By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A variant of the coronavirus first identified in Britain is now the most common strain circulating in the United States.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, says the strain, formally known as B.1.1.7, is “now the most common lineage circulating in United States.”
The strain has been shown to be more transmissible and infectious among younger Americans, which Walensky says contributed to rising case counts in recent weeks.
Walensky says new outbreaks have been tied to youth sports and day care centers. She particularly encouraged states with rising caseloads to curtail or suspend youth sport activities to slow the spread of the virus.
The U.S. leads the world with 30.8 million confirmed cases and more than 556,000 confirmed deaths.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— EU agency: No restrictions on AstraZeneca vaccine for those over 18
— Even as many U.S. states and schools reopen, many students still learn remotely
— Nearly half of new US virus infections in just five states
— North Korea tells WHO it’s still virus-free in latest report
— Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
LONDON — The European Union’s drug regulator says it has found a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine and a rare clotting disorder but says the benefits of the shot still outweigh risks.
In a statement released Wednesday, the European Medicines Agency placed no new restrictions on using the vaccine in people 18 and over.
The EMA says most of the cases reported have occurred in women under 60 within two weeks of vaccination. The agency says based on the currently available evidence, it was not able to identify specific risk factors.
Experts reviewed several dozen cases that came mainly from Europe and the United Kingdom, where around 25 million people have received the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The EMA, the World Health Organization and numerous other health authorities have repeatedly stated the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe and effective and the protection it offers against COVID-19 outweighs the small risks of rare blood clots.
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran shattered its daily record for new coronavirus infections for the second consecutive day, with 20,954 cases reported.
The record Wednesday comes as the country is in one of the most severe surges of the coronavirus to date. It follows a two-week public holiday for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, when millions traveled to vacation spots across the country and congregated in homes in defiance of government health guidelines.
For months, Iran has struggled to curb the worst outbreak of the coronavirus in the Middle East. The case count Wednesday brought the total number of infected to 1.98 million, according to official figures. Iran Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari says another 193 people had died in the past 24 hours, raising the confirmed death toll to 63,699.
The country’s vaccine rollout lags, with only some 200,000 vaccine doses administered in the nation of 84 million, according to the World Health Organization. COVAX delivered its vaccine first shipment to Iran on Monday from the Netherlands, containing 700,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses.
Tehran, the capital, and 250 cities and towns are declared “red zones,” which have the most severe restrictions in place and the highest virus positivity rate. Over 85% of the country now has the “red” or “orange” infection status, authorities say.
PARIS — The switch to online learning for all France’s 12 million pupils hasn’t been smooth.
Many children couldn’t connect Wednesday and teachers scrambled to find solutions after more than seven months of in-person classes.
Paris prosecutors opened an investigation into possible hacking into key systems. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer announced a cyberattack on a state distance-learning network and blamed overwhelmed private networks and servers for other glitches. But frustrated parents are blaming bad planning.
“There were too many people connected at the same time,” Esther Baumad of Open Digital Education, a leading online teaching platform, told broadcaster France-Info.
President Emmanuel Macron’s government sent all children back to school full-time in September to reduce learning gaps and allow parents to return to work. But amid a new virus surge fueled by a more contagious variant first identified in Britain, Macron last week ordered schools closed nationwide and imposed new travel restrictions.
KYIV, Ukraine — Coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths in Ukraine hit a new record on Wednesday. According to health authorities, 481 people died over the past 24 hours and 5,587 were hospitalized.
Infections and deaths have been spiking in Ukraine for several months, putting a severe strain on the country’s teetering health care system.
“The situation, without overstating it, can be called critical,” says Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who added hospitals will soon reach at capacity.
On Monday, the Kyiv authorities have imposed tighter lockdown restrictions, shutting down schools and kindergartens and restricting the use of public transport.
So far only 320,000 people have received their first vaccinations due to widespread reluctance. On Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced a deal to buy 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which are expected to be delivered by the end of the year.
A nation of 41 million, Ukraine has reported more than 1.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 35,498 deaths.
BERLIN — A spokeswoman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel is supporting calls for a “short, uniform lockdown” as the country grapples with a rise in coronavirus cases.
German state governors, who are responsible for imposing and lifting restrictions, have taken differing approaches. Some back limited reopening steps and others advocate a stricter shutdown. Armin Laschet, a governor who also leads Merkel’s party, is calling for a 2-3 week “bridge lockdown” to control infections while vaccinations are ramped up.
Merkel spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer says, “every call for a short, uniform lockdown is right.” She says numbers of new cases aren’t particularly good, and a rise in the number of occupied intensive care beds “speaks a very clear language.”
Laschet also called for the next meeting between Merkel and governors to coordinate restrictions to be moved up from next Monday but has hit resistance from his colleagues.
TOKYO — The Tokyo Olympic torch relay will not run through the streets of Osaka prefecture next week because of rising coronavirus cases.
The move is a setback for the Tokyo organizers who began the relay two weeks ago from northeastern Fukushima prefecture with 10,000 runners planning to crisscross Japan over the course of four months. Organizers say runners and the torch will be involved in some event in an Osaka city park on April 13-14, the days the relay was to cross the entire prefecture.
Osaka reported 719 new coronavirus cases Tuesday. About 70% of hospital beds available in Osaka have already been occupied, officials say.
The postponed Tokyo Olympics is scheduled to begin July 23.
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea is temporarily suspending administrating AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine to medical workers and people in long-term care settings who are 60 or younger as health authorities in Europe investigate a possible link between the shots and rare blood clots in adults.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Wednesday it will pause a vaccine rollout to school nurses and teachers, which was to begin on Thursday, while awaiting the outcome of the European Medicine Agency’s review.
South Korea has administered the first doses of coronavirus vaccines to about 1 million people after beginning its mass immunization program in late February. It has relied mainly on AstraZeneca shots produced by local firm SK Bioscience.
LONDON — The European Medicines Agency will announce the conclusions of its investigation into the possible connection between AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine and rare blood clots later Wednesday.
On Tuesday, a senior EMA official said there was a causal link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and the rare blood clots that have been seen in dozens of people worldwide, among the tens of millions who have received at least one dose.
In comments to Rome’s Il Messaggero newspaper, Marco Cavaleri, head of health threats and vaccine strategy at the Amsterdam-based agency, said “it is becoming more and more difficult to affirm that there isn’t a cause-and-effect relationship between AstraZeneca vaccines and the very rare cases of blood clots associated with a low level of platelets.”
But Cavaleri acknowledged the agency had not yet figured out how exactly the vaccine might be causing these rare side effects.
LONDON — The U.K. is administering the first doses of the Moderna vaccine, the third authorized in the country against the coronavirus.
Patients at the West Wales General Hospital were receiving the jab on Wednesday. Britain has ordered 17 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, enough for 8.5 million people.
The rollout comes as the U.K. medical regulator investigates another vaccine, made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, which has been given to more than 18 million people in Britain.
Several countries have restricted the AstraZeneca jab’s use in younger people while scientists investigate a small number of cases of rare blood clots in people who have received the vaccine.
Britain, which has ordered 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca shot, has not restricted its use, but its medical regulator is reviewing the evidence.
Oxford University said late Tuesday it had stopped giving the shot to children involved in a clinical trial until it had received more information from the regulator about reports of rare blood clots in adults.
BERLIN — A Brazilian activist dressed as the grim reaper is taking to the streets of Berlin every night in a one-man protest against what he calls the “deadly health policies” pursued by his homeland’s president in the pandemic.
Multimedia artist Rafael Puetter, who has been in Berlin for five years and originally comes from Rio de Janeiro, made his nightly excursion early Wednesday as Brazil for the first time reported a 24-hour tally of COVID-19 deaths exceeding 4,000.
That made Brazil the third nation to cross the threshold. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has long downplayed the risks of the coronavirus and remains fully against lockdowns as too damaging to the economy.
“My performance starts at the Brazilian embassy in Berlin at midnight every night,” said Puetter. “I think the president is promoting deadly health policies and I think death’s the symbol of this government in many ways.”
He then walks to the Brandenburg Gate and the nearby German parliament, in front of which he counts out one sunflower seed to represent each of the people who have died in Brazil over the previous 24 hours and puts them into a glass. He aims eventually to plant the seeds as a memorial.
WASHINGTON — Large numbers of U.S. students are not returning to the classroom even as more schools reopen for full-time, in-person learning, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Biden administration.
The findings reflect a nation that has been locked in debate over the safety of reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic. Even as national COVID-19 rates continued to ebb, key measures around reopening schools barely budged.
Nearly 46% of public schools offered five days a week of in-person to all students in February, according to the survey, but just 34% of students were learning full-time in the classroom. The gap was most pronounced among older K-12 students, with just 29% of eighth graders getting five days a week of learning at school.
There were early signs of a shift, however, with more eighth grade students moving from fully remote to hybrid learning.
With the new findings, President Joe Biden came no closer to meeting his goal of having most elementary schools open five days a week in his first 100 days.
PRAGUE — Czech Prime Minster Andrej Babis fired his health minister, the third who has lost the job in the pandemic in one of the hardest-hit European countries.
Jan Blatny was expected to be replaced by Petr Arenberger, the director of Prague’s University Hospital Vinohrady, who will be sworn in later Wednesday.
Babis has recently repeatedly criticized Blatny over his handling of the pandemic, including imposing strict conditions for use of experimental drugs to treat COVID-19 patients.
Blatny was also under fire from pro-Russian President Milos Zeman, an ally of Babis, who demanded Blatny’s dismissal over his refusal to allow the use of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine because it has not been approved by the European Union drug regulator.
Blatny took office on Oct. 29 to replace epidemiologist Roman Prymula who was dismissed after he was photographed as he visited a restaurant that should have been closed as part of restrictive measures to slow down the pandemic.
The nation of 10.7 million has 1.65 million confirmed cases with 27,329 deaths.
BUDAPEST — Hungary began loosening its lockdown restrictions on Wednesday even as another daily record in COVID-19 deaths was broken and a surge in the pandemic gripped the country’s hospitals.
A slow downward trend in the number of deaths was interrupted as authorities announced 311 new deaths, coming only hours after Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that certain lockdown restrictions would be lifted on Wednesday. Hungary’s government earlier decided that the lockdown could be loosened once 2.5 million Hungarians had received at least a first dose of a vaccine, a milestone reached on Tuesday.
While daily new infections continue to decrease in the hard-hit Central European country, the number of those being treated in hospitals remains over 12,000. Some medical experts have expressed reservations about the plans to lift the lockdown as the current pandemic surge continues to peak.
As of Wednesday, most businesses and services may reopen if they enforce maximum indoor capacity limits and observe social distancing. The start of an overnight curfew in effect since November will be extended by two hours, and the opening hours of businesses will also be extended.
Hungary has the third-worst COVID-19 death rate per 1 million inhabitants in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
WARSAW, Poland — Poland is extending its lockdown by another week until April 18, as over 34,500 COVID-19 hospital beds are taken or almost 80% of those available, a level that the health authorities describe as “dangerously” high.
Health Minister Adam Niedzielski also said Wednesday that the Brazilian, South African and Nigerian virus variants have been found in Poland, but the predominant variant is the one first found in Britain, which scientists say is both more transmissible and more deadly.
Amid a sudden spike in cases, Poland registered about 35,000 new daily infections last week and 600 deaths a day on average.
Under the extended lockdown, schools, hotels, shopping malls, restaurants and clubs, theaters and sports facilities remain closed.
Almost 6.8 million vaccine doses have been administered and 55,000 COVID-19 related deaths have been registered in this nation of 38 million.
MADRID — Spain’s northwestern region of Castile and León region is temporarily halting use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine while European authorities evaluate links between the jab and rare blood clots.
Health services in the Spanish region of 2.4 million people said Wednesday the suspension would affect its mass vaccination rollout. No other Spanish regions announced a suspension.
Spain’s government recommends giving the jab to people between 18 and 65. It was one of the European countries that briefly halted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine last month over concerns about the rare blood clots.
Castile and León’s health chief Verónica Casado said that “the principle of prudence” drove her to put a temporary hold on the vaccine.
“We are not causing a panic. Everyone is watching to see what the EMA will say,” Casado told Spanish public radio.
The European Medicines Agency is holding a press conference on its investigation into the blood clot issue later Wednesday.
NEW DELHI — India has hit another new peak with 115,736 coronavirus cases reported in the past 24 hours. New Delhi, Mumbai and dozens of other cities are imposing curfews to try to slow the soaring infections.
The latest rise reported Wednesday overtook Sunday’s record of 103,844 infections. Fatalities rose by 630 in the past 24 hours, the highest since November, raising the total death toll in the country to 166,177 since the pandemic began.
Experts say the surge is blamed in part on growing disregard for social distancing and mask-wearing in public spaces. The latest surge in infections is worse than last year’s peak of more than 97,000 a day in mid-September.
India now has a seven-day rolling average of more than 78,000 cases per day and has reported 12.8 million virus cases since the pandemic began, the highest after the United States and Brazil.
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