The U.S. Has Its Own New Worrisome Variants

A new study identifies seven variants with the same concerning mutation. Lebanon, enmeshed in overlapping crises, begins its vaccination program.

A new study identifies seven U.S. virus variants with the same worrying mutation

As Americans anxiously watch the spread of coronavirus variants that were first identified in Britain and South Africa, scientists are finding a number of new variants that seem to have originated in the United States — and many of them may pose the same kind of extra-contagious threat.

In a study posted on Sunday, a team of researchers reported seven growing lineages of the coronavirus, spotted in states across the country. All have gained a mutation at the exact same spot in their genes.

“There’s clearly something going on with this mutation,” said Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center and a co-author of the new study.

It’s not clear yet whether this shared mutation makes the variants more contagious, but because it appears in a gene that influences how the virus enters human cells, the scientists are highly suspicious.

“I think there’s a clear signature of an evolutionary benefit,” Dr. Kamil said.

It’s not unusual for different genetic lineages to independently evolve in the same direction. Charles Darwin recognized convergent evolution in animals. Virologists have found that it  happens with viruses too. As the coronavirus branches into new variants, researchers are observing Darwin’s theory of evolution in action every day.

It’s difficult to answer even basic questions about how prevalent the new variants are in the United States because the country sequences genomes from less than 1 percent of coronavirus test samples. The researchers found examples scattered across much of the country, but they can’t tell where they first arose.

It’s also hard to say whether the variants are spreading now because they are more contagious, or for some other reason, like holiday travel or superspreader events.

Scientists say the mutation could plausibly affect how easily the virus gets into human cells. But Jason McLellan, a structural biologist at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved in the study, cautioned that the way that the coronavirus unleashes its harpoons was still fairly mysterious.

“It’s tough to know what these substitutions are doing,” he said of the mutations. “It really needs to be followed up with some additional experimental data.”

U.S. governors are easing restrictions, but the virus-variant news keeps getting worse.

Robert Jennings taking a saliva sample for a coronavirus test last month in Davis, Calif.
Robert Jennings taking a saliva sample for a coronavirus test last month in Davis, Calif.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Vaccinations are picking up pace. The spread of the coronavirus in the United States has slowed drastically. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging K-12 schools to reopen safely and as soon as possible.

But just as states are again lifting mask-wearing mandates and loosening restrictions, experts fear that more contagious variants could undo all that progress.

That threat seems only to grow as researchers learn more. British government scientists now believe the more contagious variant that is ravaging Britain is also “likely” to be deadlier than earlier versions of the virus, according to a document posted on a government website on Friday. An earlier assessment on a smaller scale warned last month that there was a “realistic possibility” the variant was more lethal.

The variant, also known as B.1.1.7, is spreading rapidly in the United States, doubling roughly every 10 days, another recent study found.

In line with an earlier warning from the C.D.C., the study predicted that by March the variant could become the dominant source of coronavirus infection in the United States, potentially bringing a surge of new cases and increased risk of death.

Beyond that, scientists reported on Sunday that they have begun to spot more new variants that seem to have emerged in the U.S. and are concerned that they may spread more readily than earlier versions.

Vaccine distribution is accelerating — the U.S. is now averaging about 1.66 million doses a day, well above the Biden administration’s target of 1.5 million — but B.1.1.7 has a worrisome mutation that could make it harder to control with vaccines, a Public Health England study found this month.

The variant has spread to at least 82 countries, and is being transmitted 35 percent to 45 percent more easily than other variants in the United States, scientists recently estimated. Most people who catch the virus in Britain these days are being infected by that variant.

The British research on B.1.1.7’s lethality did come with caveats, and the reasons for the variant’s apparently elevated death rate are not entirely clear. Some evidence suggests that people infected with the variant may have higher viral loads, a feature that could not only make the virus more contagious but also potentially undermine the effectiveness of certain treatments.

But government scientists were relying on studies that examined a small proportion of overall deaths. They also struggled to account for the presence of underlying illnesses in people infected with the new variant, and for whether the cases originated in nursing homes.

Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, said that although “we do need to have a degree of caution” in looking at the findings, “it’s perfectly reasonable to think that this is something serious — I am certainly taking it seriously.”

“It’s pretty clear we have something which is both more transmissible and is more worrying if people become infected,” he said.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University, said relaxing restrictions now would be “courting disaster.” She urged Americans to “be extra vigilant” about mask wearing, distancing and avoiding enclosed spaces.

“You don’t want to get any variant,” Dr. Rasmussen said, “but you really don’t want to get B.1.1.7.”

The United States confirmed its first case of the B.1.1.7 variant on Dec. 29. Unlike Britain, it has been conducting little of the genomic sequencing necessary to track the spread of new variants that have caused concern, though the Biden administration has vowed to do more.

On Friday, for the fifth time in six days, the number of new virus cases reported in the United States dipped below 100,000 — far less than the country’s peak of more than 300,000 reported on Jan. 8.As the numbes and hospitalizations has fallen, the Republican governors of Montana, Iowa, North Dakota and Mississippi have recently ended statewide mask-wearing mandates. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has allowed indoor dining to resume at 25 percent capacity, though experts have repeatedly warned that maskless activities, such as eating, in enclosed spaces are high-risk.

Although virus case numbers are moving in the right direction, the loosening of restrictions has unnerved experts like Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University in Virginia.

“Now more than ever, with novel variants, we need to be strategic with these reopening efforts and be slow and not rush things,” she said.Coronavirus Variants and MutationsTracking recent mutations, variants and lineages.

Different COVID-19 Vaccines

Global attitudes : COVID-19 vaccines | Ipsos

Vaccine Types

Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work

This web page explains how the body fights infection and how COVID-19 vaccines protect people by producing immunity. It also describes the different types of COVID-19 vaccines that currently are available or are undergoing large-scale (Phase 3) clinical trials in the United States.​

Understanding COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines
This web page provides information about mRNA vaccines generally and about COVID-19 vaccines that use this new technology specifically.Understanding Viral Vector COVID-19 VaccinesThis web page provides information about viral vector vaccines generally and about COVID-19 vaccines that use this new technology specifically.

Authorized and Recommended Vaccines

As COVID-19 vaccines are authorized and then recommended for use in the United States, it will be important to understand what is known about each vaccine. CDC will provide information on who is and is not recommended to receive each vaccine and what to expect after vaccination, as well as ingredients, safety, and effectiveness.

Currently, two vaccines are authorized and recommended to prevent COVID-19:

Vaccines in Phase 3 Clinical Trials

As of December 28, 2020, large-scale (Phase 3) clinical trials are in progress or being planned for three COVID-19 vaccines in the United States:

  • AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine
  • Janssen’s COVID-19 vaccine
  • Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine​

Learn more about U.S. COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials, including vaccines in earlier stages of development, by visiting clinicaltrials.govexternal icon.

How are European countries tackling the pandemic?

A women with a mask sitting in front of Louvre in Paris

Most European countries introduced lockdown measures at the start of the year, to fight new peaks in infections and deaths.

While some are starting to ease restrictions, others are extending lockdowns or introducing new regional measures.

France: New lockdown on the French Riviera

France has a curfew between 18:00 and 06:00. Shops and businesses must be closed, and everyone must be at home.

Schools are open with extra testing in place. Bars, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and ski resorts remain shut.

France closed its borders to all non-EU countries from 31 January, although hauliers are exempt.

In addition to nationwide restrictions, lockdown measures will be put in place in parts of the French Riviera, including Nice and Cannes, from 26 February to 1 March. People will need written permission stating the reason for being out.

Man carrying chairs in Paris
image captionParis bars have been closed since mid-October

Germany: Medical masks in shops and on public transport

Non-essential shops, as well as hairdressers, schools, restaurants, bars and leisure centres remain closed.

Private meetings are limited to one other person from a separate household.

People can no longer wear home-made cloth masks or scarves as face coverings in shops and on public transport. “Clinical masks”, such as single-use surgical masks or filtering face-piece respirators (known as FFP2 masks), are now required.

The measures will be in place until at least 7 March, but schools and hairdressers can open before that date.

On 22 February, primary school children returned to classrooms in more than half of Germany’s 16 states, including in Berlin.

Greece: Different restrictions according to infection levels

A strict lockdown since November helped to contain a new surge in infections and, in January, nurseries and primary schools, as well as shops, were allowed to reopen.

But from late January, in areas with high infection rates – the “red zones”, which include Athens – new lockdown measures were imposed. Non-essential shops, schools, hairdressers and beauty salons, are once again closed.

In Athens, Thessaloniki and Chalkidiki, a curfew from 21:00 to 05:00 is in place during the week and from 18:00 to 05:00 at the weekend, while in other “red zones” the curfew starts at 18:00.

People wearing face masks walk their dog in Athens, Greece
image captionAthens is a “red zone” with strict restrictions

Italy: High school students allowed to return

A nationwide curfew from 22:00 to 05:00 remains in place, travel between Italy’s 20 regions is banned, and mask-wearing is mandatory in public, both indoors and outdoors, across the nation.

However, bars and restaurants in some of Italy’s regions are now again allowed to serve customers at tables and counters until 18:00.

High school students have been allowed to return to normal lessons, although they are divided into groups, and full classroom occupancy is not allowed. Remote learning has been in place since October.

Students and a teacher sit in a classroom in Rome, wearing masks and socially distancing
image captionSchools are open in Italy but there is no return to full classrooms

The Czech Republic: Tighter lockdown

One of the hardest hit countries in the EU, the Czech Republic is tightening its lockdown.

The new measures include closing nurseries and schools for younger children and those with disabilities, a ban on movement between districts and mandatory mass testing for employees of factories and companies that stay open.

Spain: Curfew and other measures to continue

Spain is under a nationwide curfew until early May 2021.

People are only allowed out in that period to go to work, for education, to buy medicine, or care for elderly people or children.

Anyone aged over six must wear a face covering on public transport and in indoor public spaces nationwide. They are also compulsory outdoors in many regions.

Belgium: Lockdown continues

Belgium’s lockdown has been extended until 1 April.

All non-essential travel is banned.

A maximum of one person is allowed to visit your home (always the same person) and, for meetings outside, the rule of four remains in place.

A sign warns people to wear masks in open public areas, in Brussels, Belgium
image captionMasks must be worn everywhere in Belgium

Schools and shops are open but people must shop alone and stay in any shop for no more than 30 minutes.

Masks must be worn everywhere.

Portugal: New lockdown under way

Mainland Portugal entered a new lockdown on 15 January, for the first time since early May.

Remote working is compulsory, non-essential shops and services must close and cafes and restaurants are limited to takeaways and home deliveries only.

Schools are also closed for most children. The lockdown is expected to last until at least 1 March.

People walking by a closed restaurant in Lisbon in January
image captionLockdown in Lisbon

Netherlands: Some easing of lockdown measures

The government has announced the easing of some restrictions.

From 1 March, secondary school pupils will have at least one day’s lessons at school.

Hairdressers and other ‘contact’ professions (apart from sex workers) can reopen from 3 March. Teenagers and adults up to the age of 27 can play team sports outside, and shops can open to customers by appointment.

The 21:00 to 04:30 curfew, which sparked rioting when it was introduced, will remain in place until 15 March.

The government advises against booking any trips abroad until at least 31 March.

Denmark: Gradual lifting of restrictions

The Danish government is to lift some lockdown restrictions. Large parts of the retail sector are to reopen in March, and outdoor activities, such as sports, will resume for a maximum of 25 people.

Older school students are expected to be allowed to return to classrooms in regions with lower infection rates.

Denmark has been in a lockdown since December: all shops and other businesses were closed apart from supermarkets and pharmacies. Schools were open only for younger primary school children.

People ride the metro wearing face masks in Copenhagen, Denmark, 22 August 2020
image captionPassengers wear face masks on the metro in Copenhagen

Ireland: Highest level of restrictions to continue

Ireland returned to a full lockdown at the end of December, after rules on travelling were relaxed over Christmas.

The highest level of restrictions – level five – are currently in place, until at least 5 March.

People have to stay at home except for travel for work, education or other essential reasons, or to exercise within 5km (3.1 miles) of home.

No visitors are allowed in private homes or gardens unless it is for the care of children, the elderly or those who are vulnerable. Weddings are limited to six people and funerals to 10.

All non-essential shops, gyms, pools and leisure facilities are closed. Restaurants, pubs and cafes can provide takeaways and deliveries only.

Sweden: New government coronavirus powers

Sweden had avoided imposing rules in this crisis, but on 10 January a new emergency law came into effect.

It gave the government the power to impose coronavirus-related curbs for the first time.

Until now, the Swedish government has relied mostly on the public following official health recommendations voluntarily.

Current national guidelines are asking passengers to wear face masks on public transport in rush hour, but several regions now recommend them outside the rush hour as well.

There is a ban on alcohol sales after 20:00, and in restaurants a maximum of four people can sit at a table.

No more than eight people are allowed at public gatherings or events.

Further restrictions, such as closure of businesses, are being considered.

Worst place in the world.What went wrong in the Czech Republic?

Czechs enter 2nd lockdown to avoid health system collapse

The Czech Republic, which had been praised for its swift response to COVID-19 in the spring, is now topping global charts of new coronavirus infections and deaths per population. Authorities have failed to control new infections since cases started to increase in the summer. Despite almost three weeks of a near-lockdown, the rate of new cases is declining only slowly. The proportion of tests that are positive remains dangerously high, around 30%.

As infections surge across Europe, the Czech Republic isn’t unique in facing a worrying second wave. It stands out, however, by the delayed response of its government – especially given how fast the new coronavirus spread in the country. On September 18, the chief medical statistician suggested that implementing public health measures on October 1, as opposed to a week earlier, would lead to hundreds of thousands of new cases (and therefore thousands of additional deaths). Yet the government waited for another three full weeks before introducing meaningful restrictions.

Calculated or inadvertent?

Political scientists have recently come up with a useful typology of policy inaction that can help us understand the Czech government’s non-response. It notably distinguishes “calculated inaction” (a product of conscious decisions) and “inadvertent inaction” (a product of blind spots or wishful thinking).

The Czech government hasn’t been forthcoming with explaining its policy choices, making any answers to this question speculative. Both cases will surely be argued in future internal, parliamentary and criminal inquiries, all of which have already been floated.

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Some evidence points to the “inadvertent” camp. An important part of a country’s capacity to design and implement effective policies is how well its administration works with experts. The early months of the pandemic showed just how variable the relationship between experts and the government has been in the Czech Republic.

For example, it wasn’t the Central Epidemiological Committee or the Institute of Health Information and Statistics that convinced the government to declare lockdown in March, but a businessman with no formal ties to the government who created a simple model of COVID-19’s likely spread in the Czech Republic. Alarmed, he secured a meeting with government officials. That was the first time the government had seen any epidemiological predictions. This is perhaps less surprising than it sounds: sociologists have suggested that resource-poor countries, such as the Czech Republic, that have been subject to privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation that hollow out the state have less capable bureaucracies.

Two police officers walk in Prague.
Lockdown in the Czech Republic once more. EPA/Martin Divisek

The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, was not immediately convinced of the model’s conclusions but compared daily infection numbers with a printout of the model, and declared lockdown within a matter of days. This version of events was corroborated by Babiš himself at a press conference in two somewhat cryptic sentences: “In March, someone came with a mathematical model and in August someone, the same person, came again… And those who were supposed to come, didn’t.”https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus-data-explorer?zoomToSelection=true&time=2020-03-01..latest&country=GBR~CZE~BEL~FRA~ESP&region=World&deathsMetric=true&interval=smoothed&perCapita=true&smoothing=7&pickerMetric=new_deaths_per_million&pickerSort=desc

“Those who were supposed to come” is widely thought to refer to the Institute of Health Information and Statistics, which denied that the government had been kept in the dark. It insisted that the government had received daily briefings. In parallel, however, the head of the institute consistently minimised the threat of COVID-19 in the media, despite external experts sounding alarm bells.

Who pays, who benefits?

Those in the “calculated inaction” camp will say the government was given plenty of warning. The first reports that the contact-tracing system was overwhelmed came in late July. The country’s contact-tracing app, developed in collaboration with private sector volunteers, had minimal uptake. Contact tracing was delegated to regional public health authorities. They were understaffed and under-resourced and lacked adequate working processes and infrastructure, including computers and internet connections.

The gravity of the situation was at least partially recognised by the Ministry of Health, which made face masks mandatory indoors, including in schools, in late August. Days later, Babiš overruled this decision. He later explained the lack of restrictions throughout the summer by referring to “the economic perspective” and “societal demand”.https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus-data-explorer?zoomToSelection=true&time=2020-03-01..latest&country=GBR~CZE~BEL~FRA~ESP&region=World&casesMetric=true&interval=smoothed&perCapita=true&smoothing=7&pickerMetric=new_cases_per_million&pickerSort=desc

The economy plays a key role for decision-makers all around the world but societal demand for normality was perhaps especially understandable in the Czech population, which was relatively untouched by the disease in the first wave. Politicians also downplayed the threat all summer, supported by vocal clinicians without a background in public health – mostly notably a prominent dentist.

Blame it on elections?

By September, though, even sceptical advisers considered new restrictions necessary. But here comes the biggest argument being made by the calculated camp: regional and senate elections took place on October 2 and 3, and a widespread hypothesis suggests the Czech government consciously chose to wait until these were over before renewing restrictions, expecting the measures to be unpopular with its core electorate.

The fact remains that a state of emergency was approved by parliament on September 30 but the first restrictions only came into force on October 9 – and, even then, these were only quite moderate, such as earlier closing hours for pubs.

Whether the government’s decisions came from a place of cynical cost-benefit calculations or overly optimistic wishful thinking, the fallout will be enormous – in human, economic, and for the government, perhaps also electoral, terms.

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Covid-19 pandemic: China ‘refused to give data’ to WHO team

A man by bicycles past an empty street on February 8, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.

China refused to hand over key data to the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of Covid-19, one of its members has said.

Microbiologist Dominic Dwyer told Reuters, the Wall St Journal and the New York Times the team requested raw patient data from early cases, what he called “standard practice”.

He said they only received a summary.

China has not responded to the allegation but has previously insisted it was transparent with the WHO.

The US has urged China to make available data from the earliest stages of the outbreak, saying it has “deep concerns” about the WHO report.

Last week, the WHO team concluded it was “extremely unlikely” that the coronavirus leaked from a lab in the city of Wuhan, dismissing a controversial theory that emerged last year.

Wuhan was the first place in the world where the virus was detected, in late 2019. Since then, more than 106 million cases and 2.3 million deaths have been reported worldwide.

What did the WHO team want to see?

The investigators had asked for raw data on the 174 identified cases of Covid-19 from Wuhan in December 2019, Professor Dwyer told Reuters.

Only half of the early cases had been exposed to the seafood market where the virus was initially detected.

“That’s why we’ve persisted to ask for that,” Prof Dwyer said. “Why that doesn’t happen, I couldn’t comment. Whether it’s political or time or it’s difficult… But whether there are any other reasons why the data isn’t available, I don’t know. One would only speculate.”

Thea Kolsen Fischer, a Danish immunologist who was also part of the WHO team, told the New York Times that she saw the investigation as “highly geopolitical”.

“Everybody knows how much pressure there is on China to be open to an investigation and also how much blame there might be associated with this,” she said.

Prof Dwyer said the restrictions on data would be mentioned in the WHO team’s final report, which could be released as early as next week.

The team arrived in early January and spent four weeks in China – the first two in hotel quarantine.https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.39.18/iframe.htmlmedia captionCovid-19 and Wuhan: Why don’t we know more?

What has been the response from the Chinese?

Beijing has insisted it was transparent with the WHO investigators, whose visit began only after months of negotiations. The experts were closely monitored by the Chinese authorities.

The US accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticised the terms of the visit, which restricted the freedom of the WHO team to travel and interview witnesses, including community members, on health grounds.

The investigators told the New York Times that disagreements, including over access to patient records, were so tense that they sometimes erupted into shouting matches.

Last month, an interim report from the WHO criticised China’s initial response, saying that “public health measures could have been applied more forcefully”.

The WHO team has also called for further investigation into the possibility of “cold chain” transmission, referring to the theory the virus could have spread through the transport and trade of frozen food.

Dr Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO team, said the focus on where the origins that led to Covid-19 might be, could be shifted to South East Asia.

Coronavirus vaccines: How’s my country and the rest of the world doing?

A health care worker receives a dose of COVISHIELD, a COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India

When it comes to the coronavirus vaccine there is one question most people are asking – when will I get it? A handful of countries have set very specific vaccination targets, but for the rest of the world the picture is less clear.

Getting the world vaccinated against Covid-19 is a matter of life and death, involving complicated scientific processes, multinational corporations, government promises and backroom deals. So figuring out when and how everyone in the world will get the vaccine is not easy.

Agathe Demarais is the director of global forecasting at the Economist Intelligence Unit, which has done some of the most comprehensive research on the topic. She has looked at the world’s production capacity, along with the healthcare facilities needed to get vaccines into people’s arms, the number of people a country has to contend with, and what they can afford.

Many of the findings seem to fall along predictable lines of rich v poor. The UK and the US are both well supplied with vaccines right now because they could afford to invest a lot of money into vaccine development and put themselves at the front of the queue.

Rich countries that didn’t do that, like Canada or those in the EU bloc, are a little further behind. Canada was criticised at the end of last year for buying up five times the supply it needs to cover its population, but it seems it wasn’t positioned for priority delivery.

That’s partly because the country decided to invest in vaccines from European factories, afraid that the US under Donald Trump would issue export bans. It turned out to be a bad bet. European factories are struggling with supply and recently it has been the EU, not the US, that has been threatening export bans.

“As long as the European market doesn’t have enough vaccines, I think that big imports to Canada are going to remain off the cards,” says Ms Demarais. Most low-income countries haven’t started vaccinating yet. But some countries in the middle are doing better than expected.

CORONAVIRUSGlobal vaccine rollout

Enter a country or territory to find out the progress of the vaccine rolloutType in 2 or more characters for results.

Serbia is eighth in the world in terms of the percentage of its population vaccinated, ahead of any country in the EU.

Its success is partly down to an efficient roll-out but it’s also benefitting from vaccine diplomacy – a battle between Russia and China for influence in eastern Europe. It’s one of the few places where the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and the Chinese vaccine SinoPharm are already available.

On paper, Serbians are given a choice of what vaccine they would prefer – Pfizer, Sputnik or SinoPharm. In reality, most people end up being given SinoPharm.

And the influence China is exerting here is likely to be long-term. Countries giving a first and second dose of one of the Chinese vaccines are also likely to look to Beijing for booster doses if needed.

The United Arab Emirates is also relying heavily on the SinoPharm vaccine – it makes up 80% of the doses being administered there right now. And the UAE is building a SinoPharm production facility.

“China is coming with production facilities, trained workers, so it’s going to give long-term influence to China,” says Ms Demarais. “And it will make it very, very tricky for recipient governments to say no to China for anything in the future.”

Being a global vaccine superpower, however, doesn’t mean your population will be vaccinated first. The EIU’s research predicts two of the world’s vaccine production powerhouses, China and India, may not be sufficiently vaccinated until the end of 2022. That’s because they have huge populations to contend with, as well as a shortage of health workers.

A world map showing which countries have administered Covid-19 vaccines

In India, the country’s success as a Covid vaccine producer is largely down to one man, Adar Poonawalla. He’s chief executive of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine producer.

Last year, his family started to think he has lost his mind when he began betting hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money on vaccines that he didn’t know would work.

In January, the first of those vaccines, developed by Oxford and AstraZeneca, was delivered to the Indian government. Now he’s producing 2.4 million doses a day. He’s one of two main suppliers to the Indian government – and is also supplying Brazil, Morocco, Bangladesh and South Africa.

‘Magic sauce’

“I thought the pressure and all the madness would end now that we’ve made the product,” he says. “But the real challenge is trying to keep everybody happy.

“I thought there’d be so many other manufacturers who would be able to supply. But sadly, at the moment at least, in the first quarter, and perhaps even the second quarter of 2021, we’re not going to see a substantial increase in supply.”

He says production cannot be ramped up overnight. “It takes time,” Mr Ponnawalla adds. “People think that the Serum Institute has got a magic sauce. Yes, we’re good at what we do but it’s not a magic wand.” He currently has an edge because he started building facilities in March last year, as well as stockpiling things like chemicals and glass vials in August.

For manufacturers starting production now, it will take months to produce vaccines. And the same applies to any boosters that might be needed to tackle new variants.

A map showing when countries are likely to be fully vaccinated.

Mr Ponnawalla says he is committed to supplying India and then Africa through a scheme called the Covax facility.

Covax, an initiative led by the WHO and other health organisations, aims to get affordable vaccines to every country in the world. Countries that can’t afford vaccines will get them for free through a special fund. The rest will pay. But the theory is that they will get a better price by negotiating through the bloc than if they had done so on their own.

Covax is planning to start delivering vaccines this month. But the plan is being undermined by the fact many countries involved are also negotiating their own deals on the side.

Mr Poonawalla says almost every leader in Africa has been in touch with him to access vaccines independently. Last week, Uganda announced it had secured 18 million doses from the Serum Institute at $7 a jab – much more than the $4 being paid by Covax. The institute says it is in talks with Uganda but denies this deal was ever signed.

In total, Mr Poonawalla’s firm is due to supply 200m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Covax and has promised 900m more doses in the future.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has since advised against rollout of the vaccine in countries where the South African strain is present. He says he is still committed to the scheme, but admits it faces problems. It’s dealing with too many different vaccine producers, he says, each offering varying prices and timelines for delivery.

Which vaccines have greatest global reach? Pfizer/Biontech 57 countries; Oxford 34 countries; Moderna 27 countries; SinoPharm 10 countries; Sputnik V 5 countries; SinoVac 5 countries; Covavaxin 1 country

Ms Demarais and the EIU are not overly optimistic about what Covax can achieve either. The timelines for delivery of vaccines are still not clear and even if things go according to plan, the scheme only aims to cover 20-27% of a country’s population this year. “It’s going to make a small marginal difference, but not a game-changer,” she says.

In her forecast, some countries may not get widespread coverage even by 2023. Some may never be fully covered. Vaccination may not be a priority for every country, especially one that has a young population and is not seeing huge numbers of people getting sick.

The problem with that scenario is as long as the virus can prosper somewhere it will be able to mutate and migrate. Vaccine-resistant variants will continue to evolve.

It’s not all bad news. Vaccines are being produced faster than ever but the scale of the task – inoculating 7.8 billion people around the world – is gigantic. And it’s never been attempted before.

Ms Demarais believes governments should level with their people on what is possible. “It’s very difficult for a government to say, ‘No, we’re not going to achieve widespread immunisation coverage before several years.’ Nobody wants to say that.”

South Africa coronavirus variant: What is the risk?

Coronavirus up close

The government has announced it is to carry out door-to-door testing in parts of England for a new variant of coronavirus originally identified in South Africa.

More than 100 cases of the South Africa variant have been spotted since 22 December. Most are linked to travel, but some may be community cases. It is likely there may be more that haven’t been found.

Experts are studying the variant to understand what risk it poses.

What is the new variant?

All viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, constantly mutate into new versions or variants.

These tiny genetic changes happen as the virus makes new copies of itself to spread and thrive.

Most are inconsequential, and a few can even be harmful to the virus’s survival, but some variants can make the virus more infectious or threatening to the host – humans.

There are now many thousands of variants of the pandemic virus circulating. But experts are concerned about the South African variant, or 501.V2.

Is it more dangerous?

There is no evidence that the South Africa variant causes more serious illness for the vast majority of people who become infected.

As with the original version, the risk is highest for people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions.

But there are concerns it can spread more readily and vaccines may not work quite as well against it.

Some of the changes involve the virus’s spike protein – the part that gains the virus entry into human cells. It is also the bit that vaccines are designed around, which is why experts are concerned about these particular mutations.

What do experts say?

The South African variant carries a mutation, called N501Y, that appears to make it more contagious or easy to spread.

Another mutation, called E484K, could help the virus dodge some attack by a person’s immune system and may affect how well coronavirus vaccines work.

It is too soon to say for sure, or by how much, until more tests are completed, although it is extremely unlikely the mutations would render vaccines useless.

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Summary of the key developments

  • New Zealand is investigating two positive cases of Covid-19 after the South African variant of the virus was confirmed in one of the country’s major cities.
  • France reports 26,916 new confirmed covid-19 cases over the past 24 hours, from 22,086 on Tuesday. The biggest one-day jump since November when the country was in its second lockdown.
  • In Lisbon, Portugal, hospitals are packed with Covid-19 patients and is struggling to meet the oxygen demand. The head of the doctors association has said that Germany has sent military medics to the country to see how they can help.
  • As the Euros and the Tokyo Olympics were both pushed for summer this year, the International Olympic Committee president is confident that the games will go on but fans may not due to safety reasons.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have said that the US had administered 24,652,634 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Wednesday morning and distributed 47,230,950 doses.
  • The Whitehouse coronavirus task force has warned that Americans will have to wait months for a vaccine.

Coronavirus: most Americans must wait months for vaccine, taskforce warns

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  • The singer Engelbert Humperdinck, 84, has tested positive for coronavirus, and asked for “prayers, good energy, love and support” after the virus had “found a way into [his] home.”
  • The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) has said on Wednesday that over 1 million people have died from Covid-19 in North and South America.
  • The Irish deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, has said in an interview with Virgin Media television that its “very unlikely” that Irish people will be able to travel outside of the country this summer.
  • Authorities in Madrid are halting the vaccine roll-out after delays in shipment are threatening supplies in Catalonia, Spanish authorities said.

Authorities in Madrid are halting the vaccine roll-out after delays in shipment are threatening supplies in Catalonia, Spanish authorities said.

The suspension is expected to last for two weeks as the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, said last week that there would be a temporary delay in distribution lines across Europe.

Reuters reports:

Spain’s 14-day incidence of the virus hit a record 900 cases per 100,000 people on Wednesday and the Health Ministry reported 40,285 new infections and 492 deaths.

Officials in Madrid and Catalonia said at the current pace it would be impossible to reach the national target of 70% of Spain’s 47 million population vaccinated by July.

Catalan health secretary Josep Maria Argimon said the region would use up all its stockpile of vaccines in the coming days and will have to administer second shots later than planned due to supply delays, citing an undelivered shipment of the Moderna vaccine scheduled for this week as one example.

The affluent northeastern region will issue a new request for 30,000 vaccine doses that it expects to administer starting on Feb. 4, Argimon told a news briefing.FacebookTwitter

The Irish deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, has said in an interview with Virgin Media television that its “very unlikely” that Irish people will be able to travel outside of the country this summer.

“I don’t like to be the one to break the bad news,” he said. “But I think it’s very unlikely that people will be able to go on foreign holidays this summer even if vaccines turn out to be as effective as we hope they can be,”

Varadkar added that even with the current rules in place, it’s against the law to go on a foreign holiday.

Leo Varadkar during a press conference.