WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is close to a deal to acquire tens of millions of additional doses of Pfizer’s vaccine in exchange for helping the pharmaceutical giant gain better access to manufacturing supplies.

Jerome Adams

Surgeon General of the United States Jerome Adams, left, elbow-bumps emergency room technician Demetrius Mcalister after Mcalister got the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination at Saint Anthony Hospital in Chicago on Tuesday. Youngrae Kim/Chicago Tribune via Associated Press

A person with knowledge of the negotiations told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the deal is under discussion and could be finalized shortly. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to describe ongoing deliberations.

Pfizer’s vaccine was the first to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration and initial shipments went to states last week. It has now been joined by a vaccine from Moderna, which was developed in closer cooperation with scientists from the National Institutes of Health.

Moderna’s vaccine comes under the umbrella of the government’s own effort, which is called Operation Warp Speed. That public-private endeavor was designed to have millions of vaccine doses ready and available to ship once a shot received FDA approval.

But another deal with Pfizer would move the nation closer to the goal of vaccinating all Americans.

A law dating back to the Korean War gives the government authority to direct private companies to produce critical goods in times of national emergency. Called the Defense Production Act, it’s expected to be invoked to help Pfizer secure some raw materials needed for its vaccine.

Pfizer already has a contract to supply the government with 100 million doses of its vaccine under Operation Warp Speed, but government officials have said it’s more of an arms-length relationship with the company and they don’t have as much visibility into its operations.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said last week that the government was negotiating with Pfizer for more doses, but details provided Tuesday about the company’s desire for better access to supplies are new.

Earlier, U.S. officials had said they were discussing the purchase of another 100 million doses of Pfizer vaccine for delivery as early as the middle of next year. Those details and timing may have changed.

Pfizer said in a statement that “we continue to work collaboratively with the U.S. government to get doses of our COVID-19 vaccine to as many Americans as possible. The company is not able to comment on any confidential discussions that may be taking place with the U.S. government.”

First-in-line health workers show off shots to encourage others to get vaccinated

Health-care workers nationwide are taking to social media to show they received the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE vaccine, with many using the hashtag #IGotTheShot. They are among the first to receive the vaccine outside of clinical trials after it was authorized for emergency use by regulators. Another shot from Moderna Inc. began rolling out this week.

Methodist Healthcare in Memphis, posted a video on Twitter of workers in scrubs dancing to the song “My Shot,” from the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” In New York City, Lenox Hill Hospital’s neurosurgery department created a TikTok of employees getting vaccinated set to the song “Shots” by LMFAO featuring Lil Jon.

Hundreds more health-care professionals are sharing pictures and videos of themselves to their personal Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok accounts. The goal is to inspire confidence in vaccines that some Americans worry may have been hurried into production at a time when online conspiracy theories are swirling, incorrectly claiming that the shots will alter people’s DNA or come embedded with microchips, among other falsehoods.

If someone knows “I’ve gotten it and I’m doing OK, maybe one more person will be more likely to get vaccinated or share my story with a family member who’s hesitant,” said Minal Ahson, a doctor who has treated covid-19 patients at Tampa General Hospital in Florida since March.

Ahson is among the doctors and nurses, many of whom are working on the front lines against the virus, who believe the vaccines will play a critical role in ending a pandemic that’s killed more than 300,000 Americans, and is filling up intensive care units. As of Dec. 19, more than 116,000 U.S. hospital beds were occupied by covid-19 patients.

At first Ahson, like many of her fellow workers, was skeptical about how quickly the vaccines were developed. She grew more comfortable as trusted colleagues told her how the vaccine’s messenger RNA technology was years in development before it was tapped to prevent covid-19. Additionally, large clinical trials found the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – which use similar mRNA technology – were both more than 90% effective in preventing serious disease and death from the disease.

In the end, Ahson decided to trust the science and got her first Pfizer shot last Tuesday. The second will come 21 days later.

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Michelle Chester, director of employee health services at Northwell Health, right, shows the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Arlene Ramirez, director of patient care at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream hospital, before administering the vaccine to her on Monday, Dec. 21. Eduardo Munoz/Pool via AP

Various polls have shown different results for how many Americans are willing to get one of the vaccines. A Gallup survey conducted in late November, after the initial safety results were released on the Pfizer vaccine, found that about two-thirds of Americans said they were willing to get immunized. When she got the vaccine, Ahson said, it “felt historic,” and she shared her experience on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to encourage others.

Ahson is not alone in wanting to get the message out. On Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease doctor, received Moderna’s vaccine in an event shown online from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md. He was joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and NIH Director Francis Collins, along with six front-line health care workers. “What we’re seeing now is the culmination of years of research,” Fauci said.

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Pfizer partner says vaccine will probably work against new strain of virus

Pfizer Inc. partner BioNTech SE is pursuing all its options to make more coronavirus vaccine doses than the 1.3 billion the companies have promised to produce next year, according to the German firm’s chief executive officer.

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FILE – In this Dec. 17, 2020 file photo, prepared COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine syringes are seen at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

The companies will probably know by January or February whether and how many additional doses can be produced, Ugur Sahin said late Monday in an interview. “I am confident that we will be able to increase our network capacity, but we don’t have numbers yet.”

Sahin also said the vaccine will probably work against the new SARS-CoV-2 strain that has emerged in the U.K. Lab tests of the vaccine’s performance have already been done against 20 mutant versions; the same tests will now be run against the new U.K. version, and should take about two weeks, he said.

Efficacy results of more than 90% and approvals around the world have set off a race between countries for additional supplies of the precious shots, with the U.S. seeking to exercise an option for a hundred million. Most of the doses anticipated for next year — enough to immunize 650 million people — have already been spoken for.

More than 2 million people in six countries have already gotten their first shot of the standard two-dose regimen, according to data collected by Bloomberg.

BioNTech is seeking more of the raw materials it needs for its mRNA vaccine, more clean rooms and more cooperation partners, Sahin said. The company also needs additional space to formulate the shots, put them into containers and prepare them for shipping, he said. Pfizer is producing vaccine at three sites in the U.S. and one in Europe, while BioNTech has two manufacturing sites in Germany.

The vaccine’s EU approval and an inoculation campaign set to start there on Dec. 27 promise to further draw on stocks. By the end of 2020, BioNTech expects to ship 12.5 million doses to the EU and 20 million to the U.S., the company said in a news conference on Tuesday. The partners have already begun shipping shots to the U.K., where Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Monday tweeted that some 500,000 people had gotten their first dose.

If the vaccine turns out to be ineffective against the mutant strain circulating in the U.K., BioNTech could, in theory, produce a new coronavirus vaccine t.o fight the variant within six weeks, Sahin said at the Tuesday briefing. How fast the new inoculation could get to patients would depend on the speed of regulatory review.

But so far, Sahin sees no reason to doubt that the existing shot will be effective. Most vaccines target the spike protein, which allows the virus to enter cells.

“This virus has multiple mutations, but as far as we know, 99% of the spike protein is not mutated,” he said late Monday. “Let’s do the experiment and get the result. That’s always the best answer, but I would emphasize just to stay calm.”

California desperately searches for more nurses and doctors

SAN FRANCISCO — Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S., Sara Houze has been on the road — going from one hospital to another to care for COVID-19 patients on the brink of death.

A cardiac intensive care nurse from Washington, D.C., with expertise in heart rhythm, airway and pain management, her skills are in great demand as infections and hospitalizations skyrocket nationwide. Houze is among more than 500 nurses, doctors and other medical staff California has deployed to hospitals that are running out of capacity to treat the most severe COVID-19 cases.

Her six-week assignment started Monday in San Bernardino, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, and she anticipates working 14-hour shifts with a higher-than-usual caseload. San Bernardino County has 1,545 people in hospitals and more than 125 are in makeshift “surge” beds, which are being used because regular hospital space isn’t available.

“I expect patients to die. That’s been my experience: They die, I put them in body bags, the room gets cleaned and then another patient comes,” Houze said.

The staffing shortage comes as shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine trickle out to health care workers and nursing home residents across the country. Most Americans will have access to the injections by mid-summer, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

Fauci told “Good Morning America” on Tuesday that he expects to start vaccinating the general population in late March or early April. The process could take up to four months to reach all Americans who want the vaccine, he said.

Fauci received the initial dose of the newest vaccine, produced by Moderna, alongside other federal health leaders who helped oversee its development.

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Engineers and volunteers stand outside a mobile field hospital at UCI Medical Center, Monday, Dec. 21, in Orange, Calif. California’s overwhelmed hospitals are setting up makeshift extra beds for coronavirus patients, and a handful of facilities in hard-hit Los Angeles County are drawing up emergency plans in case they have to limit how many people receive life-saving care. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Much of California has exhausted its usual ability to staff intensive care beds, and the nation’s most populated state is desperately searching for 3,000 temporary medical workers to meet demand. State officials are reaching out to foreign partners in places like Australia and Taiwan amid a shortage of temporary medical workers in the U.S., particularly nurses trained in critical care.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state has relationships with countries that provide aid during crises such as wildfires.

“We’re now in a situation where we have surges all across the country, so nobody has many nurses to spare,” said Dr. Janet Coffman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, San Francisco.

California hospitals typically turn to staffing agencies during flu season, when they rely on travel nurses to meet patient care needs. It is the only state in the nation with strict nurse-to-patient ratios requiring hospitals to provide one nurse for every two patients in intensive care and one nurse for every four patients in emergency rooms, for example.

However, those ratio requirements are being waived at many hospitals as virus cases surge.

But the pool of available travel nurses is drying up as demand for them jumped to 44% over the last month, with California, Texas, Florida, New York and Minnesota requesting the most extra staff, according to San Diego-based health care staffing firm Aya Healthcare. It is one of two companies contracted by California to fulfill hospitals’ staffing requests.

Read the full story here.

Beer, restaurants and NASCAR win tax breaks in virus relief bill

Tucked in among more than 5,000 pages of legislative text, Congress’s bill providing COVID-19 relief and 2021 government funding includes dozens of tax breaks for beneficiaries ranging from downtown restaurants and the film industry to motorsports racetracks.

A worker wearing a protective mask cleans glassware at Jungsik restaurant in New York on Sept. 30. Included in Congress’ measure for economic relief is a favorite of President Donald Trump: a write-off for wining and dining business clients. Bloomberg photo by David “Dee” Delgado

And many of the benefits will stick around long after the pandemic is over. Besides granting temporary tax credits to help businesses cover the cost of payroll, the bill gives benefits for wind and solar projects and creates a permanent tax break for beer brewers, wine makers and liquor distillers.

Also included is a favorite of President Donald Trump: a write-off for wining and dining business clients.

The inclusion of nearly 80 tax-related provisions in the bill represents an age-old strategy in Washington for many lawmakers and the lobbyists who try to influence them: Attach your favorite tax break to a large, must-pass bill where a couple of extra write-offs won’t stop the momentum toward passage.

COVID-19 relief became the vehicle in 2020, with lawmakers rushing to complete an assistance package and wrap it up with regular appropriations for federal agencies to keep them running through next September.

The $2.3 trillion spending bill, released Monday afternoon, is 5,593 pages. The House and Senate passed the measure on Monday night, with Trump expected to sign it in coming days.

The total cost of the tax-break bonanza is $328 billion, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’s nonpartisan scorekeeper. About half of that amount is for $600 direct checks for many middle and low-income adults, plus additional payments for their children. The other half covers the slew of deductions and credits intended to boost the economy during the pandemic and beyond.

The legislation expands the deduction for business meals — including delivery and carryout — for 2021 and 2022, a change that Trump has pushed for months and Congress ignored until recently.

Trump, whose business holdings include resorts and golf courses, has plugged an expansion of the measure to let businesses fully write off the costs as a way to help restaurants struggling with the pandemic. Companies up to now can write off 50 percent of the costs, based on an item included in Trump’s 2017 signature tax cut.

Economists have argued that many of the tax breaks would do little immediately to spur economic activity. That’s because most sporting events are closed to fans, concert halls have largely been shuttered amid social distancing guidelines and few businesses are conducting face-to-face meetings with clients.

Read the full story here.

Germany says it will be weeks before new virus infections decline

BERLIN — The head of Germany’s disease control center says it will probably be several weeks before infections in the country, which is nearly a week into a toughened lockdown, start to decline.

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The German headquarters of the biotechnology company BioNTech is reflected in a mirror in Mainz, Germany, Monday, Dec. 21. AP Photo/Michael Probst

Germany has seen new coronavirus cases and deaths related to COVID-19 hit record highs over recent weeks, despite a partial shutdown in place since early November. Last Wednesday, nonessential shops and schools were closed in a bid to reverse the trend.

Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute disease control center, said Tuesday that he fears the Christmas period is making the situation worse, despite restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather.

He appealed to people not to travel, to minimize contacts beyond their closest family and where possible meet others outdoors.

On Tuesday, Wieler’s institute reported 19,528 new cases over the past 24 hours, up from 14,432 a week earlier and bringing Germany’s total to 1.53 million. It recorded 731 more deaths, bringing the total to 27,006.

Serbia receives first batch of vaccine

BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia has received the first batch of 4,800 vaccines against the new coronavirus.

The vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer arrived Tuesday by cargo plane at Belgrade airport. Video footage shows workers unloading special containers with the vaccines and transferring them into a truck.

Authorities have said that vaccination will start in the Balkan country’s nursing homes for the elderly in the coming days. They say more vaccines will arrive in the weeks and months ahead.

Serbia is also testing the Russian vaccine. Officials have said the citizens will be able to choose which vaccine they want to take.

France likely to approve vaccine by Saturday

PARIS — France’s Health Minister Olivier Veran says that authorities are expected to approve a coronavirus vaccine by Saturday.

Tuesday’s televised remark follows a tweet in which Veran said the first vaccines in the country would be administered from Sunday, the day after.

The European Medicines Agency had earlier approved the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

Veran said there is no indication that the new strain of COVID-19 detected in southern England has reached in France. France’s freight and travel connections with the U.K. are suspended until midnight.

Taiwan reports first new case of COVID-19 in 253 days

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan has reported a locally transmitted case of COVID-19 — the first in 253 days.

The country’s Central Epidemic Command Center said on Tuesday that the patient is as a 30-year old female. She was found to be a close contact of a foreign pilot who was previously confirmed as having contracted the coronavirus.

Health officials are in touch with 167 contacts of both individuals, and have asked 13 of them to quarantine at home. An official said the pilot, who did not mention the woman as a close contact may be found in violation of Taiwan’s epidemic prevention laws and could be fined up to $10,000.

Taiwan has largely shielded itself during the pandemic, recording just seven deaths and 770 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Germany expands ban on travel from UK

BERLIN — Germany has expanded its ban on passenger flights from the U.K. to forbid passenger transport by rail, bus and ship.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said the measure took effect at midnight, a day after flights were halted. A similar measure applies to South Africa, where a new variant of the coronavirus also has been detected.

The measures apply through Jan. 6. There are exceptions for freight and mail transport, and for medical and humanitarian flights.

A string of European and other countries halted air travel from Britain because of a new and seemingly more contagious strain of the coronavirus in England.

A leading German virologist who was initially skeptical about reports that the strain was much more contagious voiced concern after seeing more data. Christian Drosten, a professor of virology at Berlin’s Charite hospital, tweeted that “unfortunately it doesn’t look good.”

But Drosten added that the mutation has so far increased only in areas where there was a high or rising rate of infection, meaning that reducing contacts works against its spread.

South Korea bans gatherings of 5 or more, shuts down tourist spots

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea will prohibit private social gatherings of five or more people and shut down ski resorts and major tourist spots nationwide starting on Christmas Eve as it contends with a surge in coronavirus infections.

The restrictions announced Tuesday extend to a national level similar rules set earlier by authorities in the Seoul metropolitan area. It is the most serious step the government has taken to reinstate social distancing after months of easing.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun says the measures will be in place at least until Jan. 3.

The Seoul area has been at the center of a viral resurgence that has overwhelmed hospitals and increased death tolls. The surge has put pressure on the government to raise social distancing restrictions to maximum levels, something policymakers have resisted for weeks out of economic concerns.

Visitors will also be prohibited at nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and churches and other religious facilities will be shut. Restaurants cannot seat groups of five or more people, must maintain social distancing between diners and could face fines for violations.

Washington state restricts travel from UK, South Africa

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee has announced new travel restrictions for people arriving from the United Kingdom and South Africa, where a seemingly more contagious strain of the coronavirus is circulating.

Inslee said Monday he will order travelers coming from either of those two nations to quarantine for 14 days. He says the order will cover passengers who have arrived from those countries in the past few days.

Inslee says the quarantine measures are precautionary and meant to stem a possible surge in cases that could overwhelm hospitals.

The quarantine is mandatory and although it is legally enforceable, Inslee says no one will be taken into custody over it.


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