March 19 coronavirus news

By Nectar Gan and Rob Picheta, CNN

Updated 0644 GMT (1444 HKT) March 22, 2021
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12:08 p.m. ET, March 19, 2021

CDC updates physical distancing guidelines for students in schools from 6 feet to 3  

From CNN's Lauren Mascarenhas

First grade students practice social distancing at the Green Mountain School in Woodland, Washington, on February 18.
First grade students practice social distancing at the Green Mountain School in Woodland, Washington, on February 18. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is updating its physical distancing guidelines for children in schools from six feet to three feet.

The CDC has previously said schools should try to maintain at least six feet of distance between children, but in light of new data, the agency is now recommending students generally maintain at least three feet of distance.

On Friday, the agency is releasing three new studies it says support distancing of three feet between students, so long as everyone is wearing a mask and other prevention measures are in place.

Another study recently published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found there was no difference in Covid-19 rates between Massachusetts schools that mandated three feet of physical distance compared to six feet, as long as everyone wore masks.

At times when it’s not possible to accommodate masks, such as when eating, the CDC said six feet of distance should be maintained. 

The agency recommends keeping student and teachers in distinct groups, or cohorts, throughout the day and maintaining six feet of distance between those groups, when possible. In middle schools and high schools where community transmission is high, CDC advises students to stay six feet apart, if cohorting is not possible. 

The CDC also recommends six feet of distance in common areas, like lobbies and auditoriums, and during activities like singing, shouting, band or sport practices. They say it’s better to move those kinds of activities, where increased exhalation occurs, outdoors or to well-ventilated spaces. 

In classrooms, the CDC says layout changes, like removing nonessential furniture and facing desks in the same direction, can help maximize distance between students. On school buses, the agency recommends seating students one child per row, skipping rows and opening windows to increase ventilation. 

What about adults? When it comes to adults, including teachers and staff, the agency says it's better to stick to six feet of distance, both with other adults and with children.

“Several studies have found that transmission between staff is more common than transmission between students and staff, and among students, in schools,” the agency notes. CDC advises limiting interaction among teachers and staff during meetings and breaks. 

The CDC says screening testing can provide additional protection for sports and in schools that use less than six feet of distancing between students in classrooms. 

12:05 p.m. ET, March 19, 2021

Denmark says it will provide update on AstraZeneca vaccine pause next week

From CNN’s Antonia Mortensen and Duarte Mendonca

Citizens wait in line for a Covid-19 vaccination in Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 18.
Citizens wait in line for a Covid-19 vaccination in Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 18. Ole Jensen/Getty Images

The Danish National Board of Health announced Friday it will give an update on the pause to the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the country next week, while a wide range of Danish experts in blood clots, immune diseases, hormonal diseases and the like will further analyze it.

The Director of the National Board of Health, Søren Brostrøm, shared the same views of the Danish Medicines Agency and insisted that Denmark would continue its suspension based on a “precautionary principle”, despite “kind of” agreeing with the EMA assessment.

“It is important for me to say that we do not dismiss the AstraZeneca vaccine,” said Brostrøm.

According to Brostrøm, the doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine already delivered will be stored at hospital pharmacies, where they can then be used later if approved.

Brostrøm went on to add that it was the very unusual cases of possible side effects that caused the National Board of Health to react.

 “It was different blood clots that we saw. These were unusual conditions in younger and healthy people”, Brostrøm said, adding later they were a “very rare condition.” 

The Director of the National Board of Health is adamant that the latest decision by the Danish health authorities give the country more leeway to make further decisions to be on the “safe side”.

“It may be that we resume AstraZeneca without worries. We may resume it with some changes to audiences or precautions. It could be that we extend the break, and it could theoretically also be that we say we will not continue to use it at all”, Brostrøm said.

10:41 a.m. ET, March 19, 2021

US Chamber of Commerce praises Biden’s Covid-19 response and warns against tax hikes

From CNN’s Matt Egan

The US Chamber of Commerce applauded the Biden administration’s efforts to end the pandemic by accelerating the rollout of vaccines.

“President Biden and his team deserve high marks for really focusing on defeating the pandemic and getting vaccines to the American people so that we can fully reopen the economy,” Neil Bradley, the US Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, told CNN Business on Friday. 

Bradley added that the Chamber of Commerce is pleased with the White House’s efforts to reform the immigration system and rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure.

“The president’s focus on infrastructure is right on target. Our economy is being held back by a deteriorating infrastructure system. That has been laid bare by the pandemic,” he said, pointing to the need for broadband. 

However, the Chamber of Commerce expressed worry about how to pay for Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure program. The White House is laying the groundwork for the first major business tax hike since 1993.  

 “Coming out of the pandemic, raising taxes – especially to the degree the Biden administration is proposing – would hobble any economic recovery,” Bradley said. “If you add [tax hikes] to an infrastructure bill, all you’ve done is defeat the infrastructure bill.”

10:55 a.m. ET, March 19, 2021

Italy says AstraZeneca pause was a "setback" in its vaccination rollout

From CNN’s Valentina DiDonato, Hada Messia and Duarte Mendonca

People queue to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine in Rome, Italy, on March 19.
People queue to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine in Rome, Italy, on March 19. Gregorio Borgia/AP

Italy hopes to pick up pace in vaccinating its population after the country’s temporary pause in administering the AstraZeneca vaccine, the Italian Health Institute said on Friday. 

“We were vaccinating about 200,000 people in Italy per day, and so this has been a setback,” Giovanni Rezza, director general of Prevention at Italy's Ministry of Health, said.

“We know we will have to recuperate that number of vaccinations per day, but we may have to double that rhythm,” Rezza added, referencing the 500,000 vaccinations Italy lost due to the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Italy, like many other European countries, decided to take a cautious approach in regards to the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine — after it raised some concerns— which has been promptly reviewed.

“The benefits of the vaccine AstraZeneca far outweigh the risks, and the vaccine is safe and efficient for any age group. It is not associated with an increase of thromboembolic risks neither are there problems related to any batches,” the director of Italy’s medicines regulator, AIFA, Nicola Magrini, said on Friday – revoking the ban on its use.

Magrini went on to add that there is no need to take blood-thinners, which have been described on several reports as potential medication that could help prevent cases of blood-clouting.

Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi is expected to make further updates at 12.30 p.m. ET.

10:39 a.m. ET, March 19, 2021

BioNTech "turning every stone" to scale up Covid-19 vaccine production, co-founder says

From CNN's Fred Pleitgen,Claudia Otto and Niamh Kennedy

The makers of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine are “turning every stone” to scale up production capacity as Europe continues to suffer from a deficit in vaccine supply. 

In an exclusive interview with CNN, BioNTech co-founder and chief medical officer Özlem Türeci said the company is “continuously reevaluating how the target we have already set could be even overperformed.”  

Despite certain limitations such as the fact that they “cannot train people very fast” the company is focusing on finding partners “who can compliment pieces of this pretty large network” of vaccine supply.  

The company is also being kept busy by the continuous need to test the robustness of their vaccine against new variants of the virus. 

Based on their analysis the current vaccine has been found to be effective against the variant first detected in the UK and the variant first detected in South Africa, with Türeci stressing that the company’s main priority is ascertaining “which variant is of real concern.”

A great deal of resources are directed into being “prepared for tomorrow in case such a variant of concern would occur: the processes with which we can adapt to a new variant,” Türeci added.

The company uses its “fast and adaptable” mRNA platform to exchange the old sequence against that of the new variant according to Türeci. Blueprint clinical trials whereby the company pre-discusses with regulators the switch in sequence, are also being deployed.  

Although emerging variants are something BioNTech has to take "seriously," Türeci told CNN that there is “no reason for fear currently.”  

Türeci also spoke of how a “gender balanced team is one of the key success factors” in BioNTech’s work, boosting in particular the problem solving capabilities of the company. 

 “As scientists we are used — particularly because we have always worked in technology innovation — we are used to solve problems and unknowns in real time. And that was a strength which helped us along this way.”  

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has drawn praise from across the globe for its high effectiveness, with a peer reviewed study in Israel showing an effectiveness rate of 94% in preventing asymptomatic Covid-19. 

Last week, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that real-world evidence from the Israel Ministry of Health shows that two weeks after the second dose of the vaccine, its effectiveness was at least 97% in preventing symptomatic disease, hospitalizations and death. The analysis also found that the vaccine effectiveness was 94% in preventing asymptomatic Covid-19, where infections show no symptoms

"When we started our development last year in January, our aim was to make a difference for people worldwide and to help end this pandemic," Dr. Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech, said in the announcement. "One year after the declaration of a pandemic by the WHO, we now see that we are on the right track to accomplish our goals."

See CNN's exclusive interview: 

8:18 a.m. ET, March 19, 2021

People who have been fully vaccinated do not need Covid-19 testing if not showing symptoms, Fauci says

From CNN's Virginia Langmaid

People who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 do not need to continue getting tested unless they start to show symptoms of the disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci told CBS This Morning on Friday.

In response to a question on whether those who have been vaccinated need to continue getting tested, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said “Not necessarily. In fact, I wouldn’t say that that’s something that you should do.”

“If you’ve been fully vaccinated with two doses of the mRNA or one dose of the J&J I would not be considering, unless you develop symptoms that were suggestive, but not if you’re without symptoms,” he said.

10:10 a.m. ET, March 19, 2021

French Prime Minister to receive AstraZeneca shot Friday

From CNN’s Barbara Wojazer in Paris and Rob Picheta in London

French Prime Minister Jean Castex receives the first injection of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the Bégin Army Hospital in Saint-Mandé, France on March 19.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex receives the first injection of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the Bégin Army Hospital in Saint-Mandé, France on March 19. Eliot Blondet/Abaca/Sipa USA

French Prime Minister Jean Castex will receive a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday, his office said. 

The Prime Minister is 55 years old and is not in any priority group, but said he wanted to “show we can have full trust in the vaccine” during a press conference on Thursday, when he announced France would resume using AstraZeneca in its vaccine rollout. 

The vaccination will take place at 2.35 p.m. (9.35 a.m. ET) at the Begin Military hospital near Paris, according to his office.

Earlier on Friday, French junior budget minister Olivier Dussopt said in an interview on Europe 1 that the vaccine program will cost between 3 and 4 billion euros ($3.6-$4.8 billion).

“If there’s one spending that we really should not restrict, it is spending on vaccination,” Dussopt said. “It’s the best investment for our health, for our economy, and for France.”

Leaders in the country, where vaccine hesitancy is high, are working to regain trust in the AstraZeneca Covid-19 shot. An Elabe poll this week found that just 22% of French people have faith in the AstraZeneca vaccine.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said he will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday. The UK has stood by the shot while European countries paused their rollouts.

10:08 a.m. ET, March 19, 2021

FDA, CDC advisers say to expect a lot of questions about AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine

From CNN Health’s Elizabeth Cohen

In interviews with CNN, several vaccine advisers to the US government said that a lot of questions should be expected when and if AstraZeneca applies to the US Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization for its Covid-19 vaccine. 

The advisers did not cast doubt as to whether AstraZeneca's vaccine would ultimately gain emergency use authorization from the FDA. They did, however, say the company's application will likely bring up issues that didn't arise when the three Covid-19 vaccines currently used in the United States -- made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson -- applied for their own emergency use authorizations.

"It's clear more questions have been raised about the AstraZeneca vaccine than about any of the other vaccines which are now authorized in the US," said Dr. Arnold Monto, acting chair of the FDA's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. 

More than a dozen European countries have suspended their AstraZeneca vaccine rollouts over worries about blood clots, though many are now restarting the programs after the EU's medicines regulator said it is safe to use on Thursday.

There have also been concerns about a mistake made in their clinical trial last year and efficacy data that raised questions. Also, South Africa has suspended use the vaccine because health authorities said it wasn’t effective enough against the variant identified there. 

“This is the vaccine that’s had one glitch after another,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a liaison member of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

As more and more European countries have suspended their AstraZeneca vaccine rollouts, the company, as well as international health agencies, have defended it.

"The safety of all is our first priority," an AstraZeneca statement said Wednesday. "Around 17 million people in the EU and UK have now received our vaccine, and the number of cases of blood clots reported in this group is lower than the hundreds of cases that would be expected among the general population.

The World Health Organization, UK health authorities and the European Medicines Agency have all voiced support for the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying its benefits outweigh any risks.

AstraZeneca expects to ask the FDA to authorize its Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use in March or early April, sources with knowledge of the company's ongoing clinical trial told Reuters last week.

7:04 a.m. ET, March 19, 2021

“Covid to Covid” double-lung transplant successfully completed

From CNN Health’s Christopher Rios

Transplant surgeons at Northwestern Medicine say they have successfully performed one of the first known double-lung transplants on a Covid-19 patient using lungs from a donor who had previously tested positive for Covid-19.  

“This is a milestone for lung transplantation,” Dr. Ankit Bharat, the transplant surgeon who performed the procedure, said in a news release.

“To date, 30 million Americans have had Covid-19 and many of them are registered organ donors. If we say ‘no’ to them just because they had Covid-19 in the past, we will drastically reduce the donor pool and there’s already a big supply and demand gap."

"We will have a massive problem on our hands if Americans can’t donate their organs after having a mild to moderate case of Covid-19," he said.

The donor recovered from the virus after experiencing only moderate symptoms but later died from a cause unrelated to Covid-19. The donor’s lungs were not damaged by the virus, making them viable for transplantation, according to the transplant team. 

The team tested the donor’s lung fluid for Covid-19 and performed a lung biopsy to check for lung damage before performing the transplant.

The patient who received the lungs, an Illinois man in his 60s, was diagnosed with Covid-19 in May 2020. The patient became so sick that he was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, a machine that does the work of both the heart and lungs. The patient received the transplant at the end of February after spending one week on the transplant list.

“Currently, many transplant centers are worried about the risk of transmission of Covid-19 from donors, particularly for lung transplants, and are unnecessarily discarding these organs,” Dr. Michael Ison, an infectious disease and organ transplant specialist at Northwestern Medicine, said. “This donor clarifies the safety of the use of these donors.”