Coronavirus: UK variant discovered in US in man with no travel history

World wrap: China gives approval to vaccine developed by state-owned company

A sign warns motorists of turkeys crossing Highway 86 near The Good Samaritan Society care center. The first person in the United States known to be infected with a new Covid-19 variant was a Colorado National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at the nursing home struggling with an outbreak. Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP Photo

A sign warns motorists of turkeys crossing Highway 86 near The Good Samaritan Society care center. The first person in the United States known to be infected with a new Covid-19 variant was a Colorado National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at the nursing home struggling with an outbreak. Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP Photo

 

The first reported US case of the Covid-19 variant that has been seen in the United Kingdom has been discovered in Colorado, Governor Jared Polis announced, adding urgency to efforts to vaccinate Americans.

The variant was found in a man in his 20s who is in isolation southeast of Denver in Elbert County and has no travel history, state health officials said.

Elbert County is a mainly rural area of rolling plains at the far edge of the Denver metro area that includes a portion of Interstate 70, the state’s main east-west road.

Colorado Politics reported there is a second suspected case of the variant in the state, according to Dwayne Smith, director of public health for Elbert County.

Both of the people were working in the Elbert County community of Simla.

Neither of them are residents of that county, expanding the possibility of the variant’s spread throughout the state.

The Colorado State Laboratory confirmed the virus variant, and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was notified.

Scientists in the UK believe the variant is more contagious than previously identified strains.

The vaccines being given now are thought to be effective against the variant, Colorado health officials said in a news release.

For the moment, the variant is likely still rare in the US, but the lack of travel history in the first case means it is spreading, probably seeded by travellers from Britain in November or December, said scientist Trevor Bedford, who studies the spread of Covid-19 at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle.

“Now I’m worried there will be another spring wave due to the variant,” Mr Bedford said.

“It’s a race with the vaccine, but now the virus has just gotten a little bit faster.”

Public health officials are investigating other potential cases and performing contact tracing to determine the spread of the variant throughout the state.

“There is a lot we don’t know about this new Covid-19 variant, but scientists in the United Kingdom are warning the world that it is significantly more contagious.

“The health and safety of Coloradans is our top priority, and we will closely monitor this case, as well as all Covid-19 indicators, very closely,” Mr Polis said.

The discovery of the new variant led the CDC to issue new rules on Christmas Day for travellers arriving to the US from the UK, requiring they show proof of a negative Covid-19 test.

California has announced its first confirmed case of the new and apparently more contagious variant.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced the Southern California case during an online conversation with Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Mr Newsom did not provide any other details about the person who was infected.

China

Chinese health regulators have given conditional approval to a coronavirus vaccine developed by a state-owned company.

The two-dose Covid-19 vaccine is the first approved for general use in China. The approval comes as the country has started to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year holiday in February.

Chen Shifei, the deputy commissioner of China’s National Medical Products Administration, told a news conference that conditional approval means research is still ongoing and the company will be required to submit follow-up data as well as reports of any adverse effects after the vaccine is sold on the market.

Zeng Yixin, vice minister of China’s national health commission speaks during a press conference about COVID-19 vaccinations. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA
Zeng Yixin, vice minister of China’s national health commission speaks during a press conference about COVID-19 vaccinations. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA

The vaccine was developed by the Beijing Institute of Biological Products, a subsidiary of state-owned conglomerate Sinopharm. The company announced that preliminary data from last-stage trials had shown it to be 79.3 per cent effective.

It is an inactive vaccine, which means the virus was grown in a lab and then killed. The germ is then injected into the body to generate an immune response.

Final proof of its effectiveness will depend on publication of more data.

Sinopharm is one of at least five Chinese developers that are in a global race to create vaccines for the disease that has killed more than 1.8 million people.

In addition to the emergency vaccinations already under way, China plans to start vaccinating high-risk people such as seniors and those with existing chronic illnesses. Officials did not say what percentage of the population they will vaccinate in China.

“This is different in every country but the general thinking is that it has to reach 60 per cent to protect the entire population,” said Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the National Health Commission.

Under emergency use, 4.5 million doses have already been given, including 3 million in the past two weeks, Mr Zeng said.

Practically, the conditional approval means that the drug or product in question may be restricted for certain age groups, according to Tao Lina, a former government immunologist.

The vaccine is already under mass production, though officials did not answer questions about current production capacity.

Approval of China’s vaccine could also mean hope for countries around the world who may not have access to the Pfizer or Moderna shots, which have stricter cold chain requirements. Sinopharm’s vaccine is able to be stored between 2 to 8 degrees, or a normal refrigeration temperature.

Sinopharm’s vaccine has already been approved in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and is slated for use next in Morocco.

Other countries have also been buying doses of another Chinese vaccine candidate, made by Sinovac Biotech. Turkey received the shipments this week of 3 million doses. Indonesia and Brazil have all purchased Sinovac’s vaccines.

China is eager to distribute its vaccines globally, driven by a desire to repair the damage to its image by the pandemic that started a year ago in the city of Wuhan.

Chinese president Xi Jinping has vowed to donate the vaccine as a public good to the world and China has joined Covax, a global plan for equal distribution and access.

South Korea

Dozens of elderly South Korean coronavirus patients were transferred from nursing homes to hospitals this week after criticism that government policy had led to a spike in deaths among the vulnerable residents.

South Korea’s total tally of infections passed 60,000 on Thursday, as 967 additional cases were reported.

At least 486 of South Korea’s 900 reported deaths were people over the age of 80. Only 40 deaths have been reported among people younger than 60.

At least 316 residents of nursing hospitals or nursing homes have died, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Thursday. When the KDCA reported a record 40 deaths in one day on Tuesday, 70 per cent of them were residents of nursing homes or nursing hospitals.

“Since most of the hospitalised in the nursing homes are elderly and with underlying conditions, they are at a high risk of death when infected with Covid-19,” Choi Dae-zip, president of the Korean Medical Association, told a news conference.

“They should be given priority to hospital beds and receive proper treatment.”

Kim Dong-hyun, president of Korean Society of Epidemiology, said the government was repeating mistakes it had made during waves of infections earlier in the year, similar to mistaken steps in the United States and Europe.

“Even if they separate the infected patients to other floors and rooms, transmission is inevitable,” he said.

At a nursing hospital in the Guro district of Seoul, at least 102 residents and 69 medical staff have been infected, while seven residents have died of the coronavirus since the first case was reported at the facility on December 15th.

Another 22 cases were linked to the cluster there.

Japan

New coronavirus infections in Tokyo hit a record high of more than 1,300 on Thursday raising fears of an explosion in cases, local media reported, and New Year’s Eve celebrations were curtailed as the country battles a third wave of the pandemic.

Scores of flights were also cancelled as heavy snowfall hit several areas of Japan on Thursday.

Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga has urged people to celebrate New Year quietly, and avoid non-essential outings, amid the twin crises.

Shoppers wearing protective masks crowd the Ameyoko Street for a yearend shopping in preparation for the New Year at Ueno in Tokyo. Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA
Shoppers wearing protective masks crowd the Ameyoko Street for a yearend shopping in preparation for the New Year at Ueno in Tokyo. Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA

Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways cancelled or planned to cancel a total of around 140 flights, public broadcaster NHK reported, adding that a bullet train had suspended services in some parts of the northern Yamagata prefecture.

Japan has been battling a third wave of Covid-19 infections in recent weeks and on Monday started barring the entry of non-resident foreign nationals after detecting variants of the virus from Britain and South Africa.

Japanese Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said on Wednesday the government may have to consider declaring a state of emergency if the number the Covid-19 cases grow.

Japan’s Imperial Household Agency has cancelled an annual New Year’s event set for January 2nd, at which Emperor Naruhito and other imperial family members were due to greet well wishers.

People have been asked to stagger visits to shrines, traditionally popular destinations over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

“I want to emphasise again that there is no New Year holidays for the coronavirus. I urge people to spend quiet holidays staying at home with families,” Kyodo news agency quoted Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike as telling reporters on Thursday.

About 3,400 people have died in Japan from around 231,000 cases during the pandemic so far. – Reuters/AP