February 17 coronavirus news

By Jessie Yeung and Sarah Faidell, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021
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6:21 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

World's first Covid-19 human challenge study to begin within a month in the UK

From CNN's Sharon Braithwaite

The world's first Covid-19 human challenge study will begin within a month in the UK, the country's Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said Wednesday in a statement.

During this trial, up to 90 volunteers aged 18-30 years will be exposed to Covid-19 in a safe and controlled environment to increase understanding of how the virus affects people, the ministerial department said, adding that the study will play a "key role in developing effective Covid-19 vaccines and treatments".

What is a challenge trial? In regular Phase 3 Covid-19 vaccine trials tens of thousands of volunteers are given an experimental vaccine and then released to live their everyday lives; researchers assume that a certain percentage of them will be exposed to the virus naturally.

In a challenge trial, by contrast, participants are deliberately dosed with virus.

Proponents of challenge trials say that they are more efficient, requiring far fewer volunteers because researchers know for certain that everyone will be exposed to the virus, and that they can deliver scientific data more quickly. 

Critics worry about exposing people to a virus for which there is no fail-safe treatment, and say that the young, healthy volunteers are not representative of the wider population.

BEIS said the version of the virus used would be the one in circulation since March 2020 -- rather than any new strains -- emphasizing that it "has been shown to be of low risk in young healthy adults."

After the initial trial, vaccine candidates which had been proved safe in clinical trials could be given to small numbers of volunteers, the department said.

Earlier this week the UK hit its target of offering a first dose of vaccine to 15 million people by mid-February.

Read more on this story:

6:52 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Italy’s Lombardy region imposes 'red zone' on four towns due to spread of coronavirus variants

From CNN’s Sharon Braithwaite and Valentina Di Donato in Italy

The Lombardy region in northern Italy has imposed "red zone" restrictions on four towns due to the spread of Covid-19 variants, its governor, Attilio Fontana, announced Tuesday on Facebook.

Fontana signed a new ordinance that introduces new restrictions starting Wednesday at 6pm CET (12pm ET), until February 24, on the municipalities of Bollate, Castrezzato, Mede and Viggiù. The restrictions could be extended further “based on the evolution of the epidemiological context,” according to a statement on the website of the Lombardy regional government.

In these four towns, all school and educational activities will be carried out remotely.

Red zones are the most stringent classification of coronavirus restrictions in Italy and limit people's movement the most. 

Lombardy was the Italian region hardest hit by the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, reporting over 565,000 cases to date, according to the country’s Department of Civil Protection.

6:48 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Germany reports a coronavirus outbreak in an ice cream factory

By CNN’s Stephanie Halasz

The Froneri factory is pictured on February 16 in Osnabrück, Germany.
The Froneri factory is pictured on February 16 in Osnabrück, Germany. Friso Gentsch/picture alliance/Getty Images

An ice cream factory in northern Germany has been hit by an outbreak of the coronavirus, the manufacturer said in a press release Wednesday. 

Froneri said it is investigating how the virus made it into its plant in Osnabrueck.

So far, 670 staffers -- all those who had access to the plant since January 25 -- have been tested, with 210 results returning positive. Some of those cases are the UK coronavirus variant, Froneri said, without specifying a number. 

The plant will stay shut till February 26, and all plant workers are to be tested one more time.

Froneri added that there have not been physical visits to its headquarters in the UK in months, and therefore, the outbreak has not spread to the facility there.

6:48 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Churches in Ireland provide 'takeaway' ashes on Ash Wednesday

From CNN’s Kara Fox in Killarney, Ireland

The Republic of Ireland is under some of the most restrictive lockdowns in Europe at the moment, but priests in the country have gotten creative to ensure that the restrictions don’t hinder Ash Wednesday celebrations.

Under the country’s level 5 restrictions, masses are being held online, so some churches are providing “takeaway ashes,” for its parishioners.

In northwest County Donegal, Clonmany Parish Priest Fr Brian Brady said that people would be able to pick up blessed, pre-packaged ashes to take to their own homes to put on their foreheads.

On Monday, the church had already run out of the 200 containers of ashes they had provided for their parishioners, and said that they were looking for more containers, given the high demand.

Speaking on national broadcaster RTE on Monday, Fr Brady said that he had initially “resigned myself to an 'ashless' Ash Wednesday,” before the idea, which was presented to him by a local convenience store owner, “caught on with me.”

"It seems to have caught on with the parishioners because we have left out the little containers and they all seem to be gone," he told RTE.

It’s a scheme that’s taken off at other churches across the country. At the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Clonakilty in southwest County Cork, people will be able to collect ashes from a table set up outside the church doors on Wednesday.

In a Facebook post, the church said that envelopes of Holy Ashes will also be available at the local Centra -- a convenience store – for pickup.

“We are asking people to take one envelope per household as there are a limited number of envelopes available,” the church said. It also included instructions on how to use the ashes properly.

“Please remember to wet the Holy Ashes with Holy Water before making the sign of the cross on an individual's forehead,” it said.

Ireland has been in a full level 5 lockdown since December 30.

6:48 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

BioNTech to supply additional 200 million vaccine doses to the EU

From CNN's Fred Pleitgen in Berlin

A nurse prepares a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine, at a vaccination centre in Quimper, France, on February 16.
A nurse prepares a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine, at a vaccination centre in Quimper, France, on February 16. Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images

Pharmaceutical company BioNTech announced Wednesday it had agreed to supply additional 200 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine to the European Commission, which also has the option to request a further 100 million doses. 

The current agreement brings the total number of vaccine Pfizer-BioNTech is slated to supply to 500 million doses, with the potential to increase to 600 million.

BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told CNN in December that the joint effort with Pfizer aimed to produce up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021, but on Wednesday the company announced it has increased its manufacturing capacity to two billion doses this year.

“We will initiate production at our Marburg facility this month and have strengthened our manufacturing network with additional partners,” Sahin said. “We are continuing to evaluate, together with governments, authorities and partners at all levels, how we might address an even higher future supply requirement for our vaccines.”

study published by Israeli researchers last week suggested that Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine appears to reduce symptomatic coronavirus infections by more than 90% in the real world.

The findings, while preliminary, indicated that the vaccine remains remarkably effective in a mass vaccination campaign -- outside the carefully controlled conditions of a clinical trial. 

Vaccine rollout in the EU has been off to a rocky start. Despite being part of the world's biggest single market, European Union countries have vaccinated only a small fraction of their combined population of 450 million. Meanwhile Israel, the US and the UK, who were much quicker to approve Covid-19 shots, are making rapid advances in inoculating their populations. The bureaucratic lags and production issues led to growing frustration among EU residents desperately awaiting the vaccine. 

The EU secured 2.3 billion doses of vaccine from six manufacturers but only three have been approved: The United States’ Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech as well as the shot produced by UK-Swedish company AstraZeneca. The Union has been in an escalating dispute with AstraZeneca after EU officials said the company intended to supply "considerably fewer" doses than had been agreed because of production problems. 

AstraZeneca responded that it was not contractually obligated to meet the EU schedule. In an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, CEO Pascal Soriot said the company had not been able to guarantee the timing of EU deliveries because countries such as the United Kingdom were quicker to finalize orders.

Earlier this week Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was dragged before the European Parliament to explain herself and told to resign multiple times. She admitted to MEPs that the EU had made errors in its procurement of vaccines, saying that they had been "late with the approval" and were "too optimistic" on mass production.

3:43 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Former Biden advisers push White House to more widely recommend use of N95 masks

From CNN's Jeremy Diamond

Several members of President Joe Biden's former coronavirus advisory board are urging his administration to more widely recommend and mandate the use of N95 masks, citing a "pressing and urgent need for action" driven by the threat of new coronavirus variants.

In a memo to Biden's top coronavirus advisers obtained by CNN, a dozen health and safety experts -- including four members of Biden's former advisory board -- called on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to "recommend and require the use of respiratory protection, such as N95 FFRs (filtering facepiece respirators), to protect all workers at high risk of exposure and infection."

The authors call on the CDC to adopt the first national consumer mask standard to protect American workers and general public. Published Tuesday by ASTM, an international technical standards organization, it outlines minimum fit, design, performance and testing requirements for consumer face masks. The standard will soon allow the American public to be able to choose between two levels of mask protection seen on package labeling.

The letter also asks OSHA to utilize the ASTM standard and offer high-performing face masks with at least 80% filtration efficacy to non-health care workers at lower exposure risks.

Read the full story:

2:56 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

US reports 59,598 Covid-19 cases on Tuesday

From CNN's Joe Sutton

The United States reported 59,598 new coronavirus cases and 1,602 additional related deaths on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University's tally.    

That raises the national total to at least 27,753,824 cases and 487,927 deaths.

At least 71,657,975 vaccine doses have been distributed and 55,220,364 doses have been administered, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2:08 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

Fauci says a Covid-19 vaccine could be needed annually

From CNN Health's Andrea Diaz

Medical worker Robert Gilbertson loads a syringe with the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Los Angeles on February 16.
Medical worker Robert Gilbertson loads a syringe with the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Los Angeles on February 16. Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it's "possible" that the Covid-19 vaccine could become a yearly vaccine, like the flu shot.

“We hope we can contain this particular outbreak and all of its ramifications throughout the world in a way that doesn't have the ... cycling of various versions of the virus so that you have to address it differently each year,” Fauci said in an interview with Spectrum News' Lisa McRee on Tuesday.

Fauci also said that it's “entirely conceivable” that scientists are already working on a universal coronavirus vaccine that would address all the variants. 

There are a number of new variants that have emerged recently. Here are the top four that are most worrying:

  • B.1.1.7 was first seen in the UK. It appears to be transmitted the same way -- but is more contagious and easily spread, experts say.
  • B.1.351 was first seen in South Africa and has since been reported in more than 30 other countries, according to the World Health Organization.
  • P.1 is suspected of fueling a resurgence of viral spread in Brazil. It has since been reported in the US and Japan, carried by travelers from Brazil.
  • L452R was seen in California as well as a dozen other states. Experts are still investigating the significance of this strain.

1:15 a.m. ET, February 17, 2021

The US has reported nearly 1,300 infections from Covid-19 variants

A health care worker places a vial containing a Covid-19 test swab into a box at a testing site in San Francisco, California, on January 9.
A health care worker places a vial containing a Covid-19 test swab into a box at a testing site in San Francisco, California, on January 9. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

At least 1,299 cases of coronavirus variants that were first spotted in other countries have been reported in the United States, according to data by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC says this does not represent the total number of variant cases circulating in the US, but rather just those that have been found by analyzing positive samples.

UK variant: The vast majority of these cases are the B.1.1.7 variant first spotted in the UK, a more contagious strain. It has been found in 41 states and Washington, DC. 

South Africa variant: 19 cases of this strain, called B.1.351, were reported across nine states and Washington, DC.

Brazil variant: There have been three cases of the P.1 strain, first linked to Brazil -- two in Minnesota and one in Oklahoma.