The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

By Nectar Gan, Adam Renton, Kara Fox and Harry Clarke-Ezzidio, CNN

Updated 8:51 p.m. ET, December 31, 2020
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4:26 p.m. ET, December 31, 2020

Dow and S&P 500 end 2020 at record highs despite pandemic challenges

From CNN's Anneken Tappe

The Dow and the S&P 500 started and ended this unprecedented year at all-time highs — with a lot of volatility along the way.

All three major indexes ended Thursday, the final trading day of the year, higher.

Here's where things closed today:

  • The Dow closed 0.7%, or 197 points, higher.
  • The broader S&P 500 rose 0.6%.
  • The Nasdaq Composite climbed 0.1%, falling just short of its Monday record.

While the economy is nowhere near its pre-pandemic strength, the stock market rally tells a different story. All three benchmarks ended the year with gains for a second year in a row. 

Here's a look at the year:

  • The Dow climbed 7.3% this year.
  • The S&P rose 16.3%.
  • For the Nasdaq, it was best year since 2009 with a 43.6% gain.

At the start of 2020, investors worried the market might have less tailwind as the Fed stopped cutting interest rates and the economic jolt from President Trump's tax cuts ran out.

But in the months that followed, as the economic pain from the pandemic continued, the stock market recovered faster than many expected, helped greatly by unprecedented intervention from the Federal Reserve, which slashed interest rates and launched a slew of lending facilities to backstop markets and the economy.

4:27 p.m. ET, December 31, 2020

Researchers don't know if South African Covid-19 variant poses a challenge to the vaccine, virologist says

From CNN's Elizabeth Cohen

A mutation of the novel coronavirus found in South Africa is spreading quickly, and researchers don’t know if it poses a challenge to the vaccine, according to the scientist who discovered the variation. 

“At the moment our assumption is that the vaccine will be effective,” said Tulio de Oliveira, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. “Potentially it could effect vaccine efficacy, but it has to be tested appropriately.” 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC’s Today Show on Thursday that a different variant of the virus, first identified in the UK, “does not seem to evade the protection that’s afforded by vaccines that are currently being used."

De Oliveira said the South African mutation does not appear to cause more severe disease, but it is spreading fast. 

“The more we study this variant, the more worried we get,” said de Oliveira who is a virologist and an affiliate professor of global health at the University of Washington. “Our main worry is just the speed of transmission and how this variant has dominated so quickly.” 

He said out of samples taken from some 400 people with Covid-19 who were treated at over 100 different clinics in South Africa since mid-November, 350 had this new variant. That's 90% of the samples.

Some context: The South African variant has been found in seven other countries: the UK, Switzerland, Finland, Japan, Australia, Zambia and France.

The variant has 22 significant changes from previous strains of the coronavirus, an unusually high number of mutations. The UK strain only has 17 mutations. Several of the mutations are related to the spike proteins found on top of the virus, which is the target for antibodies generated by the vaccines. 

“What concerns us most is that three of those mutations are in the receptor binding domain, and that’s the most important region of the virus, and a main target of antibodies generated by the immune system and the vaccines,” he said. 

4:14 p.m. ET, December 31, 2020

Pope Francis praises health care workers, teachers and public servants in New Year's Eve address

From CNN's Nicola Ruotolo and Taylor Barnes

Pope Francis praised the work of health care professionals, teachers and public servants during the coronavirus pandemic in his New Year's Eve address, according to a message from the Pope read by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re on Thursday.

The Pope praised the “daily commitment” of people who have tried to make the weight of the pandemic “more bearable” for others.

“Healthcare workers – doctors, nurses, volunteers ­– are at the forefront, and for this they are always in our prayers and deserve our gratitude,” the Pope wrote in the homily. 

“We are thinking in particular of school administrators and teachers, who play an essential role in social life and who have to face a very complex situation,” he added. 

The Pope also said that public servants who prioritized the neediest also deserved thanks. 

“We also think with gratitude of the public administrators who know how to value all the good resources present in the city and in the territory, who are detached from private interests and also from those of their party, who truly seek the good of all, starting from the most disadvantaged,” he wrote in the homily.

Pope Francis did not lead the Vatican’s New Year’s Eve celebration due to sciatic pain, according to a statement from the Vatican. While it is the first time the Pope has missed New Year’s Eve or Christmas celebrations, it is not the first time he has skipped an event. 

3:53 p.m. ET, December 31, 2020

Hospitalizations and ICU admissions reach new highs in California

From CNN's Cheri Mossburg

Hospital doctors and nurses treat Covid-19 patients in a makeshift ICU wing on the West Oeste at Harbor UCLA Medical Center on Tuesday, December 29 in Torrence, California.
Hospital doctors and nurses treat Covid-19 patients in a makeshift ICU wing on the West Oeste at Harbor UCLA Medical Center on Tuesday, December 29 in Torrence, California. Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

As Covid-19 infections run rampant throughout much of California, hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions continue to reach new highs.

Covid-19 hospitalizations in California have increased every day since Nov. 7.

Currently, at least 21,449 Covid-19 patients are in hospital beds throughout the state, with more than 4,500 of those in ICU.

Doctors in Santa Clara are treating some critically ill patients in the emergency room, because there’s just no room in ICU. 

“Often, the only time we can move someone is when a Covid patient dies,” Dr. Marco Randazzo, an emergency room physician, said in a news conference Thursday.

“Despite these conditions, we come to work to do our part,” Randazzo added, pleading with residents to sacrifice this New Year’s Eve “for a lifetime of other experiences yet to come.”

The latest numbers: California added at least 27,237 new cases Thursday, along with 428 more deaths. More than 2.2 million Californians have been infected to date, and more than 25,000 of those have died as a result.

"What we are seeing now, is not normal," Dr. Ahmad Kamal of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center said. "We are clearly not out of the woods, we are in the thick of the woods."

3:39 p.m. ET, December 31, 2020

WHO lists Pfizer vaccine for emergency use

From CNN's Virginia Langmaid

Dave Lacknauth, Executive Director of Pharmacy Services, Broward Health Medical Center, shows off a bottle containing the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine on December 17, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 
Dave Lacknauth, Executive Director of Pharmacy Services, Broward Health Medical Center, shows off a bottle containing the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine on December 17, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Thursday listed Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use, the organization announced in a statement.

This designation “opens the door for countries to expedite their own regulatory approval processes to import and administer the vaccine,” WHO said. “It also enables UNICEF and the Pan-American Health Organization to procure the vaccine for distribution to countries in need.”

WHO conducted its own assessment of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. The emergency use listing means that Pfizer will continue to generate data on the vaccine and share it with WHO.

A WHO advisory board will meet on Jan. 5 to outline recommendations for the distribution of the vaccine to populations.

3:41 p.m. ET, December 31, 2020

GOP Sen. David Perdue will quarantine ahead of next week's Georgia Senate runoff election

From CNN's Lauren Fox, Sarah Mucha and Arlette Saenz

Sen. David Perdue and his wife, Bonnie, address the crowd during a campaign rally at Peachtree Dekalb Airport on December 14, in Atlanta.
Sen. David Perdue and his wife, Bonnie, address the crowd during a campaign rally at Peachtree Dekalb Airport on December 14, in Atlanta. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

GOP Georgia Sen. David Perdue announced he will quarantine ahead of the key Georgia Senate runoff election after coming “into close contact with someone on the campaign who tested positive for COVID-19,” according to a statement from his campaign.

The statement said both Perdue and his wife tested negative today, but will quarantine in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines. The statement added that he will also follow his doctor's recommendations.

Control of the Senate chamber hinges on next week's Jan. 5 match-ups.

If Democrats win both races, the Senate makeup would be 50-50, positioning Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to serve as the tie-breaking vote and setting up an easier path for President-elect Joe Biden to advance the agenda he promoted during his campaign.

Perdue and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler are facing off against Democratic rivals Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

CNN's Kyung Lah reports. Watch below:

3:21 p.m. ET, December 31, 2020

Antigen testing far less accurate than PCR testing, CDC study finds

From CNN’s Virginia Langmaid

Rapid antigen tests for Covid-19 are less accurate than RT-PCR tests for Covid-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday – often even less accurate than advertised. 

The fast tests may be missing many cases of infection, the CDC-led team said. And they are also often telling people they are infected when, in fact, they are not. 

Antigen tests are generally cheaper than polymerase chain reaction or PCR tests, and can return results in as little as 15 minutes. Multiple tests in both categories have gotten Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, but a study published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that antigen tests were not only less accurate than PCR tests, but less accurate than what was reported when the FDA gave emergency authorization.

“Among people reporting COVID-19 symptoms at the time the samples were collected, the Sofia antigen test was less accurate than reported in the FDA Emergency Use Authorization,” the CDC-led team wrote. Antigen testing in this study had a sensitivity rate of 80%, compared to a previously reported 97%.

“For people who were asymptomatic at the time samples were collected, the accuracy was significantly lower – only 41% of RT-PCR-positive samples were also positive by antigen test and, in this population, the majority of positive antigen tests were ‘false positives,’ which is when someone tests positive but does not have the virus.”

The researchers investigated the tests at two Wisconsin universities by administering Quidel’s Sofia antigen test and a PCR test to both symptomatic and asymptomatic participants. Antigen tests quickly seek out evidence of the virus, which PCR tests take longer but work by amplifying genetic material from the virus.

“The Sofia rapid antigen test was less accurate than RT-PCR for detecting SARS-CoV-2 infections in students and faculty tested at two universities in Wisconsin,” the researchers wrote. “The antigen test accuracy was lowest among study participants not showing symptoms (asymptomatic),” they added.

Investigators said that antigen tests may still be valuable in tracking infection because they are cheaper and quicker, and may be more accessible than PCR tests. But results from antigen tests should be paired with more accurate testing.

“To account for reduced test accuracy of antigen tests, CDC recommends considering confirmatory testing with an FDA-authorized molecular test, such as RT-PCR, following negative antigen test results in people who have COVID-19 symptoms, and following positive antigen test results in asymptomatic people,” said researchers.


2:30 p.m. ET, December 31, 2020

San Francisco extends stay-at-home order and mandatory travel quarantine amid Covid-19 surge

From CNN's Sarah Moon

A pedestrian crosses the street in San Francisco on December 29.
A pedestrian crosses the street in San Francisco on December 29. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The city and county of San Francisco will be extending its stay-at-home order and mandatory 10-day quarantine requirement amid the ongoing coronavirus surge, officials announced in a news release on Thursday.

While the state’s regional stay-at-home order for the Bay Area is set to expire on Jan. 8, San Francisco announced that it does not expect the region to meet the state’s threshold of an intensive care unit bed capacity above 15%.

The current intensive care unit bed capacity for the Bay Area is 7.5%, according to data from the California Department of Public Health. 

 “The extension to the travel quarantine order responds to the significant prevalence of the coronavirus throughout the state and country as well as the need to reduce the exposure and isolate people who may be contagious in order to protect our region’s ability to provide intensive care for critically ill patients,” the news release stated. “The order also protects against the spread of a new variant of the virus detected recently in the United Kingdom, Colorado, and California.”

Anyone visiting, moving to, or returning to San Francisco from anywhere outside the Bay Area is required to quarantine for 10 days. The health order also strongly discourages any non-essential travel within the 10-county Bay Area region. 

According to the release, the health orders appear to have slowed the infections and more than 400 deaths may have been prevented.  

More details: The extension of both health orders will continue until the Bay Area Region is no longer subject to the state’s regional stay at home order. Both health orders, implemented on Dec. 17, were set to expire on Jan. 4.

San Francisco is one of the most densely populated counties in the nation.

1:56 p.m. ET, December 31, 2020

UK prime minister: "End of the journey" nearing as new coronavirus vaccines bring hope for 2021

From CNN’s Luke McGee

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during his New Year's address on December 31.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during his New Year's address on December 31. From Boris Johnson/Twitter

Speaking during his New Year’s address, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed confidence about 2021, noting that while there is still work to be done to overcome the pandemic, new coronavirus vaccines have brought hope and certainty to the country. 

“We have a hard struggle still ahead of us for weeks and months, because we face a new variant of the disease that requires a new vigilance. But as the sun rises tomorrow on 2021, we have the certainty of those vaccines,” Johnson said. 

“We can see that illuminated sign that marks the end of the journey, and even more important, we can see with growing clarity how we are going to get there,” he added. 

The prime minister acknowledged that the last year has been characterized by “grimness” and expressed regret that families across the country “lost too many loved ones before their time,” but stressed that the government’s mass vaccination program is “changing the odds in favor of humanity and against Covid.”

“I believe 2021 is, above all, the year when we will eventually do those everyday things that now seem lost in the past, bathed in a rosy glow of nostalgia – going to the pub, concerts, theaters, restaurants, or simply holding hands with our loved ones in the normal way,” Johnson said. 

The prime minister’s message comes as England prepares for tougher coronavirus regulations to be come into force across the country, with the number of confirmed coronavirus cases reaching record highs and pressure on the National Health Service  mounting.