‘How can we not be tense?’ Turkey’s coronavirus infections soar

By Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – The red letters scrolling across the front of Fikret Oluk’s bus say: “Stay Home Turkey.” But the Istanbul driver said passengers are ignoring rules and overcrowding, sometimes without masks, even as coronavirus infections rocket.

Turkey – which has the highest level of daily new COVID-19 cases in Europe and the Middle East – again tightened measures last week to contain the rapid spread after calls for action by doctors and opposition politicians.

Among the rules are a limit of 69 passengers on Oluk’s busy urban bus route. When 89 are aboard, he says he draws the line.

“But unfortunately people do not listen. They attack us and put us in a difficult position,” said the driver of 10 years.

“How can we not be tense? Our lives are currently dependent on these masks. But unfortunately, just like people don’t think about themselves, they don’t think about us either,” he said.

Interviews with Turks who have received a vaccine and those waiting for one show a mix of fear and frustration with record COVID-19 deaths and infections, which neared 56,000 on Thursday alone, and an uneven adherence to the rules.

The head of the Turkish Medics Association told Reuters she believed the biggest misstep of President Tayyip Erdogan’s government was broadly easing restrictions in March as daily case numbers fell below 10,000. She said this sacrificed the gains made over the winter, calling the approach “social murder.”

“We called this a ‘social murder’ because they already know what will cause these deaths, they do not have any preventative measures,” Sebnem Korucu Fincanci said, adding that intercity travel, manufacturing and public transportation should be halted.

Erdogan and his government came under fire last month for a party congress with thousands of people, many of whom were seen violating social distancing rules and not wearing or improperly wearing masks. Opposition parties and critics accused Ankara of undermining efforts to curb infections.

‘BE REALISTIC’

Nurettin Yigit, head doctor at a specially-built pandemic hospital in Istanbul, said the impact on the health system of the latest surge had been less than in previous waves and called the timing “unlucky.”

“The moment we began this controlled normalization, the entry of other mutations from other countries started,” he told Reuters as medical staff administered vaccines to patients. He attributed the rise partly to people travelling domestically.

Ankara has blamed coronavirus variants for the surge in infections, saying some 85% of total cases across the country are from the variant first identified in Britain, as well as a lack of commitment to measures such as social distancing and mask wearing.

On Friday, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca told the Hurriyet daily that the solution to the “serious rise” in infections was to speed up vaccinations, adding he aimed to have all citizens over 20 years old vaccinated by July.

Fincanci called Ankara’s vaccination goals unrealistic and criticized what she called the inaccurate reporting of case and death numbers. “They have to be realistic, they have to be transparent,” she said.

Turkey has administered around 18 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far, roughly enough to cover about 11% of the population, according to a Reuters tally.

The government has dismissed criticisms over its handling of the pandemic and the measures it has implemented, saying public health is the priority.

It has adopted fresh stay-at-home orders for weekends and will halt dining at restaurants starting Tuesday for the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

But the country has remained largely open for business since last June and many have hit the streets and cafes as the weather has warmed – worrying some who have stayed home.

“I haven’t drank tea in a café for 11 months. I don’t leave the house,” said Mehmet Tut, 62, sitting outside a hospital treatment room after receiving his first vaccine shot on Friday.

“We will still be careful as we wait for the second dose” even as others are not taking enough precautions, he said. “They expect everything from the state but it is up to us. If we are careful we won’t get sick.”

(Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen, Bulent Usta and Mert Ozkan; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Nowhere as worrisome for COVID-19 infections as South America, Brazil concerning: PAHO

By Julia Symmes Cobb

BOGOTA (Reuters) – South America is the most worrying region for COVID-19 infections, as cases mount in nearly every country, the director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

“Nowhere are infections as worrisome as in South America,” Director Carissa Etienne said during a weekly press conference.

Brazil has seen perhaps the most merciless surge and scientists forecast it will soon surpass the worst of a record January wave in the United States, with daily fatalities climbing above 4,000 on Tuesday.

“The situation in Brazil is concerning countrywide,” said COVID-19 incident director Sylvain Aldighieri. “Our concern at the moment is also for the Brazilian citizens themselves in this context of health services that are overwhelmed.”

Brazil needs access to more vaccines now and should be able to receive them through global partnerships, Aldighieri said.

PAHO can expand its help to Brazilian states if requested, he said, adding it is already aiding with virus sequencing, procuring oxygen and testing.

Intensive care units are nearing capacity in Peru and Ecuador and in parts of Bolivia and Colombia cases have doubled in the last week, Etienne said, adding the southern cone is also experiencing acceleration in cases.

The U.S., Brazil and Argentina are among the ten countries seeing the highest number of new infections globally, she added.

The Americas recorded more than 1.3 million new coronavirus cases and over 37,000 deaths last week, Etienne said, more than half of all deaths reported globally.

“We cannot ease public health and social interventions without good data and justification,” Etienne said, adding slowing and stopping transmission “requires decisive action by local and national governments.”

More than 210 million vaccine doses have been administered across the Americas, Etienne added.

Bolivia, Nicaragua and Haiti may be affected by Serum Institute of India vaccine shipment delays, said sub-director Jarbas Barbosa, but the World Health Organization is appealing to the Indian government to ensure shipment agreements.

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb)

U.S. says 165 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine been administered so far

(Reuters) – The United States has administered more than 165 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Sunday morning and distributed nearly 208 million, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Sunday.

That is up from the 161,688,422 vaccine doses the CDC said had gone into arms by Saturday out of 207,866,645 doses delivered.

The agency said 106,214,924 people had received at least one vaccine dose, while 61,416,536 people have been fully vaccinated as of Sunday.

The CDC tally includes two-dose vaccines from Moderna Inc and Pfizer/BioNTech,, as well Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine as of 6:00 a.m. ET on Sunday.

A total of 7,742,126 vaccine doses have been administered in long-term care facilities, the agency said.

(Reporting by Aishwarya Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. administers nearly 137 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines: CDC

(Reuters) – The United States has administered 136,684,688 doses of COVID-19 vaccines and distributed 177,501,775 doses in the country as of Friday morning, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The tally is for Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines as of 6:00 a.m. ET on Friday, the agency said.

According to the tally posted on March 25, the agency had administered 133,305,295 doses of the vaccines, and distributed 173,525,335 doses.

The agency said 89,559,225 people have received at least one dose, while 48,695,172 people were fully vaccinated as of Friday.

A total of 7,699,428 vaccine doses have been administered in long-term care facilities, the agency said.

(Reporting by Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli)

Pfizer, BioNTech launch COVID-19 vaccine trial in kids under 12

By Michael Erman

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE began testing their COVID-19 vaccine in children under 12, with hopes of expanding vaccination to that age range by early 2022, the U.S. drugmaker said on Thursday.

The first volunteers in the early-stage trial were given their first injections on Wednesday, Pfizer spokesperson Sharon Castillo said.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was authorized by U.S. regulators in late December for people age 16 and older. Nearly 66 million doses of the vaccine had been administered in the United States as of Wednesday morning, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The pediatric trial, which will include children as young as 6 months, follows a similar one launched by Moderna Inc last week.

Only the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is being used in 16- and 17-year-olds in the United States. Moderna’s shot was cleared for those age 18 and older, and no COVID-19 vaccine has been authorized in younger kids yet.

Pfizer and BioNTech plan to initially test the safety of their two-shot vaccine at three different dosages – 10, 20 and 30 micrograms – in a 144-participant Phase I/II trial.

They plan to later expand to a 4,500-participant late-stage trial in which they will test the safety, tolerability and immune response generated by the vaccine, likely by measuring antibody levels in the young subjects.

Castillo said the companies hope to have data from the trial in the second half of 2021.

Meanwhile, Pfizer has been testing the vaccine in children from age 12 to 15. The company expects to have data from that trial in the coming weeks, Castillo said.

(Reporting by Michael Erman; Additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Australia urges EU to send 1 million COVID-19 vaccines for PNG amid fresh outbreak

By Colin Packham

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia said on Wednesday it will ask the European Union to release 1 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to help Papua New Guinea (PNG) battle a dangerous outbreak that authorities fear could spread to other parts of the region.

The request could inflame existing tensions between Canberra and Brussels amid claims of vaccine nationalism after the EU recently blocked an Australia-bound shipment of the doses.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said the vaccines were contracted to Australia and were now badly needed to contain a surge in coronavirus cases in the Pacific island nation, parts of which are just a short boat ride from Australian territory.

“We’ve contracted them. We’ve paid for them and we want to see those vaccines come here so we can support our nearest neighbor, PNG, to deal with their urgent needs in our region,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

“They’re our family, they’re our friends. They’re our neighbors. They’re our partners… This is in Australia’s interests, and is in our region’s interests.”

“We confirm that the President of the European Commission has received a letter from the Australian Prime Minister on this topic and we will reply in due time,” a spokeswoman for the EU executive said on Wednesday.

Australia will donate 8,000 locally produced COVID-19 vaccines to PNG as an immediate response to the outbreak, and would make a million doses available as soon as they arrived from Europe, he said.

Earlier this month, the EU, at Italy’s request, blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine to Australia, citing vaccine shortages in Europe.

It later denied Australia’s request to review the blockage, the first such refusal since Brussels established a mechanism to monitor vaccine flows in late January.

PNG has officially recorded over 2,300 cases since the pandemic began, a figure experts say vastly underestimates the true outbreak.

Prime Minister James Marape earlier this week said COVID-19 had “broken loose” as he warned local hospitals would soon be overwhelmed.

Marape has urged people to avoid unnecessary travel but his warning came as thousands of people gathered to mourn the death of Michael Somare, PNG’s first prime minister after independence from Australia.

Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the limited coronavirus testing being done in PNG was showing alarming results.

“When people are being admitted into hospital in Port Moresby, half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive,” Kelly told reporters in Canberra.

Morrison warned an “uncontrolled” outbreak could produce a new variant of the virus that would affect not only PNG but the wider region.

Canberra will suspend all travel to and from PNG from Wednesday midnight, he added.

Australia said in a statement on Wednesday it has approached the United States, Japan and India, members of the so-called Quad group of Asia Pacific nations, to seek additional help for PNG.

FIGHTING CHANCE

A senior Australian government source said while the EU had justified blocking the shipment to Australia due to Canberra’s success in containing the virus, that rationale would not hold with PNG.

Aid agencies echoed the desperate need for vaccines in the impoverished country of almost nine million people.

“PNG needs a fighting chance to beat this, and frontline doctors and nurses could be the difference between keeping this under control or utter catastrophe for PNG’s health system,” said Marc Purcell, chief executive of The Australian Council for International Development, which represents aid agencies.

The government source said Canberra would lodge its request with the EU this week and an answer was likely within days. He declined to be named as he is not authorized to talk to media.

(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney and Colin Packahm in Canberra; additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Stephen Coates, Christopher Cushing and Sam Holmes)

Moderna begins study of COVID-19 vaccine in kids

(Reuters) – Moderna Inc has begun dosing patients in a mid-to-late stage study of its COVID-19 vaccine, mRNA-1273, in children aged six months to less than 12 years, the company said on Tuesday.

The study will assess the safety and effectiveness of two doses of mRNA-1273 given 28 days apart and intends to enroll about 6,750 children in the United States and Canada.

The vaccine has already been authorized for emergency use in Americans who are aged 18 and older.

In a separate study which began in December, Moderna is also testing mRNA-1273 in adolescents between 12 and 18 years old.

The latest study is being conducted in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber)

U.S. administers nearly 111 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines: CDC

The United States has administered 110,737,856 doses of COVID-19 vaccines and distributed 142,918,525 doses in the country as of Tuesday morning, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

The tally is for Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines as of 6:00 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the agency said.

According to the tally posted on March 15, the agency had administered 109,081,860 doses of the vaccines, and distributed 135,847,835 doses.

The agency said 72,135,616 people have received at least one dose, while 39,042,345 people were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday.

A total of 7,569,120 vaccine doses have been administered in long-term care facilities, the agency said.

(Reporting by Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli)

Germany, Italy, France to halt AstraZeneca shots, further hitting EU vaccination campaign

By Thomas Escritt and Stephanie Nebehay

BERLIN/GENEVA (Reuters) – Germany, France and Italy said on Monday they would stop administering the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine after several countries reported possible serious side-effects, throwing Europe’s already struggling vaccination campaign into disarray.

Denmark and Norway stopped giving the shot last week after reporting isolated cases of bleeding, blood clots and a low platelet count. Iceland and Bulgaria followed suit and Ireland and the Netherlands announced suspensions on Sunday.

The moves by some of Europe’s largest and most populous countries will deepen concerns about the slow rollout of vaccines in the region, which has been plagued by shortages due to problems producing vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s.

Germany warned last week it was facing a third wave of infections, Italy is intensifying lockdowns and hospitals in the Paris region are close to being overloaded.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that although the risk of blood clots was low, it could not be ruled out.

“This is a professional decision, not a political one,” Spahn said adding he was following a recommendation of the Paul Ehrlich Institute, Germany’s vaccine regulator.

France said it was suspending the vaccine’s use pending an assessment by the EU medicine regulator due on Tuesday. Italy said its halt was a “precautionary and temporary measure” pending the regulator’s ruling.

Austria and Spain have stopped using particular batches and prosecutors in the northern Italian region of Piedmont earlier seized 393,600 doses following the death of a man hours after he was vaccinated. It was the second region to do so after Sicily, where two people had died shortly after having their shots.

The World Health Organization appealed to countries not to suspend vaccinations against a disease that has caused more than 2.7 million deaths worldwide.

“As of today, there is no evidence that the incidents are caused by the vaccine and it is important that vaccination campaigns continue so that we can save lives and stem severe disease from the virus,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.

The United Kingdom said it had no concerns, while Poland said it thought the benefits outweighed any risks.

“UNUSUAL” SYMPTOMS

AstraZeneca’s shot was among the first and cheapest to be developed and launched at volume since the coronavirus was first identified in central China at the end of 2019 and is set to be the mainstay of vaccination programs in much of the developing world.

Thailand announced plans on Monday to go ahead with the Anglo-Swedish firm’s shot after suspending its use on Friday but Indonesia said it would wait for the WHO to report.

The WHO said its advisory panel was reviewing reports related to the shot and would release its findings as soon as possible. But it said it was unlikely to change its recommendations, issued last month, for widespread use, including in countries where the South African variant of the virus may reduce its efficacy.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has also said there was no indication the events were caused by the vaccination and that the number of reported blood clots was no higher than seen in the general population.

The handful of reported side-effects in Europe have upset vaccination programs already under pressure over slow rollouts and vaccine skepticism in some countries.

The Netherlands said on Monday it had seen 10 cases of possible noteworthy adverse side-effects from the AstraZeneca vaccine, hours after the government put its vaccination program on hold following reports of potential side-effects in other countries.

Denmark reported “highly unusual” symptoms in a 60-year-old citizen who died from a blood clot after receiving the vaccine, the same phrase used on Saturday by Norway about three people under the age of 50 it said were being treated in hospital.

“It was an unusual course of illness around the death that made the Danish Medicines Agency react,” the agency said in a statement late on Sunday.

One of the three health workers hospitalized in Norway after receiving the AstraZeneca shot had died, health authorities said on Monday, but there was no evidence that the vaccine was the cause. They said they would continue their probe and that no more suspected cases had been reported since Saturday.

AstraZeneca said earlier it had conducted a review covering more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and the UK which had shown no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots.

Investigations into potential side-effects are complicated as the history of each case and circumstances surrounding a death or illness are examined. Austrian authorities have said their review of the AstraZeneca batch will take about two weeks.

The EMA has said that as of March 10, a total of 30 cases of blood clotting had been reported among close to 5 million people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot in the European Economic Area, which links 30 European countries.

The WHO said that as of March 12, more than 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been administered around the world with no deaths found to have been caused by any of them.

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANKOK and Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel in BERLIN, Angelo Amante in ROME, Christian Lowe in PARIS, Toby Sterling in AMSTERDAM, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in COPENHAGEN and Stanley Widianto in JAKARTA; writing by Philippa Fletcher; editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. government to ship 18.5 million doses of COVID vaccine this week, White House says

(Reuters) – The White House said on Tuesday that the government will distribute around 18.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines this week, fewer than last week because no new doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine are ready to be sent out.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing that the U.S. government plans to distribute 15.8 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccine to states, tribes and territories, along with 2.7 million doses going to pharmacies.

Last week, the U.S. government distributed over 21 million doses of all three vaccines. That included over 3.5 million doses of the newly authorized J&J vaccine.

J&J’s manufacturing has been slower than expected, and the company was not expected to be able to deliver any doses of its vaccine this week. It is expected to resume shipments of the vaccine later in March.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 123 million doses of the vaccines had been distributed in the United States and 93.7 million shots had been administered, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(Reporting by Michael Erman, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)