Vaccination Against South African Variant, European Delivery Delays, New Variant in Japan: COVID-19 Global Weekly Highlights

Medscape, Univadis, & MediQuality Staff

February 26, 2021

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

In a week when the death toll passed 500,000 in the United States, the FDA is set to authorise emergency use of a third vaccine for adults (alongside the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines). Agency scientists released a review of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine on Wednesday, concluding that it not only reduces the risk of serious illness in those who are vaccinated, but also reduces the risk of asymptomatic infections by 74%.

Meanwhile, Moderna completed manufacturing a version of its vaccine to prevent infection by the South African variant. The company is sending doses of this booster vaccine to the National Institutes of Health for evaluation in a clinical trial, the company said.

In Brazil, the regulator Anvisa approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. However, the federal government hasn’t approved the company's contract and, despite interest from the private sector, the pharmaceutical company said that it will only negotiate with the government. Brazil also agreed a measure to allow importation of vaccines approved by at least one among 11 foreign health authorities. In total, Brazil has 10,260,621 confirmed cases and is nearing 250,000 deaths from the disease. The daily average of deaths from the disease has been above 1000 for 34 days.

In France, case numbers are concerning in 10 areas, government spokesman Gabriel Attal estimated on Wednesday. He said four regions had a high incidence rate and high hospital indicators: Île-de-France, Provence-Alpes-Côte d´Azur, Grand Est, and Hauts-de-France.

A new lockdown will begin in Dunkirk and Hauts de Flandres due to an outbreak of the UK virus variant. According to estimates from the Institut Pasteur, 17% of people over 20 in France have already been infected with SARS-CoV-2 as of February 21. The number may be as high as 30% in Paris.

Belgium’s vaccine roll out has been delayed due to lower vaccine deliveries from Moderna and AstraZeneca. Over-65s won't now have their first vaccine doses until the end of March. So far, only 4% of the population has been vaccinated.

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a "cautious but irreversible" roadmap out of England's lockdown. A similar approach is also being taken in Scotland. There was positive real-world data on vaccine first dose protection. One dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine reduces a person's risk of COVID-19 hospitalisation and death by around 70%, according to Public Health England research. University of Edinburgh preprint research found that 4 weeks after the first dose, the Pfizer/BioNTech jab reduced the risk of hospitalisation by up to 85%, and the figure was up to 94% for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Case numbers are going in the right direction but UK COVID-19 deaths passed 135,000 this week.

Portugal, like other European countries, is experiencing vaccine delivery delays. The first phase of vaccination, scheduled to end in March, will probably be extended to April. At least 3.4% of the population has already received at least one dose, including 12% of over-80s. In addition to the delays in vaccination, there are reports of missed doses and some officials being vaccinated ahead of priority groups.

In Spain, the number of new cases of COVID-19 is going down, with an incidence at 14 days of 218 cases per 100,000 people. President Pedro Sánchez said that "the objective is not to save Holy Week [Easter], but to lower the incidence below 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants". Some local governments have begun loosening restrictions. Spain has recorded 298 confirmed cases of the UK variant, six of the South African variant, and one of the Brazilian variant.

Spain's Minister of Health announced that more vaccine doses have been administered than there are people with COVID-19. First vaccine doses have been received by more than 2 million people (4.36% of the population) and 1.2 million have received both doses. The country plans to have 70% of the population vaccinated by the summer. The Galicia region is considering controversial mandatory vaccination measures, with fines of up to €60,000 to people who refuse. 

In Italy, a report issued by the National COVID-19 Control Room 8-14 February confirms rising cases for a third week with the R number close to 1.0. The working group recommended strengthening nationwide lockdown measures to help avoid health services being overwhelmed.

A police investigation was launched after some regional policy makers and Governors were offered a large number of vaccines through a parallel market, outside of EU agreements.

Pfizer and AstraZeneca said they are not involved. The vaccination campaign is slowing down mostly because of lack of organisation and staffing rather than because of vaccine supplies.

World Health Organisation officials expressed deep concerns about Tanzania's sceptical approach towards COVID-19.  The country has not reported any new COVID-19 infections and deaths since May 2020. However, there have been cases of people testing positive abroad after travel from Tanzania. WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that despite repeated requests, the WHO had not received any information regarding what measures the country is taking to respond to the pandemic.

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison received his COVID-19 vaccine on February 21, ahead of a wider rollout that began on February 22. His vaccination was televised to help boost confidence in the vaccination programme. The country plans to vaccinate 4 million people by early March.  

New Zealand started its official COVID-19 vaccine roll out on February 20 with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The vaccination programme is expected to last at least a year.

Malaysia kicked off its vaccination drive on February 24, the first recipient being Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. 

Health authorities in Japan have reported several cases of a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, which could make currently available COVID-19 vaccines less effective. The variant with the E484K mutation was detected in 91 cases in the Kanto region and in two cases at airports. The variant is likely to have come from abroad but is different from the UK and South African variants.

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

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