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Tuesday October 26th, 2021 12:50AM

The Latest: China pushes virus origin search beyond border

By The Associated Press
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BEIJING — Chinese health officials are pushing to expand the search for the origins of the coronavirus beyond China, one day after the release of a closely watched World Health Organization report on the issue.

They also are rejecting criticism that China didn’t give the international experts on the WHO team access to enough data when they visited the city of Wuhan earlier this year. The search for the origins of the virus has become a diplomatic feud. The U.S. and other Western nations have repeatedly raised questions about delays, transparency and data access, while China has promoted theories that suggest the virus may have come from elsewhere.

Liang Wannian, the head of the Chinese team that worked with the WHO group of experts, says the experts agreed that the place where the first case was identified is not necessarily where the virus emerged.

“Based on this scientific consensus, we should have a broader viewpoint in terms of sourcing,” he said.

Experts agree the virus could have come from elsewhere, with neighboring countries in Southeast Asia a prime possibility.

The WHO report concluded that the virus was most likely carried by a bat, which infected another animal that infected a human. Researchers haven’t been able to trace the bat or the intermediate animal yet, but suspicion has fallen on bat habitats in southwest China or nearby Southeast Asia.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— Pfizer says vaccine is safe in kids as young as age 12

— After three pandemic lockdowns, London tourism braces for slow recovery

— White House virus briefings have turned wonky, aiming to deliver facts and restore trust

— China’s loans impose unusual terms that hurt poor countries' ability to renegotiate debts after pandemic, researchers say

— Follow 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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GENEVA — The U.N. health agency says coronavirus cases globally rose for a fifth straight week, with counts in Africa and the Americas now ticking up after holding mostly steady for weeks.

Deaths climbed in every region except Africa. The World Health Organization says the number of new deaths rose 5 percent to more than 64,000 over the last week — a second straight weekly increase after falling or staying nearly flat for weeks.

Europe and the Americas still account for about four-fifths of all cases and deaths. The U.S. leads the world with 30.3 million coronavirus cases and nearly 551,000 deaths.

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BRUSSELS — The European Union said member states will have received 107 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of this week.

The 27-nation bloc, which has secured more than 2 billion doses through contracts with various manufactures, initially expected far more shots in the first quarter. But delays in the deliveries and production issues with Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca have slowed down the rollout of vaccines in the region.

EU commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant says AstraZeneca is expected to have delivered about 29.7 million of doses, close to its revised target of 30 million, but far from the 120 million doses initially expected by the EU.

Despite the delays in deliveries, the EU’s executive Commission is sticking to its target to vaccinate 70% of the EU adult population by the end of the summer.

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NEW YORK — Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and strongly protective in kids as young as 12.

The announcement Wednesday marks a step toward possibly beginning shots in this age group before the next school year.

Most COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out worldwide are for adults, who are at higher risk from the coronavirus. Pfizer’s vaccine is authorized for ages 16 and older. But vaccinating children of all ages will be critical to stopping the pandemic.

In a study of 2,260 U.S. volunteers ages 12 to 15, preliminary data showed there were no cases of COVID-19 among fully vaccinated adolescents compared to 18 among those given dummy shots.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech in the coming weeks plan to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European regulators to allow emergency use of the shots starting at age 12. Results are expected soon from a U.S. study of Moderna’s vaccine in 12- to 17-year-olds.

Children represent about 13% of COVID-19 cases documented in the U.S.

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GENEVA — A top official with the World Health Organization says there’s “very little evidence” to suggest that three highly transmissible variants of the coronavirus cause more severe COVID-19 disease.

Dr. Kate O’Brien, director of WHO’s department of immunization, vaccines and biologicals, also says generally, the performance of vaccines against “the more severe end of the spectrum of disease” is stronger than against either infection or mild disease.

Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, head of a WHO panel of immunization experts, saus two Chinese vaccines from Sinovac and Sinopharm, which the U.N. health agency is assessing, have so far demonstrated “levels of efficacy that would be compatible with the requirements of WHO.”

He says those levels would be at least 50-percent effective and “preferably close to or above 70 percent.”

Craviato noted many national regulators have already approved the two vaccines for use, even without an emergency use listing that the Chinese manufacturers are seeking from WHO. Such a listing would allow them to be included in the U.N.-backed global vaccine rollout program known as COVAX.

A WHO decision on any emergency use listing for the two Chinese vaccines could come at the earliest next month, the agency says.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka received 600,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China as a donation on Wednesday.

Sri Lankan authorities said the supplied doses will go first to Chinese citizens in Sri Lanka, where thousands of people from China are working.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa accepted the vaccine from Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong at the airport after the doses were flown in on Wednesday.

Sri Lankan officials have said the vaccine will be given to Sri Lankans only after the island nation receives clearance from the World Health Organization.

Sinopharm is the third vaccine to be approved in Sri Lanka and the second the country has obtained in it’s fight against COVID-19.

Sri Lanka has so far used Oxford-AstraZeneca shots to vaccinate more than 903,000 people. The government also has arranged to buy 7 million doses of the Russian-developed vaccine Sputnik V.

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BRUSSELS — Belgium has an extra unexpected hurdle to overcome in its fight against the coronavirus: a bout of gorgeous weather.

Temperatures in Belgium reached 24.5 degrees Celsius (76 F) on Tuesday, bringing thousands of people to coastal beaches and parks amid a worrying surge of COVID-19 cases.

The warm weather is expected to continue until Friday and the start of the Easter weekend. Good news for the 11.5 million Belgians craving sun after a gloomy winter, but a real worry for the government struggling to deal with a third wave of infections.

In response to the number of passengers on its trains, Belgium’s national rail company, SNCB, was forced to activate a “stop-and-go” system to prevent travelers from boarding in several train stations packed to the rafters.

Under the COVID-19 restrictions imposed in Belgium, residents are banned from traveling abroad but can move freely across the country. Many did not resist the appeal of a grand day out to the North Sea beaches, especially after the government decided last week to shut down schools for an extra week before the Easter school break in a bid to slow infections.

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BUDAPEST — A surge in COVID-19 deaths in Hungary showed no sign of abating Wednesday as daily new cases hit a record 302. Hungary continues to have the highest weekly death rate per 1 million inhabitants in the world.

The Central European country is in its fourth week of a new round of lockdown measures aimed at reducing infections, hospitalizations and deaths, even as an ambitious vaccination program has given Hungary the highest vaccination rate in the European Union. The number of vaccinated people broke the 2 million mark on Tuesday, more than 20% of the population, and the foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, announced Wednesday that a quarter million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine had arrived overnight in the capital, Budapest.

But mass vaccinations have been unable to turn around pandemic indicators, and Hungary’s hospitals are under unprecedented strain. As a proportion of the population, more COVID-19 patients are being treated in hospitals in Hungary than in any other EU country except Bulgaria.

On Wednesday, 28 news outlets signed an open letter to the government demanding more transparency concerning the pandemic, writing, “The lack of information has serious consequences.” The outlets asked for journalists to be allowed into hospitals to report on COVID-19 wards, and for medical staff, who are prohibited by ministerial decree from speaking to the media, to be permitted to give interviews.

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron has scheduled a televised address to the nation on Wednesday night, a possible harbinger of tighter restrictions to combat surging coronavirus hospitalizations.

Previous nationwide lockdowns in March and October of 2020 were announced by Macron in televised speeches. His office said Wednesday that he will address the nation at 8 p.m., without saying what he will announce.

Ahead of his weekly coronavirus strategy meeting Wednesday with ministers and aides, Macron was under intensifying pressure to close schools and further restrict people’s movements to ease the pressure on hospitals.

French hospital ICUs had to make room for another 569 new patients on Tuesday, pushing the nationwide total beyond 5,000 for the first time in 11 months.

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TOKYO — Japan is calling for further investigation into the origins of COVID-19, saying the WHO report released this week was based on work that faced delays and lacked access to essential virus samples.

“In order to prevent future pandemics, it is indispensable to carry out prompt, independent and experts-led investigations that are free of surveillance,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters. “We are concerned that the latest investigation faced delays and the lack of access to virus samples.”

The World Health Organization’s report was released Tuesday after experts traveled to Wuhan, China, the city where illnesses from the coronavirus were first detected in late 2019.

China has touted its cooperation with WHO and warned that attempts to politicize the matter would cost lives. The U.S. and other countries say the WHO report lacked crucial information, access and transparency and further study was warranted.

Kato called for additional investigation and analysis and said Japan will encourage WHO to consider additional investigation inside China.

“We will further cooperate with other countries in carrying out additional studies that are still necessary,” Kato said.

The report said the virus most likely came from bats and spread to an unidentified mammal before being transmitted to people. It called a laboratory leak an unlikely route of transmission that didn’t warrant further study.

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BEIJING — At least nine people have tested positive for COVID-19 in a Chinese city on the border with Myanmar, health officials said Wednesday.

Five are Chinese citizens are four are Myanmar nationals, the Yunnan Province Health Commission said in a report posted online. Three of the infected people did not have any COVID symptoms.

The city of Ruili, with a population of about 210,000 people, said all residents would be tested for COVID-19 and would have to home quarantine for one week. The residential compound where the infections were found has been locked down.

The city also ordered a crackdown on people who cross the border illegally, anyone who shelters them and those who organize such border crossings. It wasn’t immediately clear how the outbreak started.

China has largely eradicated the spread of the coronavirus and takes strict measures whenever a new cluster emerges.

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MEXICO CITY — Many of the over 120,000 excess deaths Mexico suffered so far during the pandemic may have been indirectly caused by the coronavirus, even if those people didn’t die of COVID-19, Mexican officials said Tuesday.

A “very significant part” of those deaths were people who were suffering heart problems but were too afraid to go the hospital for fear of getting infected, said Dr. Ruy López Ridaura, the country’s director of disease prevention and control.

“Clearly, even those cases that aren’t directly associated with (coronavirus) infection ... in some way are associated with the pandemic, right, because they were associated with the burden on hospitals, the fear that people had,” López Ridaura said.

“It is not unreasonable to think that a very significant part is due to people not seeking medical attention,” he said. “They were in a certain way afraid to go to a system that was caring for a lot of COVID patients, for fear of getting infected.”

The number of deaths from heart disease and diabetes skyrocketed during 2020. For example, deaths from cardiac ailments increased 36% last year, as compared to 2019, and deaths from complications of diabetes were up 46%.

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LOS ANGELES — Nearly half of California’s 40 million people are living in areas where coronavirus restrictions are easing and some of the largest counties are preparing to expand movie theater and restaurant reopenings, despite worries about a new surge and demand for limited vaccine supplies.

Massive Los Angeles County and neighboring Orange County dropped into orange, the state’s second-least restrictive of four color-coded tiers, according to a weekly state update Tuesday. They and 11 other counties moving into the less-stringent category — including Santa Cruz and Alameda — altogether have a population of around 17 million.

Officials in Orange County said that as of Wednesday restaurants, theaters, museums, and houses of worship can allow people indoors at 50% capacity. Bars that don’t serve food can operate outdoors, and bowling alleys and card rooms can operate indoors at 25% capacity.

The county has about 3 million residents.

L.A. County, with about 10 million residents, is taking a more cautious approach and won’t loosen its restrictions until Monday. That allows a three-week gap to ensure that the number of COVID-19 cases doesn’t rise in the wake of a previous relaxation of some rules on March 15, public health officials announced.

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BATON ROUGE, La. — The governor of Louisiana said he intends to keep the state’s face covering requirement firmly in place even as several states have shed their mask mandates.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards also said he is ending many other coronavirus restrictions for businesses.

Customer limits on bars, restaurants, salons, gyms, malls, casinos and other nonessential businesses will be removed, though they’ll be required to use social distancing. Direct table service still will be required at bars, but an 11 p.m. alcohol curfew will end.

The changes represent the fewest restrictions for businesses since the pandemic began. The new rules start Wednesday. Local officials could choose to enact tougher limits.

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