New Virus Variant, Vaccination Efforts, Rising Cases: COVID-19 Global Update

Medscape, Univadis, & MediQuality Staff

December 18, 2020

These are the global coronavirus stories you need to know about this week.

Development of an Australian homegrown COVID-19 vaccine was halted after it produced HIV false positives in some participants. In the phase 1 trial of the vaccine candidate being developed by the University of Queensland and biotech company CSL, some participants developed antibodies against fragments of an HIV protein (gp41) used to stabilise the vaccine. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is sending a team of 10 scientists to Wuhan, China in January to investigate the origins of COVID-19. The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed it would cooperate with the WHO investigation.

The United Arab Emirates began COVID-19 vaccination on December 14 in the capital Abu Dhabi, days after the country approved the COVID-19 vaccine developed by China's Sinopharm.

After 5 weeks of decreasing COVID-19 cases in Spain, the number rose this week to almost 200 per 100,000 people. The Ministry of Health is proposing "more restrictive" measures over Christmas. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez didn't rule out tightening the restrictions if the situation worsens. Meanwhile, a study found that 1 in 10 Spaniards has already had COVID-19, half during the second wave.

In the UK, details were released of a variant of SARS-CoV-2 said to be spreading faster than existing variants. VUI – 202012/01 carries a set of mutations including an N501Y mutation in the receptor binding motif of the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to the human ACE2 receptor. 

A joint editorial from The BMJ and Health Service Journal urged the Government to scrap the planned 5 day Christmas relaxation of lockdown measures due to rising cases. However, the easing is going ahead with some changes in different parts of the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a news conference: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas and I'm afraid this year, I do mean little."

France's President Emmanuel Macron has become the latest world leader to test positive for coronavirus. He had a test after showing symptoms but it isn't clear where he was infected. He's working from home during 7 days of isolation. He met the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Monday in Paris and Mr Sanchez was also self-isolating.

The first vaccinations against COVID-19 could begin at the end of the year with the country receiving around 1.16 million vaccine doses by the end of December, and an additional 677,000 doses in January, and around 1.6 million doses in February.

The government also launched a massive screening experiment in four metropolitan areas.

The German Society for Pneumology and the German Lung Foundation published a joint statement on the current measures to help stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2. They warn of the possible consequences of the pandemic and gave new ways to better manage the crisis. Their proposals include prevention and vaccination strategies, and optimising hospital capacities.

A controversial Italian court decision allows doctors to prescribe hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 against the recommendations of the Italian Agency for Drug Research. According to the court, there is no evidence of possible severe side effects, nor enough "evidence of lack of efficacy" in general practice to ban its use.

Italy will go into full lockdown from December 24 to 27 and from December 31 to January 3 to prevent family gatherings. Although cases have been decreasing, the health system is still overwhelmed.

In Brazil, vaccination will begin 5 days after the regulatory agency ANVISA approved the first vaccine. Priority groups will be vaccinated over a period of 4 months. Vaccination of the general population is expected to take 12 months. Some public health experts said the plan is technically flawed and not comprehensive enough. On December 14, the country registered 915 deaths in 24 hours. In São Paulo State, the Butantan Institute started to produce the CoronaVac vaccine ahead of its approval. The Institute is working towards producing a million doses a day.

In Portugal, women between 40 and 49 years old are the population hit the hardest by the second wave of COVID-19. In second place are women between 50 and 59, and in third place are women between the ages of 20 and 29. There was also a change in the quarantine rules: asymptomatic people or those who present mild symptoms should be isolated for 10 days, instead of 14.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorised the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use in over 16s. Healthcare workers were first to be vaccinated as stocks began arriving at sites across the country.

Federal advisers also overwhelmingly recommended an emergency clearance of Moderna's vaccine, while noting concerns about potential allergic reactions and the challenges of continued testing of this medicine. The FDA is not bound to act on the recommendations of its advisers, but the agency usually takes the panel's advice.

Meanwhile, the US reached another milestone of 300,000 deaths. Hundreds of hospitals across the country are at or nearing capacity.

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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