The Latest: Italian police investigating fake vaccines

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FILE – In this April 30, 2020, file photo, mourners gather to bury an elderly man believed to have died of the coronavirus in Mogadishu, Somalia. Africa has surpassed 100,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 as the continent praised for its early response to the pandemic now struggles with a dangerous resurgence and medical oxygen often runs desperately short. (AP Photo, File)

ROME — Italian police investigating fake COVID-19 drugs and vaccines have interviewed a Veneto regional official who reported receiving offers for 27 million doses of Pfizer outside the European Union contracting system.

For weeks, Veneto’s regional governor, Luca Zaia, reported being contacted by unnamed intermediaries offering to sell him shots, including Russian and Chinese jabs, after he publicly voiced frustration over shortages of deliveries in Italy and said he wanted to buy his own vaccines outside the national scheme.

On Friday, Zaia said his health care chief dealing with the offers, Dr. Luciano Flor, met with the carabinieri’s health care squad. The squad confirmed it was searching Veneto regional offices “to look into the presumed providers of vaccines outside agreements with central authorities.”

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— ‘Alone’: A year later, how Italian townwith country’s 1st known virus death fared

— Africa reaches 100,000 known COVID-19 deathsas danger, vaccine concerns grow

— Old habits imperil Iraq as doctors warn of second virus wave

— Joe Biden will use his first big presidential moment on the global stage at Friday’s Group of Seven meetingto announce that the U.S. will begin releasing $4 billion to supply poor nations with coronavirus vaccines.

— Millions of vulnerable U.S. residents will need COVID-19 vaccines brought to them because they rarely or never leave their homes.

— The large number of restaurants that went out of business due to the pandemic has been a boon for commercial auctioneers that buy used equipment and resell them to the eating establishments that managed to stay afloat.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

BOISE, Idaho — Public health officials say an Idaho man has been infected with a variant of coronavirus first detected in South Africa.

Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and Southwest District Health officials said Friday the man had recently traveled overseas and is thought to have been exposed before returning to Idaho.

Officials were working to identify people who may have had close contact with the infected man.

The variant is believed to be more infectious than other variants of the coronavirus that are currently prevalent in Idaho.

So far there have been at least 19 confirmed infections reported from 10 states with the variant first found in South Africa. Two other variants — one first discovered in California and another in the United Kingdom — were also recently found in wastewater tested from several Ada County cities.

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WASHINGTON — White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt says the drive to vaccinate Americans against COVID-19 has been set back by the winter storms that have spanned the country, shutting down transportation hubs and highways. But Slavitt says it’s possible to catch up with a concerted effort.

The weather has led to a 3-day delay in shipping vaccine, or about 6 million doses. Slavitt says the vaccine won’t spoil and is “safe and sound” in warehouses.

But as shipments resume and scale up, vaccinators in communities across the country are going to have to work overtime to get shots into arms.

“We as an entire nation will have to pull together to get back on track,” Slavitt told reporters at the White House coronavirus briefing.

About 1.4 million doses were being shipped Friday and the rest of the backlog should be cleared in several days.

In addition, the government is opening up five new mass vaccination centers, one in Philadelphia, and four others in the Florida cities of Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.

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MADRID — Spain’s two-week incidence rate of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants dropped further Friday, to 295.

That’s the lowest rate since Jan. 5 and down from a peak of nearly 900 at the end of last month.

The total number of new cases has been slowing in Spain for several weeks, but improvements are uneven across the country. The Madrid region is easing restrictions in some areas from Monday, for example, while Catalonia is keeping most limits in place for at least another week.

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WASHINGTON __ Dr. Anthony Fauci is pushing back against some scientists who urge that as many Americans as possible get at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, even if that creates supply shortages that delay required second doses. Proponents of the strategy say the spread of more aggressive virus mutations makes it imperative that as many people as possible get at least some protection right away.

But the government’s top infectious disease specialist says such an approach could backfire, giving people only fleeting protection, and perhaps even leading to more resistant mutations of the coronavirus.

“That could happen theoretically because of the immunological pressure on the virus,” Fauci said at Friday’s White House coronavirus briefing. “You might accidentally be inducing more variants.”

Fauci said “given the information we have now, we will stick with the scientific evidence” that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines approved in the U.S. should be administered as a two-shot regimen.

Fauci acknowledged that even one shot provides protection against COVID-19, but he explained that without a timely second shot that protection could prove fleeting. “We don’t know how durable it is,” he said.

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PHOENIX — Arizona announced it would provide $100 million of federal funding to the state’s 15 counties for COVID-19 testing.

The state Department of Health Services said the $100 million represents an initial amount and is being provided for staffing, laboratory testing “and other activities critical to combating COVID-19.”

The department’s announcement of the funding followed Pima County officials’ recent declaration that they might halt COVID-19 testing as of Monday because of a lack of funding.

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has ordered the loosening of pandemic restrictions on businesses after a decline in coronavirus deaths and cases, and he sought the return of all elementary and middle school students to in-person learning.

The governor said small businesses and grocery stores can double their allowed capacity and the limit on social gatherings will go up from 25 to 75 people. Bars and restaurants can allow 75% of seating capacity, up from 50%, if social distancing is possible.

Justice said all teachers and school workers over the age of 50 who accepted the offer for a vaccine will be given their second doses next week. He is asking the school State Board of Education to bring all students from kindergarten to eighth grade back to classrooms.

Justice said “without any question” parents would still have the right to keep their students at home with virtual learning.

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NEW YORK — New data indicate the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech could be stored for two weeks without the ultracold storage currently required, potentially making its use a bit easier.

The companies said Friday they’ve submitted findings from ongoing stability testing to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has authorized the vaccine’s emergency use in the U.S., and will send the data to regulators around the world in the next few weeks.

The companies want regulators to update temperature requirements to state the vaccines can maintain their potency for two weeks if kept at -13°F to 5°F (-25°C to -15°C), as an additional option.

Freezers and refrigerators used in many pharmacies and hospitals commonly chill to those temperatures — but not to the temperature range

currently authorized, from -112°F to -76°F (-80°C to -60°C). The vaccine can remain stable at those temperatures for up to six months.

That’s why New York-based Pfizer and BioNTech ship the vaccine vials in special thermal containers that can serve as temporary storage for up to 30 days by repeatedly adding dry ice. Still, that can make storing and then thawing and administering the two-dose vaccine challenging in many places, particularly developing countries.

The shot is one of just two vaccines that have emergency use authorization in the U.S., though a third vaccine, created by Johnson & Johnson, is expected to win FDA clearance for emergency use within two weeks.

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ORLANDO, Florida — Walt Disney World in Florida turns 50 in October and going ahead with its celebration amid the ongoing pandemic.

Plans for the 18-month birthday party which starts in October are being made amid one of the toughest stretches the resort the size of the city of San Francisco has faced in its nearly 50 years. Last spring, Disney World closed for two months to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus, leading to the temporary furlough of 43,000 workers.

Last fall, the company announced layoffs for 28,000 workers from its parks division in Florida and California due to limits on attendance and other pandemic-related issues. Disney officials said last November that revenue at its parks, experiences and products business fell 61% to $2.6 billion.

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska public health officials say 58% of residents 65 and older have received a COVID-19 vaccination since distribution efforts began.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin tells Alaska’s News Source the state hopes to move the process along faster as more contagious and potentially deadly strains of the coronavirus emerge.

McLaughlin said a variant strain first discovered in the United Kingdom in September is the most concerning to emerge.

About 1,300 cases of the variant have been detected in the U.S. One of those cases was in Alaska, he said.

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink says the state wants more Alaskans 65 and older to receive vaccinations.

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg eased some coronavirus restrictions for higher education students, children and young people under the age of 20, for whom the measures had been “a great burden.”

Children and young people can resume sports activities indoor with a maximum of 50 people and a limit at 200 people was set for outdoor events. Higher education students can physically attend teaching in smaller groups, she said, adding that national measures have had an effect, and more people have been vaccinated.

However, the threats of variants were looming and “the infection situation is still unstable. We therefore continue (most) national measures that will limit the spread of infection,” Solberg told a press conference. “It is too risky to ease (all) the measures now.”

The government maintained some restrictions — maximum five people at private gatherings — while others were tightened — a ban to serve alcohol was moved to 10 p.m. instead of midnight.

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LONDON — A closely monitored survey has found that new coronavirus infections across the U.K. have fallen sharply, just days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlines a roadmap as to how lockdown restrictions in England can be eased in the weeks and months to come.

The Office for National Statistics said in its weekly infection survey that rates of transmission have fallen across all four U.K. nations. In England, it estimated that in the week to Feb. 12, one in 115 people tested positive for COVID-19. In the previous week, the rate stood at one in 80.

A similar picture emerged in the other three nations of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The whole of the U.K., which has recorded the most coronavirus-related deaths in Europe at nearly 120,000, is in lockdown. Leaders are being careful about lifting lockdown restrictions, but are hoping that many can be eased from next month onwards following the rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines. On Monday, Johnson is expected to allow some students to return to school on March 8.

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The Dutch finance minister was on thin ice for taking to a speed skating oval with one of the Netherlands’ greatest Olympians.

Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra faced criticism Friday for breaching the country’s tough coronavirus lockdown after posting a photo of himself on Twitter skating alongside Sven Kramer, the winner of four Winter Olympics gold medals in speed skating.

“Sport is incredibly nice and also healthy,” Hoekstra tweeted.

It is also currently banned at indoor venues such as the Thialf oval where Hoekstra skated.

“Indoor sports venues are shut, so this was not allowed,” Minister for Medical Care and Sport Tamara van Ark told reporters in The Hague.

Hoekstra quickly admitted he’d made a mistake.

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BUDAPEST— Hungarian health authorities issued final approval to a COVID-19 vaccine produced in China, clearing the way for the first inoculations with a Chinese vaccine in the European Union.

Hungary’s chief medical officer, Cecilia Muller, said during a press briefing that examinations of the Sinopharm vaccine by the country’s National Public Health Center had found it to be in line with documentation provided by its developer. Hungary received 550,000 doses of the vaccine on Tuesday, enough to treat 275,000 people with the two-round jab.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that he expected a rapid acceleration of vaccinations in coming days, and that health authorities planned to inoculate 650,000 people within a week to 10 days. Hungary has vaccinated 391,821 people to date.

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BRUSSELS — The European Union’s executive commission plans to double its contribution to the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, bringing the 27-nation bloc’s commitment to the initiative to deliver vaccines to poor nations to 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion).

According to an EU official who spoke anonymously, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen will make the announcement later Friday during a meeting of the leaders of the Group of Seven economic powers.

The official was not authorized to speak publicly because details have not been made public.

Von der Leyen will also announce an additional 100 million euros ($121.4 million) to support vaccination campaigns in Africa in partnership with the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The EU is one of the leading donors to the COVAX program, which aims to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 shots for low-and middle-income countries. COVAX hopes to deploy some 336 million doses by the end of June, and around 2 billion doses by the end of the year.

But the program has already missed the goal of starting vaccination in poor countries at the same time that doses were rolled out in rich countries.

— Reported by Lorne Cook

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