Coronavirus Update: Global tally of COVID cases tops 117 million as study finds Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine works against Brazil variant

United States

The global tally of confirmed cases of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 climbed above 117 million on Tuesday, as a study found the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. PFE, +0.77% and German partner BioNTech SE BNTX, +5.06% is effective in neutralizing the highly infectious new variant that was first detected in Brazil.

Researchers developed an engineered version of the COVID-19 mutation and found that blood samples taken from people who received the vaccine were able to neutralize the variant, according to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Monday.

The study conducted by the companies along with scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch found the vaccine was roughly as effective against the Brazilian variant as it was in acting against the original virus.

Earlier studies found that the U.K. and South Africa COVID-19 variants were also neutralized by the Pfizer vaccine, although the South African one is understood to reduce the protective antibodies that the vaccine produces. Pfizer is planning further research.

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Separately, early data from a Brazil study found that the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. is effective in dealing with the Brazilian variant, according to Reuters, citing a source familiar with the study.

The former acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Richard Besser on NBC News’ Today show welcomed the guidelines released Monday on how vaccinated people should behave. The CDC said vaccinated people can mingle with other vaccinated people in small groups in private indoor settings without wearing face masks. Vaccinated grandparents can safely visit their grandchildren as long as nobody in the household is at risk of serious disease and they wait a full two weeks after their second dose.

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“It gives us a cautious step forward and an emotional release in the sense that we truly are on the road out of this pandemic…Getting those two doses of vaccine, being fully vaccinated, now knowing they can get together with other people, that’s a huge, huge emotional release and lift,” said Besser.

But Dr. Leana Wen, emergency doctor and visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, said that while some guidance is better than no guidance, the guidelines are “too timid and too limited,” and fail to tie reopening guidance with vaccination status.

“As a result, the CDC missed a critical opportunity to incentivize Americans to be vaccinated,” Wen wrote in a column for the Washington Post, for which she is a contributor.

The guidelines offered little information that had not already been communicated by health experts, including prominent members of President Joe Biden’s task force, she wrote. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Biden’s chief medical officer, has been saying for weeks that vaccinated people can visit each other indoors without masks, she wrote.

“What I take issue with is the CDC’s silence on activities outside the home, such as traveling, attending church services and going to restaurants, for fully vaccinated people. In fact, it says these people should continue the same precautions in these settings as unvaccinated individuals.

“This fails the common-sense test,” she wrote.

But Besser countered that the CDC is likely taking a cautious view to discourage states from reopening too quickly while much remains to be known about the virus, and especially the new, more infectious variants. For now, animal studies show that vaccinations reduces the amount of virus in a human nose, reduces the ability to transmit the virus and reduces the ability to cause asymptomatic infection, which has been the main way the virus is spread.

 “One of the outstanding questions, though, has to do with some of these variants that are out there, and whether the vaccines will be as effective for that,” he said. “I expect that that’s probably what’s holding CDC back from guidance and changes here that are less cautious than what we heard yesterday.”

Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said, “it’s kind of like sleeping with one eye open,” referring to the fact that existing vaccines are very effective against the viral strain(s) that are here, now, but what will arrive later is open to questioning.

In an interview with MSNBC, he also called on countries to avoid “vaccine nationalism’” by hogging the existing jabs.

“We have got to vaccinate the world,” he said.

The CDC’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6.00 a.m. ET Monday, 116.4 million doses had been delivered to states, 92 million shots had been administered and 59.9 million people had received at least one shot, equal to 23.5% of the population. A full 31.4 million people are fully vaccinated, equal to 9.5% of the population.

In other news:

• Leading airline and business groups are asking the Biden administration to develop temporary credentials that would let travelers show they have been tested and vaccinated for COVID-19, a step that the airline industry believes will help revive travel, the Associated Press reported. Various groups and countries are working on developing so-called vaccine passports aimed at allowing more travel. But airlines fear that a smattering of regional credentials will cause confusion and none will be widely accepted. “It is crucial to establish uniform guidance” and “the U.S. must be a leader in this development,” more than two dozen groups said in a letter Monday to White House coronavirus-response coordinator Jeff Zients. However, the groups said that vaccination should not be a requirement for domestic or international travel.

• The world economy is on track to be back to its pre-pandemic level by the middle of the year thanks to the $ 1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus package that will add 3 percentage points to U.S. growth this year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said on Tuesday. Global gross domestic product growth is now expected at 5.6% this year, more than 1 percentage point above the OECD’s December forecast, thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and the U.S. stimulus, it said, as MarketWatch’s Pierre Briançon reported. The world economy is seen expanding by 4% in 2022. The U.S. economy would expand by 6.5% this year, China by 7.8% and the eurozone by 3.9%.

Alerts and web-browser tools can help you book a Covid-19 vaccine appointment. WSJ’s Joanna Stern met up with Kris Slevens, an IT guy who has booked over 300 appointments for New Jersey seniors, to learn the best tricks to compete in the vaccine-booking Hunger Games. Photo illustration: Emil Lendof for The Wall Street Journal

• Japan will stage this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics without overseas spectators due to concern about Covid-19, the Kyodo news agency reported, citing officials with knowledge of the matter. The government and the Japanese organizing committee of the Summer Games are expected to hold a remote meeting with the International Olympic Committee and two other bodies possibly next week to make a formal decision on the issue of overseas visitors.

• Johnson & Johnson JNJ, +1.18% has told the European Union it is facing supply issues that may complicate plans to deliver 55 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to the bloc in the second quarter of the year, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed EU official. A delay would be yet another disappointment for the trading bloc, which has suffered issues with supplies from other vaccine makers and a slow rollout of jabs in many individual states. The drug maker told the EU last week that issues with the supply of vaccine ingredients and equipment meant it was “under stress” to meet the goal of delivering 55 million doses by the end of June, the EU official — who is directly involved in confidential talks with the U.S. company — told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

• Italy has suffered a grave milestone of more than 100,000 COVID deaths, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. Italy was the first country in the world to impose a full lockdown last spring at the height of the crisis and is now bracing for a third surge. Italy’s recently appointed prime minister, Mario Draghi, said that passing the “terrible threshold” of 100,000 deaths was something “we would never have imagined a year ago,” the Guardian reported.

Latest tallies

The global tally for confirmed cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 climbed above 117 million on Tuesday, while the death toll rose above 2.6 million.

At least 66 million people have recovered.

The U.S. has the highest case tally in the world at 29 million, or about a quarter of the global tally, and the highest death toll at 525,816, or about a fifth of the global toll.

 Brazil has the second highest death toll at 266,398 and is third by cases at 11 million.

India is second worldwide in cases with 11.2 million, and fourth in deaths at 157,930.

Mexico has the third highest death toll at 190,923 and 13th highest case tally at 2.1 million.

The U.K. has 4.2 million cases and 124,801 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 101,149 confirmed cases and 4,838 deaths, according to its official numbers.