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Solving COVID: February 10, 2021


1. Oxford vaccine offers 'minimal protection' against South African COVID-19 variant, study suggests The COVID-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca offers only "minimal protection" against mild COVID-19 infections from the so-called South African variant of the coronavirus, a recent, not-yet-peer-reviewed study suggests. But Prof. Sarah Gilbert, Oxford's lead vaccine developer, thinks the shots will protect against severe disease and therefore should still help lift the burden on health-care systems. She added that Oxford and AstraZeneca will likely have a modified version of the vaccine available in the fall that will be wired to defend against the South African variant. Because multiple vaccines appear to be less effective against the South African variant, Nadhim Zahawi, the United Kingdom's vaccine minister, said there is a possibility a booster shot will be needed in the fall, perhaps followed by an annual vaccination to keep up with coronavirus mutations, as with the flu. [BBC]

2. FDA plans rapid review process for COVID-19 booster shots New variants of the coronavirus are jeopardizing hopes of quashing the COVID-19 pandemic by the fall. But acting Food and Drug Administration head Dr. Janet Woodcock said the U.S. is planning a rapid review process for booster shots that would target the new strains and any subsequent mutations that rendered the current vaccines ineffective. Full clinical trials of booster shots would take too long and face other impracticalities, Woodcock said, but the boosters would still need to be evaluated for safety and efficacy by an independent expert advisory panel, preferably in a public hearing. The FDA expects to propose written guidelines in two to three weeks. [The Wall Street Journal, Reuters]

3. China approves 2nd COVID-19 vaccine for general public use The Chinese government has authorized the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech for general public use, the company said Saturday. Sinovac's jab, which requires a two-dose regimen, will be the second coronavirus vaccine approved in China. The green light is based on results from two months' worth of late-stage trials in Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and Chile, although Sinovac said final analysis data is not yet available and more confirmation on safety results is needed. The trial results, which were light on details, varied fairly significantly from country to country — the vaccine was found to be just over 50 percent effective in Brazil, 91 percent in Turkey (that figure is based on a preliminary analysis of just 29 cases), and 65 percent in Indonesia. In Brazil, however, the vaccine appeared more effective at preventing COVID-19 infections that required medical attention, registering a nearly 84 percent rate in that category, and 100 percent effective against hospitalization. [The South China Morning Post]

4. U.S. may not reach COVID-19 herd immunity until Thanksgiving, Biden officials reportedly say Members of President Biden's COVID-19 team are telling officials the U.S. may not achieve COVID-19 herd immunity until Thanksgiving or early winter, two senior administration officials tell The Daily Beast. Vaccine distribution is lagging across the U.S. and uncertainty surrounds whether the shots are reaching underserved populations. And while the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are still effective against identified coronavirus variants, evidence suggests they may be less so, raising concerns among scientists over how well the vaccines will work against still forthcoming strains. The reported warning comes after Biden indicated earlier this week that it'll be "very difficult" to reach herd immunity before the end of the summer with the current vaccine distribution rate of 1.5 million shots given each day. [The Daily Beast, The Washington Post]

5. Emerging data show promising effects of COVID-19 vaccination in Israel Data from Israel's world-leading COVID-19 vaccination drive still look promising, Reuters reports. Israel prioritized the elderly early in the campaign, and since second doses were first administered on Jan. 10, the country's over-60 population has seen a 53 percent decrease in confirmed COVID-19 cases, a 39 percent drop in hospitalizations, and a 31 percent decline in deaths. The under-60 population, meanwhile, has seen an increase in hospitalizations and deaths. According to Our World in Data, based out of the University of Oxford, infections are still increasing among people younger than 40, which suggests the vaccines are indeed protecting the older, inoculated population. Reuters also pointed to a study from Maccabi Healthcare Services, which shows a side-by-side comparison of the vaccinated and non-vaccinated population. The former group has a much lower — and still-decreasing — infection rate. [Reuters, The Week]


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