By The Associated Press
LONDON — The British government says a fast-spreading new coronavirus variant could delay its plans to lift remaining social restrictions next month.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday that “we may need to wait” beyond the planned date of June 21.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was “too early now to say” whether the step could take place.
Hancock said a variant of the virus first identified in India was spreading throughout the U.K. Scientists say the new strain is more transmissible than Britain’s previously dominant variant, but it’s not yet clear by how much. They say existing vaccines appear to be largely effective against it.
The government has been lifting restrictions in stages, with indoor eating, drinking and entertainment venues reopening last week, but social distancing and mask-wearing rules still in place.
Johnson said lifting the remaining measures would depend on how much the new variant drives an increase in cases and how quickly the population is vaccinated.
Almost three-quarters of British adults have had one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 45% have had both doses.
MORE ON THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— Biden orders more intel investigation of COVID-19 origin, including lab leak theory
— Taiwan struggles with testing backlog amid island’s largest outbreak
— Ohio announces 1st $1 million Vax-a-Million lottery winner
— Can employers make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory?
Follow more of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea is allowing younger adults who aren’t yet eligible to get coronavirus vaccines to use smartphone apps to sign up for spare doses as officials try to speed up vaccination.
Health officials didn’t immediately say how many people applied for leftover vaccines after the services went live on Thursday afternoon. But a flood of requests temporarily forced mobile chat service Kakao to reboot its servers, said Kim Ki-nam, an official from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
Anyone 30 years or older could also use the mobile services of Naver, the country’s biggest website, to register on standby lists.
South Korea has so far administered first doses to just over 4 million people, which is less than 8% of its population. Priority groups have included medical workers, people in long-term care settings, and adults 75 and older.
Officials are hoping that the pace of vaccination will pick up in the coming weeks as they start to inoculate people in their mid-60s and early 70s.
South Korea reported 629 new cases of the virus on Thursday, bringing its caseload to 138,311, including 1,943 deaths.
BEIJING — China is accusing the Biden administration of playing politics and shirking its responsibility in calling for a renewed investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic that was first detected in China in late 2019.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Thursday that President Joe Biden’s order shows that the U.S. “does not care about facts and truth, nor is it interested in serious scientific origin tracing.”
Biden told U.S. intelligence officials to redouble their efforts to investigate the origins of the pandemic, including any possibility the trail might lead to a Chinese laboratory.
After months of minimizing that possibility as a fringe theory, the Biden administration is joining worldwide pressure on China to be more open about the outbreak, aiming to head off Republican complaints the president has not been tough enough to press China on alleged obstruction.
Zhao said the U.S. must open itself up to investigations into its biological laboratories, including at the Naval Medical Research Center’s Biological Defense Research Directorate at Fort Detrick in the state of Maryland.
PARIS — Production of another potential vaccine against COVID-19 will begin within weeks, its developers Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline said Thursday as they launched a large Phase III trial enrolling 35,000 adult volunteers in the United States, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The study will test the effectiveness of vaccine candidate formulas against the virus that spread from Wuhan, China, and against a variant first seen in South Africa, the pharmaceutical firms said.
If the trial is successful, regulators could approve the vaccine for use in the last three months of the year, the companies said in a statement.
“Manufacturing will begin in the coming weeks to enable rapid access to the vaccine should it be approved,” they added.
Their statement also quoted Thomas Triomphe, who leads vaccine research and development at Sanofi Pasteur, as saying:
“We are encouraged to see first vaccinations starting to take place in such an important, pivotal Phase 3 study.”
DHAKA, Bangladesh — The government in Bangladesh has approved a proposal to procure 15 million doses of Chinese vaccines after India banned exports of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines.
A Cabinet committee approved the $150 million plan on Thursday, Cabinet Division spokesperson Shahida Akhter said. Under the plan, each dose of China’s Sinopharm vaccine would cost $10 and the shipments would arrive in Bangladesh in three phases, starting in June.
Bangladesh had run its COVID-19 immunization campaign with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine supplied by the Serum Institute of India, which it had bought at $5 per dose. India suspended vaccine exports last month amid a crisis in domestic cases last month.
Bangladesh received only 7 million doses under a purchase deal with the Serum Institute. Another 3 million doses were donated by Indian government.
Desperate to obtain more doses, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed deals with Russia for the Sputnik V vaccine and with China for Sinopharm. China previously donated 500,000 doses to Bangladesh after the government stopped giving first doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines to facilitate the administration of second vaccine doses.
NICOSIA, Cyprus — Cyprus will scrap an overnight curfew and allow all government workers to return to their offices on June 10 following a steady decrease in the number of COVID-19 infections over the last few weeks.
Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou said Thursday that authorities are pleased with the infection rate’s downward trend but cautioned against people letting their guard down by not sticking to social distancing and mask-wearing.
He said as of June 1st, all restrictions on indoor seating in bars and restaurants will be lifted, while indoor spaces where people gather in large numbers, including places of worship, theaters, cinemas and casinos, will be permitted to operate at 50% capacity.
He repeated that nightclubs will re-open on June 10 after a pandemic-induced hiatus of more than a year – a key step forward for the tourism-reliant country.
The health minister said that infection rates on the east Mediterranean island nation of approximately 900,000 people have improved largely because of the government’s stepped-up vaccination program. A little over half of the population has so far received at least one vaccine shot, while one-fourth has received two shots.
MELBOURNE, Australia — The city that was once Australia’s worst COVID-19 hot spot on Thursday announced a seven-day lockdown, its fourth since the pandemic began.
The lockdown for Melbourne and the rest of Victoria state comes after a new cluster in the city rose to 26 infections, including a person who was in intensive care.
Victoria Acting Premier James Merlino said: “Unless something changes, this will be increasingly uncontrollable.”
The new Melbourne cluster was found after a traveler from India became infected with a more contagious variant of the virus while in hotel quarantine in South Australia state earlier this month. The traveler was not diagnosed until he returned home to Melbourne.
Australia’s second largest city last year underwent a second wave of infections that peaked at 725 new cases in a single August day at a time when community spread had been virtually eliminated elsewhere in the country.
That lockdown lasted for 111 days. A third lockdown that lasted for five days in February was triggered by a cluster of 13 cases linked to hotel quarantine near Melbourne Airport.
Victoria accounts for 820 of Australia’s 910 coronavirus deaths during the pandemic.
MANILA, Philippines — The president of the Philippines warns he will jail village leaders and police officers who don’t enforce pandemic lockdown rules.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s comments Wednesday night were in response to swimming parties, drinking sprees and picnics held earlier this month in three resorts where dozens of merrymakers later tested positive for the virus.
Duterte is known for a tough approach to crime and he says he wants law enforcers to carry wooden sticks as a “permanent fixture” so offenders who resist arrest can be hit in the hands and feet with “reasonable force.”
A surge in coronavirus infections that started in March has begun to ease after the government re-imposed lockdowns in metropolitan Manila and four adjacent provinces. But daily cases are still high and a vaccination campaign is struggling with supply problems.
NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans is preparing to allow all-night alcohol sales again. And the city is lifting a ban on parades and its traditional “second line” marches as coronavirus vaccinations rates improve and hospitalizations for COVID-19 stay low.
The city says it will end the 1 a.m. shutdown of alcohol sales and begin taking permit applications for parades and second lines under new rules that take effect Friday.
New Orleans is also allowing gyms to operate at full capacity and removing six-foot table spacing requirements at restaurants.
Some restrictions on large gatherings will remain in place. But exceptions will be made for events at which face masks will be required and participants must provide proof of vaccination.
WASHINGTON — U.S. health officials have granted emergency authorization to a third antibody drug to help reduce hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19.
The FDA said Wednesday it authorized the drug from GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology for people with mild-to-moderate cases of COVID-19 who face extra risks of severe illness, including seniors and those with underlying health problems.
There has been low demand for two similar drugs already available, due mainly to the logistical hurdles of delivering them and confusion about their availability. U.S. health officials have been trying to raise awareness of the treatments, connecting people who test positive for COVID-19 with information about nearby providers.
The drugs are delivered as a one-time intravenous infusion at a hospital or clinic and should be given within 10 days of the start of symptoms.
NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that vaccinated kids aged 12 to 17 will have a chance to win a full ride to public universities and colleges in New York.
The state will raffle off 50 scholarships, which would cover four years of tuition, room and board, books and supplies.
New York will hold weekly drawings on Wednesday to randomly select 10 winners. Parents or guardians can enter children who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine since May 12.
Schools across the country are using mascots, food trucks and prize giveaways to try to get kids vaccinated before school lets out for the summer.
Cuomo said children who get vaccinated earlier will have the best chance at winning. It’s unclear when applications for the lottery will open up, but people can sign up for notifications on a state website.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A Rhode Island factory once praised by former President Donald Trump for ramping up production of N95 face masks in the early days of the pandemic is laying off nearly 500 workers.
A spokesperson for Honeywell International told WPRI-TV on Wednesday that about 470 jobs at the Smithfield facility are being cut.
Employees are being urged to apply for other jobs at the company and some eligible workers will receive severance. The masks are critical safety equipment for health care workers and others even as general demand for face-coverings is diminishing as the pandemic wanes.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is asking U.S. intelligence agencies to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He says there is insufficient evidence to conclude “whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.”
Biden directed U.S. national laboratories to assist with the investigation and called on China to cooperate with international probes into the origins of the pandemic. He held out the possibility that a firm conclusion may never be known, given the Chinese government’s refusal to fully cooperate with international investigations.
The U.S. leads the world with 33.1 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 591,000 confirmed deaths.
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