COLUMBIA, S.C. — A new variant of the coronavirus emerged Thursday in the United States, posing yet another public health challenge in a country already losing more than 3,000 people to COVID-19 every day.

This 2020 electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. Viruses are constantly mutating, with coronavirus variants circulating around the globe. NIAID-RML via AP

The mutated version of the virus, first identified in South Africa, was found in two cases in South Carolina. Public health officials said it’s almost certain that there are more infections that have not been identified yet. They are also concerned that this version spreads more easily and that vaccines could be less effective against it.

The two cases were discovered in adults in different regions of the state and do not appear to be connected. Neither of the people infected has traveled recently, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said Thursday.

“That’s frightening,” because it means there could be more undetected cases within the state, said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “It’s probably more widespread.”

The arrival of the variant shows that “the fight against this deadly virus is far from over,” Dr. Brannon Traxler, South Carolina’s interim public health director, said in a statement. “While more COVID-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now. We are all in this together.”

Viruses constantly mutate, and coronavirus variants are circulating around the globe, but scientists are primarily concerned with the emergence of three that researchers believe may spread more easily. Other variants first reported in the United Kingdom and Brazil were previously confirmed in the U.S.

As the variants bring a potential for greater infection risks in the U.S., pandemic-weary lawmakers in several states are pushing back against mask mandates, business closures and other protective restrictions ordered by governors.

Novavax COVID-19 vaccine proves effective, but less so against variants

Novavax Inc. said Thursday that its COVID-19 vaccine appears 89 percent effective based on early findings from a British study and that it also seems to work — though not as well — against new mutated versions of the virus circulating in that country and South Africa.

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Clinical trial participants are monitored during Novavax COVID-19 vaccine testing in Melbourne, Australia, in May. Patrick Rocca/Nucleus Network/ABC via Associated Press

The announcement comes amid worry about whether a variety of vaccines being rolled out around the world will be strong enough to protect against worrisome new variants – and as the world desperately needs new types of shots to boost scarce supplies.

The study of 15,000 people in Britain is still underway. But an interim analysis found 62 participants so far have been diagnosed with COVID-19 – only six of them in the group that got vaccine and the rest who received dummy shots.

The infections occurred at a time when Britain was experiencing a jump in COVID-19 caused by a more contagious variant. A preliminary analysis found over half of the trial participants who became infected had the mutated version. The numbers are very small, but Novavax said they suggest the vaccine is nearly 96 percent effective against the older coronavirus and nearly 86 percent effective against the new variant. The findings are based on cases that occurred at least a week after the second dose.

“Both those numbers are dramatic demonstrations of the ability of our vaccine to develop a very potent immune response,” Novavax CEO Stanley Erck said in a call with investors late Thursday.

Scientists have been even more worried about a variant first discovered in South Africa that carries different mutations. Results from a smaller Novavax study in that country suggests the vaccine does work but not nearly as well as it does against the variant from Britain.

The South African study included some volunteers with HIV. Among the HIV-negative volunteers, the vaccine appears 60 percent effective. Including volunteers with HIV, overall the protection was 49 percent, the company said. While genetic testing still is underway, so far about 90 percent of the COVID-19 illnesses found in the South African study appear due to the new mutant.

Read the full story here.

Biden reopens HealthCare.gov sign-up for the uninsured

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday ordered government health insurance markets to reopen for a special sign-up window, offering uninsured Americans a haven as the spread of COVID-19 remains dangerously high and vaccines aren’t yet widely available.

Biden signed an executive order directing the HealthCare.gov insurance markets to take new applications for subsidized benefits, something Donald Trump’s administration had refused to do. He also instructed his administration to consider reversing other Trump health care policies, including curbs on abortion counseling and the imposition of work requirements for low-income people getting Medicaid.

“There’s nothing new that we’re doing here other than restoring the Affordable Care Act and restoring Medicaid to the way it was before Trump became president,” Biden said as he signed the directives in the Oval Office. He declared he was reversing “my predecessor’s attack on women’s health.”

The actions were only the first steps by Biden, who has promised to build out former President Barack Obama’s health care law to achieve a goal of coverage for all. While Biden rejects the idea of a government-run system that Sen. Bernie Sanders has pushed for in his “Medicare for All” proposal, his more centrist approach will require congressional buy-in. But opposition to “Obamacare” runs deep among Republicans.

The most concrete short-term impact of Biden’s orders will come from reopening HealthCare.gov insurance markets as coverage has shrunk in the economic turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s an executive action and no legislation is required.

The new “special enrollment period” will begin Feb. 15 and run through May 15, the White House said. It will be coupled with a promotional campaign and a call for states that run their own insurance markets to match the federal sign-up opportunity.

Read the full story here.

EU tensions between countries erupt over vaccine production delays

GENEVA  — National tensions are erupting over slow coronavirus vaccine rollouts and production delay issues are real, but “no one is safe until everyone is safe,” the European chief for the World Health Organization said Thursday.

Dr. Hans Kluge said international solidarity in the fight against the virus that has already killed 2.1 million people was “key,” while noting tensions between that wider goal and the responsibility each leader felt to protect their own people.

He said “the telephone line is very hot” in conversations with European Union officials and others clamoring for more vaccines, fearing new, more contagious virus variants that have already swept through Britain and are gaining elsewhere.

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European Commissioner in charge of Health Stella Kyriakides removes her face mask during an online press conference on AstraZeneca on Wednesday. Olivier Hoslet via Associated Press

The cautionary note comes as the EU has accused pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca of failing to deliver the coronavirus vaccine doses that it promised to the 27-nation bloc despite getting EU funding to ramp up vaccine production. The company says the production issues at EU plants are slowing the amount of vaccines available, and it can’t give what it does not have. Fellow vaccine maker Pfizer has had supply issues too, due to a production upgrade at a plant in Belgium.

Kluge said he had spoken with EU President Charles Michel and EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, citing a “general goodwill” and an “understanding that no one is safe until everyone is safe. But the reality is that for the time being, there is realistically a shortfall of vaccines.”

“The telephone line is very hot as you can imagine,” Kluge told reporters at a video news conference from WHO Europe headquarters in Copenhagen, alluding to the European leaders. “We stand by them and we do understand the situation.”

Dr. Siddhartha Datta, WHO Europe’s program manager for vaccine-preventable disease and immunization, noted “production hindrances” and supply issues at both AstraZeneca and Pfizer. He noted there is always an “initial teething time of vaccine rollout and production.” The EU alone has 450 million residents, while Britain has 67 million, Russia and the former Soviet nations have over 290 million.

“Nobody can deliver this entire scale of a vaccination alone,” he said.

Kluge said 35 of the 53 countries in WHO Europe’s region have begun vaccinations, administering 25 million doses. He said widespread lockdowns had helped limit the spread of the coronavirus and led to a “significant decrease in 14-day cumulative incidence” in 30 of those countries — seven nations more than two weeks ago.

“Yet, transmission rates across Europe are still very high, impacting health systems and straining services, making it too early to ease-up,” he said.

Dr. Catherine Smallwood, the agency’s senior emergency officer, said efforts to lower virus transmission rates were “a little bit like stopping a fast-moving train” and said sweeping restrictive measures like school closings could be necessary. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday that schools in England would remain closed until at least March 8.

“As that train — the transmission — starts to slow and slow and slow, that’s when we can start to be more specific, start to be more efficient in the way we control the spread of the disease,” Smallwood said.

Health-care workers stuck in a snowstorm with expiring vaccines gave shots to strangers caught in traffic

After a day of giving coronavirus vaccinations, Michael Weber and his team were headed back to Grants Pass, Ore., to administer their last doses on Tuesday when traffic suddenly came to a halt. Authorities had closed the snow-covered highway because of a car accident, and it would be hours before traffic could resume.

But Weber and his team of 20 staff members and volunteers didn’t have that much time to use the six Moderna doses they had left before the vaccines expired.

That’s when Weber had an idea: If he couldn’t make it to the clinic on time, he could bring the clinic to six other drivers stranded on the highway.

When a team of Oregon health-care workers stuck in traffic during a snowstorm was running out of time to administer leftover doses of the Moderna vaccine, one local public health official had an idea: Vaccinate strangers in the middle of the highway. Image courtesy of Josephine County Public Health

“I decided to start going door-to-door, car-to-car, offering [the vaccine],” Weber, who is Josephine County’s public health director, told The Washington Post on Wednesday night.

The impromptu vaccination session amid a snowstorm is the latest example of health-care workers scrambling to make use of leftover doses during a sometimes chaotic rollout that’s seen around 21.1 million people receive one or both doses of the vaccine in the United States.

Weber’s six leftover Moderna doses, which had already been transferred to syringes earlier on Tuesday, needed to be used quickly or discarded. Like the Pfizer version, the Moderna vaccine must be used within six hours after being removed from subzero storage and reaching room temperature.

Read the full story here.

WHO team in Wuhan departs quarantine for COVID origins study

WUHAN, China— A World Health Organization team emerged from quarantine in the Chinese city of Wuhan on Thursday to start field work in a fact-finding mission on the origins of the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Members from the World Health Organization team of experts prepare to leave on a bus after ending their quarantine at a hotel in Wuhan on Thursday, Jan. 28. Associated Press/Ng Han Guan

The researchers, who were required to isolate for 14 days after arriving in China, left their quarantine hotel with their luggage — including at least four yoga mats — in the midafternoon and headed to another hotel.

The mission has become politically charged, as China seeks to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak. A major question is where the Chinese side will allow the researchers to go and whom they will be able to talk to.

Yellow barriers blocked the entrance to the hotel, keeping the media at a distance. Before the researchers boarded their bus, workers wearing protective outfits and face shields could be seen loading their luggage, including two musical instruments and a dumbbell.

Hotel staff waved goodbye to the researchers, who were wearing face masks. The bus driver wore a full-body white protective suit. They drove about 30 minutes to a lakeside Hilton resort-like hotel.

Former WHO official Keiji Fukuda, who is not part of the team in Wuhan, has cautioned against expecting any breakthroughs, saying it may take years before any firm conclusions can be made about the virus’s origin.

Israel extends virus shots to those 35 and older

JERUSALEM — Israel on Thursday said it was extending coronavirus vaccinations to adults age 35 and older, an expansion of its world-leading drive to vanquish COVID-19.

Health Ministry Director General Hezi Levy said shots would be available to the new age group starting Friday.

The change reflects Israel’s aggressive drive to inoculate its entire population by the spring and the country is on track to do so. More than a quarter of Israel’s 9.3 million people have been vaccinated so far.

But Israel also is home to one of the developing world’s highest rate of infections, driven by ultra-Orthodox towns that are flouting safety rules and clashing with police trying to enforce them. Some 8,000 new cases are detected each day.

French police face punishment for holding a party, dancing Macarena

PARIS —At least two dozen French police officials are facing internal punishment for holding a party inside a police station where they were filmed dancing the Macarena and violating multiple virus protection rules.

A police headquarters spokesperson said Thursday that those involved in the party in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers were ordered to file reports on their actions and that “sanctions are planned.”

In a video of the event posted by online media Loopsider, several people are seen dancing closely together without masks in a crowded room.

The video prompted criticism at a time when French police are out every night enforcing a 6 p.m.-6 a.m. virus curfew, and are under scrutiny for abuses during violent protests and identity checks.

Germany to ban travel from ‘mutation areas’

BERLIN — Germany’s interior minister says the country is planning to implement a ban on travel from so-called “mutation areas” where variants of the coronavirus that spread more rapidly have been detected.

Horst Seehofer told reporters Thursday that the government hoped to decide by Friday on restrictions on travel from Portugal, Britain, South Africa, Brazil and possibly other areas in the coming weeks.

He suggested there could be exceptions made for the flow of goods, but said exceptions for things like tourism were out of the question.

The country’s disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, would determine which countries should be determined “mutation areas,” Seehofer said. He refused to speculate on how long the restrictions could be kept in place.

Seehofer added that Germany was in talks in Brussels with other countries about Europe-wide travel restrictions, but that the ban being considered would be a national decision.

German health minister predicts at least ’10 hard weeks’ ahead

BERLIN — Germany’s health minister says there are at least “10 hard weeks” ahead amid difficulties in getting large quantities of vaccines.

Health Minister Jens Spahn, who faces political pressure over the slow start to Germany’s vaccination campaign, wrote on Twitter Thursday that Chancellor Angela Merkel and the country’s 16 state governors should hold a special meeting to discuss vaccine strategy.

Spahn said vaccine manufacturers also should be invited to “explain how complex production is.” He stressed that “the quality must be very good” in order to protect people.

Spahn wrote that “we will go through at least another 10 hard weeks with the scarcity of vaccine.”

Germany’s current lockdown, its second, was extended until Feb. 14. New infections are falling, but officials are worried about the impact of coronavirus variants such as the one first detected in Britain.

Some 1.67 million people in Germany have received the first dose of the vaccine.

Shipments of vaccine to Canada won’t be affected by EU measures

TORONTO — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the head of the European Commission has reassured him that any vaccine export controls the EU enacts won’t impact shipments of Canada’s doses from Europe.

Trudeau says commission President Ursula von der Leyen told him that transparency measures taken by the EU will not affect Canada’s Pfizer and Moderna vaccine deliveries from Europe.

The EU has threatened to impose export controls on vaccines produced within its borders, and warned pharmaceutical companies that have developed coronavirus vaccines with EU aid that it must get its shots on schedule. All of Canada’s Pfizer and Moderna vaccines come from Europe.

Canada isn’t getting any deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine made in Europe this week due to an upgrade at a Pfizer plant in Belgium. Shipments are set to resume next week.


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