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What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

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(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

India overtakes Brazil as world’s second worst-hit country

India reported a record 168,912 COVID-19 infections overnight, data from the health ministry showed on Monday, overtaking Brazil to become the second-most affected country globally by the coronavirus.

India’s overall tally reached 13.53 million, surpassing Brazil’s 13.45 million cases, according to data compiled by Reuters. The United States led the global tally with 31.2 million cases.

South African variant may evade protection from Pfizer vaccine, Israeli study says

The coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa may evade the protection provided by Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine to some extent, a real-world data study in Israel found, though its prevalence in the country is very low and the research has not been peer reviewed.

The study, released on Saturday, compared almost 400 people who had tested positive for COVID-19, 14 days or more after they received one or two doses of the vaccine, against the same number of unvaccinated patients with the disease.

Among patients who had received two doses of the vaccine, the variant’s prevalence rate was eight times higher than those unvaccinated – 5.4% versus 0.7%.

This suggests the vaccine is less effective against the South African variant, compared with the original coronavirus and a variant first identified in Britain that has come to comprise nearly all COVID-19 cases in Israel, the researchers said.

Brazil records 1,803 COVID-19 deaths

Brazil on Sunday recorded 1,803 new COVID-19 deaths, as a large study found that a Chinese vaccine that has become the linchpin in the country’s vaccination campaign is 50.7% effective against the infectious new homegrown variant known as P1.

Sao Paulo’s Butantan biomedical institute, which tested and is now producing the CoronaVac vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd, said on Sunday a study it conducted found the shot had an efficacy rate of 50.7% against the P1 variant, and a less widespread strain known as P2. Butantan said that if the second dose is delayed by more than two weeks, the efficacy rises to 62.3%. The vaccine has an efficacy of between 83.7% and 100% at preventing those infected from requiring medical assistance, it said.

Australia abandons vaccination targets after new advice on AstraZeneca shots

Australia has abandoned a goal to vaccinate nearly all of its 26 million population by the end of 2021 following advice that people under the age of 50 take Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine rather than AstraZeneca’s shot.

About 1.16 million COVID-19 doses have now been administered, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a Facebook post, noting the speed of Australia’s vaccination programme was in line with other peer nations, including Germany and France, and ahead of Canada and Japan.

China considers mixing vaccines to boost protection rate

China’s top disease control official has said the country is formally considering mixing COVID-19 vaccines as a way of further boosting vaccine efficacy. Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Saturday that taking steps to “optimise” the vaccine process including changing the number of doses and the length of time between doses was a “definite” solution to efficacy issues.

Two injections of a vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech, when given shorter than three weeks apart, was 49.1% effective based on data from a Phase III trial in Brazil, below the 50% threshold set by World Health Organization, according to a paper published by Brazilian researchers on Sunday ahead of peer review. But data from a small subgroup showed that the efficacy rate increased to 62.3% when the doses were given at intervals of three weeks and longer.

 

(Compiled by Karishma Singh; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

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AMC expects people to return to theaters as vaccine rollout gathers pace

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(Reuters) -AMC Entertainment Holdings said on Thursday its business was expected to improve in the coming months as the mass rollout of COVID-19 vaccines draws moviegoers back to the cinema chain’s theaters.

A strong slate of big-budget movies, including “Fast & Furious” film “F9” and Marvel’s “Black Widow,” in the summer is expected to fuel a rebound in box-office sales after the pandemic-driven slump in 2020.

“We finally can now say that we are looking at an increasingly favorable environment for movie-going and for AMC as a company over the coming few months, Chief Executive Officer Adam Aron said in a statement.

However, the company’s revenue fell to $148.3 million in the quarter ended March 31, from $941.5 million a year earlier, missing a Refinitiv IBES estimate of $153.43 million.

Its net loss shrunk to $567.2 million, or $1.42 per share in the quarter, from a loss of $2.18 billion, or $20.88 per share, a year earlier.

(Reporting by Chavi Mehta in Bengaluru; Editing by Aditya Soni)

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Drugmakers say Biden misguided over vaccine patent waiver

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By Stephanie Nebehay and Ludwig Burger

GENEVA/FRANKFURT (Reuters) -Drugmakers on Thursday said U.S. President Joe Biden’s support for waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines could disrupt a fragile supply chain and that rich countries should instead share more generously with the developing world.

Biden on Wednesday threw his support behind waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, angering research-based pharmaceutical companies.

If adopted by the World Trade Organisation, the proposal would invite new manufacturers that lack essential know-how and oversight from the inventors to crowd out established contractors, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said.

“I have heard many (vaccine makers) talking about ‘our resources are stretched, our technicians are stretched’,” IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni told Reuters. He warned of a possible free for all if “sort of rogue companies” were allowed to become involved.

Vaccine developers echoed his comments that waiving intellectual property rights was not a solution.

“Patents are not the limiting factor for the production or supply of our vaccine. They would not increase the global production and supply of vaccine doses in the short and middle term,” said Germany’s BioNTech, which aims to supply up 3 billion doses together with Pfizer this year.

BioNTech said it took more than a decade to develop its vaccines manufacturing process and replicating it required experienced personnel and a meticulous technology transfer, among several other factors beyond patents.

Another German company CureVac, which hopes to release trial results on its messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine as early as this month, said patents were not to blame for supply bottlenecks.

“Since mRNA technology has emerged as the key technology in the fight against COVID-19, the world now needs the same raw materials in unfathomable amounts. The biggest problem is how to coordinate this,” a spokeswoman said.

IFPMA’s Cueni said the real bottlenecks were trade barriers, in particular the U.S. Defense Production Act (DPA).

The DPA is a decades-old U.S. law that prioritised procurement orders related to U.S. national defence, but it has been widely used in non-military crises, such as natural disasters.

Cueni said the way to kickstart low-income countries’ vaccination campaigns was for rich countries to donate vaccine, rather than widen eligibility to young and healthy people at home.

Moderna, which on Thursday reported quarterly results, said waiving intellectual property rights would not help to increase supply of its vaccines in 2021 and 2022.

The U.S. drugmaker said last year it would not enforce its vaccine patents. CureVac said on Thursday it would also not enforce its patents during the pandemic and that it knew of no other developer that would.

Italy’s ReiThera which is in late-stage tests on an experimental COVID-19 vaccine, was also critical of patent waivers.

“There is proprietary know-how that has to be transferred by the owner. And then there is the problem with process materials, which at the moment have delivery times of almost a year,” ReiThera’s chief of technology Stefano Colloca said.

In contrast to the industry reaction, the GAVI vaccine alliance, which co-leads the COVAX dose-sharing programme with the WHO and faces major supply constraints, welcomed Biden’s support for waiving intellectual property rights.

(Writing by Ludwig BurgerAdditional Reporting by Emilio Parodi in Milan; editing by Barbara Lewis and Jane Merriman)

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EU supports COVID vaccine patent waiver talks, but critics say won’t solve scarcity

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By Philip Blenkinsop and Carl O’Donnell

BRUSSELS/NEW YORK (Reuters) -The European Union on Thursday backed a U.S. proposal to discuss waiving patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, but drugmakers and some other governments opposed the idea, saying it would not solve global inoculation shortages.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed willingness to explore a waiver after President Joe Biden on Wednesday promoted the plan, reversing the U.S. position.

“The main thing is, we have to speed this up,” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Thursday as India battled a devastating COVID-19 outbreak. “None of us are going to be fully safe until … we get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

A patent waiver is “one possible means of increasing manufacture, and access to vaccines,” he said, as the White House denied a split among officials over the waiver idea.

Biden’s administration endorsed negotiations at the World Trade Organization to gain global agreement.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told member states that she “warmly welcomed” the U.S. move. “We need to respond urgently to COVID-19 because the world is watching and people are dying,” she said.

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reached for capital letters in a tweet calling Biden’s move a “MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST #COVID19,” and said it reflected “the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States.”

Despite that enthusiasm, drugmakers, who stand to lose revenue if they are stripped of patent rights to COVID-19 vaccines, and other critics found flaws in the proposal.

The complexities of manufacturing means free access to the intellectual property is not enough to immediately increase vaccine production, they said. Moderna waived its patent rights in October, and on Thursday noted the lack of companies able to rapidly manufacture a similar vaccine and secure approval for it.

Combined, Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have forecast over $45 billion in sales this year for their COVID-19 vaccines.

In the long term, a waiver would discourage pharmaceutical companies from rapidly responding to future global health threats with large research investments, some said.

Germany, the EU’s biggest economic power and home to a large pharmaceutical sector, rejected the idea, saying vaccine shortages were due to limited production capacity and quality standards rather than patent protection issues.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said he shared Biden’s goal of providing the whole world with vaccines. But a government spokeswoman said in a statement that “the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.”

Moreover, a waiver would take months to negotiate and require unanimous agreement among the 164 countries in the WTO. Drug companies urged rich countries instead to share vaccines more generously with the developing world.

DOES NOT ADDRESS ‘THE REAL CHALLENGES’

Stock prices for drugmakers largely recovered after initially falling sharply after Biden backed the waiver idea. Moderna was off 1.3% after earlier dropping 12%, and the U.S. shares of its German partner BioNTech SE shed 0.6% after falling as much as 15% earlier. “The bottleneck is neither access nor patents (or price) butsimply that there aren’t enough vials, raw materials, etc tomanufacture it regardless of patents,” Jefferies analyst Michael Yee said of expanding COVID-19 vaccine production.

The pharmaceutical industry’s main lobbying group, PhRMA, said: “This decision does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms, including last-mile distribution and limited availability of raw materials.”

There have been more than 155 million confirmed coronavirus infections worldwide and almost 3.4 million peopled have died for COVID-19, according to a Reuters tally.

But the vast bulk of the 624 million people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Our World in Data website, live in wealthier countries.

The global COVAX vaccine distribution program, led by the WHO and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), that aims to supply vaccines to low-income countries, has so far handed out around 41 million doses.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “very much in favour” of opening up intellectual property. However, a French government official said vaccine shortages was the result of a lack of production capacity and ingredients, not of patents.

“I would remind you that it is the United States that has not exported a single dose to other countries, and is now talking about lifting the patents,” the official said.

The United States has shipped a few million vaccine doses it was not using to Mexico and Canada on loan.

South Africa and India made the initial waiver proposal at the WTO in October, gathering support from many developing countries, which say it will make vaccines more widely available.

Until now, the European Union has been aligned with a group of countries, including Britain and Switzerland – home to large pharmaceutical companies – that have opposed the waiver.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Sabine Siebold in Brussels, additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Francesco Guarascio and John Chalmers in Brussels, Emilio Parodi in Milan, Gwenaelle Barzic in Paris, Emma Farge in Geneva; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt aboard Air Force One, Andrea Shalal in Washington, Carl O’Donnell and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Writing by Nick Macfie and Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Mark Heinrich and Bill Berkrot)

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