Coronavirus Update: Vaccine hopes boosted by data from Novavax and J&J, but fears over new variants remain

United States

The global case tally for the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 was headed toward 102 million on Friday, as health experts were digesting the latest vaccine updates from Novavax Inc. and Johnson & Johnson amid hopes they will soon win emergency authorization and bolster supplies.

Novavax NVAX, +65.48% said late Thursday its vaccine candidate, which has a different mechanism to the ones already authorized in the U.S. — one developed by Pfizer Inc. PFE, +0.78% and German partner BioNTech SE BNTX, +4.01%, and a separate one developed by Moderna Inc. MRNA, +6.39% — appears to be 89% effective, based on the early data from a U.K. trial involving 15,000 patients, the AP reported.

The company said about half of the trial participants who became infected with the virus had the mutated version that has been circulating in the U.K. for weeks. A preliminary analysis suggested that the vaccine is nearly 96% effective against the original virus and nearly 86% effective against the new variant.

See also: The Novavax vaccine is effective. Now I’m seriously hoping that’s what I was injected with

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 but not nearly as well as it does against the variant from the U.K.

Read now: Drugmakers examine effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments against new, more infectious South African strain

It was a similar story from J&J JNJ, -3.49% when it released early data from a Phase 3 trial of its COVID vaccine candidate early Friday, saying it appears 66% effective in preventing moderate -to-severe disease 28 days after vaccination, but less effective — just 57% — in dealing with the South Africa strain.

J&J will submit the data to a peer-reviewed journal in the coming weeks and expects to file for an emergency use authorization in early February. There are high hopes for this vaccine, as it requires just one dose, unlike the currently authorized ones, which require two doses set weeks apart. 

The data comes as the U.S. added at least 165,073 new cases on Thursday, according to a New York Times tracker, and counted at least 3,862 deaths, although that was down from the more than 4,000 fatalities reported in the prior two days.

Case numbers have declined for the past 14 days. The U.S. averaged 159,598 new cases a day in the past week, down 34% from the average two weeks ago.

Hospitalization rates are also improving, according to the COVID Tracking Project. There were 104,303 COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals on Thursday, down from 107,444 the day earlier. The number has now declined for 17 straight days and stands at its lowest level since Dec. 7.

“Reported deaths rose 7 percent this week, with states reporting a total of 22,797 lives lost to COVID-19,” the COVID Tracking Project wrote in its weekly blog. “Deaths lag behind cases—both because it takes time to die of the virus and because the reporting process for deaths is very slow. Even with cases falling across the US, we may have another week or more of very high death numbers to come.”

Against that background, President Joe Biden is pushing his pandemic response team to speed up the pace of vaccinations and is buying more doses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker shows that as of 6.00 a.m. ET Thursday, 26.2 million doses had been administered and 48.4 million doses delivered to states.

In other news:

• Europe stepped up its fight to secure COVID-19 vaccines on Friday, after Brussels warned that it would use all legal means to block exports of shots if it doesn’t receive the vaccine doses promised by drug companies such as AstraZeneca  AZN, -1.11% AZN, -1.39%  and Pfizer, MarketWatch’s Lina Saigol reported. In a letter to four European Union leaders, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said that the 27-member bloc could adopt “urgent measures” by invoking an emergency provision in the EU treaties” to address the bloc’s coronavirus vaccine shortfall, which is nearing a crisis point. Several EU member states — including France, Portugal and Spain — said this week that they were suspending their inoculation programs because of vaccine shortages.

Read: AstraZeneca vaccine should only be given to under-65s, Germany recommends as EU shortage crisis deepens

• Older people are at greater risk of COVID-19 hospitalization and death, but many may lack access to the online systems that could help facilitate their vaccinations, and save their lives, MarketWatch’s Meera Jagannathan reported. Forty-five percent of Americans aged 65 to 80 report that they haven’t established an account on their health-care provider’s online patient-portal system, according to a recent analysis of survey data from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging. Some older adults who may face even higher COVID-19 risk are less likely to use patient portals, the poll found: While 39% of older white adults didn’t have an account, nearly 50% of older Black adults and 53% of older Hispanic adults didn’t have one. 

Also read: Fast information about COVID-19 vaccines for seniors — where, when and how to get them

• Swiss drug company Novartis has agreed to help manufacture the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, according to AFP, as many countries scramble to secure supplies that are running short. The news comes after the French drug company earlier this week said it would also help produce 125 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab.

• World Health Organization experts are to begin face-to-face meetings with their Chinese counterparts Friday in the central city of Wuhan at the start of the team’s long-awaited fact-finding mission into the origins of the coronavirus, the AP reported. Those meetings should be followed by the first field visits in and around the industrial and transport hub on Friday, WHO said on Twitter but did not give further details about the team’s agenda. It said the team had already requested “detailed underlying data” and planned to speak with early responders and some of the first COVID-19 patients. “All hypotheses are on the table as the team follows the science in their work to understand the origins of the COVID19 virus,” WHO tweeted. “As members start their field visits on Friday, they should receive the support, access and the data they need.”

Latest tallies

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide climbed above 101.6 million on Friday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, and the death toll rose to 2.19 million. About 56 million people have recovered from COVID-19.

The U.S. leads the world by cases, at 25.8 million, and fatalities, at 433,431, or about a fifth of the global total.

Brazil has the second highest death toll at 221,547 and is third by cases at 9.1 million.

India is second worldwide in cases with 10.7 million, and now fourth in deaths at 154,010, after being surpassed by Mexico.

Mexico has the third highest death toll at 155,145 and 13th highest case tally at 1.8 million.

The U.K. has 3.8 million cases and 103,324 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 99,797 confirmed cases and 4,813 deaths, according to its official numbers.

What’s the economy saying?

Americans cut spending in December for the second month in a row as a record increase in coronavirus cases opened fresh cracks in the economy and stunted the recovery, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

Consumer spending sank by 0.2%, the government said Friday.

The drop in spending toward the end of the year robbed the economy of momentum. Gross domestic product slowed to 4% annualized growth and left the economy with some gaping holes to fill.

If there’s a silver lining, spending didn’t fall as much as expected. Economists polled by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal has forecast a 0.4% drop What’s more, the decline in November wasn’t as steep as originally reported.

Read: U.S. economy grew a slower 4% at end of 2020, GDP shows

Meanwhile, incomes rose by 0.6% in December, suggesting consumers still have money to spend once they regain confidence in the economy. The savings rate is still extremely high at 13.7%, about twice as much as normal.

Separately, Americans were leery but hopeful in late January about the prospects of an economic renewal later in the year once coronavirus vaccines become widely available, a survey showed.

The second of two readings of consumer sentiment this month edged down to 79 from an initial 79.2, according to an index produced by the University of Michigan.

Economists polled by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast the index to remain at 79.2.

Yet the index was little changed from December’s reading of 80.7, suggesting that Americans are looking ahead instead of looking back.

Read: Consumer confidence rebounds on vaccine, Biden hopes

The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -1.13% and S&P 500 SPX, -1.07% were lower in midmorning trade.