The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

By Sarah Faidell, Brad Lendon, Joshua Berlinger, Mary Ilyushina and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 8:38 a.m. ET, February 19, 2021
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11:35 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Vaccine makers looking into booster doses for better protection against variants, White House adviser says

From CNN's Maegan Vazquez

Vaccine makers are looking into whether booster doses could provide better protection against coronavirus variants, Andy Slavitt, the White House’s senior adviser for Covid response, said during an interview with the Washington Post on Thursday.

The White House official said Johnson & Johnson is already studying a second dose of its Covid-19 vaccine, and he noted that Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, which currently have vaccines authorized in the United States, "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."

Johnson & Johnson has said it’s exploring whether to retool its Covid-19 vaccine to address the potential impact of new strains. In November, the company announced that it had started a large-scale Phase 3 trial for a two-dose regimen of its coronavirus vaccine.

“If you have the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, could you later have another vaccine?” Slavitt said. “And I will give you two parts to that answer quickly. One is: Johnson and Johnson, people may know, is currently evaluating whether — how their vaccine performs with two doses — in other words, with their own booster. So, pending the results on that, pending what the FDA has to say if the vaccine’s approved in the first place, there will be — there may be a second shot of Johnson and Johnson."

“More broadly, can you mix and match? If you have one can you later take another? And the answer is, try to remember which one you had because that’s what’s been tested … but if you forgot, don’t panic. You can take another one and the CDC says that that’s fine in that case," he continued.

A US Food and Drug Administration’s independent advisory committee will meet Feb. 26 to consider whether to recommend a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for emergency use authorization.

The Johnson & Johnson's Covid-19 single-shot vaccine was shown to be 66% effective in preventing moderate and severe disease in a global Phase 3 trial, but 85% effective against severe disease, the company previously announced.

“While a potentially safe and effective single-dose preventive COVID-19 vaccine would have significant benefits, particularly in a pandemic setting, Janssen’s COVID-19 vaccine program has been designed to be extremely thorough and driven by science. As such, we are investigating multiple doses and dosing regimens to evaluate their long-term efficacy,” a November statement from J&J said. 

Slavitt also said that the administration is working to ensure that the vaccines will work against variants. 

“We are testing right now in vitro. … The good news to start with is the most prominent strain that’s come here, the B.1.1.7, the vaccines work well for — the Pfizer and the Moderna. The South African, which is close to the Brazilian … they are … less effective, but above a threshold,” Slavitt said. 

10:14 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

"Strong and compelling" evidence vaccines are reducing deaths in Scotland, first minister says

From CNN’s Chloe Adams

A vaccination team member works at a drive-thru Covid-19 vaccination center in Musselburgh, Scotland, on February 10.
A vaccination team member works at a drive-thru Covid-19 vaccination center in Musselburgh, Scotland, on February 10. Jane Barlow/PA/Getty Images

There is “strong and compelling evidence” the vaccination program is starting to reduce the number of people dying with Covid-19 in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Thursday. 

Speaking at the daily Scottish coronavirus briefing, Sturgeon praised figures released by the National Records of Scotland on Wednesday that showed a 62% reduction in the number of Covid-related deaths in care homes over the past three weeks.

She said the data shows death rates in care homes have dropped from 34% at the start of the year to just 13%, which according to the first minister is a larger decline than seen for the deaths happening in hospitals or in people’s own homes.

"That does give us quite strong confidence now that the early vaccination of care home residents and the focus on trying to maximise uptake within older people’s care homes is now having the impact we desperately hoped to see it have," Sturgeon said. “This initial indication the vaccination is starting to protect people is undoubtedly really positive news and we hope the signs of that protective effect will strengthen in the weeks ahead.”

"We're already seeing some early similar signs in the older age group living in the community. The over-85 age group saw the biggest reduction in deaths in the figures which were published yesterday,” Sturgeon added.

"We hope to see that strengthen in the weeks ahead and we obviously very much hope to see that deaths will start to fall significantly amongst the other groups that are being vaccinated as well."

Scotland's latest figures: A total of 1,354,966 people in Scotland have now received the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, with first doses offered to everybody over 70, all care home residents, all frontline care workers and all people with a serious clinical vulnerability.

A further 685 positive cases have been reported in Scotland and 1,261 coronavirus patients are currently being treated in hospital. Sturgeon explained this is “quite a bit below the peak of last spring, although our hospitals continue to be under very severe pressure."

A total of 57 coronavirus-related deaths were registered in the past 24 hours.

10:05 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Russia responds to EU calls to "explain" the pace of its vaccine rollout

From CNN's Darya Tarasova and Samantha Tapfumaneyi

A person receives the Gam-COVID-Vac Covid-19 vaccine, also known as Sputnik V, in Moscow on January 2.
A person receives the Gam-COVID-Vac Covid-19 vaccine, also known as Sputnik V, in Moscow on January 2. Sergei Savostyanov/TASS/Getty Images

The Kremlin on Thursday said it’s happy with the pace of its domestic vaccination campaign as it prepares to launch production of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine across “a number of foreign countries” in order to meet global demand.

“The demand for the Russian vaccine abroad… [is] so high that it significantly exceeds production capacity and therefore very active work is underway to launch, in the very next few days, the production of the Russian vaccine in a number of foreign countries,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists in a telephone briefing.

The Kremlin has previously outlined its plans to outsource production of Sputnik V, with potential hubs in South Korea, India and Brazil. According to Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which bankrolled the development of Sputnik V and markets it internationally, the country secured contracts to supply millions of dozes abroad.

While Russia is working to supply its vaccine to foreign countries, the Kremlin spokesperson reiterated that supply for the Russian population across all regions remains a priority for the government. 

“Production in a number of foreign countries will cover the needs abroad,” he added.

On Wednesday, The European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen called on Russia to explain why it’s sending “millions and millions” of vaccines to countries around the globe, but continues to struggle to vaccinate its own people.

“Overall I must say, we still wonder why Russia is still offering, theoretically millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating their own people,” Von der Leyen said Wednesday. “This is also a question, I think, should be answered.”

RDIF responded via Twitter saying that the doses of the Russian vaccine have been offered to Europeans after Russia completes mass vaccination domestically, which according to RDIF would be done by June 2021.

Remember: Russian Health Ministry has yet to release comprehensive data on the total number of inoculated people. Denis Logunov with the Gamaleya Institute, which developed the vaccine, said last week that so far about 2.2 million people received the first dose of the vaccine, out of which 1.7 million received both shots, according to TASS state news agency.

In late January, Russian officials said the preliminary plan is to administer at least one dose to 20 million people out of Russia’s 145 million population in Q1 of 2021. 


9:54 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Vatican employees who refuse Covid-19 vaccine may risk losing their jobs

From CNN’s Delia Gallagher in Rome

The Vatican told its employees they may lose their jobs if they refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

A decree signed by Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the governor of the Vatican City State, says those employees who refuse the vaccine without legitimate health reasons may be transferred to a different position or may even be terminated. 

The decree, dated Feb. 8, refers to a 2011 Vatican law which says employees who refuse to undergo preventative health checks can be subject to "various levels of consequences including the interruption of the work contract."

The decree argues that vaccination for Covid-19 is a "responsible decision" because the "refusal of the vaccine constitutes a risk for others." 

Pope Francis, who has received the vaccine, has publicly spoken in favor of vaccinations.

"I believe that ethically everyone should take the vaccine. It is not an option, it is an ethical choice because you are gambling with your health, with your life, but you are also gambling with the lives of others," the pontiff said in an interview with Italy's Canale 5 last month.

The Vatican began vaccinating employees and their families on Jan. 13. Less than a thousand people currently live in the Vatican City, according to UN World Population Prospects.

9:44 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Germany will likely extend border checks if Covid-19 outbreaks involving variants are not contained

From Nadine Schmidt

Federal Police officers check drivers at the border crossing between Austria and Germany, near Kiefersfelden, on February 14.
Federal Police officers check drivers at the border crossing between Austria and Germany, near Kiefersfelden, on February 14. Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Germany is likely to extend border checks with Austria and the Czech Republic beyond March 3 if coronavirus outbreaks involving variants are not contained, the country’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer announced earlier.

"I believe it is highly probable that we will have to extend because the situation with the mutation has not changed decisively," Seehofer said while visiting the German-Czech border Thursday, adding "but I cannot say this conclusively today.’"

Germany began carrying out checks on drivers crossing the Czech-German border last Sunday. 

Travel bans are also currently in place for several other countries with high incidence of variant infections, including the UK, Brazil, Portugal, Slovakia, South Africa and Eswatini.

9:03 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Another 861,000 Americas filed for initial benefits last week as pandemic continues to slam economy

From CNN’s Anneken Tappe

Tourism stores near New York's Times Square are closed on February 9.
Tourism stores near New York's Times Square are closed on February 9. Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Another 861,000 workers filed for unemployment benefits for the first time last week, according to seasonally adjusted data released Thursday from the Labor Department.

It was nearly 100,000 claims more than economists had predicted, as well as an increase from the week before — which was also revised higher.

America's jobs recovery has really lost steam and last week's initial claims were four times higher than in the same period last year.

The anniversary of the benefit claims spike is only a month away. Last year, initial claims jumped to 3.3 million in the week ended March 21 before peaking at 6.9 million in the following week.

Nearly a year later, the weekly numbers are much lower again, but haven't meaningfully improved in months. Weekly claims dropped below a million in August, but their most recent adjusted low was 711,000 — several times higher than the pre-pandemic average.

On top of regular state claims, 516,299 Americans filed for benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides aid for people like the self-employed or gig workers. 

Added up, first-time claims actually stood at 1.4 million last week, not adjusted for seasonal swings.

Continued jobless claims, which count filings for at least two consecutive weeks, stood at 4.5 million.

8:50 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Vaccine availability remains the big challenge before anticipated surge in cases, expert says

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Michael Osterholm on February 18.
Michael Osterholm on February 18. CNN

After the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that severe weather around the US will delay Covid-19 vaccine deliveries in the coming days, infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm says this will not slow down production, it will just delay when the shots get into people’s arms. Instead, the big concern is the availability of enough doses and how many people can be vaccinated before the anticipated surge in Covid-19 cases due to the UK variant.

“This very likely, in the next five to 14 weeks, is going to cause a major surge of cases in this country. And our own work has shown that … over 30 million Americans over the age of 65 will not have access to vaccine in these next 12 to 14 weeks. That's a real challenge,” Osterholm said.

Before the severe weather conditions hit, the biggest challenge was availability of vaccines, he added.

Meanwhile, the decline in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations is “lulling us into a sense of security that we just can't afford,” he told CNN.

“Right now, we're loosening up everything at a time when this virus is just starting to take off. We've done everything we possibly can to give this as much a free ride in our community as anybody could imagine," he added.

9:00 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Saudi Arabia approves AstraZeneca vaccine

From CNN’s Mostafa Salem in Abu Dhabi

Vials of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in London on January 7.
Vials of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in London on January 7. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia’s Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the AstraZeneca coronavirus shot on Thursday, the country's Health Ministry said on Twitter. 

“After reviewing the vaccine data and according to accurate scientific methodology, the British AstraZeneca vaccine can be used for coronavirus,” the Health Ministry said on Twitter quoting the Saudi FDA. “The authority will analyze samples from each incoming shipment of the vaccine before using it."

The Kingdom announced this week it's entering the second phase of its vaccine rollout and will inoculate people who are registered for appointments through an online app.

New vaccine doses arrived on Monday after “a delay beyond” Saudi’s control, the Health Minister Tawfiq Al Rabea said on Twitter.  

Saudi Arabia has recorded over 370,000 cases since the start of the pandemic, with 6,445 deaths, according to data from the Health Ministry.

8:07 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Details of the UK's controversial AstraZeneca contract are revealed

From CNN's Angela Dewan in London

A pharmacist prepares a dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Birmingham, England, on February 4.
A pharmacist prepares a dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Birmingham, England, on February 4. Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

AstraZeneca's contract to supply the UK with 100 million Covid-19 vaccine doses commits it to making "best reasonable efforts," the same language used in its deal with the European Union, which critics blamed for the bloc's faltering inoculation program.

The details of the contract are contained in a redacted version published online without fanfare months ago, long before the UK and the EU became embroiled in a bitter dispute over vaccine supply.

British officials had earlier declined to provide the contract to CNN, making no mention of the redacted version, and have repeatedly refused to give details on the country's vaccine supplies, citing "security reasons." A junior UK government minister said in a recent interview that publishing the contract would risk national security.

Yet in response to a Freedom of Information request from CNN, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) this week provided CNN a link to the redacted 52-page contract, which had been published on a website that hosts details of UK government contracts. Details like the number of doses to be delivered to the UK and the dates of delivery have been redacted.

The redacted contract has, technically, been publicly available since at least November 26, according to the date the page was last edited. BEIS this week confirmed the same date of publication to CNN. But the link is difficult to find on the government website without using precise search terms and it appears to have gone largely unnoticed.

European Union leaders and AstraZeneca engaged in a public war of words in late January after the company advised the 27-country union that it would deliver tens of millions fewer doses than agreed by the end of March. At the same time, it appeared to be making good on its deliveries to the UK, heightening tensions between Westminster and Brussels, fresh from their Brexit divorce.

The EU then published its own redacted agreement with AstraZeneca. A comparison between the two contracts is now possible.

Read the full story here: