane from Istanbul, were produced in India, said president Aleksandar Vucic, who came to the airport to meet the shipment.

Vucic said the price of the vaccine was “very good as both AstraZeneca and Oxford gave up their profits”. He added that another shipment of 150,000 vaccines is expected in 12 weeks time.

“This vaccine was developed by a young team at the Oxford University which also included young people from Serbia,” British ambassador Sian MacLeod told reporters at the airport.

More than 730,000 people, or a little over 10% of the population, have been vaccinated against Covid-19 since December with one or two doses of the vaccines available in Serbia.

Under the state vaccination programme, Serbians have been able to choose between shots from Pfizer-BioNTech , China’s Sinopharm or Russia’s Sputnik V.

Despite the inoculcations, case numbers in Serbia are rising again, with more than 2,000 daily new infections currently being reported. However, epidemiologists expect the numbers to come down in a month or two.

People arrive to receive a dose of Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine at Belgrade Fair makeshift vaccination center in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, on 17 February, 2021. Serbia, a country of 7 million, has so far vaccinated some 1 million people, mainly with the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and Russian Sputnik V, and to a lesser extent with the Pfizer jab.
People arrive to receive a dose of Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine at Belgrade Fair makeshift vaccination center in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, on 17 February, 2021. Serbia, a country of 7 million, has so far vaccinated some 1 million people, mainly with the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and Russian Sputnik V, and to a lesser extent with the Pfizer jab. Photograph: Darko Vojinović/AP

Covid-19 hospitalisations in the US are at the lowest level since early November, when a fall surge in cases and deaths was picking up steam, data showed Saturday.

CNN reports:

This comes as federal officials say they’re pushing large shipments of vaccines to states this weekend, in part to make up for a backlog from winter storms — and as public health experts push for faster inoculations before more-transmissible coronavirus variants get a better foothold.

About 59,800 Covid-19 patients were in US hospitals on Friday — down about 55% from a pandemic peak of more than 132,470 on January 6, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

Friday’s number is the first below 60,000 since November 9, when daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths were on a several-month incline through the holidays.

Averages for daily new cases and deaths also have been declining for weeks after hitting all-time peaks around mid-January.

Public health experts have been pressing for faster vaccinations, before more transmissible variants have a chance to spread, fearing they could reverse recent progress.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said an apparently more-transmissible variant first identified in the United Kingdom could be the dominant strain in the US by next month.

According to the CDC, over 61 million doses of coronavirus vaccine have been administered in the US to date, with over 17 million people having received two jabs already.

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Sunday appealed to Tanzania to take “robust action” to combat Covid-19 in the country, where the president has long played down the virus.

AFP reports:

President John Magufuli has claimed coronavirus has been has fended off by prayer in Tanzania, and refused to take measures to curb its spread.

But a recent spate of deaths attributed to pneumonia has struck both members of the public and government officials.

And Magufuli on Friday appeared to admit the coronavirus was circulating in his country after months of denial.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a number of Tanzanians travelling to neighbouring countries and beyond have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“This underscores the need for Tanzania to take robust action both to safeguard their own people and protect populations in these countries and beyond,” he said in a statement.

Tedros said he had urged Tanzania in late January to take measures against the pandemic and to prepare for vaccinations.

South Korea to begin vaccine rollout within days

South Korea will begin administering the first of 117,000 doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine on 27 February, a day after the country begins its first vaccinations with the AstraZeneca jab, the prime minister announced on Sunday.

Reuters reports:

Plans call for about 10 million high-risk people, including health care workers and staffers and some residents of assisted care facilities and nursing homes, to be inoculated by July.

The first AstraZeneca vaccines are scheduled to be administered on Friday, with Pfizer’s shots being deployed the next day, prime minister Chung Sye-kyun said in remarks reported by Yonhap news agency.

[…]
The authorities have said they will not use AstraZeneca vaccine on people aged 65 and older until more efficacy data becomes available, reversing an earlier decision.

Aside from AstraZeneca and Pfizer, South Korea has also reached agreements with Moderna, Novavax Inc, Johnson & Johnson, and global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX, for the supply of their vaccines.

Chung announced last week that South Korea had struck additional deals with Novavax Inc for enough vaccines to cover 20 million people and with Pfizer to cover a further 3 million, making the total supply enough to cover 79 million people, though South Korea has a population of 52 million.

The government says its goal is to reach herd immunity by November, though leading South Korean medical experts have said that timetable will be practically impossible to achieve.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 416 more Covid-19 cases as of midnight Saturday, raising the total to 86,992.

A truck carrying Covid-19 vaccines is loaded onto an Air Force airplane at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, south of Seoul, on 19 February 2021, before it flies to Jeju airport on South Korea’s largest island of the same name.
A truck carrying Covid-19 vaccines is loaded onto an Air Force airplane at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, south of Seoul, on 19 February 2021, before it flies to Jeju airport on South Korea’s largest island of the same name. Photograph: YONHAP/EPA

Updated

Russia on Sunday reported 12,742 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, including 1,602 in Moscow, taking the national tally to 4,164,726.

Authorities also reported another 417 deaths, raising the official toll to 83,293.

On Saturday, the country reported 12,953 new infections, and 13,968 a week ago.

Updated

The mayor of the French Mediterranean city of Nice called on Sunday for a weekend lockdown in the area to stop the flow of visitors and curb a sharp spike in coronavirus infections.

“We need a strong measures that go beyond the nationwide 6 p.m. curfew, either a tighter curfew, or a partial and time-specific lockdown. A weekend lockdown would make sense …that would stop the inflow of visitors,” mayor Christian Estrosi said on franceinfo radio.

I’m Jedidajah Otte and will be taking over for the next few hours. As always, do feel free to get in touch with updates, tips or comments, you can reach me on Twitter @JedySays or via email.

Summary

That’s it from me for now, I’ll leave you with colleagues in London to keep the coverage going. Take care.

  • Among Saturday’s reported figures, Mexico recorded 7,785 new cases and 832 more fatalities, while in Germany there were 7,676 new cases and 145 deaths.
  • Malaysia moved up its Covid-19 inoculation drive by two days as the first batch of vaccines arrived in the Southeast Asian nation on Sunday.
  • Australia also began its vaccine rollout a day early, with the country’s prime minister among the first people to receive a dose on Sunday. “It’s safe, it’s important, join us on this Australian path that sees us come out of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
  • All adults in the UK will be offered a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of July, Boris Johnson has said ahead of an announcement on how England will begin to ease its third lockdown.
  • Israel has reported a 95.8% drop in Covid-19 infection among those who have received two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, its health ministry announced on Saturday.
  • A further 21 cases of the virus variant first discovered in the UK have been detected in Morocco, its health ministry has said, taking the number of reported cases with the mutation to 24.
  • Coronavirus cases are rising in a number of Indian states, including Punjab, Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. The rise in infections comes amid the detection of new virus variants in Maharashtra, the Times of India reports.
  • France’s number of new coronavirus cases compared with a week earlier increased for the third day in a row, with the health ministry reporting 22,371 new cases on Saturday.
  • Micheál Martin, the taoiseach, has ruled out reopening Ireland’s hospitality sector until mid-summer due to the high level of Covid-19 cases in the country.
  • Mexico’s deputy health minister has announced that he has tested positive for Covid-19, adding that his symptoms are mild.
  • Iran has closed several crossing points at its border with Iraq in an effort to curb the spread of the Covid variant first detected in the UK after it was found in the country.
  • The UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, acted unlawfully by failing to publish multibillion-pound Covid-19 government contracts within the 30-day period required by law, a high court judge has ruled.
  • More than 17 million people in the UK have now had a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to government figures.

This is a very moving read from Tobias Jones in Italy, on the impact of Europe’s first lockdown on the country. Here’s an excerpt but I recommend reading the whole piece.

In those frightening early weeks, there was an exuberant defiance as suburbs began singing together, each household joining in from its own windows and balconies. Virtuoso violinists and guitarists turned their balconies into stages and, most memorably, two young girls played tennis between their respective rooftops in Genoa.

Despite the grief, something extraordinary was happening: there were shoals of fish in clean Venetian canals and bottlenose dolphins leaping around inactive ports. Hares and deer strolled through public parks and golf courses and mallards appeared in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. As the notoriously polluted air of the Po valley cleared, we often sang Rino Gaetano’s The Sky is Evermore Blue.

It was a period that altered not only how outsiders perceived Italy, but also how Italians saw each other. They’re often stereotyped (by themselves as much as by foreigners) as a nation of rule-benders, eager to bypass the public good for private gain. But throughout that spring the country was orderly and obedient. “We’ve learnt to queue,” joked my Italian wife. There was no hoarding of loo roll. While other countries were being lackadaisical in applying or following guidelines, Italy had, on the whole, legislative clarity and societal adherence.

Top vaccine maker told to prioritise India inoculation programme

The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine maker by volume, on Sunday asked for patience from foreign governments awaiting their supply of Covid-19 shots, saying it had been directed to prioritise India’s requirements.

“…I humbly request you to please be patient,” SII’s chief executive, Adar Poonawalla, said in a tweet.

“[The SII] has been directed to prioritise the huge needs of India and along with that balance the needs of the rest of the world.”

“We are trying our best.”

Based in the western Indian city of Pune, the company is manufacturing the Oxford University/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, one of the two shots that India is using to initially vaccinate some 300 million people as part of a national inoculation drive.

Many low-and middle-income countries, ranging from Bangladesh to Brazil, are depending on SII’s AstraZeneca vaccine, branded COVISHIELD by the Indian company.

But demand is growing, including from Western countries like Canada, where Poonawalla has promised to deliver the COVISHIELD vaccine next month.
Britain’s drug regulator is also auditing manufacturing processes at SII, potentially paving the way for the COVISHIELD vaccine to be shipped from there to the UK and other countries. .

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has come under criticism for the slow take-off of its vaccination drive but health authorities are preparing to expand the number of inoculation substantially in coming weeks.

India has vaccinated around 11 million people since mid-January.

Updated

Reuters: Fujifilm Holdings Corp will restart a clinical trial in Japan of its antiviral drug Avigan for the treatment of Covid-19, the Nikkei newspaper reported on Sunday.

Domestic approval of the drug was delayed after a health ministry panel said in December that trial data was inconclusive. The new study will involve about 270 patients and Fujifilm will aim to seek approval again in October, Nikkei said.
Representatives from Fujifilm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Japan has approved Avigan, known generically as favipiravir, as an emergency flu medicine. But concerns remain, as the drug has been shown to cause birth defects in animal studies and its effectiveness against Covid-19 has proven difficult to demonstrate.

Japan’s government has called on Fujifilm to triple national stockpiles of the drug, which has been approved for Covid-19 treatment in Russia, India and Indonesia.

Taiwan’s government said on Sunday that it had confirmed three cases of the Covid-19 variant first discovered in Brazil, and that all arrivals from that country would undergo centralised quarantine from this week.

Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said the three people, whose initial infections officials announced last month and are being treated in the hospital, had been confirmed on Saturday to have what is known as the P1 Brazil variant.

Chen added that starting at midnight on Wednesday, anyone arriving in Taiwan from Brazil or who had been in Brazil the previous 14 days must quarantine at a centralised facility for two weeks, as arrivals from Britain and South Africa also must to prevent the spread of separate variants found there.

Everyone else arriving in Taiwan must quarantine at home for 14 days, and those people are closely tracked by authorities to make sure they don’t go out.

The pandemic has killed 245,977 people in Brazil, the worst death toll outside the United States.

Brazil has more than 10 million confirmed coronavirus cases, as a new variant discovered in the Amazon threatens to further ravage a country where inoculations have been halted in many cities because of a lack of vaccines.
Taiwan has kept the pandemic well under control thanks to early and effective prevention, including largely closing its borders. There are only 40 active cases being treated in hospitals.

The most read article on the Jakarta Post today is this in-depth look at how the Indonesian government has responded to scientific advice during the pandemic.

The Jakarta Post writes: “the Indonesian government has made headlines for rejecting scientific studies aimed at forecasting Covid-19 situations in the country. Even before the pandemic, the country was not regarded as friendly toward scientists, especially those from abroad. The Jakarta Post has looked into the government’s policies and compared them with several of the latest relevant studies.”

Read the full story here.

Indonesia has recorded more than 1.26m cases, including more than 34,000 deaths. It is now aiming to vaccinate more than 181 million of its 270 million residents within 15 months, and last week announced fines of $450 for those who refuse.

Malaysia starts vaccine program early

Malaysia moved up its Covid-19 inoculation drive by two days as the first batch of vaccines arrived in the Southeast Asian nation on Sunday.

Malaysia aims to vaccinate at least 80% of its 32 million people within a year as it pushes to revive an economy that, slammed by coronavirus-related curbs, recorded its worst slump in over two decades in 2020.

It has imposed more lockdowns this year amid a fresh wave of coronavirus infections. The country has recorded 280,272 cases and 1,051 deaths.

A total of 312,390 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were delivered to Malaysia on Sunday morning, with more expected in coming weeks.

“The second delivery will be made on 26 February, and we will continue to receive (Pfizer) deliveries every two weeks until it is completed,” Science Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said in a virtual news conference.

Malaysia has secured 32 million doses from Pfizer and BioNTech.

Vaccine doses from China’s Sinovac Biotech are scheduled to be delivered in bulk on 27 February, pending approval from local regulators, Khairy said.

The national vaccine rollout will begin Wednesday, earlier than initially scheduled, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and health ministry director General Noor Hisham Abdullah set to receive the first doses, Khairy said.

Hong Kong and Singapore might be discussing a reopening of the failed travel bubble, the South China Morning Post is reporting.

The quarantine-free travel arrangement was supposed to begin on 22 November, but just before its launch it was indefinitely postpone due to an outbreak of the virus in Hong Kong.

An unnamed Hong Kong government source told the Post authorities on both sides were in talks over restarting the arrangement, but it was still too early to say when it would begin.

Germany records more than 7,600 new cases

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 7,676 to 2,386,559, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Sunday.

The reported death toll rose by 145 to 67,841, the tally showed.

A pub that closed its doors during lockdown is now serving a menagerie of very different clientele after transforming into Ireland’s first wildlife hospital, Reuters reports.

The bar of the Tara Na Ri pub in County Meath to the northwest of Dublin is now deserted, the blinds pulled down, the Guinness taps dry and the till empty.

But the pub’s outbuildings are a hive of activity.

Since Ireland’s first coronavirus lockdown pub the Tara Na Ri has been closed to regulars, but now it hosts a menagerie of new clientèle as the nation’s first wildlife hospital.
Since Ireland’s first coronavirus lockdown pub the Tara Na Ri has been closed to regulars, but now it hosts a menagerie of new clientèle as the nation’s first wildlife hospital. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

In one, a member of staff bottle-feeds Liam, a two-week-old wild Irish goat who was found on a mountainside.

Three swans nest on straw in former stables, a skittish fox settles in a new enclosure, and a wide-eyed buzzard is being nursed back to health.

“We were very much accustomed to just one singular way of living,” said James McCarthy, whose family have owned the pub for more than a decade.

“When that’s taken away you’re just kind of left with a void. It takes some time before it starts getting replaced with other things that you never would have thought were possible before.”

McCarthy has turned the outbuildings over to the government-backed agency Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland (WRI) and instead of pulling pints, now serves drive-through customers with takeaway coffees at the front of the pub.

A member of staff feeds a two week-old native wild Irish goat which was found on a mountainside and named Liam, at Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland’s new premises situated behind the Tara na Ri Pub, which is shuttered due to the Covid-19 pandemic, at Garlow Cross outside Navan in County Meath, Ireland on February 18, 2021.
A member of staff feeds a two week-old native wild Irish goat which was found on a mountainside and named Liam, at Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland’s new premises situated behind the Tara na Ri Pub, which is shuttered due to the Covid-19 pandemic, at Garlow Cross outside Navan in County Meath, Ireland on February 18, 2021. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Israel reopened swathes of its economy on Sunday in what it called the start of a return to routine enabled by a Covid-19 vaccination drive that has reached almost half the population, Reuters reports.

While shops were open to all, access to leisure sites like gyms and theatres was limited to vaccines or those who have recovered from the disease with presumed immunity, a so-called “Green Pass” status displayed on a special health ministry app.

Social distancing measures were still in force. Dancing was barred at banquet halls, and synagogues, mosques or churches were required to halve their normal number of worshippers.

Coming exactly a year after Israel’s first documented coronavirus case, Sunday’s easing of curbs is part of a government plan to open the economy more widely next month, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is up for reelection.
Israel has administered at least one dose of the Pfizer Inc vaccine to more than 45% of its 9 million population, the health ministry says. The two-shot regimen has reduced Covid-19 infections by 95.8%, ministry data showed.

The country has logged more than 740,000 cases and 5,500 deaths from the illness, prompting criticism of the Netanyahu government’s sometimes patchy enforcement of three national lockdowns. It has pledged that there will not be a fourth.

Elementary schoolers and pupils in the last two years of high school attended classes on Sunday in Israeli towns found to have contagion rates under control. Middle schoolers are due back by next month, after almost a year of remote learning.

Updated

In Australia the state of Victoria has recorded no new locally-acquired cases as the government commits $143m of support for businesses unable to operate on Valentine’s Day due to the state’s five-day lockdown.

Vaccinations will start for eligible high-risk recipients on Monday in Victoria, where there were no local or overseas-acquired coronavirus diagnoses in the latest 24-hour period, with more than 10,300 tests conducted.

It was the state’s second consecutive day without a local virus case in Victoria.

Jobs Minister Martin Pakula on Sunday told reporters the state government will distribute $143m to businesses affected by the state’s third lockdown, which ended on Thursday.

Payments of $2,000 to 50,000 businesses aims to compensate for the inability to trade over the five-day period, which coincided with Valentine’s Day, Lunar New Year and the Australian Open tennis.

Businesses such as restaurants, florists, live entertainers and accommodation providers would be high on the list, he noted.

The support will be available for firms with an annual payroll of up to $3m.

Additional payments of $3,000 would be made available to licensed hospitality venues which have previously received support via the state’s assistance fund, while $16m in total would be handed to accommodation providers.

An additional 50,000 travel vouchers of $200 would be made available for venues in both regional Victoria and Greater Melbourne.

Chinese state media reports the government has approved another 16 domestically-produced vaccines for clinical trials.

According to government organ, China Daily, six of the 16 have entered phase three trials.

China has two locally produced vaccines – both of which rely on inactivated Covid-19 – which are now being administered to people in multiple countries. At home, more than 40 million Chinese people have received the vaccine, but China has also supplied more than 440m doses to at least 27 countries, in what’s been termed a campaign of ‘vaccine diplomacy’, alongside Russia.

China specialists are pointing to the way it has rolled vaccines into its belt and road initiative framework, using summits with Middle East and African countries to offer preferential access to jabs alongside investments in highways, ports, 5G grids and renewable energy. Last year, while Washington was trumpeting an “America first” response to the pandemic, Beijing was making high-profile deals to trial, produce and sell vaccines in Latin America, deep inside the US’s traditional sphere of influence.

You can read more about that in this report from Friday by Michael Safi and Milivoje Pantovic.

Data on the number of Covid-19 cases in the UK is now so encouraging that outdoor sports for children and small numbers of adults should be allowed immediately as part of an accelerated easing of the lockdown, a leading scientist and adviser to government has told the Observer.

With the prime minister expected to take a cautious approach to lifting restrictions in a statement to the House of Commons on Monday, Prof Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University, whose work feeds into the Sage committee’s sub-group Spi-M, said the data showed there was no need for the government to be “ultra-cautious”.

Read more here:

Mexico records 7,785 new cases, 832 deaths

Mexico’s health ministry on Saturday reported 7,785 new confirmed coronavirus cases in the country and 832 more fatalities, bringing its total to 2,038,276 infections and 179,797 deaths.

The real number of infected people and deaths is likely significantly higher than the official count, the health ministry has said.

Updated

In northern China, there are some concerns and complaints among residents who have been in lockdown for more than 40 days.

China recently experienced its worst outbreaks since the early months of the pandemic. Gaocheng, a district of Shijiazhuang city home to 800,000 people, was one of the worst affected, with more than 880 cases.

The South China Morning Post reports there have been no new cases since Monday, and authorities have adjusted the risk level designations of most of the district. But some locals in Jiumen town said they hadn’t been told of restrictions lifting and had been prevented from leaving. They’ve been in lockdown since mid January, and residents are saying they’re running out of food, and have been ordered to take tests multiple times.

“I have done the test 16 times. I have not stepped out of the house for over a month.” He Pengfei, a 30-year-old restaurant owner in Lianzhou town, told the Post. He said he has been forced to shut his business and was going into debt.

China has reported seven new cases in the mainland for Saturday, compared with eight cases a day earlier, the National Health Commission said.

All the new infections were imported cases, it said in a statement. There were no new deaths.

China also reported six new asymptomatic patients, compared with 13 a day earlier. China does not classify asymptomatic cases as confirmed Covid-19 cases.

As of Saturday, mainland China had 89,831 confirmed coronavirus infections, while the death toll remained at 4,636, it said.

Hello and welcome to our continuing coverage of the pandemic. You can catch up on earlier updates here.

Here’s the latest.

  • Australia has begun its vaccine rollout a day early, with the country’s prime minister among the first people to receive a dose on Sunday. “It’s safe, it’s important, join us on this Australian path that sees us come out of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
  • All adults in the UK will be offered a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of July, Boris Johnson has said ahead of an announcement on how England will begin to ease its third lockdown.
  • Israel has reported a 95.8% drop in Covid-19 infection among those who have received two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, its health ministry announced on Saturday.
  • A further 21 cases of the virus variant first discovered in the UK have been detected in Morocco, its health ministry has said, taking the number of reported cases with the mutation to 24.
  • Coronavirus cases are rising in a number of Indian states, including Punjab, Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. The rise in infections comes amid the detection of new virus variants in Maharashtra, the Times of India reports.
  • France’s number of new coronavirus cases compared with a week earlier increased for the third day in a row, with the health ministry reporting 22,371 new cases on Saturday.
  • Micheál Martin, the taoiseach, has ruled out reopening Ireland’s hospitality sector until mid-summer due to the high level of Covid-19 cases in the country.
  • Mexico’s deputy health minister has announced that he has tested positive for Covid-19, adding that his symptoms are mild.
  • Iran has closed several crossing points at its border with Iraq in an effort to curb the spread of the Covid variant first detected in the UK after it was found in the country.
  • The UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, acted unlawfully by failing to publish multibillion-pound Covid-19 government contracts within the 30-day period required by law, a high court judge has ruled.
  • More than 17 million people in the UK have now had a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to government figures.

Updated

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