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Solving COVID: February 17, 2021

1. WHO approves emergency use of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine The World Health Organization on Monday announced that it had approved emergency use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University coronavirus vaccine, a move that will help expand the use of the shot in the developing world. AstraZeneca's vaccine is cheaper and easier to distribute than some rivals, including the one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which the WHO approved for emergency use in December. "We now have all the pieces in place for the rapid distribution of vaccines. But we still need to scale up production," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "We continue to call for COVID-19 vaccine developers to submit their dossiers to WHO for review at the same time as they submit them to regulators in high-income countries." [Reuters] 2. Israeli study shows Pfizer vaccine cuts symptomatic COVID-19 by 94 percent Clalit, the largest of Israel's four health-care providers, reported Sunday that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has resulted in a 94 percent drop in symptomatic COVID-19 infections among those who have gotten both doses, and a 92 percent decline in severe illness. Clalit compared 600,000 Israelis who have been fully vaccinated against an equal number who have not. "It is now unequivocal that Pfizer's vaccine against the coronavirus is incredibly effective in real life one week after the second dose, just as was found in the clinical study," said Ran Balicer, Clalit's chief innovation officer and one of the study's authors. Israel plans to inoculate most of its population by March. [The Wall Street Journal] 3. Oxford to launch COVID-19 vaccine trials for children The University of Oxford announced Saturday it will launch a new trial to test the COVID-19 vaccine it has developed in partnership with AstraZeneca on children between the ages of six and 17. The two-dose Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is already in use in the United Kingdom, though only people 18 and over can receive the shots as of now. Trial inoculations are expected to begin later this month, with 300 volunteers enrolling to help determine efficacy and safety. This marks the first attempt by a coronavirus vaccine developer to test its candidate in young people, NBC News notes. Prof. Andrew Pollard, the chief investigator on the Oxford vaccine trial, acknowledged children are "relatively unaffected" by the novel coronavirus, but it's still "important to establish the safety and immune response" because "some children may benefit from the vaccine." [NBC News, BBC] 4. Arthritis drug reduces COVID-19 deaths in study The arthritis drug tocilizumab reduced deaths among patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 in a new study. In the trial, 2,022 hospitalized COVID-19 patients received tocilizumab, while 2,094 patients received usual care; in the former group, 29 percent of patients died within 28 days, while 33 percent of patients died within 28 days in the latter group. Eighty-two percent of patients were taking a systemic steroid like dexamethasone. Additionally, tocilizumab shortened the amount of time until patients are discharged and reduced the need to go on a mechanical ventilator. The trial's joint chief investigator, Martin Landray, said that the results "clearly show the benefits of tocilizumab and dexamethasone in tackling the worst consequences of COVID-19 — improving survival, shortening hospital stay, and reducing the need for mechanical ventilators." [BBC News, Reuters] 5. Biden says COVID-19 vaccines will be widely available by end of July President Biden on Tuesday told a socially distanced CNN town hall audience in Milwaukee that by the end of July, every American who wants a COVID-19 vaccine will be able to get one. The United States will have more than 600 million doses by that time, Biden said, and there will be an increased number of vaccinators. When it comes to reopening schools, Biden said he hopes most K-8 campuses will be open by the end of his first 100 days in office, and the "goal will be five days a week." He noted it will be harder to open high schools because of the contagion factor, and said he wants to see teachers vaccinated soon. "We should move them up the hierarchy," he stated. [The Week]

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