Health Highlights: June 17, 2021

Health Highlights: June 17, 2021

U.S. Buys 200 Million Extra Moderna Vaccine Doses, as Possible Booster Shots

An additional 200 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine will be obtained by the U.S. government in case there's a need for booster shots.

The deal includes an option to include any vaccines developed to fight coronavirus variants, as well as doses for children younger than age 12, The New York Times reported.

According to the Times, Moderna's vaccine is designed to be especially amenable to reformulations that would maintain effectiveness when new viral variants arise.

"We remain focused on being proactive as the virus evolves by leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform to stay ahead of emerging variants," Stéphane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Delivery is expected to begin this fall (110 million doses) and continue into early next year (another 90 million doses).

Negotiations are underway between the U.S. government and Pfizer-BioNTech, the maker of the other two-dose mRNA vaccine, for a similar deal on extra doses, the Times said.

It's not clear whether, or when, booster shots might be necessary.

While research on boosters is underway, current vaccines are considered effective against several coronavirus variants, the Times reported.

"It may be just a bit too early to tell with finality whether second doses, booster doses" will be necessary in the fall, Dr. Nirav Shah, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and Maine's top health official, told reporters on Wednesday. "Certainly the better job we do now lowers the likelihood that variants could run loose."

The Biden Administration has said that if the United States ends up with a surplus of vaccines, extra doses will be donated to other countries in need.

NFL Announces New COVID-19 Protocols

New COVID-19 protocols for training camps and preseason games have been announced by the NFL.

Some guidelines were relaxed for fully vaccinated players, but strict measures remain for those who aren't vaccinated, USA Today reported.

Unvaccinated players must be tested daily for COVID-19, wear masks at team facilities and during travel, can't leave the team hotel or interact with people outside the organization while traveling and can't eat meals with teammates.

Along with those and other preventive measures, unvaccinated players who come into close contact with people who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to quarantine, USA Today reported.

While the NFL and the players association have urged players to get vaccinated, they have not made it a requirement.

The NFL also announced that fans will be permitted to attend training camps, but they will have to stay at least 20 feet away from players and Tier 1 staff.

CureVac's COVID-19 Vaccine Only 47% Effective

CureVac's COVID-19 vaccine was only 47% effective in a clinical trial, according to preliminary results released Wednesday that suggest the vaccine may not help fill the worldwide need for vaccines.

The vaccine's efficacy is the lowest reported so far by an COVID-19 vaccine maker and is "pretty devastating" for the German company, Jacob Kirkegaard, a vaccine supply expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, told The New York Times.

A final analysis from the trial of the mRNA vaccine, which included 40,000 volunteers in Latin America and Europe, is expected in two to three weeks.

"We're going to full speed for the final readout," Franz-Werner Haas, CureVac's chief executive, told the Times. "We are still planning for filing for approval."

The results released on Wednesday were based on data from 135 volunteers who got sick with COVID-19. An independent panel compared the number of sick people who had received a placebo with those who had received the vaccine. Although the vaccine did seem to offer some protection, the statistical difference between the two groups was not stark, working out to an efficacy rate of 47 percent.

While CureVac said it plans to seek approval of the vaccine from the European Medicines Agency, experts suggest it will be difficult for the company to recover, the Times reported.

Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, said the vaccine's efficacy rate might improve somewhat by the end of the trial. But because most of the data is already in, "it's not going to change dramatically," she told the Times.

"This is pretty devastating for them," Jacob Kirkegaard, a vaccine supply expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, in Washington, D.C., told the Times.

With an efficacy rate that low -- far lower than the roughly 95 percent effectiveness of competing mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna -- the likeilihood of CureVac's shots getting adopted is low.

Ahead of Tokyo Olympics, Japan Eases COVID-19 Restrictions

A coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and six other areas will be downgraded when it expires on Sunday as new daily cases continue to decline, the Japanese government said Thursday.

Since March, Japan has been trying to slow a wave of infections driven by the spread of more contagious variants, with new daily cases soaring above 7,000 at one point and seriously ill patients straining hospitals in Tokyo, Osaka and other metropolitan areas, the Associated Press reported.

Japan does not enforce lockdowns and the state of emergency allows prefectural leaders to order closures or shorter hours for non-essential businesses, the AP said. Citizens who comply are compensated and violators are fined. Stay-at-home and other measures for the general population are only requests and are increasingly ignored.

Thursday's easing of restrictions -- with a focus on allowing bars and restaurants to remain open longer -- were announced as the country begins final preparations for the start of the Olympics in just over a month, the AP said.

The new measures will be in effect until July 11, which is 12 days before the Games start.

Since late March, Japan has been combating a spike of cases driven by more infectious variants, but there's been a recent significant decline in cases, the AP reported.

But if there's another surge after restrictions are eased, "we will quickly take action, including strengthening of the measures," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said.

Experts say it is crucial to accelerate the vaccine rollout for the Olympics to be safe.

Suga has opened up mass inoculation centers and started vaccinations at major companies, part of an ambitious target of as many as 1 million doses per day. As of Wednesday, only 6% of Japanese were fully vaccinated, the AP reported.

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