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Global COVID cases top 113 million as FDA committee meets to vote on J&J vaccine

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The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 climbed above 113 million on Friday, amid a flurry of positive vaccine news and as a regulatory advisory committee gathered to review Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine candidate for a possible emergency use authorization.

There are high hopes that the Food and Drug Administration’s advisory committee team of experts will vote that the benefits of J&J’s
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vaccine outweigh the risks, as it is expected to greatly enhance the global effort to get jabs in arms. The vaccine is a one-dose regimen, unlike the ones that have already been granted emergency use which require two doses weeks apart.

It also comes without the refrigeration requirements that make administering doses tricky. The FDA said earlier this week that the J&J dose does not appear to have safety issues.

There was further positive news in a study that found a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine made by drug company Pfizer Inc.
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 and its partner BioNTech SE 
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 reduces infections and lowers the risk of transmission.

The study by the Cambridge University Hospitals National Health Service Foundation Trust and the University of Cambridge looked at healthcare workers in January, where similar numbers of both vaccinated and unvaccinated staff were screened.

It found that 26 out of 3,252, or 0.8%, tests from unvaccinated healthcare workers were positive. This compared with 13 out of 3,535, or 0.37%, tests from healthcare workers less than 12 days post-vaccination, and four out of 1,989, or 0.2%, tests from healthcare workers at 12 days or more post-vaccination.

“This is great news — the Pfizer vaccine not only provides protection against becoming ill from SARS-CoV-2 but also helps prevent infection, reducing the potential for the virus to be passed on to others,” said Dr. Mike Weekes, an infectious-diseases specialist, who led the study.

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The FDA late Thursday said it would allow Pfizer “more flexible” storage and transportation conditions for its vaccine. The FDA will allow undiluted, frozen vials of the vaccine to be transported and stored at temperatures commonly found in pharmaceutical freezers for a period of up to two weeks, the company said.

That’s an alternative contrasting with the “preferred” storage of the undiluted vials in ultra-low temperature freezers.

“The alternative temperature for transportation and storage will help ease the burden of procuring ultra-low cold storage equipment for vaccination sites and should help to get vaccine to more sites,” the FDA said.

 Read also: Which COVID-19 vaccine should I take?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. ET Thursday, 91.7 million doses had been distributed to states, 68.3 million doses had been administered and 46.1 million people had got one or more dose. That’s equal to 13.9% of the population.

The U.S. added 77,804 new cases on Thursday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 2,465 people died. Case numbers are still falling, however, and have averaged 69,450 a day for the past week, down 32% from the average two weeks ago.

There were 52,669 COVID patients in U.S. hospitals on Thursday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, down from 54,118 the day before and the lowest level since Nov. 4. Hospitalizations are now down 60% from their January peak.

But the head of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said the recent decline in cases and hospitalizations appears to be stalling at high levels, and urged the public to continue to comply with public safety measures and urged state leaders not to lift restrictions on movement.

“This recent shift in the pandemic must be taken seriously,” she told reporters at a White House briefing. If the infection rate remains at such a high level, the virus, and new variants of the virus, will continue to spread, she said.

“We may be done with the virus, but the virus is not done with us,” she said

In other news

• The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday it is launching a new initiative with private sector companies, asking them to encourage workers to wear face masks and provide incentives to get vaccinated against the coronavirus illness COVID-19. White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said companies will be asked to communicate with customers and help educate them on the benefits of both masking and vaccination. Slavitt will host a conference call later Friday with business owners to lay out a call to action and ask them to use their resources to help with the effort. 

• Eli Lilly & Co.
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said the U.S. government has agreed to purchase at least 100,000 doses of its COVID-19 antibody therapy, which was recently granted emergency use authorization for use in mild to moderate patients who are at high risk of progressing to severe COVID and/or hospitalization. The purchase agreement is worth $210 million and doses will be delivered through March 31, Lilly said in a statement. The therapy combines bamlanivimab (LY-CoV555) 700 mg and etesevimab (LY-CoV016) 1400 mg. The government has the option to purchase up an additional 1.1 million doses through Nov. 25 under the same terms. The government has already committed to buying 1.45 million doses of bamlanivimab alone, which includes more than 1 million doses that have been delivered and an agreement to deliver 450,000 additional doses by March 31. It has pledged to provide neutralizing antibodies at no out-of-pocket cost to patients.

• One Medical Chief Executive Amir Dan Rubin denied that his tech-enabled chain of medical clinics had knowingly allowed ineligible clients to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, after reports that regulators had halted vaccine distribution to the clinics, as MarketWatch’s Jeremy Owens reported. “We strongly refute these gross mischaracterizations. Any assertions that we broadly and knowingly disregard eligibility guidelines are not true and in contradiction to our actual approach,” Rubin said in response to the first question from an analyst in Thursday’s earnings conference call for One Medical’s parent company, 1Life Healthcare Inc.
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• Japan is poised to end its state of emergency on Friday a week earlier than scheduled after a dramatic decline in cases across the country, the Guardian reported. Emergency measures — including the closing of bars and restaurants at 8 p.m. — will be lifted in Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Aichi and Gifu prefectures, the Kyodo news agency cited government sources as saying. But they will remain in place in Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba.

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• France and Germany have agreed to tighten border controls to contain the pandemic, which is spreading faster in the Eastern French region of Moselle then elsewhere, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported. Starting Monday, workers who commute between the two countries will have to take a weekly PCR test, Health Minister Olivier Veran and European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said in a statement. The move comes after the German government said last week it was considering increasing travel restrictions out of fears relating to new, more infectious variants.

Latest tallies

The global tally for confirmed cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 climbed above 113 million on Friday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, and the death toll rose above 2.50 million. Almost 63 million people have recovered.

The U.S. has the highest case tally in the world at 28.4 million and the highest death toll at 508,314, after surpassing the 500,000 level late Monday.

Brazil has the second highest death toll at 251,498 and is third by cases at 10.4 million. India is second worldwide in cases with 11.1 million, and now fourth in deaths at 156,825. Mexico has the third highest death toll at 183,692 and 13th highest case tally at 2.1 million. The U.K. has 4.2 million cases and 122,303 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 100,875 confirmed cases and 4,834 deaths, according to its official numbers.

What’s the economy saying?:

The U.S. trade deficit in goods widened to $83.7 billion in January from a revised $83.2 billion in the prior month, the Commerce Department said Friday. It was the second highest gap on record, MarketWatch’s Greg Robb reported.

What happened: Imports of goods such as consumer electronics rose 1.1% to $218.9 billion in January. Goods imports were up 8.2% compared to a year earlier.

Exports rose 1.4% to $135.2 billion. They are down 0.7% compared with one year ago.

An advanced look at wholesale inventories, meanwhile, showed a 1.3% gain in January. And an early look at retail inventories showed that category down 0.6%. Auto inventories fell a sharp 1.4% in the month.

Separately, Americans increased spending in January for the first time in three months after the government sent $600 stimulus checks to families and boosted unemployment benefits as part of an effort to shore up the economy, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

Consumer spending jumped 2.4% last month, the government said Friday, marking the biggest increase since last June.

Economists polled by Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal has forecast a 2.5% increase.

Incomes rose by a much larger 10%.

Washington approved $600 stimulus checks and raised unemployment benefits in December to help support a teetering economy after a record spike in coronavirus cases at the end of last year.

A key measure of inflation, meanwhile, climbed 0.3% last month. The so-called PCE price index is the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation.

The Chicago Business Barometer, a measure of business conditions in the Chicago region softened to 59.5 in February from a strong 63.8 reading in the prior month, according to MNI Market News International. The January reading was the highest since July 2018.

Economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal had expected the index to slip, but only to 61. Any reading above 50 indicates improving conditions.

The Chicago PMI is the last of the regional manufacturing indices before the closely watched national ISM data for February is released on Monday.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average
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was down about 1% and the S&P 500
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was down 0.4%.