The Latest: WH: Merck pill ‘good news,’ vaccine still key

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Tourists wearing face masks take photos on an observation deck at the Kuala Lumpur Tower in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. Public recreational parks were allowed to reopen for leisure activities under Malaysia’s National Recovery Plan, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic restrictions. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials say a new pill that could provide an easier, effective way to treat COVID 19 is good news, while adding vaccination remains the key to controlling the pandemic.

Officials at drugmaker Merck say they’ll soon seek regulatory approval for the experimental pill, which reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half in people recently infected with the coronavirus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci calls it “very good news” and Merck’s data on its medicine “impressive.”

White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients says vaccination will remain the government’s main strategy for controlling the pandemic.

“We want to prevent infections, not just wait to treat them when they happen,” says Zients at the briefing on Friday.

If it’s approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the government has contracted to buy 1.7 million doses of Merck’s medication.

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MORE ON THE PANDEMIC:

— Pharmaceutical company Merck says experimental pill cutseffects of COVID-19

— Australia to allow vaccinated citizens to fly overseas after 18-month travel ban

— Trains packed as Japanends virus emergency after more than six months

— Alaska mayor apologizes for backing mask critics’ use of Holocaust imagery

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See all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

NEW DELHI — India says arrivals from Britain will be subjected to COVID-19 tests and a 10-day quarantine, in response to the same measures imposed on Indians visiting the U.K.

India has been demanding that Britain revoke what it calls a discriminatory advisory that includes Indians, even if they are fully vaccinated with the Indian-made AstraZeneca shots.

India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar discussed the issue with the British foreign secretary Liz Truss in New York this week. India was irked that while the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been recognized by Britain, its version produced by Serum Institute of India has been excluded.

Starting Monday, all British arrivals, irrespective of their vaccination status, will have to undertake PRC tests within 72 hours before travel and again after travel.

India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, said this week it will resume exports and donations of surplus coronavirus vaccines in October after a long freeze because of the massive surge in domestic infections last spring.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka has lifted a six-week national lockdown as coronavirus cases and deaths decline. However, movement restrictions remain in place.

The lockdown on Aug. 20 was extended three times as Sri Lanka grappled with an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths from the rapid spread of the delta variant. New daily infections have fallen below 1,000 and deaths under 100, from a peak of more than 3,000 cases and 200 deaths early September.

Despite the end of the lockdown Friday, people are only allowed out for work or to buy essentials. Public gatherings are banned and cinemas, schools and restaurants are still closed.

The move is hoped to boost tourism and ease a decline in foreign exchange that led to a shortage of essential items such as milk powder, sugar, rice and cooking gas.

Sri Lanka has reported more than 516,000 confirmed cases and 12,847 confirmed deaths.

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TOKYO — Tokyo’s train stations were packed with commuters Friday as Japan fully came out of a coronavirus state of emergency for the first time in more than six months.

Emergency measures had been in place for more than half of the country, including Tokyo. Outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga thanked the people for their patience and cooperation. Cases are declining, but he asked them to stick to their basic anti-virus measures.

The emergency measures have mainly involved requests for eateries to curb alcohol and hours. They can now serve alcohol and operate an hour longer but still close at 9 p.m.

Daily reported cases fell below 1,600 this week nationwide after the mid-August peak of 25,000. Health experts attributed the declining numbers to vaccinations and increased social distancing after alarm from the near collapse of medical systems during the summer.

Nearly 59% of Japanese people have been fully vaccinated. Japan has reported 1.6 million cases and 17,641 confirmed deaths.

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WASHINGTON — Pharmaceutical company Merck says its experimental COVID-19 pill reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half in people recently infected with the coronavirus.

Merck’s drug would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19, a potentially major advance in efforts to fight the pandemic. The study results were released by the company and have not been peer reviewed. An independent group of medical advisers monitoring the trial recommended stopping it early because the interim results were so strong.

Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics say early results showed patients who received the drug, called molnupiravir, within five days of COVID-19 symptoms had about half the rate of hospitalization and death as patients who received a dummy pill. The study tracked 775 adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who were considered higher risk for severe disease due to health problems such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease.

Such medications are seen as key to controlling future waves of infection and reducing the impact of the pandemic.

The company says it will soon ask health officials in the U.S. and around the world to authorize its use. The U.S. government has committed to purchase 1.7 million doses of the drug if it is authorized by the FDA.

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MOSCOW — Coronavirus deaths in Russia hit a record on Friday for the fourth straight day, and confirmed cases continued to surge as well.

Russia’s state coronavirus task force reported 887 deaths, the country’s highest daily number in the pandemic. The previous record, from a day earlier, stood at 867.

The task force also reported 24,522 new confirmed cases from Thursday — the highest daily tally since late July.

“The dynamic is bad. It elicits concern,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday.

The Russian government has no plans to impose a lockdown, according to Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, the head of the task force.

Russia has had only one nationwide lockdown, at the beginning of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. The country’s authorities have shunned imposing tough restrictions ever since.

Peskov pointed out that many regional governments have their own infection-control measures, but he wouldn’t say whether the Kremlin considered those rules sufficient.

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CANBERRA, Australia — Australia has outlined plans to lift a pandemic ban on its vaccinated citizens traveling overseas from November. But no date has yet been set for welcoming international tourists back.

Travel restrictions that have trapped most Australians and permanent residents at home over the past 18 months would be removed when 80% of the population aged 16 and older were fully vaccinated, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday.

Australia introduced some of the toughest travel restrictions of any democracy in the world on people entering and leaving the island nation on March 20 last year. Most Australians have had to argue for rare exemptions from the travel ban to leave the country. Tourism is never accepted as a reason to cross the border.

Hundreds of thousands have failed to reach relatives’ death beads, missed funerals or weddings and have yet to be introduced to grandchildren because of restrictions aimed at keeping COVID-19 out of Australia.

New South Wales would likely become the first state to reach the 80% vaccination benchmark and Sydney’s airport the first to open to international travel, Morrison said.

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MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia has opened the country’s first public oxygen plant as the Horn of Africa nation with one of the world’s weakest health systems combats COVID-19.

The oxygen plant was installed Thursday at a hospital in the capital, Mogadishu. It is expected to produce 1,000 cylinders of oxygen a week. The scarcity of medical oxygen has hurt response efforts across many African nations as the delta variant of the coronavirus drives the bulk of infections on the continent of 1.3 billion people.

Insecurity in Somalia poses an added challenge to efforts to fight the pandemic. A COVID-19 ward recently set up at the hospital was partially destroyed weeks ago in an attack by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group, which controls parts of Somalia and frequently targets the capital. Part of the work around the oxygen plant’s installation focused on repairing that damage.

Somalia has one of the highest death rates from COVID-19 in Africa, and few measures are enforced to slow the spread of the virus.

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ISLAMABAD — Pakistan banned unvaccinated adults from flights on Friday as it tries to push vaccinations and avoid further lockdowns to contain the coronavirus.

Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan announced the ban on Twitter, saying “only fully vaccinated passengers of age 18 years and above will be allowed to undertake domestic air travel within Pakistan.”

The government said last week unvaccinated people won’t be allowed to work from offices and won’t be eligible to enter shopping malls starting Friday. However, it was unclear how the measures will be enforced.

The bans don’t apply to children, who are not yet eligible for Pakistan’s vaccination campaign. Nearly 30 million people are fully vaccinated in the country of 220 million. There is no shortage of vaccine, but many people have been hesitant, with new measures aimed at encouraging the shots.

Pakistan has reported 1.2 million cases and 27,785 confirmed deaths.

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PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s rural areas need better access to COVID-19 testing, the head of the state’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The percent positivity rate in some of Maine’s rural counties is much higher than it is in more densely populated areas such as Cumberland County. Federal data show the percent positivity rate in Cumberland is about 2% while in rural Somerset County it’s more than 9%.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah says that’s from a lack of testing. He says the state is working to get more tests to rural corners of the state. Maine has the lowest population density in New England.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services say Maine child care facilities can access pooled testing for children and staff through a federal program that provides the testing for free to some community organizations and schools. The agency says Walgreen is expanding testing options at almost all of its Maine locations.

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Arkansas Supreme Court says it wouldn’t allow the state to enforce its ban on mask mandates by schools and other government bodies, keeping in place a judge’s ruling temporarily halting the law.

Justices denied the request by the state to stay the August decision blocking enforcement of Arkansas’ mandate ban.

More than 100 school districts and charter schools have approved mask requirements since the ruling against the law. The requirements cover more than half the state’s public school students.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who signed the law but later said he regretted that decision, had separately asked the court to deny the request to stay the ruling.

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ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp warned unvaccinated Georgians to not assume that COVID-19 is over, saying that the state could risk a fifth surge of the respiratory illness over the winter, even as cases decline from a fourth surge that peaked a month ago.

“Today I want to emphasize the importance of not waiting until the next wave of COVID cases to get vaccinated,” Kemp said. “Given that our increase in cases and hospitalizations in 2021 was similar in timing to surges seen in 2020, we can only assume that a winter increase is also possible.”

Kemp says he still opposes federal plans to require employers with 100 or more workers to mandate vaccination and will explore legal action with state Attorney General Chris Carr.

Georgia’s vaccination rate has improved somewhat, with state data showing 47% of all residents are now fully vaccinated. Kemp and Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey say Georgia isn’t seeing a shortage of monoclonal antibodies for COVID-19 therapy because demand is declining.

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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