February 11 coronavirus news

By Adam Renton, Brad Lendon, Cristiana Moisescu, Laura Smith-Spark and Rob Picheta, CNN

Updated 2:18 a.m. ET, February 12, 2021
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8:27 a.m. ET, February 11, 2021

AstraZeneca expects to increase vaccine capacity to more than 200 million doses per month by April

From CNN's Chris Liakos

Vials of Covishield, the local name for the Covid-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, move along a conveyor on the production line at the Serum Institute of India Ltd. Hadaspar plant in Pune, India, on Jan.22, 2021. Serum, which is the world's largest vaccine maker by volume, has an agreement with AstraZeneca to produce at least a billion doses. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Vials of Covishield, the local name for the Covid-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, move along a conveyor on the production line at the Serum Institute of India Ltd. Hadaspar plant in Pune, India, on Jan.22, 2021. Serum, which is the world's largest vaccine maker by volume, has an agreement with AstraZeneca to produce at least a billion doses. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca expects to increase global vaccine capacity to more than 200 million doses per month by April as the company works hard to improve productivity, it said during a media call on Thursday.

In the call, which followed its 2020 corporate results release, AstraZeneca said that along with its partners it currently produces more than 100 million doses per month.

Its supply chain partners are getting ready to supply more through the COVAX facility, the company added, with an estimated 336 million doses available to 145 countries in the first half of the year, almost two-thirds of which are going to low- and middle-income countries.

Responding to a question about the timeframe for the newly developed vaccines against new coronavirus variants, Mene Pangalos, AstraZeneca's executive vice president of biopharmaceuticals research and development, reiterated that they expect these to be ready in time for next autumn or winter.

“In collaboration with the University of Oxford, AstraZeneca is focused on adapting C19VAZ to new disease strains if required and hopes to reduce the time needed to reach production at scale to between six to nine months, by utilising existing clinical data and optimising its established supply chain,” the company said in its earnings press release.

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said that the development of new vaccines was much faster because the approval will be based on immunogenicity data.

The World Health Organization on Wednesday recommended the use of the current Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in countries where variants of the coronavirus are circulating. Preliminary analysis showed a slightly reduced efficacy against the variant first spotted in the UK, and another early analysis showed “a marked reduction” in effectiveness against mild or moderate disease from the variant first spotted in South Africa, it said.

However, that study was small and WHO officials noted there’s indirect evidence the vaccine still protects against severe disease.

8:03 a.m. ET, February 11, 2021

CDC expected to release new guidelines for reopening US schools

From CNN's Lauren Mascarenhas

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to release highly anticipated new guidance this week for getting children physically back to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Biden administration is pushing to reopen schools, an issue some view as being tied to the reopening of the economy and a return to normal life in America.

An administration official told CNN the CDC's five key strategies to reopening schools include hand washing, masking, social distancing, cleaning and ventilation, as well as contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. 

The guidance will not suggest requiring staffers to be vaccinated, instead describing vaccination as another strategy to "layer," since many schools were able to safely reopen before vaccines were available, the official noted. 

But some teachers and unions are pushing back against plans to reopen, many with demands for vaccination and more supplies.

The National Education Association (NEA) surveyed 3,305 of its members and said Tuesday that 82% have yet to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. As of Monday, at least 26 states and Washington DC said they would allow some or all teachers and school staff to get a Covid-19 vaccine.

Some have also raised concerns about equity, noting that current access to the funding and supplies needed to meet safe reopening standards is often skewed towards wealthier jurisdictions.

President Joe Biden's Covid-19 relief proposal would include $170 billion for K-12 schools, colleges and universities that could be directed toward mitigation measures.

Read more here:

7:49 a.m. ET, February 11, 2021

Biden administration is "not where we want to be" on genetic sequencing of Covid-19 variants, official says

From CNN's MJ Lee and Michael Nedelman

With coronavirus variants posing a serious threat to US President Joe Biden's efforts to contain the pandemic, a Biden official has told CNN that the administration is still simply "not where we want to be" on surveillance of mutations in the US -- and simultaneously worried that Americans will grow increasingly complacent about the virus. 

"We are not where we want to be in terms of genetic sequencing, although we are ramping up," the administration official said. "We are starting way behind on genetic sequencing."

In order to find new strains of the virus, scientists must genetically sequence samples -- spelling out the letters in its genetic code and looking for changes. Coronaviruses are known to mutate, generally in ways that are harmless to humans. But every now and then, a mutation pops up that could change how the virus works.

In the US, scientists fear that variants first identified in the UK, South Africa and Brazil may be either more contagious, more likely to cause reinfection, or somewhat resistant to existing Covid-19 vaccines.

The fear is that these variants could erase recent progress in lowering Covid-19 case numbers. They could also raise the bar for how many Americans need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity.

An additional concern for the administration that goes hand-in-hand with the spread of variants, the administration official said, is coronavirus fatigue -- and convincing Americans to continue practicing responsible public health behavior like mask-wearing and social distancing a year into the pandemic.

"It's not exciting to say: 'Wear a mask, keep your distance and get your vaccine when it's your turn.' But those are actually the concrete steps that people can take to stop this variant. That is the fastest path to stopping this variant," the official said.
"It's hard. People are sick of this. I'm sick of this. Everyone is sick of living in their homes and not seeing their families and not seeing their friends."

In a White House briefing Wednesday, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the variant first spotted in the UK is now responsible for an estimated 1 to 4% of cases in the country.

Read more here:

7:28 a.m. ET, February 11, 2021

Iran reports more than 7,400 daily Covid-19 cases and 65 new deaths

From CNN’s Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran

Iran reported 7,474 new daily coronavirus cases on Thursday, bringing the country's total number of cases to 1,496,455.

The country also reported 65 new deaths from Covid-19, bringing the total death toll to 58,751, Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadaat Lari said in a news conference aired on state TV.

Meanwhile, 3,735 patients remain hospitalized in intensive care units around the country, she said.

Earlier in the week, the country started its rollout of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, according to a live broadcast on state TV.

Iran is the Middle Eastern country hardest hit by the pandemic in terms of total cases and deaths, and it continues to keep restrictions in place to try to avoid a larger outbreak.

7:06 a.m. ET, February 11, 2021

New coronavirus variants keep popping up. Here's what we know about them

From CNN's Maggie Fox

A variant suspected of helping fuel a surge of coronavirus in Brazil's Amazon region shows up in Minnesota. Another that's been worrying officials in South Africa pops up in two places in South Carolina and, just days later, in Maryland.

Scientists are not surprised to see the coronavirus changing and evolving -- it's what viruses do, after all. And with so much unchecked spread across the US and other parts of the world, the virus is getting plenty of opportunity to do just that.

Four of the new variants are especially worrisome.

"The variants that have been identified recently seem to spread more easily. They're more transmissible, which can lead to increased number of cases, and increased stress on our already overtaxed system," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a briefing Wednesday.

At the top of the list for researchers in the US is the B.1.1.7 variant first seen in Britain. The CDC has warned it could worsen the spread of the pandemic. It reports more than 300 cases in 28 states -- but those are only the cases caught by genomic sequencing, which is hit and miss in the US.

Next on the list is the B.1.351 or 501Y.V2 variant first seen in South Africa. It was reported for the first time in the US in South Carolina. On Saturday, Maryland's governor announced a sample from someone in the Baltimore area had also shown the characteristic mutation pattern of B.1.351.

None of the three people had any contact with one another and none had traveled recently. This suggests the variant has been spreading undetected in the communities.

Read the story in full:

6:14 a.m. ET, February 11, 2021

German Chancellor Angela Merkel: Lockdown will last “not one day longer” than necessary

 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the Bundestag on the government's measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, on February 11, in Berlin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the Bundestag on the government's measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, on February 11, in Berlin. Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended her coronavirus strategy after Wednesday's announcement that the country's lockdown will be extended until March 7 at the earliest.

Germany is “now dealing with three aggressive mutations” Merkel said Thursday, adding that the country needs to “prepare for new variants to become dominant” and that “mutations could destroy the vaccine's success.” 

Merkel said she was aware how difficult this lockdown has been for people and that she understood people's loneliness and frustration at having their freedoms curtailed. However, she reiterated that curbs were still needed due to the risk posed by new variants.

“As a democracy, it is up to us to keep these restrictions only as long as necessary -- not one day longer -- and to lift them when possible. This is exactly the objective of this government,” Merkel told lawmakers in Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. 

On Wednesday, Merkel and the state prime ministers of Germany’s 16 federal states agreed to extend lockdown until at least March 7, although some restrictions will be lifted. Schools and kindergartens will start to reopen from February 22 and hairdressers from March 1. 

Merkel told lawmakers Thursday that while Germany handled the first coronavirus wave well, “we were too slow to curb the second wave.” She added that Germany would continue with its efforts to “try to keep the mutations to a small scale and hope that the seven-day incident rate can be pushed to below 50.” 

The German Chancellor concluded by saying: “I will fulfil this until the last day of my time in office -- at the end we will jointly manage to vanquish this pandemic and see better days.” 

6:46 a.m. ET, February 11, 2021

Stricter UK border restrictions will delay the country’s Covid-19 recovery, says CEO of UK's largest airport

From CNN's Chris Liakos

Travelers arrive at Heathrow Airport on January 30, in London, England.
Travelers arrive at Heathrow Airport on January 30, in London, England. Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Stricter measures at the UK border “will inevitably delay the country’s recovery and hurt the UK’s supply chains,” the chief executive of London Heathrow warned Thursday.

CEO John Holland-Kaye called on the UK government to publish how it plans to open the UK's borders when it sets out its "roadmap" to recovery on February 22.

"The Chancellor must use next month’s budget to deliver the minimum help that aviation needs with 100% business rates relief and an extension of the furlough scheme," he said in a news release.

London Heathrow reported a 89% fall in passenger numbers in January compared with the same time a year ago. It says the latest national lockdown, travel bans, blanket quarantine and compulsory testing have deterred people from travelling, adding that the latest border rules mean "that the UK’s borders are effectively closed."

The drop in passenger numbers has also hurt cargo traffic at the UK’s largest airport. Fewer long-haul flights led to a drop of 21% in cargo volumes.

6:24 a.m. ET, February 11, 2021

New Bristol variant could re-infect previously infected or vaccinated people, UK government science adviser says

From CNN's Hannah Ritchie

People wait outside a coronavirus surge testing center at a library in Bristol, England, on February 9, following the identification of a mutated variant in the region.
People wait outside a coronavirus surge testing center at a library in Bristol, England, on February 9, following the identification of a mutated variant in the region. Ben Birchall/PA Images/Getty Images

A new coronavirus mutation known as the Bristol variant might "infect people who were previously infected, or have been previously vaccinated," Professor John Edmunds, a member of the UK government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said Thursday.

"I don't know whether the Bristol variant is any more transmissible than the Kent variant. I suspect it isn't," Edmunds told ITV News.

"Where it has an advantage -- potentially at least -- is that it may be able to infect people who were previously infected, or have been previously vaccinated. That's the worry with that particular virus."

New variants of coronavirus have now been identified in the English cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement Wednesday.

Hancock reiterated the government's commitment to using enhanced contact tracing, surge testing and genomic sequencing to monitor community spread of the new strains.

Some context: Public Health England has said that cases found in Bristol are the new UK variant with the E484K mutation, which has already been identified in the South African and Brazilian variants of the virus. The mutation could allow Covid-19 to escape antibody protection.

4:57 a.m. ET, February 11, 2021

UK is doing all it can to make summer holidays possible, health secretary says

From CNN's Sharon Braithwaite

A person waits at the Heathrow Airport international arrival hall in London, on January 29.
A person waits at the Heathrow Airport international arrival hall in London, on January 29. May James/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

The British government is doing all it can to make summer holidays possible this year, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News on Thursday.

"I do understand the yearning for certainty, but certainty is hard in a pandemic. We are doing everything we can to make sure people can have that holiday in the summer," Hancock said.

The minister told the BBC that he himself had “months ago” booked a summer holiday in Cornwall in southwest England.

Hancock also said the government wants to "bring an end to that uncertainty," adding that "it's the vaccine program that is our route out of this, and is the way through and thankfully that has been going really incredibly well."

As of Tuesday, 13,058,298 people in the United Kingdom have received the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, according to the government's dashboard.

Some context: Booking any kind of summer travel escape became an even bigger gamble for millions of British people on Wednesday as the the government warned that even staycations could be under threat until vaccinations are completed.

After officials previously signaled that a foreign trip may not be possible during 2021, UK transport minister Grant Shapps said that even a break on home soil could be out of the question amid the pandemic.