The Latest: South Africa virus variant found in S. Carolina

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.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

More than 90 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine will be produced in Japan. EU sends experts to inspect vaccine plant in Belgium amid public dispute with AstraZeneca over production of vaccine doses. ‘Take every shift as it comes:’ No respite for UK hospital workers facing record number of patients. The WHO team in Wuhan departs quarantine for COVID origins study. EXPLAINER: Why it’s hard to make vaccines and boost supplies.

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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

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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WASHINGTON — More than a 100 economists and policymakers are signing a letter in support of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue and coronavirus relief package.

The letter provided exclusively to The Associated Press says the $900 billion approved in December before Biden took office was “too little and too late to address the enormity of the deteriorating situation” as employers shed workers in December, retail sales have slumped and COVID-19 deaths kept rising.

Among the 124 people signing the letter are: Gene Sperling, former director of the National Economic Council; Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, and former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alan Blinder. All three have previously worked in Democratic administrations.

The letter describes the Biden proposal as “robust,” saying Congress should put aside partisanship to meet the scale of the crisis.

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MADRID — Official statistics in Spain show the coronavirus pandemic destroyed 622,600 jobs in 2020, pushing the jobless rate to 16.1% of the working population.

That was a 2.3% increase from the previous year, the highest since 2012, when Spain suffered the worst effects of the financial crisis.

Thursday’s INE figures showed that despite a better-than-expected performance in the last three months of 2020, the year ended with 3.7 million jobless people and 19.3 million employed, including some 600,000 furloughed workers whose salaries are paid by the state while their business remain closed or affected by the pandemic.

Spain’s left-wing ruling coalition this week extended the jobs furlough system until the end of May.

The number of households with all members unemployed shot up from 183,900 to nearly 1.2 million in 2020, although over one third are households with one member.

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PARIS — At least two dozen French police officials are facing internal punishment for holding a party inside a police station where they were filmed dancing the Macarena and violating multiple virus protection rules.

A police headquarters spokesperson says those involved in the party in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers were ordered to file reports on their actions and that “sanctions are planned.”

In a video of the event posted online, several people are seen dancing closely together without masks in a crowded room.

The video prompted criticism at a time when French police are enforcing a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. virus curfew, and are under scrutiny for abuses during violent protests and identity checks.

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BERLIN — Germany’s interior minister says the country is planning to implement a ban on travel from so-called “mutation areas” where variants of the coronavirus that spread more rapidly have been detected.

Horst Seehofer says the government hopes to decide by Friday about restrictions on travel from Portugal, Britain, South Africa, Brazil and possibly other areas in the coming weeks.

He suggested there could be exceptions made for the flow of goods, but said exceptions for things like tourism were out of the question.

The country’s disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, would determine which countries should be determined “mutation areas,” Seehofer says.

Seehofer added that Germany was in talks in Brussels with other countries about Europe-wide travel restrictions, but the ban being considered would be a national decision.

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Categories: National News