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Covid Resurge Dominates Global Headlines

20.12.2021 - With the fast rolling wave of yet another Coronavirus variant sparking global concern, vaccine mandates, booster shots and efficacy studies are dominating headlines in the run-up to the year’s end, sidelining chemical companies’ news of progress toward net zero emissions two or three decades down the road. Worries are increasing that millions of people not only have not yet been vaccinated or that some of the vaccines are not protective enough.

Good news for US president Joe Biden last week, coming at a time when there is little good news anywhere, was an unexpected decision by the 6th circuit federal appeals court in Cincinnati, Ohio, upholding the administration’s plan to require all companies with more than 100 employees to vaccinate (almost) their entire workforce, with weekly testing mandated for the holdouts.

As is too often the case in the US, the good news was relative, as numerous states and businesses are still blocking the path to mass vaccination with lawsuits. While the federal Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA) said it will press ahead with implementation of the requirement by the original Jan. 4 deadline, Biden has suggested the administration may hold off, amid fears that the deadline may be too short.

The president seemed to make clear that he sees no long-term pathway to continuing his pandemic control strategy barring a decision by the US Supreme Court. The administration has also called on the country’s highest court to uphold a national requirement that workers at healthcare providers participating in the Medicare and Medicaid health plans be vaccinated against Covid. A lower court suspended the mandate after 24 states filed lawsuits saying the liberty of the unvaccinated must be protected. Courts have also suspended a rule requiring vaccinations for employees of federal contractors.

In overriding the stay of the corporate mandate ordered earlier by the 5th circuit appeals court in New Orleans, Louisiana, two of the three-judge 6th circuit panel (appointed by presidents Obama and Bush respectively) said the agency had sufficiently demonstrated that measures against the coronavirus pandemic meet the standard laid out by Congress.

OSHA has demonstrated the pervasive danger that Covid-19 poses to unvaccinated workers in particular in their workplaces, (Democratic) Judge Jane Stranch wrote in her opinion, adding that the possibility of new variants justified  the mandate. A third judge, appointed by former president Donald Trump, disagreed.

Moderna and US call a truce in patent war

Another US legal tussle pitting government and the private sector against each other appears to have been resolved for the present. Moderna said it is pausing a patent dispute over who can claim principal rights to the mRNA vaccine the company and the National Institutes of Health collaborated on. The Massachusetts-based biotech said it is “grateful” to government scientists and wants to “avoid any distraction” in the fight against the omicron variant. At the same time, it said it has filed a continuation that will allow it to pursue patent discussions at a later date.

Observers said the truce could have implications for the Biden administration’s plan to share mRNA vaccine technology with developing countries to accelerate global distribution. Biden has come out in favor of US vaccine makers licensing knowhow to production partners in developing countries. Moderna and other vaccine makers remain opposed.

Moderna’s halo as the manufacturer of the vaccine now generally regarded as potential the most potent against all Covid variants longer-term has slipped recently due to its perceived sluggishness in donating doses. But last week the company said it would accelerate supply of 20 million doses to the Covax program through its existing contract with the global vaccine alliance Gavi. For the 2022 first quarter it is targeting supply of up to 96.5 million doses, followed by 116.5 million doses in the second quarter.

CDC Turns Away from J&J’s Covid Vaccine

As the pace of infections with the new Covid variant, dubbed omicron, gathers speed, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is turning away from the Johnson & Johnson shot, now recommending that other vaccines be preferred. The recommendation comes after the CDC advisory panel found “increasing evidence” that the shots made by J&J’s Janssen subsidiary can trigger a rare blood clotting disorder that is blamed for at least nine US deaths in the past year. At the same time, the US Food and Drug Administration reiterated that the benefits outweighed its risks.

According to the CDC panel, the latest data show that there is a higher risk for the blood clotting condition in those receiving the J&J vaccine than previously known. Women aged 30 to 49 are believed to have the greatest risk, with the condition occurring at a rate of 1 in 100,000 people given the shot. The agency said, however, it was not recommending removing the vaccine from the market.

The J&J shot will remain an option for people who are “unable or unwilling” to receive the more mRNA shots made by Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech, the CDC said. About 16 million people in the US have received the single-dose vaccine, compared with 73 million receiving two doses of Moderna’s shot and 114 million receiving two Pfizer-BioNTech doses. Due to the blood clotting risk, some European governments have already restricted the Janssen vaccine, as well as for the AstraZeneca shot.

Breakthrough infections revive efficacy debate

Given the surge in breakthrough infections during the delta variant’s rampage and the potential for even more infections in the wake of omicron, the efficacy of all Covid vaccines currently on the market is coming under scrutiny. The current view from those regarded as health experts is that the Chinese vaccines (in particular Sinopharm’s), Russia’s Sputnik and even the J&J shot offer very little protection against omicron.

This is causing worry as the vast majority of people in China have received either Sinopharm or Sinovac, and these shots have also been rolled out heavily in countries such as Mexico and Brazil. A shadow has also been cast over AstraZeneca’s Vaxzevria. A preliminary effectiveness study in the UK found that it showed “no ability” to stop Omicron infection six months after vaccination. This vaccine was rolled out widely in the UK and was given to 90% of people vaccinated in India, where it was branded as Covishield. Covax distributed 67 million AstraZeneca doses to 44 countries.

Author: Dede Williams, Freelance Journalist

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