WASHINGTON — The makers of COVID-19 vaccines are figuring out how to tweak their recipes against worrisome virus mutations — and regulators are looking to flu as a blueprint if and when the shots need an update.
“It’s not really something you can sort of flip a switch, do overnight,” cautioned Richard Webby, who directs a World Health Organization flu center from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Viruses mutate constantly and it takes just the right combination of particular mutations to escape vaccination. But studies are raising concern that first-generation COVID-19 vaccines don’t work as well against a mutant that first emerged in South Africa as they do against other versions circulating around the world.
The good news: Many of the new COVID-19 vaccines are made with new, flexible technology that’s easy to upgrade. What’s harder: Deciding if the virus has mutated enough that it’s time to modify vaccines — and what changes to make.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— COVID-19 conspiracy shows the reach of Chinese disinformation around the world
— Here's a look at the key superspreaders of virus disinformation
— In Germany, carnival organizers found other ways to have fun — including floats poking fun at the likes of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
— Peru minister resigns amid uproar over government officials being vaccinated before country received 1M doses for health workers
— Britain reaches a vaccination goal: Giving first shots to 15 million most vulnerable
— Israel decides not to send a delegation of defense companies to a prestigious arms fair in the United Arab Emirates
— Italy won't open its ski slopes due to fears of virus variants
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
BERLIN — The European Union’s health agency is urging countries to address what it calls “pandemic fatigue” that is leading to increasing protests and unwillingness to follow virus restrictions.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said Monday that properly addressing pandemic fatigue was “a matter of urgency if further waves of infection are to be avoided.”
The Stockholm-based agency said governments should emphasize the risk of more cases and deaths if hygiene measures are ignored and be transparent about uncertainties regarding issues such as the vaccine rollout, which has raised widespread hopes of an imminent end to lockdowns.
ECDC said that the appearance of variants of the virus in the Europe posed a particular concern and could undo the drop in cases seen on the continent in recent weeks.
The agency said countries should increase testing sequencing of samples for variants, warning that its analysis suggests unless pandemic restrictions such as mask wearing are continued or strengthened during the coming months, “a significant increase in COVID-19-related cases and deaths” in Europe can be expected.
ZAGREB, Croatia - Croatia is another European Union state after Hungary that has shown interest in procuring Russian developed Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine after hiccups in deliveries of Western-made shots.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said Monday that Russia is ready to provide the vaccine and Croatia’s health authorities will decide on its use after approval from the European Medicines Agency.
Croatia earlier this month launched its vaccination campaign with AstraZeneca shots, imposing none of the age limits that have been put in place by some other EU states.
Hungary has become the first EU member to start using Sputnik V and hopes to deploy China’s Sinopharm vaccine soon, despite neither having received approval from EU’s medicines regulator.
Non-EU member Serbia has been the first to start administering both the Russian as well as Chinese vaccines in Europe, helping it become one of the top states on the continent in the speed of the vaccination rollout.
BEIRUT — Coronavirus case numbers are stabilizing in parts of the Middle East but the situation remains critical, with more than a dozen countries reporting cases of new variants, the World Health Organization said Monday.
Ahmed al-Mandhari, director of WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region, which comprises most of the Middle East, said in a press briefing from Cairo that at least one of the three new coronavirus variants was reported in the 13 countries in the region. He did not name the countries.
All three of the new variants are more contagious, according to WHO.
Al-Mandhari said there are nearly 6 million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the region and about 140,000 deaths. WHO urged people to continue taking precautionary measures against the virus.
WASHINGTON— A top American epidemiologist says Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic are sufficient but schools will face major challenges in the coming weeks because of virus variants.
Michael Osterholm is head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and was named to Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force before Biden became president. Osterholm says there’s low virus transmission at schools, especially for younger students, but virus variants are “a real red flag coming down the road.”
Osterholm told CBS on Monday he thinks a virus variant from the United Kingdom in particular is going to cause such a surge in U.S. cases over the next 14 weeks that “a lot of schools are going to be challenged to open at all.”
The CDC said Friday in-person schooling can resume safely with masks, social distancing and other strategies. The nation’s top public health agency says vaccinating teachers is important but isn’t a prerequisite for reopening schools.
Osterholm says health authorities don’t have enough vaccine doses for everyone so he’d prioritize vaccinating older people over teachers.
LONDON — Britain’s newly established quarantine hotels have received their first guests as the government tries to prevent new variants of the coronavirus from derailing its fast-moving vaccination drive.
Passengers arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport on Monday morning were escorted by security guards to buses that took them to nearby hotels.
Britain has given a first dose of coronavirus vaccine to almost a quarter of the population, but health officials are concerned that vaccines may not work as well on some new strains of the virus, including one first identified in South Africa.
Under the new rules, people arriving in England from 33 high-risk countries must stay in designated hotels for 10 days at their own expense, with meals delivered to their door. In Scotland the rule applies to arrivals from any country.
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Some 500 people have gathered in a theater in the central Dutch city of Utrecht for the first in a series of test events aimed at charting a path toward a post-pandemic normality for large-scale gatherings.
Economic Affairs Minister Mona Keijzer says that, “returning to normal, whether it’s a conference with your colleagues, a sports match or a concert: everyone wants that.”
When that might be possible remains unclear. The Netherlands is in a tough lockdown until at least next month, with large-scale gatherings banned altogether, shops, bars, restaurants and museums closed and sports like professional soccer happening behind closed stadium doors.
Participants in Monday’s trial had to present a negative COVID-19 test result, had their temperatures taken on arrival and will have to undergo another test after attending the event.
The government says it will use data gathered at the event to help decide “how to work toward safe and responsible events” in the future.
The event came with Dutch infections on a gradual downward trend in recent weeks and vaccinations ramping up after a slow start that made the Netherlands become the last of the 27 European Union nations to begin its vaccination campaign.
BERLIN — German authorities say police have turned back some 5,000 people at the country’s borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol region since tight controls were introduced on Sunday.
Germany imposed checks to slow the spread of the British coronavirus variant from the Czech Republic and the South African variant from Tyrol. It is restricting entry to German citizens and residents, truck drivers, transport and health service workers and a few others including cross-border commuters working in “systemically relevant sectors.” All have to show a negative coronavirus test.
Interior Ministry spokesman Steve Alter said, by Monday morning, federal police had checked about 10,000 people and turned back some 5,000.
The checks have prompted strong criticism from Austria.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, defended the German measures. He said that “the German government had to act here” to prevent the rapid spread of more contagious virus variants.
BRUSSELS — The EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, is urging member states to be vigilant against scammers offering to sell fake COVID-19 vaccines as the 27-nation bloc faces delays in the supply of shots.
In a statement Monday, OLAF said it was made aware of a number of reports of scammers offering to sell vaccines in a bid to defraud EU governments trying to speed up the pace of vaccination.
The EU has been criticized for a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in comparison with other parts of the world, lagging behind the pace of countries like Britain or Israel. The EU commission has signed six contracts for more than 2 billion doses of various coronavirus vaccines, but only three of them have been approved for use so far and the delivery of shots has been disturbed by production delays.
BELGRADE, Serbia — Authorities in Serbia’s capital Belgrade on Monday held an emergency meeting over a surge in night clubbing that has drawn thousands of partygoers in violation of rules against the new coronavirus.
Belgrade’s mayor announced stepped-up controls of clubs, cafes and other venues that are allowed to operate until 8p.m. with limited capacity. but have widely flouted government restrictions.
Serbian police said they detained five people over the weekend after breaking up two big parties in different parts of the city. A party in central Belgrade gathered about 1,000 people and the other, held in a new part of the city, around 600, police said.
Before the virus outbreak, Belgrade was known for its wild nightlife that centers on clubs situated on rafts on the capital’s two rivers, the Danube and Sava.
MADRID — Police across Spain have wrapped a weekend of cracking down on parties and boozing in public contravening restrictions to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Large parties ignoring social distancing, mask wearing and existing curfews were closed down in Ibiza, northeastern Tarragona and many other parts of the country, which has only recently slowed down the sharp increase of contagion seen after the end-of-year celebrations.
In Madrid alone, police fined 450 people for street alcohol consumption in groups and busted 418 illegal parties in entertainment venues and private homes from Friday to Sunday, including a rave in a warehouse with 55 adults and 11 minors who were not wearing masks and were using drugs.
The National Police also found over 50 people in a small apartment rented for tourists in the center of the Spanish capital.
The parties are increasingly better organized to attract foreign visitors and avoid scrutiny, the local police say, with no cash exchanged and payments via phone. In contrast with much of Europe, where entertainment venues have been closed, bars and restaurants in Madrid are allowed to open until 9 p.m.
Spain has managed to lower its 14-day rate of infection per 100,000 residents, from nearly 900 cases in Jan. 27 to less than 500 on Friday, but experts are warning against relaxing restrictions too fast, given that COVID-19 wards in hospitals are still grappling with high occupation rates.
BERLIN — Officers trying to bust a clandestine Carnival celebration in eastern Germany were left red-faced when most of the revelers escaped police on skis.
German news agency dpa reported Monday that police in the town of Marienberg, near the border with the Czech Republic, received information that about 100 people were partying Sunday without abiding by the requirements to wear face masks or respect minimum social distancing.
Police were unable to determine how many people had broken the law, however, because their arrival prompted a hasty on-ski departure by most of the party-goers.
Saxony, where Marienberg is located, has the second-highest infection rate of Germany’s 16 states. Germany has restricted entry from the neighboring Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol state to prevent the spread of variant viruses from those countries.
Police across Germany have broken up numerous Carnival celebrations across the country in recent days.
LONDON — People arriving in Britain must quarantine in hotels starting Monday as the government tries to prevent new variants of the coronavirus derailing its fast-moving vaccination drive.
On Sunday the government reached its goal of giving the first of two doses of vaccine to 15 million of the most vulnerable people, including health care workers and over-70s.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the vaccination drive is now being extended to people over 65 and those with underlying health conditions.
Health officials are concerned that vaccines may not work as well on some new strains of the virus, including one first identified in South Africa.
People arriving in England from 33 high-risk countries must stay in quarantine hotels for 10 days at their own expense. In Scotland the rule applies to arrivals from any country.
Critics say the move comes too late, with the South African variant already circulating in the country.
HARARE — Zimbabwe has received its first COVID-19 vaccines with the arrival early Monday of an Air Zimbabwe jet carrying 200,000 Sinopharm doses from China.
It is one of China’s first shipments of vaccines to Africa, after deliveries to Egypt and Equatorial Guinea.
The first Sinopharm vaccines are a donation from China to the southern African country. President Emmerson Mnanagagwa’s government has purchased an additional 600,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine that are expected to arrive early next month, according to state media.
Mnangagwa, in a Twitter post, said the Chinese vaccines will be administered to Zimbabweans this week.
JERUSALEM — A large-scale Israeli study has pointed to the efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at preventing symptomatic infections with the coronavirus.
Clalit, the largest of Israel’s four health care providers, released a study Sunday that compared infections in 600,000 Israelis who had received the vaccine compared to 600,000 who were not immunized.
The study found a 94% drop in symptomatic infections and a 92% drop in serious cases of the disease among those vaccinated. It said “the efficacy of the vaccine is preserved in every age group,” particularly a week after the second dose of the vaccine.
The researchers said the preliminary findings of the ongoing research “is aimed at emphasizing to the population that has yet to vaccinate that the vaccine is highly effective and prevents serious illness.”
Israel launched its COVID-19 vaccine campaign in December. Since then, over a quarter of the population — 2.5 million people — have received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and over 42% have received the first shot, according to the Health Ministry.