Alaska becomes first U.S. state to make vaccine available to everyone 16 and older

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – Alaska has become the first U.S. state to make COVID-19 vaccines available to anyone age 16 or older, eliminating eligibility requirements for people who work or live in the state.

Governor Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, announced the new rules on Tuesday for his state of about 730,000 people. More than one quarter of Alaskans have received at least one vaccine shot, second only to New Mexico, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Certain regions of Alaska are nearing a 90% vaccination rate among elderly people, officials said.

Many states are struggling to meet the vast demand for vaccines. Differing eligibility requirements have created a patchwork system, with certain states still restricting vaccines to adults 65 or older, along with people in high-risk groups.

The COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are approved only for people age 18 and older, but younger Alaskans can receive the Pfizer vaccine.

Officials hope that making vaccinations widely available will boost the crucial tourism industry ahead of the summer.

“Alaska’s also somewhat of a seasonal state with regard to aspects of the economy,” Dunleavy said at a news conference. “We’re hoping that we can get the cruise ships back there, the tourism industry back here.”

As of Tuesday morning, more than 123 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines had been distributed in the United States and 93.7 million shots had been administered, according to the CDC.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Will Dunham)

Kenya hails first vaccine ‘bazookas,’ Rwanda secures Pfizer shots

By Omar Mohammed and Clement Uwiringiyimana

NAIROBI/KIGALI (Reuters) – Kenya received over a million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, while Rwanda said it was the first in Africa to secure shots from Pfizer, as efforts to inoculate the world’s poorest nations accelerated.

With fewer resources and tougher logistics than other regions, African nations are racing to secure the doses needed to protect their roughly 1.3 billion people and allow the safe reopening of economies.

Africa has been relatively lightly hit by the coronavirus compared with other regions, recording 104,000 deaths, according to a Reuters tally. That is lower than national tolls in the United States, India, Brazil, Russia and Britain.

Kenya’s batch, which arrived on a Qatar Airways passenger flight, is the first of an initial allocation of 3.56 million doses by the global COVAX facility.

“We have received … machine guns, bazookas, and tanks to fight this war against COVID-19,” Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe exulted as the doses arrived at Nairobi’s main airport.

COVAX, which is led by the GAVI vaccines alliance along with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners, aims to deliver over 1.3 billion doses to 92 lower- and middle-income countries, covering up to 20% of their populations.

Backers of the initiative hope to level a playing field that has seen wealthier nations quickly vaccinate millions, ahead of poorer regions. Only a few African nations have started inoculating citizens with vaccines acquired outside of COVAX.

First shots under COVAX are arriving at several African nations this week, including Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.

Senegal, which received 200,000 doses developed by China’s Sinopharm last month, got an additional 324,000 shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday, via COVAX.


In Kigali, officials said Rwanda will get the first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 shots to be dispatched to Africa under the vaccine-sharing scheme. The Pfizer vaccine presents an extra logistical challenge because it requires ultra-cold storage.

The batch of 102,960 doses were due in Kigali on Wednesday, hours after a flight landed carrying 240,000 AstraZeneca doses from the Serum Institute of India, the health ministry said. The government has installed special infrastructure to keep the vaccine at -70 degrees.

“Rwanda is one of the first countries among the low income countries to have ultra-cold chain,” said Fode Ndiaye, the United Nations’ resident coordinator.

Rwanda plans to start its vaccination drive on Friday, prioritizing frontline health workers and others at high risk. It hopes to vaccinate 30% of its roughly 12 million people before the end of this year.

Despite Africa’s comparatively low fatalities, fragile economies across the continent are reeling from lockdowns.

Kenya, which has so far recorded 106,470 infections and 1,863 deaths, has taken a major economic hit from the virus, which cut the flow of tourists, a crucial source of foreign exchange and jobs.

Nairobi plans to prioritize 400,000 health workers nationwide in a vaccination campaign starting on Friday, the health ministry said.

It will join Ivory Coast, Ghana and South Africa among the nations in sub-Saharan Africa to start vaccination drives.

(Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Pfizer study deals new blow to South Africa’s vaccine hopes

By Alexander Winning and Wendell Roelf

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Scientists will meet on Thursday to advise South Africa’s government on its next steps after a study suggested the dominant local coronavirus variant may reduce antibody protection from Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine by two-thirds.

The laboratory study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, dealt a new blow to the country hardest-hit by the pandemic on the African continent.

The government and its advisers must weigh whether to wait for vaccines that might be more effective against the more infectious 501Y.V2 variant, or try to vaccinate people quickly to avert further infections and deaths.

South Africa had been counting on the Pfizer shot, developed with German partner BioNTech, to step up its vaccination program after administering the first Johnson & Johnson (J&J) doses on Wednesday.

Earlier this month, it placed AstraZeneca vaccinations on hold because of interim data showing its jab offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness from the 501Y.V2 variant first identified late last year.

Officials are more confident about the J&J shot because it was shown to be effective in preventing severe illness in the local leg of a large global trial.

The detailed laboratory study published on Wednesday took into account all key mutations of the 501Y.V2 variant. A paper published in late January assessed the impact of only three key mutations of the variant on the Pfizer vaccine.

Scientists said that because the new study’s findings come from a laboratory, it is not easy to extrapolate what they might mean for the shot’s efficacy in the real world.

“Our scientists will be meeting to discuss it (the study) and they will advise the minister,” health ministry spokesman Popo Maja said.

Barry Schoub, a professor and chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on vaccines, said the committee would discuss the study alongside information on other COVID-19 vaccines.

Asked to comment on the findings, he said: “The Pfizer vaccine is enormously effective at 95%, so even if there is quite a significant reduction there still will be quite a bit of remnant efficacy left.”

“It is very likely that it will protect to a reasonable extent, certainly against severe illness and mild to moderate to some extent,” he said.


Richard Mihigo, an immunization official at the World Health Organization’s Africa office, told a news conference the antibody response to the variant in the Pfizer study was “strong enough”.

Linda-Gail Bekker, co-lead investigator of the South African arm of J&J’s global trial, said she would recommend rolling out the Pfizer vaccine but monitoring it in the same way as the J&J shot, which is being administered in an “implementation study” targeting up to 500,000 health workers to further test it in the field.

“We should make sure we do see the effectiveness we (are) hoping for,” she told Reuters.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Wednesday South Africa was expecting 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine initially and about 7 million doses by June.

A spokesman for regulator SAHPRA said Pfizer’s registration application was under review and declined further comment.

South Africa, with nearly 1.5 million cases and about 48,500 deaths, has recorded almost half the COVID-19 fatalities and over a third of confirmed infections in Africa. It lagged richer Western nations in launching its immunization campaign.

The government plans to vaccinate 40 million people – two-thirds of the population.

“Luckily there are a range of vaccines available and what we will do is work with the national authorities to understand the implications of this (study) and see what they need to do,” the WHO’s Africa director, Matshidiso Moeti, said.

(Reporting by Alexander Winning in Johannesburg and Wendell Roelf in Cape Town; Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Aaron Ross in Dakar; Editing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Angus MacSwan, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Timothy Heritage)