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Coronavirus Update: India’s COVID crisis deepens, as BioNTech says there’s no evidence its vaccine needs adapting to cope with new variants

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The global tally of confirmed cases of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 climbed above 158 million on Monday, as cases continue to surge in Southeast Asia, and especially India, and BioNTech said there’s no evidence the vaccine it developed with Pfizer Inc. needs adapting to protect against variants.

India reported 360,000 new cases on Monday, according to its health ministry, while more than 3,700 people died. India’s case tally has now climbed above 22.6 million and more than 246,000 fatalities, numbers that experts widely deem to be massively undercounted.

India’s hospitals are struggling with a shortage of supplies, including testing, treatments and oxygen, and fears are growing for the northeastern state of Assam, where cases are spreading faster than anywhere else, the Associated Press reported. Cases are reported to be climbing fast in Himalayan villages that lie close to India’s northeastern border.

The Indian Medical Association has joined a chorus of voices calling on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lock the whole country down, instead of relying on regional measures that have so far failed to contain the spread of two highly infectious variants, including the B.1.617 strain, a double-mutant variant that has two spike proteins instead of one. 

The association said it was “astonished to see the extreme lethargy and inappropriate actions from the Ministry of Health in combating the agonizing crisis born out of the devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic,” in a statement published Saturday, according to media reports.

Don’t miss: Letter from India: ‘We live in mortal fear of COVID-19’

See now: India’s COVID-19 crisis is a ‘crime against humanity,’ says prize-winning author as nation sets new case record

In the U.S., the vaccine program that has gained traction under President Joe Biden, is now showing clear signs of slowing as more people are inoculated, leaving only die-hard antivaxers unprotected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6.00 a.m. ET Sunday, 114.3 million people are fully vaccinated, equal to 34.4% of the population, meaning they have received two shots of the two-dose vaccines developed by Pfizer Inc.
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+1.31%

and German partner BioNTech SE
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+6.82%

and Moderna Inc.
MRNA,
-3.27%
,
or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson
JNJ,
+1.48%

one-shot vaccine. The AstraZeneca
AZN,
+1.32%

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-0.30%

vaccine has not been authorized for use in the U.S.

So far, 152 million Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, equal to 45.8% of the population.

Among Americans 65 years-and -older, 38.9 million people are fully vaccinated, equal to 71.3% of that group. Almost 46 million people in that age bracket have received a first jab, covering 83.6% of that population.

Chris Meekins, healthcare analyst at Raymond James, said he hoped that the nation’s mothers had taken advantage of phone calls for Mother’s Day on Sunday to pressure their children into getting vaccinated: “A mother’s guilt can be a powerful thing,” he wrote in a note to clients.

“Why do we emphasize the need for help from moms? Well, vaccine administration is dropping off a cliff. However, notable drops in cases (lowest levels since mid-September) and hospitalizations (down 11%) show hope that vaccinations are making a meaningful difference. Two questions are top of mind: 1) How do we get vaccine hesitant individuals to take the shot? 2) How do we convince those who are vaccinated to return to “normal” activities? Answers to those two questions will have meaningful economic impacts,” said Meekins.

The U.S. vaccine program is expected to get a boost this week when regulators expand the Pfizer/BioNTech emergency use authorization to include 12- to 15 year-olds, as widely expected and telegraphed by public health experts.

Don’t miss: Four COVID-19 vaccines are being tested in children and teens. Here’s when different age groups could become eligible for shots.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Biden’s chief medical adviser, said Sunday that COVID vaccines are a “game-changer” that make future surges, like those seen last winter, unlikely to happen again.

In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Faucis said future U.S. coronavirus outbreaks should just be just “blips” once about 70% of the population is vaccinated, a goal the Biden administration seeks by July 4.

You may see blips. But if we handle them well, it is unlikely that you’ll see the kind of surge that we saw in the late fall and the early winter. That’s the reason why vaccinations are so important. That’s the wild card that we have now that we didn’t have last fall or last winter.”

There was further positive news on vaccines when BioNTech said it does not expect to need to adapt its vaccine to cope with new variants. “To date, there is no evidence that an adaptation of BioNTech’s current Covid-19 vaccine against key identified emerging variants is necessary,” the company said in a statement.

See: BioNTech shares soar 8% in premarket as COVID-19 vaccines help revenues smash estimates

Still, the company said it began tests in March on a “modified, variant-specific version” of its vaccine to get ahead of any variant that might emerge in the future and require tweaks.

See now: Different strokes for different folks as Europe eases out of lockdowns

In other news:

• Norway should exclude the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson from its immunization program, due to a small risk of rare but serious side effects, a panel of health experts commissioned by the government said on Monday, MarketWatch’s Lina Saigol reported. However, the panel said those shots should be available for people on a voluntary basis. The government said it will use the recommendations, alongside advice from Norway’s Institute of Public Health, which has also called for both shots to be dropped from the program, as a basis for its final decision on whether to use the vaccines.

• The European Union has not made any new orders for AstraZeneca vaccines beyond June when the contract ends. “We have not renewed the order for after June. We’ll see what happens,” Thierry Bretón, the European Internal Market Commissioner, told French radio France Inter. The EU has instead thrown its support behind the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, agreeing a contract extension for a potential 1.8 billion doses through 2023.

Read also:Biden’s move on vaccine patents represents blow for the second-biggest spender on Washington lobbying

• Germany has opened access to J&J’s COVID vaccines to all adults, lifting a priority system determining who gets the jabs first, AFP reported. With the majority of people over 60 expected to be already vaccinated by June, Health Minister Jens Spahn said authorities decided not to restrict the jabs to older people over very rare thrombosis risks. Rather, younger people can choose to take the vaccine, which only requires one shot, after consultation with their doctors, he said.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews Johns Hopkins specialist Marty Makary. Image: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

• Ireland lifted a range of restrictions on movement on Monday, allowing about 12,000 businesses to reopen this week, according to local media. Irish people are now allowed to travel anywhere within the Republic and can gather outdoors in groups of six combining three households. Fully vaccinated people are allowed to meet indoors without face masks or social distancing with up to three other fully vaccinated people. Ireland had been in strict lockdown since the end of 2020. So far, it has vaccinated about 10% of its population of 4.9 million people, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

• Preparations for the Tokyo Olympics have suffered another setback after a poll found that nearly 60% of people in Japan want them to be canceled, less than three months before the Games are due to open, the Guardian reported. Japan has now extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and other regions until the end of May as it struggles to contain a surge in cases. The survey, conducted between 7 and 9 May by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, showed 59% wanted the Games canceled as opposed to 39% who said they should be held. “Postponement” – an option ruled out by the IOC – was not offered as a choice.

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness rose above 158.4 million on Monday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll rose above 3.29 million. More than 94 million people have recovered from COVID, the data show.

The U.S. continues to lead the world in cases and deaths by wide margins, with 32.7 million cases and 581,756 deaths, or about a fifth of the worldwide tallies.

 Brazil is third after India with 15 million cases and second by fatalities at 422,340.

Mexico has the fourth-highest death toll at 218,985 and 2.4 million cases, or 15th highest tally.

The U.K. has 4.5 million cases and 127,865 deaths, the fifth-highest in the world and highest in Europe.

China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 102,629 confirmed cases and 4,846 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.

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