As state leaders clamored for more Covid-19 vaccine doses, Joe Biden became President on Wednesday with an eye toward changing approaches to the pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the US.
Some state officials say they aren’t seeing as many doses as the federal government reports distributing and the demand for the vaccine is outpacing the supply. Georgia, for example, reports adequate staff, volunteers and infrastructure but not enough doses.
“We’ve been getting about 80,000 doses a week, and that’s not much for a state with 11 million people,” Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said Tuesday.
Biden, meanwhile, has signaled he intends to alter the federal government’s approach to the pandemic and public health in several ways, and one of his first acts as President, a few hours after his inauguration, was to sign an executive order mandating masks on federal property.
He also intends to restore a previously disbanded National Security Council office that would focus on pandemic preparedness and to stop the previous administration’s process of withdrawing from the World Health Organization, one of his aides has said.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency is conducting a comprehensive review of all existing Covid-19 guidance. “The toll that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on America is truly heartbreaking,” she said.
Biden took office just a day after the country surpassed 400,000 recorded deaths for the pandemic.
Across the country, hospitalizations and daily new cases and deaths have been dipping, though experts have warned that more-transmissible virus variants, including one first seen in the UK, could send cases surging again:
• Cases: The nation averaged 250,052 new coronavirus cases a day over the past week as of Tuesday, down 19% from the previous week but still nearly three times the country’s peak average last summer, Johns Hopkins University data shows.
• Hospitalizations: 123,820 Covid-19 patients were in hospitals on Tuesday — a number that has dipped five consecutive days for the first time since late September, according to COVID Tracking Project data.
However, this is not far from the pandemic peak of more than 132,400 recorded just two weeks ago, and some hospitals have long been struggling to tend to all their patients, with some diverting them to other facilities or treating them in hallways or ambulances.
• Deaths: The country has averaged 2,989 deaths a day over the past week, down 10% from the week prior, according to Johns Hopkins data.
An ensemble forecast published by the CDC projects there will be as many a 508,000 Covid-19 deaths by February 13. Its last forecast, published January 13, forecast as many as 477,000 deaths by February 6.
Officials say they need more vaccines
Across the US, almost 14.3 million people have received at least the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and more than 2.1 million of those have received a second dose, according to CDC data last updated Wednesday morning.
But state and local officials are worried the supply will not be enough to continue the momentum.
San Francisco’s Department of Public Health announced its supply will be exhausted by Thursday if there isn’t an additional allotment. New York City is set to run out by the same day, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday.
“If we don’t get more vaccine quickly, we will have to cancel appointments,” de Blasio said.
New York state will see its current supply depleted by the weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.
“We don’t have enough vaccine. At this current rate of supply it takes seven and a half months to get enough vaccine for the currently eligible population,” Cuomo said.
Due to their low vaccine supplies, Baptist Health South Florida has canceled all vaccination appointments for anyone scheduled to receive a first dose beginning Wednesday.
Studies suggest vaccinated people are protected from variants identified in UK and South Africa
Experts have warned that while a coronavirus variant first identified in the UK does not appear to be more deadly, it is more easily transmissible. So far, at least 144 cases have been identified in 20 states, according to data from the CDC.
Other variants have been found as well, including two in Brazil. Another has shown up in California, but it’s not known whether it is contributing to renewed spread there.
New research provides evidence that people vaccinated against coronavirus would be protected against at least some of the variants.
Two teams tested two of the variants against blood taken from people who had received the full two-course dose of either the Moderna or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
While the mutations in the new variants of the virus — the one first seen in Britain and another first identified in South Africa — did allow them to evade some of the immunity induced by vaccination, it was far from a complete escape, the two teams reported separately.
A team led by Dr. Michel Nussenzweig of the Rockefeller University tested plasma taken from 20 people who got two doses of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine as part of clinical trials. They found the vaccines produced strong antibody responses, as well as cells that keep producing new antibodies for months or years.
“We measured their antibody responses to the wild type virus. Then we took their plasmas and measured them against the variants,” Nussenzweig told CNN.
Different mutations in the viruses did allow some escape from some types of antibodies, but the bodies of the volunteers threw an army of different types of antibodies at the viruses, the team reported in a preprint — not peer reviewed — published online.
“When you start putting all these mixtures of antibodies together, what it means is that together they can take care of the variants,” Nussenzweig said. Even though they had a reduced effect, overall the response was so overwhelming that it should not mater, he said.
“What we really want to do with these vaccines is keep people out of the hospital. They are extremely likely to do that, irrespective,” Nussenzweig added.
Eventually, the vaccines should be updated — but the new mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna can be changed very quickly. “Should the vaccines be tweaked?” he asked. “Probably — but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be effective.”
Separately, Ugur Sahin, who helped invent the BioNTech vaccine being made and distributed by Pfizer, tested his vaccine against the variant first seen in the UK. The team found “no biologically significant difference in neutralization activity,” they reported in a preprint report. But they said it would be “prudent” to start tweaking the vaccine, just in case.