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Coronavirus update: Biden administration increases vaccine doses to states; UK approves first human challenge trial

Anjalee Khemlani
·Senior Reporter
·5 min read
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The U.S. federal government continues to increase state allotments of vaccine doses, even as winter weather slows down shipments and delays appointments, especially in Texas where power outages are ongoing.

States should expect a total of 13.5 million vaccines next week, an increase from 11 million this week, with additional shipments directly to pharmacies and federally qualified health centers.

Meanwhile, the country awaits Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) vaccine authorization, which could come as early as the end of the month. But even with hopes pinned on the one-shot dose, White House COVID-19 Response Team coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday there won't be a sudden surge of vaccines available.

"There is not a big inventory," Zients said, adding that only a few million of the 100 million promised will be available by the end of June.

Zients said the administration is working with the company to determine how to ramp up production. Unlike the existing vaccines, J&J's is not based on a new technology and can likely use existing infrastructure.

Moderna (MRNA) announced Tuesday it is going to meet its production goals, with 100 million doses ready by the end of May, a month ahead of schedule, while doubling its monthly output to 40 million to 45 million doses per month beginning in April.

An additional 100 million doses will be produced by the end of July, instead of September, the company said in a statement. There has been some delay in the production process, based on an equipment issue with partner Catalent, that will be resolved in the short term and will not affect production targets, a Moderna spokesperson told Yahoo Finance.

The United States, meanwhile, has been ramping up vaccinations, with more than 55 million first and second doses administered, and more than 71 million have been distributed.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has begun to set up more vaccine sites and is staffing them with active military in a partnership with the Department of Defense. FEMA is designating small sites as those capable of completing 3,000 vaccinations per day, and larger sites handling double that amount. Large sites in New York and Texas have opened, and smaller ones in New Jersey and the U.S. Virgin Islands are planned, officials said Tuesday.

The White House is in conversations with Amazon (AMZN), according to Politico, and has been approached by other technology companies like Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB) and AirBnB (ABNB). The move marks a shift from recent Congressional attention on the tech sector's size and power.

Amazon, in particular, has been under fire for its treatment of warehouse workers throughout the pandemic. New York's Attorney General is suing the company for its alleged handling of worker safety issues and for retaliating when employees began to complain. The company preemptively sued to stop the lawsuit last week.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday during a briefing that the Biden administration is busy tackling response efforts since taking office last month.

"What (President Joe Biden) inherited was not enough supply, not enough vaccinators, not enough places for vaccinations to happen. Communities had been left to fend for themselves. And so, that's what he's been focused on and working on," Psaki said.

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 16:        A COVID-19 vaccination site established in a
partnership between the federal government and the state opened today at Cal
State Los Angeles, one of two in the state and the first phase of an effort expected to spread to 100 sites across the nation. The CSULA site is co-run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the
state of California through the governor's Office of Emergency Services. The site is expected to have an ultimate capacity of administering 6,000 doses per day, although it opened Monday with just 3,000 doses. Gov.
Gavin Newsom said, however, the site would reach the 6,000-dose mark by the end
of the week at both the Los Angeles and a Oakland site. Shortages in supply have hampered vaccination efforts at county- and
city-operated sites, but officials noted that the vaccines provided at the two FEMA sites will be in addition to the state's normal supply.
We're committed to ensuring that everyone who wants a vaccine gets one,'' FEMA Administrator Bob Fenton said during a news conference at the CSULA
site. Fenton noted that the site was chosen specifically for its accessibility to hard-to-reach communities, focusing on areas where minorities make up over 40% of the population, looking at other factors such as
poverty, lack of housing or vehicle access.''
   Cal State LA on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 16: A COVID-19 vaccination site established in a partnership between the federal government and the state opened today at Cal State Los Angeles, one of two in the state and the first phase of an effort expected to spread to 100 sites across the nation. The CSULA site is co-run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of California through the governor's Office of Emergency Services. The site is expected to have an ultimate capacity of administering 6,000 doses per day, although it opened Monday with just 3,000 doses. Gov. Gavin Newsom said, however, the site would reach the 6,000-dose mark by the end of the week at both the Los Angeles and a Oakland site. Shortages in supply have hampered vaccination efforts at county- and city-operated sites, but officials noted that the vaccines provided at the two FEMA sites will be in addition to the state's normal supply. We're committed to ensuring that everyone who wants a vaccine gets one,'' FEMA Administrator Bob Fenton said during a news conference at the CSULA site. Fenton noted that the site was chosen specifically for its accessibility to hard-to-reach communities, focusing on areas where minorities make up over 40% of the population, looking at other factors such as poverty, lack of housing or vehicle access.'' Cal State LA on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).

Variants and challenge trials

Even as vaccinations are on the rise, with more than 15% of the population inoculated, scientists are increasingly concerned as new variants emerge. The variant originally found in the U.K. (B.1.1.7) could be more deadly than the original strain, while the strains from South African (B.1.351) and Brazil (P.1) are showing more resistance to vaccines -- though they remain effective in blocking some level of infection.

A new strain, with similar mutations to the B.1.1.7 strain, has already been reported in several countries, including in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the U.K. approved the first human challenge trials, to begin through OpenOrphan (ORPH.L) Wednesday. The company anticipates it can play a role in helping second generation vaccines which could target virus variants through an expedited clinical trial process.

The company has already looked at nasal spray vaccine options, which is of interest for individuals who cannot receive injected doses for health reasons. Cogenix and Altimmune are already testing candidates and are in early clinical trial stages. Other companies have also identified oral candidate options, which are similarly in early phases.

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