The Latest: Another COVID-19 vaccine nears finish line

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — Another COVID-19 vaccine is getting closer to the finish line, as Novavax said Thursday its shot prevented hospitalizations and deaths in studies in Britain and South Africa where mutated versions of the virus are spreading.

In a study of 15,000 people in Britain, the Novavax vaccine was about 90% effective overall against mild, moderate or severe COVID-19, the company said. Of 106 illnesses confirmed, 10 were among people given the vaccine and 96 among people given dummy shots.

Only five of the illnesses were severe, all in the placebo group. Four of those were caused by an easier-to-transmit coronavirus variant first discovered in Britain. Novavax determined the vaccine was 96% effective against symptomatic illness caused by the original virus — and 86% effective against that mutated version.

In South Africa, an even more worrisome variant is spreading widely. Novavax studied nearly 3,000 people there, some who have HIV. The company said its vaccine was 55% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 in HIV-negative volunteers. Like in Britain, the only severe illnesses occurred in study participants given dummy shots.

“The bigger picture is our vaccine works against variants,” said Novavax CEO Stanley Erck.

Erck said he expected to file an application with British health authorities early in the second quarter for widespread use of the vaccine The company also is awaiting results from a 30,000-person U.S. study.



— AP poll: 1 in 5 in US lost someone close to them in pandemic

— A year after declaring a pandemic, World Health Organization is struggling to fight vaccine nationalism and to keep up with the rapidly evolving science around COVID-19

— Four former US presidents and first ladies urge getting shots in ad

— Austria targets one hard-hit region with mass vaccinations to fight virus variant first found in South Africa

— Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at, and



UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations Population Fund says new data indicate that nearly 12 million women in 115 countries lost access to family planning services as a result of disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.

The fund which now calls itself the U.N. sexual and reproductive health agency, said the data released Thursday indicate that the lack of family planning led to 1.4 million unintended pregnancies.

Natalia Kanem, executive director of the fund known as UNFPA, said: “We must ensure that women and girls have uninterrupted access to life-saving contraceptives and maternal health medicines.”

“Pregnancies don’t stop for pandemics, or any crisis,” she said in a statement. “The devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on the lives of millions of women and girls in the past year underscores just how vital it is to ensure the continuity of reproductive health services.”

UNFPA said that in the 115 low- and middle-income countries studied, women faced an average 3.6 month disruption in their family planning services, with the worst disruptions largely concentrated in April and May 2020, soon after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic.


BUCHAREST, Romania — Romanian authorities on Thursday decided to halt the usage of a remaining batch of AstraZeneca vaccines that have already been administered to at least 77,000 people in 22 counties across the country.

The decision to stop the administration of the remaining 4,257 doses of the total 81,600 ABV2856 AstraZeneca batch, the same batch that Italy stopped using after two people who were vaccinated died, was taken out of “extreme precaution,” Romania’s National Committee For The Vaccination Activities Against COVID-19 said in a statement.

The vaccination committee also said that there is “no scientific argument” at this stage to prevent the usage of the ABV2856 batch and that it was a decision taken on the basis of events that unfolded in Italy.

Romania has so far recorded more than 845,000 COVID-19 infections, 21,252 people have died, and it has administered almost 2 million vaccinations.


OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said Thursday that he is lifting coronavirus restrictions statewide as more people are receiving vaccinations and the number of new cases and hospitalizations decline.

“There will be no statewide restrictions on events for Oklahomans,” Stitt said. “I’m also removing a requirement to wear masks inside state buildings … wearing a mask should be a personal decision based on your circumstances.”

State health commissioner Dr. Lance Frye said more than 1.3 million people in Oklahoma have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases in Oklahoma has declined from 736 per day on Feb. 23 to 643 on Tuesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The state health department reported 288 hospitalizations, down from a record 1,994 on Jan. 5.


LISBON, Portugal — Portuguese nursery and elementary schools and hair salons will reopen next week under the government’s plan for emerging from a two-month lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The easing of restrictions will be staggered, and most limits will remain in place until after Easter, Prime Minister António Costa told a late evening press conference Thursday.

The plan covers a seven-week period of cautious and gradual reopening, Costa said, with restaurants and cafes operating close to normal only after May 3.

Costa said the plan will be reassessed every two weeks to see whether the measures bring a new surge of COVID-19 cases.


ROME — A U.N. epidemiologist who publicly denounced the World Health Organization’s withdrawal of a report on Italy’s coronavirus response has resigned, citing the “unsustainable situation” he faced as a whistleblower.

Francesco Zambon said Thursday his resignation was effective March 31. He declined further comment other than to say it was “humanly and professionally” impossible for him to continue on.

Zambon had filed an internal ethics complaint with the WHO in May after he said he was pressured by a senior WHO official to falsify data to obscure that Italy hadn’t updated its influenza pandemic preparedness plan since 2006. Zambon refused, and the report eventually was published saying Italy’s initial response to the outbreak was “improvised, chaotic and creative.”

The WHO pulled the report from its website on May 14, a day after it went up, and never republished it.

The scandal over the report’s withdrawal made headlines in Italy amid suggestions that WHO spiked it to spare the Italian government criticism, embarrassment and liability.


WASHINGTON — The White House says the $1,400 direct payments for most Americans funded by the American Rescue Plan will start showing up in bank accounts as early as this weekend.

Press secretary Jen Psaki says the government will make the first direct deposits this weekend. She says payments will continue throughout the next several weeks.

President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in the Oval Office on Thursday.

Besides the $1,400 direct payments to individuals, the plan includes money to help distribute coronavirus vaccines, provide relief to homeowners and renters, help reopen schools, provide aid to state and local governments, and an expansion of the child tax credit, among other features.


WASHINGTON — Marking a year of loss and disruption, President Joe Biden signed into law the $1.9 trillion relief package he says will help the U.S. defeat the coronavirus and nurse the economy back to health.

The signing came hours before Biden delivers his first prime-time address since taking office on Jan. 20. He’s aiming to steer the nation toward hope and recovery from a pandemic that has killed more than 529,000 Americans.

“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country,” Biden said as he signed the bill in the Oval Office.

His speech on the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic is expected to mourn the dead and project optimism about the future.


PARIS — The hospitals in Paris have intensive care units at near capacity and some are preparing to move coronavirus patients to other regions.

Health Minister Olivier Veran says, “We are trying to liberate beds. We don’t know when or where the peak will be.”

France has been registering around 20,000 new infections a day for several weeks, despite a 6 p.m. nationwide curfew and the closure of many businesses.

The variant first identified in Britain now makes up two-thirds of all new infections in France. It appears to be causing a larger proportion of serious cases sending people to intensive care than the original virus, Veran says.

The number of virus patients in French hospitals reached its lowest level in two months, but the number of virus patients in ICUs is at the highest level since November. They now occupy some 80% of all of France’s standard ICU capacity.

Veran urged French people “not to let down our guard.” France has reported nearly 90,000 deaths from the coronavirus, seventh highest in the world.


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gaza has received 40,000 vaccine doses donated by the United Arab Emirates through a rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The 40,000 doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V were delivered through Gaza’s Rafah crossing with Egypt on Thursday.

The shipment was organized by Mohammed Dahlan, a former ally of Abbas who went into exile in the United Arab Emirates in 2011 after the two had a falling-out. Dahlan organized the delivery of 20,000 doses of the same vaccine to Gaza last month.

Abbas’ Palestinian Authority has only managed to secure 12,000 doses, including 2,000 donated by Israel. His forces were driven out of Gaza when the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power in 2007, confining his authority to parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Gaza, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians, has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Hamas takeover. Authorities in Gaza have reported more than 54,000 coronavirus cases, including 564 deaths.


BELGRADE, Serbia — Moscow and Belgrade have agreed to produce Sputnik V coronavirus vaccines in Serbia starting in May, which would be the first such manufacture of the Russian shots in Europe.

The deal reached in Moscow on Thursday calls for the production of 4 million vaccines this year that would initially only be packaged in a Belgrade facility before full autonomous production is established in the later stages, Serbian government minister Nenad Popovic says.

Russia has signed a similar deal for production of Sputnik V in Italy. Russian authorities say are working on 20 similar collaborations in Europe and the Sputnik V vaccine has been registered in 45 nations worldwide.

Sputnik V has not yet been approved for use in the EU, but the body’s regulator, the European Medicines Agency, started a rolling review of the vaccine last week.


WASHINGTON — About 1 in 5 Americans say they lost a relative or close friend to the coronavirus.

That’s according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research a year after the start of the pandemic. The public’s worry about the virus is dropping even as people still in mourning express frustration at the continuing struggle to stay safe.

Communities of color were hardest hit by the coronavirus. The AP-NORC poll found about 30% of African Americans and Hispanics know a relative or close friend who died from the virus, compared with 15% of white people.

While vaccines offer real hope for ending the scourge, about 1 in 3 Americans don’t intend to get one. The most reluctant: Younger adults, people without college degrees, and Republicans.

The staggering death toll from the coronavirus has reached more than 529,000 people in the U.S.


WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Navajo Nation officials cited a declining number of coronavirus cases in announcing a public health order allowing a “soft reopening” of some businesses with restrictions.

T he daily curfew for residents of the tribe’s reservation from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. will remain in effect under a separate new health order, officials announced. Both orders will take effect Monday.

Officials cited testing availability, hospital capacity and contact tracing in addition to the decrease in new cases as factors in the transition to a status allowing some businesses to reopen with capacity limits.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez says it’s a carefully crafted reopening at no more than 25% capacity.

The tribe, with a vast reservation that stretches across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, reported 13 coronavirus cases and one death. That increased the pandemic totals to 29,900 confirmed cases and 1,205 known deaths


PHOENIX — Arizona has reported 60 additional deaths from COVID-19 and with 1,835 newly confirmed cases after three straight days of fewer than 1,000 cases.

The figures released Thursday increased the state’s pandemic totals to 830,465 cases and 16,464 confirmed deaths.

The rolling average of daily new cases dropped from 1,559 on Feb. 23 to 1,239 on Tuesday. %he rolling average of daily deaths declined from 105 to 52 during the same period, according to data from the state’s coronavirus dashboard and Johns Hopkins University.

In other developments, Phoenix plans to start returning city workers to their offices later this month. Prescott is launching a program to reimburse large local healthcare providers for the costs of administering COVID-19 vaccinations.


ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Organizers say a veteran Iditarod musher was removed from the race Wednesday after he tested positive for the coronavirus.

The organizers say Gunnar Johnson, 52, of Duluth, Minnesota, was withdrawn from the event at the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint.

Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman, working with epidemiologist Dr. Jodie Guest, made the decision to remove Johnson based on the rules set in the race’s COVID-19 mitigation plan. The organizers say the asymptomatic Johnson is disappointed and said his 14-dog team looked great.


RALEIGH, N.C. — Duke University is seeing an uptick in the coronavirus following reports of positive cases stemming from students attending fraternity parties and events.

Administrators warn a curfew could be implemented or in-person classes could be halted if case numbers continue to worsen. UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University have seen more cases since the start of the pandemic.

Of the 102 undergraduate students who tested positive for the coronavirus from March 5-9, Duke says most “either have a known Greek affiliation and/or are first-year male students in the Class of 2024.”

Duke linked the cases to rush activities and off-campus parties hosted by fraternities, including Greek organizations that recently severed their affiliations with the university.

Campus officials warned in a message to students that those who host parties and flagrantly violate safety protocols could be suspended or expelled.

Duke will increase surveillance testing for all undergraduates and require those returning from travel to clear two rounds of testing before they can return to a physical classroom.


WASHINGTON — Four former U.S. presidents are urging Americans to get vaccinated as soon as COVID-19 doses are available.

Two public service announcements from the Ad Council and the business-supported COVID Collaborative feature Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter along with first ladies Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter.

All have received doses of the COVID-19 vaccines. One ad features photos of the former presidents and their spouses with syringes in their upper arms as they urge Americans to “roll up your sleeve and do your part” by getting vaccinated.

Obama, 59, says he’s looking forward to visiting his mother-in-law, “to hug her, and see her on her birthday.” Bush, 74, talks about “going to opening day in Texas Rangers stadium with a full stadium.”

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