Novavax Inc. says its vaccine appears 89% effective, less so against strain discovered in South Africa

The latest:

  • Novavax Inc. says its vaccine appears 89% effective.
  • U.S. Democrats push forward with plan for new coronavirus aid bill.
  • 2 cases of COVID-19 variant first identified in South Africa reported in U.S.
  • Ontario reports 2,093 new cases; Quebec reports 1,368.
  • Pfizer using new six-dose count in its allocation of vaccine vials for Canada.
  • Coronavirus lockdown protests in Lebanon enter fourth day.
  • Two dozen French police officials face punishment for holding a party inside a police station.

Novavax Inc. said Thursday that its COVID-19 vaccine appears 89 per cent effective based on early findings from a British study and that it also seems to work — though not quite as well — against new mutated strains of the virus circulating in that country and South Africa.

The announcement comes amid worry about whether a variety of vaccines being rolled out around the world will be strong enough to protect against worrisome new variants — and because the world needs new types of shots to boost scarce supplies.

The study of 15,000 people in Britain is still underway. But an interim analysis found 62 participants so far have been diagnosed with COVID-19 — only six of them in the group that got vaccine and the rest who received dummy shots.

Canada signed a deal with Maryland-based Novavax in August to produce 76 million doses of its two-dose vaccine.

The trial occurred when Britain was experiencing a jump in COVID-19 caused by a more contagious variant. A preliminary analysis found over half of the trial participants who became infected had the mutated version. The numbers are very small but Novavax said they suggest the vaccine is nearly 96 per cent effective against the older coronavirus and nearly 86 per cent effective against the new variant.

Scientists have been even more worried about a strain first discovered in South Africa that carries different mutations — and results from a smaller Novavax study suggests the vaccine does work on that strain, but not nearly as well as it does against the variant first discovered in Britain.

The South African study included some volunteers with HIV. Among the HIV-negative volunteers, the vaccine appears 60 per cent effective. Including the immune-compromised volunteers, overall the protection was 49 per cent, the company said. While genetic testing still is underway, so far about 90 per cent of the COVID-19 illnesses found in the South African study appear due to the new mutated strain.

The company on a conference call noted that this was interim data and executives said they expect it will be two to three months before they are ready to apply for authorization with regulators.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the results were in line with hopes, and that he was concerned people would focus too much on the weaker effectiveness shown in South Africa.

Clinical trial participants are monitored during Novavax COVID-19 vaccine testing in Melbourne, Australia, in May. On Thursday, Novavax said its vaccine appears 89% effective based on early findings from a British study. (Patrick Rocca/Nucleus Network/ABC via AP)

“We’ve gotten spoiled because we’ve seen the Moderna and Pfizer numbers. I know people are going to be alarmed, but 60 per cent efficacy against the new variant is acceptable,” he said, noting that the FDA initially said it would approve a vaccine that was at least 50 per cent effective.

Novavax said it started making new versions of its vaccine to protect against emerging virus variants in early January and expects to select ideal candidates for a booster in the coming days. The company said it plans to initiate clinical testing of these new vaccines in the second quarter of this year.

Vaccines against COVID-19 train the body to recognize the coronavirus, mostly the spike protein that coats it. But the Novavax candidate is made differently than the first shots being used. Called a recombinant protein vaccine, the Maryland company uses genetic engineering to grow harmless copies of the coronavirus spike protein in insect cells. Scientists extract and purify the protein and then mix in an immune-boosting chemical.

-From Reuters and The Associated Press, last updated at 6:30 p.m. ET

What’s happening in Canada

As of 7:05 p.m. ET on Thursday, Canada had reported 765,642 cases of COVID-19, with 56,559 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 19,664.

Alberta says it will receive 63,000 fewer vaccine doses by the end of the March than the federal government originally promised.

The federal government had assured the province that it would receive 468,000 doses in the first quarter of 2021, but Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in a news release Thursday that Alberta has learned that won’t happen.

“This is a grim situation that seems to be getting worse every week,” he said.

The province also announced 461 new cases and seven more deaths. There are 591 people in hospital, including 112 in ICU.

WATCH | COVID-19 vaccine shortage forces provinces to rethink rollout:

Canadian provinces are being forced to rethink their vaccination rollouts due to the shortage of doses from Pfizer, with some jurisdictions now considering stretching out the time between shots, despite questions over whether that would reduce vaccine effectiveness. But the federal government maintains it will vaccinate all willing Canadians by September. 2:02

B.C. announced 546 news cases of COVID-19 and 12 more deaths. There are 291 people in hospital with the disease, including 75 in intensive care.

Vancouver Coastal Health said a COVID-19 outbreak in Whistler has registered 288 cases in January, most of them people in their 20s or 30s. The public bulletin came on the heels of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler confirming to CBC News that 12 of its employees have tested positive for the coronavirus.

WATCH | Calls to decriminalize drugs grow louder during pandemic:

Advocates in British Columbia have long been calling on the federal government to decriminalize drugs, yet action has been slow. Decriminalization means those who are found with small amounts of drugs would no longer face criminal charges, something advocates say would reduce the death toll of the worsening opioid crisis. 7:47

Ontario reported 56 additional deaths and 2,093 new cases on Thursday. The province said 1,338 people with COVID-19 were in hospital, with 358 people in intensive care units.

A COVID-19 variant in the province is a “significant threat,” but maintaining existing public health interventions will likely encourage a downward trend in cases, according to updated modelling data from the province’s COVID-19 advisory table. 

By March, the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, could be the dominant strain in the province, according to the data. COVID-19 cases are expected to drop between 1,000-2,000 by the end of February, but that could change as the new variant of concern takes hold.

Thursday’s update in Ontario comes as the province announced updated figures on the number of people who had been fully inoculated against COVID-19.

In Quebec on Thursday, health officials reported 1,368 new cases of COVID-19 and 39 additional deaths. The number of people in Quebec hospitals with COVID-19 fell to 1,264, with 212 people in the province’s intensive care units.

Premier François Legault also announced that there will be a provincewide day of mourning on March 11 for victims of the pandemic.

Saskatchewan announced 244 new cases and 11 more deaths. The province has 208 COVID-19 patients in hospital, 37 in ICUs.

On the vaccination side, the province has actually administered more doses than it has officially received, because of the ability to draw extra doses from vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. As of Thursday, 106 per cent of the province’s dose count has been administered.

Manitoba announced 133 new cases of COVID-19 and eight more deaths. There have been 821 deaths overall.

A rapid testing program introduced at three personal care homes in the province has turned up three asymptomatic cases. It’s difficult to speculate about what was avoided by detecting the cases, said Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer for Manitoba Shared Health.

“That’s the funny thing about public health. If you prevent something and it works, then you don’t actually see what you prevented,” she said.

New Brunswick health officials, meanwhile, reported 27 additional COVID-19 cases on Thursday. The province has already had more cases in 2021 than it did in 2020.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, health officials reported four new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said at a briefing that the new cases are “worrisome” because three of them are connected to an earlier cases whose source is still unknown.

P.E.I. announced one new case of COVID-19. There are six active cases on the Island, which has had no COVID-19 deaths or hospitalizations.

Nova Scotia reported no new cases. There are 11 active cases, including one person in hospital.

Nunavut is reporting one new case of COVID-19. The new case is in Arviat, which saw its second outbreak last week after being COVID-free since Jan. 2. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson says all those infected are asymptomatic and a rapid response team is in the community to work on contact tracing.

There are 18 active cases of COVID-19 in Nunavut, all in Arviat.

Here’s a look at what’s happening across the country:

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-From The Canadian Press, CBC News and The Associated Press, last updated at 7:40 p.m. ET

What’s happening around the world

As of 6 p.m. ET Thursday, the number of reported cases of COVID-19 globally stood at more than 101 million, with more than 55.9 million cases considered recovered or resolved. The global death toll stood at more than 2.1 million, according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

In the Americas, U.S. House of Representatives’ Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said the House will take its first steps next week toward passing a new coronavirus aid bill when it debates budget rules that would allow Democrats to advance a bill in the Senate without Republican support.

“We’re going to bring a budget resolution to the floor next week,” Pelosi told reporters. “By the end of the week, we’ll be finished with the budget resolution, which will be about reconciliation, if needed.”

The United States, which has seen more than 25.6 million reported cases of COVID-19, is working to try and ramp up its vaccination efforts as it deals with a global pandemic that has left more than 429,000 people in the country dead.

Schoolchildren swab and test themselves for COVID-19 in a classroom in Boston Thursday. (Allison Dinner/Reuters)

Health officials in South Carolina, meanwhile, announced the new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa has been found in the U.S. for the first time, with two cases diagnosed in the state.

The two cases don’t appear to be connected, nor do the people have a history of recent travel, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said.

“That’s frightening,” because it means there could be more undetected cases within the state, said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “It’s probably more widespread.”

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, who says he won’t take a COVID-19 shot, vowed to quickly inoculate all Brazilians, tempering his tone after his support fell due to a patchy vaccine rollout and a brutal second wave of infections.

Bolsonaro has been widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic. Critics say the slow vaccine rollout is the latest in a long line of fumblings that have blighted Brazil with the second-highest coronavirus death toll in the world after the U.S.

But on Thursday, the president sought to defend his government’s vaccine procurement.

“The vaccines are starting to arrive,” he said at an event. “They will arrive and will vaccinate the whole population in a short space of time.”

Bolsonaro’s comments reflect a change of tone in recent weeks, as many have been angered by the president’s failure to quickly vaccinate Brazil’s 210 million people. His personal pledge not to take a shot has stoked growing anti-vaccine sentiment.

The end of a COVID-19 welfare scheme and a sharp rise in new infections have also dented his popularity.

Health workers pull a COVID-19 patient from an ambulance into Santa Casa Hospital in Jau, Brazil, on Thursday. The hospital is operating at full capacity and patients take turns receiving oxygen. (Andre Penner/The Associated Press)

In the Middle East, Lebanese security forces fired volleys of tear gas at rock-throwing youths in the northern city of Tripoli on Thursday amid outrage over the country’s coronavirus lockdown and inaction of the political class in the face of economic collapse.

The unrelenting protests in Tripoli, now in their fourth day, came as Lebanon grapples with both the pandemic and the worst economic crisis in its history, with only a caretaker government in charge.

The protests resumed shortly after Omar Taibi, a 30-year-old who was shot by security forces during protests on Wednesday night, was laid to rest in Tripoli. More than 220 others were injured in the overnight clashes as frustrations boiled over.

The demonstrators denounced Lebanon’s extended shutdown, which has exacerbated already dire conditions. The confluence of the crises has posed the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since the end of its civil war in 1990.

People run away from tear gas canisters fired by security forces during ongoing demonstrations in Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli on Wednesday amid rising anger over a total lockdown aimed at stemming a spike in coronavirus cases. (Fathi Al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel says it is extending coronavirus vaccinations to adults age 35 and older, an expansion of its world-leading drive to vanquish COVID-19.

Health Ministry Director General Hezi Levy said shots would be available to the new age group starting Friday.

The change reflects Israel’s aggressive drive to inoculate its entire population by the spring and the country is on track to do so. More than a quarter of Israel’s 9.3 million people have been vaccinated so far.

In the Asia-Pacific region, New Zealand’s health authorities conducted further tests and began contact tracing efforts after two more cases of the South African variant were confirmed in Auckland.

Vietnam confirmed its first two locally transmitted COVID-19 cases in nearly two months.

More than 90 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine for COVID-19 will be produced in Japan by a Japanese pharmaceutical company under a licensing agreement, officials said Thursday. The production will cover three quarters of the 120 million doses the British pharmaceutical company has pledged to supply to the country.

In Africa, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI received a shot against the coronavirus Thursday to officially kick off his country’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, which initially will primarily target health-care workers, security forces and people over age 75, according to Moroccan authorities.

The king, who normally appears in public wearing a robe, was pictured in a dark T-shirt and with a surgical mask on his face as he got jabbed in the arm.

Morocco has one of Africa’s most advanced vaccination programs, though the continent remains well behind richer countries such as the U.S. or Britain in inoculating its citizens against the virus.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, right, receives the COVID-19 vaccine at the Royal Palace in Fez Thursday. (Moroccan Royal Palace via AP)

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said another 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been secured for the continent through the Serum Institute of India.

Africa CDC director John Nkengasong told reporters that with the new doses, on top of the 270 million doses announced earlier, “I think we’re beginning to make very good progress.”

As with many vaccine deals, there are no immediate details on cost or how much people might pay per dose.

Parts of the African continent are now seeing a strong second surge in coronavirus infections, which Nkengasong calls “very aggressive now.”

Africa has more than 3.4 million confirmed virus cases, including more than 87,000 deaths.

In Europe, Germany’s health minister said there are at least “10 hard weeks” ahead amid difficulties in getting large quantities of vaccines.

Health Minister Jens Spahn, who faces political pressure over the slow start to Germany’s vaccination campaign, wrote on Twitter Thursday that Chancellor Angela Merkel and the country’s 16 state governors should hold a special meeting to discuss vaccine strategy.

Spahn said vaccine manufacturers also should be invited to “explain how complex production is.” He stressed that “the quality must be very good” in order to protect people. Spahn wrote that “we will go through at least another 10 hard weeks with the scarcity of vaccine.”

Germany’s current lockdown, its second, was recently extended until Feb. 14. Infection figures are falling, but officials are worried about the potential impact of coronavirus variants such as the one first detected in Britain. Some 1.67 million people in Germany had received the first dose of the vaccine and over 318,000 the second by Tuesday, about a month into the vaccination campaign.

WATCH | WHO calls on Europeans to be patient:

While acknowledging the fatigue due to COVID-19 restrictions, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, asked people to stay the course as the pandemic is far from over. 0:52

At least two dozen French police officials are facing internal punishment for holding a party inside a police station where they were filmed dancing the Macarena and violating multiple virus protection rules.

A police headquarters spokesperson said Thursday that those involved in the party in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers were ordered to file reports on their actions and that “sanctions are planned.”

In a video of the event posted by online media Loopsider, several people are seen dancing closely together without masks in a crowded room. The video prompted criticism at a time when French police are out every night enforcing a 6 p.m.-6 a.m. virus curfew, and are under scrutiny for abuses during violent protests and identity checks.

-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 6 p.m. ET

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