The Latest: Bulgaria issues 10-day nationwide lockdown

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Struggling with a surge in coronavirus infections, Bulgarian health officials announced a 10-day nationwide lockdown for schools, restaurants, theaters and shopping malls.

The new restrictions will be the last test for the center-right government of Boyko Borissov, who hopes to win a fourth term in the parliamentary elections on April 4.

The Balkan nation of 7 million has recorded 291,769 cases of the coronavirus and 11,715 confirmed deaths. Some 350,700 Bulgarians have been vaccinated with a first dose so far.



— France set to unveil new restrictions amid spike

— Experts: Virus surge in Europe a cautionary tale for US

— Japan to end virus emergency in Tokyo despite rebound fears

— Sheltered from virus, Kauai plans cautious return to tourism


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GENEVA — The head of a World Health Organization team working with Chinese colleagues to finish a long-awaited report into the origins of the coronavirus says it will have unanimous backing from its members.

Health expert Peter Ben Embarek says the team hopes the report will be ready for release next week. He says the report written by all the experts and part of a “long and complex” process. The report is a first-phase study that is expected to be followed by a more in-depth look later.

Ben Embarek is an expert on food safety and diseases that jump from animals to humans. He led a 10-person international team of experts that visited China in January and February. He acknowledged political pressures have loomed large over the virus pandemic.


PARIS — France is set to announce new coronavirus restrictions on Thursday, including a potential lockdown in the Paris region and in the north of the country, as the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units spikes.

“We will make the decisions we need to make,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday while visiting the hospital of Poissy and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris. He added measures will be “pragmatic, proportionated and targeted.”

Prime Minister Jean Castex is scheduled to detail new restrictions on Thursday.

The virus is rapidly spreading in the Paris region, where the rate of infection has reached over 420 per 100,000 inhabitants and ICUs are closed to saturation. France’s nationwide infection rate is about 250 per 100,000.

As during previous infection peaks, health authorities have organized transfers of critically ill patients to less-affected regions to ease some of the pressure on hospitals in Paris and in northern and southern France.

People in France have been under a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. nationwide curfew for two months.


BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia has signed a deal with China for the purchase of 2 million additional doses of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine, which already has helped the Balkan country rapidly vaccinate its population.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic signed the contract on Thursday. He thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party leadership and Sinopharm’s management “for supplying the vaccines at these difficult times.”

Vucic has often criticized the European Union and the West for the slow delivery of COIVD-19 vaccines to Serbia and other less developed nations and praised China and Russia for coming to the rescue.

Serbia, which formally seeks EU membership, has announced plans to start the production of vaccines developed in China and Russia that have not yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency for use.

The Balkan nation of 7 million has administered more than 2 million doses so far, one of the highest rates in Europe. Most Serb citizens have received the Sinopharm vaccines, followed by Sputnik V, Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs.


BRUSSELS — Belgium is fearing another wave of coronavirus infections as new daily COVID-19 cases rose by nearly 30% over a week.

According to the Sciensano public health institute, an average of 3,052 daily infections were recorded over the past seven days, which is a 29% increase. Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 also rose by 16% over the same period, but the number of daily deaths remained stable.

Belgian health authorities said earlier this week that the vaccination campaign in nursing homes has been intensive and might explain the plateau of deaths since a large proportion of people over 85 have been immunized.

According to Belgian media, the latest surge of infections could lead the government to reconsider its decision to relax pandemic restrictions next month.

A total of 22,600 people have died from coronavirus-related causes in Belgium, a country with 11.5 million inhabitants.


WARSAW, Poland — The number of people in Poland who do not turn up to receive a COVID-19 vaccine made by AstraZeneca ranges from over a dozen to a few dozen percent at some immunization centers, officials said Thursday.

The government official in charge of the vaccination program, Michal Dworczyk, did not give exact figures but said fewer people are currently registering for vaccination as a result of questions being raised in the media about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

He said abstaining from registered vaccination in Poland was “not a mass phenomenon.” Poland also is administering the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.

Dworczyk insisted that the vaccine is safe and effectively protects against severe COVID-19. He said unopened, unused doses were not being wasted because they can be stored for six months.

Dworczyk said there was a certain ”panic in the European Union that is not based on any research or scientific recommendations but based on political decisions.”

The head of Poland’s Office for Registration of Medicinal Products, Grzegorz Cessak said the country has registered five cases of blood clots among people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine, including one death.

A nation of 38 million, Poland has ordered some 100 million COVID-19 vaccines from various makers, including some 16 million from AstraZeneca.


LONDON — Europe’s top medical regulator will announce whether there is any evidence to show the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is linked to a small number of blood clots reported in people across the continent.

The European Medicines Agency’s expert committee is set to announce the results of its investigation later on Thursday.

Earlier this week, more than a dozen countries including Germany, France, Spain and Italy suspended immunization using the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine after reports of unusual blood clots in several people among the 17 million who have received at least one dose in Europe. Both the EMA and the World Health Organization have said there is no current evidence to suggest the vaccine was responsible and that the benefits of immunization far outweighed the potentially small risk of getting vaccinated.

AstraZeneca said after a careful review of its COVID-19 immunization data, it found no evidence of any increased risk of blood clots in any age group or gender in any country.


LISBON, Portugal — The head of Portugal’s COVID-19 vaccination task force says he expects a surge in vaccine deliveries next month and is scaling up preparations to administer them quickly.

Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo says rapid vaccination centers will open in April and a website will be launched for people to book their jabs. Pharmacies will also be available to help administer vaccines.

The plan has been on hold due to the European Union’s shortfall in anticipated vaccine supplies. “There’s no point opening a center to administer 500 or 600 vaccines a day and then only having 50 vaccines available,” Gouveia e Melo said in an interview with Portuguese news agency Lusa, published Thursday by the Expresso newspaper.

Portugal has so far been giving an average of around 23,000 jabs a day.

It is one of the countries that this week temporarily halted using the AstraZeneca vaccine due to concerns over its side-effects.


SEOUL, South Korea — Britain’s ambassador to South Korea has criticized South Korean authorities for mandating coronavirus tests on all foreign workers in the capital Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi Province in a mass testing campaign that has triggered complaints about discrimination.

In video message posted on Twitter Thursday, Amb. Simon Smith said his embassy has made it clear to South Korea’s national government that the measures in Seoul and Gyeonggi “are not fair, they’re not proportionate, nor are they likely to be effective.”

“However, my strong advice to all British workers in Seoul and the other areas affected is to follow the authorities’ requirements to take a test,” Smith said.

The Seoul metropolitan government on Wednesday began necessitating testing for all foreign nationals employed in the city, regardless of their visa status. They could face fines of up to 2 million won ($1,768) if they fail to be tested until the end of March.

Critics have questioned why South Korean authorities are mandating broad tests based on nationality instead of specifically targeting people with vulnerable working conditions.

The testing campaign targeting foreigners came in response to outbreaks among low-skilled foreign workers employed at Gyeonggi factories, who often face hash working and living conditions that expose them to higher infection risks.


BERLIN — An IT security group says it was able to access sensitive personal data on tens of thousands of people in Germany and Austria after finding a gaping hole in a system used by coronavirus test centers in the countries.

The group Zerforschung said the names, addresses, dates of birth, ID card numbers and 136,000 virus test results of more than 80,000 people were exposed to anyone with an account on testing center websites made using a system provided by Vienna-based

The system is used at over 100 sites in Berlin, Munich and Austria, including some linked to private companies and schools.

Zerforschung, which is affiliated to the Berlin-based hacker group Chaos Computer Club, said Thursday it informed the company and authorities about the security flaw. didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The company also has clients in France, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Middle East.


BUDAPEST — The daily COVID-19 death total in Hungary went above 200 for the first time on Thursday as a record number of patients are treated in hospitals, making the Central European country one of the hardest-hit in Europe.

The 207 new deaths broke the previous record of 195 set the previous day, bringing total deaths to 17,628 in the country of fewer than 10 million. Hungary has the world’s 7th highest COVID-19 death rate per 1 million inhabitants, coming in just behind the United Kingdom, according to John’s Hopkins University.

The number of patients being treated in hospitals continues to break records day by day, with 10,386 patients hospitalized on Thursday, 1,170 of which are on ventilators.

Health officials have attributed the powerful surge in Hungary to the spread of a variant of the coronavirus first discovered in the United Kingdom, which Chief Medical Officer Cecila Muller said is “practically raging” through the country.

Hungarian officials have been critical of the European Union’s vaccine rollout, and hope a large quantity of vaccines purchased from Russia and China will bring an end to the surge.


ROME — Italy is marking the anniversary of one of the most haunting moments of its COVID-19 emergency, when Bergamo’s death toll reached such heights that an army convoy had to transport the dead out because its cemeteries and crematoria were full.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi is visiting the northern city of Bergamo on Thursday to commemorate the anniversary. He is laying a wreath at the cemetery and inaugurating a forest named in honor of the more than 100,000 people who have died in the pandemic in Italy, the first country in the West to be hit.

The anniversary comes as much of Italy is under new lockdown amid a new surge of infections and as its halting vaccination campaign slows down further thanks to the suspension of AstraZeneca shots.

Footage off the army convoy snaking its way through Bergamo’s valley roads on March 18, 2020 remains one of the most heart-wrenching and iconic images of the pandemic in Italy, in a year that has seen many: the exhausted nurse collapsed on her computer keyboard after a shift, and more recently, the Rome-area bistro owner sitting hunched over in her restaurant kitchen after the latest lockdown was imposed.


KAMPALA, Uganda — The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the suspension of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in some European Union nations hurts efforts to build public confidence and trust in vaccines on the continent of 1.3 billion people.

John Nkengasong said in a briefing Thursday that despite “unfortunate events” in Europe, African nations should continue rolling out the AstraZeneca vaccine, the only shot currently available in many countries that have accessed batches of it through the COVAX initiative.

Nkengasong said a recent meeting convened by his group concluded that vaccine-related decisions in Africa should not be “based on anything that is subjective.” He said instead there should be continuous monitoring and reporting of any adverse events following inoculations.

At least 22 of Africa’s 54 nations have received more than 14 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine as of March 13, according to the World Health Organization.

The European Medicines Agency has said there is “no indication” the AstraZeneca shot is responsible for dangerous blood clots in a few recipients. The World Health Organization says the benefits of the vaccine outweigh any risks and recommends its continued use. Other European nations are proceeding with vaccinations despite safety worries in countries such as Germany.


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