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The Latest: China approves 5th vaccine for emergency use – Vancouver Is Awesome

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BRUSSELS — The European Commission says 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 says 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.

“This is very good news,” Von der Leyen says. “It gives member states room to manoeuvr and possibly fill gaps in deliveries.”

The announcement comes amid a shortage of vaccine supplies in Europe and as a growing number of European countries — including now Sweden, Germany, France, Italy and Spain — have suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine after some recipients had blood clots. The company and international regulators say there is no evidence the shot is to blame for the blood clots.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— Moderna begins study of COVID-19 vaccine in children younger than 12

— Why countries are halting the AstraZeneca vaccine, though there is no evidence the shot is responsible for reported blood clots

— Thailand’s PM receives AstraZeneca vaccine as much of Asia shrugs off reported blood clots in Europe

— China adds 5th vaccine to its arsenal, with final round testing underway in Pakistan, Indonesia and Uzbekistan

— Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

TAIPEI, Taiwan — 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 says. 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.

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Moderna announced Tuesday it is beginning a study of its COVID-19 vaccine in children younger than 12 — one that will include babies as young as 6 months.

The announcement comes exactly a year after the first adult received a test dose of the shot, created at the National Institutes of Health. It’s now being used across the U.S. and in multiple other countries.

Moderna also has tested the vaccine in 12- to 17-year-olds but hasn’t yet released the findings. The study in younger children will be more complex, because researcher need to determine whether to us smaller doses than in adults and adolescents.

The study aims to eventually enrol about 6,750 children in the U.S. and Canada. That’s after a phase-in portion to determine the best dose to test in children age 2 and older and the right dose in those younger than 2.

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STOCKHOLM — Sweden is pausing the use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine as a precautionary measure amid concerns about reports of blood clots in some recipients in Europe.

“The decision is a precautionary measure,” Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, said in a statement.

The move by the Swedish Public Health Agency was to remain in effect until an investigation by the European Medicines Agency into suspected side effects is complete.

A growing number of European countries — including Germany, France, Italy and Spain — have suspended use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, though the company and international regulators say there is no evidence the shot is to blame for the blood clots.

Sweden has stood out for its comparatively mild response to the pandemic. The country avoided lockdowns and relied instead on citizens’ sense of civic duty to control cases. As of Tuesday, more than 13,140 people had died from the coronavirus. It’s far more per capita than Sweden’s neighbours but fewer than other European countries that implemented strict lockdowns or curfews.

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UNITED NATIONS — China’s U.N. ambassador says China is donating 300,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to U.N. peacekeepers, with priority given to those serving in Africa.

Ambassador Zhang Jun sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres informing him of the donation, China’s U.N. Mission said Monday. It follows the announcement by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi of Beijing’s intention to donate vaccines at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Feb. 17.

The mission said “China attaches great importance to the safety and security of peacekeepers” and the donation “is a further step to make China’s vaccines a global public good, and also a demonstration of China’s firm and continuous support to the U.N. and multilateralism.”

Last month, the U.N. thanked India for offering 200,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses for U.N. peacekeepers.

The U.N. currently has a dozen peacekeeping operations, half in Africa with a total of about 100,000 peacekeepers.

There was no immediate word on what the U.N. plans to do with the two offers.

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OSAKA, Japan — Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. is the latest drugmaker to offer help with production of a rival’s COVID-19 vaccine as their industry works to churn out billions of vaccine doses.

Takeda, one of Japan’s top vaccine makers, said Monday it’s reached a deal to have a German contract drug manufacturer temporarily use capacity at its factories that had been reserved for Takeda to instead produce Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose COVID-19 shot.

Germany’s IDT Biologika Gmbh previously had saved capacity to make Takeda’s experimental dengue vaccine, now in final testing before regulatory reviews, ahead of the planned launch of the dengue shot.

Under the three-company deal, starting this month IDT will manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for three months, then resume manufacture of the dengue vaccine candidate.

Takeda previously said it will manufacture more than 250 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Novavax that’s likely to be approved in a few months, with that supply meant for Japan.

Meanwhile, Takeda has been testing its existing products to see if they are effective against the coronavirus. Takeda also plans to distribute 50 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine in Japan and has multiple partnerships with other companies to try to develop other treatments and vaccines to fight the pandemic.

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ATLANTA — Georgia threw open the doors for COVID-19 vaccination to a majority of adults, as the state seeks to improve its worst-in-the-nation share of the population that has been inoculated against the respiratory illness.

Monday was the first day that people aged 55 to 64 could get shots, as well as people with serious health conditions and those who are overweight and obese.

Officials with Gov. Brian Kemp’s office say that, overall, another 3.3 million people are eligible, meaning more than 5 million Georgians overall can now seek vaccination.

The state will open five new mass vaccination sites on Wednesday and the federal government will take over a site in Atlanta.

Georgia has only given 20.8% of its adult population at least one dose, the worst in the nation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same data show Georgia has administered the second-lowest share of doses delivered among states, with more than one-third of doses still awaiting injection.

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LISBON, Portugal — Portugal is following other European Union countries and temporarily halting use of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine while experts review its safety.

The General Director for Health, Graça Freitas, told a Monday evening news conference that Portugal has so far seen none of the cases of dangerous blood clots in some recipients recorded elsewhere in Europe.

Officials said they hoped a scientific review of the jab can be completed by the end of the week.

Freitas urged people who have had the AstraZeneca vaccine to remain calm.

Portugal is postponing the mass vaccination of educational workers scheduled for next weekend because of the AstraZeneca suspension.

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NEW YORK — Two new studies add evidence that a virus variant first detected in Britain is more deadly than the previous dominant form.

Other research had already demonstrated the strain is more transmissible, but a new paper published Monday in the journal Nature suggests the U.K. variant may also be associated with an increased risk of death.

Comparing cases in more than 1 million people infected in England, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated the risk of death was about 55% higher for those with the new variant versus the previous one.

For men in their 50s or 60s, that meant the risk of death went from 0.06% to 0.09% with the new strain.

In a University of Exeter study published in the British journal BMJ last week, researchers followed about 100,000 positive COVID-19 cases, matching pairs of participants on age, sex and other factors. They also found those with the U.K. variant were at higher risk of death during the study.

The variant has been found in all but a few states in the U.S. and is expected to become the dominant strain later this spring.

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Ontario hospitals may have to withhold care as COVID-19 fills ICUs

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By Allison Martell and Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Doctors in the Canadian province of Ontario may soon have to decide who can and cannot receive treatment in intensive care as the number of coronavirus infections sets records and patients are packed into hospitals still stretched from a December wave.

Canada‘s most populous province is canceling elective surgeries, admitting adults to a major children’s hospital and preparing field hospitals after the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs jumped 31% to 612 in the week leading up to Sunday, according to data from the Ontario Hospital Association.

The sharp increase in Ontario hospital admissions is also straining supplies of tocilizumab, a drug often given to people seriously ill with COVID-19.

Hospital care is publicly funded in Canada, generally free at the point of care for residents. But new hospital beds have not kept pace with population growth, and shortages of staff and space often emerge during bad flu seasons.

Ontario’s hospitals fared relatively well during the first wave of the pandemic last year, in part because the province quickly canceled elective surgeries.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario told doctors last Thursday that the province was considering “enacting the critical care triage protocol,” something that was not done during earlier waves of the virus. Triage protocols help doctors decide who to treat in a crisis.

“Everybody’s under extreme stress,” said Eddy Fan, an ICU doctor at Toronto’s University Health Network. He said no doctor wants to contemplate a triage protocol but there are only so many staff.

“There’s going to be a breaking point, a point at which we can’t fill those gaps any longer.”

In a statement, the health ministry said Ontario has not activated the protocol. A September draft suggested doctors could withhold life-sustaining care from patients with a less than 20% chance of surviving 12 months. A final version has not been made public.

Ontario’s Science Advisory Table had been forecasting the surge for months, said member and critical care physician Laveena Munshi. During a recent shift she wanted to call the son of a patient only to discover he was in an ICU across the street.

“The horror stories that we’re seeing in the hospital are like ones out of apocalyptic movies,” she said. “They’re not supposed to be the reality we’re seeing one year into a pandemic.”

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In COVID-19 vaccination pivot, Canada targets frontline workers

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By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada is shifting its vaccination campaign to target frontline workers, moving away from a largely age-based rollout as the country tries to get a handle on the raging third wave of the pandemic.

Canada‘s approach thus far has left unvaccinated many so-called “essential workers,” like daycare providers, bus drivers and meatpackers, all of whom are among those at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. Provinces are now trying to adjust their strategy to tackle the surge driven by new variants.

Targeting frontline workers and addressing occupation risk is vital if Canada wants to get its third wave under control, says Simon Fraser University mathematician and epidemiologist Caroline Colijn, who has modelled Canadian immunization strategies and found “the sooner you put essential workers [in the vaccine rollout plan], the better.”

Initially, Canada prioritized long-term care residents and staff for the vaccines, as well as the very elderly, health workers, residents of remote communities and Indigenous people.

Targeting vaccinations by age made sense early on in a pandemic that ravaged Canada‘s long-term care homes, Colijn said. But now, immunizing those at highest risk of transmission brings the greatest benefit.

“If you protect these individuals you also protect someone in their 60s whose only risk is when they go to the store. … The variants are here now. So if we pivot now, but it takes us two months to do it, then we will lose that race.”

Data released on Tuesday from the Institute of Clinical and Evaluative Sciences showed that Toronto’s neighbourhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections had the lowest vaccination rates, underscoring the disparities in vaccination.

‘IT’S A JUGGERNAUT’

On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a plan to have mobile vaccine clinics target COVID-19 “hotspots” and high-risk worksites, although he stopped short of giving people paid time off to get the shot.

Karim Kurji, medical officer of health in York Region north of Toronto, characterizes the shift in vaccination priority from age to transmission risk as moving from defence to offence.

“It’s a juggernaut in terms of the immunization machinery, and turning it around takes a lot of effort,” Kurji said.

Meanwhile, officials in the western province of Alberta say they are offering vaccines to more than 2,000 workers at Cargill’s meatpacking plant in High River, site of one of Canada‘s largest workplace COVID-19 outbreaks. Provincial officials said in a statement they are looking to expand the pilot to other plants.

Quebec will start vaccinating essential workers such as those in education, childcare and public safety in Montreal, where neighbourhoods with the highest vaccination rates have been among those with the lowest recorded infection rates.

The people doing the highest-risk jobs, from an infectious disease perspective, are more likely to be poor, non-white and new Canadians, health experts say. They are less likely to have paid leave to get tested or vaccinated or stay home when sick and are more likely to live in crowded or multi-unit housing. They need to be prioritized for vaccination and their vaccination barriers addressed, experts say.

Naheed Dosani, a Toronto palliative care physician and health justice activist, said making vaccines available to high-risk communities is not enough without addressing barriers to access.

“The face of COVID-19 and who was being impacted changed dramatically. The variants seemed to take hold in communities where essential workers live. … This [pivot] is a step in the right direction and will hopefully save lives.”

 

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and Aurora Ellis)

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Canada finance minister: Pandemic an opportunity to bring in national childcare

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OTTAWA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic and its damaging impact on women has underlined the need for a national childcare plan, which would also help the economic recovery, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Thursday.

Since taking up her job in August, Freeland has repeatedly spoken about a “feminist agenda,” and has said childcare will be part of a stimulus package worth up to C$100 billion ($79.6 billion) over three years. She will unveil details in her April 19 budget.

“I really believe COVID-19 has created a window of political opportunity and maybe an epiphany … on the importance of early learning and childcare,” Freeland told a online convention of Canada‘s ruling Liberal Party.

The budget is set to be a springboard for an election that Liberal insiders say is likely in the second half of the year.

Canadian governments of various stripes have mused about a national childcare program for decades but never acted, thanks in part to the cost and also the need to negotiate with the 10 provinces, which deliver many social programs.

Freeland said a childcare program would help counter “an incredibly dangerous drop” in female employment since the start of the pandemic.

“It is a surefire way to drive jobs and economic growth … you have higher participation of women in the labor force,” Freeland said. “My hope … is that being able to make that economic argument as well is going be to one of the ways that we get this done.”

Freeland, who is taking part this week in meetings of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations and the International Monetary Fund, said U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had told her they saw early learning and child care as a driver for economic recovery.

($1=1.2560 Canadian dollars)

 

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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