Father Nazeer Dako places a poster welcoming Pope Francis to St. Joseph's Chaldean Church in preparation for the Pope's visit, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (AP/Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is defending Pope Francis’ decision to go ahead with his trip to Iraq this weekend despite rising coronavirus infections there and concerns about crowds wanting to see him.
The Vatican says health care precautions are being taken and the trip is an “act of love for this land, for its people, and for its Christians.”
Francis is due to visit Iraq Friday through Monday in his first foreign trip since the start of the pandemic. He plans to celebrate a Mass for an expected 10,000 people in the sports stadium in Erbil.
Coronavirus cases have spiked in the past month in Iraq and infectious disease experts say a high-profile trip by a world leader to a country with a fragile health care system is not a good idea.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni was asked why the trip couldn’t be postponed a few months. Bruni noted Iraq has a predominantly young population, the number of infections was small compared to the overall population and papal events will follow Iraqi health protocols. Those include limited participation and social distancing.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— AP source: Merck to help produce Johnson & Johnson vaccine
— Vatican defends pope’s trip to Iraq, stadium mass for 10,000 people
— Chinese vaccines sweep across the world, despite some concerns
— Pandemic frustrations fuel attacks on health care workers around the world
— Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
BRUSSELS — A Belgium virologist says the country is facing the threat of a major third spike in COVID-19 cases, based on a rise in hospitals admissions.
Steven Van Gucht of the scientific government institution Sciensano says “there is clearly a risk that this is the start of a third wave.”
He says infections in the past days had risen by as much as 25 percent. He added hospital admissions rose quickly to 204 people last Friday, after numbers hovered around 100 to 150. In the past month, patients in intensive care had risen to 410 from about 300.
The government will assess on Wednesday whether to give the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 55. Recent studies though have indicated shots could be used on all age groups.
Coronavirus restrictions have been in place since November, including mandatory mask wearing outdoors, night-time curfews, limits on shopping and a ban non-essential travel.
There’s been more than 22,000 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus in Belgium, which has a population of 11.5 million.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia reported the first cases of the British variant of the coronavirus.
Indonesian Deputy Health Minister Dante Saksono says there are two cases found in the world’s fourth most populous country.
Indonesia announced 5,712 new daily cases, bringing the confirmed total to 1,347,026. The total number of confirmed deaths reached 36,518.
National COVID-19 Mitigation Task Force spokesperson Wiku Adisasmito says cases are decreasing in Indonesia with the enforcement of public activity restrictions in Java and the Bali islands.
WASHINGTON — A Biden administration official says drugmaker Merck will help produce rival Johnson & Johnson’s newly-approved coronavirus vaccine.
The official spoke Tuesday on the condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement.
The announcement comes as the White House looks to speed the production of the single-dose vaccine. Officials have said J&J faced unexpected production issues with its vaccine and only produced 3.9 million doses ahead of its receiving emergency use authorization on Saturday. The company says it is on pace to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June.
The assistance from Merck was expected to help J&J meet its production commitments and expand supply even further.
President Joe Biden is set to highlight the development in a speech Tuesday afternoon.
NEW DELHI — An estimated 10 million people in India have registered to get vaccinated since the country expanded its vaccination drive beyond health care and frontline workers on Monday.
India’s health ministry says 5 million registrations had been recorded in an online system for registrations, and on average each registration is for two people to get the shots. In the past 24 hours, India has vaccinated more than 200,000 people who are above the age of 60 or have underlying medical conditions.
Since January, India has administered over 14.8 million doses of vaccine. More than 6.7 million health workers and 5.3 million other frontline workers have received the first dose of the vaccine. Nearly 2.6 million health workers have received both doses, the health ministry says.
In the past two weeks, cases have increased in several states after months of decline. Scientists are concerned about variants of the virus.
LONDON — A key researcher behind the AstraZeneca vaccine says he hopes data from England demonstrating the shot’s effectiveness in older adults will ease concerns in European countries that have been slow to roll out the vaccine.
Data from England’s mass vaccination program showed that both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines were around 60% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in people over 70 after a single dose, according to an analysis released late Monday by the country’s public health agency. It also showed that both vaccines were about 80% effective in preventing hospitalization among people over 80.
Professor Andrew Pollard, the lead researcher in clinical trials of the AstraZeneca vaccine in conjunction with Oxford University, told the BBC, “whether you’ve had a Pfizer vaccine or the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, you have very high levels of protection.”
Public Health England released the results of the study to the public ahead of publication in a medical journal. The study hasn’t been peer reviewed.
DAKAR, Senegal — Nearly 4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have arrived in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
It’s the third and largest delivery to be made by the global COVAX initiative, which was created to ensure that low- and middle-income countries have fair access to doses.
The COVAX program, which has fall short of its goals to quickly get vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable people, shipped 3.94 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, from Mumbai to Abuja, according to UNICEF and its partners.
The delivery is part of a first wave of vaccines for Nigeria. On Tuesday, the West African nation recorded 156,017 cases and 1,915 confirmed deaths.
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Bosnia has received 10,000 vaccines from neighboring Serbia amid a dispute with the international COVAX mechanism over a delay in planned shipments.
Bosnia has threatened to sue the program unless the vaccines arrive as agreed. The country has asked for 1.2 million vaccines that would cover about one third of its population.
Serbia’s populist President Aleksandar Vucic flew to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to deliver the shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines to the authorities there. The shots are administered in two doses, so the shipment is enough for 5,000 people. Vucic described the move as an act of solidarity and urged closer cooperation among the Balkan countries.
Serbia started vaccinations in January, mainly with Sinopharm and to lesser extent with Pfizer, Sputnik V, AstraZeneca.
(This item has been corrected to show Bosnia received 10,000 vaccines from Serbia, not 5,000.)
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s civil aviation authority is extending restrictions on travel from the U.K., South Africa and some other countries until March 14 to avoid the spread of more contagious new coronavirus variants.
The measures were imposed in January after other countries also applied restrictions on travel from Britain and South Africa.
Later Pakistan also imposed similar restrictions on travel from Portugal, Netherlands, Tanzania, Botswana, Columbia, Comoros, Ghana, Ireland, Kenya, Zambia, Brazil and Mozambique. These restrictions are to remain until March 14.
The latest development comes as Pakistan reported 42 additional deaths, increasing the country’s overall COVID-19 toll to 12,938. Pakistan also reported 1,163 new cases.
BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia’s epidemiologists have called for the government to introduce a state of emergency and a strict lockdown to halt a surge in coronavirus infections in the Balkan country.
The numbers of daily new cases have been rising sharply in the nation of 7 million despite a mass inoculation campaign that has reached 1 million people already.
Cchief epidemiologist Predrag Kon on Tuesday told the state RTS television that “we must ban contacts or we will break, and then realize what it means when the health system collapses.”
Health authorities say more than 4,000 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in Serbia and the country is reporting a few thousand new cases daily. Serbia has recorded nearly 4,500 virus-related deaths.
Experts have blamed the recent surge on parties and nightclubs flouting anti-virus rules as well as on ski resorts that stayed open all winter.
Serbia has vaccinated most people with China’s Sinopharm jabs, followed by Pfizer, Russia’s Sputnik V and recently AstraZeneca.
BRUSSELS — The European Commission says nearly 10% of all alerts for dangerous non-food products sold on the EU market last year were related to COVID-19.
The EU’s executive arm released data Tuesday on its alert system designed to take off dangerous items off the market. According to the annual report, 9% of all alerts raised in 2020 were related to coronavirus products, “mostly masks meant to protect but failing to do so.” The commission also mentioned disinfectants containing toxic chemicals or UV sanitizers exposing users to radiation.
In total, there were 161 alerts on masks, 13 alerts on hand disinfectants and 18 alerts on UV lamps. More than 2,200 alerts were exchanged by the 31 participating countries, which led to 5,377 follow up actions — an increase of more than 20%.
Toys were the most notified products ahead of motor vehicles.
TAIPEI, Taiwan — China’s vaccine diplomacy campaign has been a surprising success: It has pledged roughly half a billion doses of its vaccines to more than 45 countries, according to a country-by-country tally by The Associated Press.
With just four of China’s many vaccine makers claiming they are able to produce at least 2.6 billion doses this year, a large part of the world’s population will end up inoculated not with the fancy Western vaccines boasting headline-grabbing efficacy rates, but with China’s humble, traditionally made shots.
Amid a dearth of public data on China’s vaccines, hesitations over their efficacy and safety are still pervasive in the countries depending on them, along with concerns about what China might want in return for deliveries. Nonetheless, inoculations with Chinese vaccines already have begun in more than 25 countries, and the Chinese shots have been delivered to another 11, according to the AP tally, based on independent reporting in those countries along with government and company announcements.
MADRID — Spain’s unemployment rate has surpassed the milestone of 4 million people for the first time in almost five years.
The Labor Ministry, which published the latest jobless figures Tuesday, attributed the rise to the “heavy impact” of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy amid “severe restrictions” on movement.
As well as the jobless, almost 900,000 people are on furlough schemes and some 600,000 self-employed people are without work.
Pablo Casado, the leader of the main opposition Popular Party, said the figures amounted to a “social catastrophe.”
BERLIN — Austria’s leader says his country and Denmark intend to stop relying solely on the European Union for coronavirus vaccines and will work with Israel to produce second-generation vaccines.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz plans to visit Israel with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on Thursday and confer with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on vaccine research and production cooperation.
The EU has faced criticism for its slow vaccine rollout, while Israel has vaccinated a large part of its population. Kurz said Tuesday to the Austria Press Agency that it was right in principle to take a European-wide approach to inoculations, but maintained that the European Medicines Agency has been too slow to approve vaccines and pointed to companies’ delivery shortfalls.
He added: “We must prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent solely on the EU in the production of second-generation vaccines.”
APA reported that Kurz said Austria and Denmark “will no longer rely on the EU in the future and will in the coming years produce doses of second-generation vaccine for further mutations of the coronavirus together with Israel as well as researching jointly treatment possibilities.”
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Saudi Ministry of Health has announced that Muslims who want to perform the annual hajj pilgrimage this year will need to prove that they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.
The government says it will consider coronavirus vaccination as “the main condition for participation” in the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims who can are obliged to make once in their lives.
The statement did not specify whether the hajj, which traditionally draws some 2 million Muslims from across the world, would again exclude pilgrims from outside the kingdom to prevent contagion.
Last year, Saudi officials permitted only a very limited number of pilgrims already within the country to perform the hajj amid the surging pandemic. The decision dealt a devastating blow to millions of believers around the world who plan for and look forward to the trip for years.
The five-day pilgrimage starts this year at the end of July.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s government said Tuesday that it has earmarked a small island off the northern coast to bury the bodies of those who die of COVID-19.
Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said health authorities are now preparing rules for safe burial at Iranaithivu island.
The government last month approved burials for COVID-19 victims after insisting that it may contaminate ground water. All those died of the disease were cremated, a rule resisted by many as insensitive toward religious beliefs, especially of the Muslims.
The matter also became a topic at the ongoing U.N. human rights council sessions.
There are 83,552 COVID-19 positive cases in Sri Lanka including 476 deaths.
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean authorities are expanding contact tracing and inspecting safety conditions in thousands of factories following a growing spread of the coronavirus among migrant workers.
Lim Seung-kwan, a doctor who heads anti-virus efforts at Gyeonggi Province, near capital Seoul, said Tuesday at least 84 foreigners tested positive over the weekend in the city of Dongducheon, one of eight locations where the province set up testing stations for migrant workers.
Lim said Gyeonggi has also launched an inspection into the conditions at some 11,000 factories in the region that hire migrant workers and have them live in dormitories.
Health authorities have said the poor working and living conditions of migrant workers, who often live in crammed shelters with poor ventilation, would make them more vulnerable to the virus.
The infections at Dongducheon comes after more than 120 migrant workers, mostly from Asian nations including Cambodia and Nepal, tested positive following an outbreak at a plastic factory in the nearby town of Namyangju.
South Korea on Tuesday reported 344 new cases, bringing the national caseload to 90,372 cases and 1,606 deaths.
SAO PAULO — Brazilian health officials are urging nationwide lockdowns and curfews because hospitals are running short of intensive-care unit beds as COVID-19 claims more than 1,000 lives each day in the country.
“The return of the pandemic in several states is making their private and their public assistance networks collapse and has brought imminent risk of spreading it to all regions of Brazil,” Brazil’s National Council of Health Secretaries said Monday, adding that the nation is experiencing its worst moment since the pandemic began.
Last week was Brazil’s deadliest of the pandemic, with 8,244 deaths from the virus.
The letter from the council, which represents the nation’s 27 health secretaries, suggested lockdowns in cities where no ICU beds are available and in the rest, curfews between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Less than 4% of Brazil’s population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Almost 260,000 people have died from the disease.
BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia on Monday became the first country in the Americas to receive a vaccine shipment from the U.N.-backed COVAX initiative.
The program is meant to ensure inoculations against COVID-19 for the world’s most vulnerable but has been hampered by limited global supply and logistical problems.
The arrival of 117,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to the capital city of Bogota came days after the one-year anniversary of the first coronavirus case discovered in the region.
The Pan American Health Organization said it expects to increase regional vaccine access through the COVAX effort. It plans to bring about 280 million doses to the Americas and the Caribbean by the end of the year.
Colombia — Latin America's third-largest country by population — had already began inoculations and received its first vaccine shipment in mid-February. The government has said it aims to vaccinate 35 million people this year, including hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants and refugees.
TORONTO — Canada’s most populous province has started vaccinating police officers ahead of people 80 years of age and older.
A Toronto police spokesperson said Monday police constables and sergeants who respond to emergency calls where medical assistance may be required have been moved to the current phase by Ontario’s provincial government.
A police spokesperson said 2,250 of Toronto’s 5,000 officers are eligible.
The provincial government has said those 80 and above will start getting vaccinated in the third week of March but some regions of the province have already started vaccinating those residents while the province sets up a website to make appointments.
Authorities haven’t said which essential workers will be vaccinated but police started to get doses Monday.
GENEVA — The emergencies chief of the World Health Organization said it was “premature” to think that the pandemic might be stopped by the end of the year, but the roll-out of vaccines could at least help dramatically reduce hospitalizations and death.
Dr. Michael Ryan said at a press briefing Monday that the world’s singular focus right now should be to keep transmission of COVID-19 as low as possible.
“If we’re smart,” he said, “we can finish with the hospitalizations and the deaths and the tragedy associated with this pandemic” by the end of the year. He said WHO was reassured by emerging data that many of the licensed vaccines appear to be helping curb transmission.
But Ryan warned against complacency, saying that nothing was guaranteed in an evolving epidemic. “Right now the virus is very much in control.”
___7 Hotel Stocks Just Waiting For the Vaccine
Like any group of stocks related to travel and tourism, hotel stocks saw a steep drop in share prices in 2020. The leisure and hospitality sector that once had 15 million employees has lost 4 million jobs since February.
Many major cities will be feeling the ripple effects of the Covid-19 pandemic for years. However, there is ample evidence that shows the pandemic may be coming to an end. The number of new cases is dropping. The number of those getting vaccinated is rising. And even in the cities with the most restrictive mitigation measures, the slow process of reopening is beginning.
All of this can’t come fast enough for individuals who rely on the travel and tourism industry for their livelihood. Hotel chains had at least some revenue coming in the door. And when earnings season concludes, the more budget-friendly hotel chains may realize revenue that is 75% of its 2019 numbers. But that is not enough to bring the hotels to anywhere near full employment. Particularly with hotels that have bars and restaurants that have remained closed or open at limited capacity.
Many economists are optimistic that travel may begin to look more normal by the summer of this year. And the global economy may deliver 6.4% GDP growth this year. With that in mind, the hotel chains with the best fundamentals and the broadest footprint will be in the best position as the economy reopens.
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