White House optimistic on J&J vaccine as mutations spread

White House adviser Anthony Fauci says increased vaccinations key to stopping spread of virus mutations.

Dr Anthony Fauci and other officials announced plans to increase coronavirus vaccinations [Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

White House officials have announced continued plans to increase COVID-19 vaccinations during a Friday briefing while the US continues to struggle with the containment of the novel coronavirus as worrying mutations spread.

Dr Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), began the White House briefing by listing news of the variants found in the US.

The coronavirus is responsible for more than 433,000 deaths in the US, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally. There are more than 25.7 million confirmed cases in the US.

Walensky noted there were 379 cases of the UK variant in 29 states as of January 27 and one case of the Brazil variant has been confirmed in Minnesota.

Dr Rochelle Walensky, the head of the CDC, speaks after then President-elect Joe Biden announced nominees for his coronavirus task force on December 8, 2020 [ File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

The South African variant, which some worry is resistant to vaccines, was confirmed in two North Carolina cases in “different parts of the state”, Walensky continued. These cases were “not believed to be epidemiologically linked”.

This suggests community spread of the variant has arrived.

Novel vaccinations

News on two vaccines appeared to show the mutations were more resistant.

The vaccine developed by Novavax was 89 percent effective in a UK trial, the company said on Thursday, though data suggested less efficacy with the South African variant.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine study on its vaccine carried out in the US, Brazil and South Africa, had an overall efficacy of 66 percent, with 72 percent in the US alone, where the mutations are less prevalent.

However, White House Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci said the data released by Johnson & Johnson on Friday showed positives.

“The results are really encouraging,” Fauci said during the briefing. “There were essentially no hospitalisations or deaths in the vaccine group.”

The overall efficacy for severe disease was “85 percent”, Fauci said, and Johnson & Johnson will be able to cheaply produce “billions” of the vaccine, which only requires one shot.

Vials with a sticker reading, ‘COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only’ and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed Johnson & Johnson logo in this illustration [File: Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters]

“This is a single-shot vaccine where you start to see efficacy 7-10 days following the first shot,” Fauci said.

When asked about reports the variants will begin to have an effect on cases in March and what the administration is doing to prevent this, Fauci said the UK variant is likely to become the dominant variation of the virus by March or April.

“The fundamental principle of getting vaccinated as quickly as possible” will always be the best means to prevent further variations from occurring.

The vaccine roll-out in the US, which began under former President Donald Trump, has been criticised over its pace. The US has currently delivered about 48 million vaccine doses and administered about 26 million, according to CDC tracking.

The baseline average is about 1.2 million doses per day, though the government hopes to increase that number, as well as the number of vaccines.

CDC head Walensky said “prevention measures are the same regardless of what variant you have” and the government is increasing surveillance of the variants in order to respond.

School closures

Walensky addressed school reopenings during the briefing, saying the CDC “continues to recommend that K-12 schools are last to close and first to reopen”.

A cyclist passes a closed vaccination centre at the George Westinghouse High School in New York. An increasing number of COVID-19 vaccination sites around the US are cancelling appointments because of vaccine shortages in a roll-out rife with confusion and unexplained bottlenecks [File: Mark Lennihan/AP Photo]

While the CDC encourages schools to be the first to reopen, it recognises “many communities lack sufficient capacity to do all that is needed”, Walensky said.

Data shows schools are not responsible for the fast spread of the virus when the appropriate protocol is followed, including “reducing density” inside the institutions and wearing masks, she said.

Schools have been closed at various points since April throughout the US. Parents and educators worry about the lasting effects these closures will have on education.

Source: Al Jazeera