13 Middle East nations report new variants

BEIRUT — Coronavirus case numbers are stabilizing in parts of the Middle East but the situation remains critical, with more than a dozen countries reporting cases of new variants, the World Health Organization said Monday.

Ahmed al-Mandhari, director of WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region, which comprises most of the Middle East, said in a press briefing from Cairo that at least one of the three new coronavirus variants was reported in the 13 countries in the region. He did not name the countries.

All three of the new variants are more contagious, according to WHO.

Al-Mandhari said there are nearly 6 million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the region and about 140,000 deaths. WHO urged people to continue taking precautionary measures against the virus.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— COVID-19 conspiracy shows the reach of Chinese disinformation around the world

— Here’s a look at the key superspreaders of virus disinformation

Peru minister resigns amid uproar over government officials being vaccinated before country received 1M doses for health workers

— Britain reaches a vaccination goal: Giving first shots to 15 million most vulnerable

Israel decides not to send a delegation of defense companies to a prestigious arms fair in the United Arab Emirates

Italy won’t open its ski slopes due to fears of virus variants

— 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:

WASHINGTON— A top American epidemiologist says Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic are sufficient but schools will face major challenges in the coming weeks because of virus variants.

Michael Osterholm is head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and was named to Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force before Biden became president. Osterholm says there’s low virus transmission at schools, especially for younger students, but virus variants are “a real red flag coming down the road.”

Osterholm told CBS on Monday he thinks a virus variant from the United Kingdom in particular is going to cause such a surge in U.S. cases over the next 14 weeks that “a lot of schools are going to be challenged to open at all.”

The CDC said Friday in-person schooling can resume safely with masks, social distancing and other strategies. The nation’s top public health agency says vaccinating teachers is important but isn’t a prerequisite for reopening schools.

Osterholm says health authorities don’t have enough vaccine doses for everyone so he’d prioritize vaccinating older people over teachers.

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LONDON — Britain’s newly established quarantine hotels have received their first guests as the government tries to prevent new variants of the coronavirus from derailing its fast-moving vaccination drive.

Passengers arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport on Monday morning were escorted by security guards to buses that took them to nearby hotels.

Britain has given a first dose of coronavirus vaccine to almost a quarter of the population, but health officials are concerned that vaccines may not work as well on some new strains of the virus, including one first identified in South Africa.

Under the new rules, people arriving in England from 33 high-risk countries must stay in designated hotels for 10 days at their own expense, with meals delivered to their door. In Scotland the rule applies to arrivals from any country.

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Some 500 people have gathered in a theater in the central Dutch city of Utrecht for the first in a series of test events aimed at charting a path toward a post-pandemic normality for large-scale gatherings.

Economic Affairs Minister Mona Keijzer says that, “returning to normal, whether it’s a conference with your colleagues, a sports match or a concert: everyone wants that.”

When that might be possible remains unclear. The Netherlands is in a tough lockdown until at least next month, with large-scale gatherings banned altogether, shops, bars, restaurants and museums closed and sports like professional soccer happening behind closed stadium doors.

Participants in Monday’s trial had to present a negative COVID-19 test result, had their temperatures taken on arrival and will have to undergo another test after attending the event.

The government says it will use data gathered at the event to help decide “how to work toward safe and responsible events” in the future.

The event came with Dutch infections on a gradual downward trend in recent weeks and vaccinations ramping up after a slow start that made the Netherlands become the last of the 27 European Union nations to begin its vaccination campaign.

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BERLIN — German authorities say police have turned back some 5,000 people at the country’s borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol region since tight controls were introduced on Sunday.

Germany imposed checks to slow the spread of the British coronavirus variant from the Czech Republic and the South African variant from Tyrol. It is restricting entry to German citizens and residents, truck drivers, transport and health service workers and a few others including cross-border commuters working in “systemically relevant sectors.” All have to show a negative coronavirus test.

Interior Ministry spokesman Steve Alter said, by Monday morning, federal police had checked about 10,000 people and turned back some 5,000.

The checks have prompted strong criticism from Austria.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, defended the German measures. He said that “the German government had to act here” to prevent the rapid spread of more contagious virus variants.

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BRUSSELS — The EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, is urging member states to be vigilant against scammers offering to sell fake COVID-19 vaccines as the 27-nation bloc faces delays in the supply of shots.

In a statement Monday, OLAF said it was made aware of a number of reports of scammers offering to sell vaccines in a bid to defraud EU governments trying to speed up the pace of vaccination.

The EU has been criticized for a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in comparison with other parts of the world, lagging behind the pace of countries like Britain or Israel. The EU commission has signed six contracts for more than 2 billion doses of various coronavirus vaccines, but only three of them have been approved for use so far and the delivery of shots has been disturbed by production delays.

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BELGRADE, Serbia — Authorities in Serbia’s capital Belgrade on Monday held an emergency meeting over a surge in night clubbing that has drawn thousands of partygoers in violation of rules against the new coronavirus.

Belgrade’s mayor announced stepped-up controls of clubs, cafes and other venues that are allowed to operate until 8p.m. with limited capacity. but have widely flouted government restrictions.

Serbian police said they detained five people over the weekend after breaking up two big parties in different parts of the city. A party in central Belgrade gathered about 1,000 people and the other, held in a new part of the city, around 600, police said.

Before the virus outbreak, Belgrade was known for its wild nightlife that centers on clubs situated on rafts on the capital’s two rivers, the Danube and Sava.

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MADRID — Police across Spain have wrapped a weekend of cracking down on parties and boozing in public contravening restrictions to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Large parties ignoring social distancing, mask wearing and existing curfews were closed down in Ibiza, northeastern Tarragona and many other parts of the country, which has only recently slowed down the sharp increase of contagion seen after the end-of-year celebrations.

In Madrid alone, police fined 450 people for street alcohol consumption in groups and busted 418 illegal parties in entertainment venues and private homes from Friday to Sunday, including a rave in a warehouse with 55 adults and 11 minors who were not wearing masks and were using drugs.

The National Police also found over 50 people in a small apartment rented for tourists in the center of the Spanish capital.

The parties are increasingly better organized to attract foreign visitors and avoid scrutiny, the local police say, with no cash exchanged and payments via phone. In contrast with much of Europe, where entertainment venues have been closed, bars and restaurants in Madrid are allowed to open until 9 p.m.

Spain has managed to lower its 14-day rate of infection per 100,000 residents, from nearly 900 cases in Jan. 27 to less than 500 on Friday, but experts are warning against relaxing restrictions too fast, given that COVID-19 wards in hospitals are still grappling with high occupation rates.

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BERLIN — Officers trying to bust a clandestine Carnival celebration in eastern Germany were left red-faced when most of the revelers escaped police on skis.

German news agency dpa reported Monday that police in the town of Marienberg, near the border with the Czech Republic, received information that about 100 people were partying Sunday without abiding by the requirements to wear face masks or respect minimum social distancing.

Police were unable to determine how many people had broken the law, however, because their arrival prompted a hasty on-ski departure by most of the party-goers.

Saxony, where Marienberg is located, has the second-highest infection rate of Germany’s 16 states. Germany has restricted entry from the neighboring Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol state to prevent the spread of variant viruses from those countries.

Police across Germany have broken up numerous Carnival celebrations across the country in recent days.

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LONDON — People arriving in Britain must quarantine in hotels starting Monday as the government tries to prevent new variants of the coronavirus derailing its fast-moving vaccination drive.

On Sunday the government reached its goal of giving the first of two doses of vaccine to 15 million of the most vulnerable people, including health care workers and over-70s.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the vaccination drive is now being extended to people over 65 and those with underlying health conditions.

Health officials are concerned that vaccines may not work as well on some new strains of the virus, including one first identified in South Africa.

People arriving in England from 33 high-risk countries must stay in quarantine hotels for 10 days at their own expense. In Scotland the rule applies to arrivals from any country.

Critics say the move comes too late, with the South African variant already circulating in the country.

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HARARE — Zimbabwe has received its first COVID-19 vaccines with the arrival early Monday of an Air Zimbabwe jet carrying 200,000 Sinopharm doses from China.

It is one of China’s first shipments of vaccines to Africa, after deliveries to Egypt and Equatorial Guinea.

The first Sinopharm vaccines are a donation from China to the southern African country. President Emmerson Mnanagagwa’s government has purchased an additional 600,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine that are expected to arrive early next month, according to state media.

Mnangagwa, in a Twitter post, said the Chinese vaccines will be administered to Zimbabweans this week.

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — As people in Auckland adjusted to a new lockdown on Monday, health officials said they’d found no evidence the coronavirus had spread further in the community, raising hopes the restrictions might be short-lived.

New Zealand’s largest city was hurriedly placed into a three-day lockdown Sunday after three unexplained virus cases were found. It’s the country’s first lockdown in six months and represents a setback in its largely successful efforts to control the virus.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the negative test results since the first three were found was an encouraging start, but cautioned a fuller picture of the outbreak wouldn’t emerge until Tuesday, when the results from an expanded testing regimen would be known.

New Zealand also announced its first batch of vaccine had arrived. Officials said the shipment of about 60,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech would initially be prioritized on border workers.

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LISBON, Portugal — A French medical team is due to start work Monday at a hospital in Portugal, which for more than three weeks has been the country in the world with most COVID-19 deaths by size of population.

The French doctor and three nurses arrived amid signs that a month-long lockdown, which is being extended to at least March 1, is paying off.

On Sunday, just over 4,800 COVID-19 patients were in hospital, down from a Feb. 1 peak of close to 7,000. There were 795 virus patients in intensive care, a drop from a peak of 905 on Feb. 5.

Johns Hopkins University says the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in Portugal has fallen from 2.82 deaths per 100,000 people on Jan. 31 to 1.63 deaths per 100,000.

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JERUSALEM — A large-scale Israeli study has pointed to the efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at preventing symptomatic infections with the coronavirus.

Clalit, the largest of Israel’s four health care providers, released a study Sunday that compared infections in 600,000 Israelis who had received the vaccine compared to 600,000 who were not immunized.

The study found a 94% drop in symptomatic infections and a 92% drop in serious cases of the disease among those vaccinated. It said “the efficacy of the vaccine is preserved in every age group,” particularly a week after the second dose of the vaccine.

The researchers said the preliminary findings of the ongoing research “is aimed at emphasizing to the population that has yet to vaccinate that the vaccine is highly effective and prevents serious illness.”

Israel launched its COVID-19 vaccine campaign in December. Since then, over a quarter of the population — 2.5 million people — have received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and over 42% have received the first shot, according to the Health Ministry.

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BUDAPEST — The first shipment of a COVID-19 vaccine developed in China will arrive Tuesday in Hungary, the first country in the European Union to approve the Chinese vacccine.

In a video on Facebook on Monday, State Secretary Tamas Menczer said 550,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Chinese state-owned company Sinopharm will be transported by jet from Beijing, enough to treat 275,000 people with two doses each. The first shipment will undergo testing by the National Public Health Center before inoculations begin, Menczer said.

Hungary earlier broke with the EU’s common vaccine procurement program by approving the vaccine on Jan. 29, and has purchased 5 million doses. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has said he would choose to take the Sinopharm jab himself.

The vaccine’s developer says it is nearly 80% effective, but has not yet released stage 3 clinical trial data.