The Latest: Pfizer-BioNTech data shows vaccine easier to use

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

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

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

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

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

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

The companies have been testing stability of vaccine batches manufactured at different times over the past nine months and continue to research ways to boost the vaccine’s “shelf life.”

“If approved, this new storage option would offer pharmacies and vaccination centers greater flexibility in how they manage their vaccine supply,” Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla said in a statement.

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

The other vaccine now authorized in the U.S., made by Moderna, started out with similarly cold temperature requirements in early-stage studies before stability testing showed it could be stored at normal freezer temps.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LIHUE, Hawaii — More than 200 people gathered on Kauai to show support for reopening tourism on the island amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Garden Island reported attendees who gathered in a parking lot outside Vidinha Stadium on Wednesday primarily consisted of business owners.

Members of the group say they want to express their concerns to county and state officials about the continued economic impact of restrictions on tourism.

Kauai County Council member Bernard Carvalho attended the rally and says officials are aware of the problems and have a plan under development, although he did not provide a timeline.

Kauai Chamber of Commerce President Mark Perriello attended the event to encourage business owners to respond to a chamber survey about the impact of county virus policies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoekstra quickly admitted he’d made a mistake.

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

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

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

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BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia has administered more than a million doses of vaccines against the new coronavirus which puts the Balkan country among the top countries in Europe when it comes to inoculation.

Most Serbian citizens have received China’s Sinopharm vaccines, followed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Russia’s Sputnik V. Serbia’s populist government has close relations with both China and Russia, while formally seeking European Union membership.

The state RTS television on Friday said that government data show that a total of 1,074,571 jabs were given — including both the first and second doses — as the vaccination continues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Reported by Lorne Cook

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PRAGUE — The Czech government moved to further tighten restrictions Friday amid a surge of a highly contagious coronavirus variant in one of the hardest-hit European Union’s nations.

At the same time, the worsening situation has forced the Cabinet to abandon its plans to reopen all stores as soon as next week.

Health Minister Jan Blatny said residents will have to wear better protection than just a face mask in places like stores, public transportation and hospitals where large numbers of people gather.

Blatny said a respirator and a mask made of nanomaterials or two surgical face masks will be required and homemade textile masks won’t be considered sufficient.

“We’ve agreed that it’s necessary to do all we can to prevent the infection from spreading,” Blatny said.

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NAIROBI, Kenya — An African Union-created task force working to secure COVID-19 vaccines says Russia has offered 300 million doses of the country’s Sputnik V vaccine.

The director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, said in a statement Friday that the body is “tremendously proud” to offer the doses to Africa’s 54 countries. The statement says the Sputnik V doses will be available in May.

The AU previously secured 270 million doses from AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. As the African continent continues to wait for vaccine deliveries from the global COVAX initiative, the Africa CDC has encouraged the pursuit of doses from bilateral arrangements and other sources.

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HONG KONG — China’s Sinovac delivered 1 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine CoronaVac to Hong Kong on Friday evening.

Government officials approved Sinovac’s two-dose vaccine on Thursday. The semi-autonomous city is relying on three vaccines and has purchased 22.5 million doses in total.

Priority groups include health care workers and those above the age of 60, as well as essential workers. Online appointments will begin on Tuesday.

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BERLIN — The head of Germany’s disease control agency warned Friday that the drop in new coronavirus cases has levelled off even as the share of more contagious variants is rising.

Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute, said Germany may be heading toward another “turning point” in the pandemic after weeks of falling infections.

His agency reported 9,113 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases in the past day, and 508 deaths. Germany has recorded almost 2.4 million cases and 67,206 deaths from the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

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