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As U.S. Decides Who Gets COVID Vaccine Next, More Infectious Strain Seen in Britain

MONDAY, Dec. 21, 2020 (Healthday News) – Even as U.S. experts announced Sunday which Americans will be next in line receive a COVID-19 vaccine, health officials worldwide worried about a new strain of coronavirus that appears to spread faster than before.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's vaccine advisory committee voted to recommend that those over 75 and essential workers -- people like firefighters, teachers and grocery store employees -- be next in line for COVID-19 shots, the Associated Press reported. The two latest groups in line for a vaccine number roughly 50 million.

Things are not running quite as smoothly in Britain, where officials announced they have discovered a strain of coronavirus emerging in southern England that appears to transmit more easily. In response, other nations moved on Monday to ban travelers from the UK by suspending flights and cutting off trade routes, The New York Times reported. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to his nation on Saturday night to announce new restrictions as he noted that the novel strain striking the London area looks to be 70 percent more contagious than previous strains.

Shortly after his speech, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands all announced restrictions on travel, the Times reported. Poland said it would suspend flights between the two countries starting Monday night. Beyond the European Union, Canada, Hong Kong, Iran and Israel issued their own restrictions.

In the United States, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged the federal government to take action, saying that "right now, this variant in the U.K. is getting on a plane and flying to J.F.K.," while also acknowledging it may already be too late. The U.S. State Department said that its travel advisory for Britain remained unchanged at Level 3, the Times reported.

This latest strain of coronavirus is concerning because it has so many mutations -- nearly two dozen -- and some are on the spiky protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells, the AP reported. The new COVID-19 vaccines target that spiky protein.

"I'm worried about this, for sure," but it's too soon to know how important it ultimately will prove to be, said Dr. Ravi Gupta, who studies viruses at the University of Cambridge in England. He and other researchers posted a report on the new strain online, but the paper has not been formally reviewed or published in a journal, the AP said.

To put this into perspective, viral mutations are fairly common and British officials said this variant had also been detected in a handful of other countries, including South Africa. The estimate of greater transmissibility for the British variant is based on modeling and has not been confirmed by lab experiments, Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government, told the Times.

"Overall, I think we need to have a little bit more experimental data," she told the Times. "We can't entirely rule out the fact that some of this transmissibility data might be related to human behavior."

British officials also said there was no reason to believe that the new variant caused more serious illness, the Times reported.

Moderna's COVID vaccine gets FDA's blessing

Moderna's coronavirus vaccine was granted emergency use approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday, joining Pfizer's vaccine in an unprecedented national vaccination campaign.

"With the availability of two vaccines now for the prevention of COVID-19, the FDA has taken another crucial step in the fight against this global pandemic that is causing vast numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in the United States each day," said FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn.

"To get another very important vaccine into play is just, yet again, another step toward what the ultimate goal is: to get enough people vaccinated so you could essentially end the epidemic as we know it in this country," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Washington Post. "I believe that's possible."

The authorization of a second vaccine will double to roughly 20 million the number of Americans who will get a first shot before the end of the year, the Post reported.

Earlier this week, Gen. Gustave Perna, who is overseeing the federal effort to distribute vaccines, said the government was preparing to ship almost 6 million doses of the Moderna vaccine to 3,285 locations in the first week after approval.

"It will be a very similar cadence that was executed this week with Pfizer, where we're hitting initial sites on Monday, [followed] on Tuesday and Wednesday," Perna said, the Post reported.

The Moderna vaccine was developed in partnership with the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The federal government invested in the research and development of the vaccine and bought 200 million doses in advance, bringing the government outlay to $4.1 billion, the Post reported.

Moderna's vaccine was shown to be 94 percent effective in its large clinical trial; Pfizer's vaccine was 95 percent effective. The efficacy was similar across age, gender and racial groups.

Poll Shows 70 percent of Americans will get COVID vaccine

As the first doses of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine made their way to the arms of health care workers around the United States, a new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 71% of Americans say they will "definitely or probably" get a COVID-19 vaccine.

That's up from 63% in September, and it's a sign that a growing number of Americans are starting to trust the science behind the vaccines as they become more comfortable with the speed in which the vaccines are being developed.

Still, just over a quarter of Americans are hesitant to get a vaccine, saying they probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were free and deemed safe by scientists. The greatest reluctance was seen among Black Americans, people living in rural areas and Republicans.

And not everyone wants a shot right away: A third of those surveyed said they want to get a vaccine "as soon as possible," while 39% of those surveyed said they would "wait and see" how initial vaccination efforts go before getting a vaccine themselves. Kaiser polled 1,676 adults for the survey.

U.S. officials said they are on track to meet initial vaccine delivery targets, the Post reported.

An additional 2 million Pfizer doses are scheduled for delivery this week, along with 5.9 million Moderna doses, the Post reported.

Most of the first round of injections are to be given to high-risk health care workers, the Times said. Because the vaccines can cause side effects including fevers and aches, hospitals have said they will stagger vaccinations among their workers.

Residents of nursing homes, who have suffered a disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths, will begin to get shots this week, the Times reported. A vast majority of Americans will not be eligible for vaccinations until the spring or later.

Azar said the plan is to have 20 million people vaccinated by the end of December, up to 50 million by the end of January and 100 million by the end of February, the Post reported.

A global scourge

By Monday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 17.8 million while the death toll neared 318,000, according to a Times tally. By Monday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were California with nearly 1.9 million cases, Texas with nearly 1.6 million cases, Florida with over 1.2 million cases; Illinois with over 901,000 cases and New York with over 851,000 cases.

Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.

In India, the coronavirus case count was over 10 million on Monday, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Nearly 146,000 coronavirus patients have died in India, according to the Hopkins tally, but when measured as a proportion of the population, the country has had far fewer deaths than many others. Doctors say this reflects India's younger and leaner population. Still, the country's public health system is severely strained, and some sick patients cannot find hospital beds, the Times said. Only the United States has more coronavirus cases.

Meanwhile, Brazil had over 7.2 million cases and over 186,700 deaths as of Monday, the Hopkins tally showed.

Worldwide, the number of reported infections neared 77 million on Monday, with nearly 1.7 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.

SOURCES: Associated Press; Washington Post; The New York Times

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