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World caught in ‘pandemic paradox,’ a race between virus variants and vaccines, WHO says

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at Queens Police Academy in New York on Jan. 11. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg News)
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Governments working to immunize people against the coronavirus are in a race between the spread of new, virulent variants of the virus and the rollout of new vaccines, said a top global health official.

“Today, we face a pandemic paradox,” Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, told reporters Thursday. “Vaccines on the one hand offer remarkable hope. On the other hand, newly emerging variants of concern are presenting greater uncertainty and risk.”

Global infections have topped 100 million, with more than a quarter of cases in the United States.

Even as vaccines appeared to offer a way out of the pandemic, however, concerns over supply shortages threatened to deepen crises in the United States and Europe. Spain announced vaccinations would be suspended for two weeks in the capital, Madrid, because of dwindling stocks.

The European Union had reserved hundreds of millions of vaccine doses from major pharmaceutical companies, but production delays and other logistical issues have significantly hampered the bloc’s immunization rollout — and raised tensions with neighboring nations.

In its first coronavirus briefing, the Biden administration said Wednesday that its vaccine rollout — described as the most ambitious in the nation’s history — will take a while to reach most Americans as the administration purchases more vaccine doses and expands the pool of qualified vaccine-givers.

“It will be months before everyone who wants a vaccine can get one,” Andy Slavitt, a senior White House adviser, said at the briefing. He said that the administration was working to boost vaccine availability “with incredible urgency and purpose.”

The race to inoculate citizens on both sides of the Atlantic comes as scientists are also moving fast to combat new and more contagious variants of the virus, including one first identified in South Africa that experts say is resistant to some antibody treatments and could thwart the vaccines.

U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech said this week that their vaccine appeared to be only slightly less effective against the variant. U.S. drugmaker Moderna has also said that its vaccine still neutralizes the virus — but its scientists are designing a booster shot tailored to target the variant.

“We are preparing, in anticipation that the virus will continue to evolve and may get to the point where it crosses the threshold that our vaccine is no longer effective as we want it to be,” Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a news event hosted by the Hill newspaper on Wednesday.

“We don’t want it to happen. We hope it doesn’t happen,” Fauci said. “If it does, we’re already doing what it takes to be able to address that.”

Asked on NPR’s “Morning Edition” whether, given the more contagious strains emerging, federal officials will call for double-masking, Fauci said the formal recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “just everybody wear a mask.”

“Right now, the recommendations about that have not changed. However, you really want to emphasize that the first thing we want to do is, we want to make sure everybody consistently wears a mask,” Fauci said Thursday. “That’s really step one.”

But he added that he thinks doubling up on masks makes sense.

“It makes common sense if you have a barrier that’s physical, if you have a double barrier, common sense tells you two is better than one,” he said.

The variants first identified in Britain and South Africa have now infected people in at least seven African countries, including Botswana, Gambia, Ghana and Kenya, the WHO’s regional director for Africa said Thursday.

The new variants coupled with covid-19 fatigue and increased travel have created “a perfect storm” that is driving Africa’s second wave of infections, said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for the continent. The mix was “overwhelming health systems and facilities,” she said.

The new variants have prompted Germany to ban travel from Brazil, Britain, Portugal and South Africa, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said. The restrictions will be introduced Friday, Germany’s DPA news agency reported.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn, meanwhile, tweeted that he expects the coronavirus vaccine shortage to continue into April.

As vaccine shortages cause fury in Europe, limited data on the efficacy of AstraZeneca’s offering among people over 65 has dealt another blow to the European Union’s rollout. Germany’s Standing Committee on Vaccination on Thursday said it would recommend that the shot be used only for people between ages 18 and 64.

AstraZeneca does not have E.U. approval, but that is expected Friday. The British-Swedish company’s Phase 3 trials were criticized, as only 12 percent of participants were over age 55 and only 4 percent were over 70, too few to give a statistically robust indication of efficacy for the most vulnerable age groups. However, it has been approved for emergency use in Britain among all adults.

In Europe, the rising acrimony over vaccine supplies looked as though it could spill over into international relations in the newly fraught relationship between the E.U. and its former member state, the United Kingdom.

European officials have called on AstraZeneca to honor its promised vaccine deliveries, even if that means diverting them from other customers such as Britain.

Britain’s cabinet office minister, Michael Gove, however, shot that down in an interview with the BBC saying: “It is the case that the supplies which have been planned, paid for and scheduled should continue. Absolutely, there will be no interruption to that.” He added that this relies on honoring the agreed supply schedule.

In Spain, authorities have suspended vaccinations for two weeks in Madrid because of supply shortages. The public health chief in Catalonia, the region that includes Barcelona, said vaccine supplies there were almost all used up.

“Tomorrow, our refrigerators will be empty,” Josep Maria Argimon said.

Amid the rising cases and high death tolls, there have been greater efforts to seek out and punish coronavirus rule breakers in a bid to curb further infections.

On Tuesday, Thai police raided a bar on the island of Koh Phangan, arresting at least 89 foreigners along with 22 citizens for allegedly flouting rules by attending an illegal party.

Those arrested were from more than 10 countries, including the United States and Britain, local police said. If charged, they face two years in prison and $1,000 fines.

In Britain, influencers and reality TV stars who have left the country citing work reasons have been slammed by lawmakers and fans for “showing off” on social media while those at home remain under a third nationwide lockdown.

“Going on holiday is not an exemption,” British Home Secretary Priti Patel said as she vowed to tighten travel rules in a bid to deter people from heading to destinations such as Dubai.

In China, a team of scientists from the WHO emerged from quarantine in Wuhan to begin work investigating the origins of the virus. The 10-member team had spent the past two weeks in a hotel in the city, where the pathogen first emerged in late 2019.

The long-awaited investigation is the result of months of politically charged negotiations between the WHO and Chinese authorities and will include interviews of local scientists, hospital staff and workers at the seafood market that was linked to the initial outbreak.

In the run-up to the visit, Chinese media and officials have been pushing alternate theories over the origin of the outbreak, suggesting that it may not have begun in China as has long been the scientific consensus.

In a briefing Wednesday, Biden White House press secretary Jen Psaki said what she called the “misinformation” coming out of China was of “great concern to us.”

“It’s imperative that we get to the bottom of the early days of the pandemic in China, and we’ve been supportive of an international investigation that we feel should be robust and clear,” she said.

In a report released Thursday, the Sydney-based Lowy Institute ranked nearly 100 countries in its COVID Performance Index, with New Zealand, Vietnam and Taiwan topping the list. The index tracked six measures of covid-19 in the 36 weeks that followed each country’s 100th confirmed case, including confirmed cases, deaths and tests.

The United States came in near the bottom of the list, ranking 94 and only outperforming Iran, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil.

South Korea, ranked 20 on the index, has won international acclaim for keeping infection and death rates relatively low over the past year.

But the government has faced backlash for lagging behind other nations in the global vaccine race. Authorities said Thursday that it would begin vaccinating priority groups in the coming months and move toward mass immunizations in July, with the goal of reaching herd immunity by November — far later than other countries.

Loveday Morris in Berlin; Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia; Jennifer Hassan in London; and Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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