The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

By Sarah Faidell, Brad Lendon, Joshua Berlinger, Mary Ilyushina and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 8:38 a.m. ET, February 19, 2021
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3:41 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Participants in global Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trial for pregnant women receive their first doses

From CNN’s Amanda Sealy

A pharmacy technician prepares doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on January 30.
A pharmacy technician prepares doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on January 30. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Pfizer-BioNTech announced Thursday that the first participants of its global Covid-19 vaccine trial for pregnant women have received their first doses.

The Phase 2/3 trial will enroll about 4,000 healthy pregnant women age 18 or older, according to a news release from the company. They will be vaccinated during 24 to 34 weeks of gestation and receive two doses of the vaccine or placebo 21 days apart.

The first doses were administered to US participants. The trial will be conducted in nine countries: the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mozambique, South Africa, UK and Spain.

“We are proud to start this study in pregnant women and continue to gather the evidence on safety and efficacy to potentially support the use of the vaccine by important subpopulations,” Dr. William Gruber, Pfizer’s senior vice president of vaccine clinical research and development, said in the release.

The company said the trial is designed to evaluate the vaccine in pregnant women, but also their infants, who will be monitored until they’re about six months old, for safety and for the transfer of potentially protective antibodies. Once an infant is born, Pfizer-BioNTech said trial participants will be unblinded and adults in the placebo group will receive the vaccine.

Currently, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pregnant people are at increased risk for severe illness from Covid-19, and there’s limited data about the safety of the vaccines for pregnant people. It suggests pregnant patients talk with their doctor to make the decision about whether to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

2:47 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Food and packaging highly unlikely to spread Covid-19, US agencies say in reminder

From CNN's Lauren Mascarenhas

Food and food packaging are highly unlikely to spread Covid-19, the US Food and Drug Administration, US Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a reminder Thursday.

“Consumers should be reassured that we continue to believe, based on our understanding of currently available reliable scientific information, and supported by overwhelming international scientific consensus, that the foods they eat and food packaging they touch are highly unlikely to spread SARS-CoV-2,” the FDA wrote in a statement.

The three agencies said they wanted to stress the lack of credible evidence to suggest that food or its packaging are associated with transmission of the virus.

Covid-19 is a respiratory illness spread from person to person, unlike foodborne viruses that can make people sick through contaminated food, the FDA said.

“Given that the number of virus particles that could be theoretically picked up by touching a surface would be very small and the amount needed for infection via oral inhalation would be very high, the chances of infection by touching the surface of food packaging or eating food is considered to be extremely low,” it added.

“Considering the more than 100 million cases of COVID-19, we have not seen epidemiological evidence of food or food packaging as the source of SARS-CoV-2 transmission to humans.”

Chinese officials have repeatedly raised the possibility the virus is spread by packaged frozen foods, but the CDC and World Health Organization have both said this is highly unlikely.

 

2:38 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Fauci says minor things can set back vaccine production by months

From CNN's Lauren Mascarenhas

Dr. Anthony Fauci joins President Joe Biden while touring the National Institutes of Health on February 11.
Dr. Anthony Fauci joins President Joe Biden while touring the National Institutes of Health on February 11. Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Even seemingly minor things can set back vaccine production by months, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said talking about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine supply mix up.                                                       

The US had been expecting between 20 to 30 million Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses by April, but now expects fewer than 20 million by that time. An administration official told CNN on Tuesday that the change was due to a miscommunication. The administration now expects single digit millions of doses to initially be available, if the vaccine is authorized for emergency use.

“The issue is, we would have hoped that we would have gotten more vaccines at the time that they get their emergency use authorization,” Fauci said in an MSNBC interview Thursday.

“It's a really complicated situation, when you're dealing with the production of biologics. Things – minor things – seemingly minor can set you back by weeks or a month or so,” he added. 

Johnson & Johnson is on track to meet its promise of producing 100 million vaccine doses for the US by July, Fauci said.

“We would have hoped that we would have had a lot of vaccines available, but we don't,” he said. “We're going to probably have single digits vaccine available right away, a bit more the next month, and then after that, it'll really scale up so that they will almost certainly meet their contractual arrangement.”

Johnson & Johnson has asked the Federal Drug Administration to authorize its vaccine for emergency use and an independent review of the vaccine is scheduled for Feb. 26. 

1:50 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Workers use PPE if employers give it to them, CDC study finds

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

US workers will use personal protective equipment if their employers give it out, a new study finds.

Researchers from the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health looked at survey answers from 742 non-healthcare, non-remote workers last June who didn’t use PPE at work before the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Just 29% used PPE if it was left entirely up to them, the team reported Thursday in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly. More than half of those who used PPE were required to do so by employers. And use doubled if the PPE was provided, they found.

About 30% of workers who were not required to use PPE were provided the equipment by employers, the NIOSH team found, and 45% of those workers used the PPE. That compared to 22% of workers who didn’t use PPE if it wasn’t provided.

The team also found 8% of workers were forbidden to use PPE by their employers. “Overall, lower-income workers were more likely than were higher-income workers to be prohibited from using hazard controls or to be unable to obtain them,” the team wrote.

The team also noted why wearing PPE matters.

“Failure to protect workers from COVID-19 might exacerbate existing health disparities, including those among lower-income populations,” the team said. “Workers with lower incomes are more likely than are those with higher incomes to have preexisting health conditions that might increase the risk for severe COVID-19–associated illness.”

Among those who did not use PPE and other hazard controls in the workplace, 15% were unable to obtain them and 77%  said they thought that they weren’t necessary.

Lower-income workers were more likely to be prohibited from use or unable to obtain them, compared with higher-income workers.

“Employers can help protect workers against Covid-19 by requiring and encouraging occupational hazard control use and providing recommended hazard controls, along with other Covid-19 workplace precautions,” said the report.

 

1:00 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

European Commission has "a lot to learn" from vaccine rollout, says Denmark's foreign minister

From CNN’s Samantha Tapfumaneyi

Jeppe Kofod, Denmark’s foreign minister, spoke to CNN's Becky Anderson on Thursday.
Jeppe Kofod, Denmark’s foreign minister, spoke to CNN's Becky Anderson on Thursday.

The European Commission has a “lot to learn” from its Covid-19 vaccine rollout, Denmark’s Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod told CNN’s Becky Anderson in an interview on Thursday.

“I think there's a lot to learn from the process that also the European Union has to learn, the Commission that has been responsible for negotiating contracts on behalf of member states and the whole setup around the pandemic,” Kofod said.

Asked about the criticism the EU has faced on its vaccine rollout, Kofod said:

“I think we all are desperate to get the vaccine. Now we are ready. In the case of Denmark, we can vaccinate 100,000 people a day if we have the vaccine arrive into the country.”

Kofod agreed that the rollout “has not been a full success.”

The foreign minister pointed out that it’s not a shortage of vaccines that has been a problem but the delay in arrivals.

“We are all desperate to get our population vaccinated sooner than later,” Kofod said.

12:52 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

More than 1.8 million vaccine doses have been administered in Pennsylvania so far

From CNN's Kristina Sgueglia

Eugene Proctor receives a Covid-19 vaccine at the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center.
Eugene Proctor receives a Covid-19 vaccine at the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Pennsylvania has administered more than 1.8 million vaccine doses so far, and expects 326,850 doses to have been allocated through Feb. 20.

According to the state's health department, 85% of those, or 1,365,523 doses that were administered, were first doses, and 40% or 467,115 doses were second doses.

Vaccination numbers do not include Philadelphia, which is its own jurisdiction, or federal facilities, which are working directly with the federal government, the department said.

The state reports 3,345 additional cases and 84 deaths.

Note: These numbers were released by the state health department and may not line up with Johns Hopkins University's Covid-19 numbers.

12:18 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Northern Ireland extends lockdown until April 1

From CNN's Sarah Dean

A man walks past a shuttered pub in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Monday.
A man walks past a shuttered pub in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Monday. Liam McBurney/PA Images/Getty Images

Lockdown restrictions currently in place in Northern Ireland will be extended until April 1, First Minister Arlene Foster announced on Thursday.

The current restrictions were due to expire on March 5.

The Northern Ireland Executive has agreed that the current measures to curb the spread of coronavirus must remain, but there will be a further review of restrictions on March 18, she added.

Foster said that although Northern Ireland has achieved "significant" results in its pushback against Covid-19 in recent weeks, there is still great concern over the new variants. "We must proceed with great care and caution," she urged.

The first step of restrictions easing will be a gradual return to schools.

Preschool children and primary classes up to year three will return from March 8. Secondary school students in exam years – including GCSE and A-Level students – will return to face-to-face teaching on March 22, Foster said.

England and Scotland have been under lockdown since early January, and Wales and Northern Ireland have been under lockdown since late December. 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to set out a road map for England’s exit from lockdown next week.

12:19 p.m. ET, February 18, 2021

WHO will launch a new declaration on vaccine equity

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, speaks during Thursday's news briefing.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, speaks during Thursday's news briefing. World Health Organization

The World Health Organization will launch a new declaration focused on vaccine equity on Friday, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced during a news briefing.

The declaration, which Tedros said has already received support from hundreds of organizations and thousands of people, calls for action from several groups who have already signed on.

The actions include asking political leaders to increase contributions to the COVAX facility – a program designed to guarantee fair and equitable access to vaccines for every country in the world – and share doses in parallel with their national rollout, regulatory bodies to accelerate approval processes in a safe and effective way and for all governments to ensure that vaccines are distributed free at the point of care, starting with health workers.

“Vaccine equity is especially important for fragile and vulnerable groups and for small island states, like those in the Pacific and Caribbean with small populations who can miss out on vaccines because they have less bargaining power than bigger countries,” Tedros said Thursday.

“Everywhere means everywhere. Nowhere should be left behind,” he added.

11:39 a.m. ET, February 18, 2021

Democratic congresswoman: “We failed again and again to think ahead” for students and parents

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

As US schools weigh reopening for full-time in-person learning, Democratic California Rep. Katie Porter says part of the discussion is “that we failed again and again to think ahead about what kids and families need.” 

“All of this discussion today about school reopening is a little bit exasperating to me because I started worrying about school reopening…the day that schools closed,” she said to CNN’s Poppy Harlow. “Because I really, as a single parent, depend on high quality public schools to help me take care of my kids and make sure they're learning.”

 Porter is a single mother of three children. She said that she is glad President Biden is “pushing” and “asking the right questions and setting deadlines” on school plans.

But she said there is not enough guidance about what should happen after all students go back to school, and she has sent a letter to the Department of Education about it. 

“We can't just put kids back in school as if their learning and social and emotional development has not been severely interrupted,” Porter said. “And this problem is particularly acute with regard to math and science education, so … it’s a workforce development issue as well.”

While the Biden administration says teachers should be prioritized for vaccinations, it is not required to reopen schools.

“I think if we push and make a real effort, it is very possible to offer at least the first vaccine to all teachers here in the next couple of weeks,” Porter said. “I think teachers need to be in the next group and that is really important for them to be able to stay in the workforce. It doesn't do any good to open schools only if teachers get sick and go out.”

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