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Dominican Republic starts vaccinating medical staff

The Dominican Republic has begun vaccinating healthcare workers against Covid-19 following the arrival of the first 20,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

The country has acquired 110,000 doses of the vaccine from the Serum Institute of India due to delays by other vaccine makers, President Luis Abinader said.

The government aims to inoculate the country’s 7.8 million adults in three phases by the end of the year.

The Dominican Republic is the Caribbean country worst hit by the pandemic, registering 2,975 deaths and around 231,950 infections to date.

A snowstorm of rare vigour and durability has forced the Greek government to delay the country’s Covid-19 vaccination drive after citizens were advised to remain at home.

Inoculation centres, including mega facilities capable of vaccinating up to 20,000 people a day, were ordered to close as the unusually cold front swept across Greece.

Report by Helena Smith here:

Australia’s Victoria state reported no community coronavirus cases on Wednesday, on the day the state’s five-day lockdown is due to end.

Australia’s second-most populous state entered a snap lockdown on Friday, following an outbreak linked to a quarantine hotel in Melbourne. It has been reporting low single-digit cases during much of the lockdown, suggesting the outbreak is under control.

Residents of the state, more than a quarter of Australia’s 25 million population, were ordered to stay home except for work, buying essential items, exercise and caring responsibilities, Reuters reports.

Brazil’s environment minister has tested positive for Covid-19, the ministry announced in a statement.

Ricardo Salles is, at least, the 15th member of the Bolsonaro administration to be diagnosed with the illness so far.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (L) and his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles are seen during the Launch of the “Adote 1 Parque” (Adopt a Park) Program at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on February 9, 2021. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (L) and his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles are seen during the Launch of the “Adote 1 Parque” (Adopt a Park) Program at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on February 9, 2021. Photograph: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Salles had mild symptoms but was otherwise well and self-isolating at the direction of doctors, the ministry said. Bolsonaro, who has sought to downplay the severity of the pandemic, also tested positive for the coronavirus last year.

Brazil recorded 55,271 additional confirmed coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, along with 1,167 deaths from Covid-19, the health ministry said on Tuesday.

Brazil has registered more than 9.9 million cases of the virus since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 240,940, according to ministry data.

At least 24 people have tested positive for the coronavirus after attending a presentation hosted by the founder of a Covid-19 vaccine company.

Hundreds watched the event online, but dozens more attended Peter Diamandis’s California summit in person last month. According to Diamandis, around a quarter of the in-person attendees tested positive.

He had said it would be safe, with on-site doctors and regular tests. The entrepreneur was among the 24 to test positive for the virus.

“I thought creating a Covid ‘immunity bubble’ for a small group in a TV studio setting was possible,” Diamandis recently wrote on his personal website. “I was wrong.”

He said that not making mask-wearing mandatory for the entire summit was one of his “biggest failings”.

At current rates, the NHS could offer a coronavirus vaccine to the 32 million people in the UK’s first nine priority groups by Easter – four weeks ahead of the official schedule – according to analysis by the Guardian.

Government and health sources have described the ambition as to “under-promise and over deliver” amid an expectation that short-term pressures on the supply of Pfizer vaccine in February can be compensated for in March.

The initial administering of doses have been running at an average of 2.75m over the past four weeks and if that rate were to be maintained over the next seven weeks the 32-million target would be hit on Easter Sunday, 4 April.

South Africa has said it will offer its doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to the African Union (AU) after suspending the vaccine’s use due to efficacy concerns.

The country halted its vaccine rollout, which was meant to begin with the AstraZeneca jabs earlier this month, after a study found the jab failed to prevent mild and moderate illness caused by a variant found in South Africa.

“The doses we purchased have been offered to the African Union to distribute to those countries who have already expressed interest in acquiring the stock,” health minister Zweli Mkhize told parliament.“There will be no wasteful and fruitless expenditure.”

The AU has procured some 270 million doses through its African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team and last week said it would not “walk away” from the AstraZeneca formula.

Countries where the more transmissible South African variant has not been found are recommended to proceed with the AstraZeneca rollout.

Before halting their use of the jab, South Africa had acquired a million doses of Covishield, a copy of the AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India, and was set to receive an additional 500,000.

Extra community testing will be carried out in Norfolk, Southampton and Surrey as well as an expanded area of Manchester, after the South African variant was detected.

The testing will take place within targeted areas of the following postcodes: IP22, SO15 and GU22.

In Manchester, testing will be rolled out to specific areas within the M40 and M9 postcode. Manchester city council said that it will be setting up extra testing sites after a single case was found in Moston and Harpurhey.

Residents living in these areas are being advised to take a Covid-19 test this week, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

People with symptoms should book a test in the usual way while others should visit their council website for more information.

The South African variant has recently been classified as a “variant of concern”.

Investigations are under way to understand if the virus has spread further in the community.

Summary

  • South Africa is preparing to give its first Covid-19 vaccinations, shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine still being tested, to health care workers this week as part of a large scale trial, the health minister has said.
  • Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard has said that his government is to present a complaint at the United Nations security council tomorrow about the unequal access to Covid vaccines globally, Reuters reports.
  • France has registered 586 new coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours, a sharp fall from 724 last Tuesday while the seven-day moving average of deaths fell to 381, the first time the average was below 400 since late January.
  • Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are three times more likely to die with Covid-19 than the population as a whole, Reuters reports.
  • Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that a phased return to school for younger pupils in Scotland will start from Monday. This will include children aged four to seven and secondary school pupils required to carry out practical assignments.
  • The EU is adding clauses to contracts with vaccine makers to allow the bloc to gain access to possible upgraded shots that may offer better protection against variants of the virus, sources have told Reuters.
  • The Norwegian government will lift all the extra restrictions imposed on the capital region to stop the spread of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus on Thursday, the government has said.
  • Germany is to offer free Covid-19 antigen tests for all from March, the health minister, Jens Spahn, has said, as the country cautiously began allowing some children to return to schools.
  • The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, has called on the country to respect a night-time curfew, saying it was still needed to fight the pandemic despite a court ruling earlier today that the measure lacked a legal basis.
  • Morocco has received a second batch of 500,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine, health ministry sources have told Reuters.

In related news, US passenger airline traffic fell 60% in 2020 to the lowest number since 1984, the US transportation department said. In total, there were 368 million passengers in 2020, down from 922.6 million in 2019. The previous yearly low was 351.6 million in 1984, the department said.

For all of 2020, US domestic air travel fell by 58.7%, while international travel fell 70.4% as many countries imposed significant travel restrictions. US airlines say air travel demand remains down more than 60% through early February, Reuters reports.

Airlines for America, an industry trade group representing American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and others, said the nine largest U.S. airlines lost $46 billion before taxes in 2020 and said that passenger volumes are unlikely to return to pre-Covid-19 levels before 2023 or 2024.

US citizens are still barred from travel to much of Europe and other countries, and business travel remains severely depressed. The number of flights operated by US carriers remains down about 45%.

A $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill making its way through Congress would allocate another $14 billion to extend payroll assistance to US airlines to keep thousands of workers on the job through 30 September. Congress has previously approved $40 billion in payroll assistance for US airlines and $25 billion in low-interest loans.

Spain hopes the introduction of vaccination passports combined with pre-travel Covid-19 testing would allow British tourists to return to Spanish destinations this summer, a tourism ministry source told Reuters.

We support the vaccination certificate but not as the only way to recuperate mobility, rather, as one of the means within a portfolio of measures including social distancing, pre-travel tests, mask-wearing.

The government has no plans to introduce quarantines on foreign visitors, and was also counting on a wider agreement to be hammered out between Europe and Britain to remove restrictions on non-essential travel, the official added.

Over 2020, as global travel was dramatically curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, foreign tourism to Spain – one of the world’s most visited countries – fell 80% to just 19 million visitors, a level not seen since 1969.

South Africa to vaccinate healthcare workers with unapproved Johnson & Johnson vaccine

South Africa is preparing to give its first Covid-19 vaccinations, shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine still being tested, to health care workers this week as part of a large scale trial, the health minister has said.

AP reports that the first batch of 80,000 doses of the single dose vaccine, which has not been authorised for general use in South Africa or anywhere else in the world, is expected to arrive in the country imminently and will be administered to health care professionals across the country, Zweli Mkhize told parliament.

The vaccines are to be administered as an observational study, in which no placebo shots will be given and the health and future infections of all participants will be tracked.

Tests so far suggest the vaccine is safe and effective at preventing severe illness or death from Covid. Another 500,000 doses are expected to be flown to South Africa within four weeks for the vaccination campaign.

The first phase of South Africa’s campaign is to vaccinate the country’s 1.25 million health care workers. More than 380,000 health care workers have already registered for vaccination, Mkhize said, encouraging all front-line health workers to register on the government’s internet site.

We salute the health care workers who have chosen vaccination for their own protection and the protection of their colleagues, families and community members.

As more doses arrive the service will be ramped up accordingly to ensure that we maintain a good rate of daily vaccines.

Early results from the trials showed the vaccine has 57% efficacy against moderate to severe cases of Covid-19 caused by the variant in South Africa.

South Africa does not have plans to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine which a small, preliminary test shows offers minimal protection against mild to moderate disease caused by the variant here, said Mkhize, following an abrupt halt to the plans after the study.

It comes after South Africa announced it planned to share 1m unwanted doses of the vaccine with other countries via the African Union (see 9.13am).

France has registered 586 new coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours, a sharp fall from 724 last Tuesday while the seven-day moving average of deaths fell to 381, the first time the average was below 400 since late January.

The 586 deaths included 351 deaths in hospitals, from 412 on Monday, and 351 deaths in retirement homes over the past four days, Reuters reports.

As arctic temperature freeze rivers and lakes in northern Germany, workers at houseboat charter companies are already gearing up for what they expect to be a busy summer season, Reuters reports.

Cross-border travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic last summer prompted a run on domestic tourism, including on floating accommodation. Many expect that 2021 will be no different.

“I think that big trips abroad and flying will still not be the dominant type of vacation for people this summer,” said Dagmar Kuhnle, spokeswoman at a houseboat charter company in the northeastern Mecklenburg lake district.

Kormoran boats lie in icy water at the dock from the houseboat rental company Kuhnle Tours on lake Claassee near Rechlin, Germany. Kormoran boats lie in icy water at the dock from the houseboat rental company Kuhnle Tours on lake Claassee near Rechlin, Germany. Photograph: Annegret Hilse/Reuters

The White House has said it is increasing the supply of coronavirus vaccines sent each week to states to 13.5 million doses, and is also doubling the amount shipped to pharmacies to 2 million doses this week, Reuters reports.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the boost in distribution to states marked a 57% increase since president Joe Biden was inaugurated on 20 January.

With a brutal winter storm hitting Texas, causing massive power outages and freezing almost all activity in the state, the White House is working to keep vaccine distribution going there, Psaki said.

It’s something we’re very mindful of and we contingency plan to ensure people are getting the doses they need at an appropriate timeline.

The US has administered 55,220,364 doses of Covid-19 vaccines as of this morning and delivered 71,657,975 doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including 15,015,434 people have got the second dose.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a news briefing on Tuesday. White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a news briefing on Tuesday. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

In other US news, subways in New York are soon to resume running longer into the night, as part of what officials described as the beginning of a “phased reopening,”

From Monday, the subway network would close for cleaning only from 2am local time to 4am, instead of from 1am to 5am, although officials did not say when trains would again operate all night.

“New York is starting to return to normalcy,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of the New York City Transit Authority, which manages the subways, according to the New York Times

The regular overnight closure was the first in the system’s history after it began last May.

Malta has credited the EU’s joint procurement for its success in its vaccination rollout, but stressed moves need to be made to counter worrying virus variants, AFP reports.

Health minister Chris Fearne, a former surgeon who is also the small Mediterranean country’s deputy prime minister, said the “unprecedented” pooled purchasing by Brussels of vaccine doses had prevented competition that would have left Malta out in the cold.

Imagine the situation had we not done this together: had member states gone their own way… there would have been a race between member states, so the larger member states would have probably had access to the vaccines while the smaller member states would have lagged behind, possibly not even having had access at all.

As of today, Malta had given at least one jab to 10% of its population of 515,000 people, with more than 3% of those over 16 now fully vaccinated with two doses from BioNTech/Pfizer or Moderna. As of last week, it also started vaccinating with AstraZeneca doses, though only for those aged between 18 and 55.

Fearne said Malta is also acutely aware that vaccinating against the coronavirus may be a long haul, not least because of variants that have emerged from Britain, Brazil, South Africa and Nigeria, some of which appear to reduce the effectiveness of current doses being deployed.

If the immunity will wane then we will need booster doses, so possibly an annual dose. Hopefully not, but that is a possibility … [The virus] is going to continue to mutate, which means we might need at some point different vaccines or different changes to the vaccines to cope with the variants.

He expressed caution at the idea of what many are calling “vaccine passports”, at least for now – explaining that there was still insufficient data on whether a vaccinated individual can transmit the coronavirus.

What I would call proof of vaccination certificates needs to be enabling or empowering rather than restrictive. We still need to sanction the scientific evidence that a vaccine not only decreases the consequences of getting infected… but also decreases transmissibility.

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