Biden Administration Brings Change in US, UK Vaccinations Outnumber Cases: Global COVID-19 Highlights

Medscape, Univadis, & MediQuality Staff

January 22, 2021

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

As President Joe Biden took office, the United States death toll from COVID-19 climbed past 400,000. With vaccinations lagging, especially in hard-hit states, Mr Biden announced a 5-point plan aimed at speeding vaccine distribution and uptake. He plans to use military clinicians, Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel, and staff from the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps to help expand the number of vaccinators. President Biden kicked off his new administration with an immediate focus on attempts to stop the spread of COVID-19, including closer coordination with other nations.

Meanwhile, though, states reported that 16,000 vaccine doses were compromised during transport this week because of too hot or too cold shipping containers.

In the UK, COVID-19 deaths passed 90,000 this week but more people have now been vaccinated (4.9m as of Thursday) than have ever tested positive (3.5m). Although new cases appear to be levelling off, hospital admissions and deaths continue to rise.

Oxford's RECOVERY trial closed recruitment to its randomised study of convalescent plasma treatment for patients hospitalised with COVID-19 after finding no evidence it helped.

A total of 285,000 COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered to hospitals in Belgium so far. Of these, 98% were from Pfizer/BioNTech and 2% from Moderna. According to figures from the national health authorities, 112,293 people have received their first dose of the vaccine so far (1% of the population). On Tuesday the federal authorities were told that Pfizer would not be able to guarantee a secure supply of its vaccines in the coming weeks, so vaccination planning needs to be reviewed. 

Brazil started vaccinating against COVID-19 on Monday. Six million doses of CoronaVac (Sinovac/Butantan Institute) imported from China were distributed around the country. So far, they are the only doses available to Brazil's 212 million inhabitants. Another 4.8 million doses filled by Brazil's Butantan Institute are awaiting approval for emergency use.

The Brazilian regulatory agency rejected a request for emergency use of the Sputnik V vaccine and is awaiting further documents before re-evaluating. As of Monday, the country had registered 210,328 deaths and 8,512,238 confirmed diagnoses of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Hospitals in Manaus reported shortages of oxygen.

Portugal is experiencing its most serious situation so far in the pandemic. A new lockdown started on January 15 and is expected to last at least a month, with a reassessment in 2 weeks. Remote working is mandatory, non-essential shops and services are closed, and cafes and restaurants can only do home deliveries. However, schools remain open. As of January 18, the country had recorded 556,503 confirmed diagnoses and 9028 deaths from COVID-19. To date, 106,000 people have been vaccinated. The country has 10.3 million inhabitants.

The Spanish Minister of Health has rejected new lockdown measures after a weekly meeting with regional authorities. It's not known when Spain will reach the peak of its third wave, as the number of cases is still rising with an incidence at 14 days of 666 cases per 100,000. More than one million people have already received the vaccine. 

In France, the number of COVID-19 cases is continuing to rise steadily (26,784 new cases, 316 deaths in hospital on January 20) and the Government is considering additional lockdown measures in the coming weeks. 

On Wednesday, thanks to the expansion of priority targets, 692,777 people received their first dose of vaccine. There are complaints about a shortage of doses. A pharmacovigilance bulletin from the regulator ANSM reported 139 adverse effects, including five deaths possibly linked to vaccination. Overall, 71 deaths are believed to have occurred post-vaccination in frail elderly people in Europe. In an interview, geriatrician Prof Joë Belmin advised against jumping to conclusions as he said vaccines are saving many more lives.

German obstetricians and gynaecologists recommend COVID vaccination for high-risk patients, even if they are breastfeeding. With over a million people in Germany having received their first vaccine dose, the German Society for Immunology announced that in order to vaccinate as many people as possible, second doses can wait up to 60 days. 

Italy is worried about a shortage of vaccines. Pfizer/BioNTech is slowing down its delivery because of an upgrade to its plant in Belgium. The Ministry of Health has stopped delivery of the first dose to health workers to conserve supplies for the second dose. Meanwhile the National State of Emergency was extended until the end of April.

Argentina has vaccinated more than 200,000 health professionals with a first vaccine dose. The country will use Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, which is already approved in Venezuela, Paraguay, and Bolivia, and is being evaluated in Brazil and Mexico.

Israel's coronavirus tsar Nachman Ash said a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine appeared "less effective than we had thought". His remarks came as record new infections were reported in Israel despite widespread vaccination uptake.

China says it is witnessing the worst outbreak of COVID-19 since March 2020, with more than 100 new COVID-19 cases recorded for the seventh consecutive day on January 19. The majority of cases are from Jilin and Hebei province. In response to the surge in COVID-19 infections, China has built a 1500 room hospital in just 5 days in Nangong city, south of Beijing.

India successfully kicked-off its ambitious COVID-19 vaccination programme on January 16, with more than 190,000 healthcare professionals and frontline workers receiving their first doses on day one. The country plans to vaccinate 300 million of its 1.3 billion population by July.

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

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