The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

By Nectar Gan, CNN

Updated 0011 GMT (0811 HKT) March 18, 2021
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10:14 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

WHO advisory group recommends Johnson & Johnson vaccine for all adults age 18 and older 

From CNN’s Naomi Thomas

A person receives a dose of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine in Thornton, Colorado, on March 6.
A person receives a dose of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine in Thornton, Colorado, on March 6. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization released its interim recommendations for the use of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine for people age 18 and older, based on advice from its Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunization, who met on Monday. 

“After reviewing the evidence, we have a vaccine that shows to be safe and it shows to have the necessary efficacy to be recommended by us for use in people above the age of 18 without an upper age limit,” said Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, chair of SAGE, during a briefing Wednesday. 

Cravioto said that the fact that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single dose vaccine is “a regular advantage in the sense of having the capacity to vaccinate more people, but no different in reality in its capacity to protect against severe disease or death or hospitalization than all the other ones that we have already reviewed and recommended.” 

There is currently not enough data on pregnant women to assess the risks of the vaccine to the group, the SAGE recommendations say, but in the interim, pregnant women should receive the vaccine if the benefit of being vaccinated outweighs the potential risks, for example if a pregnant women is a health worker or has comorbidities that place them in a high risk group for severe Covid-19. 

The document also points out that there have been no safety issues identified following the vaccination of more than 1,600 women against the company’s Ebola vaccine which is based on the same platform.  

SAGE recommends that people who have already been infected with SARS-CoV-2 should still be vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but that they wait for up to six months before getting it in order to give others a chance to get their first doses. However, in countries with high circulation of variants of concern, Cravioto said that they recommend that people who have already been infected not wait more than a week or two to be vaccinated. 

“In the countries where there is a high spread of the variants, and in countries where we now have information about the use of this vaccine to control SARS-CoV-2 caused by these variants, we recommend that you use it,” Cravioto said, giving data coming out of the US, Europe, South Africa and Brazil as examples.

As with other vaccines, SAGE recommends that groups who are disproportionately at risk of being infected and who live in environments where the virus circulates at a much wider capacity are vaccinated first, Cravioto said. 

They do not recommend the vaccine for people who are traveling and do not recommend any type of certificate for traveling, he said.  

SAGE has already made recommendations on the Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines. 

8:27 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

European Union unveils plans for vaccine passports

From CNN's James Frater

Stella Kyriakides, European commissioner for health and food safety, speaks at a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, on February 17.
Stella Kyriakides, European commissioner for health and food safety, speaks at a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, on February 17. Aris Oikonomou/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The European Commission has unveiled its proposal for a "Digital Green Certificate", or vaccine passport, to allow for safe and free movement within the EU during the pandemic.

The certificate will confirm that a person has been vaccinated against Covid-19, has received a negative test result or has recovered from Covid-19 that can be used across all EU Member States, the Commission announced on Wednesday.

The certificate can also be used in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway as well as Switzerland and will “be open to initiatives being developed globally”, the Commission said in a fact sheet sent to CNN.

The proposal was unveiled as the Commission called on Member States to prepare for a “coordinated approach to a gradual lifting of COVID-19 restrictions” when the epidemiological situation allows, ahead of a meeting of European leaders on March 25.

“Today we are proposing a common EU approach that will lead us on the way to our goal of re-opening the EU in a safe, sustainable and predictable way. The situation with the virus in Europe is still very challenging and confidence in decisions taken are crucial. It is only through a joint approach that we can return safely to full free movement in the EU, based on transparent measures and full mutual confidence,” Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety said in a press release.

The Digital Green Certificate will contain a QR code with a digital signature “to protect it against falsification. When the certificate is checked, the QR code is scanned and the signature verified,” the Commission fact sheet said.

Each issuing body (e.g. a hospital, a test centre, a health authority) has its own digital signature key and all of these are stored in a secure database in each country.

The European Commission will build a gateway where all certificate signatures can be verified across the EU.

Member States should issue vaccination certificates regardless of the type of COVID-19 vaccine, the Commission proposed. And people who have been vaccinated before the Digital Green Certificate is put in place should have the possibility to obtain the necessary vaccination certificate.

No exact end date was given for the certificates, with the Commission saying they will be suspended once the World Health Organization (WHO) declares the end of the international public health emergency caused by COVID-19.

The Commission is working to ensure the certificates are compatible with systems in third countries outside the EU, it said.

7:57 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Iceland will allow vaccinated tourists

From Sharon Braithwaite in Pisa, Italy

Iceland will open its borders to vaccinated visitors, including those from non-Schengen countries, the government said Tuesday in a statement.

The government announced that "all those who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 will be allowed to travel to Iceland without being subject to border measures, such as testing and quarantine"

Until now, "this exemption has only applied to those presenting certificates from the EU/EEA Area but will now apply equally to everyone who can provide proof of a full vaccination with a vaccine that has been certified for use by the European Medical Agency as well as requirements defined by the Chief Epidemiologist of Iceland and Icelandic regulations. Certificates from the World Health Organization (WHO) are also accepted for vaccines the WHO has validated."

From March 18, this exemption will apply to citizens outside the Schengen area, including the UK and USA, the government added.

The exemption also applies to those who can provide valid proof of prior infection, it said.

7:25 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Vaccines are "the first real key to bringing this period to an end," says Italian health minister

From CNN's Valentina Di Donato in Rome and Sharon Braithwaite in Pisa, Italy

Italy's Health Minister Roberto Speranza speaks at a press conference in Rome on March 2.
Italy's Health Minister Roberto Speranza speaks at a press conference in Rome on March 2. Stefano Carofei/Pool/Insidefoto/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

Roberto Speranza, Italy's health minister, has said that "faith in vaccines is not dented" as the country waits to hear from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on whether to start using the AstraZeneca vaccine again.

Italy and other European countries temporarily have suspended the rollout of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine over concerns that a small number of patients had developed blood clots post-inoculation.

The EMA assessment of thromboembolic events is expected Thursday.

Speaking on Wednesday in the House of Representatives, Speranza said: "The Italian government considers vaccines the first real key to bringing this period to an end ... The hope is that an answer from EMA will arrive tomorrow. We have the utmost confidence and demand the highest level of safety,” Speranza said.

7:41 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

While partying on St Patrick's Day keep in mind new variant spread

From CNN's Holly Yan

St. Patrick's Day 2020 was the first major holiday of the Covid-19 pandemic in the US, and we've learned sobering lessons since then.

Young, healthy people who were infected around St. Patrick's Day have suffered long-term complications. And infections have been spread by people with no symptoms.

This St. Patrick's Day, Americans have a new challenge: the spread of the highly contagious variants.

That variant  B 1.1.7. was first detected in the UK but has already spread to at least 48 US states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. Research shows that in the US, the variant is 59% to 74% more transmissible than the original novel coronavirus.

Young people definitely aren't immune and the consumption of alcohol adds its problems, as attempts to physically distance and wear masks typically go out the window.

For those trying to find a safe way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, the CDC has several suggestions, including outdoor neighborhood parties with everyone at least 6 feet apart and wearing masks.

Read CNN's full report here.

7:37 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Senior French hospitals official says AstraZeneca as efficient as Pfizer

From CNN's Saskya Vandoorne in Paris 

A nurse prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at Edouard Herriot hospital in Lyon, France, on February 6.
A nurse prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at Edouard Herriot hospital in Lyon, France, on February 6. Olivier Chassignole/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

A senior French hospitals official said Wednesday that studies have shown the AstraZeneca vaccine - currently suspended in France - is as efficient as the Pfizer vaccine.

“Maybe people are being overly cautious,” Remi Salomon told BFM TV.

“My fear is that we are in France where many people are vaccine hesitant, I’d almost say defiant, I fear people will not interpret this the right way.” 

Salomon said in order to stop the recent surge in covid-19 cases in the Paris region contact with other people needs to be minimized, but he believes a weekend lockdown will not be enough. 

“If it's a weekend lockdown, during the week, the virus continues to circulate, people continue to see each other at work, people continue to see each other inside shops," Salomon said.

“We need to have measures during the week too,” he added. 

French Prime Minister Jean Castex said Tuesday France is experiencing a “third wave” of the coronavirus pandemic.

The country registered 29,975 new cases Tuesday, according to figures from the French health ministry.

6:08 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

UK considers vaccine passports to allow summer travel, says minister

From CNN's Chloe Adams

UK Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng arrives at Downing Street in London on March 16.
UK Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng arrives at Downing Street in London on March 16. Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

The UK is considering the implementation of vaccine passports to allow summer travel, says UK Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng. 

Kwarteng told the BBC on Wednesday that debates and discussions were taking place around the best way to proceed in terms of fairness and to maintain public confidence. “It's really important that people can travel safely, but I think we also have to be driven by the data, we've got to see how the Coronavirus develops.”

UK Cruise company P&O Ferries announced on Wednesday only passengers who had received their second dose of a vaccine would be allowed to board two cruise ships that are due to start sailing around the UK on June 27. 

President of Carnival UK, Simon Palethorpe, the company who owns P&O, told the BBC on Wednesday they would wait to decide the precise proof of vaccination required by passengers, ahead of an announcement by the government and Global Travel Taskforce to outline vaccination proof within the broader travel sector. 

Palethorpe said he had seen an ‘overwhelming desire’ from guests to stay with other people who are vaccinated. “We've got a whole series of protocols, of which vaccination is just one, to try to keep our guests safe, from enhanced sanitation measures, social distancing, and mask-wearing in certain areas of the ship.” 

Palethorpe also said there would be rigorous testing for both passengers and crew before and throughout the trip.

3:10 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Australia to donate Covid-19 vaccines to Papua New Guinea as cases surge

From CNN's Hilary Whitman in Brisbane and Akanksha Sharma in Hong Kong

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on March 17
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on March 17 Lukas Coch/AAP Image/AP

Australia will donate 8,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and seek approval for one million more doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to help the Pacific island nation contain its recent outbreak, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Wednesday.

The country will also send one million surgical masks, and 100,000 gowns, gloves and sanitizer along with 200 non-invasive ventilators and 20,000 face shields to PNG.

This is in Australia’s interests, and is in our region’s interests,” Morrison said.

Australia is suspending all outbound travel, including charter flights, to PNG for two weeks from midnight Wednesday, Morrison said. Only freight and some humanitarian workers will be exempted.

He also said that workers who fly in and out between the two countries should remain where they are. “The escalation of issues with the virus in Papua New Guinea, presents very real risks to Australia as well," he said.

Morrison said he has been in touch with his counterpart, PNG Prime Minister James Marape, as the rising number of cases in the country “are of great concern."

"We have been assisting with some (Covid-19) tests in Papua New Guinea and out of the 500 tests that our health authorities have done for Papua New Guinea, 250 have come back positive," said Queensland state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in a press conference Monday.

On Sunday, PNG reported 97 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total confirmed infections to 2,269, according to the country’s health ministry.

Five new virus-related deaths were also reported Sunday, bringing the country's total death toll to 26, the ministry added.

3:04 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

South Korea will continue AstraZeneca vaccinations as planned, health authorities say

From CNN’s Yoonjung Seo in Seoul

A nurse fills a syringe with the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Seoul, South Korea, on February 26.
A nurse fills a syringe with the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Seoul, South Korea, on February 26. Jung Yeon-Je-Pool/Getty Images

South Korea’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) announced Wednesday the country will carry on with vaccinations as there is currently no clear ground to stop using AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine.

In a press release, the KDCA pointed to the World Health Organization's (WHO) finding that there is no evidence blood clots are caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine and its recommendation not to stop vaccination due to fear.

The KDCA also quoted the European Medicines Agency (EMA)'s assessment that there is no indication the two cases of blood clots in Austria are related to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

More than 570,000 people have been vaccinated with AstraZeneca's Covid-19 shot in South Korea so far, but no links have been confirmed between vaccination and thrombosis, according to the KDCA.

The health team will keep monitoring people's reactions after vaccination and will closely review the results of the European Food and Drug Administration’s investigation as well as cases in other countries, it added.