Coronavirus has killed more than 2.42 million people and infected over 110 million globally. Here are virus-related developments for February 17:

Juan Guerrlo, centre left, waits in line to fill his propane tanks in Houston, US, February 17, 2021.
Juan Guerrlo, centre left, waits in line to fill his propane tanks in Houston, US, February 17, 2021. (AP)

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

US investing $200 mn on variant detection

US President Joe Biden's administration said it was investing nearly $200 million to identify emerging strains of the coronavirus through expanded genome sequencing.

According to a statement, the investment will increase sequencing carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) "more than threefold from about 7,000 samples per week to approximately 25,000."

The US has been lagging behind dozens of countries in its efforts to track virus variants, putting at risk the progress made in containing its outbreak.

The administration is also spending $650 million to increase testing in schools and underserved sites such as homeless shelters, and $815 million to increase domestic manufacturing of testing supplies.

France reports 25,018 new cases

France has reported 25,018 new confirmed cases, up from 19,590 on Tuesday, but there were fewer new patients hospitalised with the disease.

The French health ministry also reported 310 new deaths against 586 on Tuesday, taking the total to 83,122.

There were 25,974 patients hospitalised with the disease, 265 fewer than on Tuesday and 3,350 patients in intensive care units, an increase of two over 24 hours.

France said more than 3.3 million vaccination shots have been administered since the start of the campaign.

Countries to get confirmation soon on COVAX vaccines, but should expect small initial shipments – PAHO

Countries participating in the COVAX vaccine distribution mechanism will soon receive confirmation of their first shipments but should expect them to be small due to limited global supplies, the director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said.

Nations waiting on doses from the COVAX program, co-led by the WHO and the GAVI Vaccine Alliance to support poorer countries, can expect a timeline and information on dose amounts in "the next days and weeks," PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said in a virtual briefing.

About 160 million doses would be distributed in the region in the first six months with doses ramping up monthly, Etienne said, adding that a global squeeze on supplies meant initial shipments would be limited.

"Rest assured, PAHO is doing everything it can to expand vaccine availability and to get vaccines out quickly," Etienne said.

The WHO's emergency use authorisation for the AstraZeneca /Oxford University vaccine from two manufacturers on Monday was a "critical milestone," Etienne said.

Officials are planning to distribute more than 300 million doses of the vaccine to 145 countries through COVAX.

Namibia to roll out AstraZeneca vaccine despite efficacy concerns

Namibia will push ahead with the roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine despite neighbouring South Africa halting distribution after concerns over its effectiveness against a new variant, the government said.

The nation of 2.5 million people recorded more than 36,000 cases with 394 deaths, with its mining and tourism-depended economy severely hit by the pandemic.

Health and Social Services Minister Kalumba Shanghula said investigations were still underway to establish whether the new variant is present in Namibia and the extent of its prevalence.

South Africa paused the roll out of the vaccine because of preliminary trial data showing it offered minimal protection against mild to moderate disease caused by the 501Y.V2 variant dominant in the country..

In November, Namibia approved an upfront payment of 26.4 million Namibian dollars to the COVAX global vaccine distribution scheme co-led by the World Health Organization, giving it the option to buy coronavirus vaccines for 20 percent of its population.

Slovakia seeks medical staff assist from abroad as outbreak rages

Slovakia will ask other European Union member countries for medical staff to help with the surge in cases, the Health Ministry said.

The plea is the country's first, after the previous plan to have large-scale testing followed by targeted measures in the hardest-hit regions did not tame the epidemic.

Coronavirus infections are on the rise in Slovakia with nearly 2,000 new cases reported on average each day. While the country has had a total of under 6,100 deaths, based on the most recent 7-day rolling average, Slovakia ranks first in deaths per million in population, according to ourworldindata.org.

Bratislava is seeking 10 doctors and 25 nurses for one month at least, the ministry said, putting it alongside Portugal, which asked Germany for medical staff help in January.

The UK coronavirus variant, more infectious than the previously dominant version, has taken over as the main cause of new cases in Slovakia, Prime Minister Igor Matovic said on February 5.

Italy reports 369 deaths, 12,074 new cases

Italy reported 369 virus-related deaths against 336 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 12,074 from 10,386 the day before.

Some 294,411 tests for Covid-19 were carried out in the past day, compared with a previous 274,019, the health ministry said.

Italy has registered 94,540 deaths linked to Covid-19 since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the seventh-highest in the world. The country has reported 2.75 million cases to date.

Patients in hospital, not including those in intensive care, stood at 18,274, down from 18,463 a day earlier.

There were 113 new admissions to intensive care units, down from 154 on Tuesday. The total number of intensive care patients fell to 2,043 from a previous 2,074.

When Italy's second wave of the epidemic was accelerating quickly in the first half of November, hospital admissions were rising by about 1,000 per day, while intensive care occupancy was increasing by about 100 per day.

Erdogan says Turkey to start gradual normalisation in March

Turkey will begin a gradual return to normal life on a province-by-province basis from March, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, adding that nationwide weekend lockdowns would be lifted in some provinces based on infection rates.

Turkey imposed curfews, weekend lockdowns and other curbs in December in the face of rising cases. It plans to reopen schools nationwide on March 1, and its vaccination programme has so far administered shots to nearly 5.7 million people using shots developed by Sinovac Biotech Ltd.

Speaking after a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Erdogan said a plan on re-opening cafes and restaurants, which have been shut down for months, would be announced in coming days, and urged citizens to continue abiding by the measures.

Turkey reported 7,325 new coronavirus cases, including 649 symptomatic patients, according to the Health Ministry.

The country's case tally passed 2.6 million, while the nationwide death toll reached 27,738, with 86 fatalities over the past day.

UN chief urges global vaccination plan for Covid-19

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for a global plan to vaccinate against Covid-19, warning that inequities in initial efforts risked both the world's health and economy.

Opening a special Security Council session on vaccines held at the level of foreign ministers, Guterres warned that just 10 nations have administered 75 percent of the doses so far – and 130 countries have had no vaccinations at all.

"The world urgently needs a global vaccination plan to bring together all those with the required power, scientific expertise and production and financial capacities," Guterres told the virtual meeting.

He said the Group of 20 major economies was in the best position to set up a task force on financing and implementation of global vaccinations and offered full support of the United Nations.

Palestinian Authority says it has sent vaccines to Gaza

The Palestinian Authority said it has dispatched the first shipment of coronavirus vaccines to the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, two days after accusing Israel of preventing it from sending the doses amid objections from some Israeli lawmakers.

Palestinian Health Minister Mai Alkaila said in a statement that the PA sent 2,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine through the Beitunia crossing between the occupied West Bank and Israel en route to Gaza. She said they would go to frontline medical workers.

An Israeli defence official confirmed that the vaccines were on their way to Gaza following approval, saying it's “not in Israel's interest to have a Gaza health crisis.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

EU to receive 200M more shots of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

As worries about vaccine delays swept across Europe, Pfizer and BioNTech said they have finalised an agreement to supply the European Union with another 200 million doses of their vaccine.

The US and German companies said in a statement that the doses come on top of the 300 million vaccine doses the bloc has initially ordered. The EU’s executive Commission has an option to request a further 100 million doses.

They said the 200 million doses are expected to be delivered this year, with an estimated 75 million of them in the second quarter.

EU buys up to 300 million more Moderna jabs

The European Union has bought up to 300 million extra Covid-19 vaccine doses from US firm Moderna.

The new deal adds to the EU's vaccine stock as it strives to meet a target of fully vaccinating 70 percent of adults by mid-September.

The commission now has access to a "portfolio" of 2.6 billion doses of three EU-authorised vaccines and three more prospective ones, to be provided this year and next, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a media conference.

Numerically, that is more than enough for the EU's 450 million inhabitants, with the excess going to neighbouring countries, she said.

Spain to give AstraZeneca vaccine to those aged 45 to 55

Spain will administer AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine to people aged 45 to 55 in the next phase of its national inoculation plan.

The shot, which is approved for those aged 18 to 55, is now being given to people in that bracket with a high risk of contracting the virus, such as daycare workers and physiotherapists, as well as police, firefighters and teachers.

Most of Spain's initial priority group of nursing-home residents and staff have already received two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, which are now being rolled out to over 80-year-olds and medics.

UK gives go-ahead to expose volunteers to Covid in medical trial

Britain has become the first country in the world to allow volunteers to be exposed to the virus to advance medical research into the pandemic.

The trial, which will begin within a month, will see up to 90 healthy volunteers aged 18-30 exposed to Covid-19 in a safe and controlled environment to increase understanding of how the virus affects people, the government said.

Croatia says it might buy Russian vaccine without waiting for EU

Croatia is discussing with Moscow the possibility of importing Russia's vaccine, and the government has asked the drugs regulator to consider approving the shot without waiting for the EU, Health Minister Vili Beros has said.

EU countries have so far lagged far behind the United States and former EU member Britain in distributing vaccines, creating political pressure on governments to speed up a lifesaving programme.

Croatia's neighbour Hungary, often at odds with Brussels, has been the only EU country so far to start using Russian and Chinese vaccines without waiting for approval from the EU drugs regulator.

In an interview with state radio, Beros said he had discussed buying Russia's Sputnik V vaccine with the Russian ambassador. Russia was planning to seek approval for the vaccine from the EU medicines regulator, but Croatia would not necessarily wait, Beros said.

South Africa to administer first vaccine

South Africa will administer its first vaccine as it inoculates health workers with the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) shot as part of a research study.

The first shot will be given at Khayelitsha District Hospital in Cape Town, the government said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement that 80,000 J&J doses were being prepared for distribution across the country.

"It is expected that most vaccination centres will be ready from today, 17 February 2021, to begin the vaccination programme," Ramaphosa said.

South Africa switched to the J&J vaccine to start protecting its health workers after pausing rollout of AstraZeneca's vaccine this month.

Preliminary trial data showed the AstraZeneca shot developed in partnership with the University of Oxford offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness from the country's dominant coronavirus variant. 

Easing of lockdown does not depend on a single indicator - Raab

Steps to ease lockdown measures in England will not depend on any single indicator, such as case numbers, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will publish the path out of lockdown on February 22.

"The number of cases is important, and so is the R level - it is good to see the R level is below 1, there's pressure on the NHS, there's the rollout of the vaccine," he told LBC radio.

"There's no single cast iron formula or one particular indicator above all other considerations that can decide this."

Britain says China must cooperate with WHO 

Britain said that China must cooperate with the World Health Organization review into the origins of the virus so that the world can understand who is responsible.

The United States and Britain have expressed concern over the access given to a WHO mission to China - where the novel coronavirus emerged in late 2019.

"We want to see full cooperation," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told BBC radio.

Raab said that the world needed to know detail of the origins of the outbreak "because then the issue of responsibility can be addressed but also frankly, looking forward, so we can learn the lessons." 

Russia reports 12,828 new cases, 467 deaths

Russia reported 12,828 new cases in the last 24 hours, including 1,282 in Moscow, taking the national tally to 4,112,151.

Authorities also reported another 467 deaths, raising the official toll to 81,446. 

Biotech group Biophytis to recruit more patients for treatment trial

Biotechnology group Biophytis said it had received regulatory approval in France and Belgium to recruit more patients for a study of Sarconeos as a potential treatment for breathing problems associated with Covid-19.

"We are extremely pleased that Part 2 of the COVA Study has now also been authorised in France and Belgium," Biophytis CEO Stanislas Veillet said in a statement. 

India finds new cases of a coronavirus variant

Health officials in India have confirmed that cases of the Covid-19 variant first detected in South Africa and Brazil have been found in the South Asian country

They said  that the South African variant was detected in four travelers last month. Over 150 cases of another variant first detected in the United Kingdom have previously been found in India.

One patient with the mutation first detected in Brazil was also registered in India earlier this month.

Cases in India have been falling dramatically and uniformly across the country for months. But the detection of the more infectious variants comes amid some worrying but so far isolated outbreaks.

A cluster of over a 100 cases has been detected in the southern India city of Bengaluru at an apartment complex.

Another spike was detected by health officials in several pockets of Maharashtra state, including in Mumbai, the country’s financial capital.

Thailand reports 175 new cases

Thailand has reported 175 new cases, taking its total infections to 24,961.

No new deaths were reported, the country's Covid-19 taskforce said at a briefing. Thailand has recorded 82 coronavirus-related fatalities since a year ago.

El Salvador getting its first vaccine from India

El Salvador’s government has said the Central American nation will receive its first shipment of coronavirus vaccine from India on Wednesday.

The office of President Nayib Bukele says the shipment of AstraZeneca vaccine will arrive on a flight from an Indian plant where it is produced.

Bukele’s office says the first doses will be used to vaccinate health care workers. The office did not say how many doses will be in the shipment, but says it will be used to vaccinate “thousands” of health care professionals.

The country has recorded about 58,000 infections and 1,758 deaths so far in the pandemic.

South Korea warns against lax distancing 

South Korea's Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has warned against loosening enforcement of social distancing rules after the number of new cases hit the highest levels in nearly 40 days.

The government relaxed distancing curbs starting this week, after getting on top of a third wave of Covid-19 outbreaks that peaked at about 1,200 daily cases in late December.

But the numbers shot back up in just three days, topping 600 for the first time in 39 days on Tuesday, after a ban on nighttime entertainment facilities was lifted and a restaurant curfew extended by one hour to 10 p.m.

Chung said there were signs of lax discipline, singling out nightclubs opening at 5 am and people partying at a hotel after the curfew.

"We've eased distancing to help small business owners maintain their livelihoods, not to keep a slack rein on the virus," he told a televised meeting. "The third wave is not over ... now is never the time to loosen up."

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 621 cases as of Tuesday midnight, from in the 300-400s in the previous few days as testing increased after last week's Lunar New Year holidays.

Japan kicks off Covid-19 vaccination drive

Japan has launched its Covid-19 inoculation drive by administering Pfizer Inc's vaccine shots to Tokyo hospital workers, TV footage showed, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga aims to defy the odds and hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

After vaccinating the initial group of 40,000 medical workers, Japan plans to move to the remaining 3.7 million medical personnel who come into contact with Covid-19 patients, and then to the 36 million people aged 65 or above.

Some in Japan, where relatively rare side effects from vaccines tend to be played up, are in no hurry to get the shot. 

That reluctance could prove to be a big problem for the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for this summer after a year’s delay. Vaccinations are considered a key to holding the games.

With domestic vaccine development still in its early stages, import-reliant Japan faces uncertainty in its supply. It’s also unclear if the already-strained Japanese health care system will be able to treat the extra visitors during the games as they juggle local patients and the mass inoculations.

Australia's Victoria to ease lockdown curbs

Australia's Victoria state will ease Covid-19 restrictions from midnight, PM Daniel Andrews has said, after reporting no new cases on the final day of a five-day snap lockdown put in place to contain a fresh virus cluster.

Nearly all mobility restrictions will be lifted but masks will be required indoors and outdoors if social distance rules could not be followed, Andrews said.

Brazil reports 55,271 new cases, 1,167 deaths

Brazil has recorded 55,271 additional confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the past 24 hours, along with 1,167 deaths from Covid-19, the Health Ministry said.

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.

New Zealand reports two new locally transmitted cases

New Zealand has detected two new locally transmitted cases of Covid-19, broadcaster TVNZ reported, ahead of an expected decision by authorities on whether to extend a lockdown on its biggest city, Auckland.

The two new infections were people with close contacts to a person who had already tested positive, the report said, quoting Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.

US administers 55.2 million doses of vaccines

The United States has administered 55,220,364 doses of Covid-19 vaccines and delivered 71,657,975 doses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The tally of vaccine doses are for both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, vaccines as of 6:00 am.ET on Tuesday, the agency said.

According to the tally posted on February 14, the agency had administered 52,884,356 doses of the vaccines and distributed 70,057,800 doses.

The agency said 39,670,551 people had received one or more doses, while 15,015,434 people have got the second dose as of Tuesday.

A total of 5,968,542 vaccine doses have been administered in long-term care facilities, the agency said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies