WASHINGTON — For nearly a year it was the Trump show. Now President Joe Biden is calling up the nation’s top scientists and public health experts to regularly brief the American public about the pandemic that has claimed more than 425,000 U.S. lives.

Joe Biden

President Biden holds his face mask as he speaks about the pandemic Tuesday at the White House. Beginning Wednesday, top experts will host briefings three times a week on the state of the outbreak and efforts to control it. Associated Press/Evan Vucci

Beginning Wednesday, administration experts will host briefings three times a week on the state of the outbreak, efforts to control it and the race to deliver vaccines and therapeutics to end it.

Expect a sharp contrast from the last administration’s briefings, when public health officials were repeatedly undermined by a president who shared his unproven ideas without hesitation.

“We’re bringing back the pros to talk about COVID in an unvarnished way,” Biden told reporters Tuesday. “Any questions you have, that’s how we’ll handle them because we’re letting science speak again.”

The new briefings, beginning just a week into Biden’s tenure, are meant as an explicit rejection of his predecessor’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Only one of the 29 poorest countries has started vaccinations

In more than 50 countries, most of them wealthy, coronavirus vaccination efforts are well underway, with about 20 million doses already distributed in the United States. But most poorer nations have yet to begin.

World Health Organization officials said last week that the West African nation of Guinea is the only low-income country of 29 to begin vaccinating. And those efforts have been limited in scope – 55 people out of more than 12 million have received doses.

The initiative, using the Russia-backed Sputnik V vaccine, began on Dec. 30 as part of a program carried out on an “experimental basis,” Sakoba Keita, director general of Guinea’s National Health Security Agency, told The Washington Post.

The pace of vaccinations in low-income countries such as Guinea, which has a gross domestic product per capita of less than $1,000 per year, has been condemned by public health experts, who say the hoarding of vaccine doses by wealthier nations could extend the pandemic.

“We now face the real danger that even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the worlds of the world’s haves and have-nots,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing last week.

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Ape at San Diego park improving after virus antibody therapy

SAN DIEGO — A troop of gorillas at San Diego Zoo Safari Park appears to be recovering from the coronavirus — including a 49-year-old silverback who received antibody therapy — in what is believed to be the first known cases among such primates.

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Leslie, a silverback gorilla, left, and a gorilla named Imani are seen in their enclosure at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, Calif., this month. They are among several gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park that are expected to make a full recovery weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus. Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Global via Associated Press

The western lowland gorillas were infected with a variant that has been circulating in California and is believed to be more contagious than other strains, the safari park said Monday in a statement. Some gorillas showed symptoms including mild coughing, congestion and intermittent lethargy.

The silverback named Winston, had pneumonia, likely caused by the virus, as well as heart disease. He has been more active since being put on antibiotics and heart medication, and receiving an antibody treatment — a therapy to block the virus from infecting cells, San Diego Zoo Safari Park said in a statement.

“We’re not seeing any of that lethargy. No coughing, no runny noses anymore,” the park’s executive director Lisa Peterson told the San Diego Union-Tribune, adding that the animals’ fecal matter is no longer testing positive for the virus. “It feels to us like we’ve turned the corner.”

Officials tested the troop of gorillas after two apes began coughing on Jan. 6. Positive test results were confirmed by the U.S Department of Agriculture National Veterinary Services Laboratories in three gorillas.

The apes were likely exposed by a zookeeper who tested positive for COVID-19 in early January, officials said. The park north of San Diego has been closed to the public as part of California’s lockdown efforts to curb coronavirus cases, and the park’s wildlife care team wore masks at all times around the gorillas.

Veterinarians are preparing to inject gorillas at the San Diego Zoo with a COVID-19 vaccine, a supply made specifically for animals. They also plan to vaccinate other species believed susceptible to infection, such as felines. Wildlife in other locations — from minks to tigers — have gotten the virus.

The gorillas at the safari park will not be vaccinated for now since they have been exposed.

San Diego Zoo Global, which oversees the zoo and the safari park, plans to share what it has learned with other scientists with the hope that it will contribute to the understanding of how the virus can affect apes.

Wildlife experts have expressed concern about the coronavirus infecting gorillas, an endangered species that share 98.4 percent of their DNA with humans and are inherently social animals.

Boston gyms, movie theaters, museums can reopen Monday

BOSTON — Gyms, movie theaters and museums are among the businesses in Boston that will be allowed to reopen Monday with a limited capacity, Mayor Marty Walsh said Tuesday.

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Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker gives an update on COVID-19 vaccinations, speaking at Baystate Medical Center Tuesday, Jan. 5, in Springfield, Mass. Don Treeger/The Republican via AP

The move will be the first part of a three-phase reopening plan that was made because of improving numbers around the spread of the coronavirus in the city, Walsh said at a City Hall news conference.

As of Jan. 17, the city was averaging more than 415 confirmed COVID-19 cases per day, down from a high of 590 earlier in the month, while the city’s positivity rate has fallen to 7.2%, down from nearly 9% in early January, officials said.

Reopening businesses will be limited to 25% capacity. All gatherings and events remain subject to current capacity limits of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, the mayor said.

Walsh, President Joe Biden’s nominee for labor secretary, also said a mass vaccination site at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in the city’s Roxbury neighborhood is scheduled to open next week.

Companies unlikely to require COVID-19 vaccine, Walmart CEO says

Companies are unlikely to mandate their employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine to come to work, said Business Roundtable Chairman and Walmart Inc. CEO Doug McMillon.

McMillon said no members of the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group whose members are CEOs of the largest U.S. companies, have chosen to require vaccination so far.

“Our role is to encourage it and communicate facts and to set an example,” McMillon said during a call with reporters last week.

The largest U.S. company, Walmart employs almost 1.5 million people in the United States and has remained open during the pandemic. Walmart store employees and other workers categorized as essential should be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines ahead of the general population.

Companies including Dollar General Corp., Instacart and Trader Joe’s have announced financial incentives for workers who get the vaccine as a way to encourage vaccination without mandating it.

While mandates have not been common so far, companies could use them when broader sections of their workforce return to in-person work or when more front-line workers become eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Polls have shown openness to requirements among corporate leaders. About 39 percent of U.S. public company directors said employers should require workers to get vaccines before returning to work, according to a mid-December poll by Diligent Institute and Corporate Board Members. Employers can legally set rules that employees have vaccinations as long as they allow certain exceptions.

Some businesses, including Walmart, are involved in vaccinations as both employers and participants in the distribution process. McMillon said the Business Roundtable was in touch with the Biden administration to discuss speeding up vaccinations.

Biden has promised to deliver 100 million doses of vaccines within his first 100 days in office.

Walmart currently has the capacity to vaccinate more people than its current rate, and clarity from the federal government would help speed that process, McMillon said. He said nationwide rules on who is eligible to receive the vaccine would be particularly useful.

Seattle latest city to approve hazard pay for grocery workers

SEATTLE — Seattle has joined other cities in approving extra pay for grocery store workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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People work near refrigerators used to store the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19, Sunday, Jan. 24, as patients who have received the shot sit in an observation area during a one-day vaccination clinic set up in an Amazon.com facility in Seattle and operated by Virginia Mason Franciscan Health. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

The City Council on Monday approved legislation requiring large grocery stores to pay an extra $4 an hour in hazard pay. The Seattle Times reports the legislation passed 8-0, clearing a requirement that it receive a three-quarter super-majority in order to go into effect immediately.

Mayor Jenny Durkan called the policy “a strong step forward in Seattle’s recovery.”

The new requirement applies to grocery companies with more than 500 employees worldwide and to stores larger than 10,000 square feet. It does not apply to convenience stores or farmers markets.

Covered businesses will have to pay their retail employees $4 an hour on top of the pay they currently receive as long as the city’s coronavirus civil emergency remains in effect.

The California cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Berkeley have within the past month forwarded or approved similar “hazard pay” boosts for grocery workers.

EU warns vaccine makers to honor contracts

BRUSSELS — The European Union is warning pharmaceutical giants developing coronavirus vaccines to honor their contractual obligations.

Slow deliveries from two companies hampered its vaccine rollout in several nations. The bloc criticized pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, accusing it of failing to guarantee delivery of coronavirus vaccines without valid explanation. It’s facing delivery delays from Pfizer due to a plant upgrade in Belgium.

The EU has committed to buying 300 million AstraZeneca doses with option on 100 million extra shots. Late last week, the company said it was planning to reduce a first contingent of 80 million to 31 million.

The European Medicines Agency is scheduled to review the AstraZeneca vaccine Friday ahead of its expected approval. The EU has signed six vaccine contracts for more than 2 billion doses, but so far only the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use.

Relative of virus victim wants to meet with WHO team in China

WUHAN, China — A relative of a coronavirus victim in China is demanding to meet a visiting World Health Organization expert team, saying it should speak with affected families who allege they are being muffled by the Chinese government.

Zhang Hai’s father died of COVID-19 in February 2020. He has been organizing relatives of victims to demand accountability from officials. Zhang says he’s worried the WHO might be used to provide cover for alleged Chinese missteps in the early days of the outbreak.

WHO says the visit is a scientific mission to investigate the origins of the virus, not an effort to assign blame. The WHO team is expected to begin field work later this week.

On Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease official in the U.S., told the World Economic Forum that the origins of the virus are still unknown, “a big black box, which is awful.”

Keiji Fukuda, a public health expert at the University of Hong Kong and a former WHO official says, “it all comes down to what will the team have access to. Will they really be able to ask the questions that they want to ask?”

Colombian defense minister dead of COVID-19

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombian officials say Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo has died from complications of COVID-19. He was 69.

President Ivan Duque says Holmes Trujillo died early Tuesday, adding: “His life was a reflection of his vocation for public service.”

Holmes Trujillo became defense minister in November 2019, after serving as foreign minister. He was also the mayor of Cali from 1988-1990.

Colombia reported more than 15,000 new cases per day in mid-January, up from about 7,000 cases in early December.

Colombia has more than 50,000 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus.

Sweden warns people not to travel for Easter

STOCKHOLM — Sweden’s foreign minister says people in the Scandinavian country shouldn’t expect to be able to travel globally during Easter. as Sweden extended its advice to avoid unnecessary trips to countries outside the European Union and Europe’s Schengen travel area.

“Our assessment is that there will be uncertainty for several months globally. It is an overall assessment that is about what the situation at the destinations will look like,” Foreign Minister Ann Linde said Tuesday.

Linde said the recommendation to avoid trips outside the EU will last until April 15. Easter is at the beginning of April.

She added that traveling inside the 27-member EU is “in no way risk-free” although it is not advised against.

Sweden, which has opted for a much-debated COVID-19 approach of keeping large parts of society open, has had 11,005 confirmed virus deaths and over 547,100 cases.

UK will require all visitors to quarantine for 10 days

LONDON — The U.K. is set to announce changes to its quarantine rules later Tuesday that could see anyone arriving in the country having to spend 10 days in a hotel at their own expense.

Vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said there will be an “announcement on this issue later on today,” but would not be drawn on what the changes would entail.

The British government has been reviewing its quarantine policies amid concerns over new variants of the coronavirus. Whether the changes will be universal and apply to everyone arriving, including British citizens, or just to those arriving from high-risk coronavirus countries, is unclear.

Zahawi told Sky News that “as we vaccinate more of the adult population, if there are new variants like the South African or the Brazilian variants, we need to be very careful.”

Taiwan quarantines 5,000 people to locate source of 2 new cases

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Health authorities in Taiwan are quarantining 5,000 people while looking for the source of two new coronavirus cases linked to a hospital.

Officials said that they have not been able to identify how the husband and wife became infected after a brief hospital stay in the Taoyuan General Hospital, located in the city of Taoyuan just outside Taiwan’s capital city. The man had stayed at the hospital for three days for health problems unrelated to COVID-19, while his wife looked after him.

Those asked to quarantine include patients who were discharged from the hospital between Jan. 6-19, and their caregivers.

Taiwan is on higher alert after the latest domestic cluster, which has now seen 15 cases from the hospital in Taoyuan.

Taiwan has been applauded for its swift and sustained efforts to contain COVID-19, with just seven deaths and fewer than 900 confirmed cases, despite its close proximity to China.

Hospitalizations in Texas starts to fall

AUSTIN, Texas — The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Texas continues to fall from record highs as the state nears the end of what has been its deadliest month of the pandemic.

State health officials Monday reported fewer than 13,000 people were being treated for the virus in Texas hospitals, marking the seventh consecutive day of declining patient loads.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said the area was “starting to see some metrics go in the right direction” as the average number of daily new cases fell by 800.

More than 34,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Texas, the second-most in the nation behind California. More than 5,000 new cases were reported statewide Monday.

Nationwide, coronavirus deaths and cases per day in the U.S. dropped markedly over the past couple of weeks but are still running at alarmingly high levels. The U.S. is recording just under 3,100 deaths a day on average, down from more than 3,350 less than two weeks ago.


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