Stimulus targets COVID vaccine rollout; global officials deal with variant virus

COVID vaccine and cash
COVID vaccine and cash

Jae Young Ju / iStock

As new details emerge about the newly passed $900 billion coronavirus relief package, US public health officials are welcoming the added resources for delivering the vaccine and shoring up other pandemic response activities.

And in global developments, the head of BioNTech said the vaccine it developed with Pfizer likely protects against the UK SARS-CoV-2 variant, as the virus pushed its way to Antarctica for the first time.

Stimulus boost for public health response

Despite the speed of vaccine development and emergency use approval, public health officials have warned that they lack the resources to develop and staff mass immunization campaigns needed to help make the best use of the new tool for battling COVID-19. The vaccine tracker from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that, as of yesterday, about 4.6 million doses had been distributed but only about 614,000 had been administered.

In a statement today, Michael Fraser, PhD, chief executive officer with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) applauded the much needed COVID-19 resources and the boost for public health activities. He said the bipartisan bill provides $8.75 billion for vaccine distribution and infrastructure, which Fraser added will help move doses more quickly and monitor vaccine uptake. ASTHO and other public health groups have been advocating for crucial resources since October.

Fraser also said ASTHO is grateful for the $22.4 billion that targets contact tracing, containment, mitigation, testing, and surveillance, which he said will help health departments slow and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In other vaccine developments, on live TV today, frontline workers at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center and some of the nation's top health officials, including Anthony Fauci, MD, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, received the Moderna vaccine. Scientists as NIAID worked with Moderna to develop the vaccine.

As US lawmakers get their vaccines, a small but growing number in both parties are declining early access to make the point that they won't be immunized until the vaccine is more widely available to the public, according to The Hill. Meanwhile, Reuters' interviews with black faith leaders signal that they are reluctant to show support for the COVID-19 vaccine, dimming the hopes of public health officials that such influencers could help alleviate skepticism due to deep-seated mistrust in the medical establishment.

US grapples with fallout from UK variant

Meanwhile, developments with a UK SARS-CoV-2 variant that appears to be more transmissible is stoking worries of wider spread, and today on ABC's Good Morning America, Fauci said he assumes the UK variant is already in the United States, because of travel patterns, according to CNN.

Trump Administration officials told CNN that the White House is considering requiring travelers from the UK to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test before entering the United States.

In a newly posted overview of the strain, the CDC said the strain hasn't been identified in the United States, though only about 51,000 viruses of 17 million US cases have been sequenced, less than half a percent. The agency said it launched a strain surveillance program in November, which won't be fully operational until January. Each state will send 10 samples biweekly for sequencing and further characterization.

In other US developments:

  • California opened four field hospitals to handle its unprecedented surge in infections, which has put the state's intensive care unit capacity at 2.5%, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

  • The federal government has bought 1.2 million monoclonal antibody doses and has allocated 300,000 to states and territories, but initial surveys show that they have only used 5% to 20% of the initial deliveries, because the drugs require intravenous (IV) administration and because doctors and patients are lukewarm about them, according to NPR.

  • Yesterday, the nation added 190,519 more cases and 1,696 more deaths to its COVID-19 total, which is currently at 18,101,653, with 320,864 of them fatal, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard. The number of Americans currently in hospitals continues to rise and it as 115,351, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Global headlines

At a news conference today, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin, MD, PhD, said the vaccine developed with Pfizer is likely to be effective against the new UK SARS-CoV-2 variant, but he said a new version of the mRNA vaccine could be developed in 6 weeks, if needed, according to the Washington Post.

More countries across the world announced new travel restrictions, and the European Commission said today that although nonessential travel to the United Kingdom should be discouraged, it recommended against travel bans because they may distrupt supply chains, and it urged European Union countries to take a coordinated approach.

A group of predominantly South African researchers published preprint details yesterday on a similar but distinct variant in South Africa. The scientists said the lineage has spread fast, becoming the dominant strain within weeks in Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces. Though more study is needed on the significance of the changes, the rapid displacement of other lineage suggests a link to increased transmissibility, the group wrote.

Meanwhile, the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Antarctica, the last continent to be affected by the pandemic. Infections were found in at least 36 people at a Chilean military base, and officials suspect that the virus was carried by members of a Chilean Navy ship that delivered supplies to the base earlier this month, according to the Post. Those who tested positive returned to Chile for treatment and isolation.

In developments elsewhere:

  • South Korea has only 42 ICU beds available nationwide, as it continues to experience an ongoing surge of cases, according to the New York Times.

  • Japanese medical groups yesterday warned that a continued rise in COVID-19 has put the country's health system under considerable pressure, but its prime minister said a national state of emergency isn't needed yet, Reuters reported.

  • Taiwan has reported its first COVID-19 case since April, which involves a cargo pilot who flew from abroad and transmitted the virus to a local resident, according to the Washington Post.

  • The global total today climbed to 77,708,508 cases with 1,710,128 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker.

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