The Latest: German company begins testing possible vaccine

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.


— As lockdowns ease, health officials urge virus vigilance.

— German pharmaceutical company begins testing possible virus vaccine.

— Thailand’s capital of Bangkok plans to ease restrictions on restaurants.


BERLIN — German pharmaceutical company BioNTech says it has begun testing a potential vaccine for the new coronavirus on volunteers.

BioNTech, which is working with U.S.-based Pfizer, said Wednesday that 12 participants of a clinical trial in Germany have received doses of the vaccine candidate BNT162 since April 23.

Numerous pharmaceutical companies are racing to deliver a vaccine for the virus that has caused a pandemic and led to more than 215,000 deaths worldwide and sickened at least three million people.

BioNTech said in a statement that in a next step, it will begin increasing the dose of BNT162 in a trial involving about 200 participants aged 18 to 55.

The company said it expects to receive regulatory approval to begin trials in the United States soon.


BANGKOK — Officials in Thailand’s capital city Bangkok say they are preparing to ease restrictions that were imposed to fight the spread of COVID-19, including the reopening of restaurants under strict conditions.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration announced Wednesday that it hopes to lift restrictions on eight kinds of establishments it had ordered closed through April 30. It will allow the reopenings if they are in accord with guidelines to be set by the national Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration by the end of this week.

The city’s plans call for the reopening of restaurants, markets, exercise venues, parks, hairdressers and barbers, clinics and nursing homes, animal hospitals and pet salons, and golf courses and driving ranges.

Restaurants will have to keep their seats at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart and practice a wide range of sanitary measures, beginning with taking the temperature of customers and staff and including the circulation of fresh air.

Thai health authorities confirmed nine new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, bringing the total to 2,947, including 54 deaths.


ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey has extended the shutdown of its schools until the end of May amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Education Minister Ziya Selcuk said Wednesday that the remote schooling system through television broadcasts and the internet would continue until May 31.

Turkey closed down schools across the country on March 12, a day after it reported its first confirmed COVID-19 infection.

The country now has nearly 115,000 cases and 2,992 deaths.


NEW DELHI — With Chinese industries ramping up production, competing Indian businesses are urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to loosen the five-week lockdown in the country when it comes up for a review on May 3.

Gurcharan Das, former head of Proctor and Gamble in India, said on Wednesday that key infrastructure, information technology, automobiles and pharmaceutical industries which employ millions of people can resume manufacturing at half or even one-third of their capacities in large area unaffected by the coronavirus infections. The manufacturers should ensure safeguards like wearing masks and safe distancing by the workers.

If India is unable to bring the economy back on track, it could lose 30-40 million jobs by this year-end and a pandemic will snowball into a devastating economic crisis, said Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, executive chairperson of Biocon, a biopharmaceutical company.

India earlier this month changed rules to block the Chinese foreign direct investment into India through the automatic routes. Chinese goods flood Indian markets ranging from cars, mobile phones, accessories, toys and furniture.

India also is getting ventilators, testing kits and other medical equipment from China.


NEW DELHI, India — Public health officials in India have shelved their plan to administer hydroxychloroquine or HCQ, an untested anti-malarial, to thousands in Mumbai’s crowded slums as a way of preventing infections in healthy people.

Health officials in Mumbai said that the plan to “conduct a test” was still on the cards but had not yet been approved by the Indian government. For now, they will follow federal guidelines that say that the drug can only be used for “high-risk” groups: health care workers taking care of COVID-19 patients, contacts of confirmed patients and those in quarantine centers.

Experts have pointed out that there is little evidence to show that HCQ can help treat COVID-19 infections and none to justify its use to prevent infections.

India has reached the grim milestone of over a thousand deaths. There are over 30,000 cases in the country and cases are doubling in roughly 10 days.

The malaria drug had been widely touted by President Donald Trump for treating the new coronavirus and has, since, been advised by India for frontline healthcare workers. But a large analysis of its use in U.S. veterans hospitals last week found that more death was recorded among those given the drug, versus standard care.


LONDON — Ratings agency Fitch has cut Italy’s government debt grade, the first downgrade to a major economy to reflect the surge in public debt that is expected to hit countries dealing with the vast costs of the pandemic lockdown.

The agency late Tuesday lowered Italy’s rating by 1 notch to BBB- from BBB, just one level above junk bond status. It expects the virus outbreak to shrink the Italian economy by 8% this year and that there is a risk of a deeper downturn.

Italy has been one of the hardest hit by the outbreak of the new coronavirus — and is also one of the developed countries that can least afford its costs. Its public debt of 135% of annual GDP is forecast to rise to 156% this year, according to Fitch.

High debt can spook investors, who already are asking for higher rates to lend to Italy. The rates are still very manageable, but a rise to unsustainable levels could trigger a new financial crisis for Italy and Europe, where the country is part of the 19-nation euro currency union.

That kind of crisis occurred in 2011-2012, leading to speculation that the euro would break up because Italy would be too expensive to bail out if it could no longer raise money on bond markets. The turmoil abated after a swift change of government in Italy, sharp budget cuts and a promise by the European Central Bank to ease market jitters.


SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean infectious disease experts have downplayed concerns that patients could get reinfected with the new coronavirus after fully recovering.

While hundreds in South Korea have tested positive again after their release from hospitals, Oh Myoung-don, who heads the country’s central clinical committee on new infectious diseases, told a news conference on Wednesday there was a “high possibility” that such test results were flawed.

He said South Korea’s standard real-time PCR tests, designed to amplify the genetic materials of the virus so that even tiny quantities are detected, doesn’t reliably distinguish between remains of dead virus and infectious particles. He said lab tests on animals suggest that COVID-19 patients would maintain immunity for at least a year after their infections.

He also said it was unlikely that the virus could be reactivated after remaining dormant when it doesn’t seem to be a type that causes chronic illnesses.

As of Tuesday, 277 people in South Korea tested positive for the virus for a second time after being diagnosed as recovered. Health authorities have tested some of their samples, but none so far have been successfully cultivated in isolation, indicating a loss of infectiousness.


PARIS — Airbus reported 481 million euros ($522 million) in losses in the first quarter, put thousands of workers on furlough and sought billions in loans to survive the coronavirus crisis – and its CEO said Wednesday the aviation industry’s unprecedented troubles are still at an “early stage.”

Even after virus-related travel restrictions eventually ease, Chief Executive Guillaume Faury acknowledged it will take a long time to persuade customers to get back on planes. Just how long, he can’t predict.

Airbus executives expressed hope Wednesday that jet deliveries stalled by the virus could start picking up in the second half of the year. But they refused to issue long-term guidance given that the virus is still spreading, thousands of jets are grounded worldwide and governments are reluctant to relax travel restrictions.

“We are in the gravest crisis the aerospace industry has ever known,” Faury said. “Now we need to work as an industry to restore passenger confidence in air travel as we learn to coexist with this pandemic.”


ONNAING, France — Masked and keeping their distance, French auto workers are returning to factory floors at Toyota and Renault in a cautious move toward reviving the virus-battered economy.

Renault restarted assembly lines Tuesday for its Zoe electric cars at a plant in Flins outside Paris, though only a quarter of staff is allowed in so far. The company – which is negotiating with the French government for billions of euros in potential bailout funds – has resumed some activity at plants in China, Spain, Portugal, Russia and Romania, but work remains halted in India, Latin America and most facilities in its home country of France.

In the northern town of Onnaing near Valenciennes, Toyota workers came back to work this week at a plant that used to churn out more than 1,000 Yaris cars a day. They are having their temperatures checked and given masks, and new social distancing rules are in place on the factory floor and cafeteria and other common spaces.


ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to stand in solidarity with the United States in its struggle against the coronavirus pandemic and as it recovers from the outbreak.

In a letter sent to Donald Trump, Erdogan also said he was following “with appreciation” the U.S. president’s efforts to control the outbreak.

The letter was sent Tuesday along with a planeload of personal protective equipment that Turkey donated to the United States. It was made public on Wednesday.

Erdogan wrote: “I am very pleased to observe that, thanks to your measures, America has taken the first steps towards normalization by achieving a downward trend in the number of new cases.”

“You can be sure, as a reliable and strong partner of the U.S., we will continue to demonstrate solidarity in every way possible,” Erdogan wrote.

Turkey sent 500,000 surgical masks, 4,000 overalls, 2,000 liters (528 gallons) of disinfectant, 1,500 goggles, 400 N-95 masks and 500 face shields. Turkey has sent similar medical equipment aid to a total of 55 countries — including Britain, Italy and Spain.


TOKYO — Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on Wednesday called for an extension of Japan’s nationwide “state of emergency,” which requests people to stay home and social distance, to stem the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Tokyo is still facing a serious situation and so I would like to have it go on longer,” she told reporters.

She noted reported daily cases of COVID-19 in Tokyo have topped 100 people recently.

Japan has had about 400 deaths so far nationwide, 100 of them in Tokyo.

The state of emergency, declared by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, lasts through May 6, which marks the end of the Golden Week holidays that began this week.

The government has asked people not to travel during the holidays. There is no lockdown in Japan, and some businesses and restaurants remain open.

But the usually jam-packed commuter trains and streets of Tokyo have thinned out, and at times look abandoned.

Worries remain another surge of cases could be ahead if people let go of social distancing restrictions.


SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea officials have issued public pleas for vigilance to maintain hard-won gains against the coronavirus as the nation enters its longest holiday since infections surged in February.

South Korea’s Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip on Wednesday said 180,000 people are expected to visit the resort island of Jeju during a six-day break from Thursday to Tuesday, despite the island government pleading travelers not to come.

Hotels and other accommodation facilities are nearly fully booked in some seaside towns in Gangwon province, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 2018.

Kim urged travelers to wear masks, not to share food and stay at home if they have fever or respiratory symptoms. Gangwon has increased the number of thermal cameras at train stations, bus terminals and highway rest areas. Jeju plans to expand temperature checks at its airport and conduct virus tests on travelers with even mild fevers above 37.3 degrees Celsius.

“(I) hope that this ‘golden holiday’ could really be remembered as golden,” Kim said during a virus briefing. “We must not let a moment of carelessness trigger mass transmissions that would make the efforts we invested so far vanish like bubbles of water.”


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