WASHINGTON — Joe Biden will use his first big presidential moment on the global stage at Friday’s Group of Seven meeting of world leaders to announce that the U.S. will soon begin releasing $4 billion for an international effort to bolster the purchase and distribution of coronavirus vaccine to poor nations, White House officials said.

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President Biden, shown in the Oval Office on Wednesday, last month called for his administration to develop a framework to donate surplus vaccines once there is a sufficient supply in the U.S. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Biden will also encourage G-7 partners to make good on their pledges to COVAX, an initiative by the World Health Organization to improve access to vaccines, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview Biden’s announcement.

Former President Trump declined to participate in the COVAX initiative because of its ties to WHO, the Geneva-based agency that Trump accused of covering up China’s missteps in handling the virus at the start of the public health crisis. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the WHO, but Biden moved quickly after his inauguration last month to rejoin and confirmed that the U.S. would contribute to COVAX.

The $4 billion in U.S. funding was approved by Congress in December and will be distributed through 2022.

The U.S. is committed to working through COVAX to ensure “equitable distribution of vaccines and funding globally,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday.

It remains to be seen how G-7 allies will take Biden’s calls for greater international cooperation on vaccine distribution given that the U.S. refused to take part in the initiative under Trump and that there are growing calls for the Biden administration to distribute some U.S.-manufactured vaccine supplies overseas.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in an interview Thursday with the Financial Times, called on the U.S. and European nations to allocate up to 5 percent of current vaccine supplies to developing countries — the kind of vaccine diplomacy that China and Russia have begun deploying.

And earlier this week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sharply criticized the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, noting 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all vaccinations.

Last month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also raised with Biden the prospect of Canada getting the vaccine from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, according to a senior Canadian government official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation.

Canada has been getting all its Pfizer doses from a company facility in Puurs, Belgium, and has experienced disruptions in supply.

But Biden, who announced last week that the U.S. will have enough supply of the vaccine by the end of the summer to inoculate 300 million people, remains focused for now on making sure every American is inoculated, administration officials say.

The president, in his first national security memorandum last month, called for his administration to develop a framework to donate surplus vaccines once there is a sufficient supply in the U.S.

New COVID-19 strain discovered in Finland, researchers report

Yet another COVID-19 strain has popped up — albeit in a surprising corner of the world.

Scientists in southern Finland have discovered the new variant, called Fin-769H, reported the country’s national news outlet Yle on Thursday.

The researchers noted that several mutations in the South African and U.K. virus versions are present within this one, but combined in a unique way.

“The variant was discovered in a patient last week, so details about the infectivity and potential resistance of this strain to vaccines are not yet known,” said Taru Meri, a researcher at Vita Laboratories.

The discovery of the mutant coronavirus in Finland perplexed some scientists due to the nation’s effective job in limiting deaths. The country of 5.5 million residents has reported only 725 disease fatalities, according to health tracker Johns Hopkins University.

Meri also pointed to the country’s relatively low current COVID-19 infection rates.

As of Thursday, 450 cases of COVID-19 variants have been reported in Finland, according to THL infectious disease control head Taneli Puumalainen.

Of these, nearly all were of the British variant, 22 South African and one of the Brazilian strain.

But University of Turku virology professor Ilkka Julkunen explained that the new variant shouldn’t prompt panic.

“I would not be hugely worried yet because we do not have clear information that this new strain would be more easily transmitted or that it would affect the immune protection brought about by already having had the virus or having received a vaccination,” Julkunen said.

And Petri Auvinen, research director of the University of Helsinki’s Institute of Biotechnology, said the discovery of new coronavirus variants was inevitable.

“However, the newly discovered variant differs from expectations in that it does not genetically resemble any other known variant,” Auvinen said.

On Thursday, the global coronavirus death toll inched closer to 2.5 million victims.

The United States continues to outpace all other nations in COVID-19 casualties with 492,300. Approximately one in every five people on Earth to have succumbed to the disease has been an American.

France considers only one vaccine dose for people who had COVID

PARIS – France is weighing whether to give people who have recovered from COVID-19 only one vaccine dose instead of two, a practice that if enacted here and followed by other countries could free up tens of millions of doses.

“It’s likely that we’ll see similar moves elsewhere, given that we’re facing a shortage of vaccine doses,” said Tobias Kurth, the director of the Institute of Public Health at Berlin’s Charité hospital.

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Nurse Coralie Ferron prepares doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Le Cannet, southern France on Jan. 21. France’s highest health authority, the High Authority of Health, or HAS, recommended Friday Feb. 12, 2021, that people who have had COVID-19 receive only one dose of a vaccine against the coronavirus. AP Photo/Daniel Cole, File

France’s health advisory body has recommended that one shot provides sufficient protection, acting like a booster shot, for previously infected people.

“People who have already been infected retain an immunological memory,” the advisory body said in a release justifying its changed guidance.

The nonbinding guidance still needs to be approved by the French government, which usually follows the body’s recommendations, though it has been hesitant to deviate from standard practices in its coronavirus vaccination campaign.

In a statement last week, vaccine maker Pfizer cautioned that “we do not have any data regarding this approach and our study was designed to dose all participants regardless of previous infection.”

But Florian Krammer, a professor of vaccinology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, said the one-dose recommendation in France was in line with results from recent research.

A study by Krammer and his colleagues, not yet peer-reviewed, found that previously infected people have an equal or even better antibody response after one dose than individuals who received two shots and had not had covid.

“We found that people who had COVID before mounted a very, very strong and a very quick response after the first shot,” he said.

The Mount Sinai paper’s conclusions were based on limited data from 109 people, of whom over a third used to be infected with the coronavirus.

Separate work published this month by researchers from the University of Maryland, New York University and a group of Israeli researchers has come to similar conclusions.

The NYU team found that the response of previously exposed individuals to a second dose was “muted,” raising the possibility that could be a waste of scarce resources.

“Of course, the official policy right now is to give two doses, but I think that should be up for discussion,” said Krammer. “The data is very strong.”

Read the full story here.

Experts warn against COVID-19 variants as states reopen

NEW YORK  — As states lift mask rules and ease restrictions on restaurants and other businesses because of falling case numbers, public health officials say authorities are overlooking potentially more dangerous COVID-19 variants that are quietly spreading through the U.S.

Scientists widely agree that the U.S. simply doesn’t have enough of a handle on the variants to roll back public health measures and is at risk of fumbling yet another phase of the pandemic after letting the virus rage through the country over the last year and kill nearly 500,000 people.

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Vera Eskridge, 86, is escorted into the waiting area after getting her COVID-19 vaccine in Los Angeles on Feb. 10. Associated Press/Jae C. Hong

“Now is not the time to fully open up,” said Karthik Gangavarapu, a researcher at Scripps Research Institute whose team works closely with San Diego health officials to watch for mutant versions of the coronavirus. “We need to still be vigilant.”

Over the past two weeks, the daily averages for both coronavirus cases and deaths have dropped by about half in the U.S., according to data from Johns Hopkins University. And as of Wednesday, over 40 million people — about 12% of the population — had received at least one dose of a vaccine.

But experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky say the downward trend could reverse itself if new variants take hold.

The problem, as experts see it, is that the U.S. has been slow to ramp up a rigorous genetic surveillance system for tracking the variants’ spread and measuring how much of a foothold they have gained here.

“The fact of the matter is we’re kind of in the dark,” said Dr. Diane Griffin, who studies infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins. She said the variants are “probably widespread even if we don’t know it.”

Read the full story here.

Anger in Peru as government figures get vaccinated before health-care workers

LIMA, Peru — When interim president Francisco Sagasti finally unveiled Peru’s first coronavirus vaccine deal last month, Peruvians wearied by nearly a year of health and economic crises compounded by the country’s recent political turmoil glimpsed a light at the end of the tunnel.

As ICU doctors and nurses this month began receiving their shots from the first batch — 300,000 doses from the Chinese company Sinopharm — cautious optimism began to spread. Sagasti said he hoped to have a third of Peru’s 32 million people vaccinated by the time he steps down on July 28.

But the mood in this Andean nation has now turned to uncontained fury. The government has acknowledged that hundreds of high officials and other well-connected VIPs jumped the vaccination queue beginning late last year to secretly get shots before the front-line health workers.

Nurses and doctors wait in line to get a shot of China’s Sinopharm vaccine in Lima, Peru on Feb. 10. Associated Press/Martin Mejia

The scandal, which the Peruvian media have dubbed “Vaccinegate,” broke last week with the news that Sagasti’s predecessor, Martín Vizcarra, received his two jabs in October, just before he was controversially ousted by Congress for unrelated alleged corruption.

Vizcarra, 57, initially insisted, to widespread skepticism, that he had “bravely” been part of a Sinopharm trial of 12,000 volunteers. He even claimed he had later tested negative for antibodies and therefore concluded he had received a placebo.

But as the scandal mushroomed, Lima’s Cayetano Heredia medical school, which oversaw the trial, said the former president was not one of its volunteers. Vizcarra responded by tweeting his “great surprise” and insisting his actions had “not prejudiced anyone, much less the [Peruvian] state.”

But Vizcarra’s vaccination was just the tip of the iceberg. A total of 468 public officials and other well-placed individuals are now known to have been secretly vaccinated from a batch of 3,200 complementary doses provided by Sinopharm during the trial.

The list included the ministers of health and foreign affairs, who have resigned; a prominent lobbyist; the owner of a private clinic; two university rectors; the Vatican’s ambassador to Peru; a health ministry chauffeur; and the relatives of some of these VIPs, including Vizcarra’s wife and brother.

The doses were intended for researchers and others involved in the trial, according to Oscar Vidarte, a professor of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

“They are explicitly mentioned in the trial protocol,” said Vidarte, suggesting the scandal was the result of Peru’s mishandling of them, rather than any attempt by Beijing to curry favor with the country’s most influential leaders.

Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have reduced effectiveness against South African variant, new studies show

Two of the most promising coronavirus vaccines recently showed reduced effectiveness against the more virulent virus strain first seen in South Africa, according to reports in the New England Journal of Medicine, but also appeared to mobilize enough of an antibody response to neutralize the pathogen.

Experts warned that it was still unclear what level of neutralization is required for protection against the variant, known as B.1.351, that is now the dominant strain in South Africa, and these studies were carried out in a lab setting rather than real life.

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A school nurse vaccinates a Los Angeles Unified School District employee on Wednesday. Dean Musgrove/The Orange County Register/SCNG via Associated Press

“These are in vitro studies and we don’t know if there is a threshold for neutralization that defines protection. In fact, we don’t even know that there is a quantitative correlation between antibodies levels and protection,” noted journal editor in chief, Eric Rubin, in a podcast commenting on the findings. “It is very concerning that we don’t know the clinical significance of these findings.”

The two reports posted Wednesday covered the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, drawing from studies using genetically engineered versions of the variant against blood samples from volunteers already inoculated against the virus.

The strain has been identified in multiple countries, along with a variant first identified in Britain that scientists say is also highly contagious.

In the case of Moderna, the company published a letter in the journal that included previously disclosed data showing a sixfold drop in antibody levels vs. the South Africa strain, Reuters reported. The shot’s efficacy against the variant has not yet been determined.

According to Pfizer, in testing its vaccine against the variant in a lab, the shot generated about a third of the antibodies that are normally mobilized with the original strain. The activity, however, appeared to be sufficient enough to neutralize the virus.

Still, Pfizer said in a statement Wednesday that it was “taking the necessary steps … to develop and seek authorization” for an updated vaccine or booster shot that could better combat the variant.

In Johannesburg, South African scientists planned to meet Thursday to discuss the Pfizer study, a Health Ministry spokesman told Reuters.

“I do know that our scientists will be meeting to discuss [the study] and they will advise the minister,” Reuters quoted spokesman Popo Maja as saying. “We are not going to be releasing a statement until advised by our scientists. We will also be guided by the regulator.”

Vaccine pregnancy trials begin 

Coronavirus vaccine developers are set to begin trials in pregnant women, looking to provide reassurance the shots are safe for expectant mothers.

Pfizer Inc. and German partner BioNTech SE are starting trials for their messenger RNA vaccine in 4,000 women in the latter stages of pregnancy, according to the U.S. online clinical trial registry. The companies will run a mid-stage study for 350 volunteers between 27 and 34 weeks gestation to confirm safety before moving into advanced trials for women between 24 and 34 weeks pregnant.

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A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is readied at a vaccination center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in Januray. Associated Press/John Locher

AstraZeneca Plc. and Johnson & Johnson are planning to run trials in the coming months. It’s good news for pregnant people, who until now have faced a difficult dilemma: excluded from vaccine studies, yet more vulnerable to severe covid-19. Some studies have also linked the disease to premature birth.

“While it’s good news that vaccine trials in pregnant women are finally beginning, the results from these trials are unlikely to be available before the autumn,” said Marian Knight, professor of maternal and child population health at the University of Oxford.

Pregnant women were kept out of vaccine studies due to a lack of safety information and a potentially higher risk of adverse events, despite calls from many scientists and doctors for their inclusion. As a result, the U.S., U.K. and World Health Organization have advised against vaccinating pregnant women unless they’re at high-risk, such as front-line health-care workers.

The Pfizer-BioNTech study will be run in the U.S., Europe, South America and Africa and focuses on the third trimester of pregnancy to minimize risk to unborn children, BioNTech said in an emailed statement. The companies aren’t planning to evaluate whether the vaccine could have a preventive effect for babies after birth.

Most companies have also set up registers to monitor participants who conceived after taking part in vaccine trials. Astra and partner Oxford told a U.S. panel in January that 21 women from the trials had become pregnant after vaccination, while 23 women from the Pfizer-BioNTech studies reported last year they were expecting.

When officials criticized Fla. Gov. DeSantis for a vaccine site in a wealthy area, he threatened to take away their doses

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R, unveiled a “pop-up” clinic offering coveted coronavirus vaccines in an affluent, mostly white part of Manatee County, Fla., lawmakers on both sides of the aisle slammed the plan for excluding residents in the rest of the county.

But on Wednesday, the governor offered no apologies, warning that he could instead take the doses elsewhere.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions during a press conference in January. Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via Associated Press

“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “We’re totally happy to do that.”

As wealthy individuals in Florida and around the country snap up a disproportionate number of vaccination appointments, critics say DeSantis’s plan for the “pop-up” clinic near Tampa is only bound to widen disparities.

Some jurisdictions have targeted Zip codes that were hit especially hard by the virus, but many in Manatee County fear DeSantis’s plan will do the opposite, benefiting an area that has been least affected by the pandemic – including a few of the individuals who worked with the governor.

“You’re taking the whitest demographic, the richest demographic in Manatee County and putting them before everyone else,” County Commissioner Misty Servia (R) said at a meeting this week.

Residents in Manatee County, which sits just south of Tampa, had grown increasingly frustrated by a randomized selection process used to distribute the vaccine. While about 180,000 people – half the population – had already signed up, Florida’s chaotic rollout and a limited supply have prevented many from getting their shots.

As the Bradenton Herald reported, DeSantis sought to address the problem by quietly contacting a campaign donor: Rex Jensen, a real estate developer whose company built Lakewood Ranch, a mostly Republican, mainly white master-planned community in Manatee County.

Working in private with the county commission chair, Vanessa Baugh, (R), they struck a deal. If Jensen hosted an additional vaccination clinic on his development, the governor would offer state health workers to administer the vaccines and National Guard troops to control the flow of people. The supply of those doses would go beyond Manatee County’s weekly allotment of doses from the state government, the Herald reported.

There was just one catch: Rather than opening up the pop-up vaccination site to everyone in the county, it would only offer doses to residents in two Zip codes – 34202 and 34211 – which cover much of Lakewood Ranch and other well-to-do residential areas nearby and fall largely in Baugh’s district.

UK invests in studies of long COVID-19 syndrome

LONDON — The British government is backing four new studies to investigate why some people continue to have symptoms months after becoming sick with COVID-19.

The Department of Health on Thursday announced 18.5 million pounds ($26 million) in funding for research into the causes, symptoms and effects of the phenomenon known as “long COVID.”

While most people recover from the coronavirus in a few weeks, about one in 10 still have symptoms 12 weeks later. Researchers around the world are trying to understand the causes and dozens of symptoms that include breathlessness, headaches, fatigue and “brain fog.”

Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus says the research is welcome but is not enough. The lawmakers are calling for long COVID-19 to be classed as an occupational disease of front-line workers so patients can receive compensation if they can’t work because of the illness.

Dutch lawmakers rethinking curfews after judge restricts them to emergencies like a massive dike breach 

THE HAGUE — Dutch lawmakers are holding a debate Thursday on hastily drawn up legislation underpinning the country’s coronavirus curfew after a judge ordered the measure scrapped earlier this week.

The lower house of parliament is expected to support the legislation, which would then go to the senate on Friday — the same day that government lawyers go to court to appeal the order banning the 9 p.m.-to-4:30 a.m. curfew.

The curfew, which sparked rioting last month but is very broadly supported and followed, remains in force pending the outcome of that appeal.

A judge in The Hague banned the curfew, saying the law the government used when it introduced the measure last month can only be used in pressing emergencies such as a massive dike breach.

The government argues that the curfew became an urgent necessity because of the swift rise of new, more transmissible variants of the virus.

Ethics complaint dismissed for Denver mayor’s holiday travel

DENVER — The Denver Board of Ethics has unanimously dismissed an ethics complaint that was filed after the city’s mayor flew to Texas for Thanksgiving despite urging Denver’s residents to avoid holiday travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Denver Post reported Wednesday that board chairman Joseph Michaels acknowledged that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s actions were concerning.

Michaels says the mayor disappointed and angered the city’s residents. But he says the board found that the mayor had not specifically violated the city’s code of ethics.

Michaels adds: “This board certainly does not condone that travel.”

North Carolina adjusts vaccine rules to favor residents

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina is shifting its vaccine distribution guidance to dissuade people from traveling long distances to receive a COVID-19 shot in the state.

Under updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clarifying travel policies, North Carolina has enacted stricter vaccination policies to improve North Carolinians’ access to the vaccine.

The move aims to give greater preference to in-state residents who have struggled to book appointments and come in for shots due to the high demand, but loopholes still allow for people to travel into the state without having to provide ID, proof of residency or proof of employment.

Worried about virus variants, Toronto asks to extend lockdown

TORONTO — Canada’s largest city is asking the province of Ontario to extend a lockdown order for at least two more weeks instead of having it expired as planned on Monday.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, said she has never been as worried about the future as she is now because of coronavirus variants.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said leaders need to ensure the current lockdown is the city’s last. Schools just reopened in Toronto while retail stores are scheduled to open Monday.

Canada is poised to receive millions of vaccine does this spring.

Pennsylvania’s stumbling vaccine rollout compounded by new error

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania is facing a temporary shortage of booster shots of the Moderna vaccine because providers inadvertently used them as first doses, setting back the state’s already stumbling vaccine rollout.

The error could mean more than 100,000 people will need appointments rescheduled, state health officials said Wednesday.

Acting state health secretary Alison Beam said between 30,000 and 60,000 people who need the booster shot will have to wait one to two more weeks. Another 30,000 to 55,000 of the initial dose of the Moderna vaccine will also have to delayed.

The second-dose shortage does not affect the Pfizer vaccine.

Second doses of the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are typically administered 21 and 28 days apart, respectively, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance to allow the time between shots to be delayed up to six weeks.


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