President-elect Joe Biden vowed Friday to deliver immediate economic relief to Americans through a new coronavirus stimulus package just days after Democrats won control of the Senate.

Joe Biden

President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event Friday at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Biden, who will assume the presidency on Jan. 20, suggested part of his plan will include billions of dollars in spending for COVID-19 vaccine distribution and tens of millions of dollars to reopen schools safely around the country.

“I also hope that Democratic control of the House and Senate will raise the odds of prompt action on increasing the minimum wage,” he said. “It’s time to raise the minimum wage so hard-working people earn at least $15 an hour, minimum.”

Another focus will be small businesses “that aren’t wealthy and well-connected,” businesses Biden said were overlooked during President Donald Trump’s one term in the White House.

Businesses owned by Blacks and Hispanics, in particular, are in far more danger of closing down permanently due to the economic hardships caused by COVID-19. Those businesses were also less likely to get relief under Trump.

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Study suggests Pfizer vaccine works against virus variant

New research suggests Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine can protect against a mutation found in the two more-contagious variants of the coronavirus that have erupted in Britain and South Africa.

The study was preliminary and did not look at the two other major vaccines being used in the West — Moderna’s and AstraZeneca’s. But it was reassuring, given questions of whether the virus could mutate to defeat the shots on which the world has pinned its hopes.

“There’s no reason to think the vaccines won’t work just as well on these strains,” said Dr. Frederic Bushman of the University of Pennsylvania, who tracks how the virus mutates.

The mutated version circulating in Britain has also been detected in the U.S. and numerous other countries. That and the variant seen in South Africa are causing global concern because they appear to spread more easily — although how much more isn’t yet known.

Bushman, who wasn’t involved with the Pfizer study, cautioned that it tested just one vaccine against one worrisome mutation. But the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are undergoing similar testing, and he said he expects similar findings.

That’s because all the vaccines so far are prompting recipients’ bodies to make antibodies against multiple spots on the spike protein that coats the virus.

“A mutation will change one little place, but it’s not going to disrupt binding to all of them,” Bushman explained.

While scientists did not expect that a single mutation would completely upend efforts to stop the pandemic, it is still an important area of study because the coronavirus, like all viruses, constantly evolves. This study marks just the beginning of continual monitoring to make sure that all the vaccines being rolled out around the world continue to work.

The study looked at one modification to the spike protein that both variants share, called N501Y, that is believed responsible for the easier transmission. Pfizer and researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston conducted laboratory tests to see if that mutation could thwart the vaccine.

They used blood samples from 20 people who received the vaccine, made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, during a large trial of the shots. Antibodies from those recipients fended off the virus in lab dishes, according to the study, posted late Thursday on an online site for researchers.

The findings have not yet been reviewed by outside experts, a key step for medical research.

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U.S. tops 4,000 daily deaths from coronavirus for 1st time

ORANGE, Calif. — The U.S. topped 4,000 coronavirus deaths in a single day for the first time, breaking a record set just one day earlier, with several Sun Belt states driving the surge.

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Physical therapist Daniel Lumbera helps a COVID-19 patient sit up on his bed at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif. on Thursday. The state’s hospitals are trying to prepare for the possibility that they may have to ration care for lack of staff and beds – and hoping they don’t have to make that choice, as many hospitals strain under unprecedented caseloads. Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The tally from Johns Hopkins University showed the nation had 4,085 deaths Thursday, along with nearly 275,000 new cases of the virus — evidence that the crisis is growing worse after family gatherings and travel over the holidays and the onset of winter, which is forcing people indoors.

Overall, the scourge has left more than 365,000 dead in the U.S. and caused nearly 22 million confirmed infections.

Cases and deaths are soaring in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. Those four states had a combined nearly 1,500 deaths and 80,000 cases on Thursday.

Thursday ranks as one of the deadliest days in U.S. history, with the COVID-19 toll far outstripping the nearly 3,000 killed on 9/11 and exceeding the combined total of nearly 3,900 U.S. lives lost on D-Day and at Pearl Harbor.

Many hospitals in Los Angeles and other hard-hit areas are struggling to keep up and warned they may need to ration lifesaving care. Many nurses are caring for more sick people than typically allowed under the law after the state began issuing waivers to the strict nurse-to-patient ratios.

The outbreak has taken another turn for the worse in Arizona, with the state now leading the nation with the highest COVID-19 diagnosis rate. One in every 115 Arizonans has been diagnosed with the virus.

More than 132,000 people nationwide are hospitalized with the virus.

Biden urges distribution of all available coronavirus vaccine

President-elect Joe Biden said Friday that he favors releasing all available coronavirus vaccines right away, rather than holding back doses to ensure enough for people to get the required second shots.

It is the incoming president’s first signal about how he plans to change the protocol the Trump administration is using in an unprecedented mass vaccination campaign that began mere weeks ago.

“The president-elect believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible,” a Biden transition spokesman, T.J. Ducklo, said in a statement. “He believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans’ arms now.”

The statement also said that the president-elect plans to provide additional details next week “on how his administration will begin releasing available doses” when he takes office Jan. 20.

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London mayor triggers crisis plan as coronavirus sweeps city

London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” in the U.K. capital on Friday and warned the state-run National Health Service is at risk of being overwhelmed by a surge in coronavirus cases.

The announcement represents a stark verdict on the threat of the virus to London’s 9 million residents as pressure mounts on hospitals and ambulance services. It will spark a more coordinated response from emergency services to tackle the crisis, his office said.

“The situation in London is now critical, with the spread of the virus out of control,” Khan said. “The number of cases in London has increased rapidly with more than a third more patients being treated in our hospitals now compared to the peak of the pandemic last April.”

A London Transport famous red bus London passing a COVID-19 sign during England’s third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus on Friday. Dominic Lipinski/PA via Associated Press

The mayor’s declaration of a major incident in the capital means special arrangements must now be made by emergency services to deal with the covid crisis across the city. It also gives more weight to London authorities’ requests to seek additional help from the government. Major incidents have been declared previously for the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, in which 72 people died, and terrorist attacks.

With a more contagious strain of the disease taking hold, coronavirus is continuing to spread rapidly across the whole of England, according to new official estimates. Government estimates on Friday put the so-called R rate, which shows how fast the virus multiplies, between 1.0 and 1.4. The virus spreads exponentially when R is above 1.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is relying on an accelerated vaccine roll-out to ease pressure on the health service and return the U.K. back to normal. England was placed into its third national lockdown this week, with people ordered to stay home and schools shut to most pupils.

A major incident is defined officially as being “likely to involve serious harm, damage, disruption or risk to human life or welfare, essential services, the environment or national security.”

The mayor’s decision is a recognition of how serious the situation is in London, as well as a public health message underlining that Londoners must stay home to prevent the health service from being overwhelmed.

On Wednesday the Health Service Journal reported London hospitals could run out of beds for intensive care patients within two weeks, citing a presentation by NHS England.

One case is enough to lock down an Australian city

The discovery of a single case of the U.K. coronavirus variant in otherwise virus-free Brisbane has prompted a three-day lockdown in the Australian city of more than 2.5 million people, an aggressive approach that authorities hope will allow them to stop further transmission of the highly contagious strain.

Starting Friday night, people in greater Brisbane will be banned from leaving their homes for all but a handful of essential trips, such as shopping for food or performing work that can’t be done remotely. Outdoor exercise is allowed, but only with one other person from a different household. Masks are mandatory outside the home.

The Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital with signs warning about unnecessary entry because of COVID-19. Shutterstock

“If we don’t do this now, it could end up being a 30-day lockdown,” Queensland’s premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, wrote on Twitter.

Authorities announced Thursday that a cleaner at a quarantine hotel had tested positive for the highly contagious variant, the first instance of community transmission in the state of Queensland in nearly four months. The variant had previously been detected in a handful of newly arrived travelers in quarantine facilities, but not in the general population. Contact tracers are trying to determine how far it may have spread.

Health authorities worldwide have raised concerns that the new variant appears to be extremely transmissible, and they instituted travel restrictions aimed at stopping its spread, but few have gone as far as Brisbane. On Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also announced plans to cut international arrivals at many of the country’s busiest airports, and require a negative coronavirus test result before boarding. The country’s borders remain closed to nearly everyone except citizens, residents and their families.

Despite officials insisting there was no need to stock up on groceries, Brisbane supermarkets were jammed with long lines of panic-buyers after the lockdown was announced, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Post-infection coronavirus immunity usually robust after 8 months, study shows

The human body typically retains a robust immune response to the coronavirus for at least eight months after an infection, and potentially much longer, researchers said in a study published in the journal Science. About 90 percent of the patients studied showed lingering, stable immunity, the study found.

The review of blood samples from nearly 200 patients also saw that multiple elements of the immune system — not just antibodies — continued to be effective at recognizing and responding to the virus.

The authors of the new study said they believe their findings would apply to the United Kingdom variant as well as the more common coronavirus. The reason: The immune responses target hundreds of different pieces of the virus, few of which are affected by the mutations seen so far. The consensus is that the coronavirus would need a tremendous number of transmission-enhancing mutations in concert to evade natural or vaccine-induced immunity.

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Iran’s Khamenei bans import of U.S. and U.K. coronavirus vaccines

Iran’s supreme leader Friday said that he was banning the import of U.S. and British coronavirus vaccines, a surprise move that contradicts his own government’s recent efforts to ensure Iran’s access to safe and effective immunizations.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made the announcement in a televised address Friday, calling the U.S. and British vaccines “forbidden.”

He specifically mentioned the vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the German-based firm BioNTech. In Britain, Oxford University teamed up with AstraZeneca in Cambridge to develop a separate vaccine using different technology.

Ali Khamenei

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a televised speech marking the birthday of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in Tehran in November. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via Associated Press

“I have no trust in them,” Khamenei, Iran’s top religious and political authority, said of the United States and Britain. He suggested that the two countries want to “test” their vaccines on populations outside the West.

He pointed to the high death tolls in the United States and Britain as a reason to believe that the vaccines might not work.

“If Pfizer was able to create a vaccine, why do they want to give it to us?” he said. “Why don’t they use it themselves to reduce their mortality rates?”

The decision to ban the two vaccines will complicate the recent push by Iranian health and banking officials to ensure that U.S. sanctions will not hinder Iran’s ability to pay for and obtain the doses.

In December, Iran’s Central Bank governor said the government was struggling to access dollars to contribute to the World Health Organization’s Covax initiative, which is working to secure the equal distribution of coronavirus vaccines around the globe.

Later, the director of Iran’s Red Crescent Society said that a group of unnamed U.S. philanthropists had arranged for the distribution of 150,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. On Friday, following Khamenei’s announcement, the Red Crescent said the doses would no longer be imported, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported.

Iran is also developing its own vaccine against the coronavirus and has tested it on just a handful of people in recent weeks. The country was an early hotbed of the pandemic and has recorded more than 1.2 million cases and nearly 56,000 deaths.

Counties where colleges held in-person classes saw dramatic rise in infections, CDC finds

Over the summer, debates over whether to resume in-person classes during the fall semester raged at colleges and universities across the country. Now, new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the decision to bring students back to classrooms at large universities was correlated with a sharp increase in coronavirus infections in the surrounding county, while caseloads declined when administrators opted for remote learning.

The study, published Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly report, has some limitations, most notably that it focuses exclusively on the country’s largest institutions of higher learning. Researchers tracked infection rates in 101 counties that are home to colleges with more than 20,000 students — more than are found at even some flagship state universities — and that began the fall semester before Aug. 29.

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Students move out of a dorm at the University of Wisconsin in September as rising cases of COVID-19 led to the lockdown of the state’s largest university campus for two weeks. Mark Hoffmann/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via Associated Press

The counties where large universities held in-person classes experienced an average 56 percent rise in incidence in the 21 days after classes began, the study found. By contrast, those where online learning was the only option registered a nearly 18 percent decrease on average.

During the same time period, counties without any large colleges also averaged a 6 percent drop in infection rates.

Many colleges that resumed in-person instruction in the fall also instituted extensive surveillance testing regimens. Those efforts could explain increased case counts, the CDC researchers note, but they wouldn’t explain why the percentage of people testing positive increased after classes resumed.

Counties where colleges held in-person classes were also more likely to meet the criteria to be considered hot spots, the study found.

WHO says 2nd dose of Pfizer vaccine can be delayed

GENEVA — World Health Organization experts have issued recommendations saying that the interval between administration of two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can be extended to up to six weeks.

WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on immunization, known as SAGE, formally published guidance Friday saying that an interval of 21 to 28 days between the first and second doses is recommended.

But the U.N. health agency also noted that “a number of countries face exceptional circumstances of vaccine supply constraints combined with a high disease burden,” and some have considered postponing the administration of second doses as a way to expand the number of people initially immunized.

WHO said this “pragmatic approach” could be considered as a response to “exceptional epidemiological circumstances.” It said that countries seeking to extend the interval should make sure that vaccinated patients still have access to a second dose.

“WHO’s recommendation at present is that the interval between doses may be extended up to 42 days (6 weeks), on the basis of currently available clinical trial data,” it said, adding: “Should additional data become available on longer intervals between doses, revision of this recommendation will be considered.”

WHO also said no data is available yet on the interchangeability of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine with other COVID-19 vaccines. It also cited a lack of evidence about whether vaccination reduces the risk of transmission of the virus to other people.

California issuing waivers to increase nurse-to-patient ratios as hospitals slammed

SAN FRANCISCO — Facing a massive surge in coronavirus cases, California has been issuing waivers allowing hospitals to temporarily bypass the nation’s only strict nurse-to-patient ratios.

Nurses say that being forced to take on more patients is pushing them to the brink of burnout and affecting patient care.

At least 250 of about 400 hospitals in California have been granted 60-day waivers. They allow ICU nurses to care for three instead of two people and emergency room nurses to oversee six patients instead of three.

Nurses in other states have demanded law-mandated ratios like those in California but so far have failed to get them.

Britain to require a negative test from anyone entering country

U.K. will require travelers to test negative, a move critics say is long overdue

Anyone traveling to Britain will now have to prove that they have tested negative for the coronavirus in the past 72 hours, authorities announced Friday, leading some critics to question why such a policy wasn’t implemented before the spread of a highly contagious new variant prompted England to enter its third nationwide lockdown.

The new testing requirement, which is similar to policies that have been in place in other countries for weeks or even months, applies to British nationals returning from abroad as well as foreign citizens. Though the rules technically only apply to travel to England, the Scottish government has said that it will enforce the same restrictions, and similar guidelines are expected to follow for Wales and Northern Ireland, according to the Guardian.

People entering England from countries that are not on the country’s “travel corridor” list were already required to self-quarantine for 10 days upon arrival, and authorities said Friday that requirement will not be changing. However, travelers will be given the option to pay to take a second coronavirus test after the first five days, potentially shortening the quarantine period.

Last month, many countries announced that they would require proof of a negative coronavirus test for anyone traveling from Britain after a highly transmissible new variant of the virus was detected there. Now, yet another highly contagious new variant from South Africa is again raising concerns.

Speaking to Sky News on Friday, British Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps said that the country “simply cannot take chances” when it comes to the South African variant.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, a top Labour Party official, told Sky News that the measures were welcome but far overdue. The government “lost control of the virus and risked leaving the nation’s doors unlocked against the possibility of different strains of the virus entering the country from across the world,” he said.


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