Research teams discover new variants of US COVID-19; Pope Francis gets Pfizer vaccine


USA TODAY is keeping track of the news surrounding COVID-19 as a pair of vaccines join the U.S. fight against a virus that has killed nearly 385,000 Americans since the first reported fatality in February. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates surrounding the coronavirus, including who is getting the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, as well as other top news from across the USA TODAY Network. Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates directly to your inbox, join our Facebook group or scroll through our in-depth answers to reader questions for everything you need to know about the coronavirus.

In the headlines:

► Federal officials say monoclonal antibodies are in full supply, but patients and providers are not taking advantage of them to treat COVID-19. In a briefing Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services and Operation Warp Speed urged Americans to ask their doctors about the treatment to prevent severe illness and help ease the crushing burden of the pandemic on hospitals.

► In South Carolina, state health officials announced Thursday afternoon that they are shifting their COVID-19 response from “containment” to “mitigation” due to the continued high levels of the disease in the state. During containment, the focus is to control the spread of disease by investigating each case and all who come into contact with them, but now the state is at a point where there are too many cases to investigate.

► The U.S. recorded 3,848 deaths on Wednesday. The nation’s overall death toll from the coronavirus has eclipsed 386,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. It is closing in fast on the number of Americans killed in World War II, about 405,000.

► The single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine is safe and generates an immune response, based on early stage clinical trials, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine published Wednesday.

► The Vatican has confirmed Pope Francis received the first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine on Thursday. The 84-year-old has advocated that everyone should get the vaccine, calling it an “ethical option” performed not only for one’s own health but for the “lives of others.”

Story continues

► A global team of researchers arrived Thursday in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus was first detected, to investigate its origins.

► Pfizer, which with BioNTech developed the first COVID-19 authorized for use by the federal government, has raised prices on 193 name-brand drugs this month. While the median increase is a modest 0.5%, the price jump was about 5% for several of Pfizer’s most popular drugs.

► The Mississippi Health Department said the state cannot take any more appointments for coronavirus vaccinations because of a “monumental surge” in demand after Gov. Tate Reeves announced that more people are eligible for the shots.

► Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Wednesday he is removing pandemic mandates issued by his predecessor. Under the new rules that take effect Friday, restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos will no longer be required to close at 10 p.m. and will not be required to limit capacity to 50%.

► A new Ipsos survey found residents in several other countries were more hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine than Americans. China ranked the highest in vaccine acceptance with 80% of respondents saying they would get it. France ranked the lowest with only 40%. The U.S. stayed somewhere in the middle with 69%.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 23 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 384,600 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 92.3 million cases and 1.97 million deaths.

📘 What we’re reading: The seasonal flu has all but vanished, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That speaks volumes about the transmissibility of COVID-19, health experts say. Read more here.

In this photograph provided by Vatican Media, an ultra-low temperature refrigerator stands near the Pope Francis’ portrait in the room, at the atrium of the Paul VI audience, ready for anti-Covid-19 vaccination campaign in Vatican City State on January 13, 2021, in Vatican City, Vatican.U.S. lawmakers want to know why D.C. schools remain closed to in-person learning

As large school districts struggle to reopen their buildings, two U.S. lawmakers are demanding to know what’s holding up in-person learning in the nation’s capital.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., sent a letter Thursday to leaders of the District of Columbia Public Schools and its teachers union to ask what’s stalled the return of in-person learning for Washington students. The demand for information comes on the heels of a Washington Post story that detailed how mismanagement and poor planning by city, district and union officials thwarted the opportunity for children to return to class when infection rates were low.

The move is unusual because federal lawmakers have largely stayed out of local debates around school reopening.

Foxx, a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Comer, a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, both hail from states where many more schools have reopened for in-person instruction.

– Erin Richards

Researchers discover new variants of U.S. COVID-19 virus

Research teams at two universities announced Thursday they’d found a new variant of COVID-19.

A research team at Southern Illinois University discovered a new variant of the COVID-19 virus that is specific to and dominant in the U.S., adding to the growing list of mutations such as those discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa, the university said in a statement.

“It’s here. We found it,” Keith Gagnon, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at SIU, said. “It’s definitely home-grown and widespread, and we’re the first to characterize it.”

It could be more easily transmissible than other variants, and its impact on vaccines is uncertain, the university said.

Also, scientists at The Ohio State University have discovered a new variant of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The new variant carries a mutation identical to the strain in the United Kingdom, but it likely arose in a virus strain already present in the United States.

More college students got COVID than pre-school and school-age children when returning to classes

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study Wednesday that suggests COVID-19 transmission may be of more concern among college students than younger children going to school.

The study, published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that COVID-19 case didn’t increase among pre-school and school-age children from zero to ten years old in the summer and fall.

In contrast, cases increased significantly among young adults ages 18 to 24 in mid-July and early September, “suggesting that young adults might contribute more to community transmission than do younger children,” the CDC said.

The agency concedes that COVID-19 cases are likely underestimated among children and adolescents as asymptomatic infection occurs more frequently in these age groups.

Moderna needs at least 3K adolescent volunteers for vaccine trial

Not enough adolescents are signing up for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trial, a federal official said this week, potentially delaying vaccine authorization for this age group.

Moncef Slaoui, the scientific head of Operation Warp Speed, the government’s vaccine effort, said Tuesday that while a vaccine trial in adults is accruing 800 volunteers per day, the teen trial is getting only about 800 per month.

The study needs at least 3,000 participants, he said, to provide valid safety and effectiveness data, and get authorization from the FDA.

“It’s really very important for all of us, for all the population in America, to realize that we can’t have that indication unless adolescents age 12 to 18 decide to participate,” Slaoui said.

– Karen Weintraub

Dr. Michael Roach shows his vaccination card on Wednesday after receiving the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a site for health care workers in Pacoima, Calif.Some Wisconsin hospitals offer vaccine to staff who don’t care for patients

Faced with no-shows at immunization clinics and leftover doses, some Wisconsin hospital systems are offering COVID-19 vaccines to staff who do not work with patients or in medical settings, under an interpretation of vaccine prioritization guidelines that federal advisers say is a stretch.

At least one hospital system – Advocate Aurora – has opened up vaccine appointments to all employees. At other health systems, employees listed as administrators or public relations specialists have received vaccines, according to social media posts.

Wisconsin is still finishing the first phase of its vaccine rollout plan, which includes long-term care facilities and health care personnel, with a focus on front-line hospital staff.

The decisions by some hospitals to include employees who work from home and do not interact with patients have raised eyebrows in Wisconsin and other states.

– Daphne Chen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

What will COVID-19 look like in future? Maybe another common cold, study says

SARS-CoV-2 “could join the ranks of mild, cold-causing … human coronaviruses in the long run,” according to a model developed by Emory University and Penn State University scientists.

The model, published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Science, compares the deadly virus to four common cold coronaviruses plus the SARS and MERS viruses, which surfaced in 2003 and 2012, respectively.

Researchers determined from the model that if the coronavirus continues to circulate in the general population and most people are exposed to it from childhood, it could be added to the list of common colds.

Study authors concede the model makes some assumptions about the coronavirus and common colds that are not known yet, but a take-home message is “the critical need for broad-scale vaccination may wane in the near term,” said study author Ottar Bjornstad, who teaches entomology and biology at Penn State University.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news: WHO reseachers in Wuhan; Moderna vaccine trial; US deaths


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