The Latest: Push for US commission to investigate virus

WASHINGTON — There’s a push on Capitol Hill and beyond for a full-blown investigation of the coronavirus outbreak by a national commission like the one that looked into 9/11.

The proposal comes amid lingering questions over the government’s response to the crisis and the origin of the virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans.

A bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine would establish such a commission.

“The death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic is more than 200 times that of the 9/11 attacks — but Congress has yet to establish a similar blue ribbon commission to investigate the vulnerabilities of our public health system and issue guidance for how we as a nation can better protect the American people from future pandemics,” Menendez and Collins wrote in an essay this week in The New York Times.

The inquiry could include a look at the origins of the virus; early warnings and other communication with foreign governments; coordination among federal, state and local agencies; the availability of medical supplies; testing and public health surveillance; vaccination development and distribution; the uneven effect on minorities; and government relief policies.

However, its prospects are unclear. Many are concerned politics will get in the way of any inquiry, as happened when Republicans came out against a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump.

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MORE ON THE PANDEMIC:

— Some in Washington seeking 9/11-style commission on coronavirus

— U.K. reports more than 10,000 daily virus cases, first time since Feb.

— Dr. Fauci: U.S. to spend $3B for antiviral pills for COVID-19

— CureVac CEO: Vaccine data ‘sobering’ at 47% efficacy

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Follow more of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan is locking down because of a massive spike in coronavirus cases among employees.

The embassy in Kabul already is on uncertain footing due to the imminent withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Now the embassy is ordering staffers into virtual isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

It’s already killed at least one person and sent 114 into quarantine. The embassy says in a notice to employees that most group activities, including work meetings and recreational gatherings, are banned.

The restrictions will remain in place until the chain of transmission is broken. Violators will be removed from the country on the next available flight.

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HONG KONG — Coronavirus vaccine incentives offered by Hong Kong companies, including a lucky draw for an apartment, a Tesla car and even gold bars, are helping boost the city’s sluggish inoculation rate.

The city of 7.5 million, which hasn’t experienced a major outbreak, is battling vaccine hesitancy driven by multiple factors, including fears of serious side effects, a mistrust of the government and a lack of concern from residents.

There have been fewer than 12,000 coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

Just 16% of people in Hong Kong have been fully vaccinated. But since the first incentives were announced at the end of May, there has been a surge in bookings. Nearly 600,000 of the 3 million shots given since February came in the last two weeks.

More than 450,000 people signed up on the first possible day for the chance to win the one-bedroom condominium, worth $1.4 million in one the world’s most expensive property markets. Registrations began this week and will remain open until September, when the draw will take place. Proof of vaccination is required to claim the prize.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Authorities say the first delta variant in the community has been detected in Sri Lanka.

Dr Chandima Jeewandara, Director of immunology and molecular medicine of the Sri Jayewardenepra University says the delta variant has been detected in five samples collected from the capital Colombo. Dr. Jeewandara says it’s the first community detection. Previously, two people were found to be infected with the delta variant in a quarantine facility.

The delta variant was first identified in neighboring India and is considered a more transmissible version of the disease.

Sri Lanka has seen a sharp increase of positive cases and deaths since April because of the celebrations and shopping by the people during the traditional new year festival.

Sri Lanka’s total confirmed positive cases have reached 230,692 and 2,374 confirmed deaths.

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NEW YORK — The U.S. Open tennis tournament will allow 100% spectator capacity throughout its entire two weeks in 2021.

This comes a year after spectators were banned from the Grand Slam event in New York because of the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. Tennis Association made the announcement Thursday. The U.S. Open, held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, is scheduled to start on Aug. 30.

The U.S. Open will be the first Grand Slam tournament to have full attendance since the Australian Open in January-February 2020, before the start of the pandemic. More than 700,000 people attended the two-week U.S. Open in 2019.

On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said many of the state’s remaining social distancing rules would be eased because 70% of its adults have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Slovakia coach Stefan Tarkovic says defender Denis Vavro and a member of the team’s coaching staff have tested positive for the coronavirus ahead of the European Championship match against Sweden.

They are the first positive tests for COVID-19 to have been announced since Euro 2020 started.

Tarkovic says Vavro has no symptoms and is isolating. He didn’t disclose the name of the coach. Testing took place on Wednesday.

The game against Sweden is in St. Petersburg on Friday.

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LONDON — The U.K. has recorded more than 10,000 daily coronavirus infections for the first time in nearly four months, likely the result of the spread of the more contagious delta variant.

Government figures Thursday reported 11,007 daily cases, the highest daily amount since Feb. 19.

The variant, which accounts for around 95% of all new cases in the U.K., is considered by government scientists to be between 40% to 80% more transmissible than the previous dominant strain.

The spread of the variant upended plans for the lifting of all restrictions on social contact next week. Instead, Prime Minister Boris Johnson delayed the easing by four weeks to July 19.

Most of the new infections are among younger age groups who have not received a vaccine. The U.K.’s vaccine rollout will be extended to all adults over age 18 on Friday.

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ROME — With just over 50% of the Italian population having received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, right-wing leader Matteo Salvini is pressing for an end or easing of nationwide mask-wearing rules.

Salvini says he lobbied Italian Premier Mario Draghi on Thursday to end the rule requiring masks “at least outdoors as soon as possible.”

Salvini urged Italy to follow the example of neighboring France, which a day earlier announced the end of the mask-wearing requirement outdoors except in crowd situations. In France, more than 59% of adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

As of Thursday, 27% of Italy’s population over age 12 has been fully vaccinated. Italy’s daily numbers of confirmed cases, ICU admissions and deaths have been dropping in recent weeks.

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WASHINGTON — The United States is devoting more than $3 billion to advance development of antiviral pills for COVID-19 and other dangerous viruses that could turn into pandemics.

The pills would be used to minimize symptoms after infection. They are in development and could begin arriving by year’s end, pending the completion of clinical trials.

Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci announced the plan Thursday at a White House briefing. Fauci says the new program would invest in “accelerating things that are already in progress” for COVID-19 but would also work to innovate new therapies for other dangerous viruses.

Several companies, including Pfizer, Roche and AstraZeneca, are testing antivirals in pill form.

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LONDON — Britain’s government is extending its coronavirus vaccine program to all those over the age of 18, as figures show 80% of adults in the country have received their first dose.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock says everyone over 18 can start booking their vaccine appointments on Friday.

More than 42 million first vaccine doses have been delivered in the U.K. since the rollout began more than six months ago. About 30.4 million have received both doses.

Britain’s government is racing to vaccinate all adults before July 19, the date officials set for the lifting of England’s final remaining lockdown restrictions.

The U.K. has experienced a resurgence of infections, driven by the more transmissible delta variant. There were more than 9,000 new cases reported Wednesday, though deaths have remained low.

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MOSCOW — Authorities in four Russian regions have made coronavirus vaccines mandatory for people working in retail, education and other service sectors.

Moscow first announced the requirement Wednesday, and the surrounding Moscow region, the Siberian region of Kemerovo and the Far East region of Sakhalin promptly followed. Officials in the four regions ordered businesses and institutions involved in retail, education, health care, public transportation, beauty, entertainment and other industries that serve a large number of people to ensure that at least 60% of their staffs are fully vaccinated.

The Kremlin has repeatedly rejected the idea of ordering mandatory vaccinations nationwide.

Russia was among the first countries in the world to deploy a coronavirus vaccine, and authorities have a goal of immunizing 60% of the country’s adults, or about 69 million people, by the fall. However, in early June some 18 million people — 12% of the 146-million population — had received at least one dose.

New daily cases averaged around 14,000 this week, compare to 9,000 last week. Russia has reported more than 5.2 million total confirmed cases and nearly 128,000 confirmed deaths.

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BERLIN — The chief executive of CureVac says interim results from late-stage testing of its coronavirus shot are “sobering,” but the German company aims to finish a final analysis within weeks to determine whether it will seek regulatory approval.

CureVac announced the vaccine had shown an efficacy of 47% against COVID-19 of any severity, according to a partial review of data from its trial involving 40,000 participants in Latin America and Europe. This is below the World Health Organization threshold of 50%.

The biotechnology company says more than two dozen variants of the coronavirus were found in its trial across 10 countries, which may have affected the outcome.

“The results are sobering,” said chief executive Franz-Werner Haas. “We recognize that demonstrating high efficacy in this unprecedented broad diversity of variance is quite challenging.”

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TOKYO — Japan’s top government spokesman says the county plans to start issuing vaccine passports around mid-July when more international trips are expected to open up to those who have received COVID-19 vaccines.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato says the government will start issuing vaccination certificates for those traveling overseas to be exempt from quarantine requirements or to shorten quarantine period.

The vaccination certificates will be issued by paper, but the government is considering issuance in digital format as well, Kato said.

Business communities in Japan have been calling for issuance of vaccine passports to help smooth their business trips when economic activities eventually resume. But the certificates also raise concerns about privacy, security and fairness. Critics say the passports will only benefit people and countries with more access to vaccines.

Japan has lagged many advanced nations in vaccination rollouts. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is determined to hold the Olympics despite the pandemic, is pushing to accelerate the process. About 6% of Japanese have been fully vaccinated.

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KATHMANDU, Nepal — Nepal’s health minister says the country has significantly reduced coronavirus infections after its worst outbreak but is in desperate need of vaccines.

Health Minister Sher Bahadur Tamang said in an interview with The Associated Press that “The main issue for us is vaccines, and unless we get vaccines we cannot say everyone is safe.”

Only about 8.5% of the population has received one shot and about 2.5% have been fully immunized.

Nepal launched a vaccination campaign in January but was forced to suspend it after India halted exports of domestically produced vaccines because of its own outbreak. COVAX, the U.N.-backed project to supply vaccines to poor regions of the world, pledged Nepal 2 million doses by March. But it only provided 248,000 because it’s facing a serious shortage.

Nepal has been under lockdown since April after cases and deaths spiked following a massive outbreak in neighboring India. Close to 10,000 new cases and hundreds of deaths were reported daily in mid-May. There was an acute shortage of hospital beds, medicines and oxygen for patients.

The improved number of new cases on Thursday was 2,607, along with 39 deaths, according to the Health Ministry.

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TOKYO — Japan has announced the easing of a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and six other areas next week, ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in just over a month.

Japan has been struggling since late March to slow a wave of infections propelled by more contagious variants, with new daily cases soaring above 7,000 at one point and seriously ill patients straining hospitals in Tokyo, Osaka and other metropolitan areas.

Daily cases have since subsided significantly. In Tokyo, new cases are down to 500 per day from about 1,100 in mid-May. That paved the way for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to downgrade the state of emergency when it expires on Sunday to less stringent measures. Suga says the relaxed measures will focus on early closures of bars and restaurants. Those measures will last until July 11. The Olympics are scheduled for July 23-Aug. 8.

If another surge occurs and strains hospitals, the prime minister says, “we will quickly take action, including strengthening of the measures.”

As of Wednesday, only 6% of Japanese were fully vaccinated.

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