The Latest: Drug execs face questions on vaccine supply

WASHINGTON — The top developers of U.S. COVID-19 vaccines are facing questions from Congress about limited supplies of the shots needed to end the pandemic.

The pace of vaccinations is picking up nationwide, but demand for the shots continues to outpace limited supplies distributed by the U.S. government. The Energy and Commerce Committee panel began hearing testimony from the five companies with contracts to supply COVID-19 shots to the U.S. — Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Novavax.

Johnson & Johnson revealed ahead of the hearing that initial supplies of its one-shot vaccine will be limited to 20 million doses by the end of March. The company plans to tell lawmakers it faces “significant challenges” in scaling up production.

However, federal health officials say a total of 700 million doses is still slated for delivery by late July. That would be enough to reach the goal of providing enough shots for every American adult.

The pandemic has killed more than 500,000 Americans.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

Drug executives face questions f rom Congress at hearing on vaccine supply. Some British rush to book holiday plans amid plans to gradually end lockdown. What happens when COVID-19 causes a person to lose their sense of smell? Russia’s vaccine rollout picks up speed but experts say it’s still moving slowly. “One Good Thing” keeps on giving to those in need, helpers.

— Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

LONDON — Britons rushed to book overseas vacations after Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled plans to slowly ease a national lockdown.

That boosted optimism that travel restrictions will be removed in time for the summer holiday season. TUI, the U.K.’s largest tour operator said bookings increased six-fold Monday, the company’s busiest day in more than a month.

Discount airline easyJet said demand for flights more than tripled, and package holiday company Thomas Cook said traffic on its website increased 75%.

Still many business leaders were disappointed at the slow pace of re-opening of some sectors, with some restrictions expected to remain in place until June 21.

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ATHENS, Greece — Greek health authorities have reported a spike in new coronavirus cases, about half of which were in the greater Athens region.

A total 2,147 new infections were recorded Tuesday, up from 880 a day earlier despite the ongoing lockdown. It brings the total to just over 180,000.

Authorities also recorded 22 new deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total to 6,343 confirmed deaths.

A total 357 people are intubated in intensive care units.

Greece remains in lockdown until the end of February. It’s unclear whether the restrictions will be extended. So far, about 750,000 people have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

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JERUSALEM — Israel says it has decided to share a small quantity of its coronavirus vaccines with the Palestinians and other unidentified countries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office says although Israel has purchased vaccines for its own population, it has accumulated a small surplus of unused COVID-19 vaccines. “Therefore, it has been decided to assist Palestinian Authority medical teams and several of the countries that contacted Israel with a symbolic quantity of vaccines,” it said.

Early this month, Israel transferred 2,000 doses of Moderna vaccines to the Palestinians for West Bank medical workers. In all, it has pledged to share 5,000 doses.

Israel has come under some international criticism for not sharing significant quantities of vaccines with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel says under interim peace accords from the 1990s, it is not responsible for providing health care to Palestinians in those areas.

Israel has already given at least one dose of the vaccine to roughly half of its 9.3 million people, one of the highest per capita rates in the world.

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LISBON, Portugal — A second team of Germany army medics has arrived in Portugal to help with intensive care patients during the pandemic.

A COVID-19 surge in January made Portugal the worst-hit country in the world by size of population. The surge has ebbed, but hospitals are still under pressure.

The eight German doctors and 18 nurses arrived Tuesday to relieve a previous team that flew to Portugal at the start of February.

A handful of medics from France and Luxembourg are also helping at Portuguese hospitals.

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STOCKHOLM — Authorities in Sweden’s capital of Stockholm urged people to use face masks when on public transportation, shops and workplaces.

“We want people to use face masks in public transport around the clock, especially during rush hour,” says the city’s infection control doctor Maria Rotzen Ostlund. Stockholm has had a 27% infection increase in recent weeks.

Swedish chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell says Sweden “unfortunately is seeing an upswing again,” adding the variant first reported in Britain “has increased at a very fast pace.”

Sweden has reported 12,713 confirmed deaths. It’s totaled 642,099 confirmed cases, an increase of 10,933 cases since Friday.

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BUCHAREST, Romania — Hundreds of Romanian policemen have marched in protest of planned austerity measures that may freeze salaries in the public sector.

The Romanian government has announced a strict budget this year to counter the fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic on the country’s economy. The austerity package is yet to be approved in Romania’s parliament.

The measure has angered workers’ unions in the public sector, particularly the medical workers who have carried much of the burden of the outbreak while treating COVID-19 patients.

Other public staff unions also have announced protests. They are demanding annual salary increases remain intact and bonuses be introduced in some cases, particularly for the health staff in COVID-19 wards or the families of medical workers who died in the pandemic.

Romania has registered nearly 800,000 coronavirus cases and more than 20,000 confirmed deaths in the country of 19 million.

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BUDAPEST — Officials in Hungary are urging people to trust in the vaccines already approved by the country ahead of a planned rollout Wednesday of a COVID-19 vaccine developed in China.

General practitioners around the country will receive 55 doses each of the Sinopharm vaccine and have been instructed to give them to their oldest patients, state secretary Dr. Istvan Gyorgy says.

He says 275,000 people will receive the Chinese shot this week. Hungary will be the first country in the European Union to administer a Chinese vaccine despite polling that shows trust in the Sinopharm vaccine is low among Hungarians.

“Every vaccine available in Hungary is safe and able to provide protection against virus infection,” says Gyorgy of the country, which also uses Pfizer, Sputnik V, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines.

Hungarian officials expect the Sinopharm vaccine, which received final approval last week, will provide a sharp increase in the country’s vaccination rate. Gyorgy says as many as 368,000 people could be inoculated this week, compared with 457,000 receiving a shot since vaccinations started in December.

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BEIRUT — The World Bank threatened to suspend financing for coronavirus vaccines in Lebanon over what it said were violations by members of Parliament who were inoculated without registering in advance.

The World Bank said last month it approved $34 million to help pay for vaccines for Lebanon that will inoculate over 2 million people. The vaccination campaign in the country began on Feb. 14 and Lebanon has so far received nearly 60,000 shots of Pfizer-BioNTech.

Parliament’s secretary general Adnan Daher was quoted by state media denying that the 16 legislators had jumped the line, which prioritizes medical workers and residents at least 75 years old. Daher said all the legislators who received in inoculation had registered and were properly in line. In January, Lebanon’s government launched a digital coronavirus vaccination registration platform.

Lebanon has registered more than 356,000 total coronavirus cases and 4,387 confirmed deaths

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BERLIN — Germany is extending strict checks on its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol province until March 3.

The checks were introduced on Feb. 14 in a bid to reduce the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants that have taken hold in those areas. Germany is limiting entry to its own citizens and residents, truck drivers, health workers and a few others including cross-border commuters working in “systemically relevant sectors.” All have to show a negative coronavirus test.

German border police have turned back thousands of people since the checks started.

The restrictions initially were imposed for a 10-day period. The Interior Ministry told news agency dpa Tuesday that they are being extended.

Germany has rejected criticism from the European Union’s executive Commission about the measures. Its minister for Europe, Michael Roth, on Tuesday rejected suggestions that Germany’s wasn’t keeping to EU law and said its actions are “in keeping with Schengen,” the rules of Europe’s passport-free travel zone.

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is expected to extend the country’s coronavirus curfew and lightly relax other lockdown measures as he attempts to balance fears of a surge in infections with growing lockdown fatigue in the Netherlands.

Rutte is holding a press conference Tuesday evening amid reports that he will extend the curfew that had been due to expire March 3 amid concerns about the spread of more transmissible variants of the coronavirus. The government rushed legislation through parliament last week to underpin the curfew after a group skeptical of the lockdown measures won a court case challenging the legality of the measure.

New infections have been dropping for weeks in the Netherlands, which has been in a tough lockdown since mid-December, but have edged slightly higher in recent days.

Even so, Rutte is expected ease the lockdown by allowing high schools to reopen for a limited number of hours.

Dutch media also report that Rutte likely will allow hairdressers to reopen next week. That has angered nonessential shops, restaurants and bars, which remain closed for all but takeaways.

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CAIRO — Egypt’s health ministry says the country has received a 300,000-dose shipment of the Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine donated by China.

It was the third vaccine shipment received by Egypt. In December, it received a 50,000 doses of Sinopharm and last month it got another 50,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Tuesday’s shipment arrived hours after President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi called Chinese President Xi Jinping, hailing the “mutual support” during the pandemic.

Hala Zayed, the health minister, said the government has reserved 100 million vaccine doses including 40 million doses from COVAX, an international initiative to distribute vaccines to countries worldwide.

Egypt has seen a decrease in new coronavirus cases in the past two weeks. It has reported more than 178,774 confirmed cases, including 10,404 deaths, but experts say all confirmed numbers worldwide are low due to limited testing.

Egypt last month started vaccinating healthcare workers.

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WARSAW, Poland — New COVID-19 regulations took effect Tuesday in Poland that lift quarantine requirements for people entering the country who have certificates of having been inoculated against the virus with an European Union-approved vaccine.

Also, kindergarten children, elementary pupils and persons taking care of them, as well as researchers studying in Poland or in a neighbouring country, are exempt from the 10-day quarantine.

The government regulations published Monday night also allow people to visit health spas if they test negative no more than 6 days before arrival.

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LONDON — The U.K. unemployment rate rose for a six straight month in December as renewed coronavirus restrictions shut down most businesses across the country.

The Office for National Statistics said Tuesday that unemployment rose to 5.1% in December, up 0.1% from the previous month and 1.3% from a year earlier. The number of people on company payrolls has dropped by 726,000 since the pandemic began last February, with 58.5% of the decline coming among people under 25.

The figures don’t show the full impact of COVID-19 restrictions on employment because some 1.9 million workers remain on furlough. A government program covers 80% of their wages.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced plans to slowly end a national lockdown in England in hopes of safely reopening the economy and social life as infection rates drop and widespread vaccinations reduce the threat from COVID-19.

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NICE, France — A year into the coronavirus pandemic, doctors and researchers are still striving to better understand and treat the epidemic of COVID-19-related anosmia — loss of smell — draining much of the joy of life from an increasing number of long-term sufferers.

One doctor slid a miniature camera into a patient’s right nostril, making her whole nose glow red with its bright miniature light.

“Tickles a bit, eh?” he asked as tears welled in her eyes.

But the patient, Gabriella Forgione, wasn’t complaining. The 25-year-old pharmacy worker was happy to be examined at the hospital in Nice, in southern France, to advance her increasingly pressing quest to recover her sense of smell. Along with her sense of taste, it suddenly vanished when she fell ill with COVID-19 in November and neither has returned.

Being deprived of the pleasures of food and the scents of things that she loves are proving tough on her body and mind, causing her to lose weight and self-confidence.

“Sometimes I ask myself, ’Do I stink?’” she confessed. “Not being able to smell bothers me greatly.”

Some doctors are concerned that growing numbers of smell-deprived patients, many of them young, could be more prone to depression, cognitive issues and other difficulties.

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan has begun administering a COVID-19 vaccine with a ceremony at the presidential palace.

Afghanistan received 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from the government of India earlier this month. After the vaccine’s approval by the World Health Organization, it has begun immunizing front-line personnel including health workers, reporters and security forces.

Afghanistan has recorded 55,646 coronavirus cases, including 2,435 deaths.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s government says it plans to vaccinate 14 million of the country’s 22 million people.

The government “will immunize 14 million people, for which we need 28 million doses, and the government is ready to purchase that,” government spokesman Ramesh Pathirana said Tuesday.

It plans to purchase 10 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for $52.5 million from the Serum Institute in India, he said. It will also buy 3.5 million doses directly from the AstraZeneca Institute in Britain. The vaccine is the only one that has been approved in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is currently administering 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that were donated by India.

Sri Lanka is witnessing a spike in COVID-19 cases, mostly in the capital, Colombo. It has recorded 80,516 cases, including 450 deaths.

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California lawmakers have cleared the way for 5.7 million people to get at least $600 in one-time payments, part of a state-sized coronavirus relief package aimed at helping lower-income people weather what they hope is the last legs of the pandemic.

The state Legislature passed the bill by a wide margin on Monday, moving faster than their counterparts in Congress who are also considering another round of stimulus checks.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he will sign it into law on Tuesday.

People with low to moderate incomes will be eligible. That includes people who claim the California earned income tax credit on their tax returns and, in general, people making $30,000 or less per year.

Immigrants who pay taxes using an individual taxpayer identification number and make $75,000 a year or less after deductions would also get the money.

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MEXICO CITY — Mexico has received its first shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.

Some 200,000 doses arrived to Mexico City’s international airport late Monday night aboard a British Airways flight from Moscow. Officials plan to use the doses to begin vaccinating seniors in the capital’s most marginalized boroughs on Wednesday.

Mexico received its first shipment of vaccines from Pfizer in mid-December, but turned to Sputnik V in January when other expected vaccine shipments were delayed. Sputnik too arrives later than initially expected. Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke with Russia President Vladimir Putin in late January.

In early February, Mexican regulators gave Sputnik V emergency approval and the government signed a contract to bring 400,000 doses to Mexico in February.

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Categories: AP National News