U.K. scientist warns new COVID variant will ‘sweep the world,’ as California confirms two cases of South African strain

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A senior U.K. scientist warned Thursday that the variant of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 that first emerged there and is far more infectious than the original virus could “sweep the world” and complicate the effort to contain the pandemic.

In an interview with the BBC’s Newscast podcast, Professor Sharon Peacock, head of the U.K.’s genetic surveillance program, said the new variant has already swept across the U.K. and will probably spread widely across the globe.

The new comes as California Gov. Gavin Newsom confirmed that the variant that first emerged in South Africa has now been detected in two cases in the Golden State. That variant worries experts as it is also highly contagious and appears more resistant to the vaccines that have been granted emergency use authorization in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Earlier this week, South Africa said it would stop using the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca PLC


and Oxford University because it seemed less effective in dealing with the strain, and on Wednesday, officials said they would start giving front-line health care workers the Johnson & Johnson

vaccine instead. That vaccine has not yet received emergency use authorization — an application for an EUA has been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — but there are high hopes for it as it is a one-dose regimen, unlike the other authorized vaccines, which require two jabs, weeks apart.

The World Health Organization weighed in on the AstraZeneca vaccine on Thursday, and said it was “highly effective and safe” even if it less effective in dealing with the South Africa variant.

“The AZD1222 vaccine against COVID-19 has an efficacy of 63.09% against symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection,” said the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) in a statement. “Longer dose intervals within the 8 to 12 weeks range are associated with greater vaccine efficacy.”

AstraZeneca, which reported its full-year earnings on Thursday, said it was fixing problems with the manufacturing of its vaccine and  expects to roughly double monthly production to 200 million doses by April, as it seeks to move past a rocky start to the shot’s rollout, as Dow Jones Newswires reported.

Last year, AstraZeneca stumbled in communicating clinical-trial results and more recently, suffered a shortfall in doses pledged to the European Union. Chief Executive Pascal Soriot and other executives said they were working out production kinks and would meet targets to deliver more than 400 million doses to rich and poor countries in coming months. That follows green lights in the U.K., Europe and beyond for the vaccine’s use, which isn’t approved yet for U.S. use.

The company also said it would take six to nine months to create modified version of the vaccine to target new variants.

In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine tracker is now showing that as of 6.00 a.m. Wednesday, 44.8 million vaccines jabs had been administered and about 66 million doses delivered to states. The tracker shows that 33.8 million people have received one or more doses, equal to about 10% of the population.

The U.S. added another 94,855 new COVID cases on Wednesday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 3,252 people died. Cases are continue to fall and have averaged 104,554 new cases a day in the past week, down 36% from the average two weeks ago.

There was bad news for California, which on Wednesday surpassed New York as the state with the most COVID deaths, according to the Times. Los Angeles is temporarily closing five vaccination sites, because of a shortage of vaccines, the paper reported.

In other news:

• The U.S. could have avoided 40% of the deaths it has suffered from COVID-19 if rates were in line with other high-income members of the G-7 nations, a Lancet commission reported Thursday, after examining the track record of former President Donald Trump. Trump “brought misfortune to the USA and the planet” during his four years in office, the commission concluded, but it also noted that U.S. public health infrastructure was in bad shape as the country entered the pandemic. “Although his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed, he weakened its coverage and increased the number of uninsured people by 2·3 million, even before the mass dislocation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has accelerated the privatization of government health programs,” said the report. The U.S. leads the world by case numbers, at 27.4 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, or about a quarter of the global tally. It has by far the most fatalities, at 471,765, or about a fifth of the global total. The second highest case tally is India, with 10.9 million, or less than half the U.S. total. Brazil has the second highest death toll at 234,850, also less than half the U.S. number.

• Federal health officials again reminded Americans to continue to wear masks even as the number of new cases and hospitalizations is on the decline since a peak in early January, MarketWatch’s Jaimy Lee reported. report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday found that wearing two masks (such as a surgical mask and a cloth masks together) and ensuring a medical mask fits tightly against the face helped prevent exposure to particles in one experiment. The CDC recommends that masks “have two or more layers, completely cover your nose and mouth, and fit snugly against your walls and the side of your face.”

• President Joe Biden created a new task force focused on health equity and COVID-19. He tapped 12 experts, who are expected to issue a number of recommendations about the nation’s COVID-19 response and recovery. Back in December, MarketWatch spoke with Dr. James Hildreth, CEO of Meharry College, one of four historically black medical schools in the U.S., and a member of Biden’s new COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. Read the full interview.

• Employers in the U.S. may be allowed to require workers to take a COVID-19 vaccine, but a new survey suggests most aren’t going the mandatory route just yet, MarketWatch’s Meera Jagannathan reported. Just 0.5% of companies currently mandate coronavirus vaccination for all employees, and only 6% plan to mandate it for all workers once vaccines are readily available and/or fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to the survey of 1,802 C-suite executives, HR professionals and in-house lawyers from a range of industries conducted by the employment-law firm Littler. Another 3% said they plan to mandate vaccination only for certain workers, such as those in customer-facing roles.

Read also: Target, Tractor Supply join list of companies paying workers to get COVID-19 vaccine

• A Texas doctor who inoculated 10 people with doses of vaccine that were about to expire rather than let them go to waste has been fired and charged with theft, the New York Times reported. Dr. Hasan Gokal made house calls and directed people to his house, including strangers, in an effort to make the doses matter. His final patient was his own wife, who suffers from a pulmonary disease. The doses in each vial of the Moderna Inc.

vaccine are only viable for six hours after the seal is broken, making it urgent that they are administered before expiring.

Latest tallies

The global tally for confirmed cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 climbed above 107.4 million on Thursday, while the death toll rose above 2.35 million.

Brazil has the second highest death toll at 234,850 and is third by cases at 9.7 million.

India is second worldwide in cases with 10.9 million, and now fourth in deaths at 155,360.

Mexico has the third highest death toll at 169,670 and 13th highest case tally at 1.9 million.

The U.K. has 3.9 million cases and 115,070 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 100,515confirmed cases and 4,827 deaths, according to its official numbers.

What’s the economy saying?

Nearly 800,000 people applied for U.S. unemployment benefits in early February, signaling that scores of workers are still losing their jobs despite the rollout of coronavirus vaccines and a decline in Covid-19 cases, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

Initial jobless claims filed traditionally through the states fell by 19,000 to 793,000 in the seven days ended Feb. 6, the government said Thursday. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast new claims to total a seasonally adjusted 760,000.

The decline was basically a mirage, though. New claims from two weeks ago were raised to 812,000 from an originally reported 779,000, an unusually large revision that likely reflects ongoing problems in the collection of unemployment data.

Another 334,524 applications were filed through a temporary federal-relief program.

Adding up new state and federal claims, the government received 1.15 million applications last week for unemployment benefits, based on actual or unadjusted figures. Combined claims have yet to drop below 1 million a week since last May.

Before the pandemic, new claims were running in the low 200,000s and they had never risen by more than 695,000 in any one week.

See: A visual look at how an unfair pandemic has reshaped work and home

The “figures are somewhat misleading, reflecting multiple filings and some degree of fraud,” said chief economist Scott Brown of Raymond James. “However, that data reflect an ongoing high level of job destruction.” 

“An extraordinarily high number of people remain dependent on government support, indicative of ongoing strains in the labor market,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average 

 and S&P 500 

were higher in Thursday trades.

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