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Coronavirus Update: Global tally of COVID-19 cases tops 124 million as EU curbs vaccine exports

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The global tally of cases of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 climbed above 124 million on Wednesday, as the European Union introduced emergency legislation that would allow it to control exports of COVID-19 vaccines.

EU officials are expected to debate the legislation at talks scheduled for Thursday and Friday. The move comes as the 27-member trading bloc has struggled to access sufficient supplies of the vaccines that it has authorized for use.

The legislation is aimed chiefly at halting exports of vaccines from AstraZeneca PLC to the rest of the world, and is expected to disrupt supply to the U.K., which exited the EU in January.

The Anglo-Swedish drug maker
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warned in January that it wouldn’t be able to fulfill its delivery obligations to the EU, due to manufacturing issues at some of its European plants. The shortfall in deliveries led to a high-profile row with the EU, which has lagged behind countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Israel in rolling out vaccine shots for its healthcare workers and most vulnerable people, as it grapples with a third wave of infection.

AstraZeneca has consistently said that it wasn’t legally required to deliver to the EU on a precise timetable, because it had only committed to supplying vaccines under a “best-effort” clause.

Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatened to use emergency powers to curb exports, as she pointed out the EU has allowed for 41 million doses to be sent to 33 countries since early February. She said that AstraZeneca has overpromised and underdelivered on its contract with the EU.

Read: Why tensions on vaccine supplies are unlikely to subside

EU officials have been criticized for allowing vaccines to be exported, while other countries, notably the U.S. and U.K., have moved fast to secure domestic production for their own citizens. The World Health Organization and United Nations, meanwhile, have sharply criticized wealthy nations for hogging vaccine supply, and repeatedly argued that it’s crucial that lower-income countries have access to vaccines. The whole world needs to be inoculated to crush the pandemic and prevent new variants that may be deadlier from emerging.

Separately, Hong Kong suspended vaccinations using the shots developed by Pfizer Inc.
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and German partner BioNTech SE
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on Wednesday after they were informed by its distributor Fosun
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that one batch had defective bottle lids, the Associated Press reported.

The suspension was immediate while Chinese pharmaceutical firm Fosun Pharma, Pfizer and BioNTech investigate, according to a statement from the Hong Kong government. BioNTech and Fosun Pharma have not found any reason to believe the product is unsafe, according to the statement. However, vaccinations will be halted as a preventive and safety measure.

In the U.S., the vaccine drive continues to pick up steam. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. ET Tuesday, 164 million doses had been distributed to states, 128.2 million doses had been administered and 83.9 million people had received at least one dose, equal to 25.3% of the population. So far, 45.5 million Americans have received two doses and are fully vaccinated, equal to 13.7% of the population.

The U.S. added at least 58,764 new cases on Tuesday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 892 people died. The U.S. has averaged 54,810 new cases a day in the last week, down 7% from the average two weeks ago.

Don’t miss: Vaccines are here. That’s no reason to call off the hunt for effective COVID-19 treatments.

In other news:

• Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday dropped plans for a five-day shutdown in Germany over Easter, which had prompted confusion and criticism. She called the idea a mistake and apologized to Germans, the Associated Press reported. Merkel announced the decision after calling a hastily arranged videoconference on Wednesday with Germany’s 16 state governors, who are responsible for imposing and lifting restrictions. The same group had come up with the unexpected plan for deeper restrictions over Easter, which was announced early Tuesday. The plan was to make Thursday next week — the day before Good Friday — a “rest day,” with all shops closed, and only allow supermarkets to open on Easter Saturday. Since the Friday and Monday are already holidays, that would have created a five-day shutdown of public life — on top of existing lockdown restrictions, which were extended through April 18.

See also: Over 90% of CEOs in this survey say they’ll want to know if employees are vaccinated — before they return to the office

• Twist Bioscience Corp.
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said its in-vitro diagnostic test that can detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA received emergency authorization in the U.S., MarketWatch’s Jaimy Lee reported. Twist’s test can identify the presence of the virus from a patient sample; it can also be used by privately held Biotia Inc.’s software system to analyze the sequence and detect any genetic variants. So-called “variants of concern” have emerged over the last six months, including the B.1.1.7 variant out of the U.K., which is thought to be more infectious and makes up to 30% of all new U.S. cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This test opens the door to a new diagnostic method and can also guide vaccine research, since it captures viral variants so well,” Biotia co-founder Christopher Mason said in a statement.

See: It’s a ‘question of time’ before another virus jumps from animal to human, says co-inventor of flu treatment Tamiflu. Preventative therapies are needed.

• Poland reported a record 29,978 new daily coronavirus cases on Wednesday as the government prepares to toughen restrictions amid a worsening third wave of the pandemic, Reuters reported. The government ordered theaters, shopping malls, hotels and cinemas to close last week after a rise in cases, fueled by the more contagious variant first found in the U.K. Poland has had more than 2 million confirmed cases of COVID, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, and 49,761 Poles have died.

Alerts and web-browser tools can help you book a Covid-19 vaccine appointment. WSJ’s Joanna Stern met up with Kris Slevens, an IT guy who has booked over 300 appointments for New Jersey seniors, to learn the best tricks to compete in the vaccine-booking Hunger Games. Photo illustration: Emil Lendof for The Wall Street Journal

See now: Americans have tired of wearing masks and social distancing before; here’s what happened next

• A new double mutant variant of the coronavirus and 771 others have been detected in samples collected from 18 states across India, BBC News reported. Of the 10,787 samples, 736 were positive for the UK variant, 34 for the South African variant and one for the Brazilian variant. The report comes amid a recent surge in cases in India. India has had 11.7 million confirmed COVID cases, the Johns Hopkins data shows, or third highest in the world, and at least 160,441 deaths.

• Brazil erupted in loud protests after President Jair Bolsanaro said in a televised address that citizens would soon be able to resume “normal lives,” even as the nation’s death toll continues to soar, the Guardian reported. Bolsanaro, who has repeatedly played down the deadly illness even after becoming infected himself, has drawn widespread criticism for his anti-science approach to the crisis. Brazil has had 12.1 million confirmed cases, or second highest in the world after the U.S., and at least 298,676 Brazilians have died, also second highest in the world, the Johns Hopkins data shows. A record 3,158 deaths were recorded on Tuesday along with 84,996 new cases. Bolsanaro’s address prompted cries of outrage and rage in some of the country’s bigger cities.

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness rose to 124.2 million on Wednesday, while the death toll rose above 2.73 million.

At least 70.5 million people have recovered from COVID-19.

The U.S. has the highest case tally in the world at 29.9 million and the highest death toll at 543,849.

After Brazil, Mexico is third by deaths at 199,048 and 13th highest by cases.

The U.K. has 4.3 million cases and 126,523 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 101,592 confirmed cases and 4,840 deaths, according to its official numbers.

What’s the economy saying?

U.S. orders for long-lasting manufactured goods fell in February for the first time since last spring in a month marked by severe weather, but the lapse in growth is likely temporary as the economy regains momentum after a winter lull, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

Orders for durable goods fell 1.1% in February, the government said Wednesday. These are products such as electronics, appliances, machines, cars and other transportation equipment meant to last at least three years

Economists surveyed by Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal had forecast a 0.6% increase.

The setback appeared to be temporary. A slew of other indicators show industrial production on the rise and gathering momentum.

Manufacturers are making as many products now as they were before the pandemic, aided by a shift in spending toward goods and away from services such as leisure and travel.

What will add an extra boost in the coming months is massive federal stimulus and an increasing number of Americans being vaccinated. That should allow the economy to mend faster and allow million of people to return to work.

Read: Inflation worries are back. Should you worry?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average
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and S&P 500
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were higher Wednesday.

Market Snapshot: Dow aims to rebound from worst day in 3 weeks

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