Today’s coronavirus news: Easing rules for parental benefits created inequities among parents; France's Sanofi to help make rival vaccine; Biden ‘bringing back the pros’ for virus briefings


  • 6:19 a.m. Biden says he’s ‘bringing back the pros’ for virus briefings

  • 5:01 a.m. France’s Sanofi to help make rival vaccine

  • 4 a.m. Easing rules for parental benefits created inequities among parents

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Wednesday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

6:48 a.m. AstraZeneca says it has not pulled out of talks with the European Union and plans to meet with EU officials later Wednesday in Brussels.

The comments came after EU officials said that the company had pulled out of the meeting to discuss delayed vaccine commitments to the bloc. The talks were slated to be the third in in as many days.

The spat between AstraZeneca and the EU has raised concerns about vaccine nationalism, as countries desperate to end the pandemic and return to normalcy jockey to make sure to obtain as many of the precious vaccine shots as possible.

The latest disagreement between the two sides came after AstraZeneca rejected the EU’s accusation that the company had failed to honour its commitments for the delivery of coronavirus vaccine. The company says figures in its contract with the EU were targets that couldn’t be met because of problems in rapidly expanding production capacity.

AstraZeneca said in a statement that they “understand and share in the frustration that initial supply volumes of our vaccine delivered to the European Union will be lower than forecast.”

6:19 a.m. 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.

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.

5:50 a.m. Remember the word: Playbook.

This is the rule book that the IOC and Tokyo organizers are set to roll out next week to explain how 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and tens of thousands of others will try to safely enter Japan when the Olympics open in just under six months.

Organizers and the International Olympic Committee are finally going public with their planning, hoping to push back against reports the Olympics will be cancelled with Tokyo and much of Japan still under a state of emergency with COVID-19 cases rising.

The rollout at Olympic headquarters in Switzerland is planned for Feb. 4, with Tokyo likely to present on Feb. 5.

“We created four different scenarios, one that had travel restrictions, clusters — to one where the pandemic was nearly gone,” Lucia Montanarella, head of IOC media operations, explained Tuesday for a panel discussion held by the International Sports Press Association.

5:11 a.m. Hundreds of Holocaust survivors in Austria and Slovakia were poised to get their first coronavirus vaccination Wednesday, acknowledging their past suffering with a special tribute 76 years after the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, where the Nazis killed more than 1 million Jews and others.

“We owe this to them,” said Erika Jakubovits, the Jewish Community of Vienna organizer of the vaccination drive. “They have suffered so much trauma and have felt even more insecure during this pandemic.”

More than 400 Austrian survivors, most in their 80s or 90s, were expected to get their first coronavirus shot at Vienna’s largest vaccination centre set up in the Austrian capital’s convention centre. Some were being brought by shuttle or by ambulance, while others were being brought in by their children. The fittest among them were even planning on taking the subway.

Though organized to take place on what is known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, vaccinations were not just being offered to survivors of the Shoah, but also all other Jews in the area older than 85.

Some survivors from Vienna’s 8,000-person strong Jewish community already received the vaccination in December, when residents of the community’s Jewish nursing home were vaccinated, Jakubovits said.

More broadly, a majority of elderly Austrians living in nursing homes have already received the first shot of a vaccine against COVID-19, the Austrian news agency APA reported.

5:09 a.m. South Korea has reported new 559 cases of the coronavirus, its highest daily increase in 10 days, as health workers scrambled to slow transmissions at religious facilities, which have been a major source of infections throughout the pandemic.

The figures released by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Wednesday brought the national caseload to 76,429, including 1,378 deaths.

The agency said 112 of the new cases came from the southwestern city of Gwangju where more than 100 infections have so far been linked to a missionary training school. An affiliated facility in the central city of Daejeon has been linked to more 170 infections.

Nearly 300 of the new cases came from the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people, where infections have been tied to various places, including churches, restaurants, schools and offices.

5:05 a.m. China has given more than 22 million coronavirus vaccine shots to date as it carries out a drive ahead of next month’s Lunar New Year holiday, health authorities said Wednesday.

The effort, which began six weeks ago, targets key groups such as medical and transport workers and has accelerated vaccinations in China. About 1.6 million doses had been given over several months before the campaign began.

“The carrying out of vaccination has been ongoing in a steady and orderly manner,” Zeng Yixin, vice chairman of the National Health Commission Said at a news conference.

He said that 22.76 million doses had been administered as of Tuesday. It’s not clear how many people that represents since the vaccine is given in two doses, and some may have received their second shot.



5:01 a.m. French drug maker Sanofi says it will help manufacture 125 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by rivals Pfizer and BioNTech, while its own vaccine candidate faces delays.

Germany-based BioNTech will initially produce the vaccines at Sanofi facilities in Frankfurt, starting in the summer, according to a Sanofi statement Wednesday. The company did not reveal financial details of the agreement.

The French government has been pressing Sanofi to use its facilities to help make rival vaccines, given high demand and problems with supplies of the few vaccines that are already available.

Sanofi and British partner GlaxoSmithKline will start a new phase-2 trial of their COVID-19 vaccine next month, Sanofi said. The two companies said last month that their vaccine won’t be ready until late 2021 because the shot’s effectiveness in older people needed to be improved.

4:53 a.m. Quebec’s director of national health said he’s still not sure when the province will begin administering COVID-19 booster shots — 43 days since officials started injecting people with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Dr. Horacio Arruda said Tuesday that while he doesn’t want Quebecers to wait more than seven weeks to receive a booster shot, he said he was still waiting to hear back from government scientists studying the efficacy of the vaccine among those who received their first of two injections.

Quebec has taken a different approach from other provinces, focusing on giving a first dose to as many people as possible before giving anyone a second, a strategy that Arruda maintains will save more lives and keep more people out of hospital at a time when vaccine supplies are limited.

“We did it because we don’t have enough vaccine,” he told reporters.

Vaccine maker Pfizer has said the second dose of its vaccine should be given within 21 days. Moderna, the maker of the other vaccine approved for use in Canada, has set the date for the second shot at 28 days. Ottawa’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization, however, has said the second dose of both vaccines can wait up to 42 days.

Relatives of long-term care residents say they don’t believe the government is making a science-based decision.

4:41 a.m. There’s a race between COVID-19 and the rollout of vaccine as researchers and health officials in B.C. warn of two faster-spreading variants.

The number of variant cases may start low, but increased transmission could only be a few weeks away, just as delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is delayed, said Caroline Colijn, theCanada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Infection, Evolution and Public Health at Simon Fraser University.

Colijn’s lab released modelling data this week showing public health rules in several provinces, including B.C., would not be sufficient to prevent exponential growth in cases starting around March if a COVID-19 variant with a 40 per cent higher transmission rate became established.

“By established I mean some cluster doesn’t get stopped and takes off and we don’t notice or we don’t act and we are unable to stop those chains of transmission and so they take off the way the current COVID has,” she said.

Colijn added she would expect public health officials to enact further restrictions before such exponential growth in variant cases.

4 a.m. Newly released documents show federal officials have been aware since the fall that some new parents might be receiving a smaller amount of money than they would have if not for a change in the way COVID-19 pandemic benefits are delivered to Canadians.

That is due to a shift in late September, when the employment insurance system kicked back into gear and three new benefits rolled out to replace the Canada Emergency Response Benefit that was supporting Canadians who had lost income since the spring.

On Sept. 27, eligible recipients started moving on to the decades-old EI system where the minimum weekly payment was set at $ 500 in line with the three “recovery” benefits.

Prior to that date, benefits were calculated based on earnings, meaning any new parent that started their EI claim before the change could receive less than $ 500 a week.

The documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act note the policy created inequities, and point to a similar effect for parents who will start claims after Sept. 25 this year, when the temporary rules are set to expire.

Tuesday 9 p.m.: Ongoing tensions between the provinces and the federal government over the management of the COVID-19 pandemic pivoted back Tuesday to the question of whether and how border controls can be tightened to slow the spread of the virus.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Canadians to cancel any non-essential trips they have planned abroad or even within Canada in the coming weeks, as new travel restrictions are on the way. What shape they might take remains up for discussion.

“The bad choices of a few will never be allowed to put everyone else in danger,” he said.

The premiers for Ontario and Quebec, however, suggested new measures could be implemented swiftly, including mandatory quarantine in hotels for returning travellers, flight bans from countries where new variants of the novel coronavirus are circulating and mandatory testing upon arrival in Canada.

“We aren’t the first country to require this and we won’t be the last,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said during a visit to Pearson International Airport, where a pilot project testing some incoming travellers is underway. “I can’t figure out for the life of me why we aren’t testing every single person that comes through this airport … and the land crossings as well. We have to lock down.”

Click here to read more of Tuesday’s COVID-19 coverage.