The Latest: Companies scramble to expand coronavirus vaccine supply

WASHINGTON – Production of the two coronavirus vaccines authorized in the United States is accelerating while companies with experimental vaccines nearing the end of trials struggle to meet ambitious manufacturing targets.

That means the United States should have 200 million doses each from the companies with authorized shots, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna – enough to guarantee that more than 70% of adults will be able to get the two-shot vaccination by the end of July. That is comparable to the share of adults some polls suggest will be willing to roll up their sleeves.

But doses on paper are different from vials in the freezer – or vaccinations in people’s arms, as the past months have demonstrated. Distribution challenges have received most of the attention as unused doses stack up. But the risk of raw-ingredient shortages, manufacturing delays and other unforeseen production issues loom as the next potential bottleneck as companies work to reach a massive scale of manufacturing.

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna increased their forecast for global production during the past two weeks, citing growing experience and efficiency of manufacturing. But companies with vaccine candidates still in clinical studies have reported manufacturing challenges, echoing Pfizer’s slipped timeline last fall, when the company slashed its production forecast from 100 million doses by the end of 2020 to 50 million.

Johnson & Johnson, which has a one-dose vaccine in the final phase of testing, agreed to a contract with the U.S. government to provide 12 million doses by the end of February. But this week, Moncef Slaoui, scientific adviser for the Trump administration’s initiative to speed development of vaccines, said the company was on track to have a “single-digit-million number of doses available in the second half of February.” The start of a clinical trial for a vaccine candidate from the company Novavax was delayed by months, partly because of manufacturing delays.

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Instacart, Dollar General, others push incentives to get workers vaccinated

As vaccinations continue across the U.S., some companies are offering financial incentives to encourage their workers to get the shots.


Dollar General said Wednesday it will give employees the equivalent of four hours of pay if they get the coronavirus vaccine. Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Instacart Inc., the grocery delivery service, announced Thursday that it would provide a $25 stipend for workers who get the COVID-19 vaccine. It joins others, including Dollar General, which plans to pay workers extra if they get vaccinated.

“Our goal with the introduction of our new vaccine support stipend is to ensure that, when the time comes, Instacart shoppers don’t have to choose between earning income as an essential service provider or getting vaccinated,” Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta said in a statement.

San Francisco-based Instacart has nearly doubled its mostly gig workforce to about 500,000 to meet a surge in demand for online grocery shopping since the pandemic erupted in the U.S. last spring.

Dollar General said Wednesday it will give employees the equivalent of four hours of pay if they get the vaccine. The Goodlettsville, Tennessee-based retailer said it employs 157,000 people.

A vaccine advisory panel at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control voted late last month on recommendations for vaccine distribution. The panel said grocery workers — which would include Instacart and Dollar General’s employees — should be in the second group to receive shots after health care workers and nursing home residents.

It is up to each state to decide how and when to adopt the CDC’s recommendations. Some states have already opened eligibility to the second group, which also includes firefighters, police, teachers, corrections workers, postal employees and people 75 and older. There are around 50 million people in that group.

Companies can mandate that workers get COVID-19 vaccines as a requirement for employment, although they must make accommodations for medical or religious reasons, according to guidance from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

However, most companies are reluctant to impose such mandates, said Sharon Perley Masling, a partner at the law firm Morgan Lewis who has been advising clients on workplace issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The emergency nature of the vaccine’s FDA approval makes it impractical for many companies to require it, given that the shots are not available to most of the population, she said.

Expanded vaccine rollout in U.S. spawns a new set of problems, hard feelings

The rapid expansion of COVID-19 vaccinations to senior citizens across the U.S. has led to bottlenecks, system crashes and hard feelings in many states because of overwhelming demand for the shots.

Mississippi’s Health Department stopped taking new appointments the same day it began accepting them because of a “monumental surge” in requests. People had to wait hours to book vaccinations through a state website or a toll-free number Tuesday and Wednesday, and many were booted off the site because of technical problems and had to start over.

In California, counties begged for more coronavirus vaccine to reach millions of its senior citizens. In South Carolina, hospitals ran out appointment slots within hours.


Health care workers receive a COVID-19 vaccination at Ritchie Valens Recreation Center on Wednesday in Pacoima, Calif. Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press 

Up until the past few days, health care workers and nursing home patients had largely been given priority in most places around the U.S. But amid frustration over the slow rollout, states have thrown open the line to many of the nation’s senior citizens with the blessing of the Trump administration, though the minimum age varies from place to place, at 65, 70 or higher.

The U.S., meanwhile, recorded 3,848 deaths on Wednesday, down from an all-time high of 4,327 the day before, according to Johns Hopkins University. The nation’s overall death toll from COVID-19 has topped 385,000.

More than 11.1 million Americans, or over 3% of the U.S. population, have gotten their first shot of the vaccine, a gain of about 800,000 from the day before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. The goal of inoculating anywhere between 70% and 85% of the population to achieve herd immunity and conquer the outbreak is still many months away.

California, which has seen a surge of deaths and hospitalizations since last fall, had received more than 2.4 million doses as of Monday, but only a third of them had been used.

Hard-hit Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous county with 10 million residents, said it couldn’t immediately provide shots to the elderly because it had inoculated only about a quarter of its 800,000 health care workers.

“We’re not done with our health care workers, and we actually don’t have enough vaccine right now to be able to get done more quickly,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. “We haven’t heard back from the state about vaccine availability and how it would be distributed.”

Santa Clara County public health officials said the county of 2 million people had only enough vaccine to inoculate people 75 and older, not the 65-and-older crowd.

“It’s almost like a beauty contest. And this should not be a beauty contest,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said. “This is about life and death.”

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Fourth member of Congress tests positive for virus after Capitol lockdown with unmasked members

U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat tested positive for COVID-19 after delivering a speech Wednesday on the House floor in support of President Trump’s impeachment.

The New York Democrat revealed his diagnosis in a tweet Thursday and said he’s “quarantining at home.”

“I will continue my duties representing New York’s 13th congressional district remotely until I have received clearance from my doctor,” the 66-year-old congressman wrote. “I encourage all residents to follow public health guidelines for the safety of our #NY13 community.”

Adriano Espaillat

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., speaks during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington in February 2020. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Like most members of Congress, Espaillat has received the coronavirus vaccine.

In his tweet, Espaillat said he received the second and final booster dose of the vaccine last week, but doctors told him it could take some time before the inoculation takes effect.

The exact timing of Espaillat’s positive test result was not immediately clear, and a spokeswoman for his office did not return a request for comment.

Espaillat was on the floor during Wednesday’s tense impeachment debate, delivering seething remarks in favor of removing Trump from office for instigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead, including a police officer.

“He is unfit to hold office,” Espaillat said at the top of his voice during the debate, wearing a white face mask. “We must impeach now.”

Espaillat is at least the fourth member of Congress to contract COVID-19 after scores lawmakers were forced to evacuate into fortified parts of the Capitol when the pro-Trump mob stormed the building last Wednesday.

In addition to the impeachment debate, Espaillat attended a news conference at City Hall in Manhattan last weekend with Mayor de Blasio and other members of New York’s congressional delegation to push for Trump’s removal from office.

In another tweet after announcing his diagnosis, Espaillat urged his constituents and colleagues on Capitol Hill to keep abiding by coronavirus restrictions, as the pandemic continues to kill thousands of Americans every day.

“Please prioritize social distancing from one another — even if that inconveniences you and takes time away from other items on your busy schedules — and #WearAMask,” he wrote.

German lockdown loopholes criticized as deaths hit new high

Germany has too many loopholes in its coronavirus lockdown rules, the head of the country’s disease control agency said as figures published Thursday showed the highest number of daily deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The Robert Koch Institute said 1,244 deaths from COVID-19 were confirmed in one day up to Thursday, taking the total number to 43,881. There were also 25,164 newly confirmed cases, putting Germany’s total known infections close to 2 million.

Lothar Wieler, president of the institute, said data indicated people in Germany are traveling more than during the first phase of the pandemic in spring, contributing to the virus’ spread.

People pass closed bars and restaurants in the empty district of Alt-Sachsenhausen in Frankfurt, on Tuesday. Associated Press/Michael Probst

German authorities have imposed restrictions on social contacts, largely closed schools and limited travel for those in areas with high infection rates, but the rules aren’t uniformly enforced across the country’s 16 states.

“To me, these measures we’re now taking aren’t a complete lockdown,” said Wieler. “There are still too many exceptions and they aren’t being strictly implemented.”

Officials are considering tougher restrictions to curb the continued rise in infections.

The 7-day rolling average of daily new cases has risen over the past two weeks from 23.36 per 100,000 people on Dec. 30 to 26.03 per 100,000 people on Jan. 13.

Wieler pointed to the sharp spike in infections recently seen in Ireland as an example of how quickly the outbreak can escalate again if rules are relaxed, especially given the new seemingly more contagious variant of the virus circulating there and in neighboring Britain.

France is banned from using drones to enforce coronavirus rules

PARIS — France’s privacy watchdog has banned the use of drone cameras to enforce coronavirus restrictions and for other law enforcement purposes, marking a victory for groups arguing that the pandemic has given rise to excessive surveillance.

France’s Interior Ministry had conducted drone flights “outside of any legal framework,” the official privacy watchdog, known as CNIL, said in its strongly worded rebuke, which was released Thursday.

France imposed some of Europe’s toughest measures in response to the virus last year and initially deployed helicopters and drones to monitor adherence to the rules. The drones were equipped to spot lockdown violators, guide teams on the ground and broadcast warnings via loudspeakers.

But privacy activists feared the drone monitoring could serve as a trial run for more-expansive surveillance programs. The concerns prompted a legal challenge and a ruling by France’s highest court in May to suspend the practices in Paris.

Privacy groups said French authorities carried on despite the ruling, continuing to deploy drones at protests.

The decision by France’s privacy watchdog — which significantly ups the stakes for the French government, as it applies nationally — comes amid a broader tug-of-war between privacy activists and authorities in Europe over how to police coronavirus restrictions. That debate has played out worldwide in recent months, as leaders and authorities in a number of countries were accused of using the pandemic as a pretext to expand their powers. But Europe’s extensive privacy laws have put civil liberties activists in a stronger position than activists elsewhere.

COVID-19 may evolve into a seasonal illness — like common colds, study predicts

A new study predicts that SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — could eventually become no more infectious than the common cold, seasonally reappearing each year alongside other pathogens in the coronavirus family that bring about mild sniffles.

But that will happen only when the coronavirus becomes endemic, the point at which spread among human communities in a way that doesn’t cause massive outbreaks or serious illness is the norm, according to the researchers from Emory University in Georgia and Penn State University.


A child is given a COVID-19 test on Jan. 6 in China’s Hebei province on Wednesday. Mu Yu/Xinhua via Associated Press

Their study was published Tuesday in the journal Science.

“The timing of how long it takes to get to this sort of endemic state depends on how quickly the disease is spreading, and how quickly vaccination is rolled out,” study lead author Jennie Lavine, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University, told the New York Times. “So really, the name of the game is getting everyone exposed for the first time to the vaccine as quickly as possible.”

The team’s model was based on studies on six human coronaviruses, four of which regularly spread among people and cause only mild symptoms. The other two — severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — emerged more recently and have higher fatality and infection rates, but share similar genetics with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Scientists are still learning how long antibodies and other immune cells against the coronavirus last after getting sick, but evidence suggests that “infection-blocking immunity” disappears quickly, whereas “disease-reducing immunity is long-lived.”

This means a person can be reinfected with the coronavirus some months after infection, but their second, third or fourth time around wouldn’t be as serious — similar to infections with the common cold.

Las Vegas hospital declares capacity crisis

LAS VEGAS — A Las Vegas hospital says it declared a capacity crisis over the weekend, citing a surge of COVID-19 patients that overfilled its intensive care unit.

With nearly half its 147 beds occupied by coronavirus patients, St. Rose Dominican Hospital’s San Martin campus in southwest Las Vegas canceled elective surgeries beginning Saturday. It also pressed other units into use for non-COVID-19 patients.

Hospital spokesman Gordon Absher said Wednesday that patients weren’t turned away and the capacity plan is set to stay in effect until Jan. 22. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that two other St. Rose hospitals in the area haven’t issued disaster declarations but also are strained.

Statewide, health officials have tallied nearly 254,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,500 deaths.

Mississippi stops taking vaccine appointments as demand surges

JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Health Department says the state cannot take any more appointments for coronavirus vaccinations because of a “monumental surge” in demand after Gov. Tate Reeves announced that more people are eligible for the shots.

Officials said Wednesday that all doses of the vaccine are matched with appointments that have been booked.

Reeves announced Tuesday that the state was making vaccinations available to anyone 65 or older or people of any age with underlying health conditions. Previously, doses were available for health care workers, people living in long-term care facilities and anyone 75 and older.

Officials hope Mississippi will receive a large shipment of vaccine in mid-February. That would allow new appointments to be made.

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