February 25 coronavirus news

By Eoin McSweeney, Hannah Strange and Jessie Yeung, CNN

Updated 0642 GMT (1442 HKT) February 26, 2021
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7:42 a.m. ET, February 25, 2021

Pfizer/BioNTech test a booster against new variants

From CNN Health’s Amanda Sealy

A vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Washington, DC, in December 2020.
A vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Washington, DC, in December 2020. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool/Getty Images

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said Thursday they have begun to test how well a third dose of their authorized vaccine stacks up against new coronavirus variants.

The study will look at the safety and immune response of a booster dose in up to 144 participants from the earlier Phase 1 trial in the US, including a subset of older adults up to age 85. It will also involve testing how well their antibodies are able to neutralize “strains of interest” in the lab, the companies said.

Volunteers would receive a third dose between 6 and 12 months after their earlier two doses. The dosage would be identical to what’s currently authorized, 30 micrograms. 

“This booster study is critical to understanding the safety of a third dose and efficacy against circulating strains,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement

Separately, Pfizer and BioNTech are also “in ongoing discussions with regulatory authorities” about potentially testing a vaccine has been modified to protect against concerning variants in a Phase 1/2 study.

However, Bourla noted the companies haven’t yet seen compelling evidence that variants are resistant to its vaccine, though they are taking steps to be prepared.

On Monday, the US Food and Drug Administration announced new guidelines that would streamline and quicken the process of updating vaccines to target variants. An agency official estimated this could involve a several hundred individuals and take a few months. 

5:53 a.m. ET, February 25, 2021

Austria's chancellor calls for ‘Green Passports’ for those vaccinated against coronavirus  

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt and Claudia Otto In Berlin

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks at a press conference in Vienna, Austria, on February 1.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks at a press conference in Vienna, Austria, on February 1. Helmut Fohringer/APA/AFP/Getty Images

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz will push the European Union Thursday to introduce a “green passport” for people who have protection against coronavirus, he said. 

“We need a 'green passport' for everyone who has either been vaccinated or has immunity, because they have just gone through coronavirus, or has taken a new (negative) test,” Kurz told journalists on Wednesday, ahead of a two-day summit with European leaders on the pandemic.

“We need freedom to travel back within the European Union, no matter if it is for business or private reasons. And we want to have the possibility to go back to cultural events, to the gastronomy, to the hotel business and enjoy it,” Kurz said. 

Central Europe has become the continent's latest coronavirus hotspot, with Austria struggling to contain an outbreak of the new variant first identified in South Africa and neighboring Czech Republic facing hospital bed shortages on top of a political crisis over lockdowns.

Kurz said he would introduce his proposal at the EU summit on Thursday, and said that he hoped for a European solution. 

If the green passport should fail to attract the support of the entire bloc, he said it could be introduced on a smaller scale: “We will, of course, approach this project nationally and try to find a common path with as many states in the neighborhood and beyond as possible.”

Tourism in Austria forms an important part of the country's economy, Kurz said, and therefore he believes that the introduction of such a green passport is “extremely important.”

Separately, in an interview with the German newspaper Bild, Kurz admitted that restrictions were becoming less effective: "The objective situation in Austria was simply that after six weeks the lockdown had lost its effect. People have adhered to it less and less, there have been more and more shifts to the private sector, and a lockdown where no one participates, of course, makes little sense."

Some destinations -- including the Seychelles, Cyprus and Romania -- have already lifted quarantine requirements to visitors able to prove they're vaccinated. Others, such as Iceland and Hungary, have opened up to people who've recovered from Covid-19.

5:40 a.m. ET, February 25, 2021

Despite US Covid-19 cases dropping, infections are still staggeringly high. Here's what has experts worried

From CNN's Christina Maxouris

Health care workers assist a patient in the overflow area of the Covid-19 intensive care unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center - Mission Hills in Los Angeles on February 5.
Health care workers assist a patient in the overflow area of the Covid-19 intensive care unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center - Mission Hills in Los Angeles on February 5. Ariana Drehsler/Bloomberg/Getty Images

A new ensemble forecast published Wednesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests the country's daily Covid-19 death rate will slow in the coming weeks -- good news following more than a month of declining case and hospitalization numbers.

But now is no time to let up on safety measures -- for several reasons -- according to experts.

First, Covid-19 numbers across the US remain staggeringly high. For the past week, the US has averaged more than 72,000 new cases daily, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Getting infection numbers down now not only will help prevent the virus from further mutating but will also give vaccines a better shot at remaining effective.

More than 54,000 people remain hospitalized with the virus nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project. And more than 57,000 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded this month alone. On Wednesday, California became the first state to surpass 50,000 virus-related deaths, Johns Hopkins data showed -- a grim reminder of its brutal battle against the virus.

Another big reason to remain cautious? Experts have warned another case surge is likely on its way, one that will this time be fueled by coronavirus variants -- and the country is still nowhere near herd immunity levels.

In fact, health officials are preparing for a possible third wave that will be driven by a rapidly spreading variant that was first identified in the UK: B.1.1.7. Data from the CDC shows more than 1,880 cases of the variant have been detected across the US -- but scientists have warned that number likely doesn't represent the total of cases in the country.

Read the full story:

5:23 a.m. ET, February 25, 2021

Post-vaccination observation period may not be necessary for Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine 

From CNN Health's Virginia Langmaid

A health worker holds a syringe of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine in Soweto, South Africa, on February 17.
A health worker holds a syringe of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine in Soweto, South Africa, on February 17. Emmanuel Croset/AFP/Getty Images

The post-vaccination observation period required after the administration of Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines may not be necessary for Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, Dr. Nirav Shah, deputy director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a media briefing by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Wednesday.

The J&J vaccine -- which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said on Wednesday meets requirements for emergency use authorization -- works differently from vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna. This difference “may remove some of the constraints that have been in place for safety reasons with the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine,” said Shah. “For example, the observation period.”

The J&J vaccine is made using an adenoviral vector. A small piece of genetic material from the coronavirus is inserted into a weakened version of a common cold virus called an adenovirus. Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines use a newer platform, called mRNA (or messenger RNA) that delivers instructions to the cells to make a small piece of the coronavirus spike protein, which primes the immune system to recognize the virus in the future. 

Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines have been associated with some rare cases of severe allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis, that may be related to a vaccine ingredient called polyethylene glycol (PEG), which is part of the fatty coating used to encapsulate the mRNA particles. 

4:50 a.m. ET, February 25, 2021

Merkel warns of third wave if Germany does not open cautiously

From CNN's Claudia Otto in Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a press conference in Berlin, on February 19.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a press conference in Berlin, on February 19. Annegret Hilse/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned of a third wave of Covid-19 cases if Germany gets its reopening wrong.

“We have to proceed wisely and carefully now so that a third wave does not necessitate a new complete shutdown throughout Germany," Merkel said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

The Chancellor warned against opening the country too fast as the British mutation, which is believed to be more transmissable than the original virus strain, is spreading in Germany.

The German agency for disease control and prevention, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), recorded an additional 11,869 cases in the last twenty-four hours in the country, bringing the total for the pandemic to 2,414,687.

Germany’s Covid-19 death toll now stands at 69,125. 

The incidence rate remains the same with 61.7 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the RKI. The goal is to get the incidence rate to 35 per 100,000 in order to reopen the country, Merkel has said. 

2:13 a.m. ET, February 25, 2021

Despite drop in new cases, infection rate in Latin America remains high amid vaccine shortage

From CNN’s Tatiana Arias in Atlanta

A healthcare worker administers a dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Monday, February 22.
A healthcare worker administers a dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Monday, February 22. Sarah Pabst/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Americas region, including the US, is seeing a drop in Covid-19 cases -- but the infection rate is almost the same as the middle of last year, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

Most Latin American countries are reporting a drop in new cases, “but the virus continues to spread at levels roughly equivalent to those that we saw mid last year when many countries were sounding the alarm,” said PAHO Director Carissa Etienne on Wednesday.

Although the Americas are seeing a reduction in cases, and vaccination campaigns have begun in at least 28 countries and territories, “it will be months before we see vaccinations impact the rate of Covid-19 infections, even in places like the United States, where immunization campaigns have been active for weeks," she said.

Approximately 78 million people have been vaccinated in the Americas and the Caribbean -- but it's not enough, Etienne said.

“The lifesaving power of vaccines should not be a privilege for the few, but a right for all, especially for the countries at greatest risk, like those in the Americas, who remain the epicenter of the pandemic," she said, adding that vaccines are "safe and effective."

"Our region needs vaccines, as soon as possible and as many as possible to save lives,” she said.

Follow CNN's global vaccine tracker:

3:11 a.m. ET, February 25, 2021

No cheering allowed for Tokyo Olympics torch relay, officials say

From CNN's Sarah Faidell and Junko Ogura

The Olympic cauldron is lit during the 'Flame of Recovery' exhibition on March 25, 2020, in Iwaki, Japan.
The Olympic cauldron is lit during the 'Flame of Recovery' exhibition on March 25, 2020, in Iwaki, Japan. Clive Rose/Getty Images

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay will start in Fukushima prefecture on March 25, 2021 with several Covid-19 countermeasures in place, officials announced on Thursday. 

The Olympics were originally scheduled for last summer, but were postponed until this year due to the pandemic. In recent months, the Games have been a point of controversy, with rumors of cancelations as Japan deals with a vicious wave of cases -- but authorities have insisted the event will go ahead.

The torch will first go through regions affected by the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami marking the disaster's 10th anniversary, before traveling “around every corner of Japan," officials said. 

Covid-19 countermeasures include avoiding “the 3 C’s: closed spaces, crowded places, close-contact settings.” Those who wish to view the relay from the roadside must wear masks, stay home if they feel unwell, and refrain from traveling outside the prefecture they live in. 

Spectators are also told to “support with applause or by using distributed goods rather than by shouting or cheering.” The relay will also be streamed live online.

Torchbearers will be required to fill out a daily health checklist two weeks before the relay and refrain from activities that may involve a risk of infection, such as eating out or going to crowded places, officials advised.

“The Olympic Torch Relay will be an event for everyone, and amidst the global threat of Covid-19, it will give hope and courage to people all over Japan,” Tokyo 2020 officials said in the statement Thursday.

Covid cases: The announcement comes as Japan recorded 912 new infections and 63 deaths from Wednesday, according to the country's health ministry. That raises the national total to 429,265 cases and 7,660 deaths.

4:11 a.m. ET, February 25, 2021

Researchers find worrying new coronavirus variant in New York City

From CNN's Maggie Fox

A nurse practitioner administers a Covid-19 swab test at a drive-thru testing site in Shirley, New York, on December 18, 2020.
A nurse practitioner administers a Covid-19 swab test at a drive-thru testing site in Shirley, New York, on December 18, 2020. John Paraskevas/Newsday/Getty Images

Two separate teams of researchers said this week they have found a worrying new coronavirus variant in New York City and elsewhere in the Northeast that carries mutations that help it evade the body's natural immune response -- as well as the effects of monoclonal antibody treatments.

Researchers have named the variant B.1.526. It appears in people affected in diverse neighborhoods of New York City, they said, and is "scattered in the Northeast."

One of the mutations in this variant is the same concerning change found in the variant first seen in South Africa and known as B.1.351. It appears to evade, somewhat, the body's response to vaccines, as well. And it's becoming more common.

"We observed a steady increase in the detection rate from late December to mid-February, with an alarming rise to 12.7% in the past two weeks," one team, at Columbia University Medical Center, write in a report that has yet to be published, although it is scheduled to appear in a pre-print version this week.

It's "home grown, presumably in New York," Dr. David Ho, Director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia, who led the study team, said by email.

The mutation in this variant that most concerns researchers is called E484K and it gives the virus the ability to slip past some of the body's immune response, as well as the authorized monoclonal antibody treatments.

Read more here.

2:05 a.m. ET, February 25, 2021

New evidence that Covid-19 antibodies lower risk of re-infection

From CNN's Jacqueline Howard

A health worker takes a drop of blood for a Covid-19 antibody test at the Diagnostic and Wellness Center in Torrance, California, on May 5, 2020.
A health worker takes a drop of blood for a Covid-19 antibody test at the Diagnostic and Wellness Center in Torrance, California, on May 5, 2020. Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

Covid-19 antibodies from a previous infection could significantly lower your risk of becoming re-infected, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

"The results from the study are basically a 10-fold reduction, but I would have caveats around that. In other words, it could be an overestimate of the reduction, it could be an underestimate of the reduction," said Dr. Douglas Lowy, principal deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, who was an author of the study. 

"To me, the big message is -- there’s a reduction," he said. "The main takeaway is that being antibody positive after natural infection is associated with partial protection against a new infection."

How they did the study: The researchers examined data on more than 3.2 million people in the United States who had completed an antibody test last year between January and August.

Among those tested, 11.6% tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies and 88.3% tested negative. 

  • 0.3% of those with antibodies tested positive for Covid-19 infection later, beyond 90 days.
  • 3% of those without antibodies tested positive for reinfection during the same time period.

But more research is needed to determine a causal relationship, how long protection from antibodies may last, and the risk of reinfection from a variant.