Coronavirus has killed more than 2.5 million people and infected over 115 million globally. Here are the virus-related developments for March 4:

A healthcare worker stands outside a cubicle in which people receive their Covid-19 vaccine at the Brussels Expo in Brussels, March 4, 2021.
A healthcare worker stands outside a cubicle in which people receive their Covid-19 vaccine at the Brussels Expo in Brussels, March 4, 2021. (AP)

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Covid cases rising again in Europe: WHO

The number of new coronavirus cases has risen in Europe after six weeks of decline, the World Health Organization has said.

"Last week, new cases in Europe rose nine percent to just above one million. This brought a promising six-week decline in new cases to an end, with more than half of our region seeing increasing numbers of new infections," WHO Europe's regional director Hans Kluge told a news conference.

"We are seeing a resurgence in central and Eastern Europe. New cases are also on the rise in several western European countries where rates were already high," he said.

"We need to get back to the basics. We need to enlarge" the vaccine portfolio, he said.

WHO's Europe region comprises 53 nations and vaccination drives have begun in 45.

According to an AFP tally based on official numbers, 2.6 percent of the European Union's population have received two doses of vaccines and 5.4 percent have got one dose.

Turkey sees over 11,300 cases

Turkey has reported 11,322 new coronavirus cases, including 685 symptomatic patients, according to the Health Ministry. 

The country's case tally passed 2.74 million, while the nationwide death toll reached 28,839, with 68 fatalities over the past day.

Indonesia aims to vaccinate 40M people by June

Indonesia plans to inject one million people per day with coronavirus vaccine and inoculate 40 million people by June as part of a mass vaccination drive that started in January, President Joko Widodo said.

About 38 million doses of vaccine produced by China's Sinovac Biotech have arrived in the Southeast Asian country so far and 4.6 million ready-to-use doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine will arrive this month, the president said. 

Germany approves AstraZeneca for over-65s

Germany's vaccination authority has approved the use of AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine on the over-65s, the Health Ministry said in a statement.

It added that the Permanent Vaccination authority recommended extending to the maximum 12 weeks the period between receiving the first and second doses of the vaccine.

"This is good news for older people who are waiting for a vaccine. They can now be vaccinated more quickly," the ministry said. "We will shortly issue a regulation implementing both recommendations."

Germany rejects EU executive call to ease border curbs

Germany told the European Union it would uphold its latest border restrictions imposed to curb the spread of new coronavirus variants, snubbing calls from the bloc's executive European Commission, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The Brussels-based executive last week asked Germany and five other countries to ease unilateral restrictions on movement of goods and people, saying they have "gone too far" and were putting a strain on the bloc's cherished single market.

But Germany's EU ambassador replied in a March 1 letter, which was seen by Reuters: "We have to uphold the measures taken at the internal borders at the moment in the interest of health protection."

Hungary closes businesses as cases, deaths rise

Authorities in Hungary are tightening pandemic restrictions to help slow a rapid rise in deaths and hospitalisations caused by Covid-19.

Businesses will be required to close their doors for two weeks beginning Monday. Only grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations will remain open. Kindergartens and primary schools will also be closed until April 7.

The new restrictions come as the number of cases and deaths in Hungary approach their previous peaks set in December. On Thursday, one year to the day after the first confirmed case in Hungary, 6,278 new infections were reported alongside 152 deaths, the deadliest day since December 23.

Hungary hopes a rapid vaccination program will drive numbers down. Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, says the country will have the highest vaccination rate in the European Union by next week.

Iraq signs deal to receive Russia's Sputnik V vaccine

Iraq has signed an agreement with Russia to import 1 million doses of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, Iraq's oil ministry said.

Iraq, which is struggling to curb the spread of Covid-19, expects the vaccine shipment to be delivered to Baghdad within two weeks, according to a statement citing Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar, who signed the deal.

On Tuesday, Iraq received its first 50,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine as a donation from China. Inoculations started the same day for health workers, elderly people and members of the security forces first.

Sinopharm Group is to supply around 2 million doses of the vaccine in stages, and Iraq also has agreements to receive vaccines from AstraZeneca Plc and Pfizer.

Iraq recorded a sharp rise in infections last month, and has reported cases of one of the variants of the novel coronavirus.

Sweden registers 4,838 new cases, 13 deaths

Sweden, which has shunned lockdowns throughout the pandemic, registered 4,838 new coronavirus cases, health agency statistics showed.

The country of 10 million inhabitants registered 13 new deaths, taking the total to 12,977. The deaths registered have occurred over several days and sometimes weeks.

Sweden's death rate per capita is many times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours' but lower than in several European countries that opted for lockdowns.

Germany's Curevac says Novartis to help make Covid jabs

German group Curevac said it has signed a deal with Novartis for the Swiss pharmaceutical giant to help in its production of the vaccine it is developing.

The Swiss giant will make up to 50 million doses of Curevac's mRNA vaccine by the end of 2021 and up to 200 million doses in 2022, said the German company.

CureVac began the final Phase III trials of its vaccine candidate in mid-December, involving more then 35,000 volunteers in Europe and Latin America.

The European Union's medicines regulator said in February that it had started a "rolling review" of CureVac's vaccine, in a first step towards possible authorisation for use in the bloc.

Under the deal with Novartis, Curevac said the Swiss group would begin deliveries from its factory in Kundl, Austria, in summer 2021.

Curevac already has a separate agreement with German chemicals giant Bayer to make the vaccine, but only from 2022.

Bayer had said it aimed to produce 160 million doses in the first 12 months.

Single dose recommendation for Covid-19 patients applies to all shots

A recommendation that people who have already had an infection should receive a single vaccine dose applies to all approved vaccines and not just AstraZeneca, the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious diseases said.

Germany's vaccine commission earlier said that a single dose should be given six months after a person has been diagnosed with the illness. 

EU halts AstraZeneca vaccine exports to Australia

A shipment of a quarter million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been blocked from leaving the European Union in the first use of an export control system instituted by the bloc over a month ago.

An EU official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed a report that first appeared in the Financial Times.

The move came at the behest of Italy, which has been taking a tough line in dealing with vaccine shortages within the 27-nation bloc since a new government led by Mario Draghi came into power last month.

Faced with shortages of doses during the early stages of the vaccine campaign that started in late December, the EU issued an export control system for vaccines that have to make sure that companies respect their contractual obligations to the bloc before commercial exports can be approved.

The EU has been specifically angry with the the Anglo-Swedish company because it is delivering far fewer doses to the bloc than it had promised.

Russia has vaccinated two million, says Putin

Russia has fully vaccinated two million people with its homegrown jabs, President Vladimir Putin said, while another two million have received the first of a two-dose shot.

The figures, revealed by the Russian leader in a conversation with volunteers, show how far the country has to go before all of its 146 million people are inoculated against Covid-19, nearly three months after it began vaccinating its citizens.

"Over two million people have received two components of the vaccine to date," the Russian president said in televised remarks.

Another "two mill ion and change" had received the first dose, he added.

The totals indicate that only about 1.3 percent of Russia's population has been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Putin also noted that nine of Russia's 85 regions had not yet administered any doses.

Netanyahu says Israel, Austria and Denmark set up vaccine alliance

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel, Austria and Denmark will establish a joint research and development fund, and possibly production facilities, for vaccines.

"We are going to do a joint research and development fund and discuss ... the possibility of joint investment in production facilities for vaccines," he told reporters, with Austria's chancellor and Denmark's prime minister at his side.

Italy reports 339 deaths, 22,865 new cases

Italy reported 339 coronavirus-related deaths against 347 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 22,865 from 20,884 the day before.

Some 339,635 tests were carried out in the past day, compared with a previous 358,884, the health ministry said.

Italy has registered 98,974 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 a touch under 3 million cases to date.

Patients in hospital, not including those in intensive care, stood at 20,157, up from 19,763 a day earlier.

Britain reports 242 deaths and 6,573 new cases

Britain reported 242 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, a drop on the 315 reported on Wednesday.

New cases increased to 6,573 from 6,385 the previous day, government data showed, while the number of people who had received the first dose of a vaccine rose to 20,982,571.

Cuba starts late stage trials of vaccine candidate in Havana

Cuba has begun late stage trials of its most advanced experimental vaccine, edging closer to a potential home-grown inoculation that could help the Caribbean island nation contain infections and ease its economic crisis.

The country started this week recruiting around 44,000 volunteers in Havana between the ages of 19 and 80 for its randomized, placebo-controlled trial of the two-shot vaccine in which some will receive a third booster shot with another Cuban vaccine candidate.

If the vaccine proves successful, Cuba has said it would inoculate its entire population of 11 million with what would be the first vaccine developed and produced in Latin America.

Cuba said it would also export the vaccine and offer it to tourists. The country has a long history of vaccine exports and medical tourism.

Tributes as leading South African reporter dies of Covid-19

Tributes from journalists and politicians are coming in for prominent South African journalist Karima Brown who died of Covid-19.

Brown, 54, had been hospitalized after falling ill and will be buried Thursday according to Islamic burial rites, her family said in a statement.

In the 1980s, Brown was involved in the struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s now-abolished system of racist minority rule, as a member of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-apartheid organisations which supported the then-banned African National Congress.

The South African government also paid tribute to Brown, saying “her contribution to the journalistic profession and fearlessness in carrying out her job will sorely be missed,” Cabinet minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said.

France registers over 25,000 new cases

France registered 25,279 new cases, slightly less than the 25,403 tallied last Thursday, health ministry data showed.

France also registered 293 new deaths in the last 24 hours, from 322 on Wednesday.

The number of people in intensive care with the disease fell by four to 3,633, the first drop in a week, after reaching a 2021 high of 3,637. 

Obesity increases risk of Covid-19 complications

The World Obesity Federation has reported that obesity is linked to a higher risk of severe Covid-19 and death from the disease.

The report said that about nine in 10 Covid-19 deaths have occurred in countries with high obesity rates.

"Of the 2.5 million Covid-19 deaths reported by the end of February 2021, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight," the report said. 

The International Monetary Fund has calculated that Covid-19 will cause a total of at least $10 trillion losses in global output over the period 2020-2021, and accumulating to $22 trillion over the period 2020-2025, the report said.

"Based on the UK experience, where an estimated 36 percent of Covid-19 hospitalisations have been attributed to lack of physical activity and excess body weight, it can be suggested that up to a third of the costs – between $6 trillion and $7 trillion over the longer period – might be attributable to these predisposing risks."

Efficacy data for India's own vaccine could boost public acceptance

Indian doctors and politicians have welcomed efficacy data for a state-backed coronavirus vaccine that was given emergency approval in January without the completion of a late-stage trial, making people reluctant to receive the shot.

Government data shows that only 10 percent of about 12.6 million people immunised in India have taken the COVAXIN shot, which was found to be 81 percent effective in an interim analysis of the late-stage trial, its developer Bharat Biotech said.

Any boost to the vaccine's acceptance in India could also brighten its export prospects. Bharat Biotech said 40 countries were interested in COVAXIN.

Fake vaccines seized In South Africa, China - Interpol

Police in China and South Africa have seized thousands of fake doses of Covid-19 jabs, global police organisation Interpol has said, warning this represented only the "tip of the iceberg" in vaccine-related crime.

The Lyon-based Interpol said 400 vials, equivalent to around 2,400 doses, containing the fake vaccine were found at a warehouse in Germiston outside Johannesburg in South Africa, where officers also recovered fake masks and arrested three Chinese and a Zambian national.

In China, police successfully identified a network selling counterfeit Covid-19 vaccines in an investigation supported by Interpol which has 194 member countries, it said.

They raided the manufacturing premises, resulting in the arrest of some 80 suspects and seized more than 3,000 fake vaccines on the scene, it said.

Canada vaccine panel recommends 4 months between doses

A national panel of vaccine experts in Canada has recommended that provinces extend the interval between the two doses of a Covid-19 shot to four months to quickly inoculate more people amid a shortage of doses in Canada.

A number of provinces said they would do just that.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also expressed optimism that vaccination timelines could be sped up. And Health Canada, the country's regulator, said emerging evidence suggests high effectiveness for several weeks after the first dose and noted the panel's recommendation in a tweet. But two top health officials called it an experiment.

The current protocol is an interval of three to four weeks between doses for the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines. Johnson & Johnson is a one dose vaccine but has not been approved in Canada yet.

South Africa medics celebrate after sharp drop in cases

After a year battling coronavirus, exhausted health workers in South Africa are celebrating a drop in cases but dread another wave of infections, a scenario that could strike just months from now.

"We are relieved now because the numbers are down and patients are no longer that sick," nurse Constance Mathibela told AFP at Thembisa Hospital, in a township east of Johannesburg.

After the epidemic hit its stride, the hospital "was almost full everyday," she recalled.

"There was no time when we had an empty (Covid) ward. It was just a continuous (flow of) things."

South Africa recorded its first case of coronavirus on March 5 last year.

It has since been through two virus storms, recording over 1.5 million cases and more than 50,000 deaths, the highest in all of Africa.

Buenos Aires reopens as virus surge forces Sao Paulo to shut

Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires are a tale of two cities this week, with Brazil’s megalopolis partially shutting down and bracing for possibly the worst of the pandemic, while residents of Argentina’s capital were stepping out to movie-theaters and restaurants.

The two biggest cities in the South American neighbors are headed in opposite directions, a trend that experts say demonstrates how places that loosen restrictions against the advice of scientists see a spike in the pandemic while those that keep social distancing measures in place can reopen their economies sooner.

Sao Paulo, home to almost 12 million people, is facing the worst two weeks yet in the pandemic and the growing risk that its once-resilient health care system will collapse, Gov. João Doria told reporters 

UK regulator says will fast-track vaccines for variants

Britain's medical regulator has said it would fast-track vaccines for coronavirus variants, adding that the makers of already-authorised shots would not need new lengthy clinical trials to prove their adapted vaccines will work.

There is concern that some variants, such as those first found in South Africa and Brazil, may reduce the efficacy of the first generation of vaccines, and manufacturers are looking to adapt their shots.

The accelerated process is based on that used for seasonal flu vaccines each year, the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said, and would be based on robust evidence that the shots create an immune response, rather than full clinical trials.

"Our priority is to get effective vaccines to the public in as short a time as possible, without compromising on safety," said Christian Schneider, chief scientific officer at the MHRA.

"Should any modifications to authorised Covid-19 vaccines be necessary, this regulatory approach should help to do just that." 

Meanwhile, the prevalence of infections in England has dropped since January, but the rate of decline has slowed and cases might be on the rise in some areas, researchers at Imperial College London said.

The researchers said that national prevalence was 0.49 percent, down two-thirds from the 1.57 percent recorded in January, but added that compared to interim findings for February, estimated prevalence had risen in London and the South-East, as well as the East and West Midlands.

Cambodian PM gets AstraZeneca shot, defends Chinese vaccine

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has received a shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine supplied by India, about three weeks into the launch of his country's inoculation programme, which initially relied only on Chinese vaccines.

Hun Sen, 68, had vowed to be the first to receive the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China, but later said he was too old. His sons and the justice and environment ministers were among the first to get it instead. 

China is one of Cambodia's closest allies, and Hun Sen dismissed public hesitance about the safety of the Sinopharm vaccine.

He urged people below 60 to get the Sinopharm vaccine and those older than 60 to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.

 S.Korean economy shrinks for first time in 22 years

South Korea’s central bank has said the country’s economy shrank for the first time in 22 years in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic destroyed service industry jobs and depressed consumer spending.

Preliminary data released by the Bank of Korea on Thursday showed that the country’s gross domestic product last year contracted 1 percent from 2019. It marked the first annual contraction for the country’s economy since 1998, when it was in the midst of a crippling financial crisis.

The economy would have been even worse if not for the country’s technology exports, which saw increased demand driven by personal computers and servers as the pandemic forced millions around the world to work at home.

Lufthansa posts record annual loss, sees long recovery

German flag carrier Lufthansa has said it lost a record 6.7 billion euros in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic wiped out demand for travel and left flights grounded.

Underlining the long road to recovery, Europe's biggest airline said it expects capacity to reach only 40-50 percent of pre-pandemic levels this year.

Capacity would climb to 90 percent of 2019 level in "the middle of the decade".

Germany reports 11,912 more cases

The number of confirmed virus cases in Germany increased by 11,912 to 2,471,942. 

The reported death toll rose by 359 to 71,240, the data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed. 

Venezuela detects Brazilian variant of coronavirus in the country

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro has said authorities have detected the Brazilian variant of the novel coronavirus in the country.

Officials have recorded cases of the coronavirus variant in Caracas, the capital, and in two states in the center and south of the country, the president said in a live appearance on state television.

"We have 10 patients: six in Bolívar, two in Caracas and two in Miranda," Maduro said. "It is a variant that is more contagious, transmits more viral load and is more dangerous, more serious," he said, adding "You have to cut the chains of contagion."
Venezuela has reported more than 139,900 coronavirus cases and 1,344 deaths, but medical experts believe the figure is higher.

States in US expand vaccine access as supplies surge

Buoyed by a surge in vaccine shipments, states and cities are rapidly expanding eligibility for shots to teachers, 55-and-over Americans and other groups as the US races to beat back the virus and reopen businesses and schools.

Arizona, Connecticut and Indiana have thrown open the line to the younger age bracket. 

Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are reserving the first doses of the new one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson for teachers.

And in Detroit, factory workers can get vaccinated starting this week, regardless of their age.

The US has administered nearly 80 million shots in a vaccination drive now hitting its stride, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

More than 20 percent of the nation's adults, or close to 52 million people, have received at least one dose, and 10 percent have been fully inoculated.

Rwanda first African nation to get Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

Rwanda became the first African country to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with around 100,000 doses delivered in what the pharmaceutical giant hailed as a "milestone" for the continent.

The East African country received nearly 103,000 doses of the vaccine at the capital Kigali through the UN-led Covax initiative, which aims to provide equitable access to jabs for poorer countries.

Pfizer said the first shipment to Africa of its vaccine represented "an important milestone for the region, for Rwanda, and for the global health partners working tirelessly to fight this pandemic".

Brazil reports 2nd straight day of record deaths

Brazil registered a record number of virus deaths for the second straight day, with 1,910 lives lost to the pandemic.

With a surge in cases currently pushing health systems to the limit in many areas, the country of 212 million people has recorded a total of 259,271 deaths, according to the health ministry, the second-highest death toll worldwide, after the US.

Immune system T cell responses to variants remain potent

While worrisome variants identified in Brazil, South Africa, and California have mutations that might help them resist antibody treatments and vaccines, the immune system's T cell responses to the variants are unaffected in recovered patients and in people who have received the Moderna Inc or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, new data show.

"We think this is really good news," said Alessandro Sette of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, whose team reported the findings on Monday on bioRxiv ahead of peer review. 

The T cells induced by vaccines can recognise pieces of the virus spike protein, while T cells induced by previous infection recognise multiple parts of the virus, including the spike and other proteins, Sette said. 

"These pieces are largely not changed/mutated in the variants," he explained. "This means that the T cell responses recognize the 'ancestral' sequence and the variants equally well."

While circulating memory T cells would probably not prevent infection, they could reduce virus severity, he added. 

T cell responses are known to be linked with milder Covid-19, he noted, and may contribute to limiting virus severity induced by variants that partially or largely escape neutralising antibodies.

Asthma does not increase risks

Asthma itself is not a risk factor for hospitalisation or more severe Covid-19, and people whose asthma is triggered by allergies may actually be at lower risk, according to new research presented at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology virtual annual meeting.

Researchers at Stanford University studied 5,596 patients who tested positive from March to September 2020. 

Of these, 11% were hospitalised, including 100 patients with asthma. 

After accounting for patients' other medical conditions that have been linked with more severe virus illness, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, "asthma was no longer a risk factor for hospitalisation," said Dr. Lauren Eggert.

Among patients who were hospitalised, asthma was not significantly associated with disease severity, she said.

Researchers also found that patients with allergic asthma were nearly half as likely as patients with other types of asthma to need hospitalisation. 

A possible explanation, Eggert said, is that in allergic asthma, the immune system "downregulates," or reduces the production, of the ACE2 proteins on cell surfaces that are a major port of entry for the coronavirus.

Swiss to vote on restrictions

The Swiss will vote in June on the validity of a law giving the government new powers to impose lockdowns and other restrictions, Bern said Wednesday.

Switzerland's Federal Chancellery confirmed that enough signatures had been gathered to trigger a referendum on the 2020 Covid-19 Act as part of the wealthy Alpine nation's direct democratic system.

Campaigners had handed over 97,878 signatures on January 12, and the chancellery said it had determined that 90,789 of them were valid, far more than the 50,000 needed for the referendum to go ahead.

The issue will be among several voted on on June 13, the chancellery said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies