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
16 Posts
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9:12 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

Relaxing Covid-19 guidelines is an "invitation" for virus to spread faster, epidemiologist says

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm on March 4.
Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm on March 4. CNN

Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said he is concerned about the spread of Covid-19 variants, especially as states ease restrictions. 

“Expect in the next two to three weeks we're going to see a number of areas in this country, I think, that will follow exactly what we've seen in Europe and the Middle East. We're going to see a surge in cases. And everything that the governors are doing right now to relax all the public health recommendations that we've made are only going to be a major invitation of this virus to spread faster and farther,” said Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Texas and Mississippi governors announced they are lifting mask mandates and fully opening businesses, a move that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci called "inexplicable."

While it is very positive that vaccinations continue at a steady pace, “we are denying the gravity of the situation before us,” particularly concerning the more-transmissible variant first identified in the United Kingdom, Osterholm said on CNN’s “New Day.” 

Osterholm said that the number of people currently vaccinated and those previously infected who have immunity add up to about 35 to 40% of the population protected. 

“For the whole last year — for all the pain, suffering and death and illness — we still are only at about 40%. … So add that together with the following: more infectious, more severe illness, and we're loosening up everything. You put those two together and I think the question is, what is going to happen? None of us can say with certainty other than to say it's not going to be good,” he said. 

9:14 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

The Czech Republic becomes the second EU country to ask for China's Sinopharm vaccine

From CNN's Tomas Etzler in Prague 

A nurse in Budapest, Hungary, holds a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by China's Sinopharm on February 25.
A nurse in Budapest, Hungary, holds a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by China's Sinopharm on February 25. Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

The Czech Republic has requested doses of China’s Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine, according to a tweet from the Czech president's spokesman Jiri Ovcacek. The nation has now become the second country in the European Union (EU) to request Sinopharm, following Hungary. 

The shot has not been approved by the EU's vaccine regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

"The Prime Minister asked the President of the Republic to contact the President of the PRC with a request for the delivery of the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm,” Ovcacek said on Twitter.
“The Chinese side decided to immediately accommodate this request," he added.

The announcement came after Czech health minister Jan Blatny said on Wednesday that there was no reason to import unregistered vaccines, because insurance companies could not cover the application of such vaccines. 

President Miloš Zeman's move attracted criticism from the country’s opposition parties who described his action’s as “hazardous" for vaccine confidence.

To undermine a fragile trust of many Czechs in vaccination by using insufficiently verified vaccines is hazardous," opposition leader Marketa Pekarova Adamova said on Wednesday according to Czech media. 

She added: "All vaccines should have equal conditions -- if we demand Pfizer, Johnson&Johnson, AstraZeneca [vaccines] and others approval from EMA, we also have to demand it for Sinopharm or Sputnik [Russia's vaccine]."

President Zeman also said in a televised interview on Sunday that he sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him for delivery of Sputnik V. Putin agreed to help, according to Zeman. 

The Czech Republic has been hit hard by Covid-19, with hospitals in the country's Central-Bohemian and Pardubice districts this declaring a state of “mass disability of persons."

This is where hospitals run out of bed space and suffer staff shortages, meaning the quality of care does not comply to national health and safety standards.

The country has recorded more than 1.2 million Covid-19 infections and over 21,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

8:43 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

Germany will extend interval between vaccine doses "to its maximum"

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt in Berlin and Sarah Dean in London

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on March 4.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on March 4. Markus Schreiber/AP

Germany will stretch the interval between administering the first and second doses of Covid-19 vaccines “to its maximum," Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Wednesday.

She said there will be a 42-day gap for the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech shot and a 12-week one for the second shot of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine. 

This will allow us to vaccinate more people faster for the first vaccination. This is also recommended by the STIKO [Germany’s vaccine commission],” Merkel said.

The Chancellor also said that in a bid to speed up the rollout of coronavirus vaccines, Germany will aim to swiftly distribute the shots through its network of family doctors’ practices.  

"At the end of March and the beginning of April, the second strand will be the supply of vaccines to the general practitioners in addition to the vaccination centers, so that there will be even more flexibility in the entire vaccination process,” she announced.

The change to Germany’s dosing strategy comes after real-world data from studies appeared to vindicate the UK's strategy of vaccinating as many high-risk people as possible with a first vaccine dose, and delaying the second shot.

The UK policy is for both Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca second doses to be administered towards the end of the recommended vaccine dosing schedule of 12 weeks, which has allowed for more than 20 million people to receive a first dose of a vaccine. 

Germany has administered around 4 million first doses and 2 million second doses since beginning its vaccination campaign in January, according to official data.

The country's vaccination authority has also approved the use of AstraZeneca's coronavirus shot on the over-65s, the German health ministry told CNN on Thursday.

“The Standing Commission on Vaccination recommends the AstraZeneca vaccine also for persons over 65 years of age,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a statement.
“This is good news for all older people who are waiting to be vaccinated. They can be vaccinated more quickly.”

The statement added that new study data showed that when the interval between the first and second vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine is extended to twelve weeks, “it is even more effective.” 

In January this year, Germany’s vaccine commission said AstraZeneca should not be given to people older than 65, citing insufficient data on its effectiveness.

But the policy u-turn comes after data from Public Health England released Monday suggested that a single dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine is highly effective against severe infection and hospitalization among elderly populations.

8:32 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

Worrying Covid resurgence in Eastern Europe, WHO warns, as Hungary goes into lockdown

From CNN's Chloe Adams and Samantha Tapfumaneyi

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of a concerning resurgence in coronavirus cases in central and eastern parts of Europe.

“New cases are also on the rise in several western European countries where rates were already high,” Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said during a Thursday news conference.

The continued strain on our hospitals and health workers is being met with acts of medical solidarity between European neighbors. Nonetheless, over a year into the pandemic, our health systems should not be in this situation,” he added

During the WHO news conference, it was also revealed that recent data around the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines have been promising and could lead to further recommendations on dosing intervals.

“The recent data on the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are encouraging, and I think this will lead us to the review of the earlier recommendations being made,” said Dr. Siddhartha Datta, WHO Europe’s program manager for vaccine preventable disease and immunization. 

A total of 45 countries have started vaccinations in the European region. So far, 1.9% of the population in 40 countries and 24.5% of health workers in 20 countries have received both doses of a vaccine. 

Meanwhile, Hungary will enter another lockdown on March 8 as Covid-19 cases spike across the eastern European country, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs tweeted on Thursday. 

As part of the lockdown, most shops will be closed and schools will shift to remote learning. The government will also extend state income support to sectors that have to close down from March 8 until March 22.

Kovacs spoke to CNN’s Becky Anderson on Tuesday and warned that the third wave of Covid-19 pandemic would be the hardest one.

The country of around 9.7 million people has reported a total of more than 446,000 Covid-19 cases and around 15,400 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally.

8:05 a.m. ET, March 4, 2021

Iraq prepares for the visit of Pope Francis

From CNN's Aqeel Najim, Mohammed Tawfeeq in Baghdad and Hamdi Alkhshali

Health workers operate a mobile Covid-19 testing unit at Shorja market in Baghdad, Iraq, on February 22.
Health workers operate a mobile Covid-19 testing unit at Shorja market in Baghdad, Iraq, on February 22. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis is set to begin his first papal visit to Iraq on Friday, and is scheduled to be in the country for three days. 

The Iraqi government said there will be a 24-hour lockdown for his visit. Last month, it announced a series of restrictive measures, "in light of the increasing number of infections among citizens," to contain the spread of coronavirus." Those measures are scheduled to run through March 8.

Read more on the Pope's visit to Iraq here:

Iraq's Ministry of Health reported 5,043 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 24 fatalities on Thursday, bringing the country's total infections to 713,994 and death toll to 13,507 since the pandemic began.

Additionally, to help fight Covid-19, the Kurdistan region’s borders, in line with other Iraqi provinces, will be closed from Thursday March 4 to Saturday March 6, except for the movement of government delegations, diplomats, coalition forces, and United Nations agencies and organizations.

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.