GENEVA — Independent experts advising the World Health Organization about immunization recommended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine on Wednesday, even in countries that find coronavirus variants in their populations.

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A nurse holds a dose of AstraZeneca vaccine before administering it to a tourist resort employee north of Port Louis, Mauritius, on Wednesday. Sumeet Mudhoo/L’express Maurice via AP

The WHO experts’ advice is used by health care officials worldwide, but doesn’t amount to a green light for the United Nations and its partners to ship the vaccine to countries that have signed up to receive the shots through a global initiative. That approval could come after separate WHO group meetings on Friday and Monday to assess whether an emergency-use listing for the AstraZeneca vaccine is warranted.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is important because it forms the bulk of the stockpile acquired so far by the U.N.-backed effort known as COVAX, which aims to deploy coronavirus vaccines to people globally. COVAX plans to start shipping hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine worldwide later this month, but that is contingent on WHO approval for the shot, vaccine stocks and countries’ readiness to receive it.

But the vaccine has faced rising concerns. After an early study suggested that it might be less effective against a variant first seen in South Africa, the South African government scrambled to tweak its COVID-19 vaccination program.

“Even if there is a reduction in the possibility of this vaccine having a full impact in its protection capacity, especially against severe disease, there is no reason not to recommend its use even in countries that have the circulation of the variants,” said Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, chair of the WHO’s expert group.

Read the full story here.

New York allows stadiums to reopen for sports, entertainment

ALBANY, N.Y. — Large arenas and stadiums in New York can soon reopen for sports and entertainment at 10% of their normal capacity under a plan announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday, despite concern from public health experts about still-high rates of COVID-19 infections and the threat of more contagious variants.

Seats are earmarked for fans at future games prior to the NHL hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday in New York. New York state announced Wednesday that arenas can re-open on Feb. 23 at 10 percent occupancy. Bruce Bennett/Pool via Associated Press

Cuomo said major stadiums and arenas with a capacity of 10,000 people or more can reopen with limited spectators starting Feb. 23.

The Barclays Center, which has about 17,700 seats for basketball games, has already received state approval to reopen Feb. 23 for the Brooklyn Nets’ home game against the Sacramento Kings. And the New York Rangers said they plan to host about 2,000 fans at every game, starting with Feb. 23 and Feb. 26 games at Madison Square Garden.

The Nets and and New York Knicks are among about a dozen of 30 NBA teams now allowing some fans to attend games, according to the league’s website. It’s unclear how many states allow thousands to attend indoor concerts.

A New York Yankees spokesperson called Cuomo’s announcement an “encouraging first step.”

But CUNY School of Public Health epidemiology professor Denis Nash said New York’s approach lacks a scientific basis when “community prevalence is very high.” He and other public health experts interviewed by the Associated Press pointed to evidence that COVID-19 spreads more easily indoors and questioned why New York’s policy includes indoor stadiums, which raises the risk of people sitting near others who may be cheering or taking masks off while eating.

“To think about bringing people into large groups and mass gatherings including in indoors arenas, right now, seems cross-purposes with our efforts to really maximize the impact that the vaccine roll out will have in controlling the pandemic,” Nash, the executive director for CUNY Institute for Implementation Science in Population Health, said.

The number of new infections in New York is dropping but remains much higher than most states per capita: nearly 62,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last seven days — a rate last seen in early December.

At least 1,000 people with COVID-19 have died in nursing homes and hospitals each week since early January.

Airline industry fiercely opposed to mandatory COVID tests for domestic flights

U.S. public health officials are weighing whether to require domestic travelers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding their flights, drawing fierce opposition from airlines, labor unions and lawmakers but underscoring the severity of the pandemic and difficult trade-offs involved with trying to subdue it.

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Passengers at San Francisco International Airport during the coronavirus pandemic in San Francisco in December. Associated Press/Jeff Chiu

In an interview broadcast Sunday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Axios on HBO there is an “active conversation” with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about whether to require coronavirus testing for domestic flights. Pressed Monday in a CNN interview on the likelihood of that happening, Buttigieg said “the CDC is looking at all its options.”

The federal government already requires international travelers to be tested before they board flights to the United States — a mandate that drew praise from many in the aviation industry. But requiring tests for domestic travelers raises a different set of challenges for the administration.

Federal authorities investigating massive counterfeit N95 mask scam

WASHINGTON  — Federal authorities are investigating a massive counterfeit N95 mask operation in which fake 3M masks were sold in at least five states to hospitals, medical facilities and government agencies. The foreign-made knockoffs are becoming increasingly difficult to spot and could put health care workers at grave risk for the coronavirus.

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Counterfeit N95 surgical masks seized by ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2020. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Associated press

These masks are giving first responders “a false sense of security,” said Steve Francis, assistant director for global trade investigations with the Homeland Security Department’s principal investigative arm. He added, “We’ve seen a lot of fraud and other illegal activity.”

Officials could not name the states or the company involved because of the active investigation.

Read the full story here.

CDC emphasizes proper mask fit, double masks to protect against coronavirus variants

Federal health officials on Wednesday urged Americans to consider wearing two masks as one of several strategies to better protect themselves against the threat of new and more contagious variants of the coronavirus.

“We know that universal masking works,” said John T. Brooks, medical officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 response. “And now these variants are circulating … whatever we can do to improve the fit of a mask to make it work better, the faster we can end this pandemic.”

Two methods substantially boost fit and protection, according to a CDC report and guidance released Wednesday. One is wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask. The second is improving the fit of a single surgical mask by knotting the ear loops and tucking in the sides close to the face to prevent air from leaking out around the edges and to form a closer fit.

Both of those methods reduced exposure to potentially infectious aerosols by more than 95 percent in a laboratory experiment using dummies, the report said.

A year after the coronavirus’ arrival in the United States, — with the death toll approaching 500,000 — the updated guidance stresses the importance of mask-wearing as one of the best defenses against more transmissible variants, along with social distancing, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces, and practicing frequent hand washing.

It represents a new administration’s effort to present clear instructions to Americans after the mixed messaging of the prior one in which health officials urged mask-wearing, but President Trump refused to do so and ridiculed those who did. In part as a result, many Americans refuse to wear them.

The instructions also come at a potentially perilous moment as health officials race to vaccinate tens of millions of peoples to protect them from more transmissible and possibly more lethal variants, but remain hampered by a limited vaccine supply.

Read the full story here.

A third of U.S. adults skeptical of COVID vaccine, poll finds

NEW YORK  — About 1 in 3 Americans say they definitely or probably won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a new poll that some experts say is discouraging news if the U.S. hopes to achieve herd immunity and vanquish the outbreak.

The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that while 67% of Americans plan to get vaccinated or have already done so, 15% are certain they won’t and 17% say probably not. Many expressed doubts about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.

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People stand near a sign as they wait in line to receive the first of two doses of the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19, at a one-day vaccination clinic set up in an Amazon.com facility in Seattle and operated by Virginia Mason Franciscan Health on Jan. 24. About 1 in 3 Americans say they definitely or probably won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File

The poll suggests that substantial skepticism persists more than a month and a half into a U.S. vaccination drive that has encountered few if any serious side effects. Resistance was found to run higher among younger people, people without college degrees, Black Americans and Republicans.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious-disease scientist, has estimated that somewhere between 70% and 85% of the U.S. population needs to get inoculated to stop the scourge that has killed close to 470,000 Americans. More recently, he said the spread of more contagious variants of the virus increases the need for more people to get their shots — and quickly.

So is 67% of Americans enough?

“No. No, no, no, no,” said William Hanage, a Harvard University expert on disease dynamics. He added: “You’re going to need to get quite large proportions of the population vaccinated before you see a real effect.”

Nearly 33 million Americans, or about 10% of the population, have received at least one dose, and 9.8 million have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The poll of 1,055 adults, taken Jan. 28 through Feb. 1, provides insight into the skepticism.

Of those who said they definitely will not get the vaccine, 65% cited worries about side effects, despite the shots’ safety record over the past months. About the same percentage said they don’t trust COVID-19 vaccines. And 38% said they don’t believe they need a vaccine, with a similar share saying that they don’t know if a COVID-19 vaccine will work and that they don’t trust the government.

Of those who probably will not get the vaccine but have not ruled it out completely, 63% said they are waiting to see if it is safe, and 60% said they are concerned about possible side effects.

“I don’t trust pharmaceuticals. I really don’t. And it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be safe,” said Debra Nanez, a 67-year-old retired nurse from Tucson, Arizona.

Read the full story here.

Single Pfizer vaccine dose offers strong protection against virus, according to British data

A single dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine significantly reduces the risk of symptomatic infection among adults, according to reports on early data from Britain’s vaccination drive.

The findings — cited by Bloomberg and the Sun newspaper — show high levels of protection against COVID-19 among those who were vaccinated, the reports say. Britain has administered the first doses of both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines to more than 12.6 million people since Dec. 8.

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People line up to receive the first of two doses of the Pfizer vaccine in Seattle in January. Associated Press/Ted S. Warren

The government has rapidly approved the use of vaccines in the hope that it allows Britain to exit the pandemic and restart a devastated economy. The results, which reports say should be published within days, provide some of the earliest real-world data on the vaccines’ impact on larger populations.

In Israel, authorities reported that fewer than 0.01% of people who received both Pfizer doses contracted COVID-19 more than a week after the second shot. This week, Israeli researchers said that the Pfizer vaccine also appears to reduce viral load, helping curb virus transmission.

According to the British findings, the first dose of Pfizer’s double-shot vaccine lowers infection risk in younger adults by 65 percent — and begins working in just 15 days. Among those who are more than 80 years old, immunity from the first shot takes about three weeks to build, after which the risk of infection drops 64 percent, the Sun reported.

Overall, two shots of the Pfizer vaccine boosted protection levels to between 79 and 84 percent, depending on age, according to Bloomberg. The figures are not as high as the 95 percent efficacy rate observed in Pfizer’s clinical trials.

Still, the data is “quite amazing,” the Sun quoted Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, as saying.

“If these numbers are borne out, then they are very reassuring,” he said.

EU was late, over-confident on vaccine rollout, says its chief

BRUSSELS — As the European Union surpassed 500,000 people lost to the virus, the EU Commission chief said Wednesday that the bloc’s much-criticized vaccine rollout could be partly blamed on the EU being over-optimistic, over-confident and plainly “late.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen defended the EU’s overall approach of trying to beat the pandemic with a unified vaccine plan for its 27 nations, even if she admitted mistakes in the strategy to quickly obtain sufficient vaccines for its 447 million citizens.

“We are still not where we want to be. We were late to authorize. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production and perhaps we were too confident that, what we ordered, would actually be delivered on time,” von der Leyen told the EU parliament.

On the vaccine authorization, which left the EU three weeks behind Britain in starting its vaccination campaign, von der Leyen promised action. She said the EU would launch a clinical trial network and adapt the approval process to get doses quicker from the labs into the arms of a needy population.

“It’s is true there are also lessons to be drawn from the procedure we have followed. And we are already drawing them,” she told legislators.

The European Medicines Agency has approved three coronavirus vaccines for the bloc so far — from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca — and is reviewing others.

Despite weeks of stinging criticism as the EU’s vaccine campaign failed to gain momentum compared to Britain, Israel and the United States, the main parties in the legislature stuck with von der Leyen’s approach of moving forward with all member states together.

South Africa will begin administering Johnson & Johnson vaccine

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s health minister says the country will begin administering the unapproved Johnson & Johnson vaccine to its front-line health workers next week.

The workers will be monitored to see what protection the J&J shot provides from COVID-19, particularly against the variant dominant in the country.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said Wednesday that South Africa scrapped its plans to use the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine because it “does not prevent mild to moderate disease” of the variant dominant in South Africa.

Mkhize asserts that the J&J vaccine, which is still being tested internationally, is safe.

He says those shots will be followed by a campaign to vaccinate an estimated 40 million people in South Africa by the end of the year. The minister said the country will be using the Pfizer vaccine and others, possibly including the Russian Sputnik V, Chinese Sinopharm and Moderna vaccines.

 


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