HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s leader says fully-vaccinated residents could soon be allowed to form “vaccination bubbles” that would allow socializing in larger groups during the pandemic, as part of incentives to encourage more people to get inoculated.
So far, only about 8% of the population has been inoculated since Hong Kong began its vaccination program in late February.
But the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam said in a news conference Monday that it would establish a travel bubble with Singapore, and that details would be announced soon. Similar plans for such an air bubble fell through last November following a surge of cases in Hong Kong, which led to months of stringent social-distancing measures.
Cases have since come down, and the city recorded no untraceable cases over the last few days.
Plans are also in place to allow a limited number of travelers from mainland China to enter Hong Kong without quarantine from mid-May as the mainland has achieved “zero infection.”
A ban on flights from Britain will also be lifted in May, although travelers will still be required to be quarantined for 21 days at designated hotels. Quarantine restrictions for fully-vaccinated travelers from low-risk and medium-risk countries such as Singapore, New Zealand and Australia could also be reduced.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— Muslims are navigating coronavirus regulations for their second Ramadan in the shadow of the pandemic
— China’s top disease control official said current vaccines offer low protection, mixing them is among strategies being considered to boost effectiveness
— 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:
BRUSSELS — The one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines have started to be delivered to the European Union on Monday, the first of 55 million doses which are expected to be provided to the bloc before the end of June.
EU Commission spokesman Stefan De Keersmaecker said the Johnson & Johnson deliveries “are indeed on track as agreed.”
About 105 million vaccine doses were delivered in the first quarter, a bitter disappointment since Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca fell about 90 million doses short of an initial commitment of 120 million. The other doses were delivered by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna with 65 million and 10 million doses respectively.
In the second quarter the EU is counting on 200 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, 35 million of Moderna, 70 million from AstraZeneca and 55 million from Johnson & Johnson.
The EU, with a population of 450 million, hopes to have 70 percent of its adults vaccinated by the end of summer.
Because it relies only on one shot, the Johnson & Johnson jabs are a key component of the EU’s vaccine strategy.
LISBON, Portugal — The European Union’s crime agency says the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up new sources of revenue for organized crime, from online fraud to fake vaccines and illegal digital content.
Europol says “criminals were quick to adapt … in order to exploit the fear and anxieties of Europeans and to capitalize on the scarcity of some vital goods during the pandemic.”
The agency says the pandemic acted as a “catalyst” for new online fraud schemes and the sale of counterfeit medical equipment such as face masks, while unlawful sanitary waste treatment and disposal has become a focus of police investigations.
Europol’s Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment, published every four years and launched in Lisbon, Portugal on Monday, noted one setback for criminals, however: there have been generally fewer house burglaries because many people are working from home during
BERLIN — The German government aims to agree on a bill Tuesday that would shift more powers from state to federal authorities to set pandemic restrictions.
The country’s decentralized political system has resulted in an often confusing patchwork of rules and regulations to reduce coronavirus infections in Germany’s 16 states.
Government spokesperson Steffen Seibert told reporters on Monday that the goal of the bill is to have a single nationwide rule for all areas where there are more than 100 new weekly cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Currently more than half of Germany’s 400 cities and counties have higher infection rates.
Some regions in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein with lower infection rates began reopening open-air dining in cafes and restaurants Monday.
The proposed bill would need to be passed by Parliament. Seibert said the government is already in talks with all parties to ensure that happens quickly.
One issue still being discussed is whether to make testing for COVID-19 compulsory in the workplace. The pro-business Free Democratic Party, which co-governs in some German states, opposes this requirement.
Germany’s disease control agency reported 13,245 newly confirmed cases on Monday, taking the total number of known COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic above 3 million. The Robert Koch Institute said there were 99 additional deaths, raising the total tally to 78,452.
PRAGUE — The Czech Republic has taken its first steps toward easing a tight lockdown.
Czechs are allowed to travel to other counties and a night-time curfew has ended.
Children up to the fifth grade returned to school Monday under strict conditions. All have to wear face masks and be tested twice a week.
The day-to-day increase in new cases reached 976 Sunday. It’s the first time the new cases dropped to under 1,000 since Sept 20.
Despite the decline, the 14-day case notification rate per 100,000 inhabitants was at 808.75 the fourth highest in the EU, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
The nation of 10.7 million has 1.58 million confirmed cases with over 27,918 deaths.
SEOUL, South Korea — Health officials in South Korea say Maryland-based Novavax has agreed to a licensing arrangement that will allow a South Korean biotech firm to produce its coronavirus vaccines for later this year.
Kwon Deok-cheol, South Korea’s health minister, said Monday that SK Bioscience plans to produce 20 million Novavax shots through September, all of which will be used locally. Production could start as early as June.
Food and Drug Safety Minister Kim Gang-lip, who joined Kwon in a news conference, said Novavax’s vaccines are currently being reviewed by regulators in Europe and Britain, but didn’t speculate on when the shots would be approved in major countries.
SK Bioscience is already producing vaccines developed by AstraZeneca at its manufacturing facility in Andong. South Korea has mainly relied on these shots since it launched its mass immunization campaign in February, but there are fears over possible shortages as officials wrestle with a slower vaccine rollout than many other developed economies.
While South Korea hopes to get 150 million doses of coronavirus vaccines this year through bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies and the WHO-backed COVAX program, it has got just over 3 million doses so far.
A little over 1.15 million people have received their first doses as of Monday. Officials have so far maintained their goal of vaccinating 70% of the country’s 51 million people before the start of the new influenza season around November.
MADRID — A Spanish pharmaceutical company says it’s setting up a new production line that would produce millions of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine doses on European Union soil later this year.
Rovi’s existing facility in southern Spain’s Granada will receive an undisclosed investment to produce the active ingredient of Moderna’s jab, the company announced Monday in a press release.
The expected output will be up to 100 million vaccine doses per year starting in the third quarter of 2021, Rovi said, adding that the production will be destined to markets outside the United States.
The facility will be the first of its kind in the EU, adding to the production facilities that the Swiss biotech company Lonza has been operating there.
Rovi had until now operated production lines to fill vials with Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, but the active component had to be imported into the country.
LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged people to “behave responsibly” as shops, gyms, hairdressers, restaurant patios and beer gardens reopen after months of lockdown.
Monday sees the easing of restrictions that have been in place in England since early January to suppress a surge in coronavirus infections linked to a more transmissible new variant of the virus.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said businesses were “excited and desperate” to welcome customers back.
Many people were planning outdoor meals and drinks, despite unseasonably cold weather that brought snow to London and many other areas.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are following their own, broadly similar plans to ease lockdown.
Britain has had Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak, with more than 127,000 confirmed deaths.
MANILA, Philippines — The hard-hit Philippine capital and four nearby provinces have been placed under a lighter coronavirus lockdown to avoid further damage to an already battered economy despite a continuing surge in infections and deaths.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Metropolitan Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal, a region of more than 25 million people, would remain under lighter restrictions up to the end of April after a two-week hard lockdown. An 11-hour night curfew has been shortened to nine hours in the Manila metropolis.
Most residents, except for workers in authorized businesses and medical and government law and order personnel will have to remain at home Monday except for urgent errands. Essential businesses will remain open, including hospitals, supermarkets, convenience stores and banks, but amusement parks, movie houses, cockfighting arenas, fitness gyms and beauty salons will remain shut.
The government has struggled to open more isolation and treatment centers after many hospitals were overwhelmed starting in March by the worst surge in coronavirus infections. More than 1,000 additional beds could now be used, many of them in the government-run National Center for Mental Health, officials said.
The Philippines has long been a Southeast Asian coronavirus hotspot, with about 865,000 confirmed infections and nearly 15,000 deaths.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Gaza Strip has recorded the highest daily deaths since the coronavirus broke out in the Palestinian enclave.
The Health Ministry reported Monday that 17 Palestinians have died from COVID-19, bringing the death toll to 694.
Gaza is under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and its Hamas rulers had managed to keep it relatively free of the virus by imposing obligatory quarantine on the few dozens returnees who cross in via Israel or Egypt.
But in August, the virus escaped the walls of the isolation centers and spread rapidly. After a significant decrease of infections in February, Hamas removed all precautionary measures and cases resurged.
The vaccination rollout is limited. The territory of 2 million people has received vaccines for only 40,000 people, including a shipment via the global COVAX program.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand is requiring that all border workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus by the end of the month.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday that beginning immediately, employers would need to consider alternative options for any of their employees who haven’t been vaccinated. That could mean those workers are redeployed to roles away from the border or fired.
Ardern had previously set April as a deadline for vaccinating frontline workers but on Monday talked about it in stronger terms after three workers at a quarantine facility caught the virus.
New Zealand has stamped out the spread of the virus within the community, so returning travelers who may have caught COVID-19 abroad are considered the biggest vulnerability.
Ardern said 86% of workers at quarantine facilities have already been vaccinated, although that group only represents a small proportion of all border workers.
TOKYO — Tokyo has adopted tougher measures against the coronavirus as it struggles to curb the rapid spread of a more contagious variant ahead of the Olympics in a country where less than 1% of people have been vaccinated.
Japan expanded its vaccination drive Monday to older residents, with the first shots being given in about 120 selected places around the country.
The tougher COVID-19 rules allow Tokyo’s governor to mandate shorter opening hours for bars and restaurants, punish violators and compensate those who comply.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike urged residents to be cautious while vaccinations are in an early stage. “We are still unarmed as we fight against the resurgence of the infections,” she said.