February 24 coronavirus news

By Helen Regan, Rob Picheta, Melissa Mahtani and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 0719 GMT (1519 HKT) February 25, 2021
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8:42 a.m. ET, February 24, 2021

National Institutes of Health announces an initiative to study "long Covid"

From CNN’s Naomi Thomas

The National Institutes of Health announced a new initiative to study long Covid, and “to identify the causes and ultimately the means of prevention and treatment of individuals who have been sickened by Covid-19, but don’t recover fully over a period of a few weeks,” a statement from NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said.

“While still being defined, these effects can be collectively referred to as Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC). We do not know yet the magnitude of the problem, but given the number of individuals of all ages who have been or will be infected with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the public health impact could be profound,” said the statement, released Tuesday. 

In December, NIH was provided with $1.5 billion over four years to support research into the long-term health consequences of coronavirus infection, and on Wednesday it announced the first research opportunities for the PASC Initiative.

About the initiative: The aim is to learn more about how the virus may lead to widespread and long-lasting symptoms and to develop ways to treat or prevent them. Initially, the initiative will look at areas including the spectrum of recovery across the population and what the underlying biological cause of prolonged symptoms. 

Initial research will support ongoing and new research studies, as well as the creation of core resources. 

“Through the PASC Initiative, we now ask the patient, medical, and scientific communities to come together to help us understand the long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and how we may be able to prevent and treat these effects moving forward,” Collins said.

A study published Friday found that 30% of people with Covid-19 continue to have symptoms up to nine months after initial infection. The most commons symptoms were fatigue and loss of taste or smell, although some reported cough, trouble breathing, muscle aches and brain fog. Nearly a third reported worse quality of life compared to before getting sick, and some said they had trouble performing at least one usual activity, such as daily chores.

8:18 a.m. ET, February 24, 2021

France "likely" to extend its AstraZeneca vaccine age range guidance, allowing over-65s to get the vaccine

From CNN’s Antonella Francini in Paris

A nurse administers the Covid-19 vaccine to an elderly patient at the Dunkirk hospital in France, on February 17.
A nurse administers the Covid-19 vaccine to an elderly patient at the Dunkirk hospital in France, on February 17. Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images

France is “likely” to alter its guidance and allow people aged 65 and over to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, a spokesman for France’s health ministry told CNN Wednesday. 

France had previously said AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine should only be administered to people aged under 65, citing a lack of clinical data on its efficacy for older people.

“This opinion is likely to change in the near future based on the results of clinical trials on this age group,” the spokesman said.

“A Scottish study on the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine seems to indicate very positive results,” he added.

A row erupted across Europe earlier in the year after Germany's vaccine commission, quickly joined by a handful of other countries, said the AstraZeneca vaccine shouldn't be given to the over-65s, citing insufficient data.

The decisions came amid an ongoing dispute between the European Union and AstraZeneca over delays to the delivery of its coronavirus vaccine to the bloc. The European drug regulator approved the use of the vaccine for all ages, and the company has said its data supported its use for over 65s.

But French President Emmanuel Macron went as far as suggesting the vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in people over 65, a comment that drew sharp criticism from many experts.

France’s reassessment follows Italy’s decision Tuesday to raise the age limit for AstraZeneca’s vaccine by ten years, now approving it for use on people up to 65. 

Early data on the Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca shots in Scotland showed that by the fourth week after the initial dose, both vaccines had a significant impact on hospital admissions. The Pfizer vaccine reduced the risk of hospital admission from Covid-19 by up to 85%, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalization by up to 94%.

The study is the first to look at the two vaccines’ effect on preventing severe illness resulting in hospitalization across an entire country, with previous efficacy results coming from clinical trials. Unlike France and Italy, Scotland does not have an age cap on who the AstraZeneca vaccines is recommended for. 

Eleftheria Vasileiou, data analyst at the University of Edinburgh's Usher Institute, noted during a Monday press briefing on the study that in Scotland the "Pfizer vaccine is given to all age groups but it's not been given terribly much to those people who are over 75”. She said in Scotland the AstraZeneca vaccine has been primarily going to people who are over 65. 

7:41 a.m. ET, February 24, 2021

Thousands could be saved if vaccines are targeted to specific vulnerable populations, analysis suggests

From CNN Health’s Deidre McPhillips

By targeting vaccine distribution to more specific vulnerable populations, US states could have the opportunity to save thousands of lives and prevent even more hospitalizations, according to a new analysis shared exclusively with CNN.  

Health care data science firm Cogitativo analyzed thousands of health insurance claims and county-level demographics in California to assess the most predictive and discriminative factors leading to poor outcomes following Covid-19 infection. 

By combining federal vaccination priority group recommendations with localized measures of the effects of factors such as air quality and access to fresh food, the company was able to more precisely pinpoint the most vulnerable individuals in the state and the counties where they live. As demand for vaccine continues to outpace supply, there’s still not sufficient supply to cover everyone within the top priority groups. 

According to the analysis, dozens of counties in California would lack sufficient doses to serve the most vulnerable people in the state under federal guidance alone. Los Angeles County, for example, would have a deficit of nearly 405,000 doses. 

Expanding those findings to the 10 largest states shows that about a third of counties would be lacking doses relative to the number of most vulnerable residents -- and about 5 million doses could make a deeper impact in the fight against Covid-19 if reallocated to a different county. 

“Without a surgical approach to distributing the vaccine, more Americans -- often in communities of color and rural areas -- risk being left behind,” Cogitativo CEO Gary Velasquez told CNN.

“The key is to use a combination of real clinical data and social determinants of health to surgically assess who is at greatest risk. This approach can help states avoid acute deficits in certain counties.”

6:49 a.m. ET, February 24, 2021

UK will prioritise people with learning disabilities for vaccines

From CNN's Rob Picheta

A nurse prepares a Covid-19 vaccine in Glasgow, Scotland, on January 23.
A nurse prepares a Covid-19 vaccine in Glasgow, Scotland, on January 23. Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

The UK will prioritise giving Covid-19 vaccinations to people with learning disabilities, moving 150,000 people up the queue after weeks of public pressure to include them in the rollout sooner.

New guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises the government on its vaccine rollout, places people with severe and profound learning disabilities into priority group six.

“I have heard first-hand how tough this pandemic has been for people with learning disabilities and their families. We are determined those more at risk from Covid should be vaccinated as soon as possible," Minister for Care Helen Whately said in a statement sent to CNN.

“Following the JCVI’s updated advice and to make this process simpler and faster, we will be inviting everyone for vaccination who is on their GP’s learning disability register. This will mean those who are at a higher risk from the virus can get the protection they need.”

Radio DJ Jo Whiley has led a public campaign to have people with learning disabilities prioritised for vaccines, detailing the struggles of her sister who contracted the virus after an outbreak at her care home.

A study by the Office for National Statistics found that people with learning disabilities are more likely to die from Covid-19.

Priority group six, where those people have now been placed, consists of at-risk adults aged 16 to 65 who have a clinical condition that may make them more susceptible to catching the virus.

6:16 a.m. ET, February 24, 2021

Spain expects to quadruple vaccine doses available in second quarter

From CNN's Tim Lister

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks during a press conference in Madrid, on December 28.
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks during a press conference in Madrid, on December 28. Eduardo Parra/Europa Press/Getty Images

Spain's Prime Minister has said he expects the country's number of Covid-19 vaccine doses to quadruple in the second quarter of the year.

Pedro Sanchez told Parliament that the government was committed to achieving a vaccination target of 70% of the population by the end of the summer. 

The government has ordered 126 million doses of different vaccines -- more than 52 million from Pfizer/BioNTech, more than 31 million from AstraZeneca, 23.5 million from Curevac, about 21 million from Johnson & Johnson and eight million from Moderna.

But Spain's vaccination program has been affected by winter weather and a shortage of supply. So far 3.16 million doses have been administered and 1.2 million people have received two doses. 

Sanchez was addressing lawmakers on the country's state of alarm, which is due to run through early May in an effort to limit transmission of the virus by restricting movement and imposing curfews.

Some opposition parties have called for it to be lifted sooner, but Sanchez rejected the demands, noting that the relaxation of restrictions around Christmas had contributed to a "third wave" of the pandemic in much of Europe.

5:38 a.m. ET, February 24, 2021

'Hope has arrived': Ghana becomes first country to receive Covid-19 vaccine through COVAX program

From CNN's Eric Cheung and Stephanie Busari

Airport workers transport a shipment of Covid-19 vaccines at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana, on February 24
Airport workers transport a shipment of Covid-19 vaccines at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana, on February 24 Nipah Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Ghana has become the first country to receive Covid-19 vaccines through the World Health Organization's COVAX program on Wednesday, a joint statement issued by UNICEF Ghana and WHO Ghana said.

The shipment, consisting of 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines, arrived at 7 a.m. local time Wednesday on an Emirates flight at Kotoka International Airport, in Ghana's capital Accra.

The minister for health-designate, Kwaku Agyeman-Manu, led a government delegation to receive the consignment. The purpose of the COVAX scheme is to buy coronavirus vaccines in bulk and send them to poorer nations that can't compete with wealthy countries in securing contracts with the major drug companies.

As the plane carrying the vaccines landed, state-run Ghana Broadcasting Corporation journalist Abdul Hayi-Moomen declared: "The flight carrying the vaccines that we so much look forward to receiving, I believe hope has arrived."

The vaccines were produced by the Serum Institute of India, in the Indian city of Pune, and are part of the first wave of Covid-19 vaccines headed to low and middle-income countries, the joint statement added.

"Today marks the historic moment for which we have been planning and working so hard," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. "With the first shipment of doses, we can make good on the promise of the COVAX Facility to ensure people from less wealthy countries are not left behind in the race for life-saving vaccines."

5:44 a.m. ET, February 24, 2021

Philippines offers to send health care workers to the UK and Germany, in return for vaccine doses

From CNN's Rob Picheta

A health worker takes a mock Covid-19 vaccine from a box during a mock vaccination drill at the Philippine General Hospital in Manila, Philippines, on February 15.
A health worker takes a mock Covid-19 vaccine from a box during a mock vaccination drill at the Philippine General Hospital in Manila, Philippines, on February 15. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

The Philippines has offered to allow thousands of health care workers to take jobs in the UK and Germany if the countries agree to donate Covid-19 vaccine doses in return, an official has said.

Alice Visperas, director of the labor ministry's international affairs bureau, said the Philippines was open to lifting a cap on health care professionals working overseas if Britain and Germany sent vaccines in the other direction, Reuters reported.

But the offer was rebuffed by the UK, which said it would continue to use shots on its own citizens until a surplus is available.

The Philippines limits the number of medical professionals leaving the country to 5,000 a year. "We are considering the request to lift the deployment cap, subject to agreement," Visperas told Reuters.

In response, a spokesperson for the UK's Department of Health told the agency it has "no plans for the UK to agree a vaccine deal with the Philippines linked to further recruitment of nurses."

Britain has purchased many more vaccine doses than it has people, and has said it will distribute surplus doses to poorer countries.

Coronavirus cases in the UK are declining after a winter wave of infections, but hospital admissions remain high. Britain has meanwhile overseen a successful vaccine rollout so far, inoculating more than 17 million citizens with at least one dose.

Cases are also slowing in Germany, but other parts of central Europe are seeing infections tick upwards and German authorities have imposed new border checks on nearby countries.

Read more on this story here.

4:31 a.m. ET, February 24, 2021

CanSinoBio files application for Covid-19 vaccine approval as trials show 65% efficacy rate

From CNN’s Beijing bureau

Chinese company CanSino Biologics said on Wednesday it has filed an application with China’s drug regulator for conditional approval of its Covid-19 vaccine. If approved, the company would become the nation’s third vaccine maker to provide shots for conditional public use in China.

CanSinoBio said that Phase 3 clinical trial results show that its coronavirus vaccine has an overall efficacy rate of 65.28% at preventing all symptomatic cases and 90.07% at preventing all severe cases 28 days after a single dose. More than 40,000 volunteers in five countries participated in the trial, the statement added.

Sinopharm, the first Covid-19 vaccine developer whose doses were approved for conditional public use in China, has an overall efficacy rate of 79.34%. Sinovac followed, with an overall efficacy rate varying from 50.4% in trials in Brazil to 91.25% in trials in Turkey.

4:41 a.m. ET, February 24, 2021

Greece calls for EU to adopt Covid vaccine passport

From CNN's Chris Liakos in London

A person holds a World Health Organization vaccination card and a French passport.
A person holds a World Health Organization vaccination card and a French passport. Walid Berrazeg/SOPA Images/Sipa/AP

Greece is calling for the European Union to adopt Covid-19 vaccine "passports" in order to open up tourism and allow for summer vacations.

In an interview with the Financial Times, the Minister of Tourism, Harry Theocharis, stressed that the introduction of the vaccination certificate should be a matter of immediate priority for the European Union.

"Looking at the reaction of some countries to the proposals of the Greek government regarding the vaccination certificate, there is a feeling of short-sightedness," he said. "And while there is much to be done to prepare for the opening up of tourism and the economy, nevertheless, many countries are focusing too much on the current situation. But we have to move much faster,” he said.

Theocharis said the EU needs to speed up decision making on protocols for the safe movement of European citizens from country to country.

“The European Union must adopt the vaccination certificate without delay. People need to know as soon as possible if they will be able to go on a summer vacation this year,” he urged.

Regarding the British government's ban on non-essential international travel, Theocharis said: "I do not understand such warnings, given the progress that is being made in the UK with the vaccination rollout. I cannot understand why we are now taking steps backwards, even though we now have more and more effective tools in our 'arsenal' compared to last year -- and I mean vaccines and 'rapid tests'."

Currently, a digital certificate is issued to those Greek citizens who are vaccinated, but is not mandatory to travel to Greece. "Our goal is simply to relieve those who have acquired immunity from being re-tested for Covid-19 upon entering Greece," he said.