Pfizer’s inks deal to produce 100m shot doses for Africa

In this file photo taken on Dec 27, 2020, a health worker holds a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the hospital in Cremona, Lombardy. (PIERO CRUCIATTI / POOL / AFP)

WASHINGTON / LIMA / LONDON / TUNIS / HAVANA / MEXICO CITY / MILAN / KAMPALA / BERLIN / LUSAKA / RIO DE JANEIRO / QUITO / SANTIAGO / PRAGUE / RABAT / KIEV / ZURICH / MOSCOW / ZAGREB – Pfizer Inc said it reached an agreement to start production of its COVID-19 vaccine at a facility in Cape Town in an effort to deliver more than 100 million doses annually to African nations.

Pfizer and its German vaccine partner, BioNTech SE, said Wednesday they signed a letter of intent with Biovac Institute, a company partially owned by the South African government, to manufacture the shots. The companies expect to bring Biovac’s Cape Town-based facility into the fold of their broader coronavirus vaccine supply chain by the end of 2021, and to begin producing finished doses in 2022.

At full capacity, Biovac is expected to produce more than 100 million doses per year, all of which would be distributed to the more than 50 member states of the African Union. It will be the first facility in the Southern Hemisphere to use the messenger RNA technology underlying the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, among others.

The financial terms of the agreement, announced ahead of a closed-door World Trade Organization summit, weren’t disclosed.

With the addition of Biovac’s site, which will focus on filling the vaccine’s active ingredient into sterile vials, Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine supply chain now spans 20 facilities across three continents. To date, the companies have shipped more than 1 billion doses of the two-dose regimen to more than 100 countries or territories, including South Africa. Pfizer and BioNTech aim to deliver a total of 3 billion doses in 2021, and 4 billion doses in 2022.

Still, the global coronavirus immunization campaign has been plagued by unequal access to vaccines, spanning from the Pfizer-BioNTech shot to those made by Moderna Inc, AstraZeneca Plc, Johnson & Johnson and others from China and Russia.

Africa remains the world’s least-vaccinated continent, and many of its nations are battling a third wave of infections with little access to shots. Before March, few African nations had received a single shipment. Even in South Africa, where Biovac is based, only 5.4 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker.

A healthcare worker inoculates a woman with the Sputnik V COVID-19 shot during a vaccination campaign for people over the age of 18, in La Paz, Bolivia, on July 20, 2021. (JUAN KARITA / AP)

WHO

Governments worldwide can end the pandemic if they vaccinate 70 percent of every country's population by mid-2022, said World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“I have called for a massive global push to vaccinate at least 10 percent of the population of every country by September, at least 40 percent by the end of the year, and 70 percent by mid-next year," he said in a speech at the International Olympic Committee Session.

"If we can reach those targets, we can not only end the pandemic, we can also reboot the global economy," he added.

Ghebreyesus said a global failure to share COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments is fuelling a two-track pandemic. 

“The haves are opening up, while the have-nots are locking down. The longer this discrepancy persists, the longer the pandemic will drag on, and so will the social and economic turmoil it brings," he said.

"I am often asked when the pandemic will end. My answer is equally simple: the pandemic will end when the world chooses to end it. We have the tools to prevent transmission, and save lives. Our common goal must be to vaccinate 70 percent of the population of every country by the middle of next year," he added.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide exceeded 191.44 million while the global death toll topped 4.11 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

US

A senior spokesperson for US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a White House official have tested positive for COVID-19. Both had been fully vaccinated and are among several staffers in Congress and at the White House who’ve been recently infected.

The White House medical unit has conducted contact tracing and interviews, finding no close contact among White House principals, staff or President Joe Biden, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday.

There have been other instances of vaccinated employees testing positive, Psaki said, though they were not commissioned officers and therefore were not reported by the administration.

ALSO READ: Delta variant makes ground among unvaccinated in US

The Pelosi staff member had no contact with the speaker since being exposed, Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson, said in a statement. 

The Pelosi staffer tested positive after meeting last week with Democratic members of the Texas legislature who later learned they had the virus. Axios, which first reported the positive tests, said the White House official had been at a reception that the Pelosi staff member also attended.

The Delta variant accounts for more than 83 percent of COVID-19 cases in the country, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on Tuesday.

The authorized vaccines remain more than 90 percent effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths, said top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci during a US Senate hearing.

In another development, the US State Department has lowered its COVID 19-related travel advisory for India and Pakistan to "Level 3 – Reconsider Travel," the department said on the same day.

COVID-19 takes toll on US life expectancy

Life expectancy in the US dropped the most in more than seven decades last year as COVID-19 sent hundreds of thousands of Americans to early deaths.

The pandemic's disproportionate toll on communities of color also widened existing gaps in life expectancy between White and Black Americans, according to estimates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The tally represents an extraordinarily grim accounting of an ongoing catastrophe. The first year of the pandemic delivered a bigger blow to American life expectancy than any year of the Vietnam War, the AIDS crisis or the “deaths of despair” that nudged down life expectancies in the mid-2010s.

The pace of COVID-19 deaths dropped sharply as vaccinations spread in the first half of 2021. But it’s unclear how long it will take for life expectancy to rebound. The US has recorded a total of 609,000 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began. More than 43 percent occurred in 2021, with almost half the year still to come.

The first year of the pandemic reduced Americans’ life expectancy at birth by 1.5 years, to 77.3 years. That erased the country’s gains since 2003. It was the largest annual decline since 1943, in the middle of World War II. Goldman said that it was the second largest decline since the 1918 influenza pandemic, which is believed to have killed some 50 million people worldwide.

Deaths from COVID-19 contributed to nearly three-fourths, or 74 percent, of the decline and drug overdoses were also a major contributor, the CDC said.

European Medicines Agency 

Europe's drug regulator said on Tuesday it had started a real-time review of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by French drugmaker Sanofi and Britain's GlaxoSmithKline, the fifth shot currently under such a review.

The decision to start the "rolling review" of the vaccine, Vidprevtyn, was based on preliminary results from lab studies and early stage clinical trials in adults, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said.

Late-stage global trials for the protein-based coronavirus vaccine candidate began in May.

Sanofi and GSK hope to get approvals by the end of 2021 after early-stage results showed the vaccine produces a robust immune response. 

J&J

Johnson & Johnson (J&J)’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine produced relatively low levels of antibodies against the Delta variant in a study, raising questions about how well the shot will hold up against the strain that accounts for the vast majority of US cases.

The laboratory study, released on the preprint server bioRxiv, hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal and focuses on one key portion of the immune response, called neutralizing antibodies. New York University scientists found that J&J’s vaccine produced roughly five-fold lower levels of the protective antibodies against the Delta variant compared to the levels raised against an early coronavirus strain.

The study examined only one aspect of protection, J&J said in an email, and didn’t consider long-lasting responses among immune cells stimulated by its vaccine.

“The data do not speak to the full nature of immune protection” from the shot, spokesman Jake Sargent said. J&J’s vaccine has been shown to produce a strong immune response that lasts at least eight months after immunization, he said.

France

France’s vaccination rollout is accelerating after President Emmanuel Macron announced that “health passes” — showing proof of testing or immunization — will be required in restaurants and cafes.

A health ministry official said at a briefing that 4.3 million injections were administered last week, including 1.7 million first doses. In another record, 880,000 shots were administered on Friday. And this week saw the best Monday of the rollout, the official said.

French vaccinations are proceeding twice as much fast as the rollouts in Italy and Germany, the official said. After Macron’s speech, the number of online vaccine appointments climbed to 520,000 daily from 140,000 daily in early July. 

France will reach its target of 40 million first doses ahead of schedule, the official said.

READ MORE: Global quest underway to speed COVID-19 vaccine trials

Peru

Peru has signed a deal to purchase 20 million doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, the health ministry said on Tuesday, a move to shore up the hard-hit Andean nation's defenses over fears of a potential third wave of coronavirus.

Officials said the agreement, signed with the Russian Fund for Direct Investment, would ensure the arrival of the vaccines within "the next few months."

Peru is among the most battered countries in Latin America by the pandemic, a predicament that has left its hospitals near collapse and often outstripped the availability of oxygen tanks. The country in late May tripled its official death count from the virus and leads the world in deaths per 100,000 inhabitants from the disease.

The Andean nation, which has a population of 33.2 million, has thus far vaccinated 10.9 million people with at least one dose and 4.0 million with two doses of Pfizer, Sinopharm and AstraZeneca shots, according to official data.

Mauritius

Mauritius recorded a record daily number of cases after outbreaks among vaccinated foreign factory workers living in hostels, according to the health ministry.

The Indian Ocean island nation, which reopened its borders to tourists last week, added 368 new infections on Monday, with 305 of them being factory workers and almost all asymptomatic. Foreign labor in the country’s export-oriented manufacturing industry accounts for 47 percent of total employment.

Mauritius is seeking to revive its tourism industry after ramping up vaccinations, and about a third of its 1.3 million people are fully inoculated.

Tunisia

Tunisia's Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi on Tuesday decided to remove Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi, amid rising COVID-19 cases in the North African country.

Mechichi accused the dismissed health minister of making "criminal" decisions that led to overcrowding and chaos at coronavirus vaccination centers.

The centers opened for young people earlier in the day and tens of thousands flocked to them only to find out that small quantities of vaccine were available, leading to some violence.

"Mohamed Trabelsi, the minister of social affairs, will be in charge of the interim at the ministry of health," reads a statement issued by the Tunisian government.

The decision came as Tunisia is going through a new and more dangerous wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with an average of more than 500 cases detected per 100,000 persons in about half of the country's 24 provinces.

In another development, military planes from Kuwait and Jordan loaded with medical supplies for combating the COVID-19 pandemic, including 20 tonnes of oxygen and 400 cylinders, landed at the Tunis Carthage International Airport on Tuesday, the Tunisian presidency said.

Brazil

Brazil has registered another 1,424 COVID-19 deaths in the past 24 hours, raising its pandemic death toll to 544,180, the health ministry said Tuesday.

The country also reported 27,592 new cases in the same period, taking the caseload to 19,419,437, the ministry said.

Some 124.3 million people in Brazil have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and over 34.3 million people have been fully vaccinated.

READ MORE: Brazil approves trials with 3rd dose of Astra vaccine

Cuba

Cuba’s COVID-19 death toll surpassed 2,000 on Tuesday, after 53 more deaths were reported in the last 24 hours, the Ministry of Public Health said. The total now stands at 2,019.

Meanwhile, the tally rose by 6,057 to 294,449 cases.

The western province of Matanzas remains the epicenter of the pandemic in the country, registering 1,449 cases in the past 24 hours, followed by Havana and Cienfuegos.

Mexico

Mexico's third COVID-19 outbreak is mainly concentrated in young people who have not received any of the available vaccines, Undersecretary of Prevention and Health Promotion Hugo Lopez-Gatell said on Tuesday.

"Although we have a third spike … the proportion of people who are hospitalized or sadly lose their lives is lower, due to the fact that they are people at lower risk," said Lopez-Gatell.

"The majority of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are people under 52 years old, and the vast majority are people who are not vaccinated … more than 97 percent," he added.

According to official data, Mexico has vaccinated 38.5 million people, which represents 43 percent of the 89.4 million population over 18 years old.

Mexico’s health ministry on Tuesday reported 13,853 new cases and 341 fatalities, bringing its total to 2,678,297 infections and 236,810 deaths.

Spain

The vast majority of new COVID-19 cases in Spain in the past five weeks were detected among non-vaccinated people, Health Minister Carolina Darias said on Monday, as new infections rose by 27,286.

Just 5.5 percent of new cases within the period were detected among people who had been fully vaccinated, Darias said, adding 11.4 percent were partially vaccinated and 83.1 percent were unvaccinated.

The number of new COVID-19 cases per day in Spain has been steadily rising since late June, with the 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 inhabitants rising to 622.4 on Tuesday. 

The country of 46.9 million people has so far reported a total of just under 4.2 million cases and 81,148 deaths.

People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk along a street in Madrid, Spain, June 24, 2021. (MANU FERNANDEZ / AP)

Italy

Italy reported 10 coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday against seven the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections increased to 3,558 from 2,072.

Italy has registered 127,884 deaths linked to COVID-19 since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the eighth-highest in the world. The country has reported 4.29 million cases to date.

Patients in hospital with COVID-19 – not including those in intensive care – stood at 1,194 on Tuesday, up from 1,188 a day earlier.

There were 11 new admissions to intensive care units against 16 on Monday. The total number of intensive care patients rose to 165 from a previous 162.

Uganda

Uganda will receive at least 12.3 million COVID-19 vaccines by early 2022, according to the health authorities.

Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the health ministry’s spokesperson, told Xinhua by telephone Tuesday that the vaccines would be imported under a phased plan.

He said the ministry expects to receive 286,080 doses of AstraZeneca in the last week of July, as well as 300,000 doses of Sinovac donated by China in the same period. Meanwhile, another 688,800 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine are expected in August.

"We also expect 2 million doses of Johnson & Johnson through Afri-Exim Bank and the African Union and 9 million doses of AstraZeneca by early 2022," Ainebyoona said.

Uganda has so far vaccinated over one million people since its vaccination drive started in March.

Uganda has so far registered 90,910 COVID-19 infections and 2,412 deaths.

Germany

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 2,203 to 3,748,613, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Wednesday.

The reported death toll rose by 19 to 91,416, the tally showed. 

Germany's seven-day incidence of COVID-19 infections per 100,000 inhabitants has more than doubled within the past two weeks, the RKI said Tuesday.

Since July 6, the seven-day incidence in Germany rose from 4.9 to 10.9, according to the RKI.

After the catastrophic floods in parts of Germany, the governments of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate fear that housing many people in emergency shelters would further increase the number of COVID-19 infections.

READ MORE: Floods lay bare Europe's 'gigantic task' in averting climate damage

Zambia

Zambia is set to receive 151,200 doses of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, with the doses expected to arrive on Wednesday, a government official said on Tuesday.

Kennedy Malama, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Health in charge of Technical Services, said the new consignment of vaccines will be mainly administered in provinces where vaccination demand was high.

The government, he said, was encouraged with the progress made so far, with 2.8 percent of the eligible population so far having received their first dose and 0.8 percent having gotten both shots.

Zambia's cumulative cases stand at 187,602 with 3,138 deaths. In the past 24 hours, the country reported 1,323 new cases and 25 additional deaths.



Ecuador

Ecuador on Tuesday registered 1,634 new COVID-19 infections in the past 24 hours, bringing its total caseload to 477,946, the Ministry of Public Health (MSP) said.

The death toll, which includes deaths at home and patient deaths at MSP-run hospitals and at private hospitals stood at 30,744, the MSP said in a statement.

The update will help "identify new parameters for understanding the epidemiological situation nationwide" and "make information transparent" in a bid to raise public awareness of the severity of the pandemic, according to the statement.

Health Minister Ximena Garzon said there were "information gaps" in the records since May 24, when the new government came to power.

To bridge the gaps, officials worked "to clean up the databases and have more reliable data, which was not given to us when we started our administration," she said.  

Chile

Chile recorded 902 new COVID-19 infections in the past 24 hours, the lowest daily increase since November 2020, bringing the cumulative tally to 1,601,858 cases, Health Minister Enrique Paris said on Tuesday.

In a statement released by the Ministry of Health, Paris said 30 more deaths were registered, raising the toll to 34,569.

He added that 13 of the country's 16 regions had a positivity rate lower or equal to 4 percent.

Since June, Chile has seen a constant drop in the number of COVID-19 cases, reporting less than 2,000 per day on average.

The South American country's vaccination program has seen more than 80 percent of the population in several regions fully vaccinated.

Central Five nations

The foreign ministers of five Central European countries ("the Central Five") — namely the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Slovenia — met on Tuesday in the Czeck town of Melnik to discuss coordination on restrictions against COVID-19, according to the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

According to the ministry, the ministers agreed to set up a coordination group to notify each other on all travel-related measures in advance.

Morocco

Morocco's health ministry reported on Tuesday 3,631 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections in the North African country to 562,416.

The number of positive cases significantly increased by 91 percent during the period from July 6 to 19, the ministry said, adding the recent hike indicated that Morocco's pandemic has entered a new stage.

The number of active cases, which stood at 5,535 two weeks ago, has risen to 15,253, the ministry said.

The death toll rose to 9,486 after 20 more fatalities were reported during the last 24 hours, it said, adding that there were 551 people in intensive care units.

A total of 11,555,970 people have received one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine while 9,736,641 have received both shots.

Catalent

Catalent Inc is planning a US$100 million expansion of its plant in Agnani, Italy, where the contract drug manufacturer is currently filling millions of vials of COVID-19 vaccines for AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Catalent expects the expansion will allow it by April 2023 to be able to make the drug substance for complicated biologic drugs, including COVID-19 vaccines or therapies like monoclonal antibodies.

Mario Gargiulo, Catalent's Region President of Biologics in Europe, said in an interview that Catalent does not have any deals yet to make COVID-19 vaccine drugs at the plant, and does not know whether there will be a need for the capacity by early 2023.

However, he said Catalent has contracts to fill and finish vaccine that could be renewed through the end of 2023, so there was certainly a possibility the capacity will be required.

Russia

Russia reported 23,704 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, including 3,254 in Moscow, taking the official national tally since the pandemic began to 6,030,240.

The government coronavirus task force said 783 people had died of coronavirus-linked causes in the past 24 hours, pushing the national death toll to 150,705.

With vaccination now compulsory in some Russian regions for people working in jobs involving close contact with the public such as waiters and taxi drivers, shortages have appeared.

CureVac vaccines

Novartis is still helping CureVac (5CV.DE) make COVID-19 vaccines and could expand its capacity to assist other vaccine manufacturers as well, finance chief Harry Kirsch told reporters on Wednesday.

"We have started the production as planned. We are planning to deliver 50 million doses this year," Kirsch said of the CureVac deal when asked whether it could instead make its capacity free for others after CureVac said last month its COVID-19 jab was only 48 percent effective. 

Swiss drugmaker Novartis also assists Pfizer and BioNTech in making COVID-19 vaccines and can ramp up output for them or others if needed, he said.

Ukraine

Ukraine will start the fifth stage of its COVID-19 vaccination campaign on Wednesday, which aims to immunize all citizens, the health ministry said on Tuesday.

"We are receiving more and more vaccines against COVID-19, and we are creating more and more vaccination points, centers, mobile immunization teams," Health Minister Viktor Lyashko said.

This makes it possible to open vaccination to all citizens and protect as many people as possible from coronavirus disease, in particular from the new Delta variant, which has already reached Ukraine," he added.

As of Wednesday, 2,245,930 COVID-19 cases and 52,769 related deaths have been reported in Ukraine, and 4.1 million vaccine shots have been administered, said the health authorities.  

UK

The UK said about 6.2 percent of its adult population, or 3.5 million people, are suffering lingering effects from the coronavirus that harm wellbeing and the ability to work.

The Office for National Statistics said that six in 10 of those it surveyed who said they were affected by “long-COVID-19” said the disease hurt their general wellbeing, and half of those said to the condition made it difficult for them to do their job.

The figures suggest a long-lasting impact both financially and socially from the virus that first hit the UK in early 2020. Prime Minister Boris Johnson removed most restrictions to containing the spread of infections this week even though new cases are rising at the fastest pace since the government ordered a third national lockdown in January.

“We’ve found more people who may have had long COVID-19 report negative impacts,” Tim Vizard, principal research officer at the ONS, said in a statement on Wednesday. “More work is needed to disentangle the effects of long COVID-19 from a variety of factors such as age, sex or disability.”

There is no universally agreed definition for long COVID-19. The government earlier this week launched a study with the National Institute for Health Research to develop new diagnosis and treatment tools.

London’s High Court on Tuesday ruled that Britain acted lawfully over its so-called traffic lights system for travelers entering Britain in a case brought by Manchester Airports Group (MAG), backed by a number of airlines.

While the court accepted part of the argument against the government, it did not find that the transport minister had acted unlawfully, and the government will not have to disclose more information on how it reaches decisions over its travel rules.

In a joint statement, MAG and the airline chief executives called the latest rule changes for arrivals from France shambolic, and said if the system followed data more countries would be categorized as green for low-risk travel.

Britain has reported 46,558 new cases of COVID-19, government data showed on Tuesday, meaning the rise in cases between July 14 and July 20 stood at 40.7 percent compared with the previous seven days.

A further 96 people were reported as having died within 28 days of a positive test for COVID-19.

Croatia

Croatia has decided to impose obligatory COVID-19 tests for visitors coming from the United Kingdom, Russia and Cyprus, the state health institute said on Wednesday.

"Due to the worsening of the epidemiological situation in the United Kingdom, Cyprus and Russia, as an additional measure for people arriving from those countries, a negative (COVID-19) test will be required regardless whether they are vaccinated or have already had a disease," the statement said.

The measure takes force on July 26.