The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines

By Jessie Yeung, Zamira Rahim, Kareem Khadder and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 8:15 PM ET, Thu March 4, 2021
11 Posts
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7:49 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

Relaxing Covid-19 restrictions in US now is "inexplicable," says Fauci

From CNN's Madeline Holcombe

People visit Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, Texas, on March 3.
People visit Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, Texas, on March 3. Eric Gay/AP

While tens of thousands of Americans are infected with the coronavirus each day and more research suggests variants threaten another surge, some US state leaders are loosening Covid-19 restrictions against the recommendations of health experts.

The decision to rollback measures is "inexplicable," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"I understand the need to want to get back to normality, but you're only going to set yourself back if you just completely push aside the public health guidelines -- particularly when we're dealing with anywhere from 55 to 70,000 infections per day in the United States," Fauci told CNN's Erin Burnett.

The governors of Texas and Mississippi said Tuesday they were lifting mandates and allowing businesses to operate at full capacity, announcements that came in the midst of health experts warning that the spread of more transmissible variants risks sending infection rates soaring once again.

Read more here:

7:44 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

Canadian experts advise extending vaccine dose interval by up to 4 months

From CNN’s Paula Newton

A healthcare worker prepares the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for shelter residents in Montreal on January 25.
A healthcare worker prepares the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for shelter residents in Montreal on January 25. Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has told the country's provinces that they can extend the interval between Covid-19 vaccine doses from six weeks to up to four months, according to a statement released by the agency.

NACI recommends extending the time between the delivery of the first and second dose to maximize the number of individuals benefiting from vaccinations, the statement explains. The change in guidance comes amid Covid-19 vaccine shortages across Canada.

By implementing the extension, “Canada will be able to provide access to first doses of highly efficacious vaccines to more individuals earlier which is expected to increase health equity faster,” the statement reads. 

Some provinces had already extended the interval between the delivery of the doses, but usually only by a few weeks, health officials told reporters at a press conference on the matter late Wednesday night. 

NACI says the final decision on whether to extend the interval, and by how much, is left to provincial governments. 

Previously, NACI recommended that the maximum interval between administering the first and second dose shots of the Moderna vaccine should be four weeks, the interval for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine should be three weeks and the interval between administering first and second dose shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine should be 12 weeks.

7:27 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

US senate readies for a late night in push for pandemic relief

From CNN's Clare Foran and Ted Barrett

The US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 3.
The US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 3. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The US senate is bracing for a marathon effort and a late night of voting on amendments before lawmakers take a final vote on President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill -- it's just not yet clear exactly when that will take place.

A procedural move to advance the bill now seems on track for a vote Thursday, a Senate Democratic aide told CNN, with Democratic leaders still waiting Wednesday evening for the official cost estimate before bringing the newly revised bill to the floor.

Democrats say the legislation is urgently needed to address the continued devastation of the pandemic. Republicans, on the other hand, have denounced the bill as a partisan measure jam-packed with liberal priorities and are signaling they won't let it advance to a final vote without putting up a fight and dragging out the process.

In addition to forcing a full reading of the bill, which could take 10 hours, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has indicated he could take steps to stretch out the timeline for considering the legislation and any amendments offered to it.

"I think that would be a good idea," he told CNN when asked if he would force a reading of every amendment.
"We're talking about $1.9 trillion ... a stack of one billion dollars that would extend halfway past the distance to the moon. And we want to do this in a matter of hours? I don't think that's right."

Read the full story here:

7:10 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

UK regulator to fast-track modified vaccines for new coronavirus variants

From CNN's Zahid Mahmood and Meera Senthilingam

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said on Thursday that new Covid-19 vaccines modified to tackle new variants of the virus can now be fast-tracked for approval.

The MHRA issued new guidance with ACCESS Consortium -- a coalition of regulatory authorities in Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland.

The regulator said authorized Covid-19 vaccines that are modified in response to new variants will not need brand new approval or lengthy clinical studies.

But the guidance states that vaccine manufacturers will need to provide robust evidence that the modified shot produces an immune response.

Researchers can now measure such protection from vaccines by monitoring antibodies in the blood after inoculation, reducing the need to wait and see if people in a trial become infected with the disease or not through clinical trials.

The manufacturer would also be expected to provide evidence showing the modified vaccine is safe and is of the expected quality. 

Data from original clinical trials of the vaccines and ongoing studies on their real-world use could also be used to support any decision by the regulators.

Our priority is to get effective vaccines to the public in as short a time as possible, without compromising on safety. Should any modifications to authorised Covid-19 vaccines be necessary, this regulatory approach should help to do just that," MHRA Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Christian Schneider said.

"The announcement today also demonstrates the strength of our international partnerships with other regulators and how our global work can help ensure faster access to life-saving vaccines in the UK and around the world," Schneider said.

He added: "The public should be confident that no vaccine would be approved unless the expected high standards of safety, quality and effectiveness are met.”"

June Raine, chief regulator at MHRA said she'd like to "emphasize that to date we don't have evidence that the vaccines in use in the UK are significantly lacking in effectiveness."

She added: "A clear goal is that the future vaccine modifications that respond to the new variants of coronavirus can be made available in the shortest possible time to UK recipients without compromising at any stage on safety, quality, or effectiveness."

According to the guidance, the fast-tracking approach is tried and tested on seasonal flu vaccines for which modifications are needed each year to match the emerging strains circulated.

6:24 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

China approves sale of three traditional herbal remedies for use against coronavirus

From CNN's Nectar Gan and Jessie Yeung

China has approved three traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) products for sale to help treat Covid-19, the government's National Medical Products Administration announced on Wednesday.

The agency used a special approval procedure to green-light the three products, which "provide more options for Covid-19 treatment," it said in a statement.

The herbal products come in granular form and trace their origins to "ancient Chinese prescriptions," said the statement. They were developed from TCM remedies that had been used early in the pandemic, and that were "screened by many academics and experts on the front line." 

The three products are "lung-clearing and detoxing granules," "dampness-resolving and detoxing granules," and "lung-diffusing and detoxing granules," said the statement. 

The safety and effectiveness of TCM is still debated in China, where it has both supporters and skeptics. Though many of the remedies in TCM have been in use for hundreds of years, critics argue that there is no verifiable scientific evidence to support their supposed benefits.

In recent years, ancient remedies have been repeatedly hailed as a source of national pride by Chinese President Xi Jinping, himself a well-known TCM advocate.

Read the full story here:

5:53 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

Denmark records first case of P.1 Covid-19 variant initially identified in Brazil

From CNN’s Antonia Mortensen in Milan

Denmark has detected a case of the P.1 coronavirus variant -- which was first discovered in Brazil -- in the country for the first time, the Danish health minister said Wednesday.

The first case of the variant P.1 has been found in Denmark. P.1 was originally detected in Brazil and is one of those we have a special focus on. Intensive infection detection has been initiated,” Magnus Heunicke tweeted.

The variant has been found by the Technical University of Denmark, which helps analyze samples, and confirmed by Denmark's national infectious disease agency.

Research suggests the variant is as much as 2.2 times more transmissible and could evade immunity from previous Covid-19 infection by up to 61%. 

Six cases of the P.1 variant were also reported in the UK this week with a manhunt underway to find one unidentified case.

Researchers commented that this is unlikely to cause a surge in cases, adding that “you need many introductions to start an epidemic, so six is very few.”  

Public Health England said in a statement on Sunday that the unidentified person is one of six cases of the variant. The agency added that three of the cases were found in England and another three in Scotland.

The variant has also been detected in other European nations including Spain, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands.

Read more about Covid-19 variants here:

5:32 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

EU regulator begins review of Russian vaccine

From CNN’s James Frater, Vasco Cotovio and Zahra Ullah

Vials of the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine are at Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow on February 19.
Vials of the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine are at Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow on February 19. Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The European Union’s vaccine regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), has begun a rolling review of Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine Sputnik V. 

“The decision to start the rolling review is based on results from laboratory studies and clinical studies in adults” the EMA said in a statement on Thursday.
“These studies indicate that Sputnik V triggers the production of antibodies and immune cells that target the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and may help protect against Covid-19.”

“EMA will evaluate data as they become available to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks,” the statement adds.

The rolling review comes after complaints about the European Commission’s slow vaccine deployment. The delays have led to some member states unilaterally approving Sputnik V, the vaccine produced by Russia’s Gamaleya National Centre of Epidemiology and Microbiology. 

The shot has been found to be 91.6% effective against symptomatic Covid-19 and 100% effective against severe and moderate disease, according to an interim analysis of the vaccine's Phase 3 trial results published in The Lancet medical journal.

The head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, Kirill Dmitriev, welcomed the announcement saying the decision “should be above politics.” The fund is responsible for global production and distribution of the vaccine.

“Vaccine partnerships should be above politics and cooperation with EMA is a perfect example demonstrating that pooling efforts is the only way to end the pandemic,” Dmitriev said.

He went on to say Russia could provide the European Union with enough vaccines to inoculate 50 million people, with distribution beginning in June 2021. 

“Sputnik V can make an important contribution to saving millions of lives in Europe and we are looking forward to a thorough review,” he said.
5:08 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

Spanish princesses' Abu Dhabi vaccinations spark controversy 

From CNN’s Al Goodman in Madrid and Claudia Rebaza in London 

Spain's Princess Elena, left, and Princess Cristina.
Spain's Princess Elena, left, and Princess Cristina. Ballesteros/Pool/Getty Images

The Covid-19 vaccinations of two Spanish princesses in the United Arab Emirates -- much earlier than they would have received them in Spain -- have sparked controversy since the news was first reported by El Confidencial digital newspaper in Madrid. 

Several Spanish ministers on Wednesday publicly criticized the two princesses, Elena and Cristina, who were vaccinated recently while visiting their father, Spain’s former King Juan Carlos, in Abu Dhabi, where he’s living.

Soon after the criticism, Princess Elena issued a statement that she said was “in response to media reports about the vaccination.” 

“My sister (Cristina) and I, having gone to visit our father (in Abu Dhabi) and with the aim of getting a health passport that would allow us to visit him regularly, we were offered the vaccine and we accepted it.” 

The statement concluded that had it not been for the circumstances, the princesses would have waited for their turn to get the vaccine in Spain. 

A royal household spokesman noted that princesses Elena and Cristina, while sisters of Spain’s King Felipe, have not had any official duties as members of the royal family at least since 2014.

The spokesman also emphasized that the King, Queen and their two daughters are strictly following Spain’s Covid health guidelines, and “will wait their turn” for the vaccinations in Spain, based on their ages and health conditions. 

Spain, like other European Union countries, has had delays in its vaccine program due to limited supplies. It has also seen a number of government officials and a few Roman Catholic clergy who have jumped the queue to get vaccinations. Several of them later apologized publicly and some resigned from their positions. 

Health Ministry data shows that just 1.4 million people in Spain have received both doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, along with some others getting the AstraZeneca vaccine, in a population of about 47 million. 

3:21 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

Germany will authorize Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for over 65s

From CNN's AJ Davis in Atlanta 

A doctor administers an Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Berlin, Germany, on February 10.
A doctor administers an Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Berlin, Germany, on February 10. Kay Nietfeld/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Germany's vaccine commission will soon authorize the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for people aged over 65, following the latest studies, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday.  

The commission had recommended in January that the vaccine should not be given to over 65s due to insufficient data. 

Coronavirus restrictions nationwide will be eased in five stages, Merkel added -- each additional step will be taken every 14 days if infection rates stay low. 

“We will install an emergency brake if we get into an exponential growth of infections surpassing a weekly rate of 100 per 100,000," she said. 

Merkel also said that all Germans will be able to receive a free rapid test every week, starting March 8. 

"We are once again at the threshold of a new phase of the pandemic that we can go into not carelessly but still with justified hope. Today we can speak of hope and the transition to a new phase because all of us have achieved a lot in our country in the past few months," she said.