Health Highlights: Feb. 25, 2021

COVID-19 Vaccine Makers Planning for Variants

Pfizer and BioNTech say they plan to update their original COVID-19 vaccine and also test a third booster shot in order to prepare for the possibility that new coronavirus variants may be more resistant to the vaccine.

“We are taking multiple steps to act decisively and be ready in case a strain becomes resistant to the protection afforded by the vaccine,” Dr. Albert Bourla, the chief executive of Pfizer, said in a statement, The New York Times reported.

Laboratory tests have found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is less effective against a variant first identified in South Africa, known as B.1.351, but there is no clinical trial evidence suggesting that the vaccine doesn’t offer strong protection.

Pfizer and BioNTech are in discussions with regulators about testing an adapted version of the vaccine that would protect against the B.1.351 variant, and will conduct a study on whether a third shot given about six to 12 months after the initial two-dose regimen provides extra protection, The Times reported.

The same technology used to create the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was used by Moderna to develop its COVID-19 vaccine. Moderna said Wednesday that doses of a newly adjusted vaccine meant to deal with the B.1.351 variant have been sent to the U.S. National Institutes of Health for testing, The Times reported.

This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released draft guidance about adapting COVID-19 vaccines to address new variants and said companies wouldn’t have to conduct the same large-scale clinical trials that were required for the original vaccines.

Good Results for Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine in Real-World Test

Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine proved highly effective in a mass vaccination campaign in Israel, a new study shows.

The real-world test of the vaccine found that it was 92% effective at preventing severe disease after two shots and 62% after one. It was also 72% effective in preventing death two to three weeks after the first shot, a rate that could improve as immunity gets stronger over time, the Associated Press reported.

The vaccine was given to half a million people and appeared as effective in people over 70 as in younger people, according to the findings published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The results are similar to the 95% effectiveness after two doses found in limited testing that led to the vaccine’s approval for emergency use in the United States, the AP reported.

Two doctors not involved in the Israeli study were impressed by the results.

“This is immensely reassuring … better than I would have guessed,” Dr. Gregory Poland, of the Mayo Clinic, told the AP.

“Even after one dose we can see very high effectiveness in prevention of death,” said Dr. Buddy Creech of Vanderbilt University.

New Coronavirus Variant Sweeping Through NYC

A new coronavirus variant that’s sweeping through New York City has a mutation that may weaken the effectiveness of vaccines, two new studies claim.

The new variant is called B.1.526 and was first detected in samples gathered in the city in November. By the middle of February, it accounted for about one-quarter of viral sequences appearing in a database used by scientists, The New York Times reported.

One study was conducted at Columbia University and the other was led by a group at Caltech. The Columbia study hasn’t been made public but the Caltech study was posted online Tuesday.

Neither study has been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal.

“It’s not particularly happy news,” Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University, told theTimes. “But just knowing about it is good because then we can perhaps do something about it.”

Nussenzweig, who wasn’t involved in the new studies, said he’s more concerned about the variant in New York than the one that’s rapidly spreading in California.

Another variant that was originally identified in Britain is expected to become the most common form of the coronavirus in the United States by the end of March, the Times reported.

U.S. Government to Distribute Millions of Face Masks

Millions of cloth face masks will be distributed in certain U.S. communities to ensure equity in the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House announced Wednesday.

It said the masks will be sent to underserved communities and those hardest hit by the pandemic, and will be distributed through Federally Qualified Community Health Centers and food bank and food pantry systems, the Associated Press reported.

More than 25 million U.S.-made masks in both adult and kid sizes will reach 12 million to 15 million people, according to the White House.

“Not all Americans are wearing masks regularly, not all have access, and not all masks are equal,” said White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients, the AP reported.

CDC Expands Alert About Listeria Outbreak Linked to Cheese

Consumers and businesses should not eat, sell or serve any cheese sold under the brand name El Abuelito, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday in an updated food safety alert about a listeria outbreak.

The initial alert warned about recalled queso fresco cheese sold under the brand names of El Abuelito, Rio Grande, and Rio Lindo.

The CDC now says that it’s concerned that any cheese made or handled at this facility could be contaminated and make people sick.

Three new illnesses linked to the outbreak were reported this week. The total number of reported illnesses so far is 10 in four states (Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Virginia). Nine people have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported.

It’s important to thoroughly clean your refrigerator, containers and surfaces that may have touched the cheeses, because listeria can survive in the refrigerator and can easily spread to other foods and surfaces, the CDC said.

Listeria can cause severe illness when the bacteria spread beyond the gut to other parts of the body, and listeria infection during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn.

Symptoms of listeria infection can include fever, muscle aches, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and convulsions.

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