The head of the United Nations has sharply criticized developed countries for hogging COVID-19 vaccines and called for a global effort to get all people in all countries vaccinated as soon as possible.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres slammed the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of vaccines, with 10 countries administering 75% of all vaccinations to date, leaving 130 countries without a single dose.
Guterres told a high-level meeting of the US security council that vaccine equity “is the biggest moral test before the global community,” the Associated Press reported. He called for an urgent Global Vaccination Plan that would bring together all those with the power to ensure vaccine availability for all, from scientists to vaccine producers to those with the financial resources to fund a program.
He called on G-7 countries to “create the momentum” at their meeting scheduled for Friday.
Guterres comments echo those of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has repeatedly called on richer nations to join the WHO’s Covax program, which aims to ensure vaccine supply for lower-income countries. The agency says Covax needs $5 billion in funding in 2021 alone.
“We need global leadership to scale up vaccine production and achieve vaccine equity,” Tedros said in a joint statement issued last week with UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “COVID-19 has shown that our fates are inextricably linked. Whether we win or lose, we will do so together.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the council the administration of President Joe Biden “will work with our partners across the globe to expand manufacturing and distribution capacity and to increase access, including to marginalized populations.”
Biden has rejoined the WHO after his predecessor sought to pull the U.S. out in the midst of a global pandemic. Blinken said the U.S. will pay more than $200 million in obligations to the U.N. agency by month-end. Washington will seek certain reforms.
The call for more vaccine equity comes as the global confirmed case tally of COVID infections rises above 110 million and the death toll climbs above 2.43 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. continues to lead by world by cases, at 27.8 million, or about a quarter of the global total, and fatalities, at 490,717, or about a fifth of the global total.
The U.S. added at least 70,142 new cases on Wednesday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 2,471 patients died. Case numbers have been steadily declining, however, and averaged 77,661 a day in the past week, down 43% from the average two weeks ago.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6.00 a.m. ET Wednesday, a total of 56.3 million doses had been administered in the U.S., 40.3 million Americans had been given at least one dose and 72.4 million doses had been delivered.
The U.S. has its own vaccine access issues, according to the Tampa Bay Times, which reported Wednesday that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has offered to set up vaccination sites for residents of well-off and mostly White neighborhoods in Manatee County, which has not been as hard hit by infections as other areas.
The news drew criticism from both sides of the aisle with lawmakers saying the move will widen disparities, given that wealthier individuals have already received a disproportionate amount of jabs in Florida and around the country, the Washington Post reported.
It also comes a day after the CDC’s preliminary estimates for life expectancy in 2020 showed it declined significantly in the first half as the pandemic caused a first wave of deaths. Minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Black Americans losing nearly three years and Hispanics, nearly two years, the estimates show, as the AP reported.
“This is a huge decline,” said Robert Anderson, who oversees the numbers for the CDC. “You have to go back to World War II, the 1940s, to find a decline like this.”
DeSantis did not apologize for his move, however, but rather said he would take the doses elsewhere.
“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “We’re totally happy to do that.”
In other news:
• A COVID-19 trial that will see healthy young people paid £4,500 ($6,227) to be deliberately infected with coronavirus has been given ethics approval in the U.K., MarketWatch’s Callum Keown reported. The human challenge study, the first of its kind into coronavirus, will help to identify the most effective vaccines and accelerate their development, the U.K. government said. Human challenge studies, which have been successfully used in the past to develop vaccines for malaria and cholera, involve deliberately infecting volunteers to test the effectiveness of vaccines. In this case, up to 90 carefully selected healthy adult volunteers — aged 18-30 — will be exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 to help researchers understand how the virus infects people and how it is transmitted. Scientists also aim to establish the smallest amount of virus needed to cause infection.
• Pfizer Inc.
and BioNTech SE
said their COVID-19 vaccine provided protection against the South African variant of the novel coranovirus in a lab study, MarketWatch’s Claudia Assis reported. The study, conducted by Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch and not done in humans, investigated the full set of South African variant spike mutations. The study was published on the New England Journal of Medicine. “There is no clinical evidence to date that the South African variant virus escapes” vaccine protection from COVID-19, the companies said. “Nevertheless, Pfizer and BioNTech are taking the necessary steps, making the right investments, and engaging in the appropriate conversations with regulators to be in a position to develop and seek authorization for an updated mRNA vaccine or booster once a strain that significantly reduces the protection from the vaccine is identified.” The companies currently are evaluating how the vaccine would work against the Brazilian mutations and others that are emerging, they said.
• A new phase of recovery for New York has begun now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced plans for the limited reopening of major stadiums and arenas that have spent nearly a year locked down and in limbo. The Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden will both kick off the return of major events at venues with a capacity over 10,000 on Tuesday with Brooklyn Nets and Knicks games, respectively, with a slew of new safety rules, including a requirement for negative PCR tests within 72 hours of the event; mandatory masks and temperature checks; assigned, socially distanced seating; and a capacity limit of 10%. ‘“The testing is key—if you’re negative, you are negative,” Cuomo said. “This hits the balance of safe reopening.”
• Gilead Sciences Inc.
said the federal government will study the company’s COVID-19 drug, Veklury, in pregnant women, MarketWatch’s Jaimy Lee reported. The drug, which is also referred to as remdesivir, was the first authorized and then approved treatment for patients with COVID-19 who are at least 12 years old. The new study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, will evaluate the safety and efficacy of the drug in pregnant women and non-pregnant women of reproductive age. The researchers also plan to study breast milk from women with COVID-19 who have received the treatment. Veklury generated $2.8 billion in revenue for Gilead in 2020, making up one-quarter of the drugmaker’s total revenue for the year.
• Federal agents have seized more than 10 million fake 3M
brand N95 masks in recent weeks, the result of a continuing investigation into counterfeits sold in at least five states to hospitals, medical facilities and government agencies, the AP reported. The most recent seizures occurred Wednesday when Homeland Security agents intercepted hundreds of thousands of counterfeit 3M masks in an East Coast warehouse that were set to be distributed, officials said. Investigators also notified about 6,000 potential victims in at least 12 states including hospitals, medical facilities and others who may have unknowingly purchased knockoffs, urging them to stop using the medical-grade masks.
Almost 62 million people have so far recovered from COVID-19, the Johns Hopkins data shows.
Brazil has the second highest death toll at 242,090 and is third by cases at 9.9 million.
India is second worldwide in cases with 10.9 million, and now fourth in deaths at 156,014.
Mexico has the third highest death toll at 177,061 and 13th highest case tally at 2 million.
The U.K. has 4 million cases and 119,159 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.
China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 100,674 confirmed cases and 4,833 deaths, according to its official numbers.
What’s the economy saying?
New applications for U.S. unemployment benefits rose in mid-February to a four-week high of 861,000, showing lots of Americans are still losing their jobs nearly a year after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.
Initial jobless claims filed traditionally through the states rose by 13,000 to 861,000 in the seven days ended Feb. 13, the government said Thursday.
It was even worse than it looked. New claims from two weeks ago were revised up to 848,000 from 793,000.
The government has sharply revised its estimate of new claims two weeks in a row, an unusual pandemic-related phenomenon that reflects ongoing struggles by the states to process applications for unemployment benefits. That’s made the weekly report a far less reliable bellwether of the labor market.
Economists surveyed by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast new claims would fall to a seasonally adjusted 770,000.
Another 516,299 applications for benefits were filed through a temporary federal-relief program. Adding up new state and federal claims, the government received 1.38 million applications last week for unemployment benefits, based on actual or unadjusted figures.
Combined claims have yet to drop below 1 million a week since last May. Before the pandemic, new claims were running in the low 200,000s and they had never risen by more than 695,000 in any one week.
Separately, U.S. home builders started construction on homes at a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 1.58 million in January, representing a 6% decrease from the previous month’s revised figure, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday. Compared with January 2020, housing starts were down roughly 2%, MarketWatch’s Jacob Passy reported.
The pace of building permits, however, was the highest since 2006. Permitting for new homes occurred at a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 1.88 million, up 10.4% from December and 22.5% from a year ago.
Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected housing starts to occur at a pace of 1.66 million and building permits to come in at a pace of 1.67 million.
The regional Fed’s business activity index fell to 23.1 from 26.5 in the prior month. The index was much stronger than the 9.1 reading in December. Economists polled by the Wall Street Journal expected a 19.2 reading. Any reading above zero indicates expansion in the manufacturing sector.