GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization said Monday the emergence of new COVID-19 variants has raised questions about whether or not existing vaccines will work, calling it “concerning news” that the vaccines developed so far may be less effective against the variant first detected in South Africa.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a media briefing that South Africa’s decision on Sunday to suspend its vaccination campaign using the AstraZeneca vaccine is “a reminder that we need to do everything we can to reduce circulation of the virus with proven public health measures.”
He said it was increasingly clear that vaccine manufacturers would need to tweak their existing shots to address the ongoing genetic evolution of the coronavirus, saying booster shots would most likely be necessary, especially since new variants of the virus are now spreading globally and appear likely to become the predominant strains.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— California joined with the federal government to open two new mass vaccination centers as test areas for new President Joseph Biden’s effort to create 100 such sites nationwide in 100 days.
— Evidence is mounting that having COVID-19 may not protect against getting infected again with some of the new variants.
—The Dutch government is extending the country’s curfew until March 3, declaring that was necessary to slow the spread of the more infectious coronavirus variant first detected in Britain.
—The drive to vaccinate Americans against the coronavirus is gaining speed and newly recorded cases have fallen to their lowest level in three months, but authorities worry that raucous Super Bowl celebrations could fuel new outbreak s.
— South Africa seeks a new virus vaccination pla n after deciding not to use AstraZeneca jab, fearing it’s not effective enough against the country’s dominant variant
— Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
SEATTLE — Dozens of Washington state hospitals have learned N95 respirator masks believed to be purchased from 3M Company are counterfeits that were not manufactured by the company.
The Seattle Times reported the Washington State Hospital Association alerted the state’s hospitals about a notification from 3M that some masks were knockoffs.
The association has asked the state’s 115 hospitals to sort through mask supplies and pull potentially affected equipment.
Several hospitals sent masks to 3M for testing and the company confirmed some were counterfeit.
It is unclear whether the counterfeit masks are less safe than those manufactured by 3M.
JERUSALEM — Israeli and Greek officials have agreed to clear the way for vaccinated tourists to travel between their Mediterranean nations in a bid to boost their economies amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced the agreement in Jerusalem on Monday. The deal is designed to allow tourists with vaccination certificates to move between the countries “without any limitations, no self-isolation, nothing,” Netanyahu said at a press conference.
Both economies have large sectors devoted to tourism, an industry devastated by travel restrictions during the 11-month pandemic.
MOSCOW — Russia issued updated statistics Monday on coronavirus-linked deaths which showed that 162,429 people with COVID-19 died last year, a number far higher than previously reported by government officials.
The state statistics agency, Rosstat, released its figures for December on Monday, updating its count of coronavirus-linked deaths that includes cases where the virus wasn’t the main cause of death and where the virus was suspected but not confirmed.
Rosstat’s count is much higher than the 77,068 deaths that have been reported by the Russian government’s coronavirus task force so far, including deaths that occurred in January and February. Russian officials ascribe that to different counting methods, saying the task force only includes deaths where COVID-19 was the main cause.
MADRID — Spain’s top virus official claims that a slowdown in coronavirus contagion can be linked to the vaccination of nearly 800,000 residents, although he warned that it’s early for complacency and that pressure in hospitals continues to be a challenge.
Monday’s Health Ministry update showed over 62,000 accumulated fatalities for COVID-19, with at least 909 of them since Friday, the highest weekend death toll since April last year. There were 47,095 new coronavirus cases, bringing the country’s accumulated tally of officially confirmed infections close to 3 million.
“We are in levels of risk that are high, very high,” Fernando Simón, director of Spain’s health emergency coordination center, told reporters at a regular press conference on Monday.
NEW ORLEANS — A Louisiana sheriff is dropping a lawsuit filed in May seeking damages from China because of the spread of the new coronavirus.
The Tangipahoa Sheriff’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit Monday in federal court in New Orleans.
Sheriff Daniel Edwards’ lawsuit was filed as a class-action suit on behalf of sheriffs throughout the nation.
The suit said there was evidence that the virus originated in a laboratory in China — a contention discounted by experts. It said the spread of the virus and the resulting effect on commerce in the United States caused sheriffs to lose revenue from various fees and taxes, including those tied to property values. And, the suit said, it drove up the sheriffs’ costs of running jails, requiring testing of inmates and guards.
Monday’s court filing gave no reason for seeking dismissal.
TAMPA, Fla. — So much for the mayor’s order requiring masks at Super Bowl parties. Throngs of mostly maskless fans took to the streets and packed sports bars as the clock inside Raymond James Stadium ticked down on a hometown Super Bowl win for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It is a little frustrating because we have worked so hard,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said during a Monday morning news conference with the Super Bowl Host Committee. “At this point in dealing with COVID-19, there is a level of frustration when you see that.”
Some 200,000 masks were handed out ahead of the game, and “a majority” of people and businesses followed the rules, she said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden was concerned about images “that show many, many people without masks in close distance with one another at the height of a pandemic.”
WASHINGTON — As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations fall around the country, federal officials are warning states not to relax restrictions on dining out and other social activities that can lead to more spread of the virus.
“We have yet to control this pandemic,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on Monday. The three waves of infection last year showed that the virus does rebound when people more mobile.
Walensky said she would discourage any idea or move that would relax restrictions on social distancing. The nation is coming down from the wave of infections that began in November and crested in January, but Walensky says the background level of cases remains dangerously high.
White House officials say they are communicating their concerns to state governors and public health departments, but senior adviser Andy Slavitt says it would be counterproductive to detail those conversation in public.
WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci is cautioning against deviating from the two dose regimen for the approved coronavirus vaccines, warning that delaying the second dose in an effort to speed vaccinations to more people could increase the number of potentially dangerous variants.
Speaking at a White House briefing, the nation’s top infectious disease expert expressed concern that the immune response to the virus may be weaker without the “booster” shot. He added that, “The way viruses respond to pressure, you could actually be inadvertently selecting for more mutants by a suboptimal response.”
Fauci said altering the three-week interval between doses for the Pfizer vaccine and four weeks for the Moderna shot should only be recommended after rigorous scientific study. But he said that the months it would take to gather the data would largely render the outcome “moot.”
MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador returned to his daily morning news conferences following a two-week absence after catching the coronavirus, but vowed not to wear a mask or require them.
López Obrador revealed Monday that he received experimental treatments, which he described as an “antiviral” medication and an anti-inflammatory drug. The president revealed he twice tested negative in rapid tests widely used in Mexico, before a more thorough test — apparently PCR — came back positive.
López Obrador has held the news conferences almost every working day for more than two years, and this was the longest he has been absent from them.
ISLAMABAD — A top Pakistani health official on Monday announced the results of clinical trials of Chinese COVID-19 vaccine CanSino Biologics, saying tests done on 30,000 Pakistanis showed the vaccine had nearly 75 percent efficacy in preventing symptomatic cases of coronavirus.
Faisal Sultan said analysis of the data of clinical trials done in Pakistan in recent months also indicate the Chinese vaccine had 100 percent efficacy in preventing severe disease.
The announcement comes hours after Pakistan’s military said the People’s Liberation Army in neighboring China had given a Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine to Pakistan’s armed forces. However, the army will contribute all of the donated vaccine to health workers.
About a week ago, Beijing donated 500,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine to Pakistani authorities, who are using it to vaccinate front-line health workers.
SAO PAULO — A minority of Brazilians will be able to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine if an association of private clinics can close a deal to bring 5 million shots to Latin America’s most unequal country.
President Jair Bolsonaro, under fire for his government’s handling of the pandemic, has promised not to interfere.
Amid the government’s stumbling vaccine rollout, many moneyed Brazilians want to find a swift path to vaccination, sparking backlash from some public health experts and igniting debate on social media, editorial pages and talk shows.
There has been concern globally that the privileged could game the system to get themselves vaccinated before others. Brazil has had its reports of line-jumpers, too, but the nation stands apart because maneuvering isn’t only done in the shadows.
LISBON, Portugal — Hopes are rising in Portugal that the worst of a devastating pandemic surge might be over, as the number of COVID-19 deaths reported Monday was the lowest in three weeks.
The country’s pandemic picture is mixed, however, as hospital admissions rose for the first time in a week. Still, the spread of COVID-19 has by some metrics been slowing since the end of January.
Portugal became the world’s worst-hit country last month, with a deluge of new daily deaths and cases engulfing the public health system. Data collated by Johns Hopkins University on Monday showed Portugal still recording the most daily deaths per 100,000 population and having the world’s fourth-highest rate of new cases.
ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s left-wing opposition leader has accused the country’s prime minister of showing contempt for lockdown rules after attending a large outdoor lunch gathering.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on a weekend visit to the Greek island of Ikaria attended an outdoor lunch hosted by a local lawmaker. A video of the event posted on social media showed at least 25 people in attendance, while traditional island music, with drums and bagpipes, could be heard in the background.
The government toughened lockdown measures at the weekend, expanding curfew hours to start at 6 p.m. in greater Athens and Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, in response to a surge in COVID-19 infections that started in late January.
BERLIN — The Austrian federal government is warning against travel to the country’s Tyrol province amid concern over cases there of the more contagious coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa.
The move by the government in Vienna came after Tyrol earlier Monday drew up a list of measures that included calls for people to avoid nonessential travel and a proposal to require negative antigen tests before people can use ski lifts.
Some 165 infections with the South African variant have already been confirmed in Tyrol and politicians have been discussing for several days whether extra restrictions are required in the region. Tyrol, which borders Germany, Italy and Switzerland, is usually a popular skiing destination — though hotels and restaurants are closed at present, meaning that’s not practical for anyone except locals.