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Japan health panel approves Moderna, AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines

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Japanese regulators recommended the approval of COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna Inc and AstraZeneca PLC on Thursday, paving the way for the country to speed up its slow-moving vaccination campaign.

The recommendations by a health ministry panel precede official approval by the government as early as Friday, health minister Norihisa Tamura said on Thursday.

Tamura likened the approval of the new vaccines to building extra railway tracks, telling reporters: “It means that the vaccination roll-out will be smoother.”

Supplies of the Moderna doses have already been imported and are planned for use at mass vaccination centres in Tokyo and Osaka from next week.

Takeda Pharmaceutical Co, Japan’s biggest drugmaker, is handling imports of about 50 million doses of the Moderna shot, or enough for 25 million people. That amount could be doubled, Takeda said this month.

Japan kicked off its COVID-19 inoculation campaign in the middle of February using Pfizer Inc’s vaccine, the first to be approved domestically.

But amid scarce initial supplies and other logistical bottlenecks, the campaign has moved slowly.

Japan has inoculated 3.9% of its population of about 125 million so far, the slowest rate among the world’s larger, wealthy countries.

The government has arranged to buy 120 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, enough for 60 million people. Most of the doses will be made in Japan by Daiichi Sankyo Co, JCR Pharmaceuticals Co and other local partners.

Officials are considering limiting the recommended age group for AstraZeneca’s vaccine due to worries about blood clots, NHK said.

 

(Reporting by Rocky Swift and Ritsuko Ando; Editing by Jacqueline Wong, Hugh Lawson and Giles Elgood)

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North Korea’s Kim says food situation ‘tense’ due to pandemic, typhoons

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said the country’s economy improved this year but called for measures to tackle the “tense” food situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic and last year’s typhoons, state media said on Wednesday.

Kim chaired a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s central committee on Tuesday to review progress on major policies and craft measures to resolve economic issues, according to the official KCNA news agency.

The committee set goals and tasks to achieve its new five-year economic plan outlined at its previous session in February, including increased food and metal production.

Kim said the overall economy had improved in the first half of the year, with the total industrial output growing 25% from a year before, KCNA said.

But there was “a series of deviations” in the party’s efforts to implement the plans due to several obstacles, he said, singling out tight food supplies.

“The people’s food situation is now getting tense as the agricultural sector failed to fulfil its grain production plan due to the damage by typhoon last year,” Kim said.

The party vowed to direct all efforts to farming this year and discuss ways to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, KCNA said.

Kim called for steps to minimise impacts of natural disasters as a lesson from last year and key to attain this year’s goal.

In January, Kim said his previous five-year economic plan had failed in almost every sector, amid chronic power and food shortages exacerbated by sanctions, the pandemic and floods.

He also the protracted pandemic required the party to step up efforts to provide food, clothing and housing for the people, KCNA said.

North Korea has not officially confirmed any COVID-19 cases, a claim questioned by Seoul officials. But the reclusive country has imposed strict anti-virus measures including border closures and domestic travel restrictions.

COVAX, a global initiative for sharing COVID-19 vaccines with poor countries, has said it will provide nearly 2 million doses to North Korea but the shipment has been delayed amid protracted consultations.

 

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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Israeli military confirms Gaza air strikes

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The Israeli military said its aircraft attacked Hamas armed compounds in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday in response to the launching of incendiary ballons from the territory that caused fires in fields in southern Israel.

In a statement, the military said that it was “ready for all scenarios, including renewed fighting in the face of continued terrorist acts emanating from Gaza”.

The attacks, following an Israeli nationalist march in East Jerusalem that angered Palestinians, were the first launched by Israel and Gaza militants since an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire ended 11 days of cross-border fighting last month.

 

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

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U.S., Canada set to discuss lifting of border restrictions

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U.S. and Canadian officials are set to meet Tuesday to discuss how to eventually lift pandemic-related border restrictions between the two countries, but no immediate action is expected, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters on Monday.

U.S. and Canadian business leaders have voiced increasing concern about the ban on non-essential travel at land borders because of COVID-19 that was imposed in March 2020 and has been renewed on a monthly basis since. The measures, which also apply to the U.S.-Mexico border, do not affect trade or other essential travel.

The current restrictions are set to expire June 21, but U.S. and industry officials expect they will be extended again.

Reuters reported on June 8 the Biden administration was forming expert working groups with Canada, Mexico, the European Union and the United Kingdom to determine how best to safely restart travel after 15 months of pandemic restrictions.

A meeting is expected to occur with Mexico later this week and meetings with the United Kingdom and EU are currently set for next week, but the timing could still shift, three people briefed on the meetings said.

U.S. restrictions prevent most non-U.S. citizens who have been in the United Kingdom, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe without border controls, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil within the last 14 days from traveling to the United States.

Reuters reported previously that U.S. and airline officials do not think U.S. restrictions will be lifted until around July 4 at the earliest.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Sunday he has spoken with U.S. President Joe Biden about how to lift the restrictions, but made clear no breakthrough has been achieved.

Two officials said the working groups are each expected to meet twice a month.

Canada last week took a cautious first step, saying it was prepared to relax quarantine protocols for fully vaccinated citizens returning home starting in early July.

 

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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