In rare British mass shooting, gunman kills five, including 3-year-old girl

By Natalie Thomas

PLYMOUTH, England (Reuters) -A man shot dead five people, including a 3-year-old girl, during a six-minute killing spree with a pump-action shotgun in the southern English city of Plymouth in what police believe was a case of domestic-related violence.

Mass shootings are rare in the United Kingdom, where gun ownership is relatively low, and Thursday’s rampage was the worst such incident in more than decade.

Police on Friday named the shooter as Jake Davison, a 22-year-old crane operator. He turned his gun on himself after killing the five victims on Thursday evening, the police said.

Devon and Cornwall Police Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer said police had found no motive but they were not considering terrorism or any far-right associations, although they were trawling through Davison’s computer.

“We believe we have an incident that is domestically related, that has spilled into the street and seen several people within Plymouth losing their lives in an extraordinarily tragic circumstance,” Sawyer told reporters.

The shooting started at about 6 p.m. on Thursday, first killing a 51-year-old woman whom Davison knew in a house. He then ran outside and immediately shot dead the young girl in the street along with her 43-year-old male relative.

Davison shot at two other passers-by who were badly injured, then entered a park and shot dead another man before killing another woman.

He then turned the gun on himself before firearms officers could tackle him. The deadly shooting spree was over in just a few minutes.

Sawyer said witnesses described the weapon as a pump-action shotgun. He could not say whether or not Davison had mental health issues. Davison had a firearms license.

In videos posted on the internet, Davison had complained of not losing his virginity as a teenager and described himself as an “incel” – or involuntary celibate. He complained in the videos of being beaten down by life, the Times reported.

Britain has suffered a number of deadly militant attacks in the past several years, but this was the worst mass killing of its kind since a taxi-driver killed 12 people then shot himself in a rampage in Cumbria, northern England, in June 2010.

The deadliest mass shooting in Britain’s modern history is the 1996 massacre in Dunblane, Scotland, when a gunman killed 16 pupils and a teacher at the local school before killing himself.

(Reporting by Sarah Young Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Kate Holton, Mark Potter and Angus MacSwan)

UK should be concerned at Chinese gene data harvesting, lawmaker says

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain should be concerned about the harvesting of genetic data from millions of women by a Chinese company through prenatal tests, a senior British lawmaker told Reuters.

A Reuters review of scientific papers and company statements found that BGI Group developed the tests in collaboration with the Chinese military and is using them to collect genetic data around the world for research on the traits of populations.

“I’m always concerned when data leaves the United Kingdom, that it should be treated with the respect and privacy that we would expect here at home, and the concern that this raises is that it may not be so,” Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told Reuters.

“The connections between Chinese genomics firms and the Chinese military do not align with what we would normally expect in the United Kingdom or indeed many other countries.”

The privacy policy on the website for the Non-Invasive Prenatal Test (NIPT), sold under the brand name NIFTY in Britain, says data collected can be shared when it is “directly relevant to national security or national defense security” in China.

BGI says it has never shared data for national security purposes and has never been asked to.

The company said that it fully complied with European GDPR data protection rules and also had the British certification for personal information management.

“BGI’s NIPT test was developed solely by BGI – not in partnership with China’s military. All NIPT data collected overseas are stored in BGI’s labs in Hong Kong and are destroyed after five years,” it said in an email to Reuters, adding that it took data protection, privacy and ethics extremely seriously.

Tugendhat is one of nine British lawmakers who has been sanctioned by China for highlighting alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which Beijing describes as “lies and disinformation.”

He co-leads the China Research Group, a group of Conservative lawmakers which looks to rebalance the strategic relationship with China.

He said that any British companies using the tests should be clear where the data is going, who holds it, and what access others, including other governments, would have to it.

“Unless a company has done that, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for British people to be extremely concerned with these connections,” he said.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout in London, additional reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Kate Holton and Pravin Char)

U.S. adds 116 countries to its ‘Do Not Travel’ advisory list

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. State Department has added at least 116 countries this week to its “Level Four: Do Not Travel” advisory list, putting the UK, Canada, France, Israel, Mexico, Germany and others on the list, citing a “very high level of COVID-19.”

On Monday, the State Department said it would boost the number of countries receiving its highest advisory rating to about 80% of countries worldwide.

Before Tuesday, the State Department listed 34 out of about 200 countries as “Do Not Travel.” The State Department now lists 150 countries at Level Four. It declined to say when it would complete the updates.

The State Department said on Monday the move did not imply a reassessment of current health situations in some countries, but rather “reflects an adjustment in the State Department’s Travel Advisory system to rely more on (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s) existing epidemiological assessments.”

The recommendations are not mandatory and do not bar Americans from travel.

Other countries in the “Do Not Travel” list include Finland, Egypt, Belgium, Turkey, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain. Some countries like China and Japan remain at Level 3: Reconsider Travel.”

Most Americans already had been prevented from traveling to much of Europe because of COVID-19 restrictions. Washington has barred nearly all non-U.S. citizens who have recently been in most of Europe, China, Brazil, Iran and South Africa.

On Tuesday, the United States extended by a further 30 days restrictions in place for 13 months that bar non-essential travel at its Canadian and Mexican borders.

Nick Calio, who heads Airlines for America, a trade group representing major U.S. carriers, told a U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday that policymakers needed to find a “road map” to reopening international travel.

Earlier this month, the CDC said fully vaccinated people could safely travel within the United States at “low risk,” but its director, Rochelle Walensky, discouraged Americans from doing so because of high coronavirus cases nationwide.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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)

EU warns it could block vaccine exports, wields legal threat at drugmakers

By John Chalmers and Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Europe’s fight to secure COVID-19 vaccine supplies intensified on Thursday when the European Union warned drug companies such as AstraZeneca that it would use all legal means or even block exports unless they agreed to deliver shots as promised.

The EU, whose member states are far behind Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States in rolling out vaccines, is scrambling to get supplies just as the West’s biggest drugmakers slow deliveries to the bloc due to production problems.

As vaccination centers in Germany, France and Spain cancelled or delayed appointments, the EU publicly rebuked Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca for failing to deliver and even asked if it could divert supplies from Britain.

European Council President Charles Michel said in a letter to four EU leaders that the EU should explore legal means to ensure supplies of COVID-19 vaccines it contracted to buy if negotiations with companies over delayed deliveries are unsuccessful.

“If no satisfactory solution can be found, I believe we should explore all options and make use of all legal means and enforcement measures at our disposal under the Treaties,” Michel said in the Jan. 27 letter.

EU rules on monitoring and authorizing exports of COVID-19 vaccines in the 27-nation bloc could lead to exports being blocked if they violated existing contracts between the vaccine maker and the EU, an EU official said.

The European Commission is to lay out the criteria under which such exports would be evaluated on Friday.

VACCINE CRUNCH

The swiftest mass vaccination drive in history is stoking tensions across the world as big powers buy up doses in bulk and poorer nations try to navigate a financial and diplomatic minefield to collect whatever supplies are left.

Israel is by far the world leader on vaccine rollout per head of population, followed by the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Bahrain and the United States. Behind them are Italy, Germany, France, China and Russia.

The African Union (AU) has secured another 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, a regional health leader said on Thursday, in a push to immunize 60% of the continent’s population over three years.

Under fire from the EU, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said the EU was late to strike a supply contract so the company did not have enough time to iron out production problems at a vaccine factory run by a partner in Belgium.

Tensions have risen as both New York-based Pfizer and AstraZeneca, headquartered in Cambridge, England, have had production problems.

Britain, which has repeatedly touted its lead in the vaccine rollout race since leaving the EU’s orbit on Jan. 1, said its deliveries must be honored.

“I think we need to make sure that the vaccine supply that has been bought and paid for, procured for those in the UK, is delivered,” Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove told LBC Radio.

Just a day ahead of a decision by European regulators on whether to approve the drugmaker’s shot, Germany’s vaccine committee said AstraZeneca’s vaccine should only be given to people aged between 18 and 64.

“There are currently insufficient data available to assess the vaccine efficacy from 65 years of age,” the committee, also known as Stiko, said in a draft resolution made available by the health ministry on Thursday.

Britain’s Johnson said health authorities in Britain believed the vaccine was safe and worked across all age groups.

APPOINTMENTS CANCELLED

In the northern French region of Hauts-de-France, France’s second-most-densely-populated region, several vaccination centers were no longer taking appointments for a first jab. In several other French regions, some online appointment platforms closed booking options.

Spain’s Madrid region has ceased first vaccinations for at least this week and next and was using the few doses it has to administer second shots to those who have had the first one, said deputy regional government chief Ignacio Aguado.

Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, last week postponed opening its vaccination centers until Feb. 8, while the state of Brandenburg has also had to push back vaccination appointments originally scheduled for the end of January due to delivery delays.

AstraZeneca is prepared to publish the delivery contract it has with the European Union and aims on Friday to make proposals to the European Commission on which sensitive parts to black out, the Frankfurter Allgemeine reported.

The newspaper quoted an EU source as saying that while AstraZeneca would not be able to deliver the 80 million doses expected for the first quarter, volumes should significantly exceed the 31 million doses that had earlier been reported.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson and Paul Carrel in Berlin and Matthias Blamont in Paris and Kate Holton, Paul Sandle and Alistair Smout in London; writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Keith Weir and Nick Macfie)

Global COVID-19 cases surpass 100 million as nations tackle vaccine shortages

By Shaina Ahluwalia and Roshan Abraham

(Reuters) – Global coronavirus cases surpassed 100 million on Wednesday, according to a Reuters tally, as countries around the world struggle with new virus variants and vaccine shortfalls.

Almost 1.3% of the world’s population has now been infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and more than 2.1 million people have died.

One person has been infected every 7.7 seconds, on average, since the start of the year. Around 668,250 cases have been reported each day over the same period, and the global fatality rate stands at 2.15%.

The worst-affected countries – the United States, India, Brazil, Russia and the United Kingdom – make up more than half all reported COVID-19 cases but represent 28% of the global population, according to a Reuters analysis.

It took the world 11 months to record the first 50 million cases of the pandemic, compared to just three months for cases to double to 100 million.

Around 56 countries have begun vaccinating people for the coronavirus, administering at least 64 million doses. Israel leads the world on per capita vaccinations, inoculating 29% of its population with at least one dose.

UNITED STATES

With over 25 million cases, the United States has 25% of all reported COVID cases although it accounts for just 4% of the world’s population. The United States leads the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported, accounting for one in every five deaths reported worldwide each day. With just under 425,00 fatalities, the United States has reported almost twice as many deaths as Brazil, which has the second-highest death toll in the world.

As the worst-affected region in the world, Europe is currently reporting a million new infections about every four days and has reported nearly 30 million since the pandemic began. Britain on Tuesday reached 100,000 deaths.

The Eastern European region, including countries like Russia, Poland and Ukraine, contribute to nearly 10% of all global COVID-19 cases.

Despite securing deals for vaccine supplies early on, many European countries are facing delays in shipments from both Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca Plc.

ASIA AND AFRICA

In India, the nation with the second-highest number of cases, infections are decreasing, with almost 13,700 new infections reported on average each day – around 15% of its peak. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday India was completely self-reliant on coronavirus vaccine supplies as the world’s second-most populous country inoculated more than 1 million people within a week of starting its campaign.

China, which recently marked the first anniversary of the world’s first coronavirus lockdown in the central city of Wuhan, is facing its worst wave of local cases since March last year.

As richer nations race ahead with mass vaccination campaigns, Africa is still scrambling to secure supplies as it grapples with concerns about more-infectious variants of the virus first identified in South Africa and Britain.

According to the Reuters tally, African countries have nearly 3.5 million cases and over 85,000 deaths.

The South African variant, also known as 501Y.V2, is 50% more infectious and has been detected in at least 20 countries.

U.S. President Joe Biden will impose a ban on most non-U.S. citizens entering the country who have recently been in South Africa starting Saturday in a bid to contain the spread of a new variant of COVID-19.

Australia and New Zealand have fared better than most other developed economies during the pandemic through swift border closures, lockdowns, strict hotel quarantine for travelers and widespread testing and social distancing.

“We have the virus under control here in Australia, but we want to roll out the vaccine,” Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told a news conference on Sunday.

(Reporting by Shaina Ahluwalia and Roshan Abraham in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jane Wardell)

Sturgeon orders Scots to stay at home as new variant advances

By Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Scotland on Monday imposed the most stringent COVID-19 lockdown since last March and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would shortly impose tougher curbs in England to contain a rapidly spreading outbreak of a new variant of the coronavirus.

The United Kingdom has the world’s sixth-highest official coronavirus death toll – 75,024 – and the number of new infections is soaring across the country.

As Johnson mulled tougher measures for England, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the new variant accounted for nearly half of new cases in Scotland and is 70% more transmissible.

Scots, she said, would be legally required to stay at home for January from midnight. Schools will close for all but the children of essential workers.

“I am more concerned about the situation that we face now than I have been at any time since March,” Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament.

“As a result of this new variant, (the virus) has just learned to run much faster, and has most definitely picked up pace in the past couple of weeks,” Sturgeon said.

Visiting a hospital to see the first people receive the vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, Johnson said the country faced “tough, tough” weeks to come.

“If you look at the numbers, there’s no question that we’re going to have to take tougher measures and we’ll be announcing those in due course,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the virus really surging.”

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland implement their own COVID-19 responses though they are trying to coordinate more across the United Kingdom.

SCHOOLS

England is currently divided into four tiers of restrictions, depending on the prevalence of the virus, with the vast majority of the country in Tiers 3 and 4 where social mixing is restricted and restaurants and pubs are closed.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier that the rules in Tier 3 were clearly not working.

With England moving back towards the strict lockdown of the first wave in March, Johnson was also asked if schools would have to close once again and return to online learning.

He said that would remain a last resort for primary schools given the social and educational damage that can be done to isolated children.

But he indicated they may need to rethink a plan to reopen secondary schools for pupils aged between 11 and 18.

“It looks as though secondary schools probably play more of a role in the spread of the epidemic than primary schools, so we’ll have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later in the month,” he said.

The government has spent the year trying to balance the need to shut down the country to contain the virus without hammering the economy.

The first national coronavirus lockdown in May last year prompted a 25% drop in economic output – unprecedented in modern records – leaving Britain’s economy harder hit by the pandemic than most others.

While the economy recovered partially in the third quarter, renewed lockdown measures threaten to cause a double-dip recession at the start of 2021.

(Reporting by Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge, Andy Bruce; Editing by Sarah Young and Hugh Lawson)

One million Americans vaccinated for COVID; Tennessee new epicenter

By Gabriella Borter and Dan Whitcomb

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Tennessee emerged alongside California on Wednesday as an epicenter of the latest COVID-19 surge even while more than 1 million Americans have been vaccinated as U.S. political leaders sought to guard against a highly contagious coronavirus variant sweeping across Britain.

Tennessee averaged nearly 128 new infections per 100,000 people over the last week, the highest of any U.S. state, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. California stood second at 111 new cases per 100,000 residents.

“Our state is ground zero for a surge in COVID-19 and we need Tennesseans to (do) their part,” Governor Bill Lee said on Twitter, urging residents to wear face masks and gather only with members of their own household over Christmas.

Some public health officials say Americans’ traveling and gathering for Thanksgiving contributed to the latest nationwide explosion in cases.

All told, 31 U.S. states have reported a grim record in new COVID-19 infections for December as hospitalizations and deaths also spiral. More than 194,600 new cases were confirmed on Tuesday alone.

The CDC said that as of Wednesday morning more than 1 million people nationwide had been given the first of the two doses required for the two coronavirus vaccines that have been approved. But most Americans have been told that it could be six months or more before they are eligible for the shots as priority is given to healthcare workers, nursing home residents and in some cases top government officials.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, received the Moderna vaccine on live television on Tuesday. Joe Biden was inoculated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in front of cameras on Monday.

CONCERN GROWS OVER MUTANT VARIANT

U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, earlier this week criticized political leaders for putting themselves at the front of the line for the shot.

“We are not more important then frontline workers, teachers etc. who are making sacrifices everyday. Which is why I won’t take it,” Omar said on Twitter.

The Trump administration said on Wednesday it had reached a $2 billion deal with Pfizer to distribute 100 million additional doses of its vaccine by July.

But Americans who saw a ray of hope in the release of the two vaccines in December learned of an even more transmissible coronavirus variant spreading in the United Kingdom. Drug makers Pfizer and Moderna were testing their vaccines against the variant, but believed the drugs would be effective against the mutant virus.

The United States, unlike many nations worldwide, has not banned travelers from Britain.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would order international travelers to quarantine for 14 days on arrival and provide contact information to government officials. Sheriff’s deputies will make visits to enforce the order on those arriving from Britain, the mayor said.

Travelers found to violate those orders face fines of $1,000 per day, de Blasio said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked airlines to screen British travelers for COVID-19. The state was an early epicenter of the virus and has recorded more than 36,000 COVID deaths, far more than any other state.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee this week ordered a 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving from the UK, South Africa or other countries where the new variant had been detected.

In New York City, vaccination programs expanded to the Fire Department, where roughly 6,000 personnel have contracted the virus, Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro told reporters. Some 400 FDNY paramedics lined up to receive their first doses of the Moderna vaccine on Wednesday, including Verena Kansog, advanced life support coordinator for Manhattan, who got her shot at a training center on Randalls Island.

“I feel relieved,” Kansog, who worried about bringing the disease home to her elderly mother, told Reuters in a phone interview. “I was not one single bit nervous.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Anurag Maan, Carlo Allegri, Jonathan Allen, Peter Szekely, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey and Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler)

‘Great day for humanity’: Pfizer says COVID-19 vaccine over 90% effective

By Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective based on initial trial results, the drugmaker said on Monday, a major victory in the war against a virus that has killed over a million people and battered the world’s economy.

Experts welcomed the first successful interim data from a large-scale clinical test as a watershed moment that showed vaccines could help halt the pandemic, although mass roll-outs, which needs regulatory approval, will not happen this year.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE said they had found no serious safety concerns yet and expected to seek U.S. authorization this month for emergency use of the vaccine, raising the chance of a regulatory decision as soon as December.

If granted, the companies estimate they can roll out up to 50 million doses this year, enough to protect 25 million people, and then produce up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

“Today is a great day for science and humanity,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen,” he said.

Experts said they still wanted to see the full trial data, which have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal, but the preliminary results looked encouraging.

“This news made me smile from ear to ear. It is a relief to see such positive results on this vaccine and bodes well for COVID-19 vaccines in general,” said Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford.

There are still many questions, such as how effective the vaccine is by ethnicity or age, and how long it will provide immunity, with the “new normal” of social distancing and face covering set to remain for the foreseeable future.

Pfizer expects to seek U.S. emergency use authorization for people aged 16 to 85. To do so, it will need two months of safety data from about half the study’s 44,000 participants, which is expected in the third week of November.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said it would take several weeks for U.S. regulators to receive and process data on the vaccine before the government could potentially approve it.

MARKETS SURGE

The prospect of a vaccine electrified world markets with the S&P 500 and Dow hitting record highs as shares of banks, oil companies and travel companies soared. Shares in companies that have thrived during lockdowns, such as conferencing platform Zoom Video and online retailers, tumbled.

Pfizer shares jumped more than 11% to their highest since July last year, while BioNTech’s stock hit a record high.

Shares of other vaccine developers in the final stage of testing also rose with Johnson & Johnson up 4% and Moderna Inc, whose vaccine uses a similar technology as the Pfizer shot, up 8%. Britain’s AstraZeneca, however, fell 2%. Moderna is expected to report results from its large-scale trial later this month.

“The efficacy data are really impressive. This is better than most of us anticipated,” said William Schaffner, infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “The study isn’t completed yet, but nonetheless the data look very solid.”

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed the test results, and the market boost: “STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!” he tweeted.

President-elect Joe Biden said the news was excellent but did not change the fact that face masks, social distancing and other health measures would be needed well into next year.

The World Health Organization said the results were very positive, but warned there was a funding gap of $4.5 billion that could slow access to tests, medicines and vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

‘NEAR ECSTATIC’

“I’m near ecstatic,” Bill Gruber, one of Pfizer’s top vaccine scientists, said in an interview. “This is a great day for public health and for the potential to get us all out of the circumstances we’re now in.”

Between 55% and 65% of the population will need to be vaccinated to break the dynamic of the spread of COVID-19, said Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn, adding that he did not expect a shot to be available before the first quarter of 2021.

The European Union said on Monday it would soon sign a contract for up to 300 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The companies have a $1.95 billion contract with the U.S. government to deliver 100 million vaccine doses beginning this year. They did not receive research funding from the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program.

The drugmakers have also reached supply agreements with the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan.

Pfizer said the interim analysis, conducted after 94 participants in the trial developed COVID-19, examined how many had received the vaccine versus a placebo.

Pfizer did not break down how many of those who fell ill received the vaccine. Still, over 90% effectiveness implies that no more than 8 of the 94 had been given the vaccine, which was administered in two shots about three weeks apart.

The efficacy rate, which could drop once full results are available, is well above the 50% effectiveness required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a coronavirus vaccine.

Shortly after Pfizer’s announcement, Russia said its Sputnik V vaccine was also more than 90% effective, based on data collated from inoculations of the public. Its preliminary Phase III trial data is due to be published this month.

MORE DATA NEEDED

To confirm the efficacy rate, Pfizer said it would continue its trial until there were 164 COVID-19 cases among volunteers. Bourla told CNBC on Monday that based on rising infection rates, the trial could be completed before the end of November.

Pfizer said its data would be peer reviewed once it has results from the entire trial.

“These are interesting first signals, but again they are only communicated in press releases,” said Marylyn Addo, head of tropical medicine at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany.

Dozens of drugmakers and research groups around the globe have been racing to develop vaccines against COVID-19, which on Sunday exceeded 50 million cases since the new coronavirus first emerged late last year in China.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which relies on synthetic genes that can be generated and manufactured in weeks, and produced at scale more rapidly than conventional vaccines. The technology is designed to trigger an immune response without using pathogens, such as actual virus particles.

The Trump administration has said it will have enough vaccine doses for all of the 330 million U.S. residents who want it by the middle of 2021.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Michele Gershberg in New York, Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss in Frankfurt and Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Caroline Humer, Edwina Gibbs and David Clarke)