Two new studies give encouraging evidence that having COVID-19 may offer some protection against future infections. Researchers found that people who made antibodies to the coronavirus were much less likely to test positive again for up to six months and maybe longer.

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This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. According to two new studies released on Tuesday, people who have antibodies from infection with the coronavirus seem less likely to get a second infection for several months and maybe longer. NIAID-RML via Associated Press

The results bode well for vaccines, which provoke the immune system to make antibodies — substances that attach to a virus and help it be eliminated.

Researchers found that people with antibodies from natural infections were “at much lower risk … on the order of the same kind of protection you’d get from an effective vaccine,” of getting the virus again, said Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

“It’s very, very rare” to get reinfected, he said.

The institute’s study had nothing to do with cancer — many federal researchers have shifted to coronavirus work because of the pandemic.

Both studies used two types of tests. One is a blood test for antibodies, which can linger for many months after infection. The other type of test uses nasal or other samples to detect the virus itself or bits of it, suggesting current or recent infection.

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‘Mom’s worth it’: U.S. holiday travel surges despite outbreak

TAMPA, Fla. — Some are elderly and figure they don’t have many Christmases left. Others are trying to keep long-distance romance alive. Some just yearn for the human connection that’s been absent for the past nine months.

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Travelers pass through the south security checkpoint in the main terminal of Denver International Airport on Tuesday in Denver. David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Millions of Americans are traveling ahead of Christmas and New Year’s, despite pleas from public health experts that they stay home to avoid fueling the raging coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 320,000 nationwide.

Many people at airports this week thought long and hard about whether to go somewhere and found a way to rationalize it.

“My mom’s worth it. She needs my help,” said 34-year-old Jennifer Brownlee, a fisherman from Bayou La Batre, Alabama, who was waiting at the Tampa airport to fly to Oregon to see her mother, who just lost a leg. “I know that God’s got me. He’s not going to let me get sick.”

Brownlee said that she would wear a mask on the plane “out of respect” for other passengers but that her immune system and Jesus Christ would protect her.

More than 5 million people passed through the nation’s airport security checkpoints between Friday and Tuesday, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

That is down around 60 percent from the same time last year. But it amounts to around a million passengers per day, or about what the U.S. saw in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, when some Americans likewise disregarded warnings and ended up contributing to the surge in the U.S.

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Anti-vax groups plan misinformation campaigns to sow doubt over virus vaccine

Leaders of anti-vaccine groups described the coming coronavirus vaccine as a pivotal opportunity to sow distrust in vaccination and laid out planned online campaigns to do so, according to a report from an organization opposing misinformation online.

The report, from the U.K.-based Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), quoted leaked audio from an October conference in which the leaders, many of whom have huge social media followings, discussed strategies to encourage skepticism and fear of vaccines in the months ahead.

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The thumbs up Like logo is shown on a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File

The report highlights the ways in which the coronavirus crisis has catalyzed vaccine opponents, as well as the parallels between the tactics used by anti-vaccine groups – such as coordinated messaging – and other purveyors of online misinformation campaigns.

It also illuminates the struggles social media companies face in debunking and policing misinformation about the coronavirus.

Facebook, for example, bans misinformation about the coronavirus and the vaccine, but falsehoods about the virus have slipped through the cracks throughout the pandemic. The company has created a gray area by permitting users to form groups that question and attack vaccines, some of which have hundreds of thousands of members. False claims unrelated to the virus are sent to the platform’s network of third-party fact-checkers, and such stories are left up with a fact-checking label.

Some of the tactics discussed during the online conference from the National Vaccine Information Center include coordinating a message, or “master narrative,” that the virus is not dangerous and that organizations that promote vaccines are not trustworthy, according to the report.

That includes pushing misleading story lines – for example, focusing on instances when people experienced side effects from the vaccine and using those examples to argue dangerous side effects will be widespread. Another strategy is to target online health influencers with large followings and African Americans, playing on their historical skepticism of the medical community due to racist practices.

In recent months Facebook removed two major groups opposing vaccination, including the 100,000-plus-member Stop Mandatory Vaccination and several of the movement’s leading figures. The company did not ban the groups for misinformation, but for spammy and abusive behavior, such as using paid troll farms in Macedonia and the Philippines to spread messages.

Those bans, the CCDH says, resulted in 3.2 million fewer people who were members or followers of anti-vaccine pages and groups.

But that number is small when compared with the way anti-vaccine groups have grown all year. Anti-vaccine conspiracy-theory accounts grew by nearly 50% over the year, starting at 15.5 million followers in 2019 and rising to 23.1 million by December 2020, the report said.

Overall, the 425 anti-vaccine accounts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter have 59.2 million followers, nearly 877,000 more than they had in June.

The National Vaccine Information Center did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook spokeswoman Andrea Vallone said in a statement: “We are committed to reaching as many people as possible with accurate information about vaccines, and launched partnerships with WHO and UNICEF to do just that. We’ve banned ads that discourage people from getting vaccines and reduced the number of people who see vaccine hoaxes verified by the [World Health Organization] and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. We also label Pages and Groups that repeatedly share vaccine hoaxes, lower their posts in News Feed, and do not recommend them to anyone. We continue to remove accounts and content that violate our policies and are the only company to work with over 80 fact-checking organizations around the world.”

Hong Kong will let residents choose which coronavirus vaccine they want

Hong Kong said residents will be allowed to choose which coronavirus vaccine they want to take, as the city added a third candidate to its arsenal with an agreement to buy shots from AstraZeneca Plc.

The city reached an agreement with AstraZeneca for 7.5 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a media briefing Wednesday. The deal joins similar agreements with Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE and Chinese developer Sinovac Biotech Ltd., giving the city a total of 22.5 million potential doses of vaccines. Hong Kong is seeking a further 7.5 million doses and residents will be offered a choice of which vaccine they will take, according to Lam.

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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Dec. 8. Lam says social distancing measures will be tightened as cases of the coronavirus continue to surge, with a ban on nighttime dining and more businesses ordered to close. AP Photo/Kin Cheung

While the move will address concerns from residents anxious about taking a Chinese vaccine, it also raises the prospect of a run on particular shots. The three candidates are widely different and none of them have been approved for use in the city yet, which is enduring its fourth wave of the pandemic. In a bid to encourage take-up of the vaccines, Lam said on Wednesday the government will set up a fund to provide financial support for patients that experience side effects.

Pfizer’s vaccine, which data indicate has a 95% protection rate against covid-19, uses a new technology called messenger RNA that turns the body’s own cells into vaccine-producing factories to fight the coronavirus. While the shot is considered to be safe, there have been some reports of serious allergic reactions.

Sinovac’s shot is made using an inactivated version of the coronavirus that is said to prime human immune systems to fight it. Data from late-stage testing is expected to be released later Thursday in Brazil. AstraZeneca’s vaccine has the most supply deals around the world, but initial clinical results were mixed.

Lam said Wednesday the government has appointed a committee to approve the emergency use of the vaccines, signaling the city is moving closer to authorizing the candidates.

Countries lacking the capacity to independently validate experimental drug therapies often rely on reviews of global leading drug authorities like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Pfizer-BioNTech’s shot has so far been approved in the U.S. and the European Union, while Singapore approved it last week.

Bloomberg reported earlier this month that Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co., the Chinese company with the rights to market the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Hong Kong, was preparing to seek approval of the shot soon after the U.S. cleared it.

Pfizer to supply U.S. with additional 100M vaccine doses

WASHINGTON — Pfizer and BioNTech will supply the U.S. with an additional 100 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine under a new agreement.

The drugmakers said Wednesday that they expect to deliver all the doses by July 31.

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Surgeon General of the U.S. 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, Dec. 22. Youngrae Kim/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool

Pfizer already has a contract to supply the government with 100 million doses of its vaccine, which requires two doses per patient.

Under the nearly $2 billion deal announced Wednesday, the companies will deliver at least 70 million of the additional doses by June 30, with the remaining 30 million doses to be delivered no later than July 31. The government also has the option to acquire up to an additional 400 million doses.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement that the latest deal can give people confidence “that we will have enough supply to vaccinate every American who wants it by June 2021.”

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, which also requires two doses, 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.

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 had 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.

Read the full story here.

Switzerland starts vaccinations at nursing home

BERLIN — Switzerland has started vaccinating people against the coronavirus, a few days before its European Union neighbors start their vaccination campaigns.

The government in Lucerne canton (state) said that a woman aged over 90 at a nursing home in the central Swiss region became the first to receive the vaccine on Wednesday.

Switzerland became on Sunday the first country to approve the vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer for use under normal licensing procedures. The EU followed a day later. Britain, Canada and the U.S. had authorized the vaccine earlier, but in line with emergency procedures.

Switzerland, which has a population of 8.6 million, is not a member of the EU. Its neighbors in the 27-member bloc plan to start vaccinations on Sunday.

Germany sets new record for virus deaths

BERLIN — Health officials say Germany has recorded a grim new one-day record for COVID-19 deaths with 962.

The country’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, also reported 24,740 newly confirmed coronavirus cases.

The eastern state of Saxony has seen the highest infection rates and overloaded hospitals have begun transferring patients to other regions. Figures show Saxony had over 414 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, more than twice as high the national average.

In an effort to curb the spread, the German government last week shut most stores, tightened the rules on social contacts and urged people to think twice about traveling to see relatives over Christmas.

For those who do travel, authorities recommended self-isolating for a week first and then obtaining a COVID-19 test before getting on trains, planes and autobahns to visit relatives during the festive period.

Japan reinstates ban on travel to and from Britain

TOKYO — Japan says it will reinstate and entry ban on most new arrivals from Britain in a bid to prevent the spread of a new coronavirus variant as the country struggles to slow its latest resurgence of the COVID-19 cases.

Japan’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that it’s suspending a program allowing entry to foreign visitors with guarantors in the country. Japan’s entry ban on foreign nationals without residency status from more than 130 countries remains in place.

The ministry said that as of Sunday, Japanese nationals returning from Britain after staying there for as long as a week will be required to be tested negative 72 hours ahead of the trip and to self-isolate for 14 days after arrival.

Japan has more than 203,000 cases with nearly 3,000 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the health ministry.

Sri Lanka reopens for international travel

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka has decided to re-open the country’s two main airports for international flights and tourists on Dec. 26 after shutting them down for nearly nine months because of the coronavirus pandemic,

But officials say only some selected flights carrying tourists will be allowed to operate for one month. The airports will be open for all other airlines in January.

The country’s two international airports were closed in mid-March as the country went into a lockdown that was gradually lifted two months later,

Sri Lanka’s total number of positive COVID-19 cases since March reached 38,059 on Wednesday with 183 deaths.

UAE permits vaccine for Muslims, even if it contains gelatin

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates’ highest Islamic authority, the UAE Fatwa Council, has ruled that coronavirus vaccines are permissible for Muslims even if they contain pork gelatin.

The ruling follows growing alarm that the use of pork gelatin, a common vaccine ingredient, may hamper vaccination among Muslims who consider the consumption of pork products “haram,” or forbidden under Islamic law.

If there are no alternatives, Council Chairman Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah said that the coronavirus vaccines would not be subject to Islam’s restrictions on pork because of the higher need to “protect the human body.”

The council added that in this case, the pork gelatin is considered medicine, not food, with multiple vaccines already shown to be effective against a highly contagious virus that “poses a risk to the entire society.

Virus cases in South Korea resurging

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has added 1,092 new coronavirus cases in a resurgence that is erasing hard-won epidemiological gains and eroding public confidence in the government’s ability to handle the outbreak.

The national caseload has jumped by a quarter in the last two weeks alone, the death toll is rising and the number of sick patients is raising concerns of a shortage in intensive care beds.

South Korea had been seen as a success story against COVID-19 after health workers managed to contain a major outbreak in its southeastern region in the spring. But critics say the country gambled on its own success by easing social distancing restrictions to help the economy.


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