The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

By Nectar Gan, CNN

Updated 0011 GMT (0811 HKT) March 18, 2021
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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. 


2:57 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Seoul orders Covid-19 testing for all foreign workers and their employers

From CNN’s Jake Kwon in Seoul

South Korea’s capital city Seoul has ordered all foreign workers and their employers to be tested for Covid-19, the city's top health official Park Yoo-mi said Wednesday.

The measure, which starts on Wednesday and lasts until the end of March, applies to every foreign worker and their employer in Seoul, Park said.

The city will send official letters to 4,457 businesses urging them to test their foreign employees.

Between January and March, 6.3% of those infected in Seoul were foreign nationals and Park said the measure was being taken to ensure the safety of the city's residents.

Those refusing the test could be fined up to 2 million KRW ($1,760) and sued for costs incurred if they were later linked to infections, Park added.

Similar measures were taken by neighboring Gyeonggi province following cluster infections in its manufacturing businesses. The province required its foreign workers to be tested and made negative coronavirus tests mandatory before they were hired, Health Ministry official Yoon Tae-ho said in a briefing Tuesday.

Park denied criticism that the measure was discriminatory, saying it only targets workers and the city had ordered testing of high risk groups in the past.

2:53 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Coronavirus strains first detected in California are officially "variants of concern," US CDC says

From CNN's Arman Azad

Two coronavirus strains first detected in California are now officially "variants of concern," according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The variants may be about 20% more transmissible, the CDC said, citing early research. Some Covid-19 treatments may also be less effective against the strains. Still, the CDC didn't say that vaccines would stop working against them.

In laboratory studies, antibodies from vaccinated people do seem to be less effective at neutralizing the strains. But lower levels of antibodies may still be enough to protect against Covid-19, especially severe cases. Certain immune cells can also help protect against disease -- not just antibodies.

No coronavirus variants currently rise to the US government's highest threat level, "variant of high consequence." Coronavirus strains shown to significantly reduce vaccine effectiveness would fall under that category.

Read the full story:

3:29 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Brazil's Covid-19 death toll reaches highest daily record to date

From CNN's Rodrigo Pedroso in Sao Paulo

An employee uses a bulldozer to prepare more graves in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 11.
An employee uses a bulldozer to prepare more graves in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 11. Andre Penner/AP

Brazil reported 2,841 coronavirus-related fatalities on Tuesday, its highest daily death toll since the pandemic began, according to the health ministry.

The country’s total Covid-19 death toll now stands at 282,127. 

Additionally, 83,926 new Covid-19 cases were reported Tuesday, bringing the total caseload to 11,603,535.

On Monday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro announced the appointment of cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga as the country’s fourth health minister since the pandemic hit last March. Queiroga is replacing the current minister, Army General Eduardo Pazuello, who has led the health ministry since May 16, 2020.

The transition in the Ministry of Health will take place in a couple of weeks, according to Bolsonaro.

Meanwhile, governors of the most hit regions in the country announced the adoption of night curfews and more restrictive measures to try to curb the virus' spread. 

Fourteen of the twenty-six Brazilian states, plus the Federal District, are under curfew --generally between 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. -- the majority of them enforced in the last week. 

In addition, 18 state governments announced more restrictive measures over the last five days.