February 23 coronavirus news

By Helen Regan, Eoin McSweeney and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 2:14 AM ET, Wed February 24, 2021
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5:56 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

UK variant likely to drive new wave of US transmission in spring, experts say

From CNN's Maggie Fox

A new, more contagious variant of coronavirus first seen in the UK is likely to fuel a surge of cases in the US in spring, several experts predicted Tuesday. They say the best way to get out ahead of it is to vaccinate as many people as possible.

The variant called B.1.1.7 was suspected of causing renewed spread in Britain and it’s been seen across much of the US – more than 1,880 cases in 45 states, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But those are only the cases detected by sequencing, which falls short in the US, said virus expert Trevor Bedford of the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“It’s going to increase in the spring. It could result in more of a wave in, say, April or May than we would have expected otherwise. But I still do suspect that things will be brought under control in the summer, and there will be very little virus circulating,” Bedford told a briefing sponsored by the cancer center.

Vaccination efforts and mitigation efforts such as mask use and continued social distancing will help bring spread under control, Bedford said, adding, it’s possible, a new surge could begin in the fall.

Dr. Josh Schiffer, an infectious diseases specialist at Fred Hutch who has been modeling patterns of spread, agreed. “I think with the newly infectious variants, I think it is going to be difficult to prevent a fourth wave altogether,” Schiffer said. 

Vaccination will be the best way to slow any renewed surges, the experts said. “We do want a lot of vaccines and strong robust immunity from those vaccines,” Bedford said.

Dr. Larry Corey, a University of Washington vaccine expert who has been leading clinical trials of coronavirus vaccines, said the vaccines available so far appear to protect people from the variants. “The great thing to remember is that the vaccines appear to induce better immunity than natural infection. This is a major achievement,” Corey said.

5:24 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Report calls for delaying second doses of vaccine, warns of surge fueled by coronavirus variant

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

A new report out Tuesday warns that a more transmissible variant of coronavirus threatens to start a renewed surge of infections in March, and suggests the US speed up vaccination by skipping second doses for now.

People over 65 should go to the front of the line, since they are by far the most vulnerable to severe disease and death, Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm and colleagues at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota recommended.

They call on the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to quickly assemble advisers to help change vaccination guidelines to get more vulnerable people vaccinated more quickly, before the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus, first seen in the UK, causes more spread.

“If the US experiences a surge similar to that seen in the UK, one could expect to see unprecedented healthcare demand of 175,000 to 193,000 hospitalizations per day — far surpassing the US peak of 132,474 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 set in early January,” the report reads. Right now, just over 55,000 people are currently hospitalized for Covid-19 in the US, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

“To maintain healthcare capacity during a B.1.1.7 surge, we have a time-limited period to strategically target vaccination to those at highest risk of hospitalization and death before the surge arrives," it adds.

So far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 44.5 million people have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine and just under 20 million have gotten both doses.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are meant to be given as two doses, three or four weeks apart, but the report recommends delaying that second dose to get more people at least partial protection.

“There is a narrow and rapidly closing window of opportunity to more effectively use vaccines and potentially prevent thousands of severe cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the next weeks and months,” it reads.

It also says the FDA should consider authorizing a half-dose of Moderna’s vaccine, based on evidence that even half a dose provides good protection, at least at first.

5:01 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

New studies raise concerns about coronavirus variant seen in California

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Two studies due to come out soon raise concerns about a new coronavirus variant that scientists have been keeping an eye on in California.  

They hint that the variant might not only be more contagious, but may cause more severe disease, as well. The research is in its very early stages, has not been published or peer reviewed, and needs more work, the researchers stressed.

A team at the University of California, San Francisco, tested virus samples from recent outbreaks across California and found it was becoming far more common. It wasn’t seen in any samples from September but by the end of January it was found in half the samples. 

This variant, which the team calls B.1.427/B.1.429, has a different pattern of mutations than the variants first seen in the UK, called B.1.1.7 and in South Africa, called B.1.351. One mutation, called L452R, affects the spike protein of the virus, which is the bit that attaches to cells the virus infects.

“One specific mutation, the L452R mutation, in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein may enable the virus to dock more efficiently to cells. Our data shows that this is likely the key mutation that makes this variant more infectious,” Dr. Charles Chiu, associate director of the clinical microbiology lab at UCSF, who led one of the studies, told CNN. 

And they found some evidence it is more dangerous.

“In this study, we observed increased severity of disease associated with B.1.427/B.1.429 infection, including increased risk of high oxygen requirement,” they wrote in their report, which is to post to a preprint server later this week after public health officials in San Francisco review it.

Chiu said it should be designated a variant of concern and should be made a priority for study.

A second team at Unidos en Salud, a San Francisco-based nonprofit offering fast testing in San Francisco’s Mission District, tested 8,846 people over the month of January and sequenced the virus from 630 of the samples. They also found a rapid increase in the variant.

“The research findings indicate that the L452R variant represents 53% of the positive test samples collected between January 10th and the 27th. That is a significant increase from November when our sequencing indicated that this variant comprised only 16% of the positive tests,” Dr. Diane Havlir, an infectious diseases expert at UCSF who is helping lead the study, said in a statement.

Havlir’s team is also preparing their findings for publication.

4:16 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Republicans begin new push against Biden's Covid-19 relief plan 

From CNN's Manu Raju and Clare Foran

Sen. John Thune speaks during a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, February 23.
Sen. John Thune speaks during a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, February 23. Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

Republican leaders in both chambers are maneuvering to keep all of their members in line against the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan, a move that would deny President Biden a bipartisan victory and one that could scuttle the bill in the Senate if any Democrat breaks ranks. 

But the move amounts to a political risk for Republicans with polls showing clear majorities of Americans supporting an emergency rescue package and with the economy still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.  

So Republicans now plan to begin an urgent public relations push to argue that the bill is bloated, poorly targeted and contains a hodge-podge of measures aimed at pleasing the Democratic base – a message that party leaders discussed with their members at a private GOP lunch on Tuesday and that they plan to echo in the days ahead, attendees say. 

"If the Democrats continue down the path they're on and that is to not make any attempt to try and get Republican input or ideas, it makes it hard for any of our members, even those that might be inclined to do so to vote for it, to vote for anything," Senate Minority Whip John Thune told CNN. "So, if it's in its current contours, it's hard to see very many, if any, Republicans being for it, especially given the way the Democrats have approached it." 

At the lunch on Tuesday, GOP senators talked at length about the Democrats’ bill, with attendees emerging criticizing it in sharp terms. They discussed their strategy for putting Democrats in a difficult political spot when amendment votes happen next week in the Senate, while also putting forward some middle-of-the-road amendments that could attract some Democratic support, according to attendees. 

And afterward, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the Democrats’ plan as “totally partisan,” while acknowledging that his party had work to do on its messaging in the face of public support for the Biden plan.  

“I’m sure everybody would love to get a check,” McConnell said, referring to the checks of up to $1,400 for certain individuals in the proposal. “But they haven’t yet learned about what else is in it and part of our job as the substantial minority, remember we’re in a 50-50 Senate here, is to make sure the American people fully understand what’s being proposed."

Democrats, however, argue that they have a mandate after winning the White House and the Senate and are taking urgently needed action to deliver aid to an American public suffering under the devastating toll of the ongoing pandemic. They have insisted they are willing to work with Republicans but will not water down the plan — a lesson they say they learned from then-President Barack Obama's first stimulus plan in 2009.  

CNN's Olanma Mang, Ted Barrett and Lauren Fox contributed reporting to this post.

4:08 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

White House says 2 million doses of J&J vaccine should be ready next week, pending authorization

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins

A  dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is prepared for a clinical trial on December 15, 2020 in Aurora, Colorado.
A dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is prepared for a clinical trial on December 15, 2020 in Aurora, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images/FILE

President Biden's coronavirus advisers told governors today that they believe an estimated two million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be available next week pending emergency use authorization, according to a source familiar with the conversation. 

A White House official confirmed the conversation and said, "If an EUA is issued, we anticipate jurisdictions will get an allocation of around 2 million doses of J&J supply next week."

Richard Nettles, a Johnson & Johnson executive, told a House panel earlier Tuesday that they expect to ship nearly four million doses upon authorization. It's not clear why the numbers are different.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was designed to be a one dose shot, as opposed to the two doses required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. 

3:09 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Biden indicates masks will be sent directly to Americans

From CNN's Jason Hoffman

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Biden indicated the White House will move to send masks directly to the American people as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, something that was originally proposed by health officials during the Trump administration but blocked by the former President.

“We're probably going to be sending out an awful lot of mask around the country very shortly, millions of them,” Biden said during a roundtable event with Black frontline workers. He said that the issue of masks was turned into a political issue, which cost “an awful lot of lives.”

"We could have saved literally an awful lot of lives if people had listened. We turned wearing masks into a political statement. If you were for this thing, you wore it, if we were for somebody else, you didn't wear it, when in fact, it's just plain basic science,” Biden said.

Earlier this month, White House chief of staff Ron Klain said that the Biden administration is hoping to resurrect a proposal from the Trump administration send masks directly to Americans.

"This was an idea that really came up last year in the Trump administration — the public health agencies recommended it, President Trump vetoed it for some reason," Klain told NBC's Lester Holt on Feb. 4. "We want to get this back on track. I hope in the next few days, or next week, we may be able to announce some progress on this.”

The US Postal Service had planned to distribute 650 million face coverings for the Trump administration last April, according to internal documents reviewed by CNN in September. A senior administration official told The Washington Post at the time that the plan was scrapped by the White House as some advisers were worried that it could create "concern or panic."

CNN has reached out to the White House to see if there are any additional details on this after the President’s remarks on Tuesday.

2:07 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

About 65 million Covid-19 vaccine doses administered in the US

From CNN's Deidre McPhillips

People drive through a tent outside Coors Field as they receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during a mass vaccination event on February 20 in Denver, Colorado.
People drive through a tent outside Coors Field as they receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during a mass vaccination event on February 20 in Denver, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

More than 65 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been administered in the United States, according to data published Tuesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC reported that 65,032,083 total doses have been administered, about 79% of the 82,114,370 doses delivered.

That’s only about 850,000 more administered doses reported since yesterday, for a seven-day average of about 1.4 million doses per day. 

About 44.5 million people have now received at least one dose of vaccine and about 19.9 million people have been fully vaccinated with both shots, CDC data shows.

Note: Data published by the CDC may be delayed, and doses may not have been given on the day reported.

1:55 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

Ireland's coronavirus lockdown will remain in place until at least April 5

From CNN's Emmet Lyons and Lauren Kent

A man walks in Belfast, Ireland, on February 15.
A man walks in Belfast, Ireland, on February 15. Liam McBurney/PA Images/Getty Images

Ireland's coronavirus lockdown will remain in place until April 5, the government's press office said in a statement released Tuesday.

A further review of the restrictions will be conducted on April 5, and the government will consider easing limits that currently restrict movement to within three miles of people's homes, as well as consider easing some restrictions on outdoor activities and meeting other households.

The country will also begin a staggered return to in-school education beginning on March 1, according to the statement. The country's aim is for all classes to return after the Easter break.

Ireland also plans to resume non-Covid-related health services in the coming weeks and expand the reopening of childcare.

"It is critically important that we do not let our guard down. We are carefully and gradually reopening schools because we need to get our children back into education. This will represent a major relief for both pupils and hard-pressed parents," said Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin in a Tuesday address. "When we open things, we want them to stay open."

Martin added that the country has made "steady progress" on vaccinations, with more than 350,000 vaccine doses already administered. He said the government plans to give nearly half of people over 18 their first vaccine dose by the end of April, and 82% of adults their first dose by the end of June. 

"We want to protect as many people as possible in the coming months, until we achieve a critical mass of vaccinations," Martin said. "That is why we will continue to proceed carefully and cautiously, keeping the situation under constant review and being informed at all stages by public health advice."

1:19 p.m. ET, February 23, 2021

It is possible one dose of coronavirus vaccine might be enough for some, NIH director says

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

Pharmacist Jef Bratberg draws the Moderna Vaccine into syringes at Central Falls High School in Central Falls, Rhode Island, on February 13.
Pharmacist Jef Bratberg draws the Moderna Vaccine into syringes at Central Falls High School in Central Falls, Rhode Island, on February 13. Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

It’s possible a single dose of coronavirus vaccine might be enough for people who have already been infected, but it will take more research to show that, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, wrote in a blog post Tuesday

“While much more research is needed—and I am definitely not suggesting a change in the current recommendations right now—the results raise the possibility that one dose might be enough for someone who’s been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and already generated antibodies against the virus,” Collins wrote.

Collins referenced a recent preprint on a small NIH-funded study, which looked at 109 people who had already received a first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and found that for 41 people who had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies before their first shot, immune response to the first dose was “equal to, or in some cases better” than the response to the second dose in people without previous infection.

“If other studies support these results, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration might decide to consider whether one dose is enough for people who’ve had a prior COVID-19 infection. Such a policy is already under consideration in France and, if implemented, would help to extend vaccine supply and get more people vaccinated sooner,” wrote Collins. “But any serious consideration of this option will require more data. It will also be up to the expert advisors at FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to decide.”

Collins said that for now, the most important thing for everyone to do is to continue to follow the three W’s – wear a mask, wash hands and watch distance, “and roll up our sleeves for the vaccine as soon as it’s available to us.”