The Latest: WH: Listen to health experts on masks, virus

International

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a debate of the German Parliament Bundestag about the coronavirus outbreak situation in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, March 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

WASHINGTON — The White House says President Joe Biden was expressing his “frustration and exasperation” when he said Republican governors lifting mask mandates and other virus measures were acting like “Neanderthals.”

Press secretary Jen Psaki says with more than 500,000 U.S. lives lost and after a year in which all Americans have sacrificed, “it’s imperative that people listen across the country, whether they live in a red state or a blue state, to the guidance of public health experts.”

Psaki says Biden would continue to make outreach to Republican governors who disagree with him, “But he believes that if we’re going to get this pandemic under control, we need to follow public health guidelines.”

Psaki noted Biden has asked Americans to diligently wear masks for his first 100 days in office while vaccinations ramp up. She says: “Sixty more days. That’s what he’s asking and he’s certainly hopeful that businesses and people across the country will continue to do that.”

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— The EU’s medicines agency will review Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine

— Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires diverged on social distancing, and those choices took the 2 cities in opposite directions

— Hungary tightens pandemic restrictions amid rising deaths

— Californiawill set aside 40% of vaccine doses for the state’s most vulnerable neighborhoods

— 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:

BRUSSELS — A shipment of a quarter million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been barred from leaving the European Union in the first use of an export control system.

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 COVID-19 vaccines. It requires companies respect their contractual obligations to the bloc before commercial exports can be approved. So far, the EU has vaccinated only 8 % percent of its population. — By Raf Casert

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MINNEAPOLIS — Crowds at most high school sports tournaments and events this month and next will be limited to 250 people, according to the Minnesota State High School League.

League Executive Director Erich Martens says it’s hoped that one, maybe two, family members of each athlete can attend. Each team will receive a limited number of tickets. The general public won’t have access to tickets.

No fans will be allowed at the boys’ swimming and diving meet at the University of Minnesota on March 18-20 because of the space needed to accommodate swimmers.

Martens says about 45 schools will be required to hold state tournament quarterfinals in basketball and wrestling, rounds that have previously been held at Target Center, Xcel Energy and University of Minnesota venues, the Star Tribune reported.

Plans include providing pay-for-view livestreams of state tournaments and televising the hockey and basketball tournaments.

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MADISON, Wis. — Dozens of people ignoring coronavirus protocols filled a Wisconsin state Capitol room for a hearing on legislation to limit the government’s response to public health emergencies.

The Assembly Committee on Constitution and Ethics hearing didn’t require masks, and those who filled the room didn’t wear masks or socially distance themselves Wednesday, ignoring the advice of public health officials.

Photos posted on Twitter by Democratic Sen. Melissa Agard show participants gathered in a state Capitol overflow room to watch televised proceedings of the committee’s hearing.

“We are nearly a year into this pandemic, and this is what we are seeing in the state capitol today: no masks, no social distancing, and no safety precautions for the staff who have no choice but to be in the building,” Agard wrote on Twitter. “This is reckless and dangerous.”

Lawmakers have been at odds about mask-wearing in committee hearings, with many Republican lawmakers choosing not to do so, the State Journal reported.

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WARSAW, Poland — Poland is extending the time between administering the two doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines to 42 days, with officials saying they want to increase the number of people getting vaccinated.

The government official in charge of the national inoculation program, Michal Dworczyk, says starting next week, the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine will be administered 42 days after instead of 21 days.

The hiatus between the AstraZeneca vaccine doses is being increased to 12 weeks from the usual 28 days. Dworczyk claims the timing changes are in line with the recommendations from the producers.

People who have recovered from COVID-19 will receive only one vaccine dose, six months after the infection.

Officials say a shipment of some 62,000 doses of AstraZeneca expected Thursday was postponed by the producer until likely next week. Poland is receiving vaccine deliveries within the European Union plan but seeking new sources of vaccines, also in China.

Some 3.6 million vaccine doses have been administered so far, including nearly 1.3 million second doses, in the nation of 38 million people.

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BUDAPEST, Hungary — Authorities in Hungary are tightening pandemic restrictions to help slow a rapid rise in deaths and hospitalizations 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 COVID-19 case in Hungary, 6,278 new infections were reported alongside 152 deaths, the deadliest day since Dec. 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.

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CAIRO — Egyptian health authorities launched the second phase of a nationwide vaccination campaign against the coronavirus by vaccinating some of the country’s elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

Health Minister Hala Zayed says patients will be receiving the Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm’s vaccine or the British-Swedish AstraZeneca shot in 40 different vaccination centers across the country.

The Arab world’s most populous country has registered more than 184,000 confirmed cases and more than 10,000 deaths.

In January, the health ministry began rolling out its anti-COVID-19 vaccination program by giving the shots to frontline health care workers.

On Sunday, health authorities launched a website where the elderly and patients with chronic life-threatening diseases from different age groups could sign up for the shots. So far, more than 150,000 have filled online requests, Zayed says.

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BERLIN — Germany’s health minister says the country’s independent vaccine committee has formally approved giving the AstraZeneca shot to people age 65 and over.

Minister Jens Spahn says the decision was “good news for older people who are waiting for a vaccination. They will get vaccinated faster.”

The vaccine made by British-Swedish company AstraZeneca is one of three authorized for use in the 27-nation European Union. But several countries, including Germany, initially restricted it to people under 65, or in some cases under 55, citing a lack of data on its effectiveness in older people.

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PRAGUE — The vaccination program in the Czech Republic is picking up speed with a record nearing 30,000 inoculated in one day.

Health Ministry says 28,890 people received a shot Wednesday for a total of 735,131. Over a quarter of million got both shots in the nation of 10.7 million.

After an initial slow rollout of Western vaccines, the government says the country is expected more than 1 million doses in March and around 2.5 million in April. By June, more than a total of 10 million should be available.

Extra 100,000 Pfizer vaccines from the EU expected to arrive next week will help speed up the vaccinations.

Health Minister Jan Blatny says about 35,000 a day will be inoculated in March, and up to 100,000 a day in April.

Blatny told Parliament “there’s no reason to seek unauthorized vaccines,” such as Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm.

President Milos Zeman known for his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese views has asked his Russian and Chinese counterparts to send their vaccines to his country. Prime minister Andrej Babis says they should be used on a voluntary basis. The parliamentary opposition rejects using vaccines unregistered in the EU.

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LISBON, Portugal — A Portuguese Navy patrol boat has transported 1,200 liters of oxygen to the main hospital in São Tomé e Príncipe amid an increase in COVID-19 patients in the twin-island nation off West Africa.

The Portuguese armed forces say the boat carried the oxygen cylinders in three trips over the course of a week from the African country’s only functioning oxygen plant, on the island of Príncipe, to Ayres de Menezes Hospital on São Tomé island.

The São Tomé e Príncipe government said Wednesday that Gabon is sending a transport ship with oxygen, but it will take three weeks to arrive.

São Tomé e Príncipe, which has a population of around 200,000 people, is a former Portuguese colony. Numerous nations in Africa have encountered problems with the supply of medical oxygen for coronavirus patients.

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GENEVA — Coronavirus cases rose 9% last week over a 53-country region of Europe, snapping a six-week run of declines, the World Health Organization said Thursday as its European chief insisted countries get “back to the basics.”

Dr. Hans Kluge says more than 1 million cases were tallied over the last week in the region. He says the resurgence was particularly noticeable in central and eastern Europe, but some Western European countries saw increases as well.

More than half of the region noted increasing numbers of new infections, he says.

Alluding to the “solidarity” shown by some European countries that have taken in patients from hard-hit neighbors, Kluge said “over a year into the pandemic, our health systems should not be in this situation.”

“We need to get back to the basics,” he said WHO Europe headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Klug called for increased vigilance to fend off variants, improved testing and isolation of cases, more efforts to counter public “pandemic fatigue” and an accelerated rollout of vaccines.

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AMSTERDAM — The European Medicines Agency said it has started a rolling review of Sputnik V, many months after the vaccine was first approved for use in Russia and after dozens of countries around the world have authorized it.

In a statement Thursday, the European regulator said the review is based on results from lab studies and research in adults, which suggests the vaccine may help protect against coronavirus.

Despite skepticism about Russia’s hasty introduction of the vaccine, which was rolled out before it had completed late-stage trials, the vaccine appears to be safe and effective. According to a study published in the journal Lancet, Sputnik V was about 91% effective in preventing people from becoming severely ill with COVID-19.

The EMA has not set a date for when its expert group might meet to assess Sputnik V data to decide if it should be approved across the European Union,

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LONDON — Regulators in the U.K. and four other countries have announced new rules to fast-track the development of modified COVID-19 vaccines to ensure drugmakers can move swiftly to target emerging variants of the disease.

Previously authorized vaccines that are modified to combat new variants “will not need a brand new approval or ‘lengthy’ clinical studies,” Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said Thursday.

“The clear goal is that future vaccine modifications that respond to the new variants of coronavirus can be made available in the shortest possible time to U.K. recipients without compromising at any stage on safety, quality or effectiveness,” Dr. June Raine, the head of the agency, said in a briefing.

The new guidance is based on the model already used to modify the seasonal flu vaccine to keep up with annual changes in the virus and was issued jointly by regulators in the U.K., Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency have issued similar guidance.

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LONDON — Britain says it will receive 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that will be delivered from the Serum Institute of India, a company that was meant to be producing vaccines for the world’s developing countries.

The 10 million doses being shipped to the U.K. are part of a larger order of 100 million doses that was part of the U.K.’s original deal for COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca.

In a statement Thursday, a U.K. government spokesman said the Serum Institute “is one part of our supply chain for the AstraZeneca vaccine,” which also includes facilities in Britain and Europe.

The government said Britain’s Medicines and Health products Regulatory agency had carried out an inspection of the Serum Institute’s facilities and confirmed that “globally-recognized quality standards are being met.”

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s drug regulatory body has approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine as the second available for use in the Indian Ocean island nation.

The state minister overseeing pharmaceutical products, Channa Jayasumana, said Sri Lanka has requested doses from Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and was awaiting confirmation of the amount it would get.

Sri Lanka already is administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute in India. It received 1 million doses, half donated and half purchased from the institute.

Starting in January with frontline health workers, Sri Lanka has given the vaccine to more than 550,000 people.

Sri Lanka has counted 84,225 cases of COVID-19 with 484 fatalities.

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TORONTO — An expert panel is recommending Canadian provinces extend the interval between doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to quickly inoculate more people.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization says extending the dose interval to four months would create opportunities to protect the entire adult population within a short time.

The panel says many as 80% of Canadians older than 16 could receive a single dose by the end of June simply with the expected supply of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. In comparison, the federal government previously said 38% of people would receive two doses by the end of June.

The committee’s recommendation came hours after Newfoundland and Labrador said it will extend the interval between the first and second doses to four months, and days after health officials in British Columbia announced they were doing so.

Manitoba and Quebec also say they will delay second doses. Ontario previously said it was weighing a similar move but would seek advice from the federal government. The provinces administer health care in Canada.

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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