Fauci Warns New Virus Mutations Are a ‘Wake-Up Call’
On Friday, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci warned that new virus variants, despite the global vaccine distribution, should offer a wake-up call to the continuing dangers of the pandemic.
We’re all aware of the variance that we knew dominated — the U.K. B.1.1.7 , the B.1.351 in South Africa and other variants, such as the P.1. in Brazil. When these variants were first recognized, it became clear that we had to look at, in vitro, in the test tube, whether the antibodies that were induced by the vaccines that we had available would actually neutralize these new mutants. Antigenic variation, i.e. mutations that lead to different lineage do have clinical consequences because as you can see, even though the long-range effect in the sense of severe disease is still handled reasonably well by the vaccines, this is a wake-up call to all of us that we will be dealing as the virus uses its devices to evade pressure, particularly immunological pressure, that we will continue to see the evolution of mutants. So that means that we as a government, the companies, all of us that are in this together, will have to be nimble to be able to just adjust readily to make versions of the vaccine that actually are specifically directed towards whatever mutation is actually prevalent at any given time.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci warned Friday that new clinical trial results from Johnson & Johnson, showing that its vaccine is less effective against a highly infectious variant of the coronavirus circulating in South Africa, were a “wake up call.” He said the virus will continue to mutate, and vaccine manufacturers will have to be “nimble to be able to adjust readily” to reformulating the vaccines if needed.
Dr. Fauci’s warning, at the White House briefing on the virus, comes amid increasing concern about new and more infectious variants of the virus that are emerging overseas and turning up in the United States. This week, officials in South Carolina reported identifying two cases of the variant circulating in South Africa, and officials in Minnesota announced they had found a case of the variant that was first detected in Brazil.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who was also at the briefing, said another variant, first identified in Britain, has now been confirmed in 379 cases in 29 states. She said officials remained concerned about the variants and were “rapidly ramping up surveillance and sequencing activities” to closely monitor them. Unlike Britain, the United States has been conducting little of the genomic sequencing necessary to track the spread of the variants.
Dr. Walensky also issued a plea to Americans to continue wearing masks and practice social distancing, and to avoid travel. Earlier this month, the C.D.C. warned that the variant circulating in Britain could become the dominant source of infection in the United States and would likely lead to a surge in cases and deaths that could overwhelm hospitals. And given the speed at which the variant swept through that country, it is conceivable that by April it could make up a large fraction of infections in the United States.
“By the time someone has symptoms, gets a test, has a positive result and we get the sequence, our opportunity for doing real case control and contact tracing is largely gone,” she said. “We should be treating every case as if it’s a variant during this pandemic right now.”
Friday’s briefing, the second in what the Biden White House has promised will be thrice-weekly updates on the pandemic, came just hours after Johnson & Johnson reported that while its vaccine was 72 percent effective in the United States, the efficacy rate was just 57 percent in South Africa, where a variant has been spreading.
Public health officials including Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky say the emergence of these variants is heightening the urgency of vaccinations. Dr. Fauci also said Friday that children under 16, who are not currently eligible for the vaccine, will likely start getting vaccinated “by late spring or early summer” if small-scale clinical trials show that it is safe and effective to do so.
But Dr. Walensky offered a far more sobering observation. While the daily number of new virus cases has been declining, the figures were still much higher than a period last summer, and deaths currently remain worrisome.
According to data compiled by The New York Times, new virus cases have averaged about 160,000 a day in recent days, compared to about 40,000 new cases a day around early September. As of Thursday, the seven-day average of new deaths was more than 3,200 a day, still near peak levels. The daily death toll has topped 4,000 deaths six times in the United States, including twice this week.
At Wednesday’s briefing by the Biden virus team, Jeffrey D. Zients, Mr. Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, said the United States is lagging far behind other countries in sequencing the genomes of the new variants — a delay he called “totally unacceptable.” Dr. Walensky said she is working to change that.
“We have scaled up surveillance dramatically just in the last ten days, in fact, but our plans are more than what we’ve done so far,” Dr. Walensky said, adding that the C.D.C. is now asking every state to track for worrisome variants and sequence at least 750 samples from patients per week. In addition, she said, the agency has seven collaborations with universities to scale up surveillance to cover thousands of samples per week.
AstraZeneca said this month that it would significantly cut its promised delivery supply of the jab to the European Union as of mid-February. That pitted the bloc against Britain, a former member, which has been receiving a steady flow of vaccine doses from AstraZeneca since approving it well ahead of the E.U., in early December.
The AstraZeneca vaccine was developed in cooperation with Britain’s University of Oxford. The European Union accused the pharmaceutical company of using its promised doses to serve Britain, despite having paid the company about $400 million in October to help it scale up its capabilities and produce doses ahead of authorization.
The policy announced by the European Commission on Friday, presented as a “transparency tool,” will ask all pharmaceutical companies manufacturing coronavirus vaccines in factories within the bloc — currently Pfizer and AstraZeneca — to submit paperwork alerting the European authorities of any intention to move their products to non-E.U. countries. It will be in place until the end of March and will not apply to exports to poorer countries.
The measure could theoretically also affect Pfizer clients, but the Commission has said it is happy with how that company has handled a supply disruption in its Belgian factory that is setting back deliveries. The company has spread the pain among its clients, which include the E.U., Britain and Canada.
The Commission said that AstraZeneca’s decision to maintain delivery volumes to Britain while slashing its deliveries to the E.U., after a problem arose in a Belgium-based plant, was in bad faith and breach of the company’s contractual obligations.
The company’s chief executive responded that he regretted the situation, but that his company had not committed to a specific schedule, but rather to a vow to make its “best effort.”
The Commission dismissed the claim, and published a heavily redacted version of the contract with AstraZeneca. The contract affords the company many standard protections in case it fails to deliver, but includes some clauses that could be seen as favoring the E.U. interpretation that AstraZeneca is obligated to turn to other factories, including in Britain, to fulfill its delivery promises.
The matter is further complicated by regulation issues: The European drug regulator, the European Medicines Association, received an application for authorization from AstraZeneca on Jan. 12, nearly two weeks after the company received emergency authorization in Britain. The E.U. agency was expected to announce approval of use of the vaccine later on Friday.
New York City Sets ‘Aggressive Goal’ of 5 Million Vaccinations by June
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is aiming to vaccinate 5 million New Yorkers against Covid-19 by June. He also announced plans to bring city workers back to offices in May and reopen schools for all students in September.
We’re going for an aggressive goal, five million New Yorkers vaccinated by June. I am absolutely certain we can do it so long as we have the vaccine. And I am more and more confident because the actions the Biden administration, because the Johnson Johnson vaccine is coming, more and more confident that we will have what we need. I’m going to push hard on the federal government to get every pharmaceutical company in America into this work because they’re not right now. The federal government needs to ensure that they are required to produce vaccine, whether they’re the originator of the vaccine or not. So long as we have the supply, we can reach five million new Yorkers in June, get to a point of community immunity. And we’re going to bring back our city workforce in May and after, because obviously so many are on the job right now. But the folks who work in our offices and do so much important work, we want them back. We want to send a signal to this whole city. We’re moving forward. We want to see the private sector bring workforces back. We are going to have an entirely different situation as we proceed into the spring. By the end of the spring, I think you’re going to see something very different. And we’re going to a great group of folks out there, our vaccine for all core leading the way. Now, a lot of different pieces matter, and one of the most crucial ones that matters to us for today, for our parents, for our families, for our future, tomorrow — our schools, one of the things that says most clearly, we are back is our schools. And so in September, our schools come back fully. We focus on helping kids overcome that Covid achievement gap. Our 2021 student achievement plan focuses on the academic side, but also the emotional side, the mental health needs of our kids after everything they’ve been through.
In his final State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio offered a sprawling vision of New York City’s recovery from a pandemic that has taken tens of thousands of lives and destroyed the city’s economy.
The mayor committed to accelerating the city’s vaccination efforts and set a goal of inoculating five million New Yorkers by June.
“We’re going for an aggressive goal,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference on Friday morning, adding that “I am absolutely certain we can do it, so long as we have the vaccine.”
On Friday, Mr. de Blasio said that, given an adequate supply of the vaccine, the city could vaccinate half a million people per week, and that he planned to reopen vaccination sites that had closed as more vaccine became available.
Johnson & Johnson announced on Friday that their vaccine was very effective at preventing the virus, but that its efficacy dropped steeply against a more contagious variant in South Africa. White House officials have been counting on Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, to ease the shortfall of vaccine supply. Unlike the federally authorized vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is effective after only one dose. But the company may only have about seven million doses ready when the F.D.A. decides whether to authorize it, according to federal health officials familiar with its production, and about 30 million doses by early April.
Mr. de Blasio also noted on Friday that the citywide seven-day average rate of positive test results was 8.63 percent, and city data show that in more than 30 city ZIP codes the rate is above 10 percent.
During the State of the City address, the mayor also said he would begin in May to bring back to offices the thousands of city employees who have been working remotely, and would safely reopen schools for all students in September.
“New York City’s vaccination effort is the foundation of a recovery for all of us,” the mayor’s 18-page recovery plan says. “With every vaccine shot, New York City moves closer and closer to fully reopening our economy, restoring the jobs we lost and ensuring equality in our comeback.”
If the federal government provides enough stimulus dollars to the city, Mr. de Blasio said, he will create a City Cleanup Corps of 10,000 temporary workers to focus on beautifying the city — an idea he compared to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.
Mr. de Blasio also proposed two plans to help small businesses: a $50 million “recovery tax credit” program for businesses that have faced hardships from the pandemic, and a $100 million “recovery loan” program to help shops stay open. The city will provide low-interest loans of up to $100,000 to roughly 2,000 small businesses, according to the mayor’s plan.
But Mr. de Blasio has also warned that the city is facing major budget cuts and layoffs. He recently announced that the city’s property tax revenues are projected to decline by $2.5 billion next year, driven by a drop in the value of office buildings and hotel properties that have emptied out during the pandemic.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Friday that restaurants in New York City, major drivers of its economy that have struggled under pandemic restrictions, could reopen for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity starting on Feb. 14. Mr. Cuomo closed them last month as virus numbers ticked up.
Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Cuomo have expressed optimism that President Biden, along with a Democratic-led Congress, will bring substantial assistance to the city. Mr. de Blasio also called for higher taxes on wealthy New Yorkers in his speech — a policy he has pushed for years, but that Mr. Cuomo has opposed.
Mr. de Blasio noted that more than 100 billionaires in the state increased their net worth by billions of dollars during the pandemic and called again for a redistribution of wealth.
“There is clearly enough money in New York to invest in a fair and fast recovery — it’s just in the wrong hands,” he said.