JOHANNESBURG — South Africa has suspended plans to inoculate its front-line health care workers with the AstraZeneca vaccine after a small clinical trial suggested that it isn’t effective in preventing mild to moderate illness from the variant dominant in the country.
South Africa received its first 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine last week and was expected to begin giving jabs to health care workers in mid-February. The disappointing early results indicate that an inoculation drive using the AstraZeneca vaccine may not be useful.
The trial results, which aren’t yet peer-reviewed, suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine “provides minimal protection against mild-moderate COVID-19 infection” among young adults exposed to the South Africa variant.
Oxford University and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg said in a statement that protection against more severe forms of the disease could not be assessed in the trial because those participating were at low risk.
The variant appears more infectious and is driving a deadly resurgence of the disease in the country, currently accounting for more than 90% of the COVID-19 cases, health minister Zweli Mkhize said Sunday night.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
The UK's aggressive vaccine gambles have paid off, while EU caution is slowing down its vaccination program. The West African country of Burkina Faso, which at first managed to avoid a catastrophic surge of the coronavirus, is now trying to cope with a much deadlier resurgence. Some California churches opened their doors to worshippers after the state revised its guidelines for houses of prayer following a Supreme Court ruling that lifted a ban on indoor services. And more Americans are deciding to have their terminally ill loved ones die at home rather than in nursing home and hospice settings, fearful of having to say farewell to loved ones behind glass or during video calls.
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
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
LOS ANGELES -- Some California churches opened their doors to worshippers after the state revised its guidelines for houses of prayer following a Supreme Court ruling that lifted a ban on indoor services during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office issued revised guidelines that limit attendance at indoor services in areas with widespread or substantial virus spread. In the most significant legal victory against California’s COVID-19 health orders, the high court said the state couldn’t continue a ban on indoor services, but it can limit attendance to 25% of a building’s capacity and restrict singing inside.
The court was acting on emergency requests to halt the restrictions from Pasadena-based Harvest Rock and Harvest International Ministry, which has more than 160 churches across the state, along with South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista.
Che Ahn, Harvest Rock’s senior pastor, told his congregation that the church would defy the ban on singing. Worshippers without masks could be seen on the livestream raising their arms and singing out loud. It wasn’t clear how many people were inside the church, which seats hundreds.
LOS ANGELES -- California’s coronavirus picture remains much improved, but officials expressed concern that Super Bowl gatherings could erase gains made over the past several weeks.
The California Department of Public Health urged residents not to gather for the big game.
The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 slipped below 11,670 statewide, a drop of nearly 35% in two weeks. The 15,064 new confirmed cases on Sunday represent a drop of more than 30% from the mid-December peak.
Deaths also are starting to fall but remain alarmingly high, however, with a daily average of 511 over the past two weeks. There were 295 deaths reported Sunday.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has resumed greeting the public in St. Peter’s Square, seven weeks after he interrupted the Sunday noon ritual to discourage crowds from gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smiling broadly, Francis appeared at an Apostolic Palace window overlooking the square and greeted a couple of hundred people standing a safe distance apart in the cobblestone square. Most held umbrellas on a drizzly, windy day.
“In the square again!” Francis said. He appeared on the first Sunday since the Rome area regained Italy’s “yellow zone’’ designation, which carries the least restrictions on movement.
Normally thousands of pilgrims, tourists and locals would turn out in the vast square on Sundays to hear the pope. But Italy isn’t allowing travel between regions in the country, and with stringent measures discouraging arrivals from overseas, tourism and pilgrimages have practically evaporated.
LONDON — The developers of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine expect to have a modified jab to cope with the South Africa coronavirus variant by autumn, the vaccine’s lead researcher said Sunday.
Health officials in Britain are trying to contain the spread of the variant first identified in South Africa amid concerns that it is more contagious or resistant to existing vaccines. More than 100 cases of the South African variant have been found in the U.K.
Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher for the Oxford team, told the BBC on Sunday that “we have a version with the South African spike sequence in the works.”
“It looks very likely that we can have a new version ready to use in the autumn,” she added.
Her comments came as Oxford University said that early data from a small study suggested that the AstraZeneca vaccine offers only “minimal protection” against mild disease caused by the South Africa variant. The study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, involved 2,000 people, most of whom were young and healthy.
HELSINKI — Norway says it will apply, effective Sunday, stricter coronavirus restrictions in the southwestern coastal municipality of Bergen and twelve surrounding areas to due to a spread of new COVID-19 variants first detected in Britain and South Africa.
Norwegian health officials said the restrictions mean, among other things, that all events outside home are prohibited with a few exceptions including funerals.
Schools are required to switch to remote teaching and universities will close for students. Officials said residents of the 13 areas should work remotely from home as much as possible and most shops will be closed.
The restrictions will apply from 6 pm Sunday for one week.
Some 315 cases of the British and South African variants of COVID-19 have so far been detected in Norway. On Saturday, eight additional cases of the new COVID-19 variants were recorded in the Bergen region
LONDON — A British official says the country is not considering issuing so-called “immunity passports” for those who have been given the coronavirus vaccine but they could ask their doctor for written proof of their vaccine status if they need to travel.
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said Sunday that vaccine passports would be discriminatory and officials did not want getting vaccinated to be “made in some way mandatory through a passport.”
Countries including Greece have said they will waive quarantine requirements for those who have had their jabs.
Zahawi said some 1,000 vaccines were given in an hour on Saturday, as the U.K. races to meet its target of giving all over-70s and frontline health care workers their first dose by Feb.15.
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has unveiled its second homemade coronavirus vaccine and says it has begun human trials, state TV reported Sunday.
The Razi Cov Pars vaccine manufactured by the Razi Vaccine and Serum Research Institute is both injectable and inhalable. Ali Eshaqi, the institute’s manager, said the vaccine will be tested on 13 people within eight days and then if there are no serious reactions, it will be tested on groups of 20 to 120 persons.
Eshaqi said the vaccine has already been tested on animals including mice, rabbits, hamsters and monkeys. The country is also working on a joint vaccine with Cuba.
Iran plans to import 17 million doses of vaccine from the international COVAX program and millions more from other countries.
Iran, with a population of more than 83 million, has struggled with the worst outbreak in the Middle East. Its confirmed virus death toll is 58,469.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s Food and Drug Authority has announced an emergency use authorization to give the COVID-19 vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. to people over 60.
“The death rate due to COVID-19 shows the statistical data that the elderly people make up a high portion,” the chief of Indonesia Food and Drug Monitoring Agency, Penny Lukito, told a news conference Sunday.
She added that the agency green-lighted the vaccination based on the clinical trials in China and Brazil.
Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said vaccinations for the elderly will begin Monday.
Indonesia began a mass vaccination program for health care workers and public service officers in January. More than 700,000 people have received their first vaccination shot.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Some 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine arrived Sunday in Afghanistan from the government in India.
The news was announced by Wahid Majroh, acting public health minister.
Ghulam Dastagir Nazari, an official from the public health ministry, said the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is from the Serum Institute of India and is the first to arrive in the country.
Afghanistan will store the vaccine until it gets approval from the World Health Organization and then it will give it first to front-line health workers and the elderly, said Majroh.
Afghanistan has recorded 55,300 positive cases and 2,410 deaths. Experts say a lack of testing and missed cases have lead to undercounting the toll of the virus around the world.
JERUSALEM — Israel has started to ease restrictions nearly six weeks after entering its third nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Some businesses began reopening on Sunday and people are now allowed to move more than a kilometer (half a mile) from their homes. But schools remain shuttered and international flights are severely restricted.
Israel instituted its third national lockdown in late December as new infections spiraled out of control. Israel has recorded over 686,000 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic last year and 5,074 deaths, according to Health Ministry figures.
At the same time, the country has launched a major vaccination campaign. More than 3.4 million Israelis have received the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine, and at least 2 million have received a second dose.
CAIRO — Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi says his country needs 70 millions shots of coronavirus vaccine to inoculate between 30-35 million people in the first stage of a campaign his government launched last month.
El-Sissi said in televised comments late Saturday that the first stage of the country’s vaccination campaign targets health care workers, elderly people and those suffering from chronic diseases.
The Egyptian leader, however, said the response among health care workers has been between 45% and 50%. “There are people who say we do not want” to be vaccinated, he said.
The Arab world’s most populous country with more than 100 million people, Egypt received a 50,000-dose shipment of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine in December and another 50,000-dose shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines last month.
The government has said it reserved 100 million doses of the approved vaccines, according to the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan health authorities say they will begin inoculating the general public against the COVID-19 from next month.
At present, the ministry is conducting a vaccination drive to inoculate more than 260,000 frontline health workers and selected military and police officers.
The vaccination began last week after neighboring India donated 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZenica vaccine, which is the only vaccine approved by the regulatory body in Sri Lanka.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- There were 58 fewer people hospitalized in Arkansas on Saturday as the number of hospitalizations continues a recent decline, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
There were 750 hospitalizations, down from 808 on Friday, while the number of reported cases rose by 1,341 and there were 11 more deaths due to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, according to the health department.
Overall, the number of both deaths and cases have declined during the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The seven-day rolling average of deaths in the state has dropped from 40.86 per day on Jan. 22 to 31.29 and the average number of new cases has fallen from 1,963.86 per day to 1,737.14 during the same time period, the Johns Hopkins data showed.
There have been 306,064 total virus cases and 5,061 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began in March, according to the state health department.