UK Set to Formally Apply for Trans-Pacific Trade Bloc Membership 

Britain will next week formally apply to join a trans-Pacific trading bloc of 11 countries, with negotiations set to start later this year, the government has said.Since leaving the European Union, Britain has made clear its desire to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which removes most tariffs between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.”One year after our departure for the EU we are forging new partnerships that will bring enormous economic benefits for the people of Britain,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.Trade minister Liz Truss told Times Radio: “On Monday I am putting in the letter of intent” and that she expected formal negotiations will start in the spring.Reuters reported on Thursday that Britain will not publish an assessment of the economic benefits of CPTPP membership before requesting to join it – contrary to earlier promises.Previous government economic analyses of Brexit have pointed to small boosts to economic output from additional trade deals.The government said joining CPTPP would remove tariffs on food and drink and cars, while helping to boost the technology and services sectors.”Applying to be the first new country to join the CPTPP demonstrates our ambition to do business on the best terms with our friends and partners all over the world and be an enthusiastic champion of global free trade,” Johnson said. 

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US Lawmakers Push Mental Health Days for Kids Amid Pandemic

When she was growing up, Sophie Corroon struggled to get through a ballet class or soccer tryout without having an anxiety attack.The idea of going to sleepovers or being home alone left her feeling panicked. Corroon’s anxiety grew even more during high school in Salt Lake City in the U.S. state of Utah when the pressures of getting into college left her in tears at school or toiling for hours on assignments.Corroon, now 20, has struggled with her mental health since fourth grade, and she’s not alone. And now, the coronavirus pandemic has multiplied the pressures on kids — many have spent almost a year doing remote learning, isolated from their friends and classmates. The portion of children’s emergency-room visits related to mental health was 44% higher in 2020, compared with the year before.State lawmakers are increasingly seeking more support for kids. This year, legislation proposed in Utah and Arizona would add mental or behavioral health to the list of reasons students can be absent from class, similar to staying out with a physical illness. Similar laws have passed in the states of Oregon, Maine, Colorado and Virginia in the past two years.Offering mental health days can help children and parents communicate and prevent struggling students from falling behind in school or ending up in crisis, said Debbie Plotnick, vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America. Plotnick said mental health days can be even more effective when paired with mental health services in schools.“We know that this year has been extra hard, and we know that it’s hard for young people,” Plotnick said. “That’s why it’s so essential that students feel comfortable to come forward and say … ‘I need to take some actions to support my mental health.’”In Arizona, Democratic Sen. Sean Bowie has introduced a mental health day measure for the second time after legislation stalled in March as the pandemic took hold.Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has taken an interest in youth suicide and mental health, and Bowie said he’s confident it will be signed into law. The bill passed the state Senate unanimously Thursday.Getting a ‘day to catch their breath’Conservative Utah passed a law in 2018 letting kids take time off school for a mental illness. A new proposal from Republican Rep. Mike Winder would allow absences for students to deal with other kinds of mental pressures to further normalize treating a mental health concern like a physical one.“If a student has a panic attack today, because of some drama going on at home, that’s not mental illness necessarily,” Winder said. “But maybe they need that day to catch their breath and maintain their mental health.”Under the Utah bill, which passed out of committee Friday and will move to the House floor, mental health days would be treated like any other excused absence, Winder said. A parent would need to excuse their child, and students would still be expected to make up their schoolwork.In Arizona, specific mental health day policies would be up to each school district, Bowie said.Theresa Nguyen, a licensed clinical social worker, said she’s concerned about the potential long-term mental and academic effects that students may face from the pandemic. In addition to growing reports of anxiety and depression, Nguyen said, many students say they don’t feel like they’re absorbing class material virtually and they’re not getting enough support.“They feel like, ‘Nobody cares that I’m struggling, so I’m basically being communicated to that I need to just deal with it by myself,’” said Nguyen, Mental Health America’s chief program officer. “And for a lot of youth, that means increased self-harm and suicide.”Alarming rate of youth suicidesFor the last few years, Utah leaders have searched for ways to reduce an alarming rate of youth suicides. The pandemic has lent urgency, with many young people isolated from friends and school activities.Winder’s bill is modeled after a similar program in Oregon that his daughter, Jessica Lee, found through her work on a youth-focused committee with the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In Oregon, students are given five excused absences every three months, and those can be either physical sick days or mental health days.Lee, who is a senior at Southern Utah University studying clinical psychology, said she was inspired by youth activists who successfully championed the Oregon bill in 2019.Lee and Corroon both work with the committee to help teenagers navigate their mental health. Over the years, Corroon learned to manage her anxiety with medication and therapy and is now a sophomore at the University of Washington, where she plans to study public health.Part of her routine is taking a step back to prioritize her mental health — a chance she says other kids deserve, too.“I definitely needed those days to just stay home or seek out a resource rather than forcing myself to go to school and putting more stress on my mental health,” Corroon said.

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WHO Team Visits Wet Market Linked to First Coronavirus Cases

A team of World Health Organization scientists investigating the source of the coronavirus visited a wet market Sunday in Wuhan, China.A cluster of cases was linked to the Huanan Seafood Market when the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019. Since then, the coronavirus has infected more than 102 million people worldwide and killed more than 2.2 million.The scientists have already visited at least one of the hospitals in Wuhan that treated some of the first patients.”Just back from visit at Jinyintan hospital, that specialized in infectious diseases and was designated for treatment of the first cases in Wuhan,” Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans said on Twitter. “Stories quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.”Just back from visit at Jinyintan hospital, that specialised in infectious diseases and was designated for treatment of the first cases in Wuhan. Stories quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.— Marion Koopmans (@MarionKoopmans) January 30, 2021The scientists want to know where the virus originated, in what animal, and how it made its way into humans, something that could take years to figure out.The team is also planning to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology and laboratories at state facilities such as the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, according to the Geneva-based WHO.The Associated Press reports that Israel has agreed to transfer 5,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine to the Palestinians for front-line medical workers. Israel has been criticized for not providing vaccines to the Palestinians before but says it is not responsible for them.In the U.S., the Associated Press has done an analysis of data from 17 states and two cities concerning the racial breakdown about who is receiving the COVID vaccine.“Black people in all places are getting inoculated at levels below their share of the general population, in some cases significantly below,” AP reported.That fact holds true, AP said, despite African Americans making up “an oversize percentage of the nation’s health care workers, who were put at the front of the line for shots when the campaign began in mid-December.”In North Carolina, Black people are just a scant 11% of the vaccine recipients even though they are 22% of the population and 26% of the health care workforce, AP found.In comparison, AP reported, “White people in North Carolina are 68% of the population and 82% of those vaccinated.”Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that Los Angeles County data has also revealed racial disparities in the COVID pandemic. The mostly Latino neighborhood of Pacoima, the Times said “has one of the highest case rates in the nation . . . roughly five times the rate of Covid-19 cases as much richer and whiter Santa Monica.”The U.S. remains the country with the most cases at more than 26 million, followed by India with 10.7 million and Brazil with 9.1 million, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Sunday.The Pentagon on Saturday announced it would delay a plan to vaccinate the 40 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying it needed to “review force protection protocols,” John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said in a tweet.No Guantanamo detainees have been vaccinated. We’re pausing the plan to move forward, as we review force protection protocols. We remain committed to our obligations to keep our troops safe.— John Kirby (@PentagonPresSec) January 30, 2021The Pentagon has said it intends to vaccinate all the personnel who work at the detention center, or about 1,500 people. At that time, the vaccine would also be offered to the prisoners, none of whom have received a vaccination yet.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that as of Saturday morning, nearly 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been distributed and nearly 30 million had been administered.The CDC said 24 million people had received one or more doses, and 5.3 million people had received a first dose.The total includes both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.

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WHO Team Visits Wuhan Hospital That Treated Early Cases

Scientists with the World Health Organization’s team investigating the source of the coronavirus that has infected more than 102 million people worldwide and killed more than 2.2 million have visited one of the hospitals in Wuhan, China, that treated some of the first patients.Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans said on Twitter that the stories she’d heard at Jinyintan hospital were “quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.”Just back from visit at Jinyintan hospital, that specialised in infectious diseases and was designated for treatment of the first cases in Wuhan. Stories quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.— Marion Koopmans (@MarionKoopmans) A woman wearing a face mask walks past a closed souvenir shop near Berlin’s famed tourist magnet Checkpoint Charlie, Jan. 29, 2021, during the coronavirus pandemic.Travelers from several European and African nations — Brazil, Britain, Eswatini, Ireland, Lesotho, Portugal and South Africa — will not be allowed into Germany. However, German residents traveling from those countries will be granted entry, even if they test positive for the coronavirus virus.Fourteen University of Michigan students were in quarantine after being diagnosed with the British variant of the virus. One of the students was reported to have traveled to Britain over the winter break.Health officials in South Carolina said they had detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States.The U.S. remained the country with the most cases at more than 26 million, followed by India with 10.7 million and Brazil with 9.1 million, Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center said Saturday.The Pentagon on Saturday announced it would delay a plan to vaccinate the 40 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying it needed to “review force protection protocols,” John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said in a tweet.  No Guantanamo detainees have been vaccinated. We’re pausing the plan to move forward, as we review force protection protocols. We remain committed to our obligations to keep our troops safe.— John Kirby (@PentagonPresSec) January 30, 2021The Pentagon has said it intends to vaccinate all the personnel who work at the detention center, or about 1,500 people. At that time, the vaccine will also be offered to the prisoners, none of whom has received a vaccination yet.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that as of Saturday morning, nearly 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been distributed in the U.S. and nearly 30 million had been administered.The CDC said 24 million people had received one or more doses, and 5.3 million people had received a first dose.The total included both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.   

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Fighting Climate Change in America Means Changes to America

Climate isn’t the only thing changing. What comes next in the nation’s struggle to combat global warming will probably transform how Americans drive, where they get their power and other bits of day-to-day life, both quietly and obviously, experts say. So far, the greening of America has been subtle, driven by market forces, technology and voluntary actions. The Biden administration is about to change that.In a flurry of executive actions in his first eight days in office, the president is trying to steer the U.S. economy from one that uses fossil fuels to one that no longer puts additional heat-trapping gases into the air by 2050.The United States is rejoining the international Paris climate accord and is also joining many other nations in setting an ambitious goal that once seemed unattainable: net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury. That means lots of changes designed to fight increasingly costly climate disasters such as wildfires, floods, droughts, storms and heat waves.Think of the journey to a carbon-less economy as a road trip from Washington to California that started about 15 years ago.”We’ve made it through Ohio and up to the Indiana border. But the road has been pretty smooth so far. It gets rougher ahead,” said climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, climate and energy director at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center in Oakland, California.”The Biden administration is both stepping on the gas and working to upgrade our vehicle,” Hausfather said.What isn’t visible, and what isThe results of some of Biden’s new efforts may still not be noticeable, such as your power eventually coming from ever-cheaper wind and solar energy instead of coal and natural gas that now provide 59% of American power. But when it comes to going from here to there, you’ll notice that.FILE – A Chevrolet Volt hybrid car is hooked up at a ChargePoint charging station at a parking garage in Los Angeles, Oct. 17, 2018.General Motors announced Thursday that as of 2035 it hopes to go all-electric for its light-duty vehicles, no longer selling gasoline-powered cars. Experts expect most new cars sold in 2030 to be electric. The Biden administration promised 550,000 charging stations to help with the transition to electric cars.”You will no longer be going to a gas station, but you will need to charge your vehicle whether at home or on the road,” said Kate Larsen, director of international climate policy research at the Rhodium Group, an independent research organization. “It may be a whole new way of thinking about transportation for the average person.”But it will still be your car, which is why most of the big climate action over the next 10 years won’t be too noticeable, said Princeton University ecologist Stephen Pacala.”The single biggest difference is that because wind and solar is distributed you will see a lot more of it on the landscape,” said Pacala, who leads a study on  decarbonizing America by the National Academy of Sciences that will come out next week.FILE – President Joe Biden signs a series of executive orders on climate change, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Jan. 27, 2021.Less expensive, plus health benefitsOther recent detailed scientific studies show that because of dropping wind, solar and battery prices, Biden’s net-zero carbon goal can be accomplished far cheaper than had been predicted in the past and with health benefits “many, many times” outweighing the costs, said Pacala, who was part of one study at Princeton. Those studies agree on what needs to be done for decarbonization, and what Biden has come out with “is doing the things that everyone now is concluding that we should do,” Pacala said.These are the types of shifts that don’t cost much — about $1 day per person — and won’t require people to abandon their current cars and furnaces but replace them with cleaner electric vehicles and heat pumps when it comes time for a new one, said Margaret Torn, a senior scientist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, who co-authored a study published recently by Berkeley Lab, the University of San Francisco and the consulting firm Evolved Energy Research.Part of the problem, said study co-author Ryan Jones, co-founder of Evolved Energy Research, is that for years, people have wrongly portrayed the battle against climate change as a “personal morality problem” where individuals have to sacrifice by driving and flying less, turning down the heat and eating less meat.”Actually, climate change is an industry economy issue where most of the big solutions are happening under the hood or upstream of people’s homes,” Jones said. “It’s a big change in how we produce energy and consume energy. It’s not a change in people’s day-to-day lives, or it doesn’t need to be.”One Biden interim goal — “a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035″ — may not be doable that quickly, but can be done by 2050, said study co-author Jim Williams of the University of San Francisco.FILE – Todd Miller stands next to solar panels on the roof of his solar installation business in Ankeny, Iowa, April 15, 2019.Electric vehicles, conservation, wind energyBiden’s executive orders featured plans for an all-electric federal fleet of vehicles, conserving 30% of the country’s land and waters, doubling the nation’s offshore wind energy and funding to help communities become more resilient to climate disasters. Republicans and fossil fuel interests objected, calling the actions job-killers.”Using the incredible leverage of federal government purchases in green electricity, zero-emission cars and new infrastructure will rapidly increase demand for home-grown climate-friendly technologies,” said Rosina Bierbaum, a University of Michigan environmental policy professor.The next big thing for the administration is to come up with a Paris climate accord goal — called Nationally Determined Contribution — for how much the United States hopes to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It has to be ambitious for the president to reach his ultimate goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but it also has to be doable.His administration promises to reveal the goal, required by the climate agreement but nonbinding, before its Earth Day climate summit, April 22.That new number “is actually the centrally important activity of the next year,” said University of Maryland environment professor Nate Hultman, who worked on the Obama administration’s Paris goal.Getting to net zero carbon emissions at midcentury means about a 43% cut from 2005 levels — the baseline the U.S. government uses — by 2030, said the Rhodium Group’s Larsen. The U.S. can realistically reach a 40% cut by 2030, which is about one-third reduction from what 2020 U.S. carbon emissions would have been without a pandemic, said Williams, the San Francisco professor.All this work on power and vehicles, that’s easy compared with decarbonizing agriculture with high methane emissions from livestock and high-heat industrial processes such as steelmaking, Breakthrough’s Hausfather said.”There’s no silver bullet for agriculture,” Hausfather said. “There’s no solar panels for cows, so to speak, apart from meat alternatives, but even there you have challenges around consumer acceptance.” 

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Israel Says Pfizer Coronavirus Vaccine Shows 92% Effectiveness

In the first large-scale, controlled data outside clinical trials, the two-dose Pfizer coronavirus vaccine is showing 92 percent effectiveness, according to Israeli health officials. It’s good news for Pfizer, which says the vaccine also appears to work against the British mutation of COVID-19. The Maccabi Health Fund studied 163,000 Israelis who had received two doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine. Only 31 of them caught COVID-19 after they were fully vaccinated. In an equivalent sample of unvaccinated Israelis, almost 6,500 developed the disease.The study shows the Pfizer vaccine had 92 percent effectiveness, which was close to the 95 percent Pfizer saw in clinical trials. Israeli infectious-disease experts said the study is good news and that the slight difference between the clinical trials and this current study is within the standard deviation.Israel has become a real-time laboratory for the Pfizer vaccine, which is being widely distributed in the country through the public health funds. Israel bought the vaccine early, paying double the market price, according to media reports, and agreed to share all of its data with Pfizer. All Israelis belong to one of four health funds and all medical records are digitized.So far, almost 3 million Israelis out of a total population of 9.3 million have received the first dose of the vaccine, and almost 1.5 million have received the second dose.FILE – A woman waits outside a container at a coronavirus testing center while Israel is under a lockdown as part of the coronavirus disease restrictions, in Jerusalem Jan. 29, 2021.Rising death rateDespite the good news, the country is seeing a rising death rate and more seriously ill patients. Israel has been under a third lockdown for three weeks, which is due to be lifted next week. All schools and businesses, except for essential businesses like supermarkets and pharmacies, are closed, and Israelis are allowed to travel only a half-mile from their homes.Some in the ultra-Orthodox community have ignored those restrictions, and there have been violent demonstrations when police have come to enforce them.Israel’s health minister, Yuli Edelstein, said lifting the lockdown would be a mistake.He said the lockdown had stopped the increase in new cases, but the British mutation, which is being found in about a third of all new cases, is more infectious and more serious. He said that opening schools and workplaces now would be a big mistake and would result in more deaths.Of the total 4,600 deaths in Israel, more than 1,000 were in the month of January alone. Professor Nachman Ash, who is leading Israel’s coronavirus response, said he was most worried about the number of seriously ill patients.He said that Israel currently has 1,200 seriously ill patients and that some hospitals are on the verge of collapse. He said he expected the numbers of seriously ill patients to begin to drop in the next week.Israel closed its airport this week to air traffic, hoping to stop new cases from being brought into the country. Israeli officials said they hoped to extend both the lockdown and the airport closure for another week.

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Downdetector: Social Media Platform Reddit Hit by Outages in US

Social media company Reddit was experiencing problems on its website on Saturday, according to outage monitoring website Downdetector.com.
 
Customers reported trouble logging in and sending messages on its website. The outage affected regions such as New York, Boston and Washington in United States and Toronto in Canada, according to an outage map on Downdetector’s website. 
 
It was not immediately known what caused the glitches. Reddit did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
 
Reddit has come into THE the forefront after a social media chatroom on its platform, “Wallstreetbets,” led to a so-called “Reddit rally,” which has helped attract a flood of retail cash into stocks such as GameStop Corp., burning hedge funds that had bet against the company and roiling the broader market. WallStreetBets has about 6 million members. 

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EU Tightens Vaccine Export Rules, Creates Post-Brexit Outcry

The European Union introduced tighter rules Friday on exports of COVID-19 vaccines that could hit shipments to nations like Great Britain, deepening a dispute with London over scarce supplies of potentially lifesaving shots.But amid an outcry in Northern Ireland and Britain, the European Commission made clear the new measure will not trigger controls on vaccines shipments produced in the 27-nation bloc to Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain bordering EU member Ireland.Under the post-Brexit deal, EU products should still be able to travel unhindered from the bloc to Northern Ireland.”In the process of finalization of this measure, the commission will ensure that the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected,” the EU’s executive arm said in a statement late Friday.Amid a dispute with Anglo-Swedish drugmakerAstraZeneca, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and British leader Boris Johnson had an unexpected phone call, during which the British prime minister “expressed his grave concerns about the potential impact which the steps the EU has taken today on vaccine exports could have,” a statement from the British government read.The EU unveiled its plans to tighten rules on exports of coronavirus vaccines produced inside the bloc amid fears some of the doses it secured from AstraZeneca could be diverted elsewhere. The measure could be used to block shipments to many non-EU countries and ensure that any exporting company based in the EU will first have to submit their plans to national authorities.TheBritish and Northern Ireland governments immediately lashed out at the move, saying the bloc invoked an emergency clause in its divorce deal with Britain to introducing controls on exports to Northern Ireland. Goods are supposed to flow freely between the EU and Northern Ireland under special arrangements for the region designed to protect the peace process on the island of Ireland.But the EU later said it was not invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol allowing either side to override parts of their deal.”The commission is not triggering the safeguard clause,” it said in its statement, adding that the restricting regulations have yet to be finalized and won’t be adopted before Saturday.The phone call between von der Leyen and Johnson somewhat eased what was quickly becoming a diplomatic flashpoint.”We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities,” von der Leyen said in a statement.The EU lashed out at AstraZeneca this week after the company said it would only supply 31 million doses of vaccine in initial shipments, instead of the 80 million doses it had hoped to deliver. Brussels claimed AstraZeneca would supply even less than that, just one-quarter of the doses due between January and March — and member countries began to complain.The European Commission is concerned that doses meant for Europe might have been diverted from an AstraZeneca plant on the continent to Great Britain, where two other company sites are located. The EU also wants doses at two sites in Britain to be made available to European citizens.Britain”has legally binding agreements with vaccine suppliers and it would not expect the EU, as a friend and ally, to do anything to disrupt the fulfilment of these contracts,” Britain said.AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper this week that the British government helped create the vaccine developed with Oxford University and signed its contract three months before the EU did. Soriot said that under the British contract, vaccines produced at British sites must go toBritain first.To head off similar disputes and allay fears that vaccines might be diverted, the commission introduced the measures to tighten rules on the exports of shots produced in EU countries. The “vaccine export transparency mechanism” will be used at least until the end of March to control shipments to non-EU countries.The EU insisted that’s not an export ban, although it could be used to block shipments to Britain or many other non-EU countries. Many poorer nations and close neighbors are exempt.Officials said it is intended to ensure EU member nations get the shots they bought from producers. The World Health Organization criticized the new EU export rules as “not helpful.”Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other WHO officials warned of supply-chain disruptions that could ripple through the world and potentially stall the fight against COVID-19.The “advanced purchasing agreement” with the EU was signed in August, before the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had been properly tested. The European Medicines Agency approved the vaccine Friday, making it the third authorized for use by EU nations.Earlier, the 27-nation bloc and AstraZeneca made public a heavily redacted version of their vaccine deal that’s at the heart of a dispute over the delivery schedule.The contract, agreed to last year by the European Commission and the drugmaker, allows the EU’s member countries to buy 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with an option for a further 100 million doses. It’s one of several contracts the EU’s executive branch has with vaccine makers to secure a total of more than 2 billion shots.As part of an “advanced purchase agreement” with companies, the EU said it has invested 2.7 billion euros ($3.8 billion), including 336 million ($408 million) to finance the production of AstraZeneca’s serum at four factories.Much of the 41-page document made public was blacked out, making it very difficult to establish which side is in the right. Details about the price of the vaccine were notably redacted.Britain is thought to be paying far more for the vaccine than EU countries. 

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EU Drug Regulator Approves AstraZeneca Vaccine for Emergency Use

European Union regulators on Friday approved the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, the third vaccine approved for use on the European continent.
Amid criticism the bloc is not moving fast enough to vaccinate its population, the European Medicines Agency’s (EMA) expert committee unanimously recommended the vaccine for adults, despite concerns of inadequate data proving its effectiveness for people over 55.
Addressing reporters from agency headquarters in Amsterdam, EMA chief Emer Cooke told reporters the agency had approved the drug for conditional or emergency use because clinical studies found the vaccine to be about 60% effective at fighting the coronavirus — lower than the two previously approved vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which show efficacy in the 90% range.
Many EU health officials had been anticipating approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine because it is less expensive and does not require deep-freeze storage like the Pfizer-BioNTech drug.
Earlier Friday, German Health Minister Jens Spahn indicated the vaccine would be approved, but not recommended for patients older than 65, as the clinical studies lacked data regarding its efficacy for patients in that age range.  
But Emer said EMA’s experts determined, based on the immune results seen in patients between the ages of 18 and 55 years, older adults are expected get the same protection from the vaccine.
The AstraZeneca vaccine had already been approved for use in Britain and a number of other countries. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still considering the drug company’s application for emergency use. 

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Johnson & Johnson One-dose Vaccine 66% Successful

U.S. pharmaceutical and medical device maker Johnson & Johnson says after a global trial, the COVID-19 vaccine it has developed is 66% effective in preventing infection. The one-dose vaccine, which was developed by the company’s Belgian subsidiary Janssen, appears to be 85% effective in preventing serious illness, even against the South African variant. Of the 44,000 people who participated in the trail in the U.S., South Africa and Brazil, no one who was given the vaccine died, the company said. “The potential to significantly reduce the burden of severe disease, by providing an effective and well-tolerated vaccine with just one immunization, is a critical component of the global public health response,” Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson, said in a company press release. “A one-shot vaccine is considered by the World Health Organization to be the best option in pandemic settings, enhancing access, distribution and compliance,” said the statement. Health care workers line up before receiving the first dose of the Sinovac’s CoronaVac coronavirus vaccine in the Positivo event center at the Barigui Park in Curitiba, Brazil, Jan. 28, 2021.The U.S. has agreed to buy 100 million doses of the vaccine with a further option to buy 200 million more, according to the company. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the fourth vaccine approved to fight the pandemic. Variant detected in U.S. There are more than 101 million global COVID-19 infections, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Friday. The U.S. tops the list with more than 25 million cases, followed by India with 10.7 million infections and Brazil with 9 million. More than 2 million people have died from the disease, Hopkins said. Health officials in South Carolina say they have detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States. So far, the variant does not appear to cause more serious illness, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement that “preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants.” FILE – Shoppers make their way through an outdoor shopping center as the coronavirus pandemic continues, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Nov. 27, 2020.”That’s frightening” because it means there are likely more undetected cases within the state, Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, said in an interview with CBS News. “It’s probably more widespread.” Officials say the two South Carolina cases do not appear to be connected or travel related. It is normal for viruses to mutate. Variants from Britain and Brazil have also been discovered. WHO Wuhan probe In other COVID-19 news, World Health Organization investigators emerged from a two-week quarantine Thursday in Wuhan, China, to begin their work in search of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The international team boarded a bus after leaving their hotel in the afternoon. China, which for months rejected calls for an international probe, has pledged adequate access for the researchers. The team is expected to spend several weeks interviewing people from research institutes, hospitals and a market linked to many of the first cases. Chinese officials arrive for meetings with the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic at the Hilton Wuhan Optics Valley Hotel in Wuhan, Jan. 29, 2021.The WHO has said the purpose of the mission is not to assign blame for the pandemic but to figure out how it started in order to better prevent and combat future outbreaks. “We are looking for the answers here that may save us in the future, not culprits and not people to blame,” Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergencies official, said earlier this month.    The novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan in late 2019 and has since spread across the world, infecting more than 100 million people and killing about 2.1 million. More than 120 countries have called for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, with many governments accusing China of not doing enough to contain its spread. “It’s imperative that we get to the bottom of the early days of the pandemic in China, and we’ve been supportive of an international investigation that we feel should be robust and clear,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. 
 

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US Feds Were Unprepared to Meet First American Evacuees from Wuhan, Report Finds

Federal officials at a California military base last year who met with the first American evacuees from Wuhan, China, the place where the coronavirus emerged, were not prepared for their mission, according to The Washington Post.   They did not wear masks and had “no virus prevention plan or infection-control training” when they met with the evacuees, the Post said, according to two federal reports the newspaper said it has obtained. The newspaper reported on its website late Thursday that the reports supported “a whistleblower’s account of the chaos as U.S. officials scrambled to greet nearly 200 evacuees” who eventually did not test positive for the coronavirus.The whistleblower’s complaint, however, resulted in “internal reviews by the Health and Human Services Department and an investigation overseen by the Office of Special Counsel,” the Post said. According to the newspaper’s account, the federal officials who first interacted with the Wuhan evacuees at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, California, were instructed to remove their protective gear when meeting with the evacuees to avoid “bad optics.” (bad appearances)The Health and Human Services general counsel’s office, headed by Robert Charrow, a Trump appointee, conducted a campaign against the whistleblower among members of Congress who received from HHS an account of what the agency said was the whistleblower’s conflicting information.  That HHS move was “reprehensible,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner said in a letter to President Joe Biden on Thursday.  Kerner praised the whistleblower’s “tremendous courage in bringing these allegations forward.”  There are more than 101 million global COVID-19 infections, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Johns Hopkings Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Friday.  The U.S. tops the list with more than 25 million cases, followed by India with 10.7 million infections and Brazil with 9 million.  More than 2 million people have died from the disease, Hopkins said. A World Health Organization team of investigators, having completed a14-day quarantine, began working Friday in China on their mission to uncover the origins of the coronavirus. One of the investigators’ first stops was the hospital in Wuhan where some of the first COVID patients were treated. The WHO team is also expected to visit a Wuhan seafood market associated with the first cases, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and a lab of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan in late 2019 and has since spread around the world. More than 120 countries have called for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, with many governments accusing China of not doing enough to contain its spread.  Letitia James, the New York state attorney general, said Thursday the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo has severely undercounted the state’s COVID-19 nursing home deaths. She suggested that the count was off by as much as 50%.  New York’s Health Department corroborated James’ suspicions later Thursday, adding more than 3,800 deaths to nursing homes, increasing the nursing home death toll by 40%. The new nursing home number does not change New York’s death toll, however, but it does bring into question the state’s policy of returning nursing home residents who had been treated in hospitals for COVID back to the nursing homes.   Cuomo maintains he was following federal guidelines.  Health officials in South Carolina say they have detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States.    So far, the variant does not appear to cause more serious illness, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement that “preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants.” “That’s frightening,” because it means there are likely more undetected cases within the state, Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, said in an interview with CBS News. “It’s probably more widespread.” A man wearing a face mask visits the Shinjuku City Hall promoting the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, rescheduled for this summer, in Tokyo on Jan. 29, 2021.Officials say the two South Carolina cases do not appear to be connected or travel related.  It is normal for viruses to mutate. So far, variants from Britain and Brazil have also been discovered.Japan’s top government spokesman said Thursday that AstraZeneca will make more than 90 million doses of its vaccine in Japan.  “We believe it is very important to be able to produce the vaccines domestically,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters.  Like many countries already carrying out vaccination campaigns, Japan plans to prioritize front-line medical workers when it begins administering the shots in late February.  Japan has arranged to buy 120 million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. The vaccine requires a two-shot regiment for each person. The European Union and AstraZeneca clashed this week after the company said it would have to cut planned deliveries to the EU due to production delays.  EU officials are demanding the doses be delivered on time and have threatened to put export controls on vaccines made in EU territory.  

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German Health Minister Expects Approval of AstraZenaca COVID-19 Vaccine

Germany’s health minister said Friday he expects the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to be approved for emergency use later in the day but possibly only for restricted use.
Speaking at a Berlin news briefing, German Health Minster Jens Spahn said Europe’s drug regulator, the Europe Medicines Agency (EMA) could approve the new vaccine with restrictions because data on its use on the elderly was “insufficient.”
Spahn said it was important to point out the difference between insufficient data and “bad” data.
Speaking at the same news conference, Paul Ehrlich Institute (PEI) President Klaus Cichutek, said there had been heated debate regarding the vaccine during the approval process this past week, but he believed the “essential groundwork” had been laid to approve the drug without an age restriction.  
He said, “the basis for approval has to be, especially for vaccines, that the benefits far outweigh the risks,” and he believed the drug met that standard. The PEI is the research and regulatory agency within Germany’s health ministry.
Also at the same news conference, Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases (RKI) President Lothar Wieler warned of potential dangers from new COVID-19 variant strains.
He said characteristics of the variants aren’t fully known and it’s not known if they are more dangerous, and, in some cases, if people who already had COVID-19 or were vaccinated have immunity against them.

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US Unprepared to Meet its First COVID Evacuees from Wuhan Last Year

Federal officials at a California military base last year who met with the first American evacuees from Wuhan, China, the place where the coronavirus emerged, were not prepared for their mission, according to The Washington Post.They did not wear masks and had “no virus prevention plan or infection-control training” when they met with the evacuees, the Post said, according to two federal reports the newspaper said it has obtained.The newspaper reported on its website late Thursday that the reports supported “a whistleblower’s account of the chaos as U.S. officials scrambled to greet nearly 200 evacuees” who eventually did not test positive for the coronavirus.The whistleblower’s complaint, however, resulted in “internal reviews by the Health and Human Services Department and an investigation overseen by the Office of Special Counsel,” the Post said.According to the newspaper’s account, the federal officials who first interacted with the Wuhan evacuees at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, California, were instructed to remove their protective gear when meeting with the evacuees to avoid “bad optics.” ((bad appearances))The Health and Human Services general counsel’s office, headed by Robert Charrow, a Trump appointee, conducted a campaign against the whistleblower among members of Congress who received from HHS an account of what the agency said was the whistleblower’s conflicting information. That HHS move was “reprehensible,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner said in a letter to President Joe Biden on Thursday. Kerner praised the whistleblower’s “tremendous courage in bringing these allegations forward.”There are more than 101 million global COVID-19 infections, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Friday. The U.S. tops the list with more than 25 million cases, followed by India with 10.7 million infections and Brazil with 9 million. More than 2 million people have died from the disease, Johns Hopkins said.Health officials in South Carolina say they have detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States.So far, the variant does not appear to cause more serious illness, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement that “preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants.””That’s frightening,” because it means there are likely more undetected cases within the state, Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, said in an interview with CBS News. “It’s probably more widespread.”A man wearing a face mask visits the Shinjuku City Hall promoting the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, rescheduled for this summer, in Tokyo on Jan. 29, 2021.Officials say the two South Carolina cases do not appear to be connected or travel related.It is normal for viruses to mutate. So far, variants from Britain and Brazil have also been discovered.In other COVID-19 news, World Health Organization investigators emerged from a two-week quarantine Thursday in Wuhan, China, to begin their work in search of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.The international team boarded a bus after leaving their hotel in the afternoon.China, which for months rejected calls for an international probe, has pledged adequate access for the researchers. The team is expected to spend several weeks interviewing people from research institutes, hospitals and a market linked to many of the first cases.WHO has said the purpose of the mission is not to assign blame for the pandemic but to figure out how it started in order to better prevent and combat future outbreaks.“We are looking for the answers here that may save us in the future, not culprits and not people to blame,” Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergencies official, said earlier this month.The novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan in late 2019 and has since spread across the world, infecting more than 100 million people and killing about 2.1 million.More than 120 countries have called for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, with many governments accusing China of not doing enough to contain its spread.”It’s imperative that we get to the bottom of the early days of the pandemic in China, and we’ve been supportive of an international investigation that we feel should be robust and clear,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Wednesday.Concern remains in many countries about access to and supplies of COVID-19 vaccines.Japan’s top government spokesman said Thursday that AstraZeneca will make more than 90 million doses of its vaccine in Japan.”We believe it is very important to be able to produce the vaccines domestically,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters.Like many countries already carrying out vaccination campaigns, Japan plans to prioritize front-line medical workers when it begins administering the shots in late February.Japan has arranged to buy 120 million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. The vaccine requires a two-shot regiment for each person.The European Union and AstraZeneca clashed this week after the company said it would have to cut planned deliveries to the EU due to production delays.EU officials are demanding the doses be delivered on time and have threatened to put export controls on vaccines made in EU territory.

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Biden Revokes Restrictions on Women’s Reproductive Rights

President Joe Biden reversed several Trump administration health care policies Thursday, including one that restricted access to abortion both inside and outside the United States. White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara has this story on what Biden’s actions may mean for women’s reproductive rights around the world.
Producer: Bakhtiyar Zamanov

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Novavax COVID-19 Vaccine Works, But Less So Against Variants

Novavax Inc. said Thursday that its COVID-19 vaccine appears 89% effective based on early findings from a British study and that it also seems to work — though not as well — against new mutated versions of the virus circulating in that country and South Africa.The announcement comes amid worry about whether a variety of vaccines being rolled out around the world will be strong enough to protect against worrisome new variants, and as the world desperately needs new types of shots to boost scarce supplies.The study of 15,000 people in Britain is still under way. But an interim analysis found 62 participants so far have been diagnosed with COVID-19 — only six of them in the group that received the vaccine, and the rest who received dummy shots.The infections occurred at a time when Britain was experiencing a jump in COVID-19 caused by a more contagious variant. A preliminary analysis found over half of the trial participants who became infected had the mutated version. The numbers are very small, but Novavax said they suggest the vaccine is nearly 96% effective against the older coronavirus and nearly 86% effective against the new variant. The findings are based on cases that occurred at least a week after the second dose.”Both those numbers are dramatic demonstrations of the ability of our vaccine to develop a very potent immune response,” Novavax CEO Stanley Erck said in a call with investors late Thursday.Scientists have been even more worried about a variant first discovered in South Africa that carries different mutations. Results from a smaller Novavax study in that country suggests the vaccine does work but not nearly as well as it does against the variant from Britain.The South African study included some volunteers with HIV. Among the HIV-negative volunteers, the vaccine appears 60% effective. Including volunteers with HIV, overall, the protection was 49%, the company said. While genetic testing still is underway, so far about 90% of the COVID-19 illnesses found in the South African study appear due to the new mutant.”These are good results. There is reason to be optimistic” about the 60% effectiveness, said Glenda Gray, head of the South African Medical Research Council. Even against the new variant that now causes more than 90% of new cases in that country, “we’re still seeing vaccine efficacy,” she said.More concerning is what the study showed about a totally different question — the chances of people getting COVID-19 a second time, said the leader of the South African study, Shabir Madhi of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Tests suggested that nearly a third of study participants had been previously infected, yet rates of new infections in the placebo group were similar.”Past infection with early variants of the virus in South Africa does not protect” against infection with the new one, he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any protection derived.”Novavax said it needs some additional data before it can seek British authorization for the vaccine’s use, sometime in the next month or so. A larger study in the U.S. and Mexico has enrolled slightly over half of the needed 30,000 volunteers. Novavax said it is not clear if the Food and Drug Administration will also need data from that study before deciding whether to allow U.S. use.Meanwhile, the company is starting to develop a version of the vaccine that could more specifically target the mutations found in South Africa, in case health authorities eventually decide that updated dosing is needed.Vaccines against COVID-19 train the body to recognize the new coronavirus, mostly the spike protein that coats it. But the Novavax candidate is made differently than the first shots being used. Called a recombinant protein vaccine, the Maryland company uses genetic engineering to grow harmless copies of the coronavirus spike protein in insect cells. Scientists extract and purify the protein and then mix in an immune-boosting chemical. 

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Biden Orders Expanded Health Care on Two Fronts

U.S. President Joe Biden signed two orders expanding health care on Thursday, saying they would “undo the damage” of policies favored by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. Biden restored U.S. funding for foreign nongovernmental groups that give information to women about abortions, and also opened a special three-month enrollment period for uninsured Americans who now want to buy health insurance, as well as for those who lost their coverage because of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump, like past Republican presidents, had supported what critics have called the “global gag rule” on abortion information and had refused to reopen the government’s market for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.  Biden’s order also increased access to health care funding for impoverished Americans under a program called Medicaid. “There’s nothing new that we’re doing here,” Biden said, other than to restore programs as they were before Trump changed them. Biden contended that Trump made them “more inaccessible, more expensive and more difficult for people to qualify for.” Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
FILE – The HealthCare.gov website is seen on a computer screen in New York, Oct. 23, 2018.Typically, the program is only open for signups for six weeks a year. “As we continue to battle COVID-19, it is even more critical that Americans have meaningful access to affordable care,” the White House said in a statement ahead of the signing. The order directs federal agencies to reexamine policies that undermine the program’s protections for people who have preexisting conditions, including effects from COVID-19. More than 431,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University, and another 25.6 million have been infected. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters Wednesday that her agency’s forecasts indicated the U.S. death toll would be between 479,000 and 514,000 by February 20. 

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