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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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:

7:45 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

As the WHO probed the pandemic's origins, China pushed a conspiracy about the US

From CNN's James Griffiths and Yong Xiong

Members of a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus outbreak visit the Hubei Animal Disease Control and Prevention Center in Wuhan, China, on February 2.
Members of a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus outbreak visit the Hubei Animal Disease Control and Prevention Center in Wuhan, China, on February 2. Ng Han Guan/AP

When World Health Organization investigators wrapped up their work examining the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan this month, Chinese officials were clear where they felt the WHO should look next.

"(We hope) that following China's example, the US side will act in a positive, science-based and cooperative manner on the origin-tracing issue (and) invite WHO experts in for an origin-tracing study," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last week.

Going even further, Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at China's Center for Disease Control, said the US should now be "the focus" of global efforts to trace the virus.

That Chinese officials should point to the US when discussing the origins of a virus first detected in central China may at first appear confusing to many.

But for months now, China has been advancing alternative theories for how the coronavirus first emerged, ones that would obviate any blame officials in Wuhan may bear for not reacting quickly enough to the initial outbreak in that city in late 2019, during which they are accused of dragging their feet as evidence of human-to-human spread became clear and the virus ran rampant.

Read the full article here:

6:29 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Belgium has recorded more than 184,000 breaches of pandemic rules 

From CNN's James Frater in London

Belgium, a country of around 11.5 million people, has reported 184,565 suspected violations of coronavirus rules since restrictions came into force, according to official figures.

Between March 2020 and February 14 2021, almost 97,000 people were fined on the spot and more than half of them actually paid, according to figures released by the College of Attorney Generals.

Covid-related fines in Belgium range from $300 to about $5,000:

  • Residents breaking quarantine or violating ban on small gatherings -- $300
  • Returning travelers not getting a Covid-19 test -- $300
  • Businesses caught breaking Covid-19 restrictions -- $900 
  • People attending a large gathering or party -- $900 (organizers pay around $5,000)

Earlier in February, police in the neighboring Netherlands said they been issuing between 7,000 and 12,000 fines a week since a nationwide 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. curfew came into force in late January. 

Violating that curfew, which was designed to reduce social interaction and thus the spread of coronavirus, comes at a cost of around $114.

On Tuesday a Dutch court ruled that the government must “immediately” lift the curfew, upholding a claim from the foundation viruswaarheid.nl, which means “virus truth."

8:38 a.m. ET, February 19, 2021

Oxford University's major therapeutics trial goes international

From CNN’s Jo Shelley in London

A major UK trial of potential Covid-19 treatments has started to enrol patients in other countries in the hope of speeding up results, Oxford University said on Thursday.

The RECOVERY trial -- billed by the British government at its launch as the world’s largest randomized clinical trial -- looks at whether existing drugs can be used to treat the virus. It has enrolled more than 36,000 hospital patients in the UK since March 2020 and is now expanding to countries including Indonesia and Nepal.

Peter Horby, professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health at Oxford, said he hoped that expanding the trial internationally would enable researchers to assess potential treatments more quickly.

It is particularly important to find readily and affordable treatments for COVID-19 that can be used worldwide," Horby added. "RECOVERY International will help us to identify effective treatments that can be used in less well-resourced settings.”

The trial has tested a number of drugs to determine which work against Covid-19 and which don’t. Last year, its researchers found that the cheap steroid dexamethasone reduced the risk of death for the sickest Covid-19 patients – but that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine was of no benefit.

Last week, it released preliminary results showing that the rheumatoid arthritis drug tocilizumab could also save the lives of patients hospitalized with severe Covid-19. The results were shared in a preprint, but have not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal.

In Indonesia and Nepal, the trial will initially focus on aspirin and colchicine, a drug for gout.

5:32 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Hong Kong to begin vaccinations with China's Sinovac shot next week

From Carol Yuan in Hong Kong

A box of Sinovac's Covid-19 vaccine is displayed at a media event in Beijing in September 2020.
A box of Sinovac's Covid-19 vaccine is displayed at a media event in Beijing in September 2020. Nicolas Bock/Bloomberg/Getty Images

One million doses of China's Sinovac Covid-19 shot will arrive in Hong Kong on Friday afternoon and vaccinations will begin there a week later, according to a city official.

The inoculation of priority groups with Sinovac doses is scheduled to begin on February 26, said Hong Kong's Secretary for Civil Service Patrick Nip.

The city is relaxing social distancing restrictions from today after reporting its lowest daily number of new Covid-19 cases since late November earlier in the week.

Hong Kong recorded eight new cases from Monday, of which six are locally transmitted. In total, the city of more than seven million people has recorded 10,812 Covid infections and 197 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally. 

In January, Sinovac was revealed to have an efficacy rate of just 50.38% in late-stage trials in Brazil -- significantly lower than earlier results showed. That rate only barely crosses the 50% efficacy threshold set by the World Health Organization, and far lower than the 78% previously announced to much fanfare in China earlier this month.

The Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines have been regarded as potentially affordable and easily distributed vaccine candidates. Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the Chinese shots do not require expensive cold storage.

Read more on the Sinovac vaccine:

4:44 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

US life expectancy dropped a full year in first half of 2020, according to CDC. Covid-19 was a big factor

From CNN's Deidre McPhillips

Funeral workers load the casket of a Covid-19 victim into a hearse at East County Mortuary on January 15, in El Cajon, California.
Funeral workers load the casket of a Covid-19 victim into a hearse at East County Mortuary on January 15, in El Cajon, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Life expectancy in the US dropped a full year in the first half of 2020, according to a report published Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. Experts say that Covid-19 was a significant factor contributing to the decline.

The life expectancy for the entire US population fell to 77.8 years, similar to what it was in 2006, CDC data shows.

Changes to life expectancy also widened racial and ethnic inequities. Compared to 2019, life expectancy for non-Hispanic Black people in the US fell about three times what it did for non-Hispanic White people, by 2.7 years. It fell by twice as much for Hispanic people, by 1.9 years.

Life-expectancy disparities between Black people and White people had been shrinking in recent years, but these latest figures reverse some of that progress.

Over the past 40 years, life expectancy has increased slowly but rarely declined. Between 2014 and 2017 -- a peak period of the opioid epidemic -- life expectancy declined a third of a year, which itself was significant.

Life-expectancy estimates before 1980 have been measured less consistently, but experts told CNN that estimates for drops in life expectancy after World War II range from less than a year to three years.

Read more: