A booster jab of Covid-19 vaccine for vulnerable people is not a luxury but a good way to protect them, the World Health Organization has said, as surging infection rates and a pan-European vaccination slowdown produced a “deeply worrying” situation.
“A third dose of vaccine is not a luxury booster taken away from someone who is still waiting for a first jab,” Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said on Monday. “It’s basically a way to keep the most vulnerable safe.”
The comments seemed to a contradict a statement by the WHO earlier this month that available data did not suggest a need for booster shots. The body had warned that topping up already fully vaccinated people would only serve to increase vaccine inequality between wealthier and lower-income countries.
More than 30 of the 53 states that make up the organisation’s European region last week reported a rise of 10% or more in their 14-day Covid-19 incidence rate, Kluge said, while vaccine take-up, particularly among at-risk groups, was still low in several.
The combination of high transmission rates and relatively low vaccine coverage was “deeply worrying”, Kluge said, adding that several countries were starting to see an increase in hospital admissions and deaths across the region surged 11% last week.
Kluge said vaccine scepticism and science denial were preventing some European countries from controlling the pandemic, describing slower inoculation rates as a “serious concern” as case numbers climb once more.
Anti-vaxx sentiment is “holding us back from stabilising this crisis”, he said. “It serves no purpose, and is good for no one.” Health authorities must “look very closely into what determines vaccination uptake by population groups, then establish tailored interventions to boost uptake”
Kluge added that some countries in the region were also being held back by a lack of access to vaccines, with only 6% of populations in lower and lower-middle income countries having completed a full series of vaccinations.
And while across the region nearly three-quarters of health workers were now fully vaccinated, some countries had managed to jab only one in 10. “There is a clear need to increase production, share doses and improve vaccine access,” he said.
Nearly 850m vaccine doses had been administered in the Europe region over the past eight months, Kluge said, and nearly half its population were now fully vaccinated. But take-up had slowed markedly in the past six weeks.
“The stagnation in vaccine uptake in the region is of serious concern,” he said. “Now that public health and social measures are being relaxed in many countries, public vaccination acceptance is crucial to avoid greater transmission, more severe disease, an increase in deaths and a bigger risk of new variants.”
Kluge said “significant growth” in case numbers was being driven by the more transmissible Delta variant, which was now present in 50 countries in the region, a general easing of public health measures and a surge in summer holiday travel.
Other protective measures such as masks were also important, he said, but vaccines are “the path towards reopening societies and stabilising economies – and we remain challenged by insufficient production, insufficient access and insufficient vaccine acceptance.”
As millions of children return to school after their summer holidays, Kluge also reiterated a joint demand with the UN children’s fund, Unicef, that keeping schools open – and making them safe – must be a top priority for all governments.
US intel review inconclusive on COVID-19 origin
The 90-day sprint to get to the bottom of the origins of COVID-19 found … not much.
A summary of an intelligence community report released Friday was inconclusive as to whether COVID-19 originated in a lab or jumped from animals to humans naturally, though U.S. officials stated that it was not developed as a biological weapon.
The summary said both the natural theory and lab leak theory are plausible, but noted that Chinese officials “did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged.”
“The IC assesses that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019,” according to a two-page summary of the report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered,” the report stated, while noting two elements of the intelligence community did not believe there was sufficient evidence to draw a conclusion.
Impact: The push to find the origin of the virus has been politically charged from the start, and Friday’s report is unlikely to significantly change the debate over the issue. The report shows an intelligence community largely divided over the origins of the disease, with several of the 19 different agencies that comprise it coming to different conclusions.
CDC director calls out schools with outbreaks that aren’t following guidance
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky called on schools that are not following guidance to “do the right thing” and implement COVID-19 precautions, like masking, to avoid outbreaks and protect children from the virus.
“In our outbreak investigations, large-scale quarantines or large number of cases are generally occurring in schools, because schools are not following our guidance, particularly our recommendations for teachers as well as students aged 12 and over to be vaccinated and for everyone right now to be masked,” Walensky said during a Friday briefing.
“I want to strongly appeal to those districts who have not implemented prevention strategies and encourage them to do the right thing to protect the children under their care,” Walensky said. “We know these multi-layered mitigation strategies work, and thanks to the American Rescue Plan schools have the resources to implement these strategies.”
The CDC director said studies have shown prevention strategies, including masking, social distancing, testing, ventilation and vaccination, help to thwart COVID-19 spread in schools.
For example: One of those studies involved an unvaccinated teacher from Marin County, Calif., who was symptomatic and took off her mask to read her class. A total of 27 people, including the teacher and more than half of the students in the class, ended up infected.
Roadblock: But some schools face obstacles in requiring masks as several GOP governors, including Gov. Greg Abbott (Texas) and Gov. Ron DeSantis (Fla.), have banned schools from mandating masks, which has prompted defiance from school officials and court battles.
Speaking of school safety: Judge blocks DeSantis from banning school mask mandates
School districts in Florida will be allowed to impose mask requirements after a district judge on Friday blocked an executive order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) banning the mandates.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled in favor of a group of parents who sued DeSantis over his executive order, arguing it was unconstitutional. He ruled the order is “without legal authority” and is by definition “arbitrary” and “capricious.”
Cooper issued an injunction stopping the Department of Education from taking any action against local districts that require masks in schools without a parental opt-out.
The judge said the state’s new “Parents’ Bill of Rights” does not allow the governor or the Department of Education to prohibit school districts from mandating masks.
“The law expressly permits school boards to adopt policies regarding the health care of students, such as a mask mandate, even if a parent disagrees,” Cooper said. “Parents’ rights are very important, but they are not without some reasonable limitations.”
DeSantis previously said he would appeal if the ruling was not in his favor.
Biden officials weighing shorter timeline for booster shots
President Biden on Friday said that discussions are underway over whether COVID-19 booster shots should be administered five months after second vaccine doses, a shorter timeline than the eight months previously discussed by health officials.
“This booster program is going to start here, September the 20th, pending approval of the FDA and a CDC committee of outside experts,” Biden said ahead of his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
“And the question raised is should it be shorter than eight months, should it be more or less five months, and that’s being discussed. I spoke to Dr. Fauci this morning about that,” Biden added, referring to White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci.
Background: The administration earlier this month outlined a plan to give out booster shots starting Sept. 20, recommending it for most Americans who have received the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine. Health officials have said people would need boosters beginning eight months after their second dose of either vaccine.
More questions: Health experts noted that, yet again, it appeared Biden was getting ahead of the health agencies. Typically the FDA and CDC need to sign off before the White House even considers a public announcement, but the administration has been pushing forward nonetheless, raising concerns.
US opens COVID-19 vaccination site for Afghan arrivals
The U.S. has opened a mass COVID-19 vaccination site near the Dulles airport in Northern Virginia for Afghans fleeing the Taliban, the White House said Friday.
The site is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine being administered by the Department of Health and Human Services.
A White House official said the vaccination clinic is set up at the Dulles Expo Center, which is where all arrivals from Afghanistan are screened.
Under rules from U.S. Customs and Immigration, all “humanitarian parolees” are required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 if they do not have proof of prior vaccination.
Evacuees are tested upon arrival and quarantined if they are positive, according to the White House. State Department translators are available to answer questions.
“This operation has been stood up in real time to ensure we are not wasting one minute, and making sure everyone arriving in the United States is able to enter the country safely and not spread COVID-19,” a White House official said. “As more arrivals from Afghanistan come, we hope to model this, including in Philadelphia, which is on track to vaccinate passengers in the next few days once flights begin to arrive.”