The Latest: CDC: Scaling up surveillance of virus variants

WASHINGTON — The new director of the Centers for Disease Control says officials have “scaled up” their surveillance of new coronavirus variants in the United States.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that previously “there has not been a public health infrastructure” to track such variants. Also, there weren’t resources to do “mass sequencing” of the virus across the country. She noted the coronavirus aid plan pushed by the Biden Administration includes funds to improve such tracing.

However, Walensky says it was “concerning” the two South Carolina individuals who were diagnosed with the more virulent strain first identified in South Africa didn’t know each other or travel there, so the “presumption” is there’s “community spread of this strain.”



WHO team visits Wuhan hospital that had early coronavirus patients. The EU publishes vaccine contract, price redacted. Dubai blamed by several countries for spreading the coronavirus abroad after the city welcomed New Year’s revelers. Tanzania’s president says God has eliminated COVID-19 in the country; his own church begs to differ. Philadelphia’s problematic vaccine rollout raises larger questions.


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BRUSSELS — The European Union has made public a redacted version of the contract it agreed with the drugmaker AstraZeneca which lies at the heart of a major row over coronavirus vaccine deliveries.

The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, published the text of the advance purchasing agreement Friday after consulting the British-Swedish company.

Details about the price of the vaccine were notably redacted. The U.K. is thought to be paying far more for the vaccine than the 27-nation bloc.

Earlier this week, the EU lashed out at the drugmaker after it said it would not be able to deliver the 80 million doses that it hoped to provide and could only supply 31 million.

The advance purchasing agreement was signed before any vaccine existed. European authorities are expected to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine later Friday, but questions remain over how effective it is among people over 65.


ROME — Italy’s virus czar says pharmaceutical company Moderna officially advised the government Friday that it would reduce a planned upcoming vaccine delivery to Italy by 20%, fueling increasing outrage in Italy as such delays have forced the country to drastically slow down its vaccine campaign.

Domenico Arcuri expressed “stupor, concern and discomfort” at Moderna’s decision, noting that it came after both Pfizer and AstraZeneca announced similar delays in scheduled deliveries. The Italian government has formally advised Pfizer it is weighing legal action.

Arcuri said Moderna told the government its Feb. 8 deliveries would be 132,000 doses instead of a planned 166,000.

The reduced deliveries have meant that Italy’s plan to start vaccinating Italians over age 80 on a mass scale have been delayed by several weeks, and reduced by more than half the number of shots administered each day. Italy concentrated the first weeks of its vaccine campaign on health care workers, with about 1 million of the 1.7 million doses administered so far going to doctors and nurses.


MADRID — Spain’s health minister says that between 5 and 10% of all confirmed coronavirus infections are believed to be derived from a mutation seen as responsible for the high contagion rates seen first in the United Kingdom and later in other countries.

Appearing Friday at a Congress of Deputies health commission, Carolina Darias said that so far confirmed cases of the new variant in Spain stand at 350 but that experts’ analysis showed that up to 10% of new infections could be attributed to it.

“The following weeks are crucial to see if this variant takes over … like has happened in other countries,” Darias told lawmakers.

On Thursday Spain logged nearly 35,000 new cases of the virus and 515 confirmed deaths, although the 14-day rate of infection per 100,000 residents dropped slightly for the first time in nearly a month.

Authorities say that an abrupt decline would be needed for overwhelmed hospitals to free up space before any effects of the new variant increases contagion and hospitalizations again.


BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia has received an additional 40,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia, further boosting its so far successful coronavirus vaccination campaign when compared with the rest of the Balkans.

While its neighbors have struggled to secure the shots, Serbia has embarked on one of the fastest vaccine rollouts in Europe with some 400,000 people getting jabs so far in the country of 7 million.

One million doses of Chinese Sinopharm vaccines arrived in Serbia earlier this month as well as thousands of doses of the Pfizer and Sputnik V shots.

Serbian officials say all the vaccine shipments which have arrived have been directly negotiated with either Russia and China, or with the Pfizer producers in the U.S. They say that so far no vaccines have been delivered by the global Covax system aimed at providing affordable shots to poor and middle-income countries.

Serbia is also negotiating the domestic production of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. The Russian and Chinese vaccines have not been approved by the European Union drug regulators.


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — A group of senior Bosnian state officials and businessmen have pleaded not guilty to corruption charges over the purchase of 100 ventilators from China that were found to be useless for COVID-19 patients,

The group on Friday appeared before the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the start of the proceedings in the case that shook the impoverished Balkan country in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

The prime minister of the Bosniak-Croat part of the country, Fadil Novalic, his associates, a top state civil protection official and the owner of the fruit processing company that received about 5 million euros ($5.5 million) from the government are facing trial in the case.

The group have been charged with abuse of power, money laundering and falsifying of documents.

The investigation was opened last March after a public outcry over why Silver Raspberry, a little-known company with ties to Bosnia’s political establishment, was granted the lucrative ventilator deal.


AMSTERDAM — The European Medicines Agency says no new side effects linked to the coronavirus vaccine made by BioNTech and Pfizer were identified in the regulator’s first safety update on COVID-19 vaccines.

In a statement published Friday, the European regulator said its expert committee assessed reports of people who died after getting the vaccine and said their review “did not suggest a safety concern.” Earlier this month, Norwegian officials amended their vaccination advice to say that doctors should assess frail and severely ill elderly people to decide if they should be immunized.

The EMA concluded that safety data collected on the Pfizer vaccine are “consistent with the known safety profile of the vaccine” and noted that severe allergic reactions are a known, rare side effect. It said the frequency of such allergic reactions was about 11 cases per million doses in the U.S. but that there was no comparable European estimate yet.

The EMA authorized the Pfizer vaccine on December 21 and granted it a conditional license; Pfizer and BioNTech must submit safety reports every month in line with a heightened monitoring process. The agency said “there are no recommended changes regarding the use of the vaccine.”


MADRID — The coronavirus pandemic dragged Spain’s economic output down 11% in 2020 from the previous year, according to official preliminary statistics released Friday.

The year closed with the fourth largest economy among the nations that use the euro currency shrinking for the first time after six years of continuous growth. Output grew by 2% in 2019 compared to 2018.

The economy grew in the last three months of 2020 by a meagre 0.4%, mostly driven by internal consumption and investment, after a 16.4% quarter-to-quarter growth from April to June. The timid growth from October to December surprised some analysts who were forecasting an imminent return to recession.

Spain’s statistics agency, INE, also said that inflation grew by 0.6% in January 2021 compared to the same month of 2020, the first time that prices increased since COVID-19 hit the country.


BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary’s prime minister says a deal to purchase Chinese coronavirus vaccines could be concluded as early as Friday, which would make Hungary the first country in the European Union to purchase a vaccine from China.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on public radio that his government is monitoring the use of a vaccine developed by Chinese state-owned company Sinopharm in neighboring Serbia, which became the first European country to administer the drug after it received 1 million doses earlier this month.

Hungary’s drug regulator has not yet approved the Sinopharm vaccine. But a decree ordered by the government on Thursday streamlined the approval procedure by allowing any vaccine that had been administered to at least 1 million people to be used in Hungary.

Orban said he would personally choose to be inoculated with the Sinopharm vaccine since he trusted it the most.

Hungary last week was the first EU member to approve the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, and has ordered doses to treat 1 million people over the next three months. Orban has been critical of the EU’s vaccine procurement program and insisted that countries that pursue their own vaccine agreements are faring better.


COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Denmark has extended restrictions that close food shops, except for grocery stores and pharmacies, schools and public gatherings of more than five people for another three weeks until the end of February.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said “we have seen how quickly the new mutation can get things out of control. Therefore, we cannot relax the restrictions. Even when we get vaccinated more, we must proceed cautiously.”

Cafes and restaurants remain closed but can still sell takeout food. Gyms, public libraries, beauty parlors and hairdressers also will remain shut until Feb. 28.

Advice to avoid non-essential travel — including business trips — outside of Denmark also was extended to the end of February, with Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod saying it was “an important element in the effort to control the spread of infection as the mutations of coronavirus occur in several countries.”


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka began inoculating front-line health workers, military troops and police officers against COVID-19 amid warnings that the medical sector faces a collapse because of health personnel being infected with the coronavirus.

Sri Lanka on Thursday received 500,000 vaccine doses as a donation from neighboring India. The Oxford-AstraZenica vaccine also known as the COVISHIELD is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.

The government says 150,000 health workers and 115,000 military and police will be given primary access to the vaccine.

Sri Lanka has been experiencing a new outbreak of the disease since October with the emergence of two clusters — one centered at a garment factory and other at a fish market.

Sri Lanka has reported a total of 61,585 cases, including 297 fatalities.


TOKYO — Japan’s minister in charge of the coronavirus vaccine rollout warned the public against scams in which callers ask for payments to reserve inoculation slots.

Taro Kono, minister for administrative affairs, stressed the innoculations that begin next month are free.

“We want to make sure our message is getting relayed,” says Kono, acknowledging such attempts may grow.

Local government offices have been deluged with inquiries about vaccine-related telephone calls wanting cash or personal information, he says.

Cases of COVID-19 infections have been growing recently, and there have been more than 5,000 confirmed deaths so far.


BEIJING — New cases of local transmission in China are continuing to fall with just 36 announced on Friday, as the country’s annual Lunar New Year travel push gets underway.

Authorities have taken a variety measures to discourage travel this season and far few Chinese appear willing to make the trip, even though it might be their only chance to return home and see family all year.

The northeastern province of Heilongjiang reported the largest number of new cases, 21, over the past 24 hours, followed by Jilin province just to the south. The capital Beijing and its surrounding province of Hebei both reported one new case each.

Also Friday, inspectors from the World Health Organization began day two of a fact-finding tour in the central Chinese city of Wuhan clusters of the virus were first detected in late 2019.

The mission has become politically charged, as China seeks to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak. A major question is where the Chinese side will allow the researchers to go and talk to during the visit.


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