Norway to end COVID-19 curbs, return to ‘normal life’

In this photo taken from video shown at United Nations headquarters, Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg remotely addresses the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in a pre-recorded message on Sept 22, 2021. (PHOTO / UN WEB TV VIA AP)

BRAZZAVILLE / RABAT / RIGA / CAIRO / TUNIS / ALGIERS / LISBON / BRASILIA / PANAMA CITY / ADDIS ABABA / MILAN – Norway will reopen society on Saturday, the government said on Friday, ending pandemic-curbing restrictions that have limited social interaction and hobbled many businesses.

"It is 561 days since we introduced the toughest measures in Norway in peacetime … Now the time has come to return to a normal daily life," Prime Minister Erna Solberg said at a news conference.

The restrictions will end at 1600 CET (1400 GMT) on Saturday, she said.

The decision to no longer require social distancing will allow culture and sports venues to utilize their full capacity, rather than just a portion of seats, while restaurants can fill up and nightclubs reopen.

Some 76 percent of all Norwegians have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 67 percent of the population is fully vaccinated according to the Institute of Public Health.

Solberg, however, warned the pandemic was yet to be finished and restrictions would be re-introduced if necessary. 

"If we get an outbreak with a mutation that the vaccines do not help against, we have to re-enter with national rules. The message is therefore that we are not done with the pandemic. We will not finish the pandemic until the world is done with it," she said.

In this March 9, 2021 file photo, a nurse fills a syringe with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and provided through the global COVAX initiative, at the Coast General Teaching & Referral Hospital in Mombasa, Kenya. (GIDEON MAUNDU / AP)

Africa

COVID-19 vaccine shipments to Africa must rise by over seven times from around 20 million to 150 million each month on average in order to fully vaccinate 70 percent of its people by September 2022, said the World Health Organization in a statement Thursday.

The 70 percent target was agreed at the global COVID-19 summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this week.

"The global COVID-19 summit was a dose of hope for Africa and we commend pledges to share more vaccines, save lives and build back better. It is the kind of international solidarity that will help to end the pandemic. This is about life and death for potentially millions of Africans so there is no time to waste in getting these shipments moving," said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

The COVAX Facility, the global platform to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, has been forced to slash planned deliveries to Africa by 25 percent this year, due to global supply shortages and export bans.

COVAX shipments are still coming into African countries – with 4 million doses received in the past week. However, only a third of the vaccines that wealthy countries pledged to share with Africa by the end of 2021 have been received.

Statistics from Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) indicates that 136.3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered in the continent as of Wednesday, while 4.06 percent of the population is fully immunized.

African countries have acquired 181.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far, the Africa CDC said in the latest weekly briefing held Thursday.

Algeria

Algerian Health Minister Abderrahmane Benbouzid announced Thursday that half of the targeted population in Algeria have been vaccinated against the COVID-19.

Benbouzid made the remarks after a meeting with other government officials, the official APS news agency reported.

He said that 10 million out of a total of 20 million targeted people in the country have benefited from the national vaccination campaign against the COVID-19.

A health worker administers a dose of the CoronaVac COVID-19 vaccine to a man at a drive-thru vaccination post in Brasilia on Sept 13, 2021. (EVARISTO SA / AFP)

Brazil

Brazil’s Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina tested positive for COVID-19, the second member of President Jair Bolsonaro’s cabinet to be diagnosed with the virus this week. 

The minister said on her Twitter account on Friday morning that she’s doing well and will remain in isolation, following medical advice. One of Bolsonaro’s sons, Eduardo, also said on Twitter he was diagnosed with COVID-19. 

The president himself is in isolation in Brasilia after his health chief tested positive in New York, where he was part of Brazil’s delegation to the United Nations. Eduardo, a lawmaker, was also with his father on the trip. 

Cristina wasn’t part of the group that traveled to the US, according to her public schedule, which shows she has met with leaders of several farming groups and other government officials over the past few days, including Infrastructure Minister Tarcisio Freitas. Freitas’s office said he has tested negative for COVID. 

Brazil has had 24,611 new cases of the novel coronavirus reported in the past 24 hours, and 648 deaths from COVID-19, the health ministry said on Thursday.

The South American country has now registered 21,308,178 cases since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 592,964, according to ministry data, in the world's third worst outbreak outside the United States and India and its second-deadliest after the United States.

As vaccination advances, the rolling 7-day average of COVID deaths has fallen to less than one fifth of the toll of almost 3,000 a day at the peak of the pandemic in April.

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Egypt

Egypt has authorized Russia's single-dose Sputnik Light vaccine against COVID-19, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which markets the shot abroad, said on Friday.

The country approved Russia's two-dose Sputnik V vaccine in February.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia registered 1,544 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 338,306 as of Thursday evening, the country's health ministry said.

Meanwhile, 37 new virus-related deaths and 455 more recoveries were reported, bringing the national death toll to 5,291 and total recoveries to 305,223, the ministry said.

This picture taken on June 11, 2021, in Amsterdam, shows the sign at the entrance of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) headquarters. (FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS / AFP)

European Medicines Agency (EMA)

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) aims to decide in early October whether to endorse a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to be given half a year after the initial two-shot course, saying breakthrough infections added some urgency to its review.

"The outcome of this evaluation is expected in early October, unless supplementary information is needed," EMA's head of vaccines strategy, Marco Cavaleri, told a press briefing on Thursday.

Cavaleri's statement confirmed a Reuters report earlier in the day on EMA's expected review time on the matter.

Moderna is also expected to submit data to the EMA this month on its booster dose, an EU document said.

EMA added that, in early October at the latest, it would conclude its review of the use of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna shots in people with a weak immune system already one month after their initial two-shot regimen.

"The evidence is becoming clearer on the need to consider this option for people who may respond poorly to COVID-19 vaccination, such as immunocompromised individuals," said Cavaleri.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 230.63 million while the global death toll topped 4.72 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

A police officer checks for a Green Pass on a passenger's phone at Porta Garibaldi train station in Milan, Italy, Sept 2, 2021. (LUCA BRUNO / AP)

Italy

Italy's National Health Institute (ISS) recommended on Friday that pregnant women should get COVID-19 vaccines after the first three months of their pregnancy.

The health authority said in a statement that it was advising women to receive two mRNA-based shots in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

It said its decision was due to growing evidence on the safety of vaccines during pregnancies for both the foetus and the mother.

"Women wishing to be vaccinated in the first trimester of pregnancy should assess the risks and benefits with a doctor," ISS said, citing evidence that fever, which is one of the possible reactions to the vaccine, can cause an increased risk of congenital malformations.

Women who are breastfeeding can safely get vaccinated, ISS said, adding that infants can safely absorb antibodies via milk.

Italy is administering two vaccines based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology – one made by BioNTech in partnership with Pfizer, and a second from Moderna.

Italy has the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe after Britain, with more than 130,200 people dying of the disease since the pandemic began in early 2020.

Some 75 percent of its 60-million-strong population have had at least one COVID-19 shot and 70.3 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the latest figures on Friday, broadly in line with most other EU countries.

Latvia

Latvia had the sixth highest COVID-19 infection rate in the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EEA) last week, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said Thursday.

Between Sept 6 and 19, Latvia's cumulative 14-day number of COVID-19 cases reached 316.7 per 100,000 residents, which was well above the EU/EEA average of 156.8 cases per 100,000 residents.

While COVID-19 cases have been dropping in most other European countries as more and more people get vaccinated against the virus, Latvia is experiencing a resurgence of infections, as less than half of its population has been immunized due to slow vaccine uptake.

With 43.4 percent of the Baltic country's residents inoculated so far, the country has one of the smallest vaccination rates in the EU/EEA, according to data by the National Health Service.

On Thursday, Latvia registered 776 new COVID-19 cases and four people died of the virus, the health authorities said.

Mexico

The COVID-19 vaccine by US pharmaceutical company Pfizer will be the only one used in Mexico for at-risk children aged 12-17, Mexico Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez Gatell said on Friday.

Mexico is expanding its vaccine campaign to children with health issues that make them vulnerable to the virus.

Morocco

The total number of people fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 in Morocco reached 18,128,049, the Moroccan Ministry of Health said on Thursday.

So far, a total of 21,739,347 first doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Morocco, said the ministry in a statement.

A woman is inoculated with the second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, in Taboga Island, Panama on May 21, 2021. (LUIS ACOSTA / AFP)

Panama

Panama is weeks away from achieving herd immunity against COVID-19 after vaccinating more than half its population of 4.2 million people, President Laurentino Cortizo said on Thursday at the United Nations General Assembly.

Panama acted with "foresight" and managed to secure enough vaccines despite global supply challenges, Cortizo said at the assembly in New York.

"Thanks to this, we are only weeks away from reaching herd immunity," Cortizo said, adding that "global immunity" should be a shared goal.

Herd immunity occurs when a large enough portion of the population is immune to a pathogen, either by vaccination or prior infection, stopping spread of the virus. 

Health experts have said about 70 percent to 80 percent of the population must be immunized to reach some level of herd immunity, but that figure can vary.

Panama has so far received 7.2 million doses of vaccines from Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca Plc. It has administered 5.3 million of those shots, according to Ministry of Health data.

Panama has reported 465,147 COVID-19 cases and 7,183 related deaths.

Health Minister Luis Sucre has attributed Panama's control on the pandemic to a sustained fall in daily infections that enabled a gradual economic reopening.

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Portugal

Portugal announced on Thursday that it will advance on Oct 1 to the "state of alert," the third and final phase of the lockdown decreed in the country to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several reopening measures, such as the removal of restrictions on customer numbers in restaurants, shops and cultural shows, have been announced as the country is expected to inoculate 85 percent of the population by next week.

Evening entertainment venues such as bars and clubs could reopen since then and the mandatory use of masks will only be required for public transport, large agglomerations, nursing homes, hospitals and concert halls.

Customers of restaurants and hotels will no longer have to present a vaccination certificate or negative test of COVID-19, according to the government.

Resident queue to be vaccinated with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Assad Iben El Fourat school in Oued Ellil, outside Tunis on Aug 15, 2021. (HASSENE DRIDI / AP)

Tunisia

Since the start of the national vaccination campaign on March 13, a total of 3,357,086 Tunisians have completed their COVID-19 vaccination, Tunisian Ministry of Health said Thursday.

A total of 7,342,484 doses of vaccines against the coronavirus have been administered so far, the ministry said.

United States

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday backed a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for Americans aged 65 and older, some adults with underlying medical conditions and some adults in high-risk working and institutional settings.

The move comes after an advisory panel to the agency on Thursday did not recommend that people in high-risk jobs, such as teachers, and risky living conditions should get boosters. The panel had recommended boosters for elderly and some people with underlying medical conditions.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said her agency had to make recommendations based on complex, often imperfect data.

"In a pandemic, even with uncertainty, we must take actions that we anticipate will do the greatest good," she said in a statement.

"I believe we can best serve the nation’s public health needs by providing booster doses for the elderly, those in long-term care facilities, people with underlying medical conditions, and for adults at high risk of disease from occupational and institutional exposures to COVID-19. This aligns with the FDA’s booster authorization and makes these groups eligible for a booster shot," she said.

In this photo dated April 22, 2021, a pharmacist reconstitutes the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Worcester, Massachusetts. (JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP)

The CDC recommendation follows US Food and Drug Administration authorization and clears the way for a booster rollout to begin as soon as this week for millions of people who had their second dose of the Pfizer shot at least six months ago.

The CDC said that people 65 years and older should get a booster. Beyond older Americans, the CDC also recommended the shots for all adults over 50 with underlying conditions.

It said that, based on individual benefits and risks, 18- to 49-year-olds with underlying medical conditions may get a booster, and people 18-64 at increased risk of exposure and transmission due to occupational or institutional setting may get a shot.

The recommendations only cover people who received their second Pfizer/BioNTech shot at least six months earlier. The CDC said that group is currently about 26 million people, including 13 million age 65 or older.

The CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on Thursday gave the thumbs down to additional doses for groups including healthcare workers, teachers and residents of homeless shelters and prisons.

Venezuela

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro said 70 percent of Venezuelans will be vaccinated against coronavirus by the end of October, without specifying whether he was referring to one or two doses. 

Maduro said on state television that 40 percent of Venezuelans are inoculated.

This photograph taken on March 5, 2021 shows the flag of the World Health Organization (WHO) at their headquarters in Geneva amid the COVID-19 outbreak. (FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)

WHO

A World Health Organization (WHO) panel on Friday recommended the use of Regeneron and Roche's COVID-19 antibody cocktail for patients at high risk of hospitalizations and those severely ill with no natural antibodies.

The treatment has been granted US emergency use authorization, having gained attention when used to treat former president Donald Trump's COVID-19 illness last year. Europe is reviewing the therapy, while Britain approved it last month.

While acknowledging costs associated with the treatment, the WHO panel said that given the recorded benefits of the therapy, "the recommendations should provide a stimulus to engage all possible mechanisms to improve global access to the intervention and associated testing."

In a separate statement, the WHO called on Regeneron to lower prices and distribute the treatment equitably worldwide, especially in low- and middle-income countries. The agency also urged the firms to transfer tech to help make biosimilars.

Regeneron is going to supply 1.4 million additional doses of REGEN-COV to the US government by Jan 31 at a cost of $2,100 per dose.

French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) echoed the UN agency's comments, demanding that affordable and sustainable access to life-saving drugs during the pandemic must be ensured.

The treatment, a combination of casirivimab and imdevimab, is based on a class of drugs called monoclonal antibodies which mimic natural antibodies produced by the human body to fight off infections.