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Coronavirus update: FDA okays warmer Pfizer vaccine, Johnson & Johnson vaccine nears clearance

Federal officials are stocking up on antibody drugs to treat the virus

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Photo (c) Andriy Onufriyenko - Getty Images
Coronavirus (COVID-19) tally as compiled by Johns Hopkins University. (Previous numbers in parentheses.)

Total U.S. confirmed cases: 28,422,348 (28,340,700)

Total U.S. deaths: 508,750 (506,232)

Total global cases: 113,161,929 (112,716,833)

Total global deaths: 2,510,955 (2,500,770)

FDA allows Pfizer vaccine to be stored at higher temperatures

As expected, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted approval to pharmacies administering the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to store it at higher temperatures for two weeks. The higher temperature also applies to the transportation of the vaccine.

Originally, the vaccine had to be stored at extremely frigid temperatures, beyond the capacity of many pharmacy freezers. Unfortunately, that requirement complicated distribution logistics.

“Pfizer submitted data to the FDA to support this alternative temperature for transportation and storage,” the FDA said in a statement. “This alternative temperature for transportation and storage of the undiluted vials is significant and allows the vials to be transported and stored under more flexible conditions.”

Johnson & Johnson vaccine expected to get a green light

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee is expected to flash the green light later today for Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine candidate. The company has applied for emergency use authorization (EUA) to begin distribution.

Earlier this week, FDA staff who reviewed data about the vaccine issued a report saying that Johnson & Johnson’s product was safe and effective at preventing COVID-19 and recommended a EUA.

Johnson & Johnson said it has already produced millions of doses of the vaccine and could begin distribution immediately, supplementing the supply of vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna.

U.S. buys more antibody drug doses

While the focus remains on vaccines to prevent COVID-19, the U.S. government is also beefing up supplies of drugs to treat people who get the disease. Eli Lilly announced today that the U.S. government has agreed to purchase a minimum of 100,000 doses of bamlanivimab and etesevimab, antibody drugs that have been shown to be effective at treating COVID-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms.

The drug combo received emergency use authorization last week after data revealed the treatment was effective at preventing mild cases of the virus from progressing to severe COVID-19 cases that require hospitalization. 

The purchase agreement totals $210 million, and doses will be delivered through March 31, 2021. The U.S. government will have the option to purchase up to 1,100,000 additional doses through November 25, 2021.

Stimulus bill up for a House vote today

The House of Representatives is set to vote later today on a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid and stimulus bill. Democrats say they have the votes to pass the measure and send it to the Senate, where its fate is less certain.

The measure’s provisions for individuals include a $400 per week unemployment insurance supplement and $1,400 direct payments to most American adults, as well as the same amount for children.

The Senate version of the bill won’t contain an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, championed by progressive Democrats. Senate rules preclude that measure from being included in a budget reconciliation bill, which is being used to pass the bill without any Republican votes.

Study: COVID-19 makes policing especially dangerous

The job of a police officer is fraught with well-known dangers, but it appears to be especially dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic. A new report from Case Western Reserve University shows that out of the 264 U.S. police officers who died in the line of duty in 2020, more than half died of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 is absolutely devastating police departments around the country,” said Mark Singer, a professor who participated in the study. “I’m certain there are local departments that have been ravaged by this disease, as well as our hospitals’ staff, firemen, and EMS. We need to do everything we can to promote healthy, safe first responders.”

The data does not include information on how many police officers were forced to miss work because of COVID-19. However, 145 police officers nationally died from complications related to the novel coronavirus.

Around the nation

  • Oregon: Although many states have loosened COVID-19 restrictions in recent weeks, Oregon remains an outlier. Gov. Kate Brown has extended the state’s emergency declaration to early May. “Throughout the pandemic, Oregonians have made smart choices that have protected our families and loved ones,” Brown said. “Our infection and mortality rates have consistently remained some of the lowest in the country.”

  • New Mexico: State health officials have yet to reach a consensus on when New Mexico will reach “herd immunity.” Cases have fallen dramatically in recent weeks. “There’s kind of a debate in the scientific community about how many have to have immunity to have herd immunity,” said Dr. David Scrase, secretary for the state’s Human Services Department. “Folks are talking 70-80 percent.”

  • North Carolina: Starting today, there are fewer COVID-19 restrictions in the state. Gov. Roy Cooper has signed an order “easing but not lifting” current restrictions, but the night-time public closure period for certain businesses and facilities is lifted. These establishments -- mostly bars -- are no longer ordered to close to the public between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

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