Drug manufacturer Moderna says it will begin testing a variant-specific version of its COVID-19 vaccine that would target the B1351 variant first detected in South Africa.
The company has previously reported that its original two-dose vaccine — already approved for use in Canada — appears to provide protection against the B117 variant first detected in the U.K., as well as the B1351 variant, though its own research suggests it may be less effective against the latter.
The company says it will study the B1351 variant-specific vaccine both as a potential booster to the original COVID-19 vaccine and as a standalone for people who have not yet received a vaccine at all.
It will study the outcomes of three different scenarios:
A single shot of the B1351 variant-specific vaccine.
A shot combining both the original vaccine and the B1351 variant-specific booster.
A booster of the original vaccine, added to the original two-dose version.
The B1351-specific vaccine will undergo clinical trials at the National Institutes for Health in the U.S.
“As we seek to defeat COVID-19, we must be vigilant and proactive as new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerge,” said Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna in a statement.
“Leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are moving quickly to test updates to the vaccines that address emerging variants of the virus in the clinic.”
Moderna reported last month that its vaccine was essentially as effective against the B117 variant as it was to prior variants.
Neutralizing antibodies are one of the body’s immune responses to control viral infections.
South Africa paused its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after data from a small trial suggested the vaccine did not protect against mild to moderate illness from the B1351 variant now dominant in the country.
Johnson & Johnson, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Novavax have all looked at how their vaccines perform against the B1351 variant.
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Variants confirmed around the world
The B1351 variant has been detected in at least 40 countries while the B117, first detected in the U.K., has now been identified in 80. Both have been found in Canada.
Health Canada would need to approve any booster or new vaccine against the B1351 variant before it could be administered here.
A top Pfizer scientist says the company is in intensive discussions with regulators to test a booster shot version of its coronavirus vaccine specifically targeted for a highly contagious variant that is spreading widely in South Africa and elsewhere.
A laboratory study released on Wednesday suggested that the coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa may reduce protective antibodies elicited by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by two-thirds, but it is not clear how much that reduces the shot’s effectiveness against this version of the pathogen.
Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer’s top viral vaccine scientists and a co-author of the study, said in an interview on Thursday that he believes the current vaccine is highly likely to still protect against the concerning variant first discovered in South Africa.
“A level of neutralizing antibodies that may be on the order of between a third and a half the level of neutralizing antibodies you see against the original virus does not mean you have only a third to half of the protection level, you may well have full protection,” he said.
Reduction in antibodies
For the study, scientists from the companies and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) developed an engineered virus that contained the same mutations carried on the spike portion of the highly contagious coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa, known as B1351.
The spike, used by the virus to enter human cells, is the primary target of many COVID-19 vaccines.
Researchers tested the engineered virus against blood taken from people who had been given the vaccine, and found a two-thirds reduction in the level of neutralizing antibodies compared with its effect on the most common version of the virus prevalent in U.S. trials.
University of Texas Medical Branch professor and study co-author Pei-Yong Shi said he also believes the lessened immune response observed is likely to be significantly above where it needs to be to provide protection.
Shi said that in clinical trials, both the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and a similar shot from Moderna conferred some protection after the first of two doses with an antibody response lower than the reduced levels seen in the laboratory study of the B1351 variant.
Still, Dormitzer, chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer Vaccines Research and Development, said the company was developing plans to test a redesigned booster for the vaccine.
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“We’re not doing that primarily because we think that means that we’re going to need to change that vaccine,” he said. “It’s primarily to learn how to change strain, both in terms of what we do at the manufacturing level, and especially what the clinical results are.
“So if a variant comes along for which there is clinical evidence of escape, we’re ready to respond very quickly.”
Prototype vaccine targeting variant in the works
He said the company has already made a DNA template for a prototype vaccine targeting the variant and plans to manufacture a batch of it.
The company is proposing to do a Phase I clinical trial of a booster shot of that prototype vaccine that it would test against a booster for the current vaccine.
“This will be a immunogenicity study where you look at the immune response. And those studies are much, much smaller than the giant efficacy studies,” Dormitzer said.
“In immunogenicity studies you can look at the immune response of every person in the study. It’s not as definitive as efficacy data, for sure. But it can be gathered much more quickly,” he explained.
The company would likely conduct some animal testing in parallel as well, he said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet released a roadmap for how companies should design trials of coronavirus booster shots.
Several Western governments rushed to offer support for the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccination after South Africa halted its rollout when research showed it offered minimal protection against mild infection from a variant spreading there.
The arrival of vaccines has given hope that scientists can tame a pandemic that has killed more than 2.3 million people worldwide. But if vaccines are less effective against new variants, they may need to be tweaked and people may need booster shots.
South Africa announced its pause after researchers from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Oxford said Sunday that the AstraZeneca vaccine provided only minimal protection against mild or moderate infection from the B1351 variant, now the dominant form of the virus in that country.
The research, which is not yet peer reviewed, included about 2,000 volunteers with a median age of 31. The researchers defined mild disease as at least one symptom of COVID-19. There was no data on whether the vaccine would prevent severe illness, and researchers said that was still possible.
“This study confirms that the pandemic coronavirus will find ways to continue to spread in vaccinated populations, as expected,” said Andrew Pollard, chief investigator on the Oxford vaccine trial. “But, taken with the promising results from other studies in South Africa using a similar viral vector, vaccines may continue to ease the toll on health-care systems by preventing severe disease.”
French Health Minister Olivier Veran voiced support for the AstraZeneca vaccine, arguing it provided sufficient protection against “nearly all the variants” of the virus.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said current evidence suggests all three vaccines approved in Europe — which include AstraZeneca — provided effective protection against serious infections.
Britain and Australia urged calm, citing evidence that the vaccines prevented grave illness and death, while AstraZeneca said it believed its vaccine could protect against severe disease.
“We think that both the vaccines that we’re currently using are effective in, as I say, in stopping serious disease and death,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters. Britain also uses the Pfizer shot.
WATCH | AstraZeneca vaccine approvals and concerns:
Health Canada is expected to approve the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine this week, which would make it the third COVID-19 vaccine approved in Canada. In South Africa, authorities have paused rollout of this vaccine after a study found it offers only limited protection against the coronavirus variant first identified there. 3:42
“We also think in particular in the case of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that there’s good evidence that it is stopping transmission, as well — I think 67 per cent reduction in transmission.” (Oxford investigators suggested, based on swabs from U.K. volunteers, a 67 per cent reduction after the first dose.)
Australia is expected to approve the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine within days and expressed confidence in it.
“There is currently no evidence to indicate a reduction in the effectiveness of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines in preventing severe disease and death. That is the fundamental task: to protect the health,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said.
Health Canada is also reviewing data submitted by AstraZeneca to decide on its approval.
But if vaccines do not work as effectively as hoped against new and emerging variants, then the world could be facing a much longer — and more expensive — battle against the virus than previously thought.
The AstraZeneca vaccine was the big hope for Africa as it is cheap and easy to store and transport. South Africa, which had hoped to roll out the AstraZeneca shot this month, is storing around one million doses it has received from the Serum Institute of India.
The B1351 variant dominant in South Africa, also known as 20I/501Y.V2, is also circulating in at least 40 other countries, including Canada and the United States. Other major variants include one first found in Britain, known as 20I/501Y.V1 or B117, and one found in Brazil known as P.1.
An analysis of infections by the South African variant showed there was only a 22 per cent lower risk of developing mild-to-moderate COVID-19, more than 14 days after being vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot, versus those given a placebo.
Protection against moderate-severe disease, hospitalization or death could not be assessed in the study of around 2,000 volunteers who had a median age of 31, as the target population were at such low risk.
Prof. Shabir Madhi, lead investigator on the AstraZeneca trial in South Africa, said the vaccine’s similarity to another produced by Johnson & Johnson, which reduced severe disease by 85 per cent, suggested it would still prevent serious illness or death.
Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, said efforts were underway to develop a new generation of booster shot vaccines that will allow protection against emerging variants.
“This is the same issue that is faced by all of the vaccine developers, and we will continue to monitor the emergence of new variants that arise in readiness for a future strain change.”
Novavax Inc. says its vaccine appears 89% effective.
U.S. Democrats push forward with plan for new coronavirus aid bill.
2 cases of COVID-19 variant first identified in South Africa reported in U.S.
Ontario reports 2,093 new cases; Quebec reports 1,368.
Pfizer using new six-dose count in its allocation of vaccine vials for Canada.
Coronavirus lockdown protests in Lebanon enter fourth day.
Two dozen French police officials face punishment for holding a party inside a police station.
Novavax Inc. said Thursday that its COVID-19 vaccine appears 89 per cent effective based on early findings from a British study and that it also seems to work — though not quite as well — against new mutated strains of the virus circulating in that country and South Africa.
The announcement comes amid worry about whether a variety of vaccines being rolled out around the world will be strong enough to protect against worrisome new variants — and because the world needs new types of shots to boost scarce supplies.
The study of 15,000 people in Britain is still underway. But an interim analysis found 62 participants so far have been diagnosed with COVID-19 — only six of them in the group that got vaccine and the rest who received dummy shots.
Canada signed a deal with Maryland-based Novavax in August to produce 76 million doses of its two-dose vaccine.
The trial occurred when Britain was experiencing a jump in COVID-19 caused by a more contagious variant. A preliminary analysis found over half of the trial participants who became infected had the mutated version. The numbers are very small but Novavax said they suggest the vaccine is nearly 96 per cent effective against the older coronavirus and nearly 86 per cent effective against the new variant.
Scientists have been even more worried about a strain first discovered in South Africa that carries different mutations — and results from a smaller Novavax study suggests the vaccine does work on that strain, but not nearly as well as it does against the variant first discovered in Britain.
The South African study included some volunteers with HIV. Among the HIV-negative volunteers, the vaccine appears 60 per cent effective. Including the immune-compromised volunteers, overall the protection was 49 per cent, the company said. While genetic testing still is underway, so far about 90 per cent of the COVID-19 illnesses found in the South African study appear due to the new mutated strain.
The company on a conference call noted that this was interim data and executives said they expect it will be two to three months before they are ready to apply for authorization with regulators.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the results were in line with hopes, and that he was concerned people would focus too much on the weaker effectiveness shown in South Africa.
“We’ve gotten spoiled because we’ve seen the Moderna and Pfizer numbers. I know people are going to be alarmed, but 60 per cent efficacy against the new variant is acceptable,” he said, noting that the FDA initially said it would approve a vaccine that was at least 50 per cent effective.
Novavax said it started making new versions of its vaccine to protect against emerging virus variants in early January and expects to select ideal candidates for a booster in the coming days. The company said it plans to initiate clinical testing of these new vaccines in the second quarter of this year.
Vaccines against COVID-19 train the body to recognize the coronavirus, mostly the spike protein that coats it. But the Novavax candidate is made differently than the first shots being used. Called a recombinant protein vaccine, the Maryland company uses genetic engineering to grow harmless copies of the coronavirus spike protein in insect cells. Scientists extract and purify the protein and then mix in an immune-boosting chemical.
-From Reuters and The Associated Press, last updated at 6:30 p.m. ET
What’s happening in Canada
As of 7:05 p.m. ET on Thursday, Canada had reported 765,642 cases of COVID-19, with 56,559 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 19,664.
Alberta says it will receive 63,000 fewer vaccine doses by the end of the March than the federal government originally promised.
The federal government had assured the province that it would receive 468,000 doses in the first quarter of 2021, but Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in a news release Thursday that Alberta has learned that won’t happen.
“This is a grim situation that seems to be getting worse every week,” he said.
The province also announced 461 new cases and seven more deaths. There are 591 people in hospital, including 112 in ICU.
WATCH | COVID-19 vaccine shortage forces provinces to rethink rollout:
Canadian provinces are being forced to rethink their vaccination rollouts due to the shortage of doses from Pfizer, with some jurisdictions now considering stretching out the time between shots, despite questions over whether that would reduce vaccine effectiveness. But the federal government maintains it will vaccinate all willing Canadians by September. 2:02
B.C. announced 546 news cases of COVID-19 and 12 more deaths. There are 291 people in hospital with the disease, including 75 in intensive care.
Vancouver Coastal Health said a COVID-19 outbreak in Whistler has registered 288 cases in January, most of them people in their 20s or 30s. The public bulletin came on the heels of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler confirming to CBC News that 12 of its employees have tested positive for the coronavirus.
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Ontario reported 56 additional deaths and 2,093 new cases on Thursday. The province said 1,338 people with COVID-19 were in hospital, with 358 people in intensive care units.
A COVID-19 variant in the province is a “significant threat,” but maintaining existing public health interventions will likely encourage a downward trend in cases, according to updated modelling data from the province’s COVID-19 advisory table.
By March, the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, could be the dominant strain in the province, according to the data. COVID-19 cases are expected to drop between 1,000-2,000 by the end of February, but that could change as the new variant of concern takes hold.
Thursday’s update in Ontario comes as the province announced updated figures on the number of people who had been fully inoculated against COVID-19.
In Quebec on Thursday, health officials reported 1,368 new cases of COVID-19 and 39 additional deaths. The number of people in Quebec hospitals with COVID-19 fell to 1,264, with 212 people in the province’s intensive care units.
Premier François Legault also announced that there will be a provincewide day of mourning on March 11 for victims of the pandemic.
Saskatchewan announced 244 new cases and 11 more deaths. The province has 208 COVID-19 patients in hospital, 37 in ICUs.
On the vaccination side, the province has actually administered more doses than it has officially received, because of the ability to draw extra doses from vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. As of Thursday, 106 per cent of the province’s dose count has been administered.
The 244 new cases match the seven-day average of 244.<br><br>Cases per 100,000 has dropped just below 20.<br><br>11 more people have died, which brings the total for 2021 to 132. <br><br>208 in hospital & 37 in ICU.<br><br>2,575 tests processed. <br><br>118 doses of vaccine Wed.<br><br>5,850 Pfizer doses next week. <a href=”https://t.co/vL7wPfaTWn”>https://t.co/vL7wPfaTWn</a>
Manitoba announced 133 new cases of COVID-19 and eight more deaths. There have been 821 deaths overall.
A rapid testing program introduced at three personal care homes in the province has turned up three asymptomatic cases. It’s difficult to speculate about what was avoided by detecting the cases, said Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer for Manitoba Shared Health.
“That’s the funny thing about public health. If you prevent something and it works, then you don’t actually see what you prevented,” she said.
New Brunswick health officials, meanwhile, reported 27 additional COVID-19 cases on Thursday. The province has already had more cases in 2021 than it did in 2020.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, health officials reported four new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said at a briefing that the new cases are “worrisome” because three of them are connected to an earlier cases whose source is still unknown.
P.E.I. announced one new case of COVID-19. There are six active cases on the Island, which has had no COVID-19 deaths or hospitalizations.
Nova Scotia reported no new cases. There are 11 active cases, including one person in hospital.
Nunavut is reporting one new case of COVID-19. The new case is in Arviat, which saw its second outbreak last week after being COVID-free since Jan. 2. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson says all those infected are asymptomatic and a rapid response team is in the community to work on contact tracing.
There are 18 active cases of COVID-19 in Nunavut, all in Arviat.
Here’s a look at what’s happening across the country:
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-From The Canadian Press, CBC News and The Associated Press, last updated at 7:40 p.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of 6 p.m. ET Thursday, the number of reported cases of COVID-19 globally stood at more than 101 million, with more than 55.9 million cases considered recovered or resolved. The global death toll stood at more than 2.1 million, according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
In the Americas, U.S. House of Representatives’ Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said the House will take its first steps next week toward passing a new coronavirus aid bill when it debates budget rules that would allow Democrats to advance a bill in the Senate without Republican support.
“We’re going to bring a budget resolution to the floor next week,” Pelosi told reporters. “By the end of the week, we’ll be finished with the budget resolution, which will be about reconciliation, if needed.”
The United States, which has seen more than 25.6 million reported cases of COVID-19, is working to try and ramp up its vaccination efforts as it deals with a global pandemic that has left more than 429,000 people in the country dead.
Health officials in South Carolina, meanwhile, announced the new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa has been found in the U.S. for the first time, with two cases diagnosed in the state.
The two cases don’t appear to be connected, nor do the people have a history of recent travel, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said.
“That’s frightening,” because it means there could be more undetected cases within the state, said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “It’s probably more widespread.”
Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, who says he won’t take a COVID-19 shot, vowed to quickly inoculate all Brazilians, tempering his tone after his support fell due to a patchy vaccine rollout and a brutal second wave of infections.
Bolsonaro has been widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic. Critics say the slow vaccine rollout is the latest in a long line of fumblings that have blighted Brazil with the second-highest coronavirus death toll in the world after the U.S.
But on Thursday, the president sought to defend his government’s vaccine procurement.
“The vaccines are starting to arrive,” he said at an event. “They will arrive and will vaccinate the whole population in a short space of time.”
Bolsonaro’s comments reflect a change of tone in recent weeks, as many have been angered by the president’s failure to quickly vaccinate Brazil’s 210 million people. His personal pledge not to take a shot has stoked growing anti-vaccine sentiment.
The end of a COVID-19 welfare scheme and a sharp rise in new infections have also dented his popularity.
In the Middle East, Lebanese security forces fired volleys of tear gas at rock-throwing youths in the northern city of Tripoli on Thursday amid outrage over the country’s coronavirus lockdown and inaction of the political class in the face of economic collapse.
The unrelenting protests in Tripoli, now in their fourth day, came as Lebanon grapples with both the pandemic and the worst economic crisis in its history, with only a caretaker government in charge.
The protests resumed shortly after Omar Taibi, a 30-year-old who was shot by security forces during protests on Wednesday night, was laid to rest in Tripoli. More than 220 others were injured in the overnight clashes as frustrations boiled over.
The demonstrators denounced Lebanon’s extended shutdown, which has exacerbated already dire conditions. The confluence of the crises has posed the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since the end of its civil war in 1990.
Israel says it is extending coronavirus vaccinations to adults age 35 and older, an expansion of its world-leading drive to vanquish COVID-19.
Health Ministry Director General Hezi Levy said shots would be available to the new age group starting Friday.
The change reflects Israel’s aggressive drive to inoculate its entire population by the spring and the country is on track to do so. More than a quarter of Israel’s 9.3 million people have been vaccinated so far.
In the Asia-Pacific region, New Zealand’s health authorities conducted further tests and began contact tracing efforts after two more cases of the South African variant were confirmed in Auckland.
Vietnam confirmed its first two locally transmitted COVID-19 cases in nearly two months.
More than 90 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine for COVID-19 will be produced in Japan by a Japanese pharmaceutical company under a licensing agreement, officials said Thursday. The production will cover three quarters of the 120 million doses the British pharmaceutical company has pledged to supply to the country.
In Africa, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI received a shot against the coronavirus Thursday to officially kick off his country’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, which initially will primarily target health-care workers, security forces and people over age 75, according to Moroccan authorities.
The king, who normally appears in public wearing a robe, was pictured in a dark T-shirt and with a surgical mask on his face as he got jabbed in the arm.
Morocco has one of Africa’s most advanced vaccination programs, though the continent remains well behind richer countries such as the U.S. or Britain in inoculating its citizens against the virus.
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said another 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been secured for the continent through the Serum Institute of India.
Africa CDC director John Nkengasong told reporters that with the new doses, on top of the 270 million doses announced earlier, “I think we’re beginning to make very good progress.”
As with many vaccine deals, there are no immediate details on cost or how much people might pay per dose.
Parts of the African continent are now seeing a strong second surge in coronavirus infections, which Nkengasong calls “very aggressive now.”
Africa has more than 3.4 million confirmed virus cases, including more than 87,000 deaths.
In Europe, Germany’s health minister said there are at least “10 hard weeks” ahead amid difficulties in getting large quantities of vaccines.
Health Minister Jens Spahn, who faces political pressure over the slow start to Germany’s vaccination campaign, wrote on Twitter Thursday that Chancellor Angela Merkel and the country’s 16 state governors should hold a special meeting to discuss vaccine strategy.
Spahn said vaccine manufacturers also should be invited to “explain how complex production is.” He stressed that “the quality must be very good” in order to protect people. Spahn wrote that “we will go through at least another 10 hard weeks with the scarcity of vaccine.”
Germany’s current lockdown, its second, was recently extended until Feb. 14. Infection figures are falling, but officials are worried about the potential impact of coronavirus variants such as the one first detected in Britain. Some 1.67 million people in Germany had received the first dose of the vaccine and over 318,000 the second by Tuesday, about a month into the vaccination campaign.
WATCH | WHO calls on Europeans to be patient:
While acknowledging the fatigue due to COVID-19 restrictions, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, asked people to stay the course as the pandemic is far from over. 0:52
At least two dozen French police officials are facing internal punishment for holding a party inside a police station where they were filmed dancing the Macarena and violating multiple virus protection rules.
A police headquarters spokesperson said Thursday that those involved in the party in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers were ordered to file reports on their actions and that “sanctions are planned.”
In a video of the event posted by online media Loopsider, several people are seen dancing closely together without masks in a crowded room. The video prompted criticism at a time when French police are out every night enforcing a 6 p.m.-6 a.m. virus curfew, and are under scrutiny for abuses during violent protests and identity checks.
-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 6 p.m. ET
B.C.’s provincial health officer has confirmed the first case of a more infectious coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa.
Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday that health officials are investigating how the person in B.C. contracted the variant, as they have not travelled or been linked to any travellers.
“It is, of course, concerning we don’t know where this arose,” she said.
The variant is more infectious than the original COVID-19 virus and has rapidly become dominant in South Africa’s coastal areas.
Henry said testing in B.C. indicates that the new variant does not appear to be widespread in the community.
The province is conducting genomic sequencing on five per cent of its test samples to detect mutations. The samples are randomly selected, but the focus is on areas with known cases of the variant, Henry said.
She noted the province is working on a strategy to improve its ability to detect variants.
Henry also confirmed four total cases in the province of the variant linked to the U.K. Three of the cases in B.C. are tied to one traveller, while the fourth case is linked to a second traveller.
“We don’t believe that this has spread at all from these four cases,” Henry said.
The U.K. strain also spreads more easily and has been blamed in that country for record-high cases and surging hospitalizations.
B.C. announced its first case on Dec. 27, a resident from the Island Health region who returned from the U.K. in mid-December.
Neither variant is believed to be more deadly, and scientists say there’s no evidence vaccines won’t protect against them.
WATCH | Dr. Bonnie Henry says it’s not yet clear if the vaccine prevents a person from being infected
Dr. Bonnie Henry says while the COVID-19 vaccines are effective against symptoms and preventing death, it’s not yet clear if the vaccine prevents a person from being infected. 1:29
Increase in cases in Interior Health
Henry also announced that seven more people have died of COVID-19 in B.C., as the province recorded 536 new cases.
Active cases in the province continue to fall, with the tally now at 4,624.
Notably, Interior Health eclipsed Vancouver Coastal Health Thursday as the region with the second-highest number of new cases. Henry said holiday gatherings are a big reason for the surge in cases in B.C.’s Interior.
“It’s not focused in one area,” she said.
“What we’re seeing is more local, where people had come together in small groups and decided they could stretch those rules. We’re seeing transmission in small clusters that is moving through communities.”
Fraser Health remains the hardest-hit region, although its total has plummeted in recent weeks.
A total of 362 people are in hospital, 74 of whom are in intensive care. Nearly 70,000 people have received a vaccine dose.
The death toll stands at 1,038. A total of 52,605 people have recovered from the virus.
Alberta has detected what could be the first case in Canada of a COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa.
The case involved a recent traveller, who is now in quarantine, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, announced on social media Friday.
Hinshaw said there is no evidence the variant has spread to anyone else.
Federal officials had said as late as Tuesday that the new variant had yet to be detected in the country.
A spokesperson with the Public Health Agency of Canada said in an email that all of the agency’s experts are enjoying a “well-deserved weekend” and they would look into the matter on Monday.
The South African variant is more infectious than the original COVID-19 virus and has rapidly become dominant in that country’s coastal areas.
The province also announced Friday it will now offer the COVID-19 vaccine to all health-care workers in medical, surgical and COVID-19 units, meaning about 18,700 COVID-19 unit and medical and surgical unit staff are eligible for the first round of vaccinations.
Personnel employed in the specialized units — including family physicians, medical internists, nurses, clerks, aides, physical therapists and cleaning staff — contend with the same risk and should be next in line for inoculation, the letter stated.
In the same news release late Friday afternoon, the province announced that doctors, nurses and pharmacists who are not Alberta Health Services employees will be permitted to deliver the vaccine.
As of Thursday, there have been 37,686 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered in Alberta, about 852.3 doses per 100,000 population.
To date, three adverse reactions following immunization have been reported to Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services.
Latest COVID-19 numbers
On Friday, the province reported 24 more deaths due to COVID-19 and 1,183 new cases of the disease Friday.
Alberta currently has 13,628 active cases of the illness.
Provincial labs completed 16,765 tests for the disease Thursday with a positivity rate near seven per cent.
Of the 24 deaths reported Friday, nine people were under the age of 70. So far 1,241 people have died of COVID-19.
On Thursday, there are 851 people in hospital with the illness, 20 fewer people than Wednesday, 135 of them in intensive care.
Here is how the active cases break down among health zones:
Edmonton zone: 5,483 cases
Calgary zone: 4,839 cases
North zone: 1,508 cases
Central zone: 1,460 cases
South zone: 262 cases
Unknown: 76 cases
Hinshaw will hold her next news conference on COVID-19 on Monday.
Premier Jason Kenney is also expected to speak Monday on vaccination plans in Alberta.
U.K. scientists expressed concern on Monday that COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out in Britain may not be able to protect against a new variant of the coronavirus that emerged in South Africa and has spread internationally.
Both Britain and South Africa have detected new, more transmissible variants of the COVID-19-causing virus in recent weeks that have driven a surge in cases. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday he was now very worried about the variant identified in South Africa.
Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said that while both variants had some new features in common, the one found in South Africa “has a number additional mutations … which are concerning.”
He said these included more extensive alterations to a key part of the virus known as the spike protein — which the virus uses to infect human cells — and “may make the virus less susceptible to the immune response triggered by the vaccines.”
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick University, also noted that the variant detected in South African has “multiple spike mutations.”
“The accumulation of more spike mutations in the South African variant are more of a concern and could lead to some escape from immune protection,” he said.
Scientists including BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin and John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, have said they are testing the vaccines against the new variants and say they could make any required tweaks in around six weeks.
Greater concentration of virus particles with variants
Public Health England said there was currently no evidence to suggest COVID-19 vaccines would not protect against the mutated virus variants. Britain’s health ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The world’s richest countries have started vaccinating their populations to safeguard against a disease that has killed 1.8 million people and crushed the global economy.
There are currently 60 vaccine candidates in trials, including those already being rolled out from AstraZeneca and Oxford, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm.
WATCH | The unknowns of single vaccine dosing:
According to epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Labos, the efficacy of giving people just one shot, or a half dose of a coronavirus vaccine, is unknown as there is no hard clinical data. 7:16
Scientists say both the variants from South Africa and the U.K. are associated with a higher viral load, meaning a greater concentration of virus particles in patients’ bodies, possibly contributing to increased transmission.
Oxford’s Bell, who advises the U.K. government’s vaccine task force, said on Sunday he thought vaccines would work on the variant from the U.K., but said there was a “big question mark” as to whether they would work on the variant from South Africa.
BioNTech’s Sahin told Germany’s Der Spiegel in an interview published on Friday that their vaccine, which uses messenger RNA to instruct the human immune system to fight the virus, should be able to protect against the variant found in the U.K.
“We are testing whether our vaccine can also neutralize this variant and will soon know more,” he said.
Another new variant of the coronavirus appears to have emerged in Nigeria, Africa’s top public health official said Thursday, but he added that further investigation was needed.
The discovery could add to new alarm in the pandemic after similar variants were announced in Britain and South Africa, leading to the swift return of international travel restrictions and other measures just as the world enters a major holiday season.
“It’s a separate lineage from the U.K. and South Africa,” the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, told reporters. He said the Nigeria CDC and the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in that country — Africa’s most populous — will be analyzing more samples.
“Give us some time … it’s still very early,” he said.
The alert about the apparent new variant was based on two or three genetic sequences, he said, but that and South Africa’s alert late last week were enough to prompt an emergency meeting of the Africa CDC this week.
The variant was found in two patient samples collected on Aug. 3 and Oct. 9 in Nigeria’s Osun state, according to a working research paper seen by The Associated Press.
Unlike the variant seen in the U.K., “we haven’t observed such rapid rise of the lineage in Nigeria and do not have evidence to indicate that the P681H variant is contributing to increased transmission of the virus in Nigeria. However, the relative difference in scale of genomic surveillance in Nigeria vs the U.K. may imply a reduced power to detect such changes,” the paper says.
‘Alarming rate of spread’ in South Africa
The news comes as infections surge again in parts of the African continent.
The new variant in South Africa is now the predominant one there, Nkengasong said, as confirmed infections in the country approach one million. While the variant transmits quickly and viral loads are higher, it is not yet clear whether it leads to a more severe disease, he said.
“We believe this mutation will not have an effect” on the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines to the continent, he said of the South Africa variant.
WATCH | Pfizer, Moderna vaccines can be modified to tackle variants, expert says:
According to infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Chagla, vaccines that use mRNA technology can be reverse engineered quite quickly to take on variants — such as the recent U.K. variant of the coronavirus. 1:42
Late on Wednesday, South Africa’s health minister announced an “alarming rate of spread” in that country, with more than 14,000 new cases confirmed in the past day, including more than 400 deaths. It was the largest single-day increase in cases.
The country has more than 950,000 infections and COVID-19 is “unrelenting,” Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize said.
The African continent now has more than 2.5 million confirmed cases, or 3.3 per cent of global cases. Infections across the continent have risen 10.9 per cent over the past four weeks, Nkengasong said, including a 52 per cent increase in Nigeria and 40 per cent increase in South Africa.
For the first time since confirming sub-Saharan Africa’s first virus case in February, Nigeria is in the spotlight during this pandemic as infections surge.
“Over recent weeks, we’ve had a huge increase in number of samples to (Nigeria CDC) reference lab,” the CDC director-general Chikwe Ihekweazu tweeted on Thursday. “This has led to an unusual delay with testing, but we’re working around the clock,” with many colleagues cutting short their holidays and returning to work.
Nigeria now has more than 80,000 confirmed coronavirus cases.
Britain’s transport minister has ordered flights and arrivals from South Africa to be halted after a potentially more infectious variant of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spread to Britain.
“I’ve taken the decision to temporarily stop flights and arrivals entering England from South Africa from 9 a.m. tomorrow following an outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus,” British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.
Earlier on Wednesday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock says scientists have identified another new variant of the coronavirus in two people, both of whom are contacts of recent arrivals from South Africa.
Hancock said the evidence gathered so far suggests that the new variant has “mutated further” than the one that recently prompted the British government to tighten restrictions across large parts of England and led to many countries imposing travel bans on the U.K.
WATCH | Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can be modified to tackle variants, says expert:
According to infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Chagla, vaccines that use mRNA technology can be reverse engineered quite quickly to take on variants — such as the recent U.K. variant of the coronavirus. 1:42
The health secretary also announced that more areas in England would be placed into the highest tier of coronavirus restrictions in a bid to curb the spread of a more transmissible variant of COVID-19.
Hancock said beginning Dec. 26, large regions across southern England would join London and neighbouring areas in Tier 4 with restrictions similar to that of a lockdown.
What’s happening in Canada
On Wednesday, Health Canada approved Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in this country, clearing the way for thousands of doses to arrive by month’s end. Moderna’s is the second COVID-19 vaccine to be approved by Health Canada.
Also on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is committing another $ 70 million to the Canadian Red Cross as it faces growing demand for help from long-term care facilities in Ontario and Quebec that have been overwhelmed by the pandemic.
Trudeau also announced Canada was extending a ban on flights from Britain for another two weeks until Jan. 6 as the United Kingdom struggles with a new strain of COVID-19 that experts suggest is more contagious than other variants.
As of 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 527,837, with 75,665 of those cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 14,578.
In British Columbia, a group of 11 teenagers who allegedly refused to follow COVID-19 protocols and gathered at a high school parking lot were fined $ 230 over the weekend, according to RCMP in Nanaimo.
Manitoba health officials reported 155 new COVID-19 cases and 18 more deaths. The number of new cases continues to trend downward following restrictions that were imposed last month on public gatherings and business openings. Health officials say intensive care units, however, are still running well above their normal capacity.
Ontario on Wednesday registered 2,408 new cases, its second-highest single-day tally, and 41 new deaths. There were 1,002 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, including a record 275 in intensive care. The entire province will be moving into lockdown after midnight on Dec. 26.
Hard-hit Quebec recorded 2,247 new cases of COVID-19, another daily high. Hospitalizations stood at 1,067, with 142 patients in Quebec’s intensive care units, according to provincial data.
New Brunswick saw five new cases. Meanwhile, vaccinations for health-care workers began in Moncton.
WATCH | N.S. business supports charities through mask sales:
Sherrie Kearney of Maritime Tartan has made more than 18,000 masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and donated thousands to charity. Their latest fundraiser includes a tie signed by Dr. Robert Strang, who just gave them a big shout-out. 4:30
In the North, officials welcomed news of the Moderna vaccine’s approval. Both Yukon and the Northwest Territories are expected to receive shipments by the end of the month, and plan to start rolling out vaccinations in early January.
Meanwhile, Nunavut reported two new cases on Wednesday.
What’s happening around the world
As of early Wednesday, more than 78.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with more than 44.1 million of those cases considered recovered or resolved, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracking tool. The global death toll stood at more than 1.7 million.
In the week of 14-20/12:<br><br>🔺4.6 m people infected and 79,000 died of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a><br><br>🔺Americas: most new cases<br><br>🔺European Region: highest number of deaths<br><br>🔺 African Region: greatest relative 📈 in new cases & deaths<br><br>The latest Weekly Epidemiological Update: <a href=”https://t.co/14hRmBfIzk”>https://t.co/14hRmBfIzk</a> <a href=”https://t.co/csF87dr2qF”>pic.twitter.com/csF87dr2qF</a>
In Europe, Italy recorded another 14,522 new positive coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the last day before more severe restrictions take effect for the Christmas holidays.
Despite measures that have been in place since late October, Italy has yet to successfully flatten the curve of the fall resurgence.
Starting Thursday, Italians will have to fill out declarations of their reasons for leaving home, just like during the strict 10-week lockdown in the spring. The holiday restrictions, running through Jan. 6, give some leeway for visiting friends and relatives in the same region.
In Asia, South Korea has added 1,092 new coronavirus cases in a resurgence that is erasing hard-won epidemiological gains and eroding public confidence in the government’s ability to handle the outbreak.
The national caseload has jumped by a quarter in the last two weeks alone, the death toll is rising and the number of sick patients is raising concerns of a shortage in intensive care beds.
South Korea had been seen as a success story against COVID-19 after health workers managed to contain a major outbreak in its southeastern region in the spring. But critics say the country gambled on its own success by easing physical-distancing restrictions to help the economy.
In Africa,South Africa’s health minister says the country has seen more than 14,000 confirmed new coronavirus cases in the past day, with a positivity rate of 26 per cent, as overall cases edge toward 1 million.
Heath Minister Zwelini Mkhize says the “alarming rate of spread” of infections is much faster than during the first wave in midyear. His daily report doesn’t say how many of the new infections are attributed to the new variant of the virus in South Africa.
The country has more than 950,000 confirmed cases, including more than 25,000 deaths. More than 400 people have died in the past day.
Over 2.5 million confirmed <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> cases on the African continent – with more than 2.1 million recoveries & 60,000 deaths cumulatively.<br><br>View country figures & more with the WHO African Region COVID-19 Dashboard: <a href=”https://t.co/FKav40Cbdd”>https://t.co/FKav40Cbdd</a> <a href=”https://t.co/cHfGLTYz1K”>pic.twitter.com/cHfGLTYz1K</a>
In the Americas, Peru has passed one million confirmed cases of coronavirus infection. It is the fifth nation in Latin America to report that number as the region struggles with the pandemic’s economic and health effects.
Peru’s government was quick to declare lockdown measures for its 32 million people last March as the pandemic spread in Europe. But in spite of closing its airports for almost six months and ordering most of its residents to stay at home, it has struggled to contain the virus. Officials said they had recorded 1,000,153 cases as of Tuesday evening.
More than 37,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Peru. That gives the Andean nation the world’s second-highest per-capita death toll from the pandemic, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Henry Bugembe riding his bright red motorcycle became a familiar sight in the town of Nakawuka during Uganda’s lockdown last spring.
With public and private transportation banned at the time, and ambulances few and far between, it was one of the few vehicles on the road.
A volunteer health worker, Bugembe used a permission connected to his work with an NGO to get through the security checkpoints enforcing the lockdown in order to ferry people in need to hospital on the back of his bike.
He also delivered medicine, a vital service in a country where 1.4 million people are living with HIV and where malaria is the leading cause of death.
“The existence of COVID-19 didn’t stop people from suffering from other diseases. But it was very hard for someone to travel to the hospital,” he said.
Bugembe’s empathy is not hard to locate. He lost his wife to a brain tumour just months before the pandemic, leaving him a single parent to their two children.
After the government imposed its lockdown on March 31, permissions were required from often absent or unavailable officials. In an emergency, said Bugembe, people sometimes had to simply try their luck and hope for a sympathetic soldier or police officer.
Critics have blamed the lockdown, the most intense version of which lasted several months, for unnecessary deaths in Uganda. Blood banks reported shortages, and at least seven women died in labour because they couldn’t reach medical help, according to the Women’s Probono Initiative, a non-profit legal aid organization based in Kampala.
But predictions that COVID-19 would completely overwhelm African nations with seriously fragile health-care systems have not, for the most part, been borne out. At least not yet.
“What is happening in Uganda and many African countries [is] the infection may be spreading, but most of these [cases] are asymptomatic or mild,” said Prof. Pontiano Kaleebu, executive director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) in Entebbe.
Infections in Africa account for 3.4 per cent of the 72 million COVID-19 infections recorded around the world, according to figures released Thursday by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
And a World Health Organization study released in September found that 80 per cent of the cases in Africa have been asymptomatic.
Kaleebu points to both the warmer climate and the high proportion of young people across the continent as contributing factors to limiting the pandemic’s deadly impact. Another theory, he said, is that Africans might have existing immune responses because of heavier exposure to some diseases, including other coronaviruses.
In Uganda, figures for Dec. 16 put the cumulative number of COVID-19 infections at 29,361, with 228 deaths.
“I believe there are more people infected,” said Kaleebu, “but they have not been tested.”
However, he doesn’t believe there is a corresponding unseen higher mortality rate, he said.
“We cannot be missing the very severe cases that need intensive care, oxygenation and ventilation. I don’t think we are missing them.”
Few ICU beds
That doesn’t mean Uganda couldn’t very easily find itself overwhelmed.
An assessment last February by Makerere University found that in a country of about 42 million people, there are only 55 functional ICU beds, most of which are in the capital, Kampala.
Africa CDC’s report this week pointed to Uganda as one of the five African countries reporting the highest number of new cases over the previous week, along with South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.
Uganda’s Health Ministry reported 16,563 infections between March and November, but there has been an increase of 12,798 cases in the past month alone.
“There’s been a lot of increased spread and it is getting out of hand,” said Dr Julius Lutwama, who heads the UVRI’s department of emerging infectious diseases.
“Now, given the political situation where there is campaigning going on and people [gathering] in big numbers, people are not putting on masks, people are not distancing, so the spread is becoming more and more.”
Ugandans will vote in presidential elections next month. Opposition parties have accused the government of using COVID-19 restrictions to shut down their campaign events and arrest their candidates while ignoring violations by President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement.
Museveni, in power now for 34 years, is seeking a sixth term.
In addition to all the other work it does on virus sequencing, immunization and emerging infections, the UVRI in Entebbe has become Uganda’s main testing centre for COVID-19.
Lutwama says they are processing up to 1,500 tests a day. But with so much asymptomatic spread out in the community, it’s difficult to get a true picture of what’s happening.
“In these last three or four months, there has been an explosion. We don’t know how long this is going to be sustained or whether this is going to go down,” he said.
“The worry is with the health system. The health system is getting overwhelmed.”
WATCH | The National’s report on COVID-19 in Uganda:
COVID-19 hasn’t had the devastating impact on Uganda that many expected, but doctors say it wouldn’t take much of a spike to overwhelm the country’s hospitals that have only 55 intensive care beds for 42 million people. 2:42
Shift in attitudes
There is also evidence of a shift in attitude toward the virus among the public, with seemingly fewer people willing to listen to public health advice and stay home.
In the town of Rubuguri in southwestern Uganda, the tourism industry that’s been built up around the mountain gorillas of the nearby national park has come to a complete halt, severely impacting people’s ability to support themselves and their families.
There are signs in town warning of the dangers of COVID-19, along with a number of rudimentary handwashing stations, but few people are wearing masks.
“At first, they would wash, put on mask, stay home, even would have soldiers telling people, ‘Go back home,'” said Carol Magoba, a young mother and unemployed social worker.
“But now, it has become like any other disease. People are like, ‘Uh, what should we do? Should we die of epidemic in the house?'”
In the town of Nakawuka, Henry Bugembe uses a loudspeaker along the town’s main shopping street to raise awareness about COVID-19.
In the past, his volunteer health team would go door to door to talk to people, but that’s not allowed given the nature of the pandemic.
They can try to keep track of people who might be sick by phone, but not everybody has a phone, or electricity to keep one charged.
Bugembe and his loudspeaker draw a crowd of kids, but few adults stop to listen.
“Most people here don’t have work to do, people are just starving, so they don’t have money to buy masks,” he told the CBC.
Bugembe himself has few tools at his disposal. He and others who make up the village health teams aren’t paid salaries.
And both the loudspeaker and the red motorcycle came courtesy of a public health partnership between Makerere University in Kampala and the U.K.’s University of Nottingham Trent aimed in part at supporting Uganda’s community health-care workers.
Bugembe admits to being worried for Uganda.
“What if it turns the other way around, and we start [seeing] people being infected at a high rate and death? What can we do? Because it is a poor country.”
The worry has increased the focus on the role vaccines will play in Africa.
WATCH | How COVID-19 could also threaten Uganda’s mountain gorillas:
There are concerns that COVID-19 could undermine 40 years of conservation efforts to protect Uganda’s mountain gorillas. The CBC’s Margaret Evans, Lily Martin and Jean-Francois Bisson went to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to see the challenges of balancing tourism and protecting the animals. 8:17
Concerns about arrival of vaccines
UVRI executive director Pontiano Kaleebu said he’s optimistic.
“I think there’s been international support now as we’re talking about vaccines. The discussions that are going on to ensure that low- and middle-income countries are not left behind.”
But that was before internal documents from Gavi, the global vaccine alliance that is partnered with the World Health Organization to ensure fair access to COVID-19 vaccines for poorer countries, were leaked to the Reuters news agency suggesting those efforts had a “high risk” of failure.
The documents, prepared for Gavi’s board of directors, cited lack of funds and supply risks as potential problems, Reuters reported.
Africa CDC’s goal is to vaccinate 60 per cent of Africans — more than 813 million people — a huge logistical challenge given the varied nature and circumstances of the continent’s 54 countries.
“The continent has never ever vaccinated more than 100 million people in [any] one year and we have to do more in 2021 to have a fighting chance against this pandemic,” Africa CDC director Dr. John Nkengasong said in a video news conference on Thursday.
“We are working hard, as much as possible, to ensure that the continent is not left behind,” he said, while admitting he didn’t know when they’ll be “putting vaccines in the arms of Africans.”
In the meantime, the fight against COVID-19 may well depend on people like Henry Bugembe.