Feds passed up chance to lock in more Pfizer vaccine doses



WASHINGTON (AP) – President Donald Trump aims Tuesday to take credit for the speedy development of forthcoming coronavirus vaccines, even as his administration is coming under scrutiny for failing to lock in a chance to buy millions of additional doses of one of the leading coronavirus vaccine contenders this summer, a decision that could delay the delivery of a second batch of doses until manufacturer Pfizer fulfills other international contracts.

The revelation, confirmed Monday by people familiar with the matter, came on the eve of Trump’s plans to host a White House summit aimed at celebrating the expected approval of the first vaccine later this week. His administration is seeking to tamp down public skepticism over the vaccine and secure a key component of the president’s legacy.

The focus was to be on the administration’s plans to distribute and administer the vaccine, but officials from President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team, which will oversee the bulk of the largest vaccination program in the nation’s history once he takes office Jan. 20, were not invited.

Pfizer’s vaccine is expected to be endorsed by a panel of Food and Drug Administration advisers as soon as this week, with delivery of 100 million doses – enough for 50 million Americans – expected in coming months.

Under its contract with Pfizer, the Trump administration committed to buy an initial 100 million doses, with an option to purchase as many as five times more.

This summer, the White House opted not to lock in an additional 100 million doses for delivery in the second quarter of 2021, according to people who spoke about the matter on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Days ahead of the vaccine’s expected approval, the administration is reversing course, but it is not clear that Pfizer, which has since made commitments to other countries, will be able to meet the latest request on the same timeline.

The Pfizer vaccine is one of two on track for emergency FDA authorization this month, the other coming from drugmaker Moderna.

The Trump administration insisted late Monday that between those two vaccines and others in the pipeline, the U.S. will be able to accommodate any American who wants to be vaccinated by the end of the second quarter of 2021.

The administration’s decision not to lock in additional Pfizer purchases last summer was first reported by The New York Times. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told NBC the administration is “continuing to work across manufacturers to expand the availability of releasable, of FDA-approved vaccine as quickly as possible. … We do still have that option for an additional 500 million doses.”

The “Operation Warp Speed” summit will feature Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and a host of government experts, state leaders and business executives, as the White House looks to explain that the vaccine is safe and lay out the administration’s plans to bring it to the American people.

Senior administration officials provided details on the summit on Monday. An official with the Biden transition confirmed no invitation was extended.

Officials from the pharmaceutical companies developing the vaccines also were not expected to attend, despite receiving invitations, according to people familiar with the matter. Some expressed concerns about the event contributing to the politicization of the vaccine development process and potentially further inhibiting public confidence in the drugs.

Trump is set to kick off the event with remarks aiming to “celebrate” vaccine development, according to an official who previewed the event. Trump also will sign an executive order to prioritize Americans for coronavirus vaccines procured by the federal government. A second official said the order would restrict the U.S. government from donating doses to other nations until there is excess supply to meet domestic demand. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss plans for the summit.

It was not immediately clear what, if any, impact the order would have on other nations’ abilities to access the vaccines. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday he expects his country to receive about 250,000 doses of a vaccine from Pfizer by the end of the year.

The Food and Drug Administration’s panel of outside vaccine experts is to meet Thursday to conduct a final review of the Pfizer drug, and it will meet later this month on a vaccine developed by Moderna. The FDA is not required to follow the panel’s advice, though it usually does. Agency decisions on the two drugs are expected within days of each meeting. Both have been determined to be 95% effective against the virus that causes COVID-19. Plans call for distributing and then administering about 40 million doses of the two companies’ vaccines by the end of the year – with the first doses shipping within hours of FDA clearance.

Biden said Friday that “there’s no detailed plan that we’ve seen” for how to get the vaccines out of containers, into syringes and then into people’s arms.

Trump administration officials insist that such plans have been developed, with the bulk of the work falling to states and municipal governments to ensure their most vulnerable populations are vaccinated first. The administration says it has leveraged partnerships with manufacturers, distributers and health care providers, so that outside of settings like veterans’ hospitals, “it is highly unlikely that a single federal employee will touch a dose of vaccine before it goes into your arm.”

In all, about 50,000 vaccination sites are enrolled in the government’s distribution system, the officials said.

Each of the forthcoming vaccines has unique logistical challenges related to distribution and administration. The Pfizer vaccine must be transported at super-cooled temperatures, and comes in batches of 975 doses. Each vial contains 5 doses, requiring careful planning. The administration has prepared detailed videos for providers on how to safely prepare and administer doses, to be posted after the FDA issues its emergency use authorization.

One such plan is to be announced Tuesday: Pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens have stood up a “mobile vaccination service” ready to vaccinate people in every nursing home and long-term care facility in the country. The roughly 3 million residents of those facilities are among the most vulnerable for COVID-19 and have been placed at the front of the line to access the vaccine, along with more than 20 million healthcare workers. So far 80-85% of the facilities have signed on to the service, the officials said.

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AP writers Jonathan Lemire in Wilmington, Delaware, and Linda Johnson in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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UK rolling out COVID-19 vaccine to public as world watches



LONDON (AP) – U.K. health authorities are rolling out the first doses of a widely tested and independently reviewed COVID-19 vaccine, starting a global immunization program that is expected to gain momentum as more serums win approval.

The first shot will come Tuesday at one of a network of hospital hubs around the country where the initial phase of the U.K. program will be rolled out on what has been dubbed “V-Day.”

Public health officials are asking the public to be patient because only those who are most at risk from COVID-19 will be vaccinated in the early stages. Medical staff will contact patients to arrange appointments, and most will have to wait until next year before there is enough vaccine to expand the program.

“I think there’s every chance that we will look back on … (Tuesday) as marking a decisive turning point in the battle against coronavirus,” said Simon Stevens, the CEO of England’s National Health Service.

The first 800,000 doses are going to people over 80 who are either hospitalized or already have outpatient appointments scheduled, along with nursing home workers. Others will have to wait their turn.

Among those older Britons scheduled to get vaccinated is Hari Shukla of Newcastle.

“When I received the telephone call, I was very excited I got the opportunity of joining in and taking part in that,″ he said. “So we are very very pleased and happy and excited as well.″

Buckingham Palace refused to comment on reports that Queen Elizabeth II, 94, and her 99-year-old husband, Prince Philip, would be vaccinated as a public example of its safety.

“Our goal is totally to protect every member of the population, Her Majesty, of course, as well,” Dr. June Raine, chief executive of Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, told the BBC.

Public health officials elsewhere are watching Britain’s rollout as they prepare for the unprecedented task of vaccinating billions of people to end a pandemic that has killed more than 1.5 million. While the U.K. has a well-developed infrastructure for delivering vaccines, it is geared to administer them to groups such as school children or pregnant women, not the whole population.

The U.K. is getting a head start on the project after British regulators on Dec. 2 gave emergency authorization to the vaccine produced by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. U.S. and European Union authorities are also reviewing the vaccine, alongside rival products developed by U.S. biotechnology company Moderna, and a collaboration between Oxford University and drugmaker AstraZeneca.

On Saturday, Russia began vaccinating thousands of doctors, teachers and others at dozens of centers in Moscow with its Sputnik V vaccine. That program is being viewed differently because Russia authorized use of Sputnik V last summer after it was tested in only a few dozen people.

The first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were delivered to a selected group of U.K. hospitals on Sunday.

At one of those facilities, Croydon University Hospital, south of London, staff members couldn’t so much as touch the vials, but they were thrilled to just have them in the building.

“I’m so proud,” said Louise Coughlan, joint chief pharmacist at Croydon Health Services NHS Trust.

The vaccine can’t arrive soon enough for the U.K., which has more than 61,000 COVID-19 related deaths – more than any other country has reported in Europe. The U.K. has more than 1.7 million cases.

The 800,000 doses are only a fraction of what is needed. The government is targeting more than 25 million people, or about 40% of the population, in the first phase of its vaccination program, which gives first priority to those who are highest risk from the disease.

After those over 80 and nursing home workers, the program will be expanded as the supply increases, with the vaccine offered roughly on the basis of age groups, starting with the oldest people.

In England, the vaccine will be delivered at 50 hospital hubs in the first wave of the program, with more hospitals expected to offer it as the rollout ramps up. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are making their own plans under the U.K.’s system of devolved administration.

Logistical issues are slowing the distribution of the Pfizer vaccine because it has to be stored at minus-70 degrees Celsius (minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit).

The immunization program will be a “marathon not a sprint,” said professor Stephen Powis, medical director for NHS England.

Authorities also are focusing on large-scale distribution points because each package of vaccine contains 975 doses and they don’t want any to be wasted.

The U.K. has agreed to buy millions of doses from seven different producers. Governments around the world are making agreements with multiple developers to ensure they lock in delivery of the products that are ultimately approved for widespread use.

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

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Mandira Bedi inspires fans towards a fit lifestyle, flaunts killer abs during kettlebell workout at home | Watch – fitness


Another week, another fitness inspiration by Saaho actor Mandira Bedi. From squats to Russian kettlebell swing, the diva was seen encouraging fans towards a fit lifestyle as she shared a glimpse of her intense yet simple workout session which fitness enthusiasts can easily add to their morning routine as they work from home amid Covid-19 quarantine.

Mandira is often seen encouraging her 1.3 million followers on Instagram to believe in themselves and their capabilities instead of focusing on societal beliefs and norms. Her social media handle is rid with handwritten positive notes, fitness tips, workout videos and exotic travel pictures.

Taking to her Instagram handle this Monday, the television star shared a video featuring her in a white halter neck top teamed with a pair of black Yoga pants, both of which flaunted her killer abs well. Completing the athleisure wear with a pair of neon green sneakers, Mandira accessorised her sporty look with fitness band.

Beginning with a simple warm-up exercise of raising her hands above her head while she hopped, Mandira moved to Russian kettlebell swing. Standing tall with her feet a little wider than hip-width apart, the actor picked up the kettlebell by the handle with both hands to distribute its weight evenly.

Palms facing her body, Mandira kept her knees slightly bent as she drove back her hips, dropped the kettlebell between her legs while taking a gorilla stand and swung it in front of her body with an explosive motion. While doing this exercise, it is important to use your hips instead of your arms to swing the kettlebell.

She then moved on to jumping jacks exercise as Peggy Lee’s song ‘It’s A Good Day’ played in the backdrop. The video was captioned, “#mondaymorning #mazaa #itsagoodday #reelkarofeelkaro #reelitfeelit (sic).”

 

We don’t know how she does it but television star Mandira Bedi seems to ace motherhood, fitness goals, sartorial elegance and career expectations all together while shattering several stereotypes. The diva is hailed in the industry for striking a balance between personal and work life and we can’t help but swoon over her as we take inspirational notes.

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Paramilitary forces lay down instructions for Bharat Bandh


By Ankur SharmaNew Delhi [India], December 8 (ANI): Paramilitary forces have issued detailed instructions for their troops regarding Bharat Bandh and asked them not to remove body protectors and to exercise maximum restraint while dealing with the situation.

According to a document, sent by CRPF to all officers handling law and order situation in various states, paramedic staff and doctors are accompanying troops for any medical assistance. This has been done after an input which says that some anti-national elements can create problems for the forces.

“A call has been given to observe Bharat Bandh on 8 December wherein anti-national elements may try to create some problems to force deployed on duty,” a communication sent by CRPF says.

Forces have asked officers like Commandant and second officer in command to be present all the time at the spot and ensure procedures given by the top brass.

Paramilitary forces like the CRPF, BSF, CISF and others have also briefed jawans about the sensitivity of the situation and have asked them to observe restraint.

A senior BSF official said that troops have been asked to remain on the position given to them till the time of withdrawal, “Maximum restraint should be taken while dealing with the situation,” BSF official said quoting an official communication.

“Total available riot-drill equipment be carried by each Coy during deployment. QAT should be kept ready near to deployment in case of any need. Doctor/Pharmacist/Paramedic will accompany and remain with troops till withdrawal,” the CRPF said.

Farmer unions on Friday decided to intensify their agitation against the farm laws calling for ‘Bharat Bandh’ today stating that they were not satisfied with amendments to the agricultural legislation being proposed by the government.

Thousands of farmers have been protesting on different borders of the national capital since November 26 against the three newly enacted farm laws–Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. (ANI)



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NCDE provides support to CRPF injured soldiers


Hyderabad (Telangana) [India], December 8 (ANI): With the aim to help and support the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldiers who have suffered and sustained severe injuries and rendered physically challenged, the CRPF has initiated National Centre for Divyang Empowerment (NCDE) here in Hyderabad CRPF Group Centre.

The NCDE will be inaugurated on 10th December.

As a part of NCDE, the challenged soldiers are motivated and trained here in the centre for an established future. Here the soldiers are trained and prepared in computer knowledge as well as in sports.

Ravinder Kumar Singh, Second in Commandant and a Shaurya Chakra gallantry award receiver said that the NCDE aims to provide support to the Divyang soldiers who have suffered and sustained grievous injuries during operational duties and rendered physically challenged.

“We here at NCDE support the specially challenged soldiers who have suffered and sustained grievous injuries during the operational duties. We help them maintain their fitness with regular exercises. We drive and motivate them for an established future. We provide the soldiers with both computer training as well as sports training as per the interest of the soldier,” Singh said.

Bhogade Ramdas Bau, a CRPF soldier, speaking to ANI said, “The initiative taken by the CRPF officials to support the specially-abled soldiers under National Centre for Divyang Empowerment (NCED) is very remarkable. We are being given training for computer education which is much needed for our future. The infrastructure is designed in a way that we can be able to do our chores.”Ramdas Bau further said, “Apart from training in computer education, we are being trained for various sports and physical activities. I have my keen interest in running and so I have opted for running. I am being provided with all the required equipment and support.”Ramdas Bau who was in CRPF for about 10 years now, has lost his both legs in a search operation back in 2017 when he accidentally stepped on a pressure mine. He said that he is willing to participate in the 100 meters and 200 meters competitions.

Ram Anuj Kumar, CRPF soldier who has been a part of CRPF for about 8 years now, has lost his both legs after he accidentally stepped on a mine. He said, “This NCDE has provided an opportunity to prove ourselves. We are being given computer training and physical training here at the centre. This helps not only to establish our future but also makes us independent.” (ANI)



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AP sources: Biden picks Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense



WASHINGTON (AP) – President-elect Joe Biden will nominate retired four-star Army general Lloyd J. Austin to be secretary of defense, according to four people familiar with the decision. If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the first Black leader of the Pentagon.

Biden selected Austin over the longtime front-runner candidate, Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official and Biden supporter who would have been the first woman to serve as defense secretary. Biden also had considered Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon general counsel and former secretary of homeland defense.

The impending nomination of Austin was confirmed by four people with knowledge of the pick who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the selection hadn’t been formally announced. Biden offered and Austin accepted the post on Sunday, according to a person familiar with the process.

As a career military officer, the 67-year-old Austin is likely to face opposition from some in Congress and in the defense establishment who believe in drawing a clear line between civilian and military leadership of the Pentagon. Although many previous defense secretaries have served briefly in the military, only two – George C. Marshall and James Mattis – have been career officers. Marshall also served as secretary of state.

Like Mattis, Austin would need to obtain a congressional waiver to serve as defense secretary. Congress intended civilian control of the military when it created the position of secretary of defense in 1947 and prohibited a recently retired military officer from holding the position.

One of the people who confirmed the pick said Austin’s selection was about choosing the best possible person but acknowledged that pressure had built to name a candidate of color and that Austin’s stock had risen in recent days.

Austin is a 1975 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served 41 years in uniform.

Biden has known Austin at least since the general’s years leading U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq while Biden was vice president. Austin was commander in Baghdad of the Multinational Corps-Iraq in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president, and he returned to lead U.S. troops from 2010 through 2011.

Austin also served in 2012 as the first Black vice chief of staff of the Army, the service’s No. 2-ranking position. A year later he assumed command of U.S. Central Command, where he fashioned and began implementing a U.S. military strategy for rolling back the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Austin retired from the Army in 2016, and he would need a congressional waiver of the legal requirement that a former member of the military be out of uniform at least seven years before serving as secretary of defense. That waiver has been granted only twice – most recently in the case of Mattis, the retired Marine general who served as President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief.

The Mattis period at the Pentagon is now viewed by some as evidence of why a recently retired military officer should serve as defense secretary only in rare exceptions. Although Mattis remains widely respected for his military prowess and intellect, critics say he tended to surround himself with military officers at the expense of a broader civilian perspective. He resigned in December 2018 in protest of Trump’s policies.

Loren DeJonge Schulman, who spent 10 years in senior staff positions at the Pentagon and the National Security Council, said she understands why Biden would seek out candidates with a deep understanding of the military. However, she worries that appointing a general to a political role could prolong some of the damage caused by Trump’s politicization of the military.

“But retired generals are not one-for-one substitutes of civilian leaders,” she said. “General officers bring different skills and different perspectives, and great generals do not universally make good appointees.”

Austin has a reputation for strong leadership, integrity and a sharp intellect. He would not be a prototypical defense secretary, not just because of his 41-year military career but also because he has shied from the public eye. It would be an understatement to say he was a quiet general; although he testified before Congress, he gave few interviews and preferred not to speak publicly about military operations.

When he did speak, Austin did not mince words. In 2015, in describing how the Islamic State army managed a year earlier to sweep across the Syrian border to grab control of large swaths of northern and western Iraq, Austin said the majority of Iraqi Sunnis simply refused to fight for their government.

“They allowed – and in some cases facilitated – ISIS’s push through the country,” Austin said.

He earned the admiration of the Obama administration for his work in Iraq and at Central Command, although he disagreed with Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq entirely in December 2011.

Austin was involved in the Iraq War from start to finish. He served as an assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and oversaw the withdrawal in 2011. When Austin retired in 2016, Obama praised his “character and competence,” as well as his judgment and leadership.

One person familiar with the matter said Biden was drawn to Austin’s oversight of the Iraq pull-out, especially given the military’s upcoming role in supporting the distribution of the coronavirus vaccines.

Like many retired generals, Austin has served on corporate boards. He is a member of the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies.

Word of Austin’s selection broke a day before a meeting between Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and civil rights groups, many of whom had pushed the president-elect to pick more Black Cabinet members.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, said Monday: “It’s a good choice that I think many in the civil rights community would support. It’s the first time we have seen a person of color in that position. That means something, in a global view, especially after such an antagonistic relationship we had with the previous administration.”

Sharpton, who is set to be in the meeting with Biden on Tuesday, called the choice “a step in the right direction but not the end of the walk.”

Politico first reported Biden’s selection of Austin.

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Lemire reported from Wilmington, Del. AP Washington Bureau Chief Julie Pace contributed to this report.

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At UNGA, India says it took holistic approach to health


New York [US], December 8 (ANI): India has taken a holistic approach to health based on four main pillars of healthcare, including preventive healthcare, affordable healthcare, supply-side improvement and mission mode intervention, said Pratik Mathur, Counsellor at United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Delivering India’s statement on ‘Global Health and Foreign Policy’ at the UNGA, Mathur said: “A healthy life is every person’s basic right and the onus for this rests on our respective governments to make every possible effort to ensure full protection and enjoyment of this right by everyone.”He also said that countries need to come up with long-term strategies and roadmaps to deal with future pandemics, adding that equitable access to affordable medicines, diagnostic tools and technologies remain a concern.

During the session, Mathur thanked Indonesia for putting forward the resolution this year on behalf of the seven-member countries on strengthening health system resilience to affordable healthcare for all, and welcomed the resolutions on the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness and UN Decade of Healthy Ageing from 2021-30 tabled under the global agenda.

While speaking on preventive healthcare, Mathur said India has put special emphasis on yoga, Ayurveda and fitness aimed at controlling at lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, blood pressure, hypertension and depression.

The Counsellor elaborated on the National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS) launched in September 2018, which played an essential role in promulgating affordable healthcare in the country.

“The scheme is based on a 12-pillar approach expanding access to primary healthcare services through health and wellness centres, and providing insurance coverage for secondary and tertiary hospitalisations to poor and vulnerable families,” he said.

He informed that 24,608 hospitals have been included under the program, and 126 million health cards have been issued to people, adding that the scheme provides health insurance coverage of up to USD 7,000 per family per year for secondary and tertiary hospitalisations.

On mission mode intervention, he said: “We have started the National Nutrition Policy to improve the nutritional status of the people, specially disadvantaged groups, including mothers, adolescent girls, and children.””In Sustainable Development Goals, 2030 has been set as the target for ending tuberculosis (TB). We plan to achieve this target by 2025, five years ahead of the deadline. To reach its goal, India has started implementing the National Strategic Plan and has substantially increased fund allocation for TB control,” he added.

Mathur further claimed that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the systemic weaknesses in health systems and vulnerabilities incapacity to prevent and respond to its threats.

“We need to address the major weaknesses and gaps to strengthen global coordination to ensure that the world is better prepared to curb impacts of the future health-related crisis,” he said.

He asserted the need to capitalise on existing programs such as Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator (ACTA), and COVAX facility to ensure affordable and equitable global access to diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, while strengthening health systems.

“We are committed to partner with member states and other stakeholders to synergise our efforts to accelerate progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals and universal health coverage with the most productive, efficient and effective utilisation of resources,” Mathur said. (ANI)



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Japan’s economy grows 22.9% in 3Q, bouncing back from COVID



MITO, Japan (AP) – Japan’s economy expanded at a 22.9% annual rate in the last quarter, as businesses and personal spending recovered from pandemic-related shocks in the spring and early summer.

Economists said the upward revision released Tuesday was in line with forecasts and suggests Japan’s economy, the world’s third largest, is on the mend from the recession that started in late 2019, even before coronavirus outbreaks hit.

“The sizeable upward revision to Q3 GDP and the sharp rise in ‘core’ household spending in October support our view that Japan’s economy will recover from the pandemic faster than the consensus expects,” Tom Learmouth of Capital Economics said in a commentary.

“We think GDP will rise by another 2.1% (quarter-to-quarter) in this quarter and surprise to the upside next year,” he said.

Core household spending excludes costs for housing and purchases of vehicles and other volatile expenditures and is thought to best reflect consumer demand.

As is true for most major economies, the setback dealt by the pandemic has left Japan still at a lower level of economic output, 3.9% below the level of the last quarter of 2019, Learmouth said.

The expansion in the July-September quarter coincided with a push to encourage domestic spending to make up for the loss of foreign tourism with “Go To Travel” and “Go To Eat” programs offering steep discounts on hotels and dining out.

The economy contracted at a 29.2% annualized pace in April-June, when the government declared a state of emergency and sought to quell virus outbreaks with various precautions including urging businesses to let people work from home. With international travel at a near standstill, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed.

The earlier estimate showed a 21.4% expansion.

The economy grew at a 5.3% quarterly pace, revised upward from the earlier 5.0% estimate.

Most of the extra growth came from consumer and corporate spending. Household spending outpaced retail sales, suggesting many people were making purchases online.

Government spending also was slightly higher than earlier reported.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced an additional stimulus package worth about $700 billion on Tuesday. That followed $2.2 trillion in earlier stimulus measures.

Japan has sought to keep businesses running more or less as usual while urging people to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and maintain social distancing. But the number of virus cases has surged in recent weeks, leading some local areas to urge residents to stay home as much as possible. In some places, authorities have asked bars and restaurants to close early.

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Montana legislators clash over rules for legislative session



HELENA, Mont. (AP) – Republicans and Democrats clashed Monday over contrasting visions for how to hold Montana’s upcoming legislative session safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Republicans, who hold majorities in both the house and the senate, voiced support for forming a leadership panel that would make decisions on safety precautions once the session begins, eliciting concern from Democrats that the session would exacerbate the existing public health crisis that has strained Helena health care providers.

Democrats want to decide on a plan of action before the session begins Jan. 4 and offered three different proposals: postpone the session until a vaccine is widely available, hold the session remotely, or implement mandatory safety measures that would include mask wearing, social distancing, and a regular COVID-19 testing program.

All were met with opposition or skepticism from Republicans during a hearing of the joint house and senate rules committee.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, chair of the House Rules Committee, came down strongly against any effort to hold the session entirely remotely. Skees claimed the state is heading towards herd immunity.

Herd immunity refers to the concept that people can become immune to certain viruses after surviving infection or being vaccinated. Typically, at least 70% of a population must be immune to achieve herd immunity. Montana health officials have reported 68,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, or about 7% of the state’s population, though reported cases don’t account for people who may have had the virus but haven’t been tested.

How long immunity lasts varies depending on the virus, and it’s not yet known how long COVID-19 survivors might have that protection.

“Herd immunity is not a strategy for protecting the health and safety of Montanans,” said Sen. Jill Cohenour, a Democrat from Helena who is a chemist in the Department of Public Health and Human Services. “People will die to get us to herd immunity.”

The Republican-backed proposal would form a panel made of legislative leadership – six Republicans and two Democrats – who would have the authority to make decisions on the legislature’s COVID-19 protocols during the session. Legislators would be able to participate remotely if they chose to, with the permission of their caucus leaders.

The proposal did not include any specific requirements for masks, social distancing, or following other public health protocols, eliciting criticism from Democrats.

“I’m just deeply concerned about this concept of COVID being fluid,” said Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula. “There’s not going to be magically a day when it goes away. So I’m concerned about a committee that is just going to be reactionary.”

Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, whose tribe was hit hard by the pandemic, slammed Republicans for talking about the pandemic “abstractly.”

“Are we above the law? Are we above social expectation? I hope not,” she said.

Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican from Billings, decried the use of masks, saying that “facts and science differ based on whatever Facebook lets you see.”

“We have kowtowed to you all to give you the opportunity to be remote and be safe if you feel you need to be, and you’re going to argue about these amendments? It’s ridiculous,” Usher said, addressing the Democrats in the room, who were all wearing masks.

Some Democratic committee members participated in the meeting virtually. Among Republican committee members, several wore masks while most did not.

“Do what your constituents want you to do, because I can tell you my constituents laugh if I bring up masks in the room,” Usher said.

The joint rules committee will meet again Tuesday morning to determine which proposals will move forward for a final vote, which will take place Dec. 16. The new rules will be formally adopted when the full legislature convenes in early January.

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Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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The story has been corrected to reflect that Sen. Bryce Bennett represents Missoula, not Moiese.

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Britain coronavirus vaccinations to give U.S. answers to shot biggest questions



The U.K. is set to begin vaccinating residents for COVID-19 on Tuesday, offering the world a real-life test of a delicate operation that requires shots from Pfizer and BioNTech to be stored at Antarctic temperatures, thawed and diluted before going into arms.

Britain’s National Health Service has 800,000 doses to start its campaign, or enough for 400,000 people. The vials are being made in Belgium and flown to the U.K. in “thermal shippers” that keep vials at minus-94 degrees and can be transferred to ultra-low freezers or be used out of the shipping boxes for up to 15 days with replenishments of dry ice.

The British undertaking isn’t as huge as the vaccination campaign the U.S. could launch by this weekend, though it offers a glimpse at how a nation handles the biggest questions around the actual shots, said Litjen Tan, chief strategy officer at the Immunization Action Coalition.

“How are the thermal shippers working? Are people seeing problems with the dry-ice rejuvenation? How are they managing smaller facilities who do not need 975 doses of vaccine?” he said, referring to the minimum amount of does in each tray of vaccines from Pfizer.

Russia started its mass-vaccination campaign Saturday, though it is using a Sputnik V that hasn’t undergone full and comprehensive testing, so the U.K.’s rollout is a better model for what the Americans have planned.

The Food and Drug Administration will meet with an advisory panel Thursday to discuss the Pfizer shots, paving the way for emergency approval in the U.S. Once that happens, the first vaccines will be put on FedEx and UPS planes and sent to the sites designated by states.

The U.K.’s head start is only a few days but it offers some benefit, as U.S. agencies speak to their British liaisons and report any lessons to the states, said Claire Hannah, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.

“It will be definitely good to know if they’re having any immediate problems and know how much time it takes to mix the vaccine and administer it,” she said.

The U.K. will also provide an early glimpse at whether patients who receive the shots experience side effects.

In a statement, Pfizer said it is sending doses to designated locations in the U.K. “and moving forward, vaccinations will be overseen by the Department for Health and Social Services (DHSS) and the National Health Service (NHS).”

Pfizer remains on hand to support as needed in ensuring this medical breakthrough reaches the people that need it most,” the company said.

U.S. officials are pushing to vaccinate 20 million Americans between FDA approval and the end of the year. They’re hoping the first vaccinations, which will be set aside for health workers and people in long-term care, will reduce the death rate from COVID-19, especially among those in nursing homes.

Bringing transmission to manageable levels will take time, however, as officials distribute limited and gradual supply to prioritized groups before offering the vaccines to the general public by the spring.

“Likely, you’re not going to see a measurable diminution [of virus] for at least several weeks or if not longer. But it will come, I guarantee you,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.

Dr. Fauci said he expects younger, healthier people to access the vaccines from April to June. If at least seven in 10 Americans get vaccinated, “we should be in good shape” by mid-summer, he told New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo by video-link at the Democratic governor’s press conference.

In the meantime, Mr. Cuomo ordered hospitals in his state to increase bed capacity by 25%. He said most of New York’s spread has been traced to household gatherings, putting the focus on Christmas activities as the U.S. tallies nearly 200,000 known infections per day.

“Without substantial mitigation, the middle of January can be a really dark time for us,” Dr. Fauci told Mr. Cuomo.

More than 101,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the U.S. as of Sunday, the highest level of the pandemic. More than 2,000 people are dying, on average, per day from the virus in the U.S.

Mr. Cuomo threatened to clamp down on indoor restaurant dining if the health system is stretched too thin.

“If you’re going to overwhelm the hospital system, then we have no choice but to go to closedown,” he said.

On the West Coast, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued restrictions Sunday that affect wide swaths of the state. The rules ban residents from gathering with people outside their households and restrict retail-store capacity to 20%, while shutting down restaurant-dining, salons and movie theaters.

Restrictions on outdoor dining drew a rebuke from Adm. Brett Giroir, the White House’s coronavirus testing czar.

“The evidence clearly does not support limitations on things like outdoor dining, particularly that are spaced, outdoor bars,” Adm. Giroir, an assistant health secretary and four-star admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, told Fox News.

“You know, the evidence just isn’t there,” he said. “And remember, shutting down completely, particularly if you don’t have evidence, can be counterproductive.”

As localities try to manage the surge, senior administration officials denied a New York Times report that said President Trump passed up a chance to secure additional doses from Pfizer in the late summer. They said there will be a sufficient number of doses for every American who wants them by the second quarter of 2021.

“We have continued to negotiate with all of the vaccine manufacturers,” a senior administration official said. “We’re not going to talk about those because those negotiations are underway.”

Mr. Trump plans to sign an executive order during a vaccine summit at the White House on Tuesday that directs his administration to satisfy the needs of Americans who want a COVID-19 vaccine before agencies try to help foreign nations that need doses.

The summit will also feature panel discussions with a key FDA official, Peter Marks, vaccine distributors and Republican governors who will praise the federal partnership with their states.

On Friday, all the states locked in where they want the first shipments of vaccine to go.

Ms. Hannan said there are three main approaches to storing the Pfizer shots. Some states are relying on a centralized form of storage, where they would store the vaccine and redistribute it in smaller amounts. Others are using a “hub-and-spoke” model where regions have a coordinated system in which one hospital might receive the package of doses and share doses with other facilities in the area. The third consists of having the vaccines sent directly to a distribution site, where they will be administered within five days so handlers don’t have to replenish dry ice.

States should get the chance to road-test their preferred methods within days.

“The anxiety level is high,” Ms. Hannan said. “But it’s in a good way.”

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