Germany to ease virus curbs for vaccinated people


People who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer have to abide by curfews and contact restrictions in Germany under a draft law agreed by the cabinet on Tuesday.

The law, which would also apply to people who have recovered from COVID-19, must still be signed off by parliament but could come into force as early as this week, Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht said.

There must be a “good reason” for any restrictions on public life, Lambrecht said. “As soon as this reason ceases to exist… these restrictions should then no longer be in place,” she said.

Under national measures introduced in April, areas of Germany with an incidence rate of more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people over the last seven days must introduce overnight curfews and people may only meet with one other person from another household during the day.

But people who have been vaccinated, or who have recovered from COVID and therefore have natural immunity, should in future be exempt from these rules, Lambrecht said.

The draft law seen by AFP would also exempt vaccinated and recovered people from quarantine rules for people returning from abroad, even from areas deemed high risk.

No more tests

Areas of Germany with incidence rates under 100 are currently allowed to open shops, restaurants, cinemas and other facilities, but only to people who can provide a negative test.

Under the new regulations, vaccinated and recovered people would also be exempt from this requirement.

Some German states, including Berlin and Bavaria, have already announced plans to scrap the negative test requirement for vaccinated people when they go shopping or visit the hairdresser.

The Bavarian cabinet on Tuesday also signed off a plan to allow hotels, holiday homes and campsites to open in regions with low incidence rates from May 21.

However, Bavaria’s iconic Oktoberfest beer festival, which usually attracts millions annually in September and October, will be cancelled this year for the second year running.

Germany has been in some form of virus shutdown since November, with numbers of new infections remaining consistently high amid an initially sluggish vaccination campaign.

But the campaign has since picked up pace, with more than a million jabs issued in one day last week, and new infection numbers have started to come down.

The Robert Koch Institute health agency recorded 7,534 new infections in the past 24 hours on Tuesday and 315 deaths, with a national incidence rate of 141.4.

But despite these successes, critics say it is too soon to be lifting restrictions.

Ute Teichert, the head of the Federal Association of German Public Health Officers, said it was “imperative that vaccinated people continue to be tested”.

“Without comprehensive testing, we will lose sight of the incidence of infections—especially with regard to virus variants,” she told the Funke media group on Tuesday.

MP and epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach said it was reasonable to lift some restrictions for vaccinated people, but restaurants, bars and other facilities should not be reopened just for them.

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Germany to contact Russia about Sputnik jabs: minister


The German government plans to talk to Moscow about buying doses of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine if it is approved by European regulators, Health Minister Jens Spahn said Thursday.

Spahn told public broadcaster WDR that Germany was prepared to go it alone, without the European Union, if it meant the country could speed up its inoculation campaign.

“The EU Commission said yesterday that it will not sign contracts (for Sputnik) like for other manufacturers—such as BioNTech, for example—so I said for Germany in the meeting of EU health ministers that we will hold bilateral talks with Russia,” Spahn said.

The announcement comes one day after German state Bavaria said it had signed a letter of intent to buy up to 2.5 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine if it is approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

In addition to the option of importing the vaccine from Russia, a production facility is also to be set up by the pharmaceutical company R-Pharm in the town of Illertissen.

Keen German interest in the Russian vaccine comes amid a slow inoculation rollout, now a lightning rod issue as Germany grapples with a fierce third wave of the pandemic.

Only 13 percent of the population has received its first of two doses, as the country reported more than 20,000 new infections Thursday and over 300 deaths in the previous 24 hours.

The German government said last month it would be open to using Sputnik V if the EMA gives it the green light.

The EMA has launched a rolling review of Sputnik V, which could become the first non-Western coronavirus vaccine used across the 27-nation bloc.

It has faced criticism in some Western countries however, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has accused Russia and China of using their vaccines to gain influence abroad.

Russia registered Sputnik V in August ahead of large-scale clinical trials, prompting concern among experts over the fast-track process.

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Germany halts AstraZeneca jabs over reported clot risks: ministry

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Germany on Monday halted the use of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine after reported blood clotting incidents in Europe, saying that a closer look was necessary.

“After new reports of thromboses of the cerebral veins in connection with the vaccination in Germany and Europe, the PEI considers further investigations to be necessary,” the health ministry said, referring to a recommendation by the country’s vaccine authority, the Paul Ehrlich Institute.

“The European Medicines Agency EMA will decide whether and how the new findings will affect the approval of the vaccine,” it added.

Several European countries, including Ireland and the Netherlands, have suspended usage of the shots, which were jointly developed with the University of Oxford.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said seven cases of cerebral vein thrombosis had been reported, and that while this is a “very low risk” compared to the 1.6 million jabs already given in the country, it would be above average if confirmed to be linked to the vaccine.

“The decision today is a purely precautionary measure,” said Spahn, adding that he hoped EU medicines regulator EMA would deliver guidance within the week after examining the cases.

Both the British-Swedish company and Oxford have said there was no link between their vaccine and blood clotting.

AstraZeneca had said at the weekend that the 15 incidences of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and 22 events of pulmonary embolism reported among those given the vaccine was “much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population”.

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U.S. government to ship 18.5 million doses of COVID vaccine this week, White House says

FILE PHOTO: Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are seen during a mass vaccination rollout in Ronda, Spain February 11, 2021. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

(Reuters) – The White House said on Tuesday that the government will distribute around 18.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines this week, fewer than last week because no new doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine are ready to be sent out.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing that the U.S. government plans to distribute 15.8 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccine to states, tribes and territories, along with 2.7 million doses going to pharmacies.

Last week, the U.S. government distributed over 21 million doses of all three vaccines. That included over 3.5 million doses of the newly authorized J&J vaccine.

J&J’s manufacturing has been slower than expected, and the company was not expected to be able to deliver any doses of its vaccine this week. It is expected to resume shipments of the vaccine later in March.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 123 million doses of the vaccines had been distributed in the United States and 93.7 million shots had been administered, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Pfizer says South African variant could significantly reduce protective antibodies

(This February 17 story corrects headline and first paragraph to show the reduction was in the protective antibodies elicited by the vaccine, not the protection of the vaccine overall)

Slideshow ( 2 images )

(Reuters) – A laboratory study suggests that the South African variant of the coronavirus may reduce protective antibodies elicited by the Pfizer Inc/BioNTech SE vaccine by two-thirds, and it is not clear if the shot will be effective against the mutation, the companies said on Wednesday.

The study found the vaccine was still able to neutralize the virus and there is not yet evidence from trials in people that the variant reduces vaccine protection, the companies said.

Still, they are making investments and talking to regulators about developing an updated version of their mRNA vaccine or a booster shot, if needed.

For the study, scientists from the companies and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) developed an engineered virus that contained the same mutations carried on the spike portion of the highly contagious coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa, known as B.1.351. The spike, used by the virus to enter human cells, is the primary target of many COVID-19 vaccines.

Researchers tested the engineered virus against blood taken from people who had been given the vaccine, and found a two- thirds reduction in the level of neutralizing antibodies compared with its effect on the most common version of the virus prevalent in U.S. trials.

Their findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Because there is no established benchmark yet to determine what level of antibodies are needed to protect against the virus, it is unclear whether that two-thirds reduction will render the vaccine ineffective against the variant spreading around the world.

However, UTMB professor and study co-author Pei-Yong Shi said he believes the Pfizer vaccine will likely be protective against the variant.

“We don’t know what the minimum neutralizing number is. We don’t have that cutoff line,” he said, adding that he suspects the immune response observed is likely to be significantly above where it needs to be to provide protection.

That is because in clinical trials, both the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and a similar shot from Moderna Inc conferred some protection after a single dose with an antibody response lower than the reduced levels caused by the South African variant in the laboratory study.

Even if the concerning variant significantly reduces effectiveness, the vaccine should still help protect against severe disease and death, he noted. Health experts have said that is the most important factor in keeping stretched healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed.

More work is needed to understand whether the vaccine works against the South African variant, Shi said, including clinical trials and the development of correlates of protection – the benchmarks to determine what antibody levels are protective.

Pfizer and BioNTech said they were doing similar lab work to understand whether their vaccine is effective against another variant first found in Brazil.

Moderna published a correspondence in NEJM on Wednesday with similar data previously disclosed elsewhere that showed a sixfold drop antibody levels versus the South African variant.

Moderna also said the actual efficacy of its vaccine against the South African variant is yet to be determined. The company has previously said it believes the vaccine will work against the variant.

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Britain shuts schools as Germany braces for extended lockdown

Britain closed its schools Tuesday ahead of a new national lockdown, with Germany set to extend its own restrictions as Europe battles surging coronavirus infections.

The British government announced an extra £4.6 billion ($6.3 billion, 5.1 billion euros) to help battered businesses following Monday’s announcement of tough new measures across England, which include a full shutdown of restaurants, pubs and non-essential retail. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also bringing in strict lockdowns.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the new English measures—initially set to last six weeks—in a televised address just hours after Britain celebrated the rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, seen as a potential COVID-19 game-changer as it could prove more accessible to poorer nations than alternative jabs.

Senior British minister Michael Gove warned of “very, very difficult weeks” as the country struggles to contain a new coronavirus strain believed to spread faster.

Meanwhile pressure is growing on European authorities to speed up vaccine approvals and hasten the economic recovery from a pandemic that has infected more than 85 million people worldwide, with more than 1.8 million known deaths.

Spain—expected to show the biggest slump of any western economy—registered a nearly 23-percent jump in unemployment in 2020, government figures showed Tuesday.

National governments in some European countries are also under fire for a slow start in deploying vaccines that have already been approved—particularly France, which has vaccinated only 2,000 people so far, compared to 264,000 in Germany.

Russian-German vaccine production?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin have discussed the possibility of jointly producing vaccines in a phone call, according to the Kremlin.

While Germany is using the vaccine jointly developed by Pfizer and the Mainz-based company BioNTech, Russia has put into mass circulation its homemade jab—Sputnik V—which has been viewed with skepticism in the West.

Mass vaccinations are considered key to breaking the back of a pandemic that has severely restricted activities that involve large gatherings.

The ease of storage and use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, compared with the ultra-low temperatures needed for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna alternatives, could mean greater access for less wealthy nations in the fight against the virus.

Mexico and India have approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, while Rwanda, which on Tuesday banned transport in and out of the capital Kigali in a bid to combat surging infections, said it was in touch with its makers to purchase doses.

The efforts to accelerate vaccinations come as concerns grow about the potentially more transmissible variant detected in Britain—which has since been found in other countries, including in Italy on Tuesday—spreading out of control.

Chinese firm Sinopharm has said its vaccine—with a claimed effectiveness of 79 percent—remains effective against the new variant.

In the United States, the worst-hit nation in the world, the rollout of vaccines has been plagued by logistical problems and overstretched hospitals and clinics.

But authorities also face the challenge of conspiracy theories spread on social media that could increase vaccine skepticism—and even sabotage.

That threat was illustrated last week in the state of Wisconsin, where a pharmacist was accused of intentionally spoiling hundreds of Moderna doses because of a baseless conspiracy theory.

Steven Brandenburg, who appeared before a judge Monday, “told investigators that he believed that COVID-19 vaccine was not safe for people and could harm them and change their DNA”, according to a police statement quoted by local media.

WHO experts due in China

In China—where the pandemic began a year ago—experts from the World Health Organization are due for a highly politicised visit to explore the origins of the virus.

Beijing delayed access for independent experts, reluctant to agree to an inquiry.

But the WHO now says China has granted permission for a visit by its experts, with a 10-person team expected to arrive shortly for a five or six week visit—including a fortnight spent in quarantine.

Chinese authorities this week refused to confirm the exact dates and details of the visit, a sign of the enduring sensitivity of their mission.

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76 Franciscan nuns test positive at monastery in Germany

Seventy-six Catholic nuns have tested positive for COVID-19 after an outbreak at a Franciscan convent in northwestern Germany, church authorities said Tuesday.

Another 85 nuns received negative test results at the monastery in Thuine, not far from the Dutch border, the convent’s Mother Superior told The Associated Press.

“We are grateful that so far nobody is in the hospital,” Sister Maria Cordis Reiker said.

Local health authorities put the the entire monastery under quarantine late last week after the first cases of coronavirus were discovered there. Most Catholic nuns in Germany are elderly women because convents have had difficulties for decades recruiting young women for their cause.

Reiker said they were still waiting for the test results of the 160 non-clerical employees of the monastery, including nurses working at the monastery’s old people’s home, and others working at the monastery’s kitchen and wash house.

The nuns also run a boys’ boarding school and several other schools including a vocational school.

“We don’t know how things will continue regarding our schools, it’s all still in flux,” she said.

She said local health and school officials were in touch with the schools.

Overall in Germany, 13,604 more people tested positive over the last 24 hours and 388 others died of COVID-19, the country’s national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, reported.

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New model for district-based coronavirus forecasts in Germany

Neuroinformatics scientists at Osnabrück University and data specialists at Forschungszentrum Jülich are releasing new model results daily to forecast COVID-19 infections. The predictions are based on data from the Robert Koch Institute, which are statistically analyzed using a new model weighted by probability that was developed by Osnabrück’s neuroinformatics scientists on high-performance computers at the Jülich Supercomputing Center (JSC).

The COVID-19 Bayesian Modeling for Outbreak Detection (BSTI) model has two key features that distinguish it from other models: Prof. Gordon Pipa, head of the neuroinformatics research group on the AI campus at Osnabrück University, says, “For one thing, the new method provides a forecast horizon, which allows us to assess the reliability of the predictions. In addition, the model considers the effect of infection rates in neighboring districts. This allows us to also assess the dynamics of the spread.”

One of many challenges presented by breaking down the forecasts into individual districts is the low numbers of cases. “A single forecast trajectory can be misleading, since the reliability of the prediction cannot be assessed,” explains Prof. Pipa. “That is why the BSTI model that we use calculates not just one single likely trajectory, but instead takes many possible trajectories that comply with the data into account. This enables forecast horizons to be calculated as a measure of the distribution of probabilities. This method makes it possible to evaluate the situation including statistical uncertainties, which can provide helpful information even when case numbers are low.”

Moreover, the BSTI model calculates the effect of neighboring regions. An interaction kernel describes how much a high or low case number in a neighboring region impacts the infection rate in a district. The neuroinformatics research group in Osnabrück and the Robert Koch Institute successfully used the interaction kernel in 2019 to describe the progression of infections with the rotavirus, as well as Lyme disease and campylobacter bacteria.

Experts from the Jülich Supercomputing Center (JSC) helped to adapt the method to COVID-19 data and to adjust the code for analysis on Jülich’s supercomputers. “Determining the forecast horizon is extremely compute-intensive, since we deploy many different model variations. Therefore, the statistical modeling requires much more computing time than methods that do not make use of a forecast horizon. In order to make the analyzes available on a daily basis immediately after the RKI data are released, we use resources from the Jülich Supercomputing Center—normal office computers would be completely overwhelmed by the job,” explains Jens Henrik Göbbert of the JSC.

The analyzes, which are updated daily, and the option of spatial or temporal visual comparisons are free to access and shown in a format that is as comprehensible as possible. “We wanted to make the results available quickly and in an understandable format, so that a broad group of people can talk about the content straight away without getting bogged down in the technology,” explains Göbbert.

For example, visitors to the interactive site can freely select districts to view their five-day forecasts, or they can compare the latest data reported by the Robert Koch Institute with the estimated actual new infections. Because of delays in the data transfer, the reported figures often, and sometimes considerably, differ from the actual number of new cases. Therefore, the “nowcast” has the goal of providing an initial assessment of the current figures using statistical analyzes. A forecast, in turn, provides an estimate of the developments over the next five days.

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Spahn warns of second wave of Infection: Need to watch out for that ball, man is not the second Ischgl

Federal Minister of health, Jens Spahn (CDU) has expressed concern over the parties of German tourists on the Spanish holiday island of Mallorca. “We have to be very careful not to, that the ball man is a second Ischgl,” said Spahn on Monday in Berlin. The pictures from the weekend had him worried. The Austrian ski resort of Ischgl had been in March, a Hotspot for Corona-infections in the whole of Europe.


Mallorca after the quarantine: An island wakes up

It is important to observe the rules, so to keep distance, which comply with the hygiene measures and wear everyday masks. “Where each other is celebrated, is the risk of infection is particularly high,” said Spahn. If the vacationers anträten then the return trip was on the plane and home a risk of infection. This it was, together, “especially in travel and avoid holiday periods”.

At the weekend, pictures from Mallorca Party had provided strongholds for the headlines, the hundreds will also show German tourists in the celebrations. Hardly one of them was wearing a mask or holding on to distance rules. “I’m really not a spoilsport or a Killjoy, though, or celebration of the transgressor – but it is not the time for this,” commented Spahn.

Spahn warns of second wave: “Should remain vigilant”

In view of the comparatively low Corona Infection in Germany Spahn warned, the location to appreciate. “We should not feel a false sense of security,” said the Federal Minister of health. Local and regional Corona-outbreaks in Germany have shown again and again how easily the Virus, under certain conditions, could spread.

“The pandemic is not over, we are still in the midst of the pandemic,” said Spahn. Worldwide, the Figures were as high as never before. “The danger of a second wave is real. We should remain vigilant and should not be cocky,” he said at the press conference of the President of the Robert Koch-Institute, Lothar Wieler, took part. At the same time Spahn stressed that it should not be automatically expected a second wave in the autumn or Winter.

“We have better learned to live with the Virus, and we also know more about this Virus.” In the past week alone, approximately 500,000 people had been tested for the Virus, and 175,000 more than four weeks ago. According to Wieler 1.1 million people can be tested in Germany at the moment per week in Corona.

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Spahn wants to strengthen the EU more

Spahn wants to work also in the presidency of the Council for more independence of the EU in the supply of medicines and protective equipment. “It should not start in China, whether we will have enough protective masks and medicines,” he said. “In this crisis, we Europeans have to learn again that we need to stand together to ward off danger”.

It had shown, “that we must be sovereign in order to protect us”. In addition, Spahn wants to strengthen in the framework of the presidency of the Council of the EU Disease control Agency (ECDC). The Minister also announced that he wanted to strengthen the role of Europe in the world health organization (WHO). The announced withdrawal of the United States was a “major setback” for the organization. It was also important in the Organisation of the necessary processes of reform forward.

In the framework of the German EU presidency, an informal meeting of EU health Ministers will take place on Thursday, which will be held as a video conference.

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