The Latest: Red Cross to help poor countries with vaccines

GENEVA — A top international Red Cross organization has announced a 100-million Swiss franc ($110 million) plan to help support the immunization of 500 million people worldwide against COVID-19 amid concerns about vast inequalities in the rollout of coronavirus vaccines between rich and poor countries.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an umbrella organization of national groups, says the world’s 50 poorest countries have received only 0.1% of the total vaccine doses that have been administered worldwide so far — with 70% administered in the 50 richest countries.

The federation on Thursday warned such inequality “could potentially backfire to deadly and devastating effect” because areas of the globe that remain unvaccinated could allow the virus to spread and mutate.

“Without equal distribution, even those who are vaccinated will not be safe,” federation secretary-general Jagan Chapagain said in a statement.

The plan involves rollout of national vaccination campaigns, steps to build trust in vaccines and efforts to “counteract misinformation about their efficacy,” it added. The initiative is to begin with 66 national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and others are in talks with their respective governments.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

Study finds COVID-19 vaccine may reduce virus transmission

WHO team in Wuhan says discussions open, meetings frank

Gulf Arab states launch new restrictions over virus fears

In parts of east London, the pandemic has hit much harder than most places in the U.K. The borough of Redbridge in the outer reaches of the capital had the nation’s second-worst infection rate in January.

— As the U.S. COVID-19 vaccination campaign accelerates, governors, public health directors and committees advising them are holding key discussions behind closed doors, including debates about who should be eligible for the shots and how best to distribute them.

— Calls are growing in Germany to punish people who squeeze to the front of the line for COVID-19 vaccines after several cases in which officials allegedly queue-jumped and received shots.

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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:

LISBON, Portugal — The new head of Portugal’s COVID-19 vaccination task force is due to start work Thursday amid scandals over vaccine queue-jumping and frustration over a sluggish rollout similar to that seen in other European Union countries.

Rear Adm. Henrique Gouveia e Melo is taking charge a day after his predecessor resigned.

At the current rate of vaccination of just over 10,000 doses a day on average, Portugal will reach its target of 70% of vaccinated adults only by 2023. Its goal was to reach that milestone in late summer this year by inoculating around 50,000 people a day.

Portuguese officials note that they have received fewer vaccines than promised from manufacturers and say EU authorization of more vaccines will help accelerate the program.

The European Center for Disease Control, an EU agency, said in weekly data published Thursday that Portugal has received almost 387,000 vaccine doses.

The country of 10.3 million people has administered 310,000 inoculations, or around 80% of what it has received — the seventh-highest rate among the EU’s 27 member countries, it said.

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NAIROBI, Kenya — The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the COVID-19 case fatality rate on the continent “is becoming very troubling” as it creeps ever higher than the global one.

John Nkengasong told reporters that the fatality rate on the 54-nation continent is now 2.6% while the global one is 2.2%.

Twenty African countries including South Africa, Sudan and Congo have rates higher than the global average as a resurgence of cases in parts of the continent has a far deadlier toll than the initial wave of infections last year.

Africa’s confirmed deaths in the pandemic are approaching 100,000, with more than 3.6 million cases overall.

Nkengasong says “it would be a tragedy if we begin to normalize these deaths.”

As COVID-19 vaccines finally begin to arrive on the continent, he says 16 countries have put in requests for a total of 114 million doses of the 670 million doses the African Union has secured from various sources.

Nkengasong did not name the countries but said “we hope in the next two to three weeks they should be having their vaccines.”

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STOCKHOLM — Sweden says it will develop a digital vaccination certificate this summer to allow people who have been vaccinated to travel.

Digitalization Minister Anders Ygeman said three authorities in Sweden had been asked to work on producing the certificate, and the plan is to coordinate it with the World Health Organization and the European Union.

On Wednesday, Denmark said it was joining forces with the country’s business community to develop a digital corona passport that would be ready for use later this year.

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority says it will receive 10,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, allowing it to step up a vaccination campaign launched earlier this week.

Health Minister Mai al-Kaila says in a statement that the doses will arrive Thursday. The Israeli military body responsible for coordinating imports into the occupied territories did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Palestinians began vaccinating medical workers after Israel agreed to transfer 5,000 doses of its own Moderna vaccines. The Palestinians hope to receive tens of thousands of doses later this month through the World Health Organization.

Israel, which has vaccinated around a third of its population of more than 9 million, has faced criticism for not including Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Israel captured both territories in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians want them to be part of their future state. They are home to more than 4.5 million Palestinians.

Israel says it is prioritizing its own citizens. Under interim peace agreements, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for health care in the territories it administers but both sides are supposed to cooperate to combat epidemics.

The Palestinian Authority has not publicly requested vaccines from Israel and has not acknowledged that Israel provided the doses it received earlier this week.

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NAIROBI, Kenya — South Sudan has joined a growing list of African countries reimposing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions as infections rise again.

A statement by the national COVID-19 task force bans all social gatherings including religious and sporting events, and it closes schools.

Businesses attracting crowds including bars and nightclubs are closed, and public transport is limited to half capacity. All incoming air passengers must show proof of a negative coronavirus test.

And law enforcement officers have been told to take immediate action to impose the order. South Sudan has more than 3,900 confirmed virus cases but has limited testing capacity.

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MEXICO CITY — Mexico reported a near-record 1,707 confirmed coronavirus deaths Wednesday, as the country runs out of vaccines.

The Health Department reported Mexico’s COVID-19 deaths now total 161,240, and confirmed infections rose by 12,153 to nearly 1.89 million. Estimates based on excess-death statistics suggest the real death toll is over 195,000.

Mexico approved Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine Tuesday, but has not yet signed a purchase contract and does not have a firm date for its first delivery. The government had hoped to get 400,000 doses by the end of February.

Mexico has received about 766,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and has administered about 686,000 shots, with much of the remainder set aside for second doses. The next Pfizer shipment is not expected until mid-February.

Meanwhile, the government website set up to register people for vaccines when they do arrive was overwhelmed and inoperable for a second straight day.

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TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas health department says a more contagious variant of the coronavirus first identified in Great Britain has arrived in the state.

The health department reported Wednesday evening that a case of the variant had been identified in Ellis County in northwestern Kansas. The department said officials are conducting an investigation to determine how the patient contracted the virus and whether other people were exposed. It did not release details about the patient.

Health department head and Dr. Lee Norman said the public health advice about avoiding large gatherings, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing has not changed.

The arrival of the variant comes with Kansas seeing an improvement in its COVID-19 case numbers. According to state health department data, Kansas averaged 914 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday, the first time the rolling seven-day average was below 1,000 since Oct. 28.

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OKLAHOMA CITY — About 11,500 doses of the coronavirus vaccine will be shipped to pharmacies across Oklahoma next week, state health officials said.

Deputy state health commissioner Keith Reed said the shipment is part of a plan by President Joe Biden’s administration to distribute 1 million doses to some 6,500 pharmacies nationwide. The pharmacies signed on to the federal distribution program and the state is not involved in allocation.

“We anticipate there’s probably going to be around 75 total pharmacies that will receive some level of vaccine inventory,” Reed said. “They’re going to have limited vaccine … maybe 100 doses or 200 doses,” for the week.

The health department reported an additional 52 Oklahoma deaths due to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and 2,119 coronavirus cases for 3,654 deaths and 394,283 cases since the pandemic began.

Interim Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye said virus testing at Oklahoma State University may have also found the first case of a variant of the virus, but that the testing was not performed under standard research protocols.

“Yes, it has been identified, but they are doing further studies now to see … the extent and if it’s really there,” Frye said. He did not say which variant.

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TORONTO — Canada’s most populous province of Ontario will reopen all schools for in class learning this month despite the presence of new coronavirus variants and a high number of infections in Toronto and its suburbs.

The majority of schools will reopen Monday while those in Toronto and its suburbs will resume in-person learning on Feb 16. There are no plans to vaccinate teachers.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce says returning kids to school safely is crucial for their development and mental health. All students in Ontario began in January with online learning as part of a provincial lockdown. The Ontario government previously said that all students currently learning online would be able to return to classrooms by Feb. 10.

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SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco has taken a dramatic step in its effort to get kids back in public schools, suing its own school district to try to force classrooms to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in California and possibly the country, as school systems come under increasing pressure from parents and politicians to end online learning. With support from Mayor London Breed, City Attorney Dennis Herrera on Wednesday sued the San Francisco Board of Education and the San Francisco Unified School District.

Teachers unions in many large school districts, including San Francisco, say they won’t go back to classrooms until they are vaccinated.

“Not a single San Francisco public school student has set foot in their classroom in 347 days,” said City Attorney Dennis Herrera said at a news conference, calling it shameful and also unlawful. “More than 54,000 San Francisco schoolchildren are suffering. They are being turned into Zoom-bies by online school. Enough is enough.”

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PORTLAND, Oregon — A judge has ordered all inmates in the Oregon prison system to be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations — a move that should make prisoners immediately eligible for inoculation.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reports the preliminary injunction issued Tuesday orders all Oregon Department of Corrections inmates be offered a vaccine as part of phase 1A, group 2, of Oregon’s COVID-19 vaccination plan — putting prison inmates in the same category as people living in nursing homes and other congregate care settings.

The order should make prisoners eligible for vaccines now, but it’s not clear if they’ll move ahead of teachers or the elderly. But given that the Oregon Health Authority dictates where vaccines are shipped, the state has the ability to redirect doses for prisons. The order will allow adults in custody to “stand in the same line” as others in congregate living facilities with a high risk of COVID-19 infection, Chavez said.

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LONDON — People up and down the U.K. took to their doorstep to honor Captain Tom Moore with a national clap, a day after the 100-year-old died after testing positive for COVID-19.

The British World War II veteran walked into the hearts of the nation during the first coronavirus lockdown last April when he shuffled up and down his garden to raise an astonishing 33 million pounds ($40 million) for health care workers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had earlier urged the public to join in the clap “to show our appreciation for him and all that he stood for and believed in.”

Captain Tom’s family said they were “incredibly touched” by the gesture and took part outside their home in the village of Marston Moretaine in Bedfordshire.

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ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey says it has detected two cases of the COVID-19 variant that was first found in South Africa and one case of the Brazilian variant.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said Wednesday that all three patients with the South Africa and Brazil variants are being kept in isolation in hospitals, along with people they had been in contact with. He did not provide further information on the patients.

Koca also raised to 196 the number of people who have been infected with the variant which was first detected in southeast England.

Turkey had temporarily suspended flights from Britain, Denmark, South Africa and Brazil in a bid to prevent the spread of the variants, which researchers believe to be more infections.

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LONDON — Researchers from Oxford University say AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine does more than protect people from falling seriously ill, it also appears to reduce transmission of the virus.

The study released on Wednesday suggested a single dose of the AstraZeneca formula provides a high level of protection for 12 weeks.

The preliminary findings from Oxford University, a co-developer of the vaccine, could vindicate the British government’s controversial strategy of delaying the second shot so that more people can get a first dose. Up to now, the recommended time between the first and second dose has been four weeks.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, dismissed deliberately delaying second shots. He says the U.S. will “go by the science” and data from the clinical trials. The doses of the Pifzer and Moderna vaccines used in the U.S. are to be given three and four weeks apart.

Britain is using vaccines by AstraZeneca and Pfizer. AstraZeneca has also been authorized by the 27-nation European Union.

Pfizer has not endorsed the British government’s decision to lengthen the time between doses.

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SACRAMENTO, California — California is joining with the federal government to open two new vaccination centers as test areas for President Joseph Biden’s effort to create 100 mass vaccination sites nationwide in 100 days.

Gov. Gavin Newsom says the sites at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum and California State University, Los Angeles, will be jointly run with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The move comes as California’s most deadly pandemic surge eases but as the state struggles with vaccine shortages in a race to vaccinate the most vulnerable. Newsom pitched the new sites as part of the larger effort to target communities that might otherwise be left behind.

California reported 13,134 confirmed cases on Tuesday. The state has registered nearly 42,000 total deaths, second behind New York with 44,000 confirmed deaths.