COVID19 🦠 Newsbites
More than a dozen slum residents in an Indian city say they thought they were being vaccinated. They were part of clinical trials
The offer seemed too good to refuse: "Come and take the coronavirus vaccine and get 750 rupees."

Residents of the slum areas of the central Indian city of Bhopal, who recalled hearing about the offer back in December, said they scrambled to take it up. 750 rupees ($10) is about twice what they'd usually earn for a day's hard labor.

"They told us it is the corona vaccine and we should get it so that we don't fall sick," said Yashoda Bai Yadav, a housewife from Bhopal who participated in the trial alongside her husband.

But they say they later discovered from local activists that some of them hadn't been given an approved vaccine. Instead, they had unwittingly taken part in a clinical trial for India's homegrown vaccine, Covaxin. Only half of the participants in Covaxin's Phase 3 trial received a vaccine -- the other half received a placebo, a normal part of clinical trials.

One participant, Radha Aherwar, only found out it was possible she got a placebo while speaking to CNN, saying, "Oh, so what I got wasn't a vaccine? I didn't know that there was a possibility you could get a water shot."

Their experience suggests the medical team from People's Hospital, which was running the trial, may have failed to adequately explain that they were part of a trial and that only some of the participants would receive a vaccine. Both alleged lapses, if proven true, appear to violate India's clinical trial rules that require informed consent from all participants.

The study was sponsored by the vaccine's developers, Indian biotech company Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). Bharat Biotech, ICMR and People's Hospital have all denied wrongdoing.

It also raises questions about the quality of data in the trial. Experts such as Amar Jesani, the editor of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, worry that this could lead to vaccine hesitancy among some groups in India.
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Russian diplomats and their families leave North Korea by hand-pushed rail trolley due to Covid-19 restrictions
Eight employees of Russia's embassy in Pyongyang and their families spent more than 34 hours trying to leave North Korea this week, a grueling trip that ended with at least one diplomat pushing his luggage and young children on a railway trolley into Russian territory.

North Korea's borders have been effectively locked down for months as part of Kim Jong Un’s efforts to keep Covid-19 at bay, stranding the few diplomats operating inside the country. The labyrinthine journey was the only way the Russian diplomats and their families could leave, the Russian embassy said on its verified Facebook page.
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Arthritis drugs can help critically ill Covid-19 patients, study suggests
Drugs typically used to treat rheumatoid arthritis can help critically ill Covid-19 patients in intensive care units, one new study finds. The drugs reduce inflammation and doctors hope they can help patients recover from the overwhelming immune response that Covid-19 sometimes triggers.

But experts warn that more research is needed before doctors start using the drugs more widely. Another new study found that a similar drug did not help patients hospitalized with Covid-19 pneumonia get significantly better.
The two studies were published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday.
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Queen Elizabeth II urges public to "think about other people" and get vaccinated
Queen Elizabeth II has urged people to get Covid-19 vaccinations while adding that her own jab "didn't hurt at all."

"It is obviously difficult for people if they've never had a vaccine; they ought to think about other people rather than themselves," she said in a video call with health officials leading the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in the United Kingdom.

Britain's monarch and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, received their vaccinations at Windsor Castle on January 9.

"It was very quick, and I’ve had lots of letters from people who have been very surprised by how easy it was to get the vaccine," the Queen said. "And the jab -- it didn’t hurt at all."
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North Carolina woman is accused of using her $149,000 Covid-19 relief loan for shopping sprees
As millions struggle to stay afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic, the last purchases on most minds are Louis Vuitton and diamonds. But in a state facing a 6.5% unemployment rate last August, one North Carolina woman allegedly used a $149,000 Covid-19 relief loan to purchase items at businesses including Louis Vuitton, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, IKEA and multiple diamond stores.

Jasmine Johnnae Clifton, a 24-year-old Charlotte resident, appeared in federal court this week after being charged with two counts of fraud for using a business that had been dissolved to get Covid-19 relief funds, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of North Carolina.

The loan was part of the CARES Act's Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program. Funds were provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to North Carolina small businesses "suffering substantial economic injury" due to the pandemic, according to an SBA press release.

Clifton first filed to create online clothing retail business Jazzy Jas LLC in February 2019 and applied for the SBA loan for the company on July 24, 2020, the indictment obtained by CNN says.

The problem? According to the indictment, the company didn't exist anymore. It had been formally dissolved with the North Carolina Secretary of State months earlier in March 2020, but effectively dissolved in September 2019.

In order to get funding, Clifton allegedly submitted a loan application on July 24, 2020, falsely stating that Jazzy Jas LLC had generated $350,000 in revenue over a 12-month period prior to the pandemic, according to the indictment.

"CLIFTON specifically agreed to use the loan proceeds for Jazzy Jas LLC 'solely as working capital to alleviate economic injury caused by disaster occurring the month of January 31, 2020,'" the indictment states.

A $150,000 loan was approved on August 8, 2020, and the indictment says the funds, minus a $100 fee, were deposited into Clifton's credit union account about three days later.

The indictment states that Clifton used Jazzy Jas LLC's prior existence to "exploit a federal loan program and obtain a substantial cash sum." The federal government seized approximately $50,000 in funds from Clifton's credit union account in November, according to the indictment.

A grand jury first indicted Clifton on February 17 for wire fraud in relation to a disaster benefit and fraud in connection with major disaster or emergency benefits. If found guilty, the press release stated that charges could lead to a maximum of 30 years in prison each and $1,250,000 total in fines.

Clifton was released on a $25,000 bond following Monday's court appearance, the court docket noted.
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Texas vaccination site turned away undocumented immigrants over their status, against state policy
Jesús Díaz, a 61-year-old prediabetic, had waited months to secure an appointment at a coronavirus vaccination site in the Rio Grande Valley region.

But when the undocumented Mexican immigrant got to the front of the line of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s vaccination clinic last weekend after a four-hour wait, a staffer told him he was out of luck.

“Vaccines here are exclusive for American citizens and legal residents of this country,” Díaz recounted a staff member telling him. “We can’t help you. I’m so sorry, but these are the rules.”

Proof of residency and citizenship are not required to receive a vaccine dose in Texas. But Díaz feared staff members might call immigration authorities if he caused a scene, so after briefly arguing, he gave up his place in line and left without a shot.

... The U.S. government has promised undocumented immigrants will have the same access to coronavirus vaccines as citizens or legal residents. It has also pledged inoculation sites will be immigration-enforcement-free zones.
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Digital health passports promise to simplify travel, but come with a lack of standards
Digital health passports that collect test results and other travel requirements in one place may sound appealing. In practice, they are a complicated mix of platforms and apps. The latest information on travel requirements, coronavirus test results and someday perhaps, proof of vaccinations — all available in one handy place. That’s the appeal of the digital health passport.

In recent months, technology companies, trade groups and nonprofit foundations around the globe have launched versions of a digital health passport. It’s a tool they say could become indispensable for travelers as proof of a negative coronavirus test becomes the norm for travel and as airlines and countries seek ways to streamline travel and prevent fraud.

But there are growing concerns that the sheer number of options and lack of standards could complicate travel as airlines and governments move to adopt platforms that might not play well together.
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Vaccine lotteries and personal appeals: The medically vulnerable find their priority status slipping away
An estimated 81 million adults have conditions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies as posing an increased risk for severe covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. In December, the CDC designated that group a vaccination priority — after health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff, older adults and some front-line essential workers.

But those recommendations have plainly become unworkable, as states veer from federal guidelines and chart their own paths, often in seemingly random ways. The result: Access to a shot can depend on what side of a state line you live on.

... The situation is intensifying anxiety for some of the most medically vulnerable people in the country. And it is causing them — or their family members — to make extraordinary personal appeals.
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No vaccination, no job: That’s the warning from Zimbabwe’s leader.
The president of Zimbabwe threatened to punish residents who do not take Covid vaccines.

While many governments are undertaking ambitious campaigns to persuade people to get vaccinated against Covid, Zimbabwe’s president has gone a step further, threatening to punish those who do not take offered doses.

“You are not going to be forced to be vaccinated, but the time shall come when those who are not vaccinated won’t get jobs,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa said on Wednesday.

Even something as simple as taking a local bus will be forbidden for those who aren’t vaccinated, he said.

The threats come even as the country of 15 million is struggling to secure doses for people who want to be immunized.

... The president, who has yet to be inoculated himself, stopped short of making vaccinations mandatory.
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As Brazil faces record Covid deaths, a variant-fueled surge and lagging vaccinations, Bolsonaro disparages masks.
The daily death toll of Covid-19 in Brazil hit a record high of 1,582 on Thursday, according to a news consortium’s survey of local health departments. The painful milestone came as President Jair Bolsonaro railed against face masks, despite compelling scientific evidence that they are effective at preventing infections.

A rise in coronavirus infections in several states in Brazil, which officials say is being driven by more contagious variants, has overwhelmed hospitals across the country.

While epidemiologists and health officials warn of a worsening crisis in the weeks ahead, Mr. Bolsonaro took aim at masks during his weekly address on Facebook Thursday. Citing an unspecified German study, the president said masks were bad for children and that wearing them could lead to headaches, difficulty concentrating and a “decreased perception of happiness.”

Mr. Bolsonaro has been criticized at home and abroad for his cavalier response to the coronavirus pandemic. He has questioned the use of quarantine measures, social distancing and has sowed doubts about vaccines, saying he does not intend to get a shot.

While new cases and deaths are dropping in a number of other countries that were hard hit by the pandemic, including the United States, Brazil is in the grip of a second wave that began in November and shows no sign of easing.

... This week, Brazil’s Covid death toll surpassed 250,000, which is second only to the U.S. count of more than 500,000 deaths. The Brazilian health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, said on Thursday that the country had entered a “new stage of the pandemic” as a result of variants that he said are three times more contagious than earlier strains of the virus. “That is the reality we’re living today in Brazil,” he said.
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The head of Canada’s largest pension fund steps down after traveling to the U.A.E. to get vaccinated.
The head of Canada’s largest pension fund stepped down on Thursday evening after news broke that he had flown to the United Arab Emirates to receive a coronavirus vaccine, despite federal rules banning inessential travel and a long line of older and immunocompromised citizens across the country waiting for their shots.

His trip was perceived as not just selfish, but as queue-jumping by many Canadians, who have grown increasingly impatient with the sluggish rollout of vaccinations across the country. Less than 4 percent of the country’s 38 million people have received a dose — far fewer than most Western nations.
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Decline in Coronavirus Cases ‘May Be Stalling,’ C.D.C. Director Warns

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Friday that a recent decline in coronavirus cases across the U.S. “may be stalling” and urged governors not to relax restrictions.

Over the last few weeks, cases in hospital admissions in the United States have been coming down since early January and deaths have been declining in the past week. But the latest data suggest that these declines may be stalling, potentially leveling off at still a very high number. We at C.D.C. consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory. We are watching these concerning data very closely to see where they will go over the next few days. But it’s important to remember where we are in the pandemic. Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions. Although we’ve been experiencing large declines in cases and admissions over the past six weeks, these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic. We may be done with the virus, but clearly, the virus is not done with us. We cannot get comfortable or give in to a false sense of security that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. Not now, not when mass vaccination is so very close.
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FDA Panel Votes For Emergency Use Of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 Vaccine
In a unanimous 22-0, a panel of advisers to the Food and Drug Administration recommended that the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson be authorized for emergency use in adults during the pandemic.

The vote in favor of the vaccine, which requires only one shot for protection, was taken to answer this question: Do the benefits of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine outweigh its risks for use in people 18 years of age and older.

The FDA typically follows the advice of its expert advisers. If the agency agrees, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be the third one cleared for use in the U.S.

A quick decision is expected given the state of the pandemic. The FDA authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines one day after the same panel recommended them for clearance during separate meetings last December.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested in an international study of about 40,000 people, half of whom got the vaccine and half of whom got a placebo. The study found the company's vaccine to be 66% effective overall in preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 disease. For disease judged severe or critical, the effectiveness was 85%. The study was conducted in the U.S., South America and South Africa.
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Biden Tours Texas Emergency Aid Centers After Winter Storms

President Biden spent the day in Houston touring a local food bank and other areas hit by recent snowstorms. Storm damage is expected to total $20 billion, according to the Insurance Council of Texas.

Mr. President, welcome. This is our emergency operations center, Harris County Emergency Operations Center. For me and these folks you see here, this has been our home away from home. Over fire, flood, Covid and now this winter weather event. These folks are the tip of the sphere.

Thank you for What you are doing. All I did is I got a call and before you asked the question I just said yes. He did. He said yes before I even asked the question. Absolutely. It’s incredible. It’s an incredible place. They’re doing — and they have so many talented people here, not just volunteers, really talented people.
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Biden Visits Storm-Battered Texas and Vows Federal Help ‘For the Long Haul’
The overwhelming nature of grief has been the unofficial theme this week for a White House confronted with a disaster in the nation’s second largest state amid a pandemic.

At an emergency response center in Houston on Friday, President Biden praised officials who had slept in stairwells as they worked around the clock to help people with no power or drinkable water because of the devastating storms, low temperatures and breakdown of basic utilities that had paralyzed Texas.

At a food bank, Mr. Biden hugged a little girl who was volunteering, then talked to a woman about the death of his eldest son, once again plugging into the pain of others by accessing his own.

Later, when visiting a stadium converted into a mass-vaccination site that will administer shots into the arms of some 6,000 Texans a day, Mr. Biden offered reassurance that the federal government would be working to provide clean water, blankets, food, fuel and shelter to people struggling to rebuild their lives in the state.

“We will be true partners to help you recover,” Mr. Biden said. “We’re in for the long haul.”

Infrastructure and coronavirus relief may be on the official agenda in Washington, but the overwhelming nature of grief has been the unofficial theme this week for a White House confronted with a pandemic that has resulted in a catastrophic loss of life and now a disaster in the nation’s second largest state.

Not every president comes naturally to the role of comforting the afflicted, but Mr. Biden, who lost his first wife and has buried two children, is the rare politician who seems to draw strength from the experience.

“He provided a lot of hope to people who know that their suffering is not going unnoticed,” Sylvester Turner, the Democratic mayor of Houston, said in an interview. “He is respondent in a very quick fashion, and his presence here means a great deal to a lot of people.”

... As soon as Mr. Biden touched the ground in Texas, he set a different tone than his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, who more than once threatened to withhold federal funding from states recovering from disasters because he had toxic political relationships with state officials there.

... At the food bank, Dr. Biden slipped cans of peaches into packages of food for students who rely on free school meals while the president talked to children and told them about his own family.

It was a marked difference from Mr. Trump, who in 2018 was criticized for visiting a disaster relief center in Puerto Rico, only to throw paper towels at survivors of a Category 5 hurricane. “I was having fun,” Mr. Trump said afterward. “They were having fun.”

Mr. Biden struck a more reassuring — and less partisan — tone than his predecessor.

“We’re not here today as Democrats or Republicans,” Mr. Biden said. “We’re here today as Americans.”
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Pandemic Insurance Helped the N.C.A.A. Tournament and Others
The money came in wire transfers, each one a boon for a beleaguered N.C.A.A.

In March, the coronavirus pandemic had eviscerated the Division I men’s basketball tournament, which had been poised to bring in more than $800 million. But by the end of June, N.C.A.A. executives knew that a crucial lifeline, one burrowed in the black-and-white language of five insurance policies, would soon come through: $270 million in cash — among the largest pandemic-related payouts in all of sports.

“It was one of the simpler claims processes,” Brad Robinson, the N.C.A.A. official who coordinates insurance matters, said in an interview in early February, soon after the association acknowledged that insurance proceeds tied to event cancellations accounted for more than half of its revenues during its 2020 fiscal year.

The specialized insurance policies, which cover cancellations because of communicable disease outbreaks, have historically been scarcely noticed but have proved crucial for parts of the sports world to weather the pandemic. Ordinarily products purchased to guard against the financial fallout of terrorism, severe weather and other unexpected setbacks, policies have helped salvage the balance sheets of events as small as local road races to competitions as wealthy and mighty as the sprawling N.C.A.A. tournament.

Now, insurers are bracing to see whether the Tokyo Olympics, already postponed from 2020, will happen, and industry experts said a cancellation would fuel several billions of dollars in losses across a number of organizations.

And with pandemic policies now largely unavailable — or extraordinarily expensive when they can be found — events that did not already have coverage for 2021 may be at risk of financial collapse if they cannot be held.
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Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a contagious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The first case was identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It has since spread worldwide, leading to an ongoing pandemic.

Symptoms of COVID-19 are variable, but often include fever, cough, fatigue, breathing difficulties, and loss of smell and taste. Symptoms begin one to fourteen days after exposure to the virus. Most people (81%) develop mild to moderate symptoms (up to mild pneumonia), while 14% develop severe symptoms (dyspnea, hypoxia, or more than 50% lung involvement on imaging) and 5% of patients suffer critical symptoms (respiratory failure, shock, or multiorgan dysfunction). At least a third of the people who are infected with the virus remain asymptomatic and do not develop noticeable symptoms at any point in time, but can spread the disease. Some patients continue to experience a range of effects—known as long COVID—for months after recovery and damage to organs has been observed. Multi-year studies are underway to further investigate the long term effects of the disease.

Source: Coronavirus disease 2019 - Wikipedia