The Latest: Mexico president keeps low profile with virus

MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has only shared a photo of himself since testing positive for the coronavirus.

His aides say little more than the leader is in good spirits, experiencing mild symptoms and working. But the country has grown accustomed to waking to the 67-year-old López Obrador as he conducts marathon news conferences each morning.

His public absence since the weekend announcement of his illness is spurring calls that the president who touts the transparency of his administration to share more about his health.

López Obrador played down the coronavirus threat early, has rarely been seen wearing a mask in public and at times contradicted his own health officials’ recommendations. The president is a heart attack survivor who has high blood pressure.

Michelle Varela, an economist, says she hopes after his illness, López Obrador will take precautions to set an example. Mexico has 1.8 million confirmed cases and more than 153,000 confirmed deaths, the fourth-highest death toll in the world.



The U.S. reports first case of South Africa virus variant found in South Carolina. More than 90 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine will be produced in Japan. No respite for UK hospital workers facing record number of patients. EXPLAINER: Why it’s hard to make vaccines and boost supplies.


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OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska could soon end virus-related restrictions on gatherings if the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 keeps declining.

State health officials say the restrictions could be lifted this weekend if virus patients continue to occupy fewer than 10% of the Nebraska’s hospital beds. On Wednesday, about 8% of the state’s hospital beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients and the number of people hospitalized with the disease has declined to 343.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus in Nebraska peaked at 987 in November. In October, 227 people were hospitalized.

The state’s 75% capacity limit on indoor gatherings may be lifted this weekend. Guidelines recommending that seating at bars and restaurants be limited to groups of no more than eight people, different families be seated 6 feet apart at churches and customers wear masks at salons may be eliminated.

Nebraska doesn’t require masks, but more than a dozen cities do make masks mandatory. Chief medical officer Dr. Gary Anthone encouraged Nebraskans to keep wearing masks and avoid crowded places while the state works to vaccinate more people.


MADRID — Spain’s coronavirus infection rate dropped slightly for the first time in nearly a month, while the influx of patients into intensive care units keeps rising.

Spain’s Health Ministry logged 34,899 new infections and 515 confirmed deaths Thursday, bringing the total tally to 2.6 million cases and 57,800 confirmed deaths.

The 14-day average cases per 100,000 inhabitants dropped slightly from 899 cases on Wednesday to 889 on Thursday.

Nearly one in four hospital beds are currently occupied by COVID-19 patients. The situation is far worse in intensive care units. Although the official occupation rate by coronavirus patients there is 42%, the share includes many ICU beds that have been installed temporarily in surgery rooms and other hospital areas.


JERUSALEM — Jordan’s King Abdullah II says the world must ensure developing countries have access to coronavirus vaccines.

Speaking Thursday to a virtual meeting hosted by the World Economic Forum, he says the world has a “moral duty” not to buy up all the vaccines and make sure low-income countries are granted their fair share. He says the vaccine must be treated as a “global public good.”

Abdullah says the health of refugees must be a global responsibility. He says Jordan, which hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees, has included them in its virus response and is offering free vaccines.

Many wealthy nations have snapped up most of the millions of coming vaccine shots. COVAX, a World Health Organization-backed program, is seeking to secure vaccines for all countries based on need and has so far secured 2 billion vaccine doses.

Deliveries could begin next month, but delays are expected. The WHO has criticized drug companies for inequitable distribution of vaccines.


COLUMBIA, S.C. — A new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa has been found in the United States for the first time.

South Carolina officials say two such cases have been diagnosed in the state. The two cases don’t appear to be connected, nor do the people have a history of recent travel, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Viruses mutate constantly and many variants of the coronavirus are circulating around the globe. However, scientists are primarily concerned with three that appear to spread more easily.

Other variants first reported in the United Kingdom and Brazil were already confirmed in the U.S. Researchers predicted it was only a matter of time before the variant identified in South Africa reached the United States as well.

President Joe Biden on Monday reinstated COVID-19 travel restrictions on most non-U.S. travelers from Brazil, the U.K. and South Africa. The CDC is currently recommending Americans not travel.


AMSTERDAM — The European Medicines Agency has updated its recommendation for the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, clarifying that the second dose should be given three weeks after the first dose.

That’s in line with what the drugmakers and some other regulatory agencies recommend.

In a statement on Thursday, the EU’s medicines regulator says there is no data on the efficacy of the vaccine when the second dose is given after 21 days. Previously, the EMA said the time between administering the two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine should be “at least 21 days.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine be given after 21 days, in line with what the company itself recommends based on its research.

In Britain, officials have decided to delay giving people the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine for 12 weeks so that as many people as possible can get at least some protection from one shot. Numerous scientists have questioned the U.K. decision and called for an evaluation to investigate the effects of prolonging the gap between doses.


BRUSSELS — A European Union top official says the bloc should look at legal ways to secure enough supplies of COVID-19 vaccines if negotiations with pharmaceutical companies don’t succeed.

In a reply to a letter he received from four EU government leaders, EU Council president Charles Michel says the bloc “should explore all options and make use of all legal means and enforcement measures at our disposal under the Treaties.”

The EU is at odds with drugmaker AstraZeneca over expected delays in deliveries. AstraZeneca said last week that it planned to cut initial deliveries in the EU from the scheduled 80 million doses for the first quarter of the year to 31 million doses because of reduced yields from its manufacturing plants in Europe.


ROME — Prosecutors have traveled to Rome again to question the health minister and others as part of an investigation into any possible criminal charges for Italy’s coronavirus death toll.

The Bergamo criminal investigation has expanded amid questions about Italy’s preparedness ahead of the pandemic. Bergamo became Italy’s COVID-19 epicenter, the first in Europe, registering a 571% excess mortality rate in March compared to the average in the previous five years.

A scandal over a spiked World Health Organization report into Italy’s response has revealed the country’s influenza pandemic plan hadn’t been updated since 2006. Bergamo investigators say they are looking more into why the 2006 plan was never put into effect, contributing to what the WHO called Italy’s chaotic response to the thousands of sick who overwhelmed Lombardy’s hospitals.

In June, Bergamo prosecutors questioned Premier Giuseppe Conte, Health Minister Roberto Speranza and other top officials about the delayed lockdown in the two Bergamo towns where early infections were reported.

Italy reported another 492 deaths Thursday. The nation has registered nearly 87,000 coronavirus-related deaths, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain.


TOKYO — More than 90 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine will be produced in Japan by a Japanese pharmaceutical company through a licensing agreement.

It will cover three quarters of the supply the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company has pledged to provide to the country, officials said Thursday. Many believe vaccination would be key for Japan to hold the postponed Olympics this summer, but prospects are still uncertain in a country known for cautious decision-making process and a public wary of vaccines.

The plan is part of 120 million doses that AstraZeneca promised to supply to Japan under a deal the two sides already agreed upon, says Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, adding: “It is very important to establish vaccine production system in the country.”

AstraZeneca has signed a licensing agreement with JCR Pharmaceuticals, based in the Hyogo prefecture in western Japan, the companies say.

The announcement comes as officials are preparing for inoculation in late February, when Japan’s health ministry is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine. Japan is also getting a vaccine supply from Moderna. Japan says it has secured vaccines from the three suppliers for more than the population of 127 million.

Of the 120 million doses AstraZeneca will provide, the remaining 30 million are expected to be imported by March, officials say.

Japan, which is under a partial state of emergency until Feb. 7, has reported 375,607 confirmed cases and 5,361 confirmed deaths.


GENEVA — The European chief for the World Health Organization says “the telephone line is very hot” in conversations with European Union officials and others clamoring for more coronavirus vaccines.

Dr. Hans Kluge, speaking in a video conference from WHO Europe headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark, says he spoke recently with European Council President Charles Michel and EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, citing a “general goodwill” and “understanding that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

He adds: “But the reality is that for the time being, there is realistically a shortfall of vaccines.”

The European Union has accused pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca of failing to deliver the coronavirus vaccine doses it promised to the bloc despite getting EU funding to ramp up vaccine production.


MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines’ top diplomat says he’ll quarantine and the entire foreign affairs headquarters in Manila would be shut down for five days after some personnel tested positive for the coronavirus.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. says in a tweet that he’s tested negative for the coronavirus but was exposed Wednesday to people who turned out to be infected.

The Department of Foreign Affairs says the closure, which starts Friday, may possibly be extended depending on the result of a health assessment.

Locsin thanked newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his tweet after the American diplomat called him Thursday and reaffirmed their countries’ long treaty alliance.

The government has been negotiating with seven American, European and Asian companies to purchase 148 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, with the first small batches expected to be delivered next month.

The Philippines has nearly 520,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the second highest in the region, and 10,552 confirmed deaths.


JERUSALEM — Israel says it is extending coronavirus vaccinations to adults age 35 and older, an expansion of its world-leading drive to vanquish COVID-19.

Health Ministry Director General Hezi Levy says shots would be available to the new age group starting Friday.

The change reflects Israel’s aggressive drive to inoculate its entire population by the spring and the country is on track to do so. More than a quarter of Israel’s 9.3 million people have been vaccinated so far.

But Israel also is home to one of the developing world’s highest rate of infections, driven by ultra-Orthodox towns that are flouting safety rules and clashing with police trying to enforce them. Some 8,000 new cases are detected each day.

The country is in its third lockdown to contain the virus’ spread. This week it tightened the closures by shuttering its international airport to nearly all flights.


BRUSSELS — Belgian health authorities say they have inspected a pharmaceutical factory in Belgium to find out whether expected delays in the deliveries of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine are due to production issues.

The European Commission had asked the Belgian government to inspect the factory amid a heated public dispute between the 27-nation bloc and the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker. EU officials are under tremendous political pressures because the bloc’s vaccine rollout has been much slower than that of Israel or Britain.

The Novasep’s factory in the town of Seneffe is part of the European production chain for the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.

AstraZeneca said last week that it planned to cut initial deliveries in the EU to 31 million doses from the 80 million it had planned due to reduced yields from its manufacturing plants in Europe. The EU claimed Wednesday it will receive even less than that.

Stella Kyriakides, the European Commissioner for health and food safety, says AstraZeneca should provide vaccines from its U.K. facilities if it it is unable to meet commitments from factories in the EU.


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