Family doctors start offering vaccine in England
LONDON (AP) -- Family doctors in England are set to start COVID-19 inoculations this week, in the latest stage of the U.K.'s mass vaccination program.
The National Health Service said hundreds of general medical clinics across England are taking delivery of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine on Monday, and some will start offering the shots by the afternoon. The majority, though, will begin on Tuesday, it said.
Priority will go to people who are 80 and older, as well as staff and residents of care homes.
Britain launched its vaccination program this month after becoming the first country to give emergency approval to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, and authorities plan to dispense 800,000 doses in the first phase.
Thousands of health service workers and vaccinators have already received the shot. In Scotland, elderly residents of nursing homes are also due to start getting the vaccine on Monday, officials said on the weekend.
Germany Impatient with Vaccine Approval Speed
BERLIN (AP) -- Germany's health minister has expressed impatience Monday that the European Union is still waiting for its regulatory agency to approve a coronavirus vaccine, while other officials urged Germans to forgo Christmas shopping two days before a new hard lockdown will close schools and shut most stories.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governors of Germany's 16 states agreed Sunday to step up the country's lockdown measures beginning Wednesday and running to Jan. 10 to stop the exponential rise of COVID-19 cases. Merkel said existing restrictions imposed in November failed to significantly reduce the number of new infections. Germany has been hitting records of new daily infections and virus deaths in recent weeks.
Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a series of tweets that Germany, which has built up more than 400 vaccination centers and has activated about 10,000 doctors and medical staff to start mass vaccinations as early as Tuesday, was hamstrung by the lack of regulatory approval.
The vaccine developed by Germany's BioNTech and American drugmaker Pfizer has been authorized for use in Britain, the United States, Canada and other countries, but it's still waiting for approval by the European Medicines Agency, or EMA, and can therefore not be used in Germany yet.
Spain: Vaccination Could Start Jan. 4
MADRID (AP) -- Health Minister Salvador Illa says that vaccination against the coronavirus in Spain could begin on Jan. 4 or 5 following the approval of the first vaccine by European drug regulators.
The European Medicines Agency has set Dec. 29 as the deadline for ruling on the approval of the vaccine developed by Germany's BioNTech and its U.S. partner Pfizer.
Speaking at an economy forum on Monday in Madrid, Illa said that the country has logistics ready for an incremental distribution of the vaccines nationwide.
The Spanish government has pledged to purchase 80 million vaccines in 140 million doses, enough to more than cover its 47 million population. Herd immunity could be achieved by the end of the summer, Illa said Sunday in an interview published by the Pblico news website.
New cases rose again in several of Spain's 19 regions and autonomous cities over the weekend, offsetting some of the gains of the past few weeks, when the rate of contagion slowed down. Spain has officially confirmed 1.73 million cases of COVID-19 and at least 47,624 deaths.
Lithuania Tightens Lockdown, Extends Quarantine
VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) -- The government in Lithuania has extended a nationwide quarantine until Jan. 31 and tightened existing lockdown measures as it tries to flatten a spike that has continued to grow despite earlier actions.
Virtually all stores, except food shops, pharmacies, veterinary clinics and opticians, are to be closed as of Wednesday in this Baltic state of almost 3 million. Also, people will be allowed to leave their homes only for legitimate reasons, travels between regions will be prohibited, and families will be allowed to go for walks only in open spaces within their municipality.
Lithuania has reported nearly 95,000 cases and 825 deaths.
With 1,188 cases per 100,000 in a 14-day period, it ranks among the countries with the highest infections number per capita in the European Union.
Eswatini Prime Minister Dies
JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- The government of Eswatini has announced on Twitter that Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini has died after testing positive for COVID-19.
The 52-year-old Dlamini, who had been prime minister since 2018, announced in November that he had tested positive for the virus and was being treated at a hospital in neighboring South Africa. The Eswatini government said he died on Sunday afternoon.
Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, is a small mountain kingdom northeast of South Africa. It has recorded almost 7,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 127 deaths.
South Africa is experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19 and President Cyril Ramaphosa is scheduled to address the nation Monday evening on the country's response.
CureVac Announces Start of Phase 3 Testing
BERLIN (AP) -- German pharmaceutical company CureVac says it has enrolled the first participant in the phase 3 clinical study of its mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The Tuebingen-based company says the study is expected to include more than 35,000 participants at sites in Europe and Latin America.
"With the start of the pivotal Phase 2b/3 study, we have reached another important milestone in the development of our vaccine candidate, CVnCoV," Franz-Werner Haas, the CEO of CureVac, said in a statement Monday.
The company expects first results of its phase 3 study by the end of March.
CureVac began development of its mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate last January.
Earlier studies showed that the newly developed vaccine was "generally well tolerated across all tested doses and induced strong antibody responses," the company wrote. "The quality of immune response was comparable to recovered COVID-19 patients, closely mimicking the immune response after natural COVID-19 infection."
Another German company, BioNTech, helped develop the first vaccine approved for use in the United States, together with U.S. company Pfizer. It is also based on mRNA technology.
South Korea Opens Free COVID Test Sites
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea is opening dozens of free coronavirus testing sites in the greater Seoul area amid a surge in infections.
The 718 new cases reported by officials Monday took the country's total to 43,484, including 587 deaths. About 65% of the new cases were found in the Seoul area, which has been at the center of the recent spike.
The number of new cases marked a drop from the 1,030 reported on Sunday, South Korea's highest daily tally. But observers say the lower figures were a result of fewer test taken over the weekend and that the country's caseload is expected to surge again this week.
Starting on Monday, health authorities will open 150 virus testing centers in the Seoul area in phases in addition to more than 210 existing sites as part of efforts to slow down the outbreak.
The new testing sites are scheduled to stay open for three weeks, and anyone can take a free coronavirus test. Previously, people wanting to take diagnostic tests on their own have had to pay if they test negative.
The government says it's considering enforcing its toughest-level social distancing rules in case the surge continues.
New Zealand, Australia Plan Travel Bubble
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the country plans to open a travel bubble with Australia in the first quarter of next year.
That would mean people traveling from Australia to New Zealand would no longer need to go into quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. Australia is already letting New Zealanders skip quarantine.
The announcement Monday comes two days after New Zealand said it planned a similar bubble with the Cook Islands. The two arrangements would represent the first travel bubbles that New Zealand has agreed to since closing its borders when the coronavirus first hit earlier this year.
New Zealand has moved cautiously on restarting international travel after stamping out community spread of the virus. Ardern says there are some remaining logistical issues to overcome, including how it would deal with a large influx of returning travelers in the case of another significant outbreak in Australia.
The announcement comes as some relief to families separated by the virus and to tourism operators, many of whom rely on visitors from Australia.
Vaccines Arrive in Canada
TORONTO (AP) -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the first of many freezer-packed COVID-19 vaccine vials have arrived in Canada.
Trudeau tweeted a picture of them being taken off a plane. Canada's health regulator approved the vaccine made by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech last Wednesday.
The Canadian government recently amended its contract with Pfizer so that it would deliver up to 249,000 doses this month. Trudeau says it is good news but he is urging Canadians to continue to wear masks, avoid gatherings and to download a government app that lets users know if they've come in contact with those who have tested positive.
Los Angeles County Breaks Hospitalization Record
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Los Angeles County has again broken a record for coronavirus hospitalizations, fulfilling the county public health director's dire predictions in just days.
Figures released Sunday afternoon show that more than 4,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the nation's most populous county.
That breaks the previous record set only the day before, with 3,850 patients in a hospital, and follows the trend of hospitalizations increasing nearly every day since Nov. 1.
The LA County health director warned on Monday, when hospitalizations were near 3,000, that the county could see the statistic to climb to 4,000 within two weeks.
Statewide coronavirus figures were not immediately available Sunday.
More than 325,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are on their way to California.
Italy Deaths Dropping, But Still Highest in Europe
ROME (AP) -- Italy on Sunday registered 484 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, one of its lowest daily death tolls in about a month. But those latest deaths were enough to eclipse Britain's toll as having Europe's highest toll in the pandemic, according to tracking done by Johns Hopkins University.
Counting criteria differ in the two countries, and many deaths, especially early in the pandemic in Italy, are believed to have gone undetected.
According to the Italian Health Ministry on Sunday, Italy's known death toll stood at 64,520. Britain's toll, according to Johns Hopkins data, stood at 64,267 as of Sunday evening.
Italy added nearly 18,000 coronavirus infections from the previous day, raising the nation's official tally over 1.84 million. By far, the region registering the highest number of new infections in the last 24 hours was the northern region of Veneto, which in the first surge last spring had fared better than its neighbor Lombardy.