The Latest: WHO official calls blood clots ‘very rare’

GENEVA — A top World Health Organization expert on vaccines says people should feel reassured that even if health authorities turn up a link between blood clots and the AstraZeneca vaccine, such cases are “very rare.”

Dr. Kate O’Brien, who heads WHO’s department of immunizations and vaccines, said the U.N. health agency and the European Medicines Agency are trying to investigate the possibility of a link between blood clots and the AstraZeneca shots. The potential side effect has prompted some countries — mostly in Europe — to temporarily suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

A WHO committee on vaccines is looking into the issue.

“I think the reassurance to the public is that regardless of whether or not the committee ultimately assesses that there may be an association between these events and the vaccine, that in any event, these are very rare events,” O’Brien said during a Wednesday news conference.

The current “benefit-risk assessment” from the European Medicines Agency and WHO is for countries to continue giving people AstraZeneca shots, she said. Both WHO and EMA are expected to present updated recommendations on Wednesday or Thursday.

O’Brien said in general “vaccine recommendations are dynamic,” and are reviewed over days, months, and years. She noted that blood clots occur regularly in the population.

“What we don’t know is whether or not that experience would be related to having been vaccinated,” she said. “The important point is that if anybody is having symptoms, any serious medical symptoms, regardless of whether you’ve been vaccinated or not vaccinated, it’s important to seek medical care for the presence of those symptoms.”

The comments came at a news conference detailing how a WHO expert panel on vaccines recommended use of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose COVID-19 vaccine, which has already been granted an emergency use authorization from the U.N. agency.

Dr. Annelies Wilder-Smith, a technical adviser to the expert panel, noted that studies on the J&J vaccine involving some 42,000 people turned up 10 cases of blood clotting in the placebo group — slightly more than half of all participants — and 14 cases among those who were administered the vaccine. She called that difference “not statistically significant.”



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NEW DELHI — India says it’s going ahead with administering the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine with “full vigor” as it has seen no signs the vaccine causes blood clots in recipients.

Government health expert V.K. Paul said Wednesday that India’s Health Ministry was aware of the potential blood clot issue but that “today, there is no concern at all.”

He said around 10 European countries have paused giving the AstraZeneca vaccine as a precaution.

Paul spoke as coronavirus infections have jumped acutely in several parts of India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday ordered ramping up of surveillance and testing to stop an emerging “second peak” of coronavirus infections. Modi warned that the country was at risk of a nationwide outbreak if authorities did not curb the stop the localized surges.

The Health Ministry said confirmed cases in 125 of India’s more than 700 districts jumped by 100-150% in the past two weeks.

Modi said infections have spread from bigger to smaller cities and pose a danger to villages where vast multitudes of people live.

On Wednesday, India reported 28,903 new confirmed infections after slipping to under 10,000 per day in February. The daily numbers brought the country’s total case count to 11.4 million on. Wednesday, the third-highest number in the world behind the United States and Brazil.

India started its vaccination drive on January 16 and has so far given 35.1 million doses across the country. It approved emergency use of the AstraZeneca vaccine and another vaccine produced by Indian company Bharat Biotech.


WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden is suggesting that some Americans who are unwilling to get vaccinated for the coronavirus are unpatriotic.

Speaking to ABC News in an interview that aired Wednesday, Biden said he had hoped to get politics out of the nationwide vaccination campaign, and that he’s been surprised by some who are refusing to get shots.

Biden said: “I just don’t understand this sort of macho thing about I’m not going to get the vaccine, ‘I have a right as an American, my freedom to not do it.’”

The president added: “Why don’t you be a patriot, protect other people?”

Biden emphasized that the three vaccines authorized for use in the United States are safe and essential to getting the country past the pandemic. He noted that the biggest change in his life since getting vaccinated on TV in December was, “I can hug my grandkids now.”


WARSAW, Poland — Government officials in Poland have voiced alarm over a rapid spike in confirmed coronavirus cases and indicated that nationwide measures could be adopted if the trend continues.

Poland reported 25,052 confirmed new cases on Wednesday and 453 COVID-19 deaths, about twice as many from a single day than there were at the end of last month.

Almost 2,200 out of the nation’s 3,000 ventilators are taken and the number of hospital beds filled by COVID-19 patients is the highest since the start of the pandemic, at more than 21,500, out of some 30,000 available.

The statistics are raising expectations of a return to a full nationwide lockdown. The government banned leaving home except for essential needs the last time there were over 25,000 new daily cases.

Polish media say another ban on leaving home might include during the April 4-5 Easter holiday.

Poland, which has a population of 38 million, has registered nearly 2 million virus cases and 48,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.


BELGRADE, Serbia — A prominent Serbian epidemiologist has warned that soaring coronavirus infections could jeopardize the Balkan nation’s vaccination drive, which has been among the fastest in Europe.

Dr. Mijomir Pelemis told state RTS television on Wednesday that as more people get infected with the virus they cannot be vaccinated, which could slow down the process.

Serbia has introduced a lockdown until the end of the week, closing down all bars, restaurants and non-essential shops and businesses. The country of 7 million people has confirmed more than 5,000 new cases on Tuesday, which was the highest number in months and more than double than the daily cases reported in early March.

Health authorities in Croatia also reported reported a huge jump in new daily cases. They said Wednesday that 1,445 new cases were confirmed in 24 hours, compared to an average of several hundred in previous weeks. A 12-year-old girl with heart problems was among the dozen people who died, officials said.

Coronavirus infections have soared in the past days in neighboring Bosnia as well.

Serbia has vaccinated nearly 800,000 people with both doses and around 500,000 have received a dose.


RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority says it will receive 62,000 coronavirus vaccine doses through a World Health Organization partnership designed to help poor countries.

Health Ministry spokesman Kamal al-Shakhra said authorities would receive 38,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 24,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday and Thursday. He said the AstraZeneca vaccine will be kept in storage until the World Health Organization addresses recent safety concerns.

The supplies are the Palestinian Authority’s first doses from the WHO’s COVAX initiative. They would be enough to vaccinate 31,000 people out of a population of nearly 5 million Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza.

To date, the PA has received 2,000 doses from Israel and acquired another 10,000 doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine. Authorities in the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, have received 60,000 doses from a political rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who is based in the United Arab Emirates.

The U.N. agency for children tweeted pictures of the latest shipment arriving and said the vaccines would be distributed in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel, which has vaccinated more than half its population of 9.3 million, has faced criticism for not sharing more of its supplies with Palestinians. Israel says its own citizens are the priority, and that under interim peace agreements the PA is responsible for health care in the territories it administers. The PA says it is securing its own supplies.

Israel recently began vaccinating the estimated 100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank who work in Israel and Jewish settlements.


MADRID — Spanish health officials say they are investigating two more cases of adverse reactions among people who received a shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Spain has joined other European countries in temporarily halting vaccination with AstraZeneca doses due to a rare form of blood clots affecting the brain paired with blood coagulation problems that has manifested in a limited number of recipients.

The European Medicines Agency is scheduled to disclose results of an initial investigation on Thursday but both the agency and the World Health Organization have so far insisted that the vaccine’s benefits outweigh its possible dangers.

Spain’s Health Ministry said Wednesday that one person died of a brain stroke that resulted in internal bleeding and a second person who died suffered an abdominal blood clot. Both had been vaccinated in the previous 16 days.

Including the two deaths, the country’s medicines agency has recorded three suspicious cases so far among 975,661 AstraZeneca doses administered.

Authorities said they are investigating if there is a cause-effect relation with the vaccine apart from the timing of the affected people getting vaccinated.


ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s interior minister said Wednesday that coronavirus cases are rapidly increasing in the capital, Islamabad and elsewhere in the country.

The warning came hours after authorities said the COVID-19 positivity rate had jumped to 8.4% in about a week.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad asked people to strictly adhere to social distancing rules to avoid infection as health workers braced to handle the situation at hospitals in high-risk cities.

The third wave of virus infections in Pakistan intensified earlier this month after authorities opened schools for regular classes across the country. The country on Wednesday reported 2.351 new confirmed cases and 61 more deaths in 24 hours.

Pakistani authorities said another half-million COVID-19 vaccine doses donated by neighboring China have arrived in the country.

China gave another 500,000 doses to Islamabad in February.


GENEVA — The World Health Organization reported there was a 10% rise in new coronavirus cases globally last week, driven by surges in the Americas and Europe.

WHO said in its weekly update on the status of the global outbreak published on Wednesday,the worldwide number of new COVID-19 cases peaked in early January at nearly 5 million cases, but then dropped to about 2.5 million cases per week in mid-February.

The U.N. health agency noted that last week was the third consecutive week there was a global rise in new cases, after weeks of declining infections. WHO said COVID-19 numbers in the Americas and Europe accounted for more than 80% of all new cases and deaths in the last week.

In Europe, WHO said new confirmed cases rose by about 6% while deaths have been “consistently declining.” It said the highest numbers were recorded in France, Italy and Poland.

The spike in cases comes as more than a dozen countries, mostly in Europe, have temporarily suspended their use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine amid reports that it is linked to blood clots. WHO and the European Medicines Agency have said there is no evidence to date the vaccine is linked to the blood clots and that its benefits continue to outweigh the risks of side effects.


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Bosnia has temporarily suspended the use of AstraZeneca vaccines as officials said Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines will arrive next week.

Officials in the governing entity run by the country’s Bosniaks and Croats have faced criticism for not acquiring vaccines earlier. So far, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina entity has used only AstraZeneca vaccines donated by neighboring Serbia.

The public health office said late Tuesday said it was suspending the administration of the AstraZeneca until Thursday pending further recommendations from the European medical authorities.

On Wednesday, the entity Prime Minister Fadil Novalic said a batch of 100,000 Sputnik V vaccines should arrive in the country by the end of this week or on Monday. A total of 500,000 Russian vaccines have been ordered, said Novalic.

Bosnia expected to receive vaccine supplies through the U.N.-backed COVAX program. but deliveries have been delayed. The Bosnian Serb governing entity has used Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, and health care workers have gone to Serbia to get shots.

Bosnia has seen a surge in reported coronavirus infections and a rising number of deaths in recent days. The main hospital in the capital of Sarajevo has declared an emergency and recalled staff members from vacations.


BUDAPEST — Hungary announced a record number of COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday as a powerful surge of the pandemic put an unprecedented strain on the country’s health care.

Health officials announced 195 deaths in the last 24 hours, breaking the previous peak of 193 in early December. The number of patients being treated for the disease rose to nearly 10,300, also a record, and nearly three times the number of those hospitalized in early February when the latest surge began.

Hungary has the seventh highest COVID-19 deaths per 1 million inhabitants in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Officials have sought to mitigate the surge with new restrictions and a vaccination program that has made Hungary one of the most-vaccinated countries in Europe.

A new shipment of 100,000 doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine, which among European Union countries is only being used in Hungary, is expected to arrive on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto wrote on his Facebook page.

With more than 50,000 jabs on Tuesday, nearly 1.4 million people have received at least one shot, the second-highest rate in the EU.


ROME — Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza says European countries, including his, are hoping that the European Medicines Agencies on Thursday will deliver “the clarifications and reassurances necessary” to be able to resume administering the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Italy was one of several nations that in recent days halted the AstraZeneca jabs over reports of dangerous blood clots in some recipients, though the company and international regulators say there is no evidence the shot is to blame.

Speranza told a parliamentary Social Affairs Commission on Wednesday that it is Italy’s hope “to have by tomorrow answers from EMA that will enable the relaunching without hesitation of the vaccine campaign” using AstraZeneca doses.

He said the Italian government “has utmost trust in EMA” as well as in Italy’s medicine agency, adding, “we insist on the utmost safety and we are paying the utmost attention to what has happened.”

So far, just under 10 percent of Italy’s population have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Speranza told lawmakers that some 50 million doses of vaccines, including for the first time in Italy the Johnson & Johnson one-dose injection, were expected to arrive through June, while some 80 million doses are due to arrive between July and September.


SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s capital has ordered coronavirus tests for all foreign workers as the country expands mass testing targeting expatriates in a campaign that has triggered complaints of discrimination.

Seoul officials said Wednesday the testing requirement covers all foreign nationals employed in the city, regardless of their visa status, as well as their employers. They could face fines of up to 2 million won ($1,768) if they fail to get tested until the end of March.

Seoul had around 240,000 registered foreigners at the end of 2020, but city officials didn’t have an immediate estimate on how many of them would be covered by tests.

The decision comes after similar measures in nearby Gyeonggi province, which is also forcing employers to require tests for new foreign jobseekers and hire only those who test negative.

Critics have questioned why South Korean authorities are mandating broad tests based on nationality instead of specifically targeting people with vulnerable working conditions.

The testing campaign targeting foreigners came in response to outbreaks among low-skilled foreign workers employed at Gyeonggi factories, who often face hash working and living conditions that expose them to higher infection risks.

Thousands of foreigners waited in hours-long lines at designated testing stations in Gyeonggi over the weekend.

The province said it has found 149 positive cases among some 160,000 foreigners tested during the week through Monday.


MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine government has decided to temporarily ban the entry of foreigners and limit the entry of returning Filipinos at Manila’s international airport to 1,500 daily as it struggles to contain an alarming surge in coronavirus infections.

A government body dealing with the pandemic said the monthlong travel restrictions would start Saturday and aim to prevent the spread into the country of coronavirus strains from other countries which are believed to be more contagious. Among those to be allowed limited entry are homebound Filipino workers.

Philippine Airlines said it would announce some flight cancellations to comply with the temporary restriction.

Manila and other cities in the capital region reimposed 7-hour night curfews for two weeks starting Monday and locked down dozens of villages amid the surge in infections which some officials attributed to public complacency and critics blamed on the failure of the government’s response to the pandemic.

The Philippines has reported more than 631,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 12,848 deaths, the second-highest totals in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.


CANBERRA, Australia — The Australian government is ramping up its COVID-19 vaccination support for Papua New Guinea in a bid to contain a concerning wave of infections in a near-neighbor.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday that 8,000 doses of Australia’s vaccine would be sent to Papua New Guinea next week for use by front-in health workers. Morrison and his Papua New Guinea counterpart James Marape would ask AstraZentica to send Australia’s nearest neighbor another 1 million doses as soon as possible.

The European Union this month blocked a shipment destined for Australia of more than 250,000 AstraZenica doses from leaving Italy because the Australian need was not considered great enough.

Image: Kashmiri students wearing face masks arrive to attend a school in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Monday, March 15, 2021. Schools reopened for the lower grades Monday in Indian-controlled Kashmir, eleven months after being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

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