Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on March 16

Europe's medicines watchdog on Tuesday said the benefits of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine continue to outweigh the risks after several countries halted its use due to concerns about blood clots.

Ontario entering 3rd wave of pandemic, advisory group says, as Quebec rolls back more restrictions

European Medicines Agency sees 'no indication' COVID-19 vaccine caused blood clots

1 year ago
Duration 1:31
The European Medicines Agency is investigating whether there is a causal link between AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine and a small number of instances of blood clots. But at this point, it believes the vaccine is safe.

The latest:

Europe's medicines watchdog on Tuesday said the benefits of AstraZeneca-Oxford's COVID-19 vaccine continue to outweigh the risks after several countries halted its use due to concerns about blood clots.

The European Medicines Agency's executive director, Emer Cooke, said it was carrying out a case-by-case evaluation of incidents and was expected to complete a review on Thursday.

The update from Cooke came after a French official expressed hope that European medical experts would clear up questions over the safety of AstraZeneca's coronavirus shot this week, as experts warned the decision by major European states to stop using it posed a greater risk to public health.

In a co-ordinated step, the European Union's largest members — Germany, France and Italy — suspended the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine on Monday pending the outcome of an investigation by the bloc's medicines agency into isolated cases of bleeding, blood clots and low platelet counts.

They were joined by Sweden and Latvia on Tuesday, bringing to more than a dozen the number of EU countries that have acted since reports first emerged of thromboembolisms affecting people after they got the AstraZeneca shot.

The World Health Organization and European Medicines Agency have joined AstraZeneca in saying there is no proven link.

"The choice is a political one," Nicola Magrini, the director general of Italy's medicines authority AIFA, told daily la Repubblica in an interview.

Magrini called the AstraZeneca vaccine safe and said its benefit-to-risk ratio was "widely positive." There have been eight deaths and four cases of serious side-effects following vaccinations in Italy, he said.

French Health Minister Olivier Véran also told reporters that the risk-reward ratio for the vaccine remained positive.

"We expect some kind of verdict from the European scientific community by Thursday afternoon, allowing us to resume the campaign," Véran said. France's vaccination chief, Alain Fischer, said he expected the suspension to be temporary.

WATCH | Physican answers questions about the AstraZeneca vaccine: 

Ontario doctor explains why expanding AstraZeneca vaccine to 65+ is good news

1 year ago
Duration 5:58
Dr. Tara Kiran, a family physician in Toronto, explains why she feels the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is safe for older patients and why all Canadians should feel confident about receiving it.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said at a briefing on Tuesday that federal, provincial and territorial authorities are "continuously monitoring" vaccine safety, noting that to date "no unexpected vaccine safety issues have been identified in Canada." 

Tam said that Health Canada "is aware of reports of serious adverse events in Europe following immunization with the AstraZeneca vaccine but wants to reassure Canadians that the benefits of the vaccine continue to outweigh its risks."

She said Health Canada will keep working with international regulators to determine "whether there is any need to take action in Canada."

Tam's update came after National Advisory Committee on Immunization chair Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh said the panel is continually studying new reports and studies on the vaccines, including the recent reports in Europe about blood clots.

Health Canada has approved the use of COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca-Oxford and Johnson & Johnson.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said that experts and Health Canada, "have spent an awful lot of time making sure every vaccine approved in Canada is both safe and effective."

"The best vaccine for you to take is the very first one that is offered to you," Trudeau said. "That's how we get through this as quickly as possible and as safely as possible."

Pharmacist Abraam Rafael prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccine to Sam Dajostino at his pharmacy in Toronto on March 14, as Ontario starts administering the AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 to residents aged 60-64. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

European governments say they acted out of an abundance of caution, with German Health Minister Jens Spahn stating on Monday that the decision to suspend AstraZeneca was not political but based on expert advice.

He acted after Germany's vaccine watchdog identified an unusual number of cases of a rare cerebral vein thrombosis. Out of 1.6 million people in Germany who had received the AstraZeneca shot, seven fell ill and three died.

The risk of dying of COVID-19 is still orders of magnitude greater, especially among those most vulnerable such as the elderly, said Dirk Brockmann, an epidemiologist at the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases.

"In the risk groups, the risk of dying of COVID is much, much higher. That means one is probably 100,000 times more likely to die of COVID than because of an AstraZeneca vaccine," Brockmann told ARD public television.

In Thailand, meanwhile, the prime minister received an AstraZeneca shot at the start of the country's use of the vaccine on Tuesday.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha receives an injection of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the Government House in Bangkok on Tuesday. (Thailand Government House/Reuters)

"There are people who have concerns," Prayuth Chan-ocha said after his vaccination. "But we must believe doctors, believe in our medical professionals."

Thailand initially was the first country outside Europe to temporarily suspend using the AstraZeneca vaccine. But Thailand's health authorities later decided to go ahead with it, with Prayuth and members of his cabinet receiving the first shots.

Indonesia suspended use of the vaccine on Monday, saying it was waiting for a full report from the World Health Organization regarding possible side effects.

-From Reuters, CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 12:30  p.m. ET

What's happening across Canada

As of 6:25 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Canada had reported 916,143 cases of COVID-19, with 31,800 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 22,519.

Tam said on Twitter on Tuesday that to date, Canada has seen more than 3,618 cases of variants of concern, including:

  • 3,335 cases of the B117 variant first reported in the U.K.
  • 225 cases of the B1351 variant first reported in South Africa.
  • 58 cases of the P1 variant linked to Brazil.

Tam, who described the figures as "concerning" on Tuesday, said in her statement that the variant case numbers were highest in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec. And she added that now is not the time for Canadians to increase their contact with others.

In Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick reported five new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, while Nova Scotia reported two new cases. Health officials in both Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador reported one new case.

Health officials in Ontario, meanwhile, reported 1,074 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 11 additional deaths. A provincial dashboard put the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations at 761 and listed 292 of those as being in intensive care units.

The latest update comes a day after the Ontario Hospital Association said that the province is now in a third wave of infections, citing data from a science advisory group that shows virus variant cases increasing and the number of patients in intensive care trending up.

"Strong adherence to public health measures is urgently needed to prevent overwhelming hospitals," the hospital group said on Twitter.

In Quebec on Tuesday, health officials reported 561 new cases of COVID-19 and eight additional deaths. Hospitalizations stood at 533, with 91 in intensive care. While announcing a further loosening of restrictions Tuesday, Premier François Legault said his aim is to see every adult who wants to be vaccinated get a first dose by Fête nationale on June 24, and that anyone 65 and older should have a first dose by mid-April. 

In the Prairie provinces, Manitoba reported 111 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, more than double the number from Monday, but no additional deaths. The province announced it is offering $8 million in COVID-19 relief to the tourism sector.

Premier Brian Pallister says hotel and resource-tourism operators will get grants to offset a portion of their costs, such as mortgage interest and property taxes.

Saskatchewan reported 156 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and two additional deaths. An infectious diseases specialist in Regina says almost all the active cases in his city are caused by variants of concern. 

"We probably have the highest proportion of cases of COVID-19 caused by variants of concern in the country," Dr. Alex Wong said on CBC Radio's The Morning Edition.

WATCH | Prince Rupert, B.C., offers vaccines to all adults after spike in cases:

Prince Rupert, B.C., offers vaccines to all adults after spike in cases

1 year ago
Duration 2:02
Burdened with a rising COVID-19 infection rate and few resources for acute care, the Prince Rupert, B.C., area is offering all adults a vaccine now, regardless of age.

In neighbouring Alberta, health officials reported 355 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and three additional deaths. About 11 per cent of the cases are linked to variants of concern.

British Columbia, meanwhile, reported 556 new cases on Tuesday but no new deaths. The province is among several encouraging people to celebrate a more subdued than usual St. Patrick's Day, with B.C. pubs and bars being ordered to stop selling alcohol at 8 p.m. local time

Across the North, there were no new cases reported in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories or Yukon. 

-From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 2:00 p.m. ET

What's happening around the world

Senior citizens receive doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine at a vaccination centre located inside the Expo Centre in Lahore, Pakistan, on Tuesday. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

As of Tuesday evening, more than 120.6 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with 68.2 million cases listed on the Johns Hopkins University tracking site as recovered. The death toll stood at nearly 2.7 million.

In the Americas, the United States should respond by Friday to Mexico's request to share doses of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine it has in stock, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

Reuters reported this week that Mexico had asked for doses of the British-developed vaccine, since it has yet to be approved for use in the United States.

Mexico will also sign a contract on Tuesday with China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd. to purchase 20 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, Ebrard said.

In the Asia-Pacific region, India, Cambodia and the Philippines' capital Manila expanded curbs and issued new safety recommendations amid a sharp rise in infections.

China has approved another COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, adding a fifth shot to its arsenal.

The announcement came from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Microbiology. The vaccine was approved for use in Uzbekistan on March 1. The last phase of clinical trials is ongoing. No peer-reviewed data is publicly available about the vaccine's safety or efficacy.

It's a three-dose shot, with one month each between shots, a company spokesperson said. Like other vaccines China has developed, it can be stored at normal refrigeration temperatures.

China has been slow in vaccinating its population of 1.4 billion people, despite having four vaccines approved for general use. The latest numbers, according to government officials at a press briefing Monday in Beijing, is 64.9 million doses of vaccines have been administered. They've mostly been given to health-care workers, those working at the border or customs, and specific industries.

In Europe, Prince Charles criticized those lobbying against coronavirus vaccines, saying they can "protect and liberate" some of society's most vulnerable members.

In a wide-ranging article published Wednesday in the Future Healthcare Journal, he called for an integrated approach to health care, and took a swipe at those speaking out against COVID-19 shots.

"Who would have thought … that in the 21st century that there would be a significant lobby opposing vaccination, given its track record in eradicating so many terrible diseases and its current potential to protect and liberate some of the most vulnerable in our society from coronavirus?" he wrote.

The prince, 72, who tested positive for the coronavirus himself in March last year, and other senior members of the Royal Family have been vociferous in their support of the shots.

Last month, he and his wife Camilla, 73, had their first vaccine doses, while Queen Elizabeth, 94, has also encouraged people to get a shot saying it did not hurt and those who were wary about it should think of others.

On Tuesday, the European Commission said it has sealed a deal with Pfizer to speed up the dispatching of 10 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine over the next three months.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said speeding up the pace of deliveries across the 27-nation bloc would bring the total number of Pfizer doses in the second quarter to over 200 million.

In the Middle East, Iran's total number of reported cases rose to more than 1.7 million, with more than 61,300 deaths.

Iran's campaign to inoculate its population against the coronavirus and promote itself as an emerging vaccine manufacturer inched on as health authorities announced Tuesday that the country's third homegrown vaccine has reached the phase of clinical trials. Details about its production, however, remained slim.

Although Iran, with a population of more than 80 million, has so far imported foreign vaccines from Russia, China, India and Cuba to cover over 1.2 million people, concerns over its lagging pace of vaccinations have animated Iran's drive to develop locally produced vaccines as wealthier nations snap up the lion's share of vaccine doses worldwide.

In Africa, South Africa's total number of reported cases is more than 1.5 million, with more than 51,400 deaths. 

-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 8:15 p.m. ET

Have questions about the COVID-19 pandemic? We're answering as many as we can in the comments.

With files from The Associated Press, CBC News and The Canadian Press

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