Author: Uponsci

Third Vaccine Arrives as Another COVID Surge Looms 

A third COVID-19 vaccine is heading to clinics and pharmacies across the United States. But U.S. health officials are warning that another surge in cases could be on the horizon.Regulators authorized the vaccine from pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson over the weekend. Nearly 4 million doses are expected to be available at vaccination sites beginning as soon as Tuesday.But after a sharp fall over the past several weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths has increased again. Experts are concerned that newer, more infectious variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 may be taking over.The reversal comes as most states are easing restrictions that contain the disease.”Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press briefing of the White House COVID-19 Response Team.Though the numbers have declined, the National Guard personnel check in people as they wait to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, Feb. 26, 2021, in Shelbyville, Tennessee.”Please hear me clearly,” Walensky said. “At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress.”Effective against severe diseaseThe Johnson & Johnson vaccine was about 85% effective in preventing severe illness in a clinical trial spanning eight countries on three continents.That includes South Africa, where a more transmissible coronavirus variant dominates cases.”Even though the vaccine itself was not specifically directed against [that variant], it did extremely well when it came to preventing severe critical disease,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, noted at the briefing.Though three vaccines are now available, experts are urging people not to try to pick and choose.”All three vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing what we care about most, and that’s very serious illness and death,” Marcella Nunez-Smith, the Biden administration’s COVID-19 health equity task force chair, told reporters at the briefing.”As a physician, I strongly urge everyone in America to get the first vaccine that is available to you when it is your turn,” she said. “If people want to opt for one vaccine over another, they may have to wait. Time is of the essence. Getting vaccinated saves lives.”Easier to useUnlike the shots from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one shot and does not need to be frozen.A pharmacist prepares a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination site at NYC Health + Hospitals Metropolitan, in New York, Feb. 18, 2021.This easier-to-use vaccine could be distributed in pop-up vaccination sites, mobile clinics or other places without freezers.Immediately after regulators gave the go-ahead, Johnson & Johnson began shipping its entire 3.9 million dose inventory of the vaccine. The company expects to deliver another 16 million doses by the end of March.But COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said supplies will be “uneven” for the next couple of weeks. He said most of the doses will arrive in late March.He urged people to continue wearing masks and social distancing, and to get vaccinated when their turn comes.”There is a path out of this pandemic,” he said, “but how quickly we exit this crisis depends on all of us.” 

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Deadly Drug Overdoses Epidemic Rages On

More than 86,000 people died from drug overdoses last year in the U.S. – a massive increase of just over 24 percent. It is an epidemic that as VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias reports, has been shoved in the shadows by the pandemic – but is no less serious a public health issue.Camera: Veronica Balderas Iglesias  Produced by: Veronica Balderas Iglesias  

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Iceberg Bigger Than NYC Breaks off From Antarctica  

Scientists with the British Antarctica Survey (BAS) say a huge iceberg — larger than New York City — has broken off from the northwestern Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica, almost 10 years after scientists discovered the first cracks. In a statement on its website, the BAS says the iceberg broke away Friday and that it covers about 1,270 square kilometers. The BAS says the mass is about 150 meters thick.  The agency said Halley Research Station, also situated on Brunt Ice Shelf, is not expected to be impacted as it is located on an area of the ice shelf still connected to the continent. The BAS took the precaution of moving the station in 2016 to avoid the paths of cracks in the ice its staff had been observing. In the statement, the BAS director, Professor Dame Jane Francis, said agency scientists were expecting the break, known as calving, to happen, after daily monitoring of the area with GPS instruments and satellite imagery. Francis said the iceberg is expected to either move away or run aground not far from the Brunt Ice Self. 

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Philippines Finally Receives First Batch of COVID-19 Vaccine

The Philippines launched its national coronavirus vaccination campaign Monday amid widespread public skepticism and a struggle to procure vaccines.   Dr. Gerardo Legaspi, the director of the state-run Philippine General Hospital in Manila, received the first dose of the CoronaVac vaccine developed by China-based Sinovac Biotech Limited.  The doctor’s inoculation came just hours after President Rodrigo Duterte greeted the arrival of 600,000 doses of Sinovac donated by Beijing. The Philippines is the last Southeast Asian nation to receive a COVID-19 vaccine supply.  The Duterte administration is aiming to vaccinate 70 million of its citizens, but some public opinion polls have revealed a resistance among a majority of people due to uncertainty over the safety and efficacy of the CoronaVac vaccine.Used vials of China’s Sinovac vaccine are shown during the first batch of vaccination at the Lung Center of the Philippines in Quezon city, Philippines on March 1, 2021.But Carlito Galvez, who is leading the Philippines’ vaccine procurement efforts, urged his compatriots to get the first vaccine that becomes available.  “Let’s not wait for the best vaccine. There’s no such thing,” Galvez said in a speech at the Philippine General Hospital.  “The best vaccine is the one that’s safe and effective, and arrives early.” But just receiving vaccines has been an issue.  An expected shipment of  525,600 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine that was due Monday has been postponed due to supply problems.  The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the Pacific archipelago, sickening more than 576,000 people, including 12,318 deaths, the second-highest in the region.  President Duterte has vowed to ease some of the restrictions imposed in an effort to boost the Philippine economy once more vaccines are available.   

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Spacewalking Astronauts Prep Station for New Solar Wings

Spacewalking astronauts ventured out Sunday to install support frames for new, high-efficiency solar panels arriving at the International Space Station later this year.NASA’s Kate Rubins and Victor Glover put the first set of mounting brackets and struts together, then bolted them into place next to the station’s oldest and most degraded solar wings. But the work took longer than expected, and they barely got started on the second set before calling it quits.Rubins will finish the job during a second spacewalk later this week.The spacewalkers had to lug out hundreds of pounds of mounting brackets and struts in 2.5-meter (8-foot) duffel-style bags. The equipment was so big and awkward that it had to be taken apart like furniture, just to get through the hatch.Some of the attachment locations required extra turns of the power drill and still weren’t snug enough, as indicated by black lines. The astronauts had to use a ratchet wrench to deal with the more stubborn bolts, which slowed them down. At one point, they were two hours behind.”Whoever painted this black line painted outside the lines a little bit,” Glover said at one particularly troublesome spot.”We’ll work on our kindergarten skills over here,” Mission Control replied, urging him to move on.With more people and experiments flying on the space station, more power will be needed to keep everything running, according to NASA. The six new solar panels — to be delivered in pairs by SpaceX over the coming year or so — should boost the station’s electrical capability by as much as 30%.Rubins and Glover tackled the struts for the first two solar panels, set to launch in June. Their spacewalk ended up lasting seven hours, a bit longer than planned.”Really appreciate your hard work. I know there were a lot of challenges,” Mission Control radioed.The eight solar panels up there now are 12 to 20 years old — most of them past their design lifetime and deteriorating. Each panel is 34 meters (112 feet) long by 12 meters (39 feet) wide. Tip to tip counting the center framework, each pair stretches 73 meters (240 feet) longer than a Boeing 777’s wingspan.Boeing is supplying the new roll-up panels, about half the size of the old ones but just as powerful thanks to the latest solar cell technology. They’ll be placed at an angle above the old ones, which will continue to operate.A prototype was tested at the space station in 2017.Rubins’ helmet featured a new high-definition camera that provided stunning views, particularly those showing the vivid blue Earth 435 kilometers (270 miles) below.  “Pretty fantastic,” observed Mission Control.Sunday’s spacewalk was the third for infectious disease specialist Rubins and Navy pilot Glover — both of whom could end up flying to the moon.They’re among 18 astronauts newly assigned to NASA’s Artemis moon-landing program. The next moonwalkers will come from this group.Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris put in a congratulatory call to Glover, the first African American astronaut to live full time at the space station. NASA released the video exchange Saturday.”The history making that you are doing, we are so proud of you,” Harris said. Like other firsts, Glover replied, it won’t be the last. “We want to make sure that we can continue to do new things,” he said.Rubins will float back out Friday with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to wrap up the solar panel prep work and to vent and relocate ammonia coolant hoses.Glover and Noguchi were among four astronauts arriving via SpaceX in November. Rubins launched from Kazakhstan in October alongside two Russians. They’re all scheduled to return to Earth this spring.

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FDA Approves Johnson & Johnson Vaccine for Use in US

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally authorized the use of the Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine Saturday, clearing the way for shots to go into arms as early as Monday.The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 85% effective against serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to data from a study that spanned three continents. The shot kept its protection even in the countries where the South African variant is spreading.The one-and-done inoculation has been eagerly awaited by health officials who want to speed vaccinations in a race against the coronavirus and its worrisome mutations. As of Saturday evening, more than 28.5 million Americans have had COVID-19 and nearly 512,000 have died from the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.Biden: Don’t let upPresident Joe Biden praised the “exciting news for all Americans” in a statement Saturday evening but urged Americans not to let their “guard down now.”“I want to be clear: This fight is far from over,” he said. “I urge all Americans — keep washing your hands, stay socially distanced and keep wearing masks. As I have said many times, things are still likely to get worse again as new variants spread, and the current improvement could reverse.”An FDA advisory panel unanimously endorsed the vaccine Friday, paving the way for the agency’s authorization.Edmond Lomas III receives his COVID-19 vaccination at Second Ebenezer Church in Detroit, Feb. 27, 2021.The one-dose vaccine is the third coronavirus inoculation approved by the FDA, after the two-dose vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.By the end of March, Johnson & Johnson has said it expects to deliver 20 million doses to the U.S., and 100 million by summer, The Associated Press reported. Johnson & Johnson is also seeking authorization for emergency use of its vaccine in Europe and from the World Health Organization.Auckland lockdownIn New Zealand, residents of Auckland, a city of nearly 2 million people, began a seven-day lockdown Sunday, the second in the month since the more contagious U.K. variant of the coronavirus emerged there.Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the lockdown Saturday because of a person who was infectious for a week but had not isolated.”It is more than likely there will be additional cases in the community,” Ardern told a press conference Sunday, although no new cases had been recorded.New Zealand, a nation of 5 million people, identified its first COVID-19 case on February 29, 2020, and since then has seen almost 2,400 cases of COVID-19 and 26 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins data. 
Japan reported 329 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, slightly down from 337 a day earlier, according to national broadcaster NHK. FILE – Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks at the Hallam Conference Centre in London, Dec. 18, 2019.Meanwhile, Britain’s Trades Union Congress said in a study that the pandemic had provided a “mirror to the structural racism” in Britain, with the unemployment rate for communities of color double that of their white contemporaries during the pandemic.In Russia, the coronavirus crisis center confirmed 11,359 new coronavirus cases on Sunday and 379 deaths in the past 24 hours. The total number of infections in the country stands at 4,246,079 to date and the death toll at 86,122. Elsewhere, the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq, Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, has tested positive for COVID-19. The announcement comes a week before Pope Francis’ March 5-9 trip to the country. Leskovar, whose title is apostolic nuncio, said in a statement that he was experiencing only light symptoms so far. “This is not going to influence the pope’s program, which is going on as planned,” he said. 
France will impose weekend lockdowns in Paris and 19 other regions at the beginning of March if coronavirus infections continue to accelerate. A Nice resident and her dog go for a bike ride during virus-related confinement in Nice, southern France, Feb. 27, 2021. Nice and the surrounding coastal area will be under weekend lockdowns for at least two weeks.France will impose weekend lockdowns in Paris and 19 other regions at the beginning of March if coronavirus infections continue to accelerate. The Czech government announced tighter restrictions beginning March 1. In Latin America, new containment measures were imposed in several Brazilian cities and states. The U.S. continues to lead the world in the number of coronavirus infections with more than 28.5 million cases, followed by India with over 11 million infections and Brazil with more than 10.5 million.   

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Third US COVID Vaccine on Verge of Approval

The U.S. moved a step closer Friday to having another vaccine in its coronavirus arsenal, after an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration unanimously endorsed Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose COVID vaccine.Formal authorization for the vaccine could come in the next few days. The one-dose vaccine would become the third coronavirus inoculation approved by the FDA after the two-dose vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.Members of the Congressional Black Caucus went on television Friday to encourage African Americans to receive the COVID-19 inoculations.“We’re looking at historic fear of vaccines and a fear of the health care industry,” said Rep. Barbara Lawrence, a Democrat from Michigan.Black and Latino communities are being inoculated at lower rates in the U.S. than their white counterparts, public health officials say.Meanwhile, Britain’s Trades Union Congress says in a study that the pandemic has provided a “mirror to the structural racism” in Britain, with the unemployment rate for communities of color double that of their white contemporaries during the pandemic.Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports early Saturday more than 113 million global COVID infections with more than 2.5 million deaths.The U.S. continues to lead the world in the number of coronavirus infections with more than 28 million cases, followed by India with over 11 million infections and Brazil with more than 10 million.Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change has issued a report titled The New Necessary: How We Future-Proof for the Next Pandemic that calls for international cooperation in the future to identify and test for any new outbreak. The report also called on countries to work together to produce vaccines.Blair told The Guardian, “Had there been global coordination a year ago, I think we could have shaved at least three months off this virus,” in a reference to the outbreak of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

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US Advisers Endorse Single-shot COVID-19 Vaccine From Johnson & Johnson

U.S. health advisers endorsed a one-dose COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson on Friday, putting the nation on the cusp of adding an easier-to-use option to fight the pandemic. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to quickly follow the recommendation and make Johnson & Johnson’s shot the third vaccine authorized for emergency use in the U.S. Vaccinations are picking up speed, but new supplies are urgently needed to stay ahead of a mutating virus that has killed more than 500,000 Americans. After daylong discussions, the FDA panelists voted unanimously that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks for adults. If the FDA agrees, shipments of a few million doses could begin as early as Monday. More than 47 million people in the U.S., or 14% of the population, have each received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which FDA authorized in December. But the pace of vaccinations has been strained by limited supplies and delays because of winter storms.While early Johnson & Johnson supplies will be small, the company has said it can deliver 20 million doses by the end of March and a total of 100 million by the end of June. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine protects against the worst effects of COVID-19 after one shot, and it can be stored up to three months at refrigerator temperatures, making it easier to handle than the previous vaccines, which must be frozen. EffectivenessOne challenge in rolling out the new vaccine will be explaining how protective the Johnson & Johnson shot is after the astounding success of the first U.S. vaccines. The two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots were found to be about 95% effective against symptomatic COVID-19. The numbers from Johnson & Johnson’s study are not that high, but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. One dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 85% protective against the most severe COVID-19. After adding in moderate cases, the total effectiveness dropped to about 66%. Some experts fear that lower number could feed public perceptions that Johnson & Johnson’s shot is a “second-tier vaccine.” But the difference in protection reflects when and where Johnson & Johnson conducted its studies.Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was tested in the U.S., Latin America and South Africa at a time when more contagious mutated versions of the virus were spreading. That wasn’t the case last fall, when Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were wrapping up testing, and it’s not clear if their numbers would hold against the most worrisome of those variants. Importantly, the FDA reported this week that, just like its predecessors, the Johnson & Johnson shot offers strong protection against the worst outcomes, hospitalization and death. Studying 2nd doseWhile Johnson & Johnson is seeking FDA authorization for its single-dose version, the company is also studying whether a second dose boosts protection. Panel member Dr. Paul Offit warned that launching a two-dose version of the vaccine down the road might cause problems. “You can see where that would be confusing to people thinking, ‘Maybe I didn’t get what I needed,’ ” said Offit, a vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It’s a messaging challenge.” Johnson & Johnson representatives said they chose to begin with the single shot because the World Health Organization and other experts agreed it would be a faster, more effective tool in an emergency. Cases and hospitalizations have fallen dramatically since the January peak that followed the winter holidays. But public health officials warned that those gains may be stalling as more variants take root in the U.S. “We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, speaking at the White House on Friday. She noted that new COVID-19 cases have increased over the past few days. While it’s too early to tell if the trend will last, Walensky said adding a third vaccine “will help protect more people faster.” More vaccines are in the pipeline.  On Sunday, a CDC panel is expected to meet to recommend how to best prioritize use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

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New Zealand Supporting Drone Project to Monitor Rare Dolphins

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Friday her government is supporting a new project using drones designed to monitor and protect the Maui dolphin, one of the world’s rarest marine mammals.  Maui dolphins are found only in a small stretch of ocean off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and current estimates suggest there are only 63 adult members of the species left.  The new Māui Drone Project is a one-year collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), nonprofit wildlife technology organization MAUI63 and the World Wildlife Fund-New Zealand.  The project is designed to use the small, unmanned vehicles to find and track Maui dolphins, fly over them without disturbing them, and collect data on their habitat, population size and other behaviors.  Ardern told reporters the drones will allow government agencies and others to focus conservation efforts where they are needed most to protect the animals.”We have drawn basically geographical areas where we have restricted certain types of fishing, but this will help us understand where they are, their movements, where the extra protections are required,” she said. Maui dolphins are the smallest of the world’s dolphin species, measuring less than two meters long, and weighing up to 50 kilograms. Unlike other dolphins, they have distinctive round dorsal fins, and short snouts. They breed slowly, adding only one individual dolphin per year, and have relatively short lifespans, facts which may have contributed to their decline. 
 

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Experts Warn Crime Gangs Capable of Selling Fake Vaccines

International crime fighting agencies say organized crime groups have all the networks and methods needed to smuggle falsified, substandard and stolen COVID-19 vaccines across Africa.  
 
Interpol crime intelligence analyst John-Patrick Broome said, as is the case in the rest of the continent, criminal gangs in East Africa import fake medicines from Asia, mostly China and India. The fake drugs often lack any active ingredients and many actually have harmful substances, he said.  
 
“Illicit medications are primarily entering the market in eastern Africa through … avoidance of regulations, there’s violence-based criminality and there’s corruption as well, and corruption which is at a number of different levels,” Broome said.  
 
China and India are expected to produce much of Africa’s vaccine supply.  That’s already a “big red flag,” says Nigerian journalist Ruona Meyer, whose work has exposed government officials and pharmaceutical company executives working with criminals to distribute falsified medicines in West Africa. Both countries are known as sources for faked pharmaceuticals.  Meyer says there won’t be enough vaccines, and as infection rates and deaths spike in some countries, criminals will introduce fakes into supply chains.  FILE – A chemist displays hydroxychloroquine tablets in New Delhi, India, April 9, 2020.She points out they did that easily with chloroquine, when demand for the anti-malarial drug skyrocketed last year after it was touted as a coronavirus treatment.  
 
“So, you had people who started producing fakes. You had people who started breaking down these routes. You had cases where these things were hijacked at ports. Again, they want to break that supply chain,” Meyer said.  
 
Authorities throughout West and Central Africa seized large quantities of fake and substandard chloroquine. Police in Cameroon shut down several pharmaceutical manufacturers producing fake chloroquine.  
 
“The infrastructure alone is mind-boggling, to be able to do all these things. Nobody does all these things if there is no demand,” she said.  
One sign of the corruption sometimes found in medicine distribution is the 2015 conviction of two Dutch former United Nations consultants for rigging a contract for life-saving drugs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A court in Britain found Guido Bakker and Siibrandus Scheffer guilty of accepting a bribe of more than $900,000 to steer a contract to a Danish pharmaceutical company.  Lawyers Marius Schneider and Nora Ho Tu Nam represent some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies when their products are faked in Africa.  
 FILE – An agent stands next to a container full of illegal and fake drugs seized by Ivorian authorities in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Nov. 6, 2018.Ho Tu Nam said criminal organizations have been waiting eagerly for immunization programs to start, and for vaccine shortages.   
 
“Now people are aware that the vaccine exists; people know it’s being rolled out in certain countries, and I think it’s a perfect time for those syndicates to come in and say, ‘We have the vaccine; you’re not getting it in the hospitals, you’re not getting it in your private clinics, so come to us.’” she said.  
 
And they have been successful in the past. Schneider says groups dealing in black market vaccines do their best to make their products look legitimate.  
 
“We have seen instances where NGOs … have been engaged in the distribution of these vaccines. These NGOs had as a mission to distribute real vaccines to the people. Employees on the ground in African countries were implicated in vaccine traffic,” Schneider said.  
Investigators say often such cases are settled out of court, in confidential settlements. But in one known case, employees of a multi-national pharmaceutical company were caught helping a criminal network distribute fake vaccines in Africa.  
 
Mark Micallef of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime says North Africa could be a major entry point for falsified and substandard vaccines.  
 
He said “uncontrolled” trafficking of fake medicines, such as the pain reliever tramadol, has been happening across the vast region for decades.  
 
“Fake vaccines — I think there’s a big danger of that in the Maghreb itself, so unregulated territories in Libya, definitely. But, also in Tunisia and maybe border areas of Egypt, less so in Algeria, perhaps, but especially in the northern Sahel,” Micallef warned.  
 
Criminals dealing in fake medicines exploit gaps in health services and this will be especially true of COVID-19 shots, and that, Micallef said, will make the crime very difficult to control in North Africa.  
 
“This form of trafficking is tapping an actual health sector need. And the fear is that in the case of the vaccines, a similar scenario might unfold where there are shortages, especially in the border areas, that are preyed upon by criminal enterprise trying to fill that gap,” he said.  

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