BERLIN (AP) — Sweden on Tuesday became the latest country to pause use of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine as European regulators review safety data following reports of dangerous blood clots in some recipients.
The company and international regulators continue to say the vaccine is safe, however, and many countries elsewhere in the world are forging ahead with their vaccination campaigns.
The European Medicines Agency plans to meet Thursday to review experts' findings on the vaccine and decide whether action needs to be taken. The agency has so far said that the benefits of receiving the shot outweigh the risk of side effects.
The Swedish Public Health Agency said Tuesday that it would suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine pending the results of the EMA meeting. Germany, France, Italy and Spain were among countries that suspended use of the vaccine on Monday.
"The decision is a precautionary measure," Sweden's chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, said in a statement.
Thai PM gets AstraZeneca jab, 1 Asian country suspends
BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's prime minister received a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by AstraZeneca on Tuesday, as much of Asia shrugged off concerns about reports of blood clots in some recipients in Europe, saying that so far there is no evidence to link the two.
Many countries using the vaccine also said the benefits from inoculation far outweighed possible risks, even as parts of Europe suspended it pending investigation of potential side effects.
AstraZeneca has developed a manufacturing base in Asia, and the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine maker, has been contracted by the company to produce a billion doses of the vaccine for developing nations. Hundreds of millions more are to be manufactured this year in Australia, Japan, Thailand and South Korea.
"There are people who have concerns," Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said after he received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. "But we must believe doctors, believe in our medical professionals."
Thailand last week was the first country outside Europe to temporarily suspend using the AstraZeneca vaccine. Indonesia followed on Monday, saying it was waiting for a full report from the World Health Organization regarding possible side effects.
Biden to join road show promoting relief plan with Pa. visit
LAS VEGAS (AP) — President Joe Biden is joining top messengers already crisscrossing the country to highlight the benefits of his massive COVID-19 rescue plan, in his case by promoting aid for small businesses.
Biden is set to visit a small business in suburban Philadelphia on Tuesday, his initial trip outside Washington for the "Help is here" tour that got underway Monday. Vice President Kamala Harris dropped in on a COVID-19 vaccination site and a culinary academy in Las Vegas while first lady Jill Biden toured a New Jersey elementary school.
"We want to avoid a situation where people are unaware of what they're entitled to," Harris said at the culinary academy. "It's not selling it; it literally is letting people know their rights. Think of it more as a public education campaign."
The White House is wasting no time promoting the $1.9 trillion relief plan, which Biden signed into law last week, looking to build momentum for the rest of his agenda and anxious to avoid the mistakes of 2009 in boosting that year's recovery effort. Even veterans of Barack Obama's administration acknowledge they did not do enough then to showcase their massive economic stimulus package.
"Hope is here in real and tangible ways," Biden said Monday at the White House. He said the new government spending will bankroll efforts that could allow the nation to emerge from the pandemic's twin crises, health and economic.
Schools weighing whether to seat students closer together
BOSTON (AP) — U.S. guidelines that say students should be kept 6 feet apart in schools are receiving new scrutiny from federal health experts, state governments and education officials working to return as many children as possible to the classroom.
Even as more teachers receive vaccinations, the distancing guidelines have remained a major hurdle for schools as they aim to open with limited space. But amid new evidence that it may be safe to seat students closer together, states including Illinois and Massachusetts are allowing 3 feet of distance, and others including Oregon are considering it.
Debate around the issue flared last week when a new study suggested that, if masks are worn, students can be seated as close as 3 feet apart with no increased risk to them or teachers. Published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, it looked at schools in Massachusetts, which has backed the 3-feet guideline for months.
Asked about it Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency is now exploring whether children can be seated closer together than was previously recommended. The 6-feet spacing guideline is "among the biggest challenges" schools have faced in reopening, she said.
The CDC included the larger spacing limit in its latest school guidelines, which were issued in February and concluded that schools can safely operate during the pandemic with masks, distancing and other precautions. It suggested 6 feet and said physical distancing "should be maximized to the greatest extent possible."
N Korea warns US not to 'cause a stink' before Seoul meeting
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — In North Korea's first comments directed at the Biden administration, Kim Jong Un's powerful sister on Tuesday warned the United States to "refrain from causing a stink" if it wants to "sleep in peace" for the next four years.
Kim Yo Jong's statement was issued as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Asia to talk with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea about North Korea and other regional issues. They have meetings in Tokyo on Tuesday before speaking to officials in Seoul on Wednesday.
"We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off (gun) powder smell in our land," she said. "If it wants to sleep in peace for coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step."
Kim Yo Jong, a senior official who handles inter-Korean affairs, also criticized the U.S. and South Korea for holding military exercises. She also said the North would consider abandoning a 2018 bilateral agreement on reducing military tensions and abolish a decades-old ruling party unit tasked to handle inter-Korean relations if it no longer had to cooperate with the South.
She said the North would also consider scrapping an office that handled South Korean tours to the North's scenic Diamond Mountain, which Seoul suspended in 2008 after a North Korean guard fatally shot a South Korean tourist.
Once held in Iranian jail, ex-Marine fights espionage claims
WASHINGTON (AP) — After Amir Hekmati was released from Iranian custody in a 2016 deal trumpeted as a diplomatic breakthrough, he was declared eligible for $20 million in compensation from a special U.S. government fund.
But payday never arrived, leaving Hekmati to wonder why.
The answer has finally arrived: Newly filed court documents reviewed by The Associated Press reveal FBI suspicions that he traveled to Iran to sell classified secrets — not, as he says, to visit his grandmother. Hekmati vigorously disputes the allegations, has never faced criminal charges and is challenging a special master's conclusion that he lied about his visit to Iran and is therefore not entitled to the money.
The FBI investigation helps explain the government's refusal for more than two years to pay Hekmati and muddies the narrative around a U.S. citizen, Marine and Iraq war veteran whose release was championed at the U.S. government's highest levels, including by Joe Biden, then the vice president, and John Kerry, then the secretary of state. The documents offer radically conflicting accounts of Hekmati's purpose in visiting Iran and detail the simmering, behind-the-scenes dispute over whether he is entitled to access a fund that compensates victims of international terrorism.
Hekmati said in a sworn statement that allegations he sought to sell out to Iran are ridiculous and offensive. His lawyers say the government's suspicions, detailed in FBI reports and letters from the fund's special master denying payments, are groundless and based on hearsay.
Sex abuse allegations pile up against Israeli rescue chief
JERUSALEM (AP) — For decades, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav was one of Israel's most recognizable faces, widely respected for founding an ultra-Orthodox rescue service that cared for victims of Palestinian attacks and bridged the divide between religious and secular Israelis.
But in recent days, Meshi-Zahav has faced a growing list of accusers who say he committed horrendous acts of sexual abuse of men, women and children over several decades.
The scandal has all but destroyed the reputation of a man who just weeks ago received the Israel Prize, the country's highest civilian honor, for his lifetime achievements. It also has shined a light on the scourge of sexual abuse in the insular world of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community.
"When it comes to the ultra-Orthodox in particular, there is a very strong code of silence," said Manny Waks, an advocate for victims of sex abuse in the religious community and himself a survivor of abuse in his native Australia.
"There is a closed community mentality, us vs. them. Putting all those things together is a recipe for disaster, in the context of child sexual abuse in particular," he said.
Researchers study impact of pandemic cancer screening pause
John Abraham's colonoscopy was postponed for several months because of the pandemic. When he finally got it, doctors found a growth too big to be removed safely during the scope exam. He had to wait several weeks for surgery, then several more to learn it had not yet turned cancerous.
"I absolutely wonder if I had gotten screened when I was supposed to have, if this would have been different" and surgery could have been avoided, said Abraham, a mortgage banker in Peoria, Illinois.
Millions of colonoscopies, mammograms, lung scans, Pap tests and other cancer screenings were suspended for several months last spring in the United States and elsewhere as COVID-19 swamped medical care.
Now researchers are studying the impact, looking to see how many cancers were missed and whether tumors found since then are more advanced.
Already, there are hints of trouble. University of Cincinnati researchers found that when CT scans to check for lung cancer resumed in June, 29 percent of patients had suspicious nodules versus 8 percent in prior years.
New wave of bars creates buzz without the booze
There's something missing from a new wave of bars opening around the world: Alcohol.
Aimed at the growing number of people exploring sobriety, the bars pour adult drinks like craft cocktails without the booze. At 0 percent Non-Alcohol Experience, a futuristic bar in Tokyo, patrons can sip a mix of non-alcoholic white wine, sake and cranberries from a sugar-rimmed glass. On a recent evening at Sans Bar in Austin, Texas, customers gathered at outdoor tables, enjoying live music, bottles of alcohol-free IPA and drinks like the watermelon mockarita, which is made with a tequila alternative.
Sober bars aren't a new phenomenon. They first appeared in the 19th century as part of the temperance movement. But while previous iterations were geared toward non-drinkers or people in recovery, the newer venues welcome the sober as well as the curious.
"A lot of people just want to drink less," said Chris Marshall, Sans Bar's founder.
Marshall, who has been sober for 14 years, opened the bar after serving as an addiction counselor. But he estimates 75 percent of his customers also drink alcohol outside of his bar.
Tokyo Olympic torch relay: Masks, quiet cheering and caution
TOKYO (AP) — Organizers plan to exercise extreme caution when the Olympic torch relay starts next week, knowing any stumble could imperil the the opening of the Tokyo Games in just over four months.
The organizers spoke in detail on Tuesday about their plans for the relay, which is scheduled to begin on March 25 from northeastern Fukushima prefecture. The relay will crisscross Japan for the next four months with 10,000 runners carrying the torch.
It's also a symbolic curtain raiser for the postponed Olympics, and there is no room for error. If the relay stumbles — if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 — it could pull down the Olympics with it and the planned opening on July 23 at Tokyo's new national stadium.
"The objective of the Olympic torch relay is to enhance the enthusiasm," said Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the organizing committee who has also been put in charge of the relay. "We need to balance things out between bringing enthusiasm and preventing COVID-19 infection."
The relay links all 47 Japanese prefectures and presents a real risk of spreading the virus, particularly with much of the organizational staff coming from Tokyo, where the COVID-19 outbreak has been most severe in Japan.