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Covid Chronicles XXX

By lockdown_exit - 26th Feb 2021, 1:25 pm - Covid Chronicles

The week began on a sad and sombre note with the U.S. death toll from Covid-19 shooting past 500,000 in a global first. The milestone was crossed just over a year after its first confirmed fatality due to the pandemic. "As we acknowledge the scale of this mass death in America, remember each person and the life they lived," said President Joe Biden. He ordered the American flag to be flown at half-mast on public buildings and grounds until sunset on Friday. Bells rang in the National Cathedral 500 times in tribute.

And to turn to a more promising note, there's been a surge in new vaccines entering the market as also those already in, moving towards taking on various Covid-19 variants. The U.S. is anticipating an imminent rollout of Johnson & Johnson's Covid-19 vaccine, pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Upon approval, the drugmaker says it is geared up to ship almost four million doses.

Sanofi has entered into an agreement with Janssen Pharmaceutical NV and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc, two of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, under which Sanofi will support manufacturing of Janssen's Covid-19 vaccine. Janssen has submitted an application to the FDA requesting Emergency Use Authorisation for its single-dose Janssen Covid-19 vaccine candidate and an application for conditional marketing authorisation to the European Medicines Agency.

The drugmaker on Monday inked a manufacturing tie-up with Johnson & Johnson to help produce that company's vaccine in Europe. The deal follows a separate agreement for Sanofi to turn out 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for Europe this year. When J&J's one-dose-and-done vaccine scores an authorisation, Sanofi will give the company access to its plant in Marcy l'Etoile, France. Workers there will formulate the J&J vaccine and fill vials, and the site will turn out around 12 million doses per month, Sanofi said.

Pfizer, which has been shipping 4 million to 5 million doses per week, plans to increase that to 13 million a week by mid-March, according to executive testimony planned for Tuesday morning's hearing before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight arm. J&J, which reportedly had just two million doses in stock last week, should be able to ship 20 million by March 31st - provided it wins FDA authorisation as expected, Richard Nettles, MD and vice-president of US Medical Affairs at Janssen's infectious diseases and vaccines unit, said in his testimony. Moderna, which already doubled its monthly deliveries to the feds this year and has so far supplied 45 million doses of its mRNA vaccine, aims to double monthly deliveries again by April, president Stephen Hoge's testimony states.

Moderna said on Wednesday it is working with U.S. government scientists to study an experimental booster shot that targets a concerning new variant of the coronavirus, and has raised its global Covid-19 vaccine production goal for this year by 100 million doses. The U.S. biotech company has produced raw material for a booster shot aimed at addressing the virus variant first found in South Africa that may be more resistant to existing vaccines, it said. It has shipped the vaccine to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which helped develop Moderna's current vaccine, for additional study. Moderna is experimenting with several potential ways to combat new variants of the virus. 

Novavax has now enrolled 30,000 people in the U.S. and Mexico to its shot trial. Its CEO told Reuters last month it could deliver doses to the U.S. by June if all goes well in its trials. The vaccine was shown to be 89.3% effective and works nearly as well against the UK variant in tests in Britain. But the shot is about 50% less effective against the South African variant. The U.S. has a contract for 100 million doses of Novavax's Covid-19 vaccine. It would likely be the fourth shot authorised in the U.S., assuming Johnson & Johnson's vaccine gets greenlit by the FDA this week. 

And finally, there's some cheer for the vaccine "deprived" of this world. Ghana has received the world's first delivery of coronavirus vaccines from the Covax initiative. It marked the long-awaited start for a programme that has so far fallen short of hopes that it would ensure shots were given quickly to the world's most vulnerable people. The arrival of 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the West African country marks the beginning of the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history, according to the World Health Organization and Unicef.

The WHO's South East Asia office said on Twitter that the first batches rolled out from India's Serum Institute in Pune. The move comes a week after the WHO listed versions of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine made in India and South Korea for emergency use, which paves the way for the vaccine to be distributed by the Covax programme. The vaccines required two separate reviews and approvals, because they are made in two different facilities. 

After months of uncertainty and frustration, a WHO programme designed to ensure access to Covid-19 vaccines in dozens of low-income countries late last week received a spate of good news. First, Novavax pledged 1.1 billion doses of its shot to the WHO effort. Meanwhile, the U.S. agreed to contribute $4 billion in aid over the next two years, with Germany adding $1.2 billion and the European Commission providing $600 million. Collectively, the G7 countries have now committed a total $7.5 billion. And the UK promised to provide surplus vaccines to low-income countries. The sudden rush of announcements was in stark contrast to increasing concerns that Covax was faltering. For much of the past year, wealthy nations and drugmakers reached deals that critics argued would leave low-income nations with little access to vaccines. As a result, the vast majority of vaccinations have so far occurred in high-income countries.

To end on a note of cautious optimism, the U.S. that tops the world in Covid deaths and the UK, with the highest death toll in Europe, could reach herd immunity in 2021 according to a new Statista report. The pace of vaccinations in the UK and U.S. gives hope that these countries could reach herd immunity by the end of 2021.

Lalita Panicker is Consulting Editor, Views, Hindustan Times, New Delhi