Healthcare workers enter visitor information on laptops before administering doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Mother and Child Hospital in Belgrade, Serbia, on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Viruses constantly mutate, so it’s not surprising that the coronavirus that emerged in China in late 2019 has gone through multiple minor variations. But it has also undergone several major mutations, and it’s likely that more, significant variations will emerge.
Most recently, strains have emerged in South Africa and the U.K. that have prompted some concerns about the efficacy of coronavirus vaccines. There is also a suspected new strain in the U.S., with the White House coronavirus task force warning early in the new year that there could be a new, more transmissible variant of the virus that evolved in the U.S. and is driving spread, according to a document obtained by NBC News.
Essentially, scientists worry about any major changes to the virus’ so-called spike protein. This contains the receptor-binding domain, and is used by the virus to gain entry into cells within the body.
As such, mutations can not only make the virus more transmissible, they can mean that vaccines are rendered less powerful and require them to be updated.
A new variant was reported by U.K. health officials to the World Health Organization on Dec. 14 that is now known formally as “VOC 202012/01” (which stands for “variant of concern, year 2020, month 12, variant 01”).
The variant was first detected in a patient in Kent, southeast England, in September. It then quickly spread to London. With infections surging in both regions, early analysis suggested it may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant that was circulating in the country.
News of the new variant prompted many countries to ban flights from the U.K. in a bid to keep the new strain out, and led the country’s government to scrap a planned relaxation of social restrictions over Christmas. Nonetheless, the mutation provoked a huge surge in infections, with the number of new daily cases coming in above 50,000 since December 28.
The WHO notes that “how and where SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01 originated is unclear,” although scientists are looking into whether the mutation emerged in patients with weaker immune systems who had long-running coronavirus infections, giving the virus the opportunity and time to evolve in a way that enables it to spread faster.
Hot on the heels of the news from the U.K., South Africa’s authorities announced on Dec. 18 the detection of a mutation that was rapidly spreading in Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal. It has now become the country’s dominant strain of the coronavirus.
South Africa named the variant “501Y.V2” because of the N501Y mutation found in the spike protein. This mutation, among others, was also found in the new U.K. strain and, as such, it is thought to be similarly more transmissible.
The South Africa strain does contain other mutations, and these have prompted some concerns that it could prove more resistant to coronavirus vaccines. However, most scientists expect the vaccines to work despite the mutation and vaccines are regularly adapted to new strains of viruses, like the common flu.
Another coronavirus variant that emerged in Denmark last summer was linked to the country’s large mink farming sector. Since June, 214 human cases of Covid-19 have been identified in Denmark with variants associated with farmed minks. Twelve of those cases were identified as having a unique variant that was reported to the WHO on Nov. 5.
The new strain was found in North Jutland in Denmark and was linked to infections among farmed mink that had subsequently been transmitted to humans.
Minks are seen at a farm in Gjol, northern Denmark on October 9, 2020.
HENNING BAGGER | Ritzau Scanpix | AFP via Getty Images
“The variant, referred to as the ‘Cluster 5’ variant by Danish authorities, had a combination of mutations not previously observed,” the WHO noted. It added that these prompted concern that they could “result in reduced virus neutralization in humans, which could potentially decrease the extend and duration of immune protection following natural infection or vaccination.”
Studies are ongoing to assess the effectiveness of treatment among humans with this variant. Luckily, it does not appear to be more transmissible, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and the WHO. Denmark took drastic action, culling 17 million farmed mink.
The WHO notes that a variant of the coronavirus appeared early on in the pandemic (indeed, before it was even declared a global pandemic in March 2020), noting that a new strain with a mutation known as “D614G” emerged in late Jan. or early Feb. 2020.
After several months, this became the dominant strain of the virus we know today, the WHO said. “Over a period of several months, the D614G mutation replaced the initial SARS-CoV-2 strain identified in China and by June 2020 became the dominant form of the virus circulating globally.”
Studies in human respiratory cells and animal models demonstrated that compared to the initial virus strain, the newer strain had increased in infectivity and transmission. However, the new variant was not seen as causing “more severe illness or alter the effectiveness of existing laboratory diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, or public health preventive measures.”
While variants are sometimes dubbed “the U.K. strain” or “Denmark mutation,” experts say it’s important to note that the origin of these viruses are ultimately difficult to prove and countries shouldn’t be “blamed” for different mutations.
Similarly, U.S. President Donald Trump has been criticized for calling Covid-19 “the China virus” — the coronavirus might have emerged in China, but we still don’t know its origins and a team of WHO experts is traveling to China this week to investigate. For now, scientists mostly believe that the virus was transmitted to humans from an animal species, possibly from bats.
Many countries where variants have been discovered — including the U.K., Denmark and South Africa — are renowned for their regular surveillance and sequencing of the virus’ genetic code, and are therefore at the forefront of discovering mutations. The WHO, and other public agencies such as the U.S.’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and EU’s ECDC, are kept up to date by scientists around the world as major variants emerge.
Russia’s Sputnik vaccine gets its first approval in the EU, UAE
A medical worker fills a syringe with the Gam-COVID-Vac vaccine (under the brand name of Sputnik V) at in Butovo, south Moscow.
Sergei Savostyanov | TASS | Getty Images
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine got a series of boosts on Thursday as Hungary and the United Arab Emirates became the first countries in the European Union and Gulf region, respectively, to register the shot for emergency use.
Hungary’s decision was confirmed by President Viktor Orban’s spokesperson, who said that if the country agrees on a shipment deal with Moscow, it will become the first European Union country to receive the vaccine. This comes as the country’s cases have fallen from a peak of more than 6,000 per day in early December to below 2,000 per day.
“This decision is very important as it demonstrates that the vaccine’s safety and efficacy of over 90% are highly regarded by our partners in Hungary,” Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said in a statement.
The EU’s medicines regulator has yet to approve the Russian jab, though German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave Sputnik further hope on Thursday, suggesting that Germany’s vaccines regulator could advise Russia on navigating the EU approval process. The RDIF has filed Sputnik for EU registration and expects its review in February.
UAE approval comes amid dramatic surge in infections
The approval from the UAE comes amid a record surge in cases in the small Gulf sheikhdom, which has stood out internationally for welcoming tourists and fully reopening its economy by late summer of last year.
Confirmed coronavirus cases have more than tripled in a span of roughly three weeks, leading Emirati authorities to suspend nonessential surgeries in hospitals and “entertainment activities” in its bustling hotels and restaurants just days after assuring the country that the virus was under control.
The UAE’s daily case count hit a record high 3,529 on Thursday, far above its neighboring Gulf Arab countries where registered infections hover below 500 per day.
An Emirati man, wearing a protective mask, walks at al-Barsha Health Centre in the Gulf Emirate of Dubai on December 24, 2020.
GIUSEPPE CACACE | AFP via Getty Images
Sputnik V will be the third vaccine to be deployed in the UAE after China’s Sinopharm vaccine and the U.S and German-developed Pfizer-BioNTech jab were made available to the public in December. The country of roughly 10 million is carrying out what its government says is the second-fastest national vaccination campaign in the world after Israel, per capita, and intends to have half the country’s residents inoculated by the end of March.
“The decision comes as part of the UAE’s comprehensive and integrated efforts to ensure increased prevention levels,” the country’s health ministry said of Sputnik’s approval in a statement Thursday. “Study results have demonstrated the effectiveness of the vaccine in triggering a strong antibody response against the virus, its safety for use, and its compliance with international safety and effectiveness standards.”
A lack of late-stage trial data
The approvals came despite no data made public so far on the vaccine’s Phase 3 human trial results. UAE capital Abu Dhabi began Phase 3 tests for Sputnik V earlier this month, but has not released data on them. The RDIF says that 1,000 volunteers in the emirate have received their first dose.
Sputnik V, which its developer, the Gamaleya Research Institute, says is 91% effective after two doses, has been in use across Russia for months. Scientists have expressed concern over what many have described as a rushed rollout of the vaccine, green-lighted for mass use in Russia before Phase 3 trials were completed.
As a first step in the biggest vaccination campaign in Argentina’s history, first line health workers are receiving the Russian Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus.
Patricio Murphy | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images
Analysis of the vaccine’s Phase 1 and 2 trials were published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet in September, which said that early results showed no major negative side effects, but that more studies were needed.
“Phase III clinical trials results are expected to be published shortly,” according to Sputnik V’s official website.
Prior to Thursday’s announcements, it had been approved for emergency use in 9 countries and territories outside Russia — Algeria, Argentina, Bolivia, Belarus, Serbia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Turkmenistan and the Palestinian territories.
Pete Buttigieg testifies at confirmation hearing for Biden’s transportation secretary
Pete Buttigieg, President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Transportation Department, said he will work to ensure transportation systems are safe during the pandemic.
Buttigieg said keeping sectors from “aviation to public transit, to our railways, roads, ports, waterways, and pipelines” safe, according to his prepared remarks ahead of his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
The 39-year-old former presidential candidate and former mayor of South Bend, Ind. will face a country roiled by Covid-19, particularly airlines struggling to stem billions in losses as the virus keeps many customers off of airplanes.
Biden is scheduled to sign an executive order on Thursday that would require masks on interstate transportation, including airplanes, a step airline labor unions have urged since early in the pandemic but one the Trump administration declined to take.
American Eagle sees holiday-quarter sales dropping amid weak mall traffic
A shopper wearing a protective mask walks past a sale sign at an American Eagle Outfitters Inc. clothing store at Westfield San Francisco Centre in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, June 18, 2020.
Michael Short | Bloomberg | Getty Images
American Eagle, ahead of a virtual meeting with investors, said Thursday it expects fourth-quarter revenue to decrease in the low-single digits, driven by a drop in brick-and-mortar sales due to weak mall traffic during the Covid pandemic.
That comes in lower than analysts’ estimates, which were for a 0.14% dip, according to data from Refinitiv.
The apparel retailer said it expects momentum to continue online, with digital sales at both of its brands growing double digits. Its lingerie brand for teens, Aerie, is forecast to grow fourth-quarter revenue in the high-20% range, the company said, while its namesake American Eagle brand is forecast to see sales drop in the low double-digit range.
American Eagle shares were falling around 2% in premarket trading. The stock is up about 54% over the past 12 months.
A number of mall-based retailers including Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters have reported weak 2020 holiday sales, as many Americans have been staying put at home, shopping from the sofa, and buying less apparel and footwear for their closets. Retailers like American Eagle, that rely on apparel sales, have tried to stock their shelves with more comfortable clothing, such as leggings and pajama sets, that consumers have been looking to wear more of during the pandemic.
Management said the retailer’s tailored selection of merchandise during the holidays helped it to sell more at full price.
“Compelling holiday product and marketing, combined with a disciplined approach to promotional activity drove very strong margin results,” Chief Executive Jay Schottenstein said in a statement. “I believe we are well-positioned as we head into 2021.”
The retailer is expected to report its fourth-quarter and fiscal 2020 results on March 3.
In a separate press release Thursday, American Eagle laid out longer-term financial targets, aiming to grow its Aerie business to $2 billion, while it works on improving profits at its namesake banner.
“Aerie has been posting among the best growth in retail, and therefore $2 billion seems a reasonable target to present,” BMO Capital Markets senior analyst Simeon Siegel said in an interview. “But it also seems fair investors may have been looking for more.”
The rapid growth of the Aerie brand, which sells everything from bras and underwear to swimsuits and sweatpants, is making it a much stronger competitor to L Brands‘ Victoria’s Secret business, he added.
Overall, American Eagle said it is targeting revenue of $5.5 billion, and operating income of $550 million, in fiscal 2023. In its latest reported fiscal year, it brought in revenue of $4.31 billion.
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