Pfizer vaccine highly effective against 2 variants, studies say; US backs waiving intellectual property rules on vaccines: COVID-19 updates

The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is effective at protecting against severe disease caused by two variants rapidly spreading around the U.S., according to two studies published Wednesday.

The vaccine protects against severe illness caused by both the variant first identified in the U.K. and the variant first discovered in South Africa, the studies show. One was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the other in The Lancet.

There have been 20,915 cases of the U.K. variant in the U.S., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows. In April, CDC Director Rachelle Walensky announced it had become the dominant strain in the U.S., and in January British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that the variant might be 30% more deadly than previous versions of the disease.

But The Lancet study showed that in Israel, where the variant accounted for nearly 95% of all coronavirus cases, the two doses provide more than 95% protection against COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death.

The variant first discovered in South Africa has been reported in 36 jurisdictions. There have been 453 cases of the variant.

Meanwhile, the huge COVID-19 crisis in India is rightfully receiving worldwide attention, but the problems extend beyond its borders and to other Southeast Asian countries as well, with coronavirus infections spiking throughout the region.

Also in the news:

►The coronavirus variant first discovered in New York City does not appear to be leading to more severe infections, according to a study published by the CDC on Wednesday.

►CVS Health announced Wednesday it is accepting walk-in appointments for COVID-19 vaccines at pharmacy locations across the country.

►California officials say a bar owner who sold undercover agents fake COVID-19 vaccine cards is now facing charges for multiple crimes.

►New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Broadway shows will resume Sept. 14, and tickets will go on sale starting Thursday.

►Spain’s health minister says the European country has detected 11 cases of the new strain of the coronavirus first identified in India.

►Vaccine-maker Moderna said Wednesday two strategies it has tested for increasing protection against coronavirus variants have yielded positive results, an encouraging sign in the battle against the virus as it mutates.

►Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has directed all state employees to return to in-person work in the office by May 17, after many spent most of the past 14 months working remotely.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 32.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 579,200 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: Over 154.76 million cases and 3.2 million deaths. More than 321.5 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 249.5 million have been administered, according to the CDC. More than 107.3 million Americans have been fully vaccinated.

📘 What we’re reading: It may not take true “herd immunity” to see a dramatic drop in COVID-19 cases, some researchers say.

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Once grim CDC projections now ‘quite hopeful’ for summer

Hospitalizations and deaths should decline sharply by July if the nationwide vaccination program remains strong and community mitigation efforts are followed, according to a federal report released Wednesday.

Still, ignoring mitigation efforts such as masks and social distancing in some situations could lead to substantial increases in “severe COVID-19 outcomes,” even with improved vaccination coverage, the report from the CDC says.

“High vaccination rates and compliance with public health prevention measures are essential to control the pandemic and to prevent surges in hospitalizations and deaths in the coming months,” the report says.

Dr. Walensky said variants remain a “wild card,” but that so far the vaccines appear to work well against them.

“Models once projecting really grim news now offer reasons to be quite hopeful for what the summer may bring,” Walensky said at a White House briefing. “The sooner we get more and more people vaccinated, the sooner we will all get back to normal.”

U.S. backs lifting intellectual property rules for COVID-19 vaccines

The Biden administration will support efforts to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, a major step in the attempts to end the pandemic as it continues to rage in India and other parts of the world.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the decision in a Wednesday statement, amid World Trade Organization talks over easing global trade rules to enable more countries to produce more of the vaccines.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said in the statement. “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

She also cautioned that it would take time to reach the required global “consensus” to waive the protections under WTO rules, and U.S. officials said it would not have an immediate effect on the global supply of COVID-19 shots.

The pharmaceutical industry has opposed lifting the patent protections.

Not only India: Other Southeast Asian countries dealing with COVID surge

The huge COVID-19 crisis in India is rightfully receiving worldwide attention, but the problems extend beyond its borders and to other Southeast Asian countries as well, with coronavirus infections spiking throughout the region.

Authorities in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu and surrounding districts extended a lockdown by another week as the Himalayan nation reported its highest daily tolls of cases and deaths. All domestic flights in Nepal have been grounded.

In Thailand, a surge that began in April has prompted health officials to rush to vaccinate thousands of people in Bangkok’s biggest slum. Thailand has been recording about 2,000 cases a day and double-digit deaths recently.

Bhutan, which borders India, and Laos are also reporting surges in infections in recent weeks, mostly blamed on virus variants but also failure to adhere to mitigation measures.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

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