Brazil’s COVID-19 response cost thousands of lives, says humanitarian group

By Reuters Staff

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – The Brazilian government’s “failed response” to the pandemic led to thousands of otherwise avoidable deaths and created a humanitarian catastrophe that is still playing out, aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Thursday.

Brazil’s COVID-19 outbreak is the deadliest in the world after the United States and is currently leading in average daily mortalities. Last week more than a quarter of all global deaths were in Brazil.

A brutal second wave has hospitals saying they are running short of crucial drugs for intubating patients and most Brazilian states report that intensive care units are at or near capacity.

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has opposed lockdowns, and has held large events in which he often does not wear a mask. He has only recently embraced vaccines as a possible solution.

“More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the failed response in Brazil has caused a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Christos Christou, a medical doctor and president of MSF, sometimes called Doctors Without Borders in English.

“Each week there is a grim new record of deaths and infections – the hospitals are overflowing and yet there is still no coordinated centralized response,” Christou said in a briefing with reporters, adding the situation was expected to become even worse in the weeks ahead.

Bolsonaro has openly fought against state and local governments seeking to institute lockdowns, saying Brazilians need to get on with normal life and that job losses are more dangerous than the virus.

MSF Director-General Meinie Nicolai said the surge in cases cannot be blamed only on the contagious Brazilian COVID-19 variant, known as P.1.

“The P.1 variant is certainly a problem, but this doesn’t explain the situation in Brazil,” she said.

India approves Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine

By Nigam Prusty and Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI/MOSCOW (Reuters) -India has approved the use of Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) said on Monday, confirming earlier reports of its imminent endorsement.

India overtook Brazil to become the nation with the second highest number of infections worldwide after the United States, as it battles a second wave, having given about 105 million doses among a population of 1.4 billion.

The RDIF, which is responsible for marketing the vaccine abroad, said the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) had approved the use of Sputnik V.

“India, the world’s 2nd most populous nation, became the 60th country to register #SputnikV after positive results of local Phase 3 clinical study. Sputnik V is now authorized in 60 countries with population of over 3 bln people,” a post on the Sputnik V official Twitter account said.

Earlier on Monday, two people familiar with the matter said the panel of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) had recommended the authorization.

The RDIF has signed deals to produce more than 750 million doses of Sputnik V in India with six domestic firms.

India has so far used two vaccines, one developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, and the other by domestic firm Bharat Biotech.

Sputnik V, developed by Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute, has proved 91.6% effective against COVID-19 and has been approved for use in more than 50 countries.

The Indian drugs regulator did not respond to a request for comment on the expert panel’s approval of the Russian vaccine.

Indian pharmaceutical firm Dr. Reddy’s, which is marketing the vaccine in India, said it was awaiting formal word from the authorities.

“Dr. Reddy’s and RDIF are working diligently with the Indian regulatory authorities to obtain the approval for Sputnik V. We are fully committed to playing our part in India’s fight against COVID,” the company said.

Shares of Dr. Reddy’s ended up 5% after the Economic Times newspaper first reported the news.

The firm has helped run a small domestic trial to test the vaccine’s safety and ability to generate an immune response.

(Additional reporting by Rama Venkat and Shivani Singh in Bengaluru, Polina Ivanova and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Sachin Ravikumar; Editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)

WHO warns on Brazil COVID-19 outbreak as Bolsonaro blasts Senate inquiry

By Eduardo Simões

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday blasted a pending Senate inquiry on his handling of a record-breaking COVID-19 outbreak, which global health officials compared to a “raging inferno.”

Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso ruled late on Thursday that enough senators had signed on to a proposed inquiry on the government’s pandemic response to launch the probe despite stalling by Senate leadership.

“It’s a stitch-up between Barroso and the leftists in the Senate to wear out the government,” Bolsonaro told supporters outside his residence, accusing the judge of “politicking.”

A Senate investigation represents the most severe political consequence to date for Bolsonaro’s approach to the coronavirus, which he compared to a “little flu” last year as he ignored health experts calling for mask wearing and social distance.

Bolsonaro has backed off his criticism of COVID-19 vaccines, but he continues to attack governors attempting lockdowns and even milder measures, accusing them without proof of killing more with those restrictions than the virus itself.

COVID-19 has taken more than 345,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States. One in four deaths from the pandemic this week were in Brazil, where a brutal wave is overwhelming hospitals and setting records of more than 4,000 deaths per day.

“What you are dealing with here is a raging inferno of an outbreak,” said Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization, in a public briefing.

Yet fatigue and political pressure from Bolsonaro have pushed some governors to ease restrictions despite record deaths.

The state of Sao Paulo, whose governor has been a critic of the president, announced that it was loosening some restrictions next week even as its hospitals struggle to manage case loads.

Sao Paulo officials said a downtick in hospitalizations had justified the decision to restart soccer matches without spectators, reopen stores selling building materials and resume take-out service at restaurants.

(Reporting by Eduardo Simoes; Additional reporting by Tatiana Bautzer; Editing by Brad Haynes and Dan Grebler)

Nowhere as worrisome for COVID-19 infections as South America, Brazil concerning: PAHO

By Julia Symmes Cobb

BOGOTA (Reuters) – South America is the most worrying region for COVID-19 infections, as cases mount in nearly every country, the director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

“Nowhere are infections as worrisome as in South America,” Director Carissa Etienne said during a weekly press conference.

Brazil has seen perhaps the most merciless surge and scientists forecast it will soon surpass the worst of a record January wave in the United States, with daily fatalities climbing above 4,000 on Tuesday.

“The situation in Brazil is concerning countrywide,” said COVID-19 incident director Sylvain Aldighieri. “Our concern at the moment is also for the Brazilian citizens themselves in this context of health services that are overwhelmed.”

Brazil needs access to more vaccines now and should be able to receive them through global partnerships, Aldighieri said.

PAHO can expand its help to Brazilian states if requested, he said, adding it is already aiding with virus sequencing, procuring oxygen and testing.

Intensive care units are nearing capacity in Peru and Ecuador and in parts of Bolivia and Colombia cases have doubled in the last week, Etienne said, adding the southern cone is also experiencing acceleration in cases.

The U.S., Brazil and Argentina are among the ten countries seeing the highest number of new infections globally, she added.

The Americas recorded more than 1.3 million new coronavirus cases and over 37,000 deaths last week, Etienne said, more than half of all deaths reported globally.

“We cannot ease public health and social interventions without good data and justification,” Etienne said, adding slowing and stopping transmission “requires decisive action by local and national governments.”

More than 210 million vaccine doses have been administered across the Americas, Etienne added.

Bolivia, Nicaragua and Haiti may be affected by Serum Institute of India vaccine shipment delays, said sub-director Jarbas Barbosa, but the World Health Organization is appealing to the Indian government to ensure shipment agreements.

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb)

Brazil detects first case of South African variant as COVID-19 deaths soar

By Pedro Fonseca

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil has recorded its first confirmed case of the highly contagious coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa, a fresh danger sign for a country already ravaged by the world’s highest daily death toll fueled by a widespread local variant.

Last week, scientists at the Butantan biomedical institute said the case, identified in a woman in Sao Paulo state, might be a new local variant. Further analysis confirmed it as the first known local case of the variant widely circulating in South Africa and elsewhere.

Scientists fear a showdown between the South African variant and the already rampant Brazilian variant, known as P.1, both of which are more contagious and possibly more deadly than the original version of the coronavirus and have led to accelerated COVID-19 surges.

“It could be a huge duel,” said Maria Carolina Sabbaga, one of Butantan’s coordinators for studying new variants. “I think P.1 has already taken over. I’m not sure if the South African will overtake P.1, let’s see.”

The South African variant in studies appears to lessen protection from current vaccines.

Brazil is in the midst of a brutal COVID-19 wave, setting records for deaths on a weekly basis. On Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported a single-day record of 4,195 deaths.

The outbreak in South America’s largest country may overtake the United States to become the world’s deadliest, some medical experts predict.

José Patané, a Butantan researcher, said the South African variant most likely arrived in Brazil after traveling through Europe toward the end of 2020.

The first local diagnosis, a woman in her 30s in the city of Sorocaba, had not traveled abroad or come into contact with someone who did, indicating local community transmission, researchers said.

SLOW VACCINE ROLLOUT

A possible surge of the South African variant could further complicate Brazil’s slow vaccine rollout.

Brazil’s COVID-19 immunization program is built around the vaccines from AstraZeneca Plc and China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd, which have proven effective against the Brazilian variant in preliminary studies, according to officials.

Research released on Wednesday showed the Sinovac shot was 50% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in a study of nearly 68,000 health workers in Manaus, where the P.1 strain first emerged as the predominant variant. The results support preliminary findings of separate research reported by Reuters last month.

In studies, the South African variant appears to lower the level of protection offered by the AstraZeneca shot and other available vaccines.

Immunizations have been slow to ramp up in Brazil after the government dragged its feet last year in acquiring vaccines while other countries raced to secure supplies.

President Jair Bolsonaro has shifted his tone on vaccines, touting shots he had until recently disdained. But the far-right former army captain continues to oppose social distancing and mask requirements that health experts see as essential for curbing virus transmission.

Under pressure from business leaders desperate to vaccinate their workforces and reopen operations, the lower house of Congress has taken up a controversial bill to allow private-sector vaccine purchases.

A version of the bill, first passed on Tuesday, would allow businesses to acquire vaccines to inoculate their employees as long as they donate the same number of shots to the public health system. Under current rules, businesses could only do that once the country has fully vaccinated risk groups outlined in a national immunization plan.

Proposed amendments to new legislation are still pending in the lower house before the bill goes to the Senate.

Bolsonaro is set to meet with a group of business leaders including BTG Pactual founder Andre Esteves and Banco Bradesco Chairman Luiz Carlos Trabuco Cappi later on Wednesday, local media reported, with the private vaccine dose plan among the items on the agenda.

(Reporting by Pedro Fonseca; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes and Bill Berkrot)

Brazil’s COVID-19 death surge set to pass the worst of record U.S. wave

By Pedro Fonseca

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil’s brutal surge in COVID-19 deaths will soon surpass the worst of a record January wave in the United States, climbing well beyond an average 3,000 fatalities per day, scientists predict, as contagious new variants overwhelm hospitals.

Brazil’s overall death toll trails only the U.S. outbreak, with nearly 333,000 killed, according to Health Ministry data, compared with more than 555,000 dead in the United States.

But with Brazil’s healthcare system at the breaking point, the country could also exceed total U.S. deaths, despite having two-thirds the population, two experts told Reuters.

“It’s a nuclear reactor that has set off a chain reaction and is out of control. It’s a biological Fukushima,” said Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian doctor and professor at Duke University, who is closely tracking the virus.

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed back against mask-wearing and lockdowns that public health experts consider necessary. The country dragged its feet last year as the world raced to secure vaccines, slowing the launch of a national immunization program.

With weak measures failing to combat contagion, Brazil’s COVID-19 cases and deaths are accumulating faster than ever. On the other hand, a widespread U.S. vaccination campaign is rapidly curtailing what has been the world’s deadliest outbreak.

Nicolelis and Christovam Barcellos, a researcher at Brazilian medical institute Fiocruz, are separately predicting that Brazil could surpass the United States in both overall deaths and the record for average deaths per day.

As soon as next week, Brazil may break the record U.S. seven-day average for deaths, forecasts the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. The U.S. average for daily deaths peaked at 3,285 in January.

The IHME forecast does not currently extend beyond July 1, when it projects Brazil could reach 563,000 deaths, compared with 609,000 U.S. casualties expected by then.

(Reporting by Pedro Fonseca; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes and Jonathan Oatis)

Global COVID-19 death toll surpasses 3 million amid new infections resurgence

By Roshan Abraham and Anurag Maan

(Reuters) – Coronavirus-related deaths worldwide crossed 3 million on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, as the latest global resurgence of COVID-19 infections is challenging vaccination efforts across the globe.

Worldwide COVID-19 deaths are rising once again, especially in Brazil and India. Health officials blame more infectious variants that were first detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa, along with public fatigue with lockdowns and other restrictions.

According to a Reuters tally, it took more than a year for the global coronavirus death toll to reach 2 million. The next 1 million deaths were added in about three months.

Brazil is leading the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported and accounts for one in every four deaths worldwide each day, according to a Reuters analysis.

The World Health Organization acknowledged the nation’s dire condition due to coronavirus, saying the country is in a very critical condition with an overwhelmed healthcare system.

“Indeed there is a very serious situation going on in Brazil right now, where we have a number of states in critical condition,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove told a briefing last Thursday, adding that many hospital intensive care units are more than 90% full.

India reported a record rise in COVID-19 infections on Monday, becoming the second nation after the United States to post more than 100,000 new cases in a day.

India’s worst-affected state, Maharashtra on Monday began shutting shopping malls, cinemas, bars, restaurants, and places of worship, as hospitals are being overrun by patients.

The European region, which includes 51 countries, has the highest total number of deaths at nearly 1.1 million.

Five European countries including the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Italy and Germany constitute about 60% of Europe’s total coronavirus-related deaths.

The United States has the highest number of deaths of any country at the world at 555,000 and accounts for about 19% of all deaths due to COVID-19 in the world. Cases have risen for the last three weeks but health officials believe the nation’s rapid vaccination campaign may prevent a rise in deaths. A third of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine.

At least 370.3 million people or nearly 4.75% of the global population have received a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine by Sunday, according to latest figures from research and data provider firm Our World in Data.

However, the World Health Organization is urging countries to donate more doses of approved COVID-19 vaccines to help meet vaccination targets for the most vulnerable in poorer countries.

 

India’s daily virus cases breach 100,000; mutants, behavior blamed

By Neha Arora and Rama Venkat

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India reported a record rise in COVID-19 infections on Monday, becoming the second country after the United States to post more than 100,000 new cases in a day, as politicians stage massive election rallies raising fears of further spreading the virus.

Hospitals in the worst affected state, Maharashtra, are being overrun by patients. India’s richest state, home to its commercial capital Mumbai and numerous industries, reported a record 57,074 new cases overnight.

The country’s daily infections have risen about 12 fold since hitting a multi-month low in early February, when authorities eased most restrictions and people largely stopped wearing masks and following social distancing.

With 103,558 new infections, India has now reported 12.6 million cases, the highest after the United States and Brazil, data from the health ministry showed. Deaths jumped by 478, still one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, raising the total to 165,101.

India has recorded the most number of infections in the past week anywhere in the world. More infectious variants of the virus may have played a role in the second surge, some epidemiologists say.

“The new variant, or variants of concern, probably explains a lot of it, rather than simplistic explanation of behavior,” said Rajib Dasgupta, head of the Center of Social Medicine & Community Health in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

India has found hundreds of cases of the virus variants first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

Subhash Salunke, a former WHO official who advises Maharashtra on its COVID-19 strategy, said cases in the state would continue to rise for another couple of weeks. He said a way out was vaccinating all adults in its hardest-hit cities such as Mumbai, Pune and Nashik.

“If we start doing this, by the end of April we will see a downward trend,” he said.

VACCINE RAMP-UP

India, the world’s biggest maker of vaccines, has injected 77 million doses at home since starting its campaign in the middle of January – the third highest after the United States and China.

India’s per capita COVID-19 vaccinations, however, are lower than many other countries, including that of more populated China that started giving shots to its citizens much earlier.

India is currently vaccinating only people above the age of 45, having covered health and front-line workers first with the AstraZeneca shot and a government-backed one.

In a meeting held by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday, officials discussed raising the country’s vaccine output further. The government has in recent weeks slowed vaccine exports, after shipping more than 65 million doses.

“It was highlighted that all efforts are underway to secure adequate quantities of vaccines to meet the rising domestic requirements as well as to meet the genuine needs of other countries,” his office said in a statement.

Though cases have risen exponentially in nearly a dozen states, politicians and ministers are still addressing election rallies attended by tens of thousands of mask-less people jostling for space.

The health minister in the northeastern state of Assam, currently voting to elect a new government, was ridiculed on social media on the weekend after saying there was no need for masks in his state and that wearing one hurts businesses like beauty parlors.

Maharashtra will start shutting shopping malls, cinemas, bars, restaurants and places of worship from Monday evening. Authorities will also impose a complete lockdown at weekends, as experts worried about a shortage of critical-care beds in hospitals, especially in its smaller cities.

The rise in cases has pulled down the stock market.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat Bengaluru and Neha Arora in New Delhi; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Michael Perry)

Analysis-In mutant variants, has the coronavirus shown its best tricks?

By Kate Kelland and Julie Steenhuysen

LONDON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – The rapid rise in different parts of the world of deadly, more infectious coronavirus variants that share new mutations is leading scientists to ask a critical question – has the SARS-CoV-2 virus shown its best cards?

New variants first detected in such far-flung countries as Brazil, South Africa and Britain cropped up spontaneously within a few months late last year. All three share some of the same mutations in the important spike region of the virus used to enter and infect cells.

These include the E484k mutation, nicknamed “Eek” by some scientists for its apparent ability to evade natural immunity from previous COVID-19 infection and to reduce protection offered by current vaccines – all of which target the spike protein.

The appearance of similar mutations, independent of one another, springing up in different parts of the globe shows the coronavirus is undergoing “convergent evolution,” according to a dozen scientists interviewed by Reuters.

Although it will continue to mutate, immunologists and virologists said they suspect this coronavirus has a fixed number of moves in its arsenal.

The long-term impact for the virus’ survival, and whether a limit on the number of mutations makes it less dangerous, remains to be seen.

“It is plausible that this virus has a relatively limited number of antibody escape mutations it can make before it has played all of its cards, so to speak,” said Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego.

That could enable drugmakers to stay on top of the virus as they develop booster vaccines directly targeting current variants, while governments struggle to tame a pandemic that has killed nearly 3 million people.

The idea that the virus could have a limited number of mutations has been circulating among experts since early February, and gathered momentum with the posting of a paper showing the spontaneous appearance of seven variants in the United States, all in the same region of the spike protein.

EVOLUTION, IN REAL TIME

The process of different species independently evolving the same traits that improve survival odds is central to evolutionary biology. The vast scope of the coronavirus pandemic – with 127.3 million infections globally – allows scientists to observe it in real time.

“If you wanted to sort of write a little textbook about viral evolution, it’s happening right now,” Dr. Francis Collins, a geneticist and director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said in an interview.

Scientists saw the process on a smaller scale in 2018 as a dangerous H7N9 bird flu virus in China appeared to begin adapting to human hosts. But no pathogen has evolved under such global scrutiny as SARS-CoV-2.

Wendy Barclay, a virologist and professor at Imperial College London and a member of a scientific advisory panel to the UK government, said she is struck by the “amazing amount of convergent evolution we’re seeing” with SARS-CoV-2.

“There are these infamous mutations – E484K, N501Y and K417N – which all three variants of concern are accumulating. That, added together, is very strong biology that this is the best version of this virus in the given moment,” Barclay said.

It’s not that this coronavirus is especially clever, scientists said. Each time it infects people it makes copies of itself, and with each copy it can make mistakes. While some mistakes are insignificant one-offs, the ones that give the coronavirus a survival advantage tend to persist.

“If it keeps happening over and over again, it must be providing some real growth advantage to this virus,” Collins said.

Some specialists believe the virus may have a limited number of mutations it can sustain before compromising its fitness – or changing so much it is no longer the same virus.

“I don’t think it’s going to reinvent itself with extra teeth,” said Ian Jones, a professor of virology at Britain’s University of Reading.

“If it had an unlimited number of tricks…we would see an unlimited number of mutants, but we don’t,” said Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University in New York.

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Scientists remain cautious, however, and say predicting how a virus will mutate is challenging. If there are limits on how the coronavirus can evolve, that would simplify things for vaccine developers.

Novavax Inc is adapting its vaccine to target the South African variant that in lab tests appeared to render current vaccines less effective. Chief Executive Stan Erck said the virus can only change so much and still bind to human hosts, and hopes the vaccine will “cover the vast majority of strains that are circulating.”

If not, Novavax can continue matching its vaccine to new variants, he said.

Researchers are tracking the variants through data-sharing platforms such as the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Flu Data, which houses a huge trove of coronavirus genomes.

Scientists recently identified seven U.S. coronavirus variants with mutations all occurring in the same location in a key portion of the virus, offering more evidence of convergent evolution.

Other teams are conducting experiments that expose the virus to antibodies to force it to mutate. In many cases, the same mutations, including the infamous E484K, appeared.

Such evidence adds to cautious optimism that mutations appear to share many of the same traits.

But the world must continue tracking changes in the virus, experts said, and choke off its ability to mutate by reducing transmission through vaccinations and measures that limit its spread.

“It’s shown a very strong set of opening moves,” Vaughn Cooper, an evolutionary biology specialist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said of this coronavirus. “We don’t know what the end game is going to look like.”

Immune response may be linked to AstraZeneca vaccine clot issue; death risk rising among young adults in Brazil

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) -The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Immune response may explain rare clots after AstraZeneca vaccine

Researchers may have found an explanation for the rare but serious blood clots reported among some people who received AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. They believe the phenomenon is similar to one that rarely occurs with a blood thinning drug called heparin, called heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT). In HIT, the drug triggers the immune system to produce antibodies that activate platelets, which cause blood to clot. Drugs other than heparin can cause clotting disorders that strongly resemble HIT, and researchers suspect that in rare cases, the AstraZeneca vaccine may be another such trigger. Four previously healthy individuals who got the AstraZeneca shot and developed life-threatening clots had the same kind of antibodies that activate platelets and initiate clotting in HIT, the researchers reported on Monday in a paper posted on Research Square ahead of peer review. Twenty individuals who received the vaccine but did not develop clots did not have these antibodies. An editorial comment posted with the study noted that drug-induced thrombocytopenia is treatable if identified promptly. Millions of people have received the vaccine without issues and European regulators and the World Health Organization say the benefits of the AstraZeneca shot outweigh its risks.

COVID-19 death risk rising for young adults in Brazil

Southern Brazil is seeing a sudden rise in COVID-19 deaths among young and middle-aged adults after the identification there of a concerning virus variant known as P.1, researchers said. They analyzed data from Parana – the largest state in southern Brazil – on 553,518 cases diagnosed from September 2020 through March 17, 2021. In all age groups, the proportion of patients who died either held steady or declined between September and January. Starting in February, however, fatality rates rose for almost all groups over age 20, according to a report posted on Friday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. From January to February, these rates tripled among patients aged 20 to 29, from 0.04% to 0.13%, and doubled among those aged 30 to 39, 40 to 49, and 50 to 59. “Individuals between 20 and 29 years of age whose diagnosis was made in February 2021 had an over 3-fold higher risk of death compared to those diagnosed in January 2021,” the researchers said. “Taken together, these preliminary findings suggest significant increases in case fatality rates in young and middle-aged adults after identification of a novel SARS-CoV-2 strain circulating in Brazil, and this should raise public health alarms.”

Pfizer, Moderna vaccines limit asymptomatic infections

Vaccines from Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE and from Moderna Inc dramatically reduced the risk of infection by the new coronavirus within weeks after the first of two shots, according to data from a study of nearly 4,000 U.S. healthcare personnel and first responders in six states. Previous trials by the companies evaluated the vaccines’ efficacy in preventing illness from COVID-19, but would have missed infections that did not cause symptoms. In the new study, conducted from mid-December to mid-March, nearly 75% of participants had received at least one dose of vaccine, and everyone had weekly coronavirus testing for 13 consecutive weeks in order to pick up asymptomatic infections. According to a report published on Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of infection fell by 80% two weeks or more after the first of two shots and by 90% by two weeks after the second shot. “The authorized mRNA COVID-19 vaccines provided early, substantial real-world protection against infection for our nation’s healthcare personnel, first responders, and other frontline essential workers,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

Pandemic has cut parents’ access to hospitalized children

Pediatricians have long endorsed the idea that babies and children in hospitals should not be separated from their families – a practice that in many facilities was restricted or discontinued to limit COVID-19 infections, according to new research. From mid-May through early July, researchers collected survey responses from 96 pediatric care units in 22 countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. The results – mostly from intensive care units for newborns – showed that before the pandemic, 87% of units welcomed families and 92% encouraged skin-to-skin care, according to a report published in Journal of Perinatology. After the onset of the pandemic, more than 83% of the hospital units restricted family presence, with additional restrictions placed on parental participation in their infant’s care, said study coauthor Ita Litmanovitz of Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, Israel. Hospitals’ decisions to limit family access did not depend on their previous rules, the availability of single-family rooms, or the virus infection rate in the hospital’s geographical area. “Restrictions during the pandemic increased separation between the infant and family,” the researchers found. These restrictions, Litmanovitz added, “go against psychological and neuroscientific evidence in support of unrestricted parental presence and ability to care for their hospitalized infants.”

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)