The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

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Cold weather is chilling vaccine distribution progress
02:43 - Source: CNN

What you need to know

  • New coronavirus variants could lead to a rapid rise in the numbers of Covid-19 cases, according to two new reports from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • The rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be slower than US federal health officials initially anticipated, CNN has learned. 
  • The coronavirus variant first identified in the UK has now been found in 94 countries. The variant first identified in South Africa has been found in 46 countries, and the variant first identified in Brazil in 21, WHO said.

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Paraguay to start Covid-19 vaccinations next week

A batch of Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccines is unloaded from a plane at Silvio Pettirossi International Airport in Luque, Paraguay, on February 18.

Paraguay received its first batch of Covid-19 vaccines Thursday through a government purchase of 4,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

The country will roll out its vaccination campaign Monday by immunizing front-line health workers in the ICU, according to health authorities.

“A total of one million Sputnik V vaccines were purchased through direct negotiations with the Russian Fund, the vaccine’s manufacturing agency. On Wednesday, Presidents Mario Abdo Benítez and Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation and it was agreed to expedite the procedures for the shipment of 300,000 doses,” a statement from the Paraguay Ministry of Health published Thursday says.

Paraguay approved the emergency use of the Russian vaccine on January 15. The country also expects to receive 4.3 million doses of the AstraZenaca vaccine purchased via COVAX, an initiative to provide equitable global access to Covid-19 vaccines.

Paraguay has recorded 148,622 confirmed cases and 3,008 coronavirus related deaths, according to the latest tally from Johns Hopkins University.

More than 1,500 reported cases of concerning variants in the US, CDC says

At least 1,549 cases of coronavirus strains first spotted in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have been reported in the United States, according to data updated Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The vast majority of these cases are the more contagious variant which was originally detected in the UK. This variant has been found in 41 states and Washington, DC. More than a quarter are in Florida.

In addition, there are 21 total cases of a strain initially seen in South Africa, in nine states and Washington, DC. Five total cases of the strain first linked to Brazil have been discovered among four states.

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

Pregnant women are at a 70% higher risk for Covid-19 infection, study finds

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. 

Pregnant women appear to be at a higher risk of Covid-19 infection, researchers reported.

The study, which was published Tuesday, shows the Covid-19 infection rate among pregnant women in Washington state was 70% higher than in similarly aged adults in the state. It also found that rates of infection among pregnant women of color were two to four times higher than expected. 

“Pregnant women were not protected from COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic, with the greatest burden of infections occurring in nearly all racial/ethnic minority groups,” the researchers wrote in their report, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

For the study, the research team gathered data from 240 pregnant Covid-19 patients in 35 hospitals and clinics, which account for 61% of the state’s annual births, from March through June 2020. 

“Our data indicates that pregnant people did not avoid the pandemic as we hoped that they would, and communities of color bore the greatest burden,” said Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf, an ob-gyn with the University of Washington School of Medicine and the report’s senior author.

According to the study, the Covid-19 infection rate in pregnant women in the state of Washington was 13.9 out of every 1,000 deliveries, compared to an overall rate for 20- to 39-year-olds in the state of 7.3 out of 1,000.

“Higher infection rates in pregnant patients may be due to the overrepresentation of women in many professions and industries considered essential during the COVID-19 pandemic — including healthcare, education, service sectors,” lead author Dr. Erica Lokken said in a news release.   

The researchers suggest that pregnant people should be broadly prioritized for Covid-19 vaccination. 

“Pregnant women are written out of the allocation prioritization in about half of U.S. States. Many states are not even linking their COVID-19 vaccine allocation plans with the high-risk medical conditions listed by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] —which include pregnancy,” Waldorf said. 

US pharmacies see high Covid-19 vaccine demand "outweigh inventory"

A pharmacist administers a Covid-19 vaccine at a Walmart Pharmacy in Danvers, Massachusetts, on February 1.

Demand for coronavirus vaccines is outstripping supply in the federal retail pharmacy program for the United States, CNN finds, appointments filling up quickly.

Many pharmacies told CNN this week that they can receive and administer far more vaccine doses than are arriving so far. Albertsons Companies Inc., a US grocery company headquartered in Boise, Idaho, is using less than 10% of its capacity, according to Albertsons spokesperson Andrew Whelan. 

“We have the capabilities to administer 150,000 doses every single day and can take on about 90% more supply within our network,” Whelan told CNN.

Hy-Vee, a chain of supermarkets in the Midwest, told CNN that having more vaccine doses to administer to the public would be beneficial. 

“The limited supply of the vaccine has been our biggest challenge,” said company spokesperson Christina Gayman. “We would love to vaccinate every single person who inquires, but supply is still limited.”

Meanwhile, Meijer Inc. has administered 66,000 doses since mid-January with an anticipated additional 30,000 this week, company representative Frank J. Guglielmi told CNN. Most doses have been administered in Michigan, where Meijer is both a state and federal vaccine partner.

“As far as support, we just need more vaccines,” Guglielmi said.

Walgreens, one of the first pharmacies to begin administering Covid-19 vaccines in December through a separate partnership with long-term care facilities, has administered more than 3 million vaccines as of Monday, with an allotment of 180,000 doses per week through the federal program, company spokesperson Kelli Teno told CNN. 

“As we roll out to broader populations, vaccine demand has continued to outweigh inventory,” Teno said. “We share the enthusiasm of the nation in vaccinating people as quickly as possible, but patience is needed as vaccine inventory continues to build in the coming weeks and months and we’re able to vaccinate more communities.”

TSA says there's been "fewer than 1,000" violations since mask directive took effect

A traveler wearing a protective mask walks in San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California, on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020.

The Transportation Security Administration said it has received “fewer than 1,000” reports of violations in the more than two weeks since it began enforcing a federal requirement to wear masks when traveling.  

The agency declined to provide a more specific number of reported incidents on Thursday. It is the first update on the number of violations since the order took effect this month.

But it interpreted the numbers as evidence of widespread “voluntary compliance” with the masking orders from TSA, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and President Biden.  

The agency reports screening at least hundreds of thousands of air travelers daily, and said “millions of individuals” ride on bus, train and transit systems daily.  

TSA said it is reviewing the reported incidents for possible citations and fines. That process allows individuals to request a formal or informal hearing to dispute the fine. It has said fines begin at $250 for a first offense and can grow up to $1,500 for repeated violations.

TSA said none of the incidents occurred at a TSA checkpoint. The reports include incidents “in aircraft, airports, on buses, passenger rail and in transportation hubs.”

UK Prime Minister will call on G7 leaders to support 100-day target to create new vaccines

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the South Wales Police Headquarters in Bridgend, Wales, on Wednesday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will call on world leaders to back a bid to cut the time it takes to develop new vaccines to 100 days, as he chairs the first G7 leaders’ meeting of the UK’s presidency on Friday, Downing Street said in a statement.

Johnson has asked the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, to work with international partners, including the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), to advise the G7 on speeding up the process for developing vaccines, treatments and tests for common pathogens, Downing Street said in a statement.

“The development of a coronavirus vaccine in approximately 300 days was a huge and unprecedented global achievement. By reducing the time to develop new vaccines for emerging diseases even further, we may be able to prevent the catastrophic health, economic and social repercussions seen in this crisis. The 100 day ambition was proposed by CEPI earlier this year,” the statement said.

“Perhaps more than ever, the hopes of the world rest on the shoulders of scientists and over the last year, like countless times before, they have risen to the challenge,” Johnson said in a statement ahead of the meeting.

“The development of viable coronavirus vaccines offers the tantalising prospect of a return to normality, but we must not rest on our laurels. As leaders of the G7 we must say today: never again. 

“By harnessing our collective ingenuity, we can ensure we have the vaccines, treatments and tests to be battle-ready for future health threats, as we beat Covid-19 and build back better together,” he added. 

During the virtual meeting, the UK will also reiterate that it will send the majority of any future surplus vaccines to the COVAX scheme to support developing countries, Downing Street said.

The leaders of the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the USA and the presidents of the European Council and the EU Commission will meet virtually at 9 a.m. ET on Friday.

Brazil tops 10 million coronavirus cases

Cemetery workers sit on graves in January during a funeral at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida Cemetery in Manaus, Brazil.

Brazil surpassed 10 million cases of coronavirus Thursday, according to data from the country’s health ministry.

Brazil reported 51,879 new cases of Covid-19, bringing the country’s total number of cases to 10,030,626.

Additionally, Brazil reported 1,367 new Covid-19 related deaths, bringing the death toll to 243,457.

Brazil has the third-highest number of coronavirus cases after the US and India; it also has the second highest coronavirus-related deaths in the world after the US, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

On Wednesday, Brazil’s Butantan Institute kicked off a campaign to vaccinate the entire adult population of Serrana, a city in the southeastern state of Sao Paulo, to test the efficacy of mass vaccination on Covid-19 infection rates. However, vaccine shortages and a recent variant discovered in the Amazon is putting a strain on Brazil’s fight against the virus.

Brazil began vaccinating frontline health workers on Jan. 17 with CoronaVac, a vaccine developed by the Chinese pharmaceutical Sinovac in conjunction with Brazilian Butantan Institute. 

Johnson & Johnson should have results from its two-dose vaccine trial by second half of 2021 

Pharmacy technician Sara Berech prepares a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for a clinical trial in Aurora, Colorado, in December.

Johnson & Johnson said Thursday that it has more than 21,000 people enrolled in its study to evaluate a two-dose series of its Covid-19 vaccine.

This late-stage trial is complementary to the one it submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration for an emergency authorization of its single-dose regimen. 

This parallel two-dose trial should produce interim data by the second half of 2021, the company said. It is dependent on how much infection is in the community. If there is a lot of disease circulating, the trial could see results sooner. 

The company launched the two-dose trial in November. It plans to enroll 30,000 people worldwide.

The FDA could decide on the authorization of the single dose J&J vaccine in the next couple of weeks. The single-dose vaccine met all primary and key secondary endpoints, the company said. Clinical trial data showed the single vaccine was 66% effective in preventing moderate and severe disease, but 85% effective against severe disease and 100% effective at preventing hospitalizations.

More on the vaccines: Johnson & Johnson’s single dose vaccine has its advantages. Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccine requires two doses. Logistically, a single shot is easier to manage. The J&J vaccine also can be kept at regular refrigerated temperatures, as opposed to the Pfizer vaccine that needs a special deep freezer.  

“A one-dose vaccine is considered by the World Health Organization to be the best option in pandemic settings, enhancing access, distribution and compliance,” a statement emailed by the company Thursday said.

All the vaccine makers are looking into whether booster doses would provide better protection against coronavirus variants, according to Andy Slavitt. The White House’s senior adviser for Covid response told the Washington Post Thursday that Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech “have plans to continue to update their vaccines and if need be, create boosters down the road if there continue to be additional mutants, as there likely will be.” 

Pfizer-BioNTech will start additional vaccine studies in children as young as 5 soon

Pfizer-BioNTech said they are expecting to start Covid-19 vaccine studies in children aged five to 11 in the next couple of months, according to a company news release.

The companies said they also have plans to study the vaccine in children younger than five later this year.

Pfizer-BioNTech’s current trial – for children aged 12 to 15 – began enrolling participants in October of last year. That trial is now fully enrolled and the companies say “the relevant data are planned to be submitted to the regulatory authorities in the second quarter of 2021.”

Currently, Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine has been granted emergency use authorization by the US Food and Drug Administration for those who are aged 16 and above. There is currently no FDA authorized Covid-19 vaccine for children. 

Nevada detects state’s first case of Covid-19 variant first identified in South Africa

Health officials in Nevada detected the state’s first known case of the B.1.351 coronavirus variant, first identified in South Africa, in a sample collected in Reno, according to a statement from the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine (UNR Med). 

The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory (NSPHL) located at UNR Med said it first sequenced the specimen on Saturday, and through further analysis of data detected the B.1.351 strain and confirmed it on Wednesday.

The sample came from a person who had traveled from South Africa and became symptomatic after arriving in Reno.

Some more context: The NSPHL has been analyzing positive Covid-19 virus samples for variants since mid-December 2020 through whole genome sequencing, the statement reads.

“Daily sequencing of positive cases is not necessarily the norm,” NSPHL Director Mark Pandori said, adding that, “daily genetic testing will allow us to find cases closer to the time that they arrive, possibly limiting community spread. In this case, the carrier was a traveler from South Africa. So hopefully this is an example of that benefit.”  

On Tuesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 19 cases of the B.1.351 variant have been identified in 10 states. This doesn’t represent the total number of such cases circulating in the US, but just those that have been found by analyzing positive samples.

About 57.7 million Covid-19 vaccine doses administered in the US

Carolyn Fowler of the Los Angeles Unified School District receives a Covid-19 vaccine on Wednesday.

About 57.7 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been administered in the United States, according to data published Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC reported that 57,737,767 total doses have been administered, about 79% of the 73,377,450 doses distributed.

That’s nearly 1.5 million more administered doses reported since yesterday. The seven-day average of doses administered has been ticking down slightly since Tuesday, from about 1.7 million doses per day to about 1.6 million.

More than 41 million people have now received at least one dose of the vaccine and more than 16 million people have been fully vaccinated, CDC data shows. 

Data published by the CDC may be delayed, and doses may not have been given on the day reported.

Participants in global Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trial for pregnant women receive their first doses

A pharmacy technician prepares doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on January 30.

Pfizer-BioNTech announced Thursday that the first participants of its global Covid-19 vaccine trial for pregnant women have received their first doses.

The Phase 2/3 trial will enroll about 4,000 healthy pregnant women age 18 or older, according to a news release from the company. They will be vaccinated during 24 to 34 weeks of gestation and receive two doses of the vaccine or placebo 21 days apart.

The first doses were administered to US participants. The trial will be conducted in nine countries: the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mozambique, South Africa, UK and Spain.

“We are proud to start this study in pregnant women and continue to gather the evidence on safety and efficacy to potentially support the use of the vaccine by important subpopulations,” Dr. William Gruber, Pfizer’s senior vice president of vaccine clinical research and development, said in the release.

The company said the trial is designed to evaluate the vaccine in pregnant women, but also their infants, who will be monitored until they’re about six months old, for safety and for the transfer of potentially protective antibodies. Once an infant is born, Pfizer-BioNTech said trial participants will be unblinded and adults in the placebo group will receive the vaccine.

Currently, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pregnant people are at increased risk for severe illness from Covid-19, and there’s limited data about the safety of the vaccines for pregnant people. It suggests pregnant patients talk with their doctor to make the decision about whether to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Food and packaging highly unlikely to spread Covid-19, US agencies say in reminder

Food and food packaging are highly unlikely to spread Covid-19, the US Food and Drug Administration, US Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a reminder Thursday.

“Consumers should be reassured that we continue to believe, based on our understanding of currently available reliable scientific information, and supported by overwhelming international scientific consensus, that the foods they eat and food packaging they touch are highly unlikely to spread SARS-CoV-2,” the FDA wrote in a statement.

The three agencies said they wanted to stress the lack of credible evidence to suggest that food or its packaging are associated with transmission of the virus.

Covid-19 is a respiratory illness spread from person to person, unlike foodborne viruses that can make people sick through contaminated food, the FDA said.

“Given that the number of virus particles that could be theoretically picked up by touching a surface would be very small and the amount needed for infection via oral inhalation would be very high, the chances of infection by touching the surface of food packaging or eating food is considered to be extremely low,” it added.

“Considering the more than 100 million cases of COVID-19, we have not seen epidemiological evidence of food or food packaging as the source of SARS-CoV-2 transmission to humans.”

Chinese officials have repeatedly raised the possibility the virus is spread by packaged frozen foods, but the CDC and World Health Organization have both said this is highly unlikely.