Europe’s medicines watchdog on Tuesday said the benefits of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine continue to outweigh the risks after several countries halted its use due to concerns about blood clots.
The European Medicines Agency’s Executive Director Emer Cooke said it was carrying out a case-by-case evaluation of incidents and was expected to complete a review on Thursday.
The update from Cooke came after a French official expressed hope that European medical experts would clear up questions over the safety of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus shot this week, as experts warned the decision by major European states to stop using it posed a greater risk to public health.
In a co-ordinated step, the European Union’s largest members — Germany, France and Italy — suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine on Monday pending the outcome of an investigation by the bloc’s medicines regulator into isolated cases of bleeding, blood clots and low platelet counts.
They were joined by Sweden and Latvia on Tuesday, bringing to more than a dozen the number of EU countries that have acted since reports first emerged of thromboembolisms affecting people after they got the AstraZeneca shot.
The World Health Organization and European Medicines Agency have joined AstraZeneca in saying there is no proven link.
“The choice is a political one,” Nicola Magrini, the director general of Italy’s medicines authority AIFA, told daily la Repubblica in an interview.
Magrini called the AstraZeneca vaccine safe and said its benefit-to-risk ratio was “widely positive.” There have been eight deaths and four cases of serious side-effects following vaccinations in Italy, he said.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran also told reporters that the risk-reward ratio for the vaccine remained positive.
“We expect some kind of verdict from the European scientific community by Thursday afternoon, allowing us to resume the campaign,” Veran said. France’s vaccination chief Alain Fischer said he expected the suspension to be temporary.
Governments say they acted out of an abundance of caution, with German Health Minister Jens Spahn stating on Monday that the decision to suspend AstraZeneca was not political but based on expert advice.
He acted after Germany’s vaccine watchdog identified an unusual number of cases of a rare cerebral vein thrombosis. Out of 1.6 million people in Germany who had got the AstraZeneca shot, seven fell ill and three died.
The risk of dying of COVID-19 is still orders of magnitude greater, especially among those most vulnerable such as the elderly, said Dirk Brockmann, an epidemiologist at the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases.
“In the risk groups the risk of dying of COVID is much, much higher. That means one is probably 100,000 times more likely to die of COVID than because of an AstraZeneca vaccine,” Brockmann told ARD public television.
In Thailand, meanwhile, the prime minister received an AstraZeneca shot at the start of the country’s use of the vaccine on Tuesday.
“There are people who have concerns,” Prayuth Chan-ocha said after his vaccination. “But we must believe doctors, believe in our medical professionals.”
Thailand initially was the first country outside Europe to temporarily suspend using the AstraZeneca vaccine. But Thailand’s health authorities later decided to go ahead with it, with Prayuth and members of his cabinet receiving the first shots.
Indonesia suspended use of the vaccine on Monday, saying it was waiting for a full report from the World Health Organization regarding possible side effects.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said that experts and Health Canada, “have spent an awful lot of time making sure every vaccine approved in Canada is both safe and effective.”
“The best vaccine for you to take is the very first one that is offered to you,” Trudeau said. “That’s how we get through this as quickly as possible and as safely as possible.”
National Advisory Committee on Immunization chair Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh said Tuesday the panel is continually studying new reports and studies on the vaccines, including the recent reports in Europe about blood clots.
WATCH | Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology, answers questions about the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine:
–From Reuters, CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 10:25 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
WATCH | Ontario launches online vaccine booking system as concerns of 3rd wave grow:
As of 10:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Canada had reported 914,026 cases of COVID-19, with 31,608 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 22,506.
Health officials in Ontario on Tuesday reported 1,074 new cases of COVID-19 and 11 additional deaths. A provincial dashboard put the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations at 761, and listed 292 of those as being in intensive care units.
The latest update comes a day after the Ontario Hospital Association said that the province is now in a third wave of infections, citing data from a science advisory group that shows virus variant cases increasing and the number of patients in intensive care trending up.
“Strong adherence to public health measures is urgently needed to prevent overwhelming hospitals,” the hospital group said on Twitter.
But the province’s top doctor said Ontario “could be going into” a third wave but the extent of it is still developing.
“You can always tell you’re in it after it’s over,” Dr. David Williams said. “I would say we are into that base of a third wave. What does that mean, how big it is, that’s to be determined.”
In Atlantic Canada, there was just one new case reported on Monday. Health officials in New Brunswick said the travel-related case was in the Edmundston region. There were no new cases reported in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland and Labrador, which as of Monday had gone three straight days without any new cases.
In Quebec, health officials reported 594 new COVID-19 cases and 10 additional deaths on Monday. Hospitalizations rose by six, to 553, and 96 people were in intensive care, a drop of four.
In the Prairie provinces, Manitoba reported 50 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and no additional deaths. The province has seen 41 cases of variants of concern to date, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said, noting that health officials are trying to limit transmission as they cautiously move forward with efforts to loosen restrictions.
“I think we are really getting aggressive with our case and contact investigations,” Roussin said at a briefing on Monday. “We are going to be treating most cases as if they were variants of concern until proven otherwise.”
WATCH | Prince Rupert, B.C., offers vaccines to all adults after spike in cases:
British Columbia, meanwhile, reported 1,506 new COVID-19 cases since Friday. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says there were 10 COVID-19 deaths over the three-day period, bringing B.C.’s provincial death total to 1,407 people.
Across the North, there were no new cases reported in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories or Yukon.
–From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 10:30 a.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of early Tuesday morning, more than 120.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with 68.2 million cases listed on the Johns Hopkins University tracking site as recovered. The death toll stood at more than 2.6 million.
In the Americas, the United States should respond by Friday to Mexico’s request to share doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine it has in stock, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.
Reuters reported this week that Mexico had asked for doses of the British-developed vaccine, since it has yet to be approved for use in the United States.
Mexico will also sign a contract on Tuesday with China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. to purchase 20 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, Ebrard said.
In the Asia-Pacific region, India, Cambodia and the Philippines’ capital Manila expanded curbs and issued new safety recommendations amid a sharp rise in infections.
China has approved another COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, adding a fifth shot to its arsenal.
The announcement came from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Microbiology. The vaccine was approved for use in Uzbekistan on March 1. The last phase of clinical trials is ongoing. No peer-reviewed data is publicly available about the vaccine’s safety or efficacy.
It’s a three-dose shot, with one month each between shots, a company spokesperson said. Like other vaccines China has developed, it can be stored at normal refrigeration temperatures.
China has been slow in vaccinating its population of 1.4 billion people, despite having four vaccines approved for general use. The latest numbers, according to government officials at a press briefing Monday in Beijing, is 64.9 million doses of vaccines have been administered. They’ve mostly been given to health-care workers, those working at the border or customs, and specific industries.
In Europe, the European Commission said it has sealed a deal with Pfizer to speed up the dispatching of 10 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine over the next three months.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said speeding up the pace of deliveries across the 27-nation bloc would bring the total number of Pfizer doses in the second quarter to over 200 million.
Russia has identified two cases of the B1351 variant of the coronavirus first detected in South Africa, consumer health regulator Rospotrebnadzor said in a statement on Tuesday. Since the start of the pandemic, Russia has reported more than four million COVID-19 cases and over 90,000 deaths.
In the Middle East, Iran’s total number of reported cases rose to more than 1.7 million, with more than 61,300 deaths.
Iran’s campaign to inoculate its population against the coronavirus and promote itself as an emerging vaccine manufacturer inched on as health authorities announced Tuesday that the country’s third homegrown vaccine has reached the phase of clinical trials. Details about its production, however, remained slim.
Although Iran, with a population of more than 80 million, has so far imported foreign vaccines from Russia, China, India and Cuba to cover over 1.2 million people, concerns over its lagging pace of vaccinations have animated Iran’s drive to develop locally produced vaccines as wealthier nations snap up the lion’s share of vaccine doses worldwide.
In Africa, South Africa’s total number of reported cases is more than 1.5 million, with more than 51,400 deaths.
-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 10:35 a.m. ET
Canada’s manufacturers ask for federal help as Montreal dockworkers stage partial-strike
MONTREAL (Reuters) – Canada‘s manufacturers on Monday asked the federal government to curb a brewing labor dispute after dockworkers at the country’s second largest port said they will work less this week.
Unionized dockworkers, who are in talks for a new contract since 2018, will hold a partial strike starting Tuesday, by refusing all overtime outside of their normal day shifts, along with weekend work, they said in a statement on Monday.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Quebec’s 1,125 longshore workers at the Port of Montreal rejected a March offer from the Maritime Employers Association.
The uncertainty caused by the labour dispute has led to an 11% drop in March container volume at the Montreal port on an annual basis, even as other eastern ports in North America made gains, the Maritime Employers Association said.
The move will cause delays in a 24-hour industry, the association said.
“Some manufacturers have had to redirect their containers to the Port of Halifax, incurring millions in additional costs every week,” said Dennis Darby, chief executive of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME).
While the government strongly believes a negotiated agreement is the best option for all parties, “we are actively examining all options as the situation evolves,” a spokesman for Federal Labor Minister Filomena Tassi said.
Last summer’s stoppage of work cost wholesalers C$600 million ($478 million) in sales over a two-month period, Statistics Canada estimates.
($1 = 1.2563 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal. Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Editing by Marguerita Choy)
Canada scraps export permits for drone technology to Turkey, complains to Ankara
OTTAWA (Reuters) –Canada on Monday scrapped export permits for drone technology to Turkey after concluding that the equipment had been used by Azeri forces fighting Armenia in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said.
Turkey, which like Canada is a member of NATO, is a key ally of Azerbaijan, whose forces gained territory in the enclave after six weeks of fighting.
“This use was not consistent with Canadian foreign policy, nor end-use assurances given by Turkey,” Garneau said in a statement, adding he had raised his concerns with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier in the day.
Ottawa suspended the permits last October so it could review allegations that Azeri drones used in the conflict had been equipped with imaging and targeting systems made by L3Harris Wescam, the Canada-based unit of L3Harris Technologies Inc.
In a statement, the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa said: “We expect our NATO allies to avoid unconstructive steps that will negatively affect our bilateral relations and undermine alliance solidarity.”
Earlier on Monday, Turkey said Cavusoglu had urged Canada to review the defense industry restrictions.
The parts under embargo include camera systems for Baykar armed drones. Export licenses were suspended in 2019 during Turkish military activities in Syria. Restrictions were then eased, but reimposed during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Turkey’s military exports to Azerbaijan jumped sixfold last year. Sales of drones and other military equipment rose to $77 million in September alone before fighting broke out in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, data showed.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones and Peter Cooney)
Investigation finds Suncor’s Colorado refinery meets environmental permits
By Liz Hampton
DENVER (Reuters) – A Colorado refinery owned by Canadian firm Suncor Energy Inc meets required environmental permits and is adequately funded, according to an investigation released on Monday into a series of emissions violations at the facility between 2017 and 2019.
The 98,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) refinery in the Denver suburb of Commerce City, Colorado, reached a $9-million settlement with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) March 2020 to resolve air pollution violations that occurred since 2017. That settlement also addressed an incident in December 2019 that released refinery materials onto a nearby school.
As part of the settlement, Suncor was required to use a third party to conduct an independent investigation into the violations and spend up to $5 million to implement recommendations from the investigation.
Consulting firm Kearney’s investigation found the facility met environmental permit requirements, but also pinpointed areas for improvement, including personnel training and systems upgrades, some of which was already underway.
“We need to improve our performance and improve the trust people have in us,” Donald Austin, vice president of the Commerce City refinery said in an interview, adding that the refinery had already undertaken some of the recommendations from the investigation.
In mid-April, Suncor will begin a turnaround at the facility that includes an upgrade to a gasoline-producing fluid catalytic cracking unit (FCCU) at Plant 1 of the facility. That turnaround is anticipated to be complete in June 2021.
Suncor last year completed a similar upgrade of an automatic shutdown system for the FCCU at the refinery’s Plant 2.
By 2023, the company will also install an additional control unit, upgraded instrumentation, automated shutdown valves and new hydraulic pressure units in Plant 2.
Together, those upgrades will cost approximately $12 million, of which roughly $10 million is dedicated to Plant 2 upgrades, Suncor said on Monday.
(Reporting by Liz Hampton; Editing by Marguerita Choy)