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Today's top stories
That's all for today. Before we go, here's a run down of the day's main stories...
A further 242 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Thursday, bringing the UK total to 124,025.
Separate figures – tracking fatalities where Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate – suggest a higher total of 145,000.
Another 6,573 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus are recorded in the UK, taking the country's total to more than 4.2 million.
A total of 20,982,571 people have now received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine – and 963,862 have had their second jab.
Around one in five people aged 16 to 64 in England are likely to have had their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine, NHS England figures suggest.
Police have arrested three men on suspicion of theft after “boxloads” of coronavirus tests destined for schools were stolen from a lorry.
The EU’s vaccination campaign should be able to inoculate “all those who need” by the end of summer or perhaps sooner, an official said.
Italy will administer a single vaccine dose to those recently recovered from Covid-19, a move apparently aimed at saving shots amid a stuttering EU inoculation rollout.
Iraq has signed an agreement with Russia to import 1 million doses of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, Iraq’s oil ministry said.
South African police have seized hundreds of fake Covid-19 vaccines and arrested four suspects in connection with the haul, Interpol said.
India jab 80 per cent effective in preventing Covid, initial results show
Trials of India's state-funded Covid-19 vaccine have shown that it is more than 80 per cent effective, with the government optimistic the news will encourage more of its citizens to accept immunisations.
In a statement released on Wednesday, drug firm Bharat Biotech said initial results from phase three trials on 25,800 volunteers showed that only seven people who had received the full two doses of the vaccine - known as Covaxin - tested positive for the virus within two weeks.
The company said that analysis from the National Institute of Virology showed the vaccine would be effective against the UK variant, while few serious reactions to immunisation had been recorded.
Calls for new Covid-19 origins inquiry amid concerns China withheld data from WHO-led team
More than two dozen scientists have called for a new investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, amid concerns it was “all but impossible” for a World Health Organization-led team to operate free of political influence.
In an open letter, published on Thursday, a group of 26 experts claimed the probe did not “constitute a thorough, credible and transparent investigation”.
“We believe it essential that all hypotheses about the origins of the pandemic be thoroughly examined and full access to all necessary resources be provided without regard to political or other sensitivities,” the letter added.
Cuba begins late stage trials of home-grown vaccine
Cuba has begun late stage trials of its most advanced experimental Covid-19 vaccine, edging closer to a potential home-grown inoculation campaign.
The country started this week recruiting around 44,000 volunteers in Havana between the ages of 19 and 80 for its randomised, placebo-controlled trial of the two-shot vaccine in which some will receive a third booster shot with another Cuban vaccine candidate, Reuters reports.
If the vaccine proves effective, Cuba has said it would inoculate its entire population of 11 million with what would be the first Covid-19 jab developed and produced in Latin America. Cuba said it would also export the vaccine and offer it to tourists.
While Latin American and Caribbean countries are largely competing with richer nations to access limited vaccine supply produced abroad, Cuba has chosen to bet on its own shots even as it faces its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic.
The country’s most advanced experimental vaccine is Soberana, which means sovereignty, 2, reflecting national pride in Cuba’s relative self-reliance in areas like healthcare in spite of the crippling decades-old US trade embargo.
Surge tested extended to North Wembley and Stockton-on-Tees
Surge testing will take place in two more areas where the South African variant of coronavirus has been found, the Department of Health said.
A DHSC statement said the testing and genomic sequencing was being targeted in the North Wembley area of Brent, north London, and the TS19 postcode area in Stockton-on-Tees, in County Durham.
The statement said: "The increased testing is being introduced in addition to existing extensive testing and, in combination with the public following current lockdown rules and Hands Face Space advice, will help to monitor and suppress the spread of the virus. Positive cases will be sequenced for genomic data to help increase our understanding of Covid-19 variants and their spread within these areas.
"Enhanced contact tracing will be used for individuals testing positive with a variant of concern. This is where contact tracers look back over an extended period in order to determine the route of transmission.
"People living within the targeted areas are strongly encouraged to take a Covid-19 test when offered, whether they are showing symptoms or not."
Spanish royalty caught up in vaccine tourism debate
Questions are being raised over vaccine tourism in the UAE after the King of Spain's sisters apparently jumped the queue when visiting their father in Abu Dhabi, James Badcock reports.
Princesses Elena and Cristina, the two sisters of Spain’s King Felipe, admitted being vaccinated when visiting Juan Carlos, the self-exiled former monarch, in Abu Dhabi in February.
A press statement by Princess Elena said that the sisters were “offered” the vaccine and decided to have it in order to ease future travel to visit their father, but the UAE’s Embassy in Madrid told a TV news programme that it would be illegal for non-residents to be vaccinated in the country.
The UAE’s government website says that Covid vaccines are only for “medically eligible citizens and residents”, listing those who are over 60 years old, have chronic illnesses and special needs or work in education as priority groups.
On February 7, when the princesses were in Abu Dhabi, UAE health authorities said that first doses of the vaccine were only being made available to priority groups until mid-March.
The Telegraph asked the UAE government to confirm the policy, and was told that a statement was being prepared in light of the controversy over the Spanish princesses.
Last month an exclusive London travel club, the Knightsbridge Circle, said it has partnered with the UAE to organise vaccination trips to the country with the visitors paying for a package including access to the Sinopharm vaccine.
The Spanish princesses, who are no longer working members of the royal family, have been criticised by many Left-wing politicians and government ministers for effectively jumping the queue by being vaccinated abroad when they would still have to wait for months in Spain as they are both healthy and in their fifties.
Hundreds of fake Covid-19 vaccines seized in South Africa
South African police have seized hundreds of fake Covid-19 vaccines and arrested four suspects in connection with the haul, the Interpol global police co-ordination agency said.
This comes after Interpol, which is headquartered in France, issued a global alert in December to law enforcement across its 194 member countries, warning them to prepare for organised crime networks targeting Covid-19 vaccines, both physically and online.
Some 400 ampoules - equivalent to around 2,400 doses - containing the fake vaccine were found at a warehouse in Germiston, east of Johannesburg, where officers also recovered a large quantity of fake 3M masks, the agency said on Wednesday on its website.
Three Chinese nationals and a Zambian national were arrested.
Vaccine coverage in older adult care homes reaches 93.8%
Some 93.8 per cent of residents of older adult care homes in England eligible to have their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine had received the jab by February 28, NHS England said.
Residents are classed as eligible for the vaccine if they have not had Covid-19 in the previous 28 days.
The equivalent figure for staff of older care homes is 72.9%.
Just 57.9% of eligible staff of older care homes in London are estimated to have received their first jab.
Bangladesh seeks to double vaccine purchases from Serum Institute of India
Bangladesh wants to buy up to 40 million more doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine from the Serum Institute of India (SII), its health secretary said on Thursday, potentially more than doubling its purchases.
Bangladesh, a country of more than 160 million people, has already received vaccines from SII as part of an earlier deal for 30 million doses. India's government has also gifted the neighbour 2 million doses of the shot that SII, the world's biggest vaccine maker, is producing for many countries.
"Talks ongoing. Let's see," Health Secretary Abdul Mannan told Reuters.
SII did not respond to a request for comment.
Bangladesh is also due to get a total of 68 million doses of vaccines from a WHO-backed alliance, with the first shipment of around 10 million doses expected by June, Mannan said.
Currently, Beximco Pharmaceuticals Ltd is the sole distributor of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Bangladesh but the government has not yet decided who will handle future purchases from SII, Mannan said.
Italy to give previously infected people single vaccine dose amid supply issues
Italy will administer just a single vaccine dose to those who have recently recovered from a Covid-19 infection, the health ministry said, a move apparently aimed at saving shots amid a stuttering EU inoculation rollout.
The recommendation applies to both people who have fallen ill and those who were diagnosed but had no symptoms between three and six months ago.
Italy is the third European Union country after France and Spain to follow this path at a time when EU nations are struggling to boost their vaccination campaigns due to supply cuts imposed by drugmakers.
Italy, which has a population of around 60 million, had administered 4.76 million doses of vaccines as of early Thursday, with some 1.5 million people receiving the recommended two shots.
In all, it has received 6.3 million doses from manufacturers, but repeated supply delays have hampered inoculation efforts.
UK death toll rises by 242
The Government has said that a further 242 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Thursday, bringing the UK total to 124,025.
Separate figures published by the UK's statistics agencies for deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days, show there have been 145,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
The Government also said that, as of 9am on Thursday, there had been a further 6,573 lab-confirmed cases in the UK.
It brings the total to 4,201,358.
The United Kingdom 'as it is, is over', says Wales' First Minister
The First Minister of Wales said the United Kingdom "as it is, is over", and a new union should be crafted to reflect a "voluntary association of four nations".
Mark Drakeford said the UK was in danger if politicians only offered a "tweaking of the status quo", adding that the coronavirus pandemic has led to a rise in support for Welsh independence as well as for reversing devolution in Wales.
He told the Welsh Affairs Committee: "I do think the effect of the pandemic and the last 12 months has been to polarise opinion in Wales about the way it should be governed.
"What we have to do - to quote a Conservative member of the Senedd, David Melding - is we have to recognise that the union as it is, is over. We have to create a new union.
"We have to demonstrate to people how we can recraft the UK in a way that recognises it as a voluntary association of four nations, in which we choose to pool our sovereignty for common purposes and for common benefits."
EU sets sights on summer ahead of vaccine targets
The European Union’s coronavirus vaccination campaign should be able to inoculate “all those who need” by the end of summer or perhaps sooner, an EU official pledged.
EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton said he was confident that “by the end of the summer, and I hope even sooner, all those who need to be vaccinated will have been”.
The EU has faced sharp criticism over delays in vaccine rollouts, partly due to production bottlenecks, while other countries like Israel, Britain and the United States have been much faster.
Speaking in Rome after talks with Italian Economic Development Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti, Breton said he was “very impressed” by how pharmaceutical companies had managed to accelerate vaccine production.
“The issue is no longer about (having enough) vaccines, in Europe we have plenty of vaccines available,” said the French EU official, a former businessman.
Waive Covid vaccine patents to benefit poor nations, activists say
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staged a protest at the World Trade Organization on Thursday against what it said was the rich world's reluctance to waive patents and allow more production of Covid-19 vaccines for poorer nations.
Activists seeking a waiver of intellectual property rules unfurled a huge sign reading "No Covid Monopolies - Wealthy Countries Stop Blocking TRIPS Waiver" in the park next to WTO's headquarters on Lake Geneva.
They want the terms of the TRIPS agreement -- the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property -- to be overridden to allow generic or other manufactures to make the new products.
WTO member states hold fresh talks next week on a proposal by India and South Africa to waive such rules for Covid-19 drugs and vaccines.
"If we had the waiver, we'd be able in a number of countries to scale up production right now, which would allow for the diagnostics, the medicines, and the vaccines to get where they're needed most," Stephen Cornish, general director of MSF Switzerland, told Reuters at the WTO.
"Right now we are seeing just a trickle of vaccines making it to the global South, and this is just not acceptable in today's world," he said.
Some 100 countries now support the campaign, Cornish added.
Iraq signs deal to receive Russia's Sputnik V vaccine
Iraq has signed an agreement with Russia to import 1 million doses of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, Iraq's oil ministry said on Thursday.
Iraq, which is struggling to curb the spread of Covid-19, expects the vaccine shipment to be delivered to Baghdad within two weeks, according to a statement citing Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar, who signed the deal.
On Tuesday, Iraq received its first 50,000 doses of the Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine as a donation from China. Inoculations started the same day for health workers, elderly people and members of the security forces first.
Sinopharm Group is to supply around 2 million doses of the vaccine in stages, and Iraq also has agreements to receive vaccines from AstraZeneca Plc and Pfizer.
One in five adults under 65 have had Covid vaccine
Around one in five people aged 16 to 64 in England are likely to have had their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine, NHS England figures suggest.
An estimated 21.3 per cent of people in this age group had received their first jab by February 28.
The estimates show little variation between regions, ranging from 19 per cent in London to 23.4 per cent in north-west England.
Yesterday a further 275,003 doses were given out in England yesterday, of which 231,002 were first doses, and 44,001 second doses.
Italy blocks export of AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia as tensions rise over jab access
Italy became the first country to impose an EU export ban on coronavirus vaccines on Thursday after blocking a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca jabs to Australia.
Brussels introduced the export transparency regime during its row over supply shortfalls with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company at the end of January.
Under the new rules, manufacturers in the EU must ask national authorities in the country of production and the European Commission for permission to export vaccines outside of the EU.
Italy blocked the export of the vaccines and the commission did not raise any objections, the Financial Times reported. Rome notified Brussels of its decision at the end of last week.
EU allies such as Canada and Britain had raised their concerns about the regime, which was a response to fears that vaccines bought by Brussels were being shipped elsewhere.
The FT reported that the Italian government, the commission and AstraZeneca all refused to comment.
Poland does not plan to buy Russian vaccine, says minister
Poland does not plan to buy the Russian Covid-19 vaccine, the prime minister's top aide said on Thursday.
"When it comes to the Russian vaccine, we do not plan to buy such a vaccine, but when it comes to the Chinese vaccine, we are analysing this issue ... no decisions have been made on this matter," Michal Dworczyk told a news conference.
South Africa's excess deaths are nearly triple the official virus fatalities
South Africa has recorded over 145,000 excess natural deaths over the past 10 months, a medical research report showed, suggesting Covid-19 fatalities could be almost triple the official figures.
So far the health ministry has recorded over 1.5 million coronavirus cases in South Africa, of which more than 50,000 have been fatal.
But emerging data compiled by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) shows that over 145,000 extra natural deaths have occurred since May - almost two months after South Africa reported its first coronavirus case.
The latest tallies, spanning from May 3 to February 27, were released in a Wednesday report by the council, which is government-funded but independent research group.
The "excess" death figure is derived from an estimate of deaths "that might be expected to have occurred" without a pandemic, according to the methodology.
The SAMRC does not give details on the cause of these extra deaths, but estimates that between 85 and 95 percent are attributable to Covid-19.
South Africa already accounts for around 38.5 percent of all coronavirus cases officially reported in Africa and close to half the continent's confirmed deaths, according to an AFP tally.
Three men held on suspicion of theft for Covid test meant for schools
Police have arrested three men on suspicion of theft after "boxloads" of coronavirus tests destined for schools were stolen from a lorry.
Essex Police said the lateral flow tests were stolen from Harlow Business Park in the early hours of Tuesday and were meant for secondary schools across the country.
The force said the tests have been recovered.
A 31-year-old from Canvey Island, a 27-year-old from Newham, east London, and a 37-year-old from Dagenham, east London, have been arrested on suspicion of theft.
The man from Dagenham has also been arrested on suspicion of drug-driving, and all three are in police custody.
Chief Superintendent Stuart Hooper said: "Our colleagues in the NHS, and dedicated volunteers across the country, are working tirelessly to stop the spread of coronavirus and save lives.
"I'm thrilled that we were able to recover the lateral flow tests so that those in need are able to keep themselves and others safe at this difficult time."
Covid case rates fall across England in all age groups
Covid-19 case rates are continuing to fall in all regions of England, according to the latest weekly surveillance report from Public Health England.
In the East Midlands, the rate of new cases stood at 120.8 per 100,000 people in the seven days to February 28 - the highest rate of any region, but down from 170.5 the previous week. Yorkshire & the Humber recorded the second highest rate at 113.6, down from 154.0.
South-west England recorded the lowest rate of 43.2, down from 68.5.
Case rates are also falling among all age groups. The highest rate is among 30 to 39-year-olds, at 121.1 cases per 100,000 people in the seven days to February 28, down week-on-week from 178.3.
Among 20 to 29-year-olds the rate dropped from 161.3 to 111.3, and for 40 to 49-year-olds it fell from 148.0 to 102.0.
For people aged 80 and over, the rate fell from 101.8 to 65.0.
La Scala ballerinas test positive
Around 35 ballerinas from Italy’s iconic La Scala opera house have tested positive for the coronavirus, Nick Squires reports.
Three members of the Milan opera house’s management team have also tested positive.
Tests are conducted regularly on La Scala’s personnel.
Some of the opera house’s activities have been suspended as a result of the cases.
Italy appears to be heading for a third wave of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, nearly 350 deaths were reported, along with more than 20,000 new cases.
The pace of the country’s vaccination programme has stuttered in recent weeks.
The new government of former central banker Mario Draghi is trying to speed up the vaccination effort.
Putin says Russia has vaccinated two million against virus
President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Russia had vaccinated more than two million people with its two-dose Sputnik V vaccine, while another two million had received their first dose.
His comments came as the European Union began reviewing the Russian vaccine, moving closer to approving the jab in what would be a geopolitical win for Moscow as it vies to increase its global clout.
But the figures Putin revealed in a conversation with volunteers indicated that Russia had a long way to go to convince its 146 million population to get inoculated against Covid-19, nearly three months into its mass vaccination campaign.
"Over two million people have received two components of the vaccine to date," the Russian president said in televised remarks.
Another "two million and change" had received the first dose, he added.
The totals indicate that only about 1.3 percent of Russia's population has been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Sudan to start vaccine rollout next week after getting Covax doses
Sudan will begin vaccinating health care workers followed by people aged 45 or older with chronic conditions for free next week after becoming the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to benefit from Covax facility vaccines.
Sudan received 828,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-produced vaccine on Wednesday at Khartoum airport, a health ministry official said. The delivery follows that of 4.5 metric tonnes of syringes and disposal boxes through Covax in late February.
Sudan says it expects to receive the remainder of a total 3.4 million doses through Covax , a vaccine-sharing programme co-led by the World Health Organization, in the second quarter of this year.
It aims to cover 20% of its population of 44 million through Covax by September, health ministry officials said.
"This is an essential part of our battle against coronavirus," Health Minister Omer Elnageib said.
Most African countries to begin vaccination drives by end of March: WHO
Most African countries will kick-start their Covid-19 vaccination programs by the end of March as efforts to procure doses for the continent's 1.3 billion people gather pace, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.
The world's poorest continent faces logistical and financial obstacles to securing all the vaccines it needs, but the WHO-led Covax facility has begun to bear fruit.
"This week Africa has been at the forefront of Covax facility deliveries, finally, with almost 10 million vaccine doses being delivered to 11 countries as of this morning," WHO Africa's Matshidiso Moeti told a virtual news conference.
"We expect that around half of African countries will receive Covax deliveries in the coming week and that most countries will have vaccination programs underway by the end of March."
Covax , also led by the GAVI vaccines alliance and other partners, plans to send about 1.3 billion doses to 92 lower- and middle-income nations, covering up to 20 per cent of their populations.
As of Thursday, Africa had reported at least 3,955,000 infections and 104,000 deaths. That is still a relatively small toll compared to other continents, with higher national death counts in the United States, India, Brazil, Russia and Britain.
Restrictions ramp up in Rio
Brazil’s second biggest city of Rio de Janeiro will be the latest to adopt new Covid restrictions from Friday, including a night curfew, in a bid to stall a second wave of the virus.
The city of 6.7 million people will impose a curfew from 11pm to 5am and order restaurants to close at 5pm. Certain businesses, such as clubs, will be shut altogether until 11 March, according to information published in the city’s official bulletin.
A record 1,910 deaths related to the virus were recorded yesterday in Brazil. In response, various states and cities have adopted new restrictions on commerce in recent days, including the federal district, home of the capital, Brasilia, and Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s most populous.
Cases across Europe are on the uptick: WHO
More than half of countries in the World Health Organization's European region have seen an increase in the numbers of new infections in the last week, ending a six-week period of declining cases.
Dr Hans Kluge, WHO European director, told a press briefing there was a resurgence in central and Eastern Europe.
"New cases are also on the rise in several western European countries where rates were already high. Continued strain on our hospitals and health workers is being met with acts of medical solidarity between European neighbours. Nonetheless, over a year into the pandemic our health systems should not be in this situation," he said.
He added that 1.9 per cent of the population in 40 European countries had received the vaccine.
In response to a question about vaccine passports he said that while WHO does not support them they are probably "unavoidable".
Dr Kluge also welcomed the news that the European Medicines Agency is reviewing Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.
"The Russian Federation does have a robust and proven past of vaccine development, manufacturing, uptake. They had a major role in the fight against polio, and yellow fever," he said.
" We desperately need to enlarge our portfolio of vaccines so I see this as a very welcome development," he added.
Dutch Covid test centre reopens after blast
A Dutch coronavirus testing centre reopened on Thursday after being damaged by a suspected pipe bomb, as police hunted those responsible for the blast.
The explosion on Wednesday in Bovenkarspel, 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Amsterdam apparently targeted health workers.
The incident came weeks after another testing centre in a fishing village was burnt down during several nights of rioting against a coronavirus curfew - the most violent outbreak of unrest in the Netherlands for decades.
"The test centre has reopened and the situation is back to normal," Harry Katstra, spokesman for the GGD public health service in North Holland province, told AFP.
"Windows are being repaired and we expect a few hundred people to come through to be tested today."
Police said a metal cylinder exploded outside the building, close to the scenic town's main station at around 6.55 am on Wednesday.
Nobody was injured in the attack.
Boris Johnson defends Government spending on health care
Boris Johnson has defended Government spending on health and social care, amid criticism that the Budget cut funding to the sector.
The Prime Minister said "huge quantities" had been invested throughout the pandemic.
Wednesday's Budget documents revealed that there is a planned cut of £30 billion in day-to-day spending from April of this year.
Pressed on why there was no pay rise for health and social care workers in the Budget, Mr Johnson said: "A lot of these are obviously in the private sector, the care home workers.
"What we've done is had record increases in the living wage, and again the living wage will be going up, which will be supported by the Government, again in April. Our debt to those workers is massive."
EU says no are talks under way to buy Russia's Covid-19 vaccine
The European Commission said on Thursday that there were no talks under way about buying Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.
"Currently no talks are ongoing to integrate the Sputnik vaccine in the portfolio," a Commission spokesman told a news conference.
Earlier on Thursday, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said it had begun a rolling review of the Sputnik V vaccine, which could lead to its approval for use in all 27 EU countries.
"Just because a vaccine is approved at European level, following positive assessment by the EMA, it does not mean there is any obligation for the Commission to include it in our portfolio," a second spokesman for the Commission said.
The vaccine has already been approved or is being assessed for possible approval in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which are all EU members.
National emergency approvals are allowed under EU rules, but expose countries to liability risks if something goes wrong with a vaccine, whereas an EMA authorisation offers more legal protection.
Germany approves AstraZeneca for over-65s
Germany's vaccination authority has approved the use of AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine on the over-65s, the Health Ministry said in a statement on Thursday.
It added that the Permanent Vaccination authority recommended extending to the maximum 12 weeks the period between receiving the first and second doses of the vaccine.
"This is good news for older people who are waiting for a vaccine. They can now be vaccinated more quickly," the ministry said. "We will shortly issue a regulation implementing both recommendations."
'Optimism laced with realism is the only way to face our uncertain future'
If you're excitedly planning a summer holiday and nights out with friends and family when lockdown restrictions lift, you may want to temper that optimism with some realism, psychologist Dr Stephen Blumenthal warns.
The old adage hope for the best but prepare for the worst will stand you in good stead, he says.
Peru’s ‘vaccinegate’ sparks outrage – and a national inquiry
As Peru’s hospitals battle a second, fiercer wave of Covid-19 cases, the launch of a vaccination campaign this month was a much-awaited glimmer of hope for one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the pandemic.
President Francisco Sagasti got the first of an initial 300,000 doses on February 9. It was hoped the breakthrough would restore confidence that the health crisis could be overcome, Peru’s ministry for health said.
Instead, the rollout has caused indignation, a flurry of senior political and academic resignations, and a national investigation.
In what has been dubbed “Vaccinegate”, it has emerged that more than 200 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine were secretly administered to politicians and well-connected individuals before the healthcare workers who had been promised them.
The disgraced list includes the country’s ex-president; the ministers for health and foregin affairs; a senior businessman and lobbyist in pharmaceuticals; the vatican’s ambassador to the country; two university heads; and a member of the committee of experts appointed by the ministry of health to oversee the trial. Relations, such as the ex president’s wife and brother, were also vaccinated.
US charity rolls out vaccination training in 20 African countries
A US humanitarian organisation called Project HOPE is set to train Covid-19 vaccinators in more than 20 African countries, Jennifer Rigby reports.
The training, developed by Project HOPE with Brown University and in conjunction with the African Centre for Disease Control, will be delivered online and aims to cover practicalities around storage and delivery as well as information about the different jabs available, as well as advice on how to answer questions from the community.
More than 140 people from South Africa and Ethiopia attended the first session at the end of February.
Several African countries, including Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana, began vaccination campaigns this week after getting their first deliveries of vaccine through the World Health Organization-backed Covax scheme.
Dr. John Nkengasong, Director of Africa CDC, said:
"Acquiring supplies is simply not enough – we need to ensure that we continue to develop the capacity of our public health workforce in order to fight the ongoing pandemic in Africa.
"This partnership is an example of how to support those efforts, particularly at this critical time as we prepare to deploy vaccines across the continent.”
Ticking time bomb as HPV services interrupted by Covid-19
Interruption to HPV care during the pandemic has created a "ticking time bomb", as access to services have dropped from around 70 per cent to as low as 30 per cent in high income countries, Sarah Newey reports.
According to a study from the International Papillomavirus Society, 32 per cent of women have also said they are less likely to, or would definitely not, attend their screening appointment due to fears of the pandemic.
HPV is a group of viruses that are extremely common worldwide and a leading cause of cervical cancer. The viruses are also linked to cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, penis and oropharynx.
But the virus can be completely wiped out via the HPV jab. However, there are growing concerns that disruption to services during the pandemic will cost thousands of lives - especially in developing countries, where access to HPV care pre-pandemic was already extremely low.
“It is unfathomable and terrifying to think that in 2021 we are still seeing such dire inequality in the roll-out of crucial, inexpensive medical care," said Professor Margaret Stanley, President of IPV Society and a leading expert on cervical cancer.
"More than 350,000 people die every year from HPV-related illnesses, which are entirely preventable. This is a virus we can beat. Early screening, treatment and vaccines are the keys to stemming this tide."
Over 80s breaking rules after vaccine
Four in 10 people aged over 80 have broken lockdown restrictions to meet up with people indoors since being vaccinated in the past three weeks, ONS figures have revealed.
Behavioural scientists have previously warned that compliance to measures was likely to fall once the vaccination programme was in full swing, but this is the first evidence it is actually happening.
According to latest ONS data, around two out of five (43 per cent) over-80s reported they had met someone other than a household member, care worker or member of their support bubble, indoors since the jab.
Sputnik V vaccine to be reviewed by Europe
Europe's medicines regulator has begun a review of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for possible approval in the region.
The human medicines committee of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will review data from ongoing trials of the vaccine until there is enough clinical data for approval, the regulator said.
Sputnik V, developed by Russia's Gamaleya Institute, was almost 92 per cent effective in fighting COVID-19, based on peer-reviewed late-stage trial results published in The Lancet medical journal last month.
The two-shot vaccine uses two different weakened common cold viruses to deliver immune-building protein to the human body.
EMA's "rolling reviews" are aimed to speed up the process of approving a successful vaccine by allowing researchers to submit findings in real-time, even before final trial data is ready.
Russia expects several European countries to approve the Sputnik V this month, the chief of its sovereign wealth fund said.
Europe currently has approved vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech , Moderna and AstraZeneca /Oxford, while ongoing reviews for CureVac and Novavax's candidates are already underway.
The EMA is also expected to give its verdict on J&J's single-shot vaccine on March 11.
Number of young people not working or in education rises
The number of young people who are not in education, employment or training has shown its biggest quarterly increase in almost a decade, according to ONS figures.
There were an estimated 797,000 classed as Neet in the final quarter of last year, an increase of 39,000 compared with July to September 2020 and up by 34,000 from October to December 2019.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the latest quarterly increase was the largest since July to September 2011, and was almost entirely driven by economically inactive men.
ONS head of labour market and households David Freeman said: "After reaching a record low last quarter, the number of Neets has now seen its largest quarterly increase since its 2011 peak.
"This follows the economic impact of the most recent heavy Covid-19 restrictions, and tallies with other recent data that suggests almost three-fifths of the fall in employees since the onset of the pandemic has been among the under-25s."
The ONS added that 11.6 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK were classed as Neet in the latest three months, up by 0.6 per cent on July to September.
Around two out of five were unemployed and looking for work, while the rest were classed as economically inactive.
Vaccine passport idea raises 'legal and ethical' issues, says Sunak
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said it was "too early" to say whether he would be minded to support the rollout of vaccine passports.
Speaking to ITV's Good Morning Britain, he said: "It is a difficult and complicated question because it raises various practical, legal and ethical issues.
"We are working through those, so the Prime Minister has a committee and we have not just ethicists but doctors and business people working together to look at that particular question, to consider all the issues in the round and come up with some recommendations in a few months' time and we will see if they can play a part."
Michael Gove is heading a review into the potential development of Covid status certificates, which will study similar schemes in other countries including Israel.
And when Mr Sunak was asked whether he was "minded to back" the so-called vaccine passports, he said: "It would be too early for me to use a phrase like 'minded to'.
"It is a committee to look at the various issues that it throws up - there are some obvious challenges - some people are not able to, for health reasons, to get vaccinations.
"And then there is the practical aspect - how do we verify it, what kind of technology would one use, what circumstances would it be appropriate to use it?
"It is too early to say anyone is minded to do anything - that is quite a specific phrase - but I think it is right we go through all of that to surface what some of the issues and benefits might be and then we can decide and make a decision in the round in the coming months."
Hancock optimistic for 'great British summer'
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that he hoped the Government would soon be able to lift travel restrictions in the UK thanks to the vaccine rollout.
He said: "I very much hope that as we are able to lift restrictions then we are all able to travel across the UK.
"I'm confident because of the vaccine we will be able to make that progress and then be able to, all of us, to travel freely wherever we are within these islands.
"One of the factors that we have to be vigilant about in that road map is the emergence of new variants, in case the current vaccines are not as effective.
"I've said before that I'm optimistic for a great British summer and I'm now more optimistic about having a great British summer than I have been at any time, thanks to the speed and the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout.
"By great British summer, I absolutely mean people being able to enjoy travel across the whole of the UK.
"The travel rules for Scotland are a matter for the Scottish Government, but I think we can all see that we can make a stride down that roadmap thanks to the speed of the vaccine rollout."
Prime Minister doing 'all I can' to lose weight
Boris Johnson said he is "doing all I can to lose weight" as he announced funding to help the public get "fitter and healthier".
It comes as the Government announced a £100 million package to help drive down levels of obesity - which increases a person's risk of dying from Covid-19 or severe disease, as well as a number of other health problems.
Mr Johnson said he has been eating fewer carbohydrates, avoiding chocolate and "no more late-night cheese", coupled with early morning runs.
More than £70 million of the Government's funding will be invested in weight management services - made available through the NHS and councils - enabling up to 700,000 adults to access support that can help them lose weight.
The remaining £30 million will fund initiatives to help people maintain a healthy weight, including the Better Health campaign, behavioural weight management services and upskilling health workers in "early years services".
Mr Johnson announced the £100 million has been ring-fenced to help people lose weight, which will also make it easier for people to access GP appointments and useful apps.
No current imperative for fast-track vaccines
Dr June Raine has said that the potential to fast-track vaccines was more about being "prepared" than there being any immediate need.
She said: "We don't have evidence at this moment that any of the vaccines in deployment are significantly lacking in effectiveness.
"They're effective against Kent and we believe South Africa.
"We know that there has been some data from South Africa, we believe effectiveness here is maintained, and we're working hard on the Brazil variant.
"As of today there's no imperative that we fast-track a new variant-effective vaccine - but we are prepared."
Tweaked vaccine approval will be similar to flu jabs
Dr June Raine, chief executive of MHRA, said coronavirus vaccine modifications will follow a similar authorisation process as flu jabs variants.
She said those which have been authorised but need to be modified for new Covid-19 strains will not need a "brand new approval".
"Of course there will be checks on manufacture, on safety, on quality, but we will be using the approach that's been very successful for flu jabs," she said.
"Every year there's a tried and tested regulatory process for the seasonal flu vaccines so that they match the strains circulating each year."
Lack of lunch breaks at home driving longer hours
Most people are working longer hours because they are based at home, often not having time for a lunch break, new research suggests.
Workers are also spending an average of just over £1,000 on converting their bedroom into an office.
The poll of 2,000 workers by hotel chain Travelodge found almost nine out of 10 people were working longer hours and were using their normal commuter time as part of their working day.
Around a fifth said they do not take a lunch break because they were too absorbed in their work.
Shakila Ahmed, of Travelodge, said workers were taking inspiration from hotels to convert their bedrooms.
"It's an ideal workable solution when space is limited at home," she said.
No evidence current vaccines are ineffective on new strains
The chief executive of the the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said there is no evidence that current vaccines lack effectiveness against known coronavirus variants.
During a briefing with Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Dr June Raine said: "Since December last year we have all been concerned about the appearance of variants - Kent, South Africa, more recently Brazil - and therefore we're well-prepared to look at, when it's needed, updates to ensure the vaccines being used in citizens are fully effective.
"Our goal is to ensure that the vaccine modifications in future that respond to the new variants can be available in the shortest possible time but without compromising in any way on safety, on quality and on effectiveness.
"What I would emphasise at the outset is that we don't have evidence at the moment that the vaccines in use in the UK are significantly lacking in effectiveness but we are now well-prepared."
In recent weeks a handful of "concerning" new coronavirus variants have emerged, sparking fears they may be more transmissible, lethal or evade immunity acquired by prior infection or vaccines.
Fast-track approach to vaccine tweaks welcomed by Hancock
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said he is "delighted" that there will be a fast-track approach to approving new vaccines for coronavirus variants.
During a visit to Glasgow Lighthouse Lab, the Health Secretary said: "We will have a fast-track approach to safely approving future vaccines that work against a variant of Covid-19.
"The vaccine programme has clearly been a huge UK success story, and part of the reason that we have been able to develop the vaccines so far so quickly is because of the MHRA's rigorous yet flexible approach, which has been based entirely on looking as quickly as possible at the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
"I'm delighted that they're taking that same principled approach to the approval process for vaccines that may work against variants."
Canterbury Cathedral cats unlikely stars of Zoom sermons
Three cats who regularly interrupt online prayers at Canterbury Cathedral have achieved worldwide fame.
Leo, Tiger and Lilly have featured in the Dean's daily morning prayer services, which have been shown online since lockdown hit in March 2020.
But their antics have become so popular that people have started tuning in from as far away as the Philippines.
Leo, 10, was first to gain worldwide recognition when he was caught on camera wandering into view before disappearing beneath the Dean of Canterbury's robes in May last year.
While Tiger, 14, was also seen stealing milk last year and pinching a whole pancake on Pancake Day last month.
Dean of Canterbury Robert Willis said: "We decided that we would just come into the garden and film, and that was a snap decision and so we began that filming.
"At first we did it for our own congregation and then we realised that people were watching from all over the world... people tuned in as day broke across the other side of the Atlantic or on the other side of America in the Pacific... or the next morning in the Philippines."
He added: "The real explosion came I think with Leo walking into my cassock that morning and people finding that hilarious.”
Italy to give previously infected people single dose
Italy will administer a single vaccine dose to those who have already been infected with COVID-19, the country's health ministry has said.
"A single dose of vaccine may be considered for individuals with previous SARS-CoV-2 infection, symptomatic or asymptomatic", the ministry revealed in a statement.
The recommendation applies to people diagnosed with COVID between three and six months previously.
France and Spain announced a similar policy last month, in a move that also appears to be aimed at saving vaccine shots and boosting supplies while EU countries are struggling to run their vaccination campaigns due to supply cuts imposed by drugmakers.
Italy, which has a population of around 60 million, had administered 4.76 doses of vaccines as of early Thursday, with some 1.5 million people receiving the recommended two shots.
Hungary reports highest daily cases in three months
Hungary reported 6,278 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, its highest daily tally in three months, while the number of deaths also increased sharply to 152, government data showed.
Surgeon General Cecilia Muller on Wednesday flagged the possibility of further restrictions in response to the jump in case numbers and deaths.
Current restrictions in place since November include a night-time curfew, the closure of hotels and restaurants, a ban on all gatherings and remote learning in secondary schools.
Meanwhile Russia reported 11,385 new COVID-19 cases, including 2,150 in Moscow, taking the national case total to 4,290,135.
Authorities said 475 people had died in the last 24 hours, pushing the official death toll to 87,823.
Coronavirus bill will take 'decades' to pay off
Rishi Sunak has said it would be the jobs of "many" governments to pay back more than £400 billion of coronavirus spending.
Rishi Sunak on Wednesday announced a five-year personal tax raid that will bring in more than £21 billion as the bill Government spending during the pandemic was laid bare.
Despite the rises, Mr Sunak admitted on Thursday it would take 'decades' to fully pay off the money.
The Chancellor told BBC Breakfast: "The shock that coronavirus has done to our economy has been significant and as I said yesterday, this won't be fixed overnight.
"It will be the work of many years, decades and governments to fully pay all that money back.
"But it is important that we get our borrowing and debt under control so it stops going up even after we've recovered.
"And that's what the measures we announced yesterday (will do), they will help stabilise things.
"That's what the forecasts from yesterday show, that we stop the problem from getting worse and hopefully start improving it over the medium term."
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Use lessons from coronavirus to fight climate change, scientist says
The director of a state-of-the-art bioscience facility believes lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic could be used to help tackle climate change.
Dr Jen Vanderhoven, director of the National Horizons Centre (NHC), a research, teaching and training facility that is part of Teesside University, said the collaboration between academics and industry that helped deliver coronavirus vaccines in less than a year could be used to address other global crises.
Dr Vanderhoven said: "It's about collaboration and how you take ideas from the lab bench right through to commercial manufacture at speed.
"It usually takes between four and 10 years to manufacture a vaccine and yet, when we've put our minds together on it and worked together on it, it's been done in under a year, which no-one would ever have dreamt... it just shows that, when time is of the essence, it's achievable."
She continued: "There isn't a vaccine for climate change so we all need to collaborate together on that and basically do what we've done for Covid, which is don't have money as a barrier, don't have regulations as a barrier, just get the technologies in place to really help curb climate change.
"I'm hoping that the learning from Covid can be passed through to other global crises because we're not going to get a vaccine that we can cure global warming with, unfortunately.
Wetherspoon will reopen 400 pubs from April 12
Pub chain Wetherspoon is to open beer gardens, rooftop gardens and patios at 394 of its venues in England when the lockdown continues to ease from April 12, the company has announced.
The pubs will be open from 9am to 9pm from Sunday to Thursday and 9am to 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays, although some will have restrictions on closing times.
They will offer a slightly reduced menu, with food available from 9am to 8pm seven days a week.
Customers will be able to order and pay through the Wetherspoon app, and staff will be able to take orders and payment at the table.
Visitors will be able to enter the pubs to gain access to the outside areas and use toilets, while test and trace will be in operation and hand sanitisers will be available. However, the pubs will not be operating a booking system.
Wetherspoon chief executive John Hutson said: "We are looking forward to welcoming our customers and staff back to our pubs."
Pubs and restaurants in England will be able to serve customers outdoors from April 12 as part of the road map out of the lockdown which has devastated the hospitality sector.
Wetherspoon has 875 pubs in the UK, including 750 in England.
London shops frozen in time
Businesses frozen in time with festive storefronts still on display in spring are looking forward to reopening and giving shoppers "a much-needed post-lockdown mood lift".
Retailers in some of London's major shopping areas including Oxford Street and Regent Street bear the markings of Christmas past, with festive decor and messaging remaining on view.
A spokeswoman for the New West End Company, which represents businesses on Oxford Street, Bond Street, Regent Street and Mayfair, said retailers are looking forward to the year ahead and a festive shopping season "where their decorations and displays won't go to waste".
She said: "The West End's frozen window displays are a symptom of the stop-start lockdowns, and sunk costs that will take a long time to recover from.
"With six weeks to go and new support measures announced this week by the Chancellor, central London businesses can start to plan ahead with more confidence as they look toward the irreversible reopening of stores, reviving their displays and giving their customers a much-needed post-lockdown mood lift.
According to Boris Johnson's road map out of lockdown, non-essential shops in England will be able to reopen from April 12 at the earliest.
New car sales drop by a third
Demand for new cars fell by 36 per cent last month compared to February 2020 as showrooms remained shut due to the pandemic, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said.
Only around 51,000 new cars were registered in the UK.
February is traditionally a slow month for car sales as many motorists wait for new number plates to be released in March.
But last month was the industry's worst February since 1959.
Rachael Prasher, managing director of automotive magazine and website What Car?, said: "Online retail and new digital platforms have proven an effective solution to meet the most urgent demand, but the February results once again show the pressing need to safely reopen showrooms.
"With dealers having to keep doors closed through the March plate change - when a fifth of all annual registrations are traditionally completed - all the signs are pointing towards a need for retailers to be ready to satisfy pent-up demand that is building around the mooted April 12 reopening date."
Vaccines tweaked for variants to be fast-tracked
Coronavirus vaccines tweaked to deal with variants will be fast-tracked without compromising on safety or effectiveness, the UK's regulator has said.
The approach will be similar to the regulatory process for the modified flu vaccine, to deal with new strains each year, with a brand new approval not required.
Scientists have previously said a Covid-19 variant resistant to the current crop of vaccines is likely to emerge at some point, but vaccines can also be adapted quickly.
The guidance states coronavirus vaccine manufacturers will need to provide robust evidence that the modified jab produces an immune response. However, lengthy clinical studies deemed not to add to the regulatory understanding of their safety, quality or effectiveness will not be needed.
Care for children with cancer hit globally - worse in poorer countries
Care for children with cancer was hit by Covid-19 at more than three-quarters of hospitals around the world, and particularly badly in poorer countries, according to a new study.
The impact on care meant that almost half of the hospitals made fewer new cancer diagnoses than expected, while a third saw a rise in treatments either being delayed by a month or more or not starting at all, according to the first global study of the pandemic’s impact on the sector published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.
Paediatric cancer units closed completely in seven per cent of the 200 hospitals surveyed, or 15 hospitals. Thirteen of them were in lower and middle income countries, or 87 per cent, and on average they were closed for 10 days.
Efficacy data for India's own vaccine could boost public acceptance
Indian doctors and politicians on Thursday welcomed efficacy data for a state-backed coronavirus vaccine that was given emergency approval in January without the completion of a late-stage trial, making people reluctant to receive the shot.
Government data shows that only 10 per cent of about 12.6 million people immunised in India have taken the COVAXIN shot, which was found to be 81 per cent effective in an interim analysis of the late-stage trial, its developer Bharat Biotech said on Wednesday.
Any boost to the vaccine's acceptance in India, which on Thursday reported a new cases at their highest in five weeks, could also brighten its export prospects. Bharat Biotech said 40 countries were interested in COVAXIN.
Many Indian doctors and opposition politicians had rejected COVAXIN because it was approved by the drug regulator only on the basis of data from intermediate trials. The regulator has also authorised the use of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, marketed as Covishield in India, which was found to be 70.42 per cent effective based on overseas trials.
Biden calls decision to lift mask mandate 'Neanderthal thinking'
US President Joe Biden on Wednesday said decisions to end the required wearing of masks - such as those by governors of Texas and Mississippi - amounted to "Neanderthal thinking" given the rising death toll from the pandemic.
Asked if he had a message to Texas and Mississippi, Mr Biden told reporters: "I think it's a big mistake. Look, I hope everybody's realised by now, these masks make a difference."
Mr Biden said the increasing availability of vaccinations was making a difference in containing the pandemic, but it was critical to remain vigilant about wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.
"The last thing, the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, 'In the meantime, everything's fine, take off your mask, forget it.' It still matters," Mr Biden said.
Pandemic shuts down Sao Paulo as Brazil nears Pfizer deal
Brazil set a daily record for Covid-19 deaths for the second straight day on Wednesday, as a raging resurgence of the virus led Sao Paulo state to shutter businesses and the government to try to close vaccine deals with Pfizer and Janssen.
With a new variant from the Amazon spurring more infections, according to studies, 1,910 people died from the virus in the past 24 hours, according to Health Ministry data. In a year, Brazil's death toll has nearly topped 260,000.
A sputtering vaccination campaign has also put pressure on Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, who said on Wednesday he was close to an agreement with Pfizer, effectively overcoming a dispute over liability clauses.
The government said it intended to buy 100 million doses from Pfizer and 38 million from Janssen, the pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.
"We've reached a grave moment of the pandemic. The coronavirus variants are hitting us aggressively," Mr Pazuello said in a video posted on social media, adding he expected Brazil to receive the Pfizer and Janssen vaccines by May.
Venezuela detects Brazilian variant
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday said authorities have detected the Brazilian variant in the country.
Officials have recorded cases of the variant in Caracas, the capital, and in two states in the centre and south of the country, the president said in a live appearance on state television.
"We have 10 patients: six in Bolívar, two in Caracas and two in Miranda," Mr Maduro said. "It is a variant that is more contagious, transmits more viral load and is more dangerous, more serious," he said, adding "You have to cut the chains of contagion."
Venezuela has reported more than 139,900 cases and 1,344 deaths, but medical experts believe the figure is higher.
Today's top stories
Britain's Covid death toll has been fuelled by its obesity epidemic, experts have said, as global research finds nine in 10 fatalities occurred in countries with a weight problem.
Rishi Sunak announced a five-year personal tax raid that will bring in more than £21 billion as the bill for vast Government spending during the Covid pandemic was laid bare.
Pupils face “mask apartheid” as parents are told that children who refuse to wear one will have to sit at the back of the class and will be banned from eating lunch with their friends.
The coronavirus crisis has helped cut workplace absence rates, as people have worked from home or forced to shield, said a report.
A rise in excess pensioner deaths from coronavirus has seen the Treasury pay £1.5 billion less in state pensions.
Ophelia Lovibond will play Carrie Symonds in the upcoming drama about Boris Johnson's handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Care for children with cancer was hit by Covid-19 at more than three-quarters of hospitals around the world, and particularly badly in poorer countries, according to a new study.