WASHINGTON — The nation’s top infectious disease expert says the U.S. could see significant steps toward a return to the pre-pandemic normal, even before the country reaches coronavirus herd immunity.
Dr. Anthony Fauci says best estimates when enough people are immune to end the outbreak range between 70-85% of the population -- a figure expected to be attained by late summer or early fall.
He says as the pace of vaccination ramps up and the most vulnerable to the virus are protected, some government restrictions could be lifted.
Said Fauci: “You don’t have to wait until you get full herd immunity to get a really profound effect on what you can do.”
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky cautioned only about 10% of the population is fully vaccinated, but her agency anticipated loosening federal guidelines as more people receive shots.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— Dr. Fauci: US virus shots ramping up toward immunity
— WHO report on Wuhan virus mission expected soon
— AP source: US to buy additional 100M J&J doses
— After a year of the pandemic, weary world looks back — and forward
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
LONDON — One of the leaders of the recent World Health Organization-led mission to China to investigate the origins of the coronavirus expects finding out “fairly soon, within the next few years” what started the pandemic.
In a press briefing, Peter Daszak estimated collective scientific research could pin down how animals carrying COVID-19 might have infected the first people in Wuhan.
“There was a conduit from Wuhan to the provinces where in South China, where the closest relative viruses to (the coronavirus) are found in bats,” says Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance. He says the wildlife trade seemed to be the most likely explanation of COVID-19 arriving in Wuhan, where the first human cases were detected last December.
That hypothesis, Daszak says, was “the one that’s most strongly supported both on the WHO (and) the China side.”
Daszak and his co-authors are set to release a report, as early as next week, on the initial conclusions of their recent mission to Wuhan. They concluded it was “extremely unlikely” the pandemic was the result of a laboratory accident.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Public schools across Puerto Rico are reopening for the first time in nearly a year, with officials reporting scarce attendance amid COVID-19 concerns.
Of the island’s 858 public schools, 95 were authorized to reopen on Wednesday because they’re in a municipality with a low number of coronavirus cases and met a list of requirements issued by Puerto Rico’s Health Department.
For now, only kindergarteners, special education students and children in first, second, third and 12th grades can return to school. They’ll attend in-person classes twice a week and be dismissed before noon.
The island of 3.2 million people has reported more than 180,700 confirmed cases and more than 2,000 confirmed deaths. As of Sunday, more than 607,000 people have been vaccinated, with nearly 227,000 getting the second dose.
BRUSSELS — The leaders of the European Union and the United Kingdom had an angry exchange over vaccine exports as relations between the recently separated sides took another diplomatic dip.
London summoned the EU envoy to explain comments by EU Council President Charles Michel that Britain had issued a vaccine export ban. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that it was his “wish to correct the suggestion from the European Council president that the UK has blocked vaccine exports.”
The spat comes as the COVID-19 vaccination drive in Britain has given about 35% of its adults given a shot. The 27-nation bloc has vaccinated about 9.5% of its population. Britain’s population is 66 million, compared to the EU’s 446 million.
LISBON, Portugal — Portugal is expected to gradually begin easing its national lockdown starting Monday, when nursery schools are set to reopen.
Officials say they’ll allow some businesses in less-affected regions to open before others.
Popular gathering places such as bars and restaurants are not expected to reopen until April or May.
Economy Minister Pedro Siza Vieira said after meeting with business leaders and labor groups they are reluctant to keep staff working from home for much longer.
The government says it has so far spent more than 3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) -- about 1.5% of annual GDP -- on non-refundable financial support for companies.
BELGRADE, Serbia — Countries in the Western Balkans have announced tightening of measures against the coronavirus amid a surge in new cases in Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro.
As they received first vaccines on Wednesday, doctors in Bosnia’s capital of Sarajevo warned that the virus has “exploded” in the past several days and urged people to respect the measures that are already in place.
Local authorities will shut down all bars, restaurants and non-essential shops in the Sarajevo canton for the upcoming weekend as the city hospitals witness lines of people waiting at COVID wards.
In Serbia, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic says the government-appointed virus crisis body most likely will meet on Thursday to decide on the measures for the upcoming weekend as the authorities launched a campaign to further boost vaccination response in the nation.
The country of 7 million has vaccinated more than 1.5 million people, which is among the highest rates in Europe.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is expected to announce Wednesday the U.S. is buying an additional 100 million doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine.
The drugmaker is already obligated to supply 100 million doses to the federal government by the end of June. The additional vaccine would be delivered in the months following. A White House official previewed the news on the condition of anonymity before the president’s remarks.
The U.S. is set to receive enough doses of the three approved vaccines by the middle of May to cover all adults. The surplus would ensure supply to cover young adults and children, pending the result of safety and efficacy trials. They also could be used as potential “boosters” to further protect against emerging virus variants, or be shared with allies overseas once Americans are protected. — Zeke Miller
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh is appealing to the international community to deliver promised vaccines against COVID-19.
His office says the prime minister on Tuesday urged friendly countries and companies, as well as the World Health Organization, to “fulfill their obligations to us.”
Shtayyeh says U.N. deliveries expected this month through COVAX, the WHO-backed program to assist poorer nations, are now delayed.
The virus has surged through the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel has come under significant international criticism for giving its own population vaccines without doing the same for Palestinians. This week, the government began vaccinating Palestinian laborers who work in Israel.
However, that effort will only vaccinate a small percentage of the roughly 5 million Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza Strip. Israel says under past peace accords, it is not responsible for vaccinating the Palestinian populations in those areas. Human rights groups say Israel remains an occupying power with an obligation to assist the Palestinians.
BRUSSELS — The European Commission says it has secured an agreement with Pfizer-BioNTech for an extra four million doses of COVID-19 vaccines for its 27 nations to tackle the surge of cases in several coronavirus clusters.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “this will help member states in their efforts to keep the spread of new variants under control. Through their targeted use where they are most needed, in particular in border regions, these doses will also help ensure or restore the free movement of goods and people.”″
The European Union mentioned Tyrol in Austria, Nice and Moselle in France, Bolzano in Italy and some parts of Bavaria and Saxony in Germany where COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on the rise. The Commission said the new doses will be made available to all member states on a pro-rata basis this month.
EU officials have been dismayed at how virus surges driven by variants have prompted EU nations to put in border restrictions.
Overall, the EU has six contracts for more than 2 billion doses of vaccines to inoculate its 450 million people.
LISBON, Portugal -- Portugal is joining other European countries in extending the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine to people age 65 and over, after initial uncertainty about its effectiveness in that age group.
The General Directorate for Health also announced Wednesday that people with Down syndrome will be added to the Phase 1 priority groups due to their risk of developing serious COVID-19 symptoms.
Teachers, school auxiliary staff and social workers who deal with children are also moving to the front of the queue as authorities prepare to start easing a lockdown that began in January and brought school closures.
Health officials were due later Wednesday to unveil the country’s first mobile vaccination units, part of a drive to accelerate inoculations. Portugal, a country of 10.3 million people, has so far administered just over 1 million vaccine jabs.
AMSTERDAM — An expert group at the European Medicines Agency will meet Thursday to decide whether the one-dose coronavirus vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson should be authorized for use across the European Union.
If the shot is given the green light, it would be the fourth licensed COVID-19 vaccine in the 27-country bloc. The Amsterdam-based EU medicines regulator has already approved vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca — but all of those vaccines require two doses.
Health experts hope having another authorized COVID-19 shot might speed the slow pace of immunization across Europe, which has been struggling to get enough supplies and vaccinate the vulnerable.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted the J&J vaccine an emergency approval last month; Canada and Bahrain have also licensed the vaccine. A massive study across three continents found the J&J vaccine was 85% effective in protecting against severe illness, hospitalizations and death. That protection remained strong even in countries like South Africa, where variants have been identified.
STOCKHOLM — The Swedish government says it will spend another 6.5 billion kronor ($1 billion) to buy more vaccines, bringing Sweden’s total vaccine expenditures to 11 billion ($1.8 billion).
Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren says “we are talking about a lot of money, but little compared to what COVID-19 has cost society.”
Sweden’s vaccine coordinator, Richard Bergstrom, said the country expected an additional 14 million doses the first half of the year and 30 million doses in the second.
He said he expects Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine to shortly be approved by the European Union's medical regulator.
LONDON — Relations between the European Union and recently departed Britain took another diplomatic dip on Wednesday when the EU envoy in London was summoned to explain comments that Britain had issued a vaccine export ban.
The United Kingdom was so irate about Tuesday’s comments from EU Council President Charles Michel that Britain had “imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines,” that it called in the ambassador for a morning meeting.
A British government statement said that it “has not blocked the export of a single COVID-19 vaccine. Any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false.”
The spat comes against a background that the COVID-19 vaccination drive in Britain is seen as a huge success while that in the 27-nation bloc has been a major failure. The United Kingdom has given about 35% of its adults a vaccine shot while the EU is further back with 9.5%.
COPENHAGEN, Demark — Sales of Lego sets surged last year as more children stayed home during global pandemic lockdowns and parents bought the colorful plastic brick toys to keep them entertained through days of isolation.
The privately-held Danish company said its net profit rose 19% to 9.9 billion kroner ($1.6 billion) as sales jumped 21% and it grew its presence in its 12 largest markets.
Lego, which on top of its sets also earns money from video game apps, seems to be one of the businesses - like online retailers and technology companies - that were well placed to earn money from the massive disruptions in society worldwide during the pandemic.
Chief Executive Niels B. Christiansen told The Associated Press that the “super strong results” were thanks to strategic investments made years ago to move more sales online.
GENEVA — On March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, few could foresee the long road ahead or the many ways in which they would suffer — the deaths and agonies of millions, the ruined economies, the disrupted lives and near-universal loneliness and isolation.
A year later, some are dreaming of a return to normal, thanks to vaccines. Others live in places where the vaccines seems to be reserved for wealthier worlds.
At the same time, people are looking back at where they were when they first understood how drastically life would change.
On March 11, 2020, confirmed cases of COVID-19 stood at 125,000, and reported deaths stood at fewer than 5,000. Today, 117 million people are confirmed to have been infected, and according to Johns Hopkins, more than 2.6 million people have died.
On that day, Italy closed shops and restaurants after locking down in the face of 10,000 reported infections. The NBA suspended its season, and Tom Hanks, filming a movie in Australia, announced he was infected.
On that evening, President Donald Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office, announcing restrictions on travel from Europe that set off a trans-Atlantic scramble. Airports flooded with unmasked crowds in the days that followed. Soon, they were empty.
And that, for much of the world, was just the beginning.
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan has started vaccinating people who are 60 years old or above to protect them from COVID-19 amid a steady increase in cases and fatalities from the disease.
Pakistan is currently using China’s Sinopharm vaccine, which was donated to it by Beijing last month.
Pakistan hopes to start receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine this month under the World Health Organization’s COVAX Facility. Authorities say Pakistan will receive 17 million doses of coronavirus vaccines under the scheme from March to June.
Deaths and confirmed cases from the coronavirus have increased steadily since March 1, when Pakistan resumed regular classes at schools. On Wednesday, Pakistani authorities were expected to decide whether schools should again be closed.
Pakistan has reported 595,239 cases, including 13,324 deaths.