The Latest: EU leaders face surge of cases, vaccine issues

International

Residents line up against Hong Kong’s business district to get tested for the coronavirus at a temporary testing center for COVID-19 in Hong Kong on March 16, 2021. Hong Kong’s sudden suspension of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is another blow to a vaccination program already struggling against a wall of public distrust. Hong Kong on Wednesday, March 24, 2021, suspended use of the Pfizer vaccine, distributed by Chinese pharmaceutical firm Fosun Pharma, after defective packaging such as loose vial lids and cracks on bottles were found in one of two batches of the vaccine. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders are meeting to look for ways to ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations across the 27-nation region amid a shortage of doses.

There’s also been increases in cases, a feud with Britain and internal quarrels among the EU. Less than 5% of the EU’s 450 million residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Ahead of Thursday’s summit, the bloc’s executive arm proposed strengthening export controls for coronavirus shots. The European Commission’s goal is to force vaccine manufacturers to deliver the doses agreed to in their contracts.

The commission also wants to make sure a principle of export reciprocity is enforced with countries that are producing vaccines.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— 1 report, 4 theories: Scientists mull clues on virus’ origin

— Poland reports daily record of over 34,000 cases

— Bolsonaro under fire as Brazil hits 300,000 virus deaths

— Hong Kongvaccination drive struggles to gain public trust

— 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:

GENEVA — A team of international and Chinese scientists is poised to report on its joint search for the origins of the coronavirus first detected in China.

Four theories are being considered, and one is the clear frontrunner: That the virus first emerged in humans by way of a bat and then an intermediate host.

The lengthy report is being published after months of wrangling, notably between the U.S. and Chinese governments, over how the outbreak emerged, causing politics to overshadow a scientific search.

It wasn’t immediately clear when the report will be released after its publication was delayed earlier this month. The coronavirus has killed more than 2.7 million people and stifled economies worldwide.

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Danish government has decided to keep its suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccines for three more weeks.

Denmark paused the use of the AstraZeneca as a precautionary measure on March 11 after reports that a 60-year-old woman died with blood clots in several parts of her body a week after she received the vaccine. The death of a second person in Denmark who died after getting the AstraZeneca vaccine also was reported.

Danish health authorities say they have no evidence the vaccine was responsible for either death. Norway and Sweden also have paused the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Several European countries that had suspended using the vaccine have resumed administering it after the European Union’s drug regulator said it was safe. The European Medicines Agency has said the vaccine’s benefits continue to outweigh its risks and the vaccine can be administered with a closer evaluation of the blood clot cases.

About 150,000 people in Denmark have gotten a shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

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WARSAW, Poland — Poland reported a record daily number of new coronavirus cases for the second day in a row as the prime minister prepared to give details of harsher restrictions for the Easter period.

Poland’s Health Ministry reported over 34,000 new confirmed cases on Thursday, thousands more than the nearly 30,000 cases that set a daily record on Wednesday. Poland also registered 520 more virus-related deaths.

In Poland, officials say this “third wave” of the pandemic is driven by the highly contagious virus variant first detected in Britain. The country’s vaccine rollout is proceeding too slowly to hold back the latest surge in infections.

The higher numbers also come as the government has made it easier for people to get tested for COVID-19, dropping its earlier requirement for a doctor’s referral and allowing people to request a test online.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is set to announce Thursday the details of new restrictions for the week before and the week after Easter.

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KAMPALA, Uganda — The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control says he is concerned by reports that the Serum Institute of India is suspending major exports of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in order to meet rising domestic demand.

Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong said Thursday that he “truly feels helpless that this situation is going to significantly impact our ability to fight this virus.”

He said that “without ramping access to vaccines we will be challenged, continue to be challenged. Lives will be lost.”

“The battle has to be a collective battle,” Nkengasong said, adding that he remained hopeful “that the power of humanity will prevail.”

The BBC and Reuters have reported that the Serum Institute of India is temporarily suspending vaccine exports to meet local demand amid a rise in confirmed virus infections in India.

The Indian vaccine manufacturer is the source of the AstraZeneca shots being shipped to Africa under the COVAX initiative working to ensure access for low- and middle-income countries. At least 28 of Africa’s 54 countries had received over 16 million doses via COVAX as of Thursday.

Nkengasong said: “There is absolutely no need, absolutely no need for us as humanity to go into a vaccine war to fight this pandemic. We will all be losers.”

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BUDAPEST — Hungary set a new record for daily deaths on Thursday with 252, bringing the country’s total to nearly 19,000 in the country of fewer than 10 million.

Additional lockdown measures introduced on March 8 have not yet produced results as the number of new infections and hospitalizations continue to dwarf previous peaks set in December, and hospitals have reported capacity problems as intensive care units fill up.

Hungarian authorities may extend digital education for primary school and kindergarten students beyond the current April 7 deadline to slow the latest powerful surge in infections.

A government official said in an interview Thursday that the deadline might have to be extended in light of record-breaking new cases and deaths that has given Hungary the highest death rate per 1 million inhabitants in the world in the last two weeks.

“I consider it out of the question that the digital (education) system will remain until the end of the school year, but we’d be somewhat optimistic to think the April 7 opening is set in stone,” State Secretary Zoltan Maruzsa told Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet.

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The coronavirus has interrupted the process of forming a new Dutch government, with one of the two “scouts” mapping out possible coalitions testing positive for COVID-19.

The government information service says that talks scheduled Thursday have been canceled following the positive test recorded by Kajsa Ollongren, who is also caretaker interior minister and deputy prime minister in the outgoing coalition.

Ollongren is the second member of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Cabinet to test positive this week, following state secretary for economic affairs and climate Mona Keijzer.

The coalition talks are expected to take weeks or months following last week’s general election. Rutte’s conservative VVD party won the most seats in the lower house of parliament but will likely need to enlist other parties to gain a majority in the 150-seat legislature.

The two coalition “scouts” had been scheduled to meet Rutte and Sigrid Kaag, leader of the centrist D66 party that finished second in the election.

The government information service says officials are looking into “how and when the talks can resume.”

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ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s president said he hoped his country will soon overcome the coronavirus pandemic but asked people to continue adhering to social distancing rules.

President Arif Alvi made his comments in a televised speech Thursday after witnessing a military parade in the capital, Islamabad.

Authorities provided face masks to all those who witnessed the military parade.

His comments came shortly after Pakistan reported 3,946 COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, one of the highest increases in recent months.

On Thursday, Pakistan also reported 63 additional deaths from coronavirus, increasing the country’s total fatalities to 14,028 among 640,988 cases since last year.

Alvi’s remarks came a day after Pakistan’s top health official Faisal Sultan said his country will purchase 1 million doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine and 60,000 doses of the vaccine made by Chinese company CanSino Biologics.

A day ago, Pakistan government ordered the closure of schools in the capital, Islamabad and in several high-risk cities until April 11.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka has decided to purchase 7 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

The government says it will pay $69.65 million for the shots.

Sri Lanka aims to inoculate 14 million people out of the population of 22 million. So far, over 850,000 people have received their shots using the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Sri Lanka has received 1.2 million AstraZeneca doses out of at least 10 million it plans to purchase for $52.5 million. It has also approved China’s Sinopharm shots.

Of the 1.2 million doses, Sri Lanka got 500,000 as a donation from India and bought another 500,000. The other 264,000 came through the COVAX facility.

Sri Lanka has reported 91,017 confirmed cases including 554 fatalities.

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MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine president has ordered at least nine city and town mayors investigated for possible charges after they reportedly jumped ahead of a priority list led by 1.7 million health workers and got injected with COVID-19 vaccine amid a shortage in supply.

President Rodrigo Duterte said in a televised meeting Wednesday night with key Cabinet members that aside from the mayors, the son of an actress also got immunized. He expressed fears that the Philippines may lose the chance to get more donated vaccines arranged by the World Health Organization if its conditions would continue to be violated.

“We were told by the WHO country representative, ‘If you do not follow the list of priority, you might lose the assistance of the WHO,’’’ Duterte said. “It wasn’t followed because I heard even the son of an actress got it. It’s always the favored few.”

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III reported to Duterte that just slightly more than 508,000 of a total 1.7 million doctors, nurses and other health workers have been immunized and added that only 1.5 million vaccine doses, all donated by China and the WHO, have arrived in the country so far.

The government program to inoculate about 70 million adult Filipinos has faced delays, supply problems, public hesitancy and widespread criticism. After health workers, the next in line of priority include elderly Filipinos and people with non-COVID-19 illnesses like diabetes and the poor.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s mask mandate will end April 10 after the Republican governor signed a bill that lays out a new timeline for lifting some of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Masks orders will remain in place for schools and gatherings of more than 50 people. Businesses can also choose to require them.

Gov. Spencer Cox signed the measure on Wednesday, the same day that vaccinations opened to all people aged 16 and older.

New coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Utah have been on a downward trend since January. According to state data, more than 438,000 of the state’s 3.2 million residents have been fully vaccinated.

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The U.S. has surpassed 30 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.

Coronavirus cases nationwide reached 30,001,245 on Wednesday, nearly three months after the country hit 20 million.

COVID-19 related deaths now total more than 545,000.

The new milestone comes as public health experts show cautious optimism three months into the U.S. vaccination rollout. It is believed that 70% of Americans 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine and COVID-19 deaths are below 1,000 a day on average for the first time since November.

The federal government is dramatically ramping up vaccine production and several states have already expanded vaccination eligibility to people age 16 and up.

More than 124 million cases have been confirmed worldwide.

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TOPEKA, Kan. — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has signed legislation rewriting state laws for managing the coronavirus pandemic and future emergencies even though she believes it could hinder disaster response efforts.

The measure Kelly signed Wednesday extends the state of emergency for the pandemic until May 28 instead of letting it expire March 31. Kelly cited the extension in announcing her action.

The measure also leaves counties in charge of mask mandates and other restrictions. But in the state’s second most populous county of Sedgwick County, the county commission ended its remaining COVID-19 restrictions. Commissioners had said the measure signed by Kelly makes it more likely it would lose lawsuits over such restrictions.

The measure says anyone aggrieved by local restrictions during a pandemic or other emergency can file a lawsuit challenging them and the case must be heard within 72 hours.

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TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas says it will be receiving only a fraction of the 100,000 doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine for COVID-19 that it had expected next week.

The state Department of Health and Environment said Wednesday that it will receive 16,500 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when it had expected 100,000 doses.

The department said production issues mean that the promised doses might not be ready to ship to Kansas until the second or third week of April.

Gov. Laura Kelly had cited the expected arrival of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines last week in announcing that Kansas would make eligible for inoculations all residents from 16 through 64 who have medical conditions that would put them at risk of serious complications or death from COVID-19. The state had been limiting shots to people 65 and older, along with essential workers, as part of a second phase of its vaccine distribution.

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SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil has reached 300,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and become the second nation to top that figure. The United States hit the same milestone on Dec. 14, but it has a larger population.

Wednesday’s coronavirus figures from the Brazilian health ministry added another 2,009 deaths to the country’s tally, which local media say is an undercount.

On Tuesday, Brazil hit a single-day record of 3,251 COVID-19 deaths and authorities fear that April could be as grim as March in the country’s overwhelmed hospitals.

Brazil added 100,000 deaths to its tally in only 75 days, a spike health experts have blamed on a lack of political coordination, new variants that spread more easily and a disregard for health protocols in many parts of the country.

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