Steve Almasy, Kay Jones And Jason Hanna, CNN
Published Friday, January 1, 2021 10:46AM EST
(CNN) — Police in Grafton, Wisconsin, have arrested a recently fired pharmacist they say removed 57 vials of the Moderna vaccine from a local hospital’s refrigerator and left them to sit out.
Investigators believe the man removed the vaccine “knowing they would not be usable,” a police news release from Thursday says.
According to police, the hospital pharmacist allegedly provided public safety officials at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton with a written statement saying he intentionally removed the vials, knowing that if they were not properly stored, the doses would be ineffective.
A pharmacy tech found 57 vials in the early hours of Saturday, December 26, and put them back in the refrigerator, the president of Aurora Health Care Medical Group, Dr. Jeff Bahr, told reporters Thursday.
“Based on information available, (we) determined that the vaccine was still able to be administered on the morning of December 26, given the 12-hour period of viability after removal of refrigeration,” Bahr said.
But during the course of an internal investigation, the former employee said the vaccines were also removed for a period of time in the overnight hours of December 24 and 25.
Bahr said 57 vaccinations that were given Saturday are either less effective or ineffective, based on the new information provided by the pharmacist.
The pharmacist, a resident of Grafton who was not identified, could face charges of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, adultering a prescription drug, and criminal damage to property.
All three charges are felonies, according to the news release.
Police officials said the former employee is being held at the Ozaukee County Jail.
Hospital officials said Wednesday the person was no longer employed there.
The vials’ removal from refrigeration at the medical center just north of Milwaukee, and the subsequent need to discard many of them Saturday, means more than 500 doses were lost, Advocate Aurora Health said.
Hospital officials are partnering with Moderna and the US Food and Drug Administration to figure out a strategy for those who received the 57 doses.
The destruction of the other doses was widely reported earlier this week when the hospital system said it believed vials of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine “were not replaced in the refrigerator after temporarily being removed to access other items” at the hospital.
“We are more than disappointed that this individual’s actions will result in a delay of more than 500 people receiving their vaccine,” the statement reads.
Grafton police had said the hospital system contacted them Wednesday evening about “an employee tampering with vials of the Covid-19 vaccine.”
“This matter is being actively investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Food and Drug Administration and the Grafton Police Department,” Grafton police said.
Neither police nor the health care system has publicly discussed a motive.
CNN has reached out to the FBI Milwaukee but has not heard back.
Moderna says its vaccine generally must be stored at temperatures below what a refrigerator can provide. But it can also last 30 days in normal refrigeration, allowing hospitals and pharmacies flexibility for storage and distribution.
The hospital system has not said how much time elapsed from when the vials were removed from the refrigerator to when they were discovered.
The vaccine can last up to 12 hours out of a refrigerator, according to Moderna.
COVID death toll rises in the north – Prince George Citizen
The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of four more northern B.C. residents.
On Monday, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control reported that the Northern Health region’s death toll from the pandemic had grown to 52 – up from 48 in Friday’s update.
“”There have been 31 new COVID-19 related deaths, for a total of 1,078 deaths in British Columbia,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a joint statement released on Monday afternoon. “We offer our condolences to everyone who has lost their loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
There were 166 new cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Health region since Friday’s update, according to the B.C. CDC data. The region’s number of active cases rose to 531, up from 497 on Friday.
The Northern Health’s case counts are moving the opposite direction of the province as a whole. On Monday, the province had 4,326 active cases of COVID-19, down from 4,604 on Friday and 5,232 a week ago.
Across B.C. there were 343 hospitalized with COVID-19, including 68 in critical care. Forty of those hospitalized were in the Northern Health region, and 16 of those people were in critical care.
B.C. had a total of 1,330 new cases of COVID-19 since the last update, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 61,447 – including 2,911 in the north.
A breakdown of COVID-19 cases by local health area released by the B.C. CDC reported there were 108 cases of COVID-19 in the Prince George area between Jan. 3 and Jan. 9.
A map showing cases by Health Service Delivery Area showed 132 cases between Jan. 8 and Jan. 14 in the Northern Interior area, which includes Prince George.
As of Monday, 87,346 British Columbians have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“With notice of a temporary reduction in Pfizer vaccine supply in Canada, we have adjusted our immunization program to match availability,” Henry and Dix said. “Our focus continues to be on immunizing all those in long-term care, as well as the people who care for the residents, and starting dose two at 35 days.”
As of this week, the B.C. CDC will add vaccination information to its COVID-19 dashboard information.
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“We have to remember that even though our COVID-19 immunization program is underway, the risks remain high. This is why we all need to continue using our layers of protection and follow the public health orders, to keep everyone without a vaccine as safe as possible,” Henry and Dix said. “The COVID-19 vaccines are incredibly effective, greater than what we see in the vaccines for many other illnesses. But right now, it is our individual efforts that have the biggest impact. Let’s show each other that we remain committed to doing our part to keep everyone safe, to protect our seniors and Elders who have not yet had the vaccine, our neighbours and loved ones.”
Could new virus variants derail COVID-19 vaccination efforts? Scientists hope not – CBC.ca
After the virus behind COVID-19 spent 2020 wreaking havoc around the globe, this year started with a bit more hope — vaccination efforts were ramping up, after all — and a tinge of fear.
Multiple new coronavirus variants have been discovered across several continents, from Europe to Africa to South America. Confirmed cases keep popping up in dozens of countries, Canada included.
Scientists are now racing to understand these sets of mutations, all while concerns are growing over their ability to infect people more easily or, in some cases, potentially evade the army of antibodies we create after being infected or vaccinated.
And since widespread transmission means this virus has ample opportunities to mutate again and again and again, these variants won’t be the last. They’re just the ones we know about.
“The more opportunity we give to the virus to replicate, to make more viruses, the more opportunity there is to see that variant of concern — one that won’t be mitigated by our vaccines that we’ve developed,” warned Alyson Kelvin, a virologist at Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.
After months of work to develop safe, effective vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the scientific community now faces a race against time to ward off that scenario.
There’s also a looming question: What happens if we don’t?
Variants could ‘very rapidly’ become prevalent
Kelvin, one of the many Canadian researchers involved in vaccine development, said preliminary data shows that the sets of mutations identified so far don’t yet seem to be an issue for current coronavirus vaccines.
That’s the good news. It’s the “yet” she finds troubling.
“We have to stay on top of this problem,” Kelvin said.
But while new variants might throw a wrench in efforts to suppress transmission by popping up like a game of global whack-a-mole, those ongoing mutations were actually expected, not surprising.
That’s because each virus has a singular goal of replicating itself. With tens of millions of people helping move the coronavirus back and forth between hosts, that means countless replications. Some of those contain random, insignificant mistakes. And when the mistakes prove beneficial to the virus, helping it produce more copies, those errors can become a new normal of sorts — a variant.
It’s just evolution at work, said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security in Washington, D.C., and incoming research scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“What concerns me the most is that the epidemiological data that goes along with some of these variants suggests they could very rapidly become very prevalent — effectively out-competing the other variants in a given area — in a short period of time,” she said.
WATCH | How countries can control emerging coronavirus variants:
Could new variants decrease immune response?
Researchers speculate that may be what happened with B117. The variant was first discovered in the U.K. late last year and is now the country’s dominant strain of the coronavirus — with various officials suggesting it’s at least 50 per cent more transmissible. (Cases have been confirmed in several provinces in Canada as well, and testing is ongoing.)
In the short term, more transmission means more infections, hospitalizations and deaths, Rasmussen said, which offers an incentive for countries to slow case growth. Doing so would both save lives and cut off channels for the virus to spread and mutate.
“It’s also possible that variants may arise that decrease the effectiveness of our immune response to the virus,” said Matthew Miller, a member of the Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University and the McMaster Immunology Research Centre in Hamilton.
“But also, of course — and perhaps more worryingly — the immune responses elicited by the currently approved vaccines.”
WATCH | A new coronavirus variant spreads through Brazil:
For scientists in Brazil, there’s already legitimate cause for alarm.
“We have detected a new variant circulating in December in Manaus, Amazonas state, north Brazil, where very high attack rates have been estimated previously,” read the preliminary findings posted online by a research team led by Imperial College London virologist Nuno Faria.
The new lineage, dubbed P1, contains a “unique constellation” of mutations in the crucial spike protein, which helps the virus penetrate human cells, the report continues. The variant was detected in 42 per cent of samples collected during a stretch in December, but not in samples collected in the months before.
Those new cases also appeared even though an estimated three-quarters of people living in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon region, had already been infected.
Faria’s report stressed that could mean an increase in transmissibility — the same issue with B117 — or even an ability to reinfect people.
Vaccines ‘modifiable’ in face of new mutations
According to Rasmussen, antibodies seem to have a reduced capacity to neutralize this kind of virus variant based on the spike protein mutations. Echoing Kelvin and Miller’s concerns, she said that’s a key problem, “because if you acquire enough of those mutations, you may get to a point where you have a variant capable of evading vaccine-induced immunity completely.”
But again, it’s not all dire news. Just because antibodies are less effective doesn’t necessarily mean someone would have reduced immune protection, Rasmussen explained, since the body’s immune response is looking at the entire spike protein, not just certain areas that might have a set of mutations.
Miller also noted that while the spike protein tends to be most prone to changing in the face of immunological pressure, there are other vaccine candidates in development that are designed to elicit broader immune responses against a greater array of viral targets to stay one step ahead.
WATCH | Scientists still researching whether vaccine prevents COVID-19 transmission:
“Even in the worst-case scenario, that we see some of these variants spreading and we get a partial response, it’s probably going to mean that the health-care complications, the deaths, are still going to be greatly controlled by a mass vaccine campaign,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist at McMaster University.
And, thankfully, research teams can also pivot, redeveloping existing coronavirus vaccines to target any variants that may prove capable of evading the ones already rolling out globally.
The novel mRNA vaccines, including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna options currently approved in Canada, are among those that can be more easily tweaked. Those vaccines provide instructions — messenger RNA — to cells, allowing them to make their own spike protein, which someone’s immune system can recognize and fight off in the future.
“That is their genius, that they’re completely and rapidly modifiable,” Chagla said. “The packaging is there, the delivery method is there, all you need to do is change the mRNA sequence.”
The sooner people get vaccinated, ‘the better’
But while the flexibility of vaccination development is reassuring for the long term, it doesn’t tackle the problem at hand: COVID-19 still has its grip on much of the world, the death toll keeps climbing and vaccination efforts remain a race against time as emerging variants keep throwing a wrench in efforts to curb transmission.
“The sooner that we can get a vaccine into people, the better,” Kelvin said.
To save lives and keep health-care systems from collapsing while vaccination programs scale up, she stressed that Canadians also need to ramp up the basic public health precautions that should now be routine.
Physical distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing, staying away from crowds and enclosed spaces — it all matters, perhaps now more than ever, to slow transmission and give the virus fewer opportunities to spread and evolve.
That buys time for Canada to hit its tenuous goal for 2021: getting everyone vaccinated, without any variants getting in the way.
A new COVID-19 challenge: Mutations rise along with cases – CFJC Today Kamloops
“We need to do everything we can now … to get transmission as low as we possibly can,” said Harvard University’s Dr. Michael Mina. “The best way to prevent mutant strains from emerging is to slow transmission.”
So far, vaccines seem to remain effective, but there are signs that some of the new mutations may undermine tests for the virus and reduce the effectiveness of antibody drugs as treatments.
“We’re in a race against time” because the virus “may stumble upon a mutation” that makes it more dangerous, said Dr. Pardis Sabeti, an evolutionary biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Younger people may be less willing to wear masks, shun crowds and take other steps to avoid infection because the current strain doesn’t seem to make them very sick, but “in one mutational change, it might,” she warned. Sabeti documented a change in the Ebola virus during the 2014 outbreak that made it much worse.
MUTATIONS ON THE RISE
It’s normal for viruses to acquire small changes or mutations in their genetic alphabet as they reproduce. Ones that help the virus flourish give it a competitive advantage and thus crowd out other versions.
In March, just a couple months after the coronavirus was discovered in China, a mutation called D614G emerged that made it more likely to spread. It soon became the dominant version in the world.
Now, after months of relative calm, “we’ve started to see some striking evolution” of the virus, biologist Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle wrote on Twitter last week. “The fact that we’ve observed three variants of concern emerge since September suggests that there are likely more to come.”
One was first identified in the United Kingdom and quickly became dominant in parts of England. It has now been reported in at least 30 countries, including the United States.
Soon afterward, South Africa and Brazil reported new variants, and the main mutation in the version identified in Britain turned up on a different version “that’s been circulating in Ohio … at least as far back as September,” said Dr. Dan Jones, a molecular pathologist at Ohio State University who announced that finding last week.
“The important finding here is that this is unlikely to be travel-related” and instead may reflect the virus acquiring similar mutations independently as more infections occur, Jones said.
That also suggests that travel restrictions might be ineffective, Mina said. Because the United States has so many cases, “we can breed our own variants that are just as bad or worse” as those in other countries, he said.
TREATMENT, VACCINE, REINFECTION RISKS
Some lab tests suggest the variants identified in South Africa and Brazil may be less susceptible to antibody drugs or convalescent plasma, antibody-rich blood from COVID-19 survivors — both of which help people fight off the virus.
Government scientists are “actively looking” into that possibility, Dr. Janet Woodcock of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told reporters Thursday. The government is encouraging development of multi-antibody treatments rather than single-antibody drugs to have more ways to target the virus in case one proves ineffective, she said.
Current vaccines induce broad enough immune responses that they should remain effective, many scientists say. Enough genetic change eventually may require tweaking the vaccine formula, but “it’s probably going to be on the order of years if we use the vaccine well rather than months,” Dr. Andrew Pavia of the University of Utah said Thursday on a webcast hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Health officials also worry that if the virus changes enough, people might get COVID-19 a second time. Reinfection currently is rare, but Brazil already confirmed a case in someone with a new variant who had been sickened with a previous version several months earlier.
WHAT TO DO
“We’re seeing a lot of variants, viral diversity, because there’s a lot of virus out there,” and reducing new infections is the best way to curb it, said Dr. Adam Lauring, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Loyce Pace, who heads the non-profit Global Health Council and is a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, said the same precautions scientists have been advising all along “still work and they still matter.”
“We still want people to be masking up,” she said Thursday on a webcast hosted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“We still need people to limit congregating with people outside their household. We still need people to be washing their hands and really being vigilant about those public health practices, especially as these variants emerge.”
AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson in Seattle contributed reporting.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Marilynn Marchione, The Associated Press
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