March 2 coronavirus news

By Jessie Yeung, Brett McKeehan, Rob Picheta, Kareem Khadder and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 0711 GMT (1511 HKT) March 3, 2021
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8:56 a.m. ET, March 2, 2021

Biden to announce Merck will work with competitor Johnson & Johnson to manufacture coronavirus vaccine

From CNN's Jeff Zeleny, John Harwood and Kristen Holmes 

An employee packs a box of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine into a cooler for shipping from pharmaceutical distributor McKesson Corporation's facility, in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, on March 1.
An employee packs a box of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine into a cooler for shipping from pharmaceutical distributor McKesson Corporation's facility, in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, on March 1. Timothy D. Easley-Pool/Getty Images

President Biden is expected to announce later today that Merck & Co. will partner with Johnson & Johnson to help manufacture the company's coronavirus vaccine, administration officials familiar with the matter confirmed to CNN.

One official added that Biden will address it during his remarks at the White House this afternoon, hailing the partnership as a way to quickly jumpstart the sluggish vaccine production.

The planned partnership was first reported by The Washington Post.

Merck is expected to dedicate two of its facilities to helping Johnson & Johnson, an administration official said, in a rare partnership between two competitors.

Merck had been working on developing its own Covid-19 vaccine, but discontinued its effort at the end of January after early studies showed immune responses were inferior to natural infection and other Covid-19 vaccines.

8:16 a.m. ET, March 2, 2021

The Covid-19 variant first found in Brazil is up to 2.2 times more transmissible, new study finds

From CNN's Meera Senthilingam

Workers hand out coronavirus testing kits in Bristol, England, on March 1, after three returning residents of a neighboring region were found to have been infected with the Covid-19 variant first detected in Brazil.
Workers hand out coronavirus testing kits in Bristol, England, on March 1, after three returning residents of a neighboring region were found to have been infected with the Covid-19 variant first detected in Brazil. Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

A coronavirus variant of concern first reported in Brazil, known as P.1, may be up to 2.2 times more transmissible and could evade immunity from previous Covid-19 infection by up to 61%, a new modelling study by researchers in Brazil and the UK suggests. 

The preprint, which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal, finds that P.1 was associated with the surge in coronavirus cases seen in Manaus, Brazil, during a second wave toward the end of 2020. It’s thought this explains the resurgence despite high levels of existing immunity in the community from the first wave. 

The team sequenced viruses sampled from people infected with coronavirus between November 2020 and January 2021 in Manaus, where the new variant was first detected, and found the proportion of samples with this variant rose from 0 to 87% within seven weeks. 

They also identified 17 mutations, including 10 in the surface spike protein, used by the virus to enter cells. Three of the mutations in the spike protein are linked to helping the virus bind to human cells. These include the N501Y mutation also found in the variants first found in the UK and South Africa and thought to help the virus bind more easily to human cells and the E484K mutation also found in the South African variant, which is also thought to help the virus evade existing immune responses.  

When investigating how these changes affect the ability of the virus to cause infections, the models created from the data showed the P.1 variant to be 1.4 to 2.2 times more transmissible than other variants as well as the original coronavirus strain, and 25% to 65% more likely to evade existing protective immunity from previous non-P.1 infections, making people susceptible to reinfection.  

The sampling also found that the emergence and circulation of the P.1 variant of concern was due to multiple introductions of the variant within the population.  

Our results consistently suggest altered epidemiological characteristics of P1,” said Dr. Nuno Faria, reader in viral evolution at the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London. 

But he cautioned that “our results from Manaus should not be generalized” to other contexts of variants of concern. 

“We need to see whether this is generalizable to other settings,” said Sharon Peacock, professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge. “This is relevant to where the study was done but we don’t know how that will pan out in other countries.” 

Six cases of the P.1 variant were reported in the UK this week, with a manhunt underway to find one unidentified case. The researchers commented that this is unlikely to cause a surge in cases, adding that “you need many introductions to start an epidemic, so six is very few.”  

In the United States, 10 cases of the P.1 variant have been identified in five states -- Alaska, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota and Oklahoma -- according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

8:00 a.m. ET, March 2, 2021

Austria, Israel and Denmark are looking to develop vaccines against Covid-19 variants

From CNN's Antonia Mortensen, Andrew Carey and Stephanie Halasz

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks at a news conference at the federal chancellery in Vienna on March 1.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks at a news conference at the federal chancellery in Vienna on March 1. Ronald Zak/AP

Austria's leader has announced that his country is looking to start closer cooperation with Israel and Denmark to further develop vaccines against Covid-19.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the effort aims to produce shots that are effective against coronavirus variants, as well as research new treatment methods, as reported by CNN’s Austrian affiliate, Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), a public broadcaster. 

Kurz added that he will visit Israel with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on Thursday.

The chancellor is due to meet with Austrian pharmaceutical producers today, ahead of the Israel trip, his office said in a Tuesday press release.

According to ORF, Kurz criticized the European Union’s authorization process, saying access via the bloc “was principally the right thing to do, but the European Medicines Agency is too slow in terms of authorization of pharmaceutical companies."

That is why we have to prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent on the European Union when it comes to vaccine production of the second generation,” Kurz said, reported ORF. 

Frederiksen echoed a similar message, saying on Danish state TV on Monday that: "The European vaccine effort can no longer stand alone."

The Danish Prime Minister pointed out that this is the reason that the countries are cooperating.

Frederiksen said that if she could fill the plane with surplus vaccines when she travels back home from Israel at the end of the week, she would. 

“We must have vaccine production skyrocketing. One of the partners I believe in a lot is Israel,” she added. “All countries that have vaccines in surplus -- we would like to buy them.”

7:21 a.m. ET, March 2, 2021

In Mexico, whole towns are rejecting Covid-19 shots

From CNN's Rafael Romo

For Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, vaccinating all Mexicans is a matter of responsible national health policy as well as social justice.

"Vaccines will start arriving little by little," he said on February 15, during his daily morning press conference, a week after returning to public activities after contracting Covid-19.

"Today we launched our vaccination plan and it won't stop. We will press ahead with the goal of vaccinating all the people, according to pre-established priorities," the President added.

But there are already clear signs that not every Mexican is ready or willing to get a shot in the arm.

In Aldama, a small town of about 7,000 located in the central highlands of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, some people say they will not get vaccinated, regardless of any vaccination plan or where the vaccine comes from.

"Why would I get vaccinated? I'm not sick. It wouldn't be good if they tried to force us to get vaccinated. I don't know," said María Magdalena López Santís, an Aldama resident to CNN in broken Spanish.

Indigenous communities like Aldama have a history of mistrust toward the federal government. In the best of cases, community leaders say, they have been ignored. In the worst of cases, they've been subjected to land-grabs, discrimination, abuse and attacks.

This time, it seems a lack of information and conspiracy theories that have spread in the region like wildfire are to blame for vaccine hesitancy.

Read the full story here:

6:46 a.m. ET, March 2, 2021

Most Russians don’t want Sputnik V vaccine and see Covid-19 as artificially created, poll finds

From CNN’s Mary Ilyushina in Moscow

A nurse fills a syringe with the Sputnik V shot at a vaccination site in Moscow on February 17.
A nurse fills a syringe with the Sputnik V shot at a vaccination site in Moscow on February 17. Sergei Savostyanov/TASS/Getty Images

More than 60% of Russians said they are not ready to get a shot of the Sputnik V vaccine, and about the same number believe Covid-19 is of an artificial origin, according to the results of a survey released Monday by independent pollster Levada-Center. 

According to Levada, which conducted the poll in late February, 62% of Russians surveyed said they don’t want to be vaccinated with Sputnik V. Only 30% said they would, compared to 38% in December.

The main reasons stated by respondents against getting the vaccine were concerns over side effects (37% of those not ready for vaccination) or wanting to wait until the trials are complete (23%). Another 16% of respondents said they “don’t see any point” in getting vaccinated. In December 2020, fewer people feared side effects (29%), and more were waiting for the trials to finish (30%).

The survey, which queried 1,601 people in 50 regions via in-person interviews, also found that 64% of people thought the theory that the new coronavirus was created artificially as a biological weapon was more probable than its natural origin, which only 23% believed. 

The origins of novel coronavirus became highly politicized last year, and many conspiracy theories have arisen in the US, Russia and elsewhere about the origins of the virus in humans. 

In China, for instance, officials and state media have promoted the idea that the coronavirus may have emerged from a lab, and US politicians and conspiracists have pushed the idea that a Chinese lab might have been responsible. 

The World Health Organization team that went to Wuhan, China last month to explore the origins of the virus said the version that the virus emerged from a lab is highly unlikely and is not being investigated further.

6:20 a.m. ET, March 2, 2021

What's the difference between the coronavirus shots? Dr. Wen weighs in

From CNN's Katia Hetter

There are now three Covid-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration, manufactured by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. All three will be distributed across the United States.

Many people are wondering which Covid-19 vaccine they should get: Is one better for certain groups of people? Given how many people still can't get any vaccine, will people have a choice? If so, which vaccine should they choose?

We asked CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen for her advice. Wen is an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Wen is also a volunteer participant in the Johnson & Johnson clinical trial, though she doesn't know yet whether she received the vaccine or placebo.

Can you explain the differences between the three FDA-authorized vaccines? What do we know about their safety and efficacy?

Dr. Leana Wen: The vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were authorized first, back in December. They are similar to one another in that they are both developed using the mRNA platform. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has just been authorized. It uses a different way of stimulating an immune response, with an inactivated cold virus. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require two shots. Johnson & Johnson has just been authorized as a one-dose vaccine.

All three vaccines have very favorable safety profiles, meaning that they are all very safe, when tested in tens of thousands of people. All three are virtually 100% in clinical trials at preventing hospitalizations and deaths, which is the endpoint that we really care about.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines appear to be more effective at preventing mild to moderate disease, about 95%. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is about 72% effective, based on US trials. However, these results should not be compared directly, because the trials were not done as head-to-head comparisons.

Why not? You can see why people would look at those numbers and say, 95% versus 72%? I'll take the one that's 95%.

Dr. Leana Wen: This is an understandable concern. Here are three reasons why this is not the right comparison.

First, the vaccines were studied at different time periods. The Pfizer and Moderna studies were done before these more concerning variants became a major factor.

Second, one the main locations where the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was studied was South Africa, where the predominant variant at the time of the study was the B.1.351 variant. There is substantial concern that none of the vaccines we have may work as well against this variant.

For the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it appears that it, too, is less effective against the South African variant. However, it's still very effective. Even in South Africa, the vaccine prevented 82% of severe disease (compared to 86% in the United States).

Third, let's remember that the the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a one-dose vaccine. This simplifies logistics substantially to not have to make second appointments and allocate second doses.

Read more vaccine answers from Dr. Wen here:

5:44 a.m. ET, March 2, 2021

The pandemic has pushed more than 200 US casinos to go 'smoke free'

From CNN’s Christopher Rios

An employee wears a protective mask and face shield while overseeing the craps table at the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in July 2020.
An employee wears a protective mask and face shield while overseeing the craps table at the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in July 2020. Angus Mordant/Bloomberg/Getty Images

More than 200 commercial and tribal casinos -- including every casino in New Jersey -- reopened their doors as 'smoke free' on Monday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, this kind of public health momentum in casinos would not have been possible, Brian King of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health said during the CDC’s weekly partner call.

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in an increase in smoke-free casino adoption, which is certainly a silver lining in the context of the pandemic,” King said.

All casinos in New Jersey, which includes Atlantic City, have adopted smoke-free policies, King said.

“Seeing that implementation of a broad public health policy in this environment at the state level of a major hub for gambling and casinos is very important,” King said. “It’s definitely a public health win and shows an added benefit of not only protecting workers but also patrons.”

The benefits of smoke-free policies go beyond reducing secondhand smoke exposure, which has been shown to increase risk of stroke, lung cancer and heart attack in adults. Smoke-free policies also encourage more people to stop smoking and keep people from starting at all, King said. 

The question remains if these casinos will remain smoke-free when other restrictions ease and more people become vaccinated. 

“If all these casinos remain smoke free even post Covid-19, this could have an immeasurable in terms of not only protecting the public who attend these venues, but also workers who are working eight hours or more per day in these environments,” King added. 

5:22 a.m. ET, March 2, 2021

Covid-19 vaccines cut risk of hospitalization by 80% in over 80s, real-world data shows 

From CNN's Meera Senthilingam

A doctor prepares a dose of the Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccine at a vaccination unit in London on February 28.
A doctor prepares a dose of the Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccine at a vaccination unit in London on February 28. Hollie Adams/Getty Images

A single dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines reduces the risk of hospitalization from Covid-19 by more than 80% in people aged over 80, new data from Public Health England (PHE) shows.

The effect was seen three to four weeks after vaccination.

People aged over 70 were also shown to have up to 61% protection against symptomatic disease from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and up to 73% from the Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccine.

"This adds to growing evidence showing that the vaccines are working to reduce infections and save lives," Dr. Mary Ramsay, head of immunization at PHE, said in a press release. 

During a press conference on Monday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock hailed the real-world data, highlighting that the UK’s daily number of deaths is decreasing "much faster" than in the first peak, and it’s “falling faster in the over 80s who got the jab first than in the under 80s.”

The UK has administered Covid-19 shots to more than 20 million people, with campaigns first targeting the over-80s who are most vulnerable to the disease. 

The new data supports the country’s decision to use both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines at a time when other countries in Europe showed concern about using the AstraZeneca shot in older people.

"These findings are particularly welcome news due to the age range of the participants who were all aged 70 and over," said Deborah Dunn-Walters, chair of the British Society for Immunology COVID-19 and Immunology Taskforce, and Professor of Immunology at the University of Surrey.  

"Previous clinical trials for both vaccines have not included many individuals from this age range. This is important because as we get older, our immune systems don’t function as well as they did when we were younger, meaning that older people sometimes produce lower immune responses to vaccination," she said.

"The fact that vaccination is effective in significantly reducing symptomatic cases, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 in this older age group is really positive news," Dunn-Walters added.
"Although more research is needed, this study also provides further reassurance around the UK’s decision to offer the two doses of the vaccine 12 weeks apart."

But Ramsay stressed the need for people to stay vigilant with measures such as social distancing and hand washing.

"It is important to remember that protection is not complete and we don’t yet know how much these vaccines will reduce the risk of you passing Covid-19 onto others," she said.

Data released last week by PHE from studies in health workers found that one dose of the vaccine prevented people from catching asymptomatic Covid-19 by at least 70%, which suggests the vaccines may help to reduce the spread of infection, but more data is needed.

The UK is increasing the rate of second doses being administered, with just over 800,000 now inoculated with both shots.

3:23 a.m. ET, March 2, 2021

China aims to have more than half a billion of its citizens vaccinated by the end of June

From CNN’s Beijing bureau

A nurse administers a Covid-19 vaccine at a community vaccination center in Hong Kong, on February 26.
A nurse administers a Covid-19 vaccine at a community vaccination center in Hong Kong, on February 26. Paul Yeung/Bloomberg/Getty Images

China plans to inoculate 40% of its population with Covid-19 vaccines by the end of June, respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan has revealed.   

“Today I asked my CDC friends about China’s (vaccination) plan and they replied that (China is) planning to reach 40% by the end of June," said Zhong on Monday at a panel hosted by Tsinghua University and the Brookings Institution.

With a population of 1.4 billion, 40% represents about 548 million people. China has only vaccinated 3.56% of its population — roughly 51 million people — so far, Zhong said.

He added that it could take at least three years to reach any kind of herd immunity.

However, Wu Zunyou of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention said if existing vaccination rates continue, China and the US could be the first countries to open up travel.

“In the United States, [let’s] look at the vaccination rate," Wu said, speaking at the same event. "Now it's already reached over 20%. Hopefully it can reach over 80% by June. So by August could reach 90 % to reach the herd immunity.
"So if that’s the case, if we could remove all the political barrier [and] just based on the science, the two countries could possibly be the first two countries to remove all the barrier for free travel. We can try our best. No matter what’s the result, we could do our best.”