Coronavirus live updates: Variant found in South Africa prompts new travel curbs; E.U. demands answers on vaccine delays

Limited vaccine supplies in the European Union undergird much of the region’s restrictions on travel. The E.U.’s regulator on Friday recommended authorization of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine as E.U leaders planned to announce details of a new mechanism designed to restrict vaccine exports outside the bloc.

Here are the latest developments:

  • Canada announced extensive border restrictions that include mandatory testing and quarantine at designated hotels for all returning travelers.
  • Maryland biotech company Novavax announced that its coronavirus vaccine was highly effective in preventing illness — except against the B.1351 variant.
  • E.U. regulators have authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine for adults despite a lack of data on its efficacy in older adults.
  • The European Commission has published its contract with drugmaker AstraZeneca after a heated dispute over production delays.

U.S. vaccine program struggles

During the White House’s coronavirus briefing Friday, Anthony S. Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious-disease expert said that the United States must do more to halt the spread of coronavirus and framed the spread of variant strains — most recently, a variant first identified in South Africa was reported in South Carolina — as a “wake-up call” to ramp up inoculation efforts.

“It is an incentive to do what we’ve been saying all along: to vaccinate as many people as we can, as quickly as we possibly can,” Fauci told reporters.

The U.S. continues to struggle with its vaccine rollout; just 6.6 percent of the population has received the first dose of the vaccine since it became available in December.

The Biden administration has set a goal of vaccinating at least 1 million Americans per day, officials reiterated, a pace that the United States has narrowly exceeded over the past week.

The emergence of new, mutant versions of the virus was expected, said Fauci and Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they warned that more are likely to come. Those mutations also will challenge the ability of existing treatments and vaccines to curb the virus’ spread.

“So that means that we as a government, the companies, all of us that are in this together — we’ll have to be nimble,” Fauci said, adding that scientists would need to continually produce “versions of the vaccine that actually are specifically directed towards whatever mutation is actually prevalent at any given time.”

Canada, E.U. countries broaden travel restrictions

As the U.S. grapples with its vaccination program, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been under pressure to tighten border restrictions.

On Friday, Trudeau announced that all returning travelers will be required to take a coronavirus test at an airport and quarantine at a designated hotel for three days until their results arrive; the cost, which could eclipse $2,000, will be borne by the traveler.

Those with negative results will complete 14-day quarantines at home under “significantly” increased surveillance, while those with positive test results will be quarantined in government facilities. The government has contracted a private security firm to help with enforcement.

Canada’s four major airlines also agreed to suspend service to Mexico and the Caribbean from Sunday until April 30 in what is likely to be a major blow to the travel and tourism industry.

“Even one case is a case too many,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa, “particularly now that we must take into account new variants of the virus.”

Germany on Friday was also expected to enact a ban on travel from Brazil, Britain, Portugal and South Africa. Two separate variants of the virus were also first identified in Brazil and Britain.

Britain’s Foreign Office and Department for Transport also banned travel from Burundi and Rwanda, both of which have reported cases involving the South African variant.

“The decision to ban travel from these destinations follows the discovery of a new coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa, that may have spread to other countries, including the UAE, Burundi and Rwanda,” they said in a joint statement.

Concerns grow over E.U. vaccine shortage and efficacy on variants

European Union leaders stepped up efforts to secure vaccine supplies amid a growing shortage, threatening drugmakers that the E.U. says have hampered a major rollout with production and other logistical delays.

The bloc’s executive branch on Friday published its contract with British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, following a heated dispute over the company’s announcement last week that it would deliver “considerably fewer” doses to E.U. member nations than agreed upon.

Although some parts of the contract were redacted at AstraZeneca’s request, the European Commission argues that the document makes clear that the company is obligated to use its British plants to supply the E.U. with doses. The drug manufacturer has said that because of production shortfalls in its E.U.-based plants, it won’t be able to meet its commitments, even though its British plants are operating at normal capacity and have been supplying Britain with doses.

The contract says that AstraZeneca must use its “best reasonable effort” to supply the contracted doses. What that means will probably be resolved in court unless the two sides reach a compromise.

The European Commission had reserved hundreds of millions of doses from major pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca but also Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. The E.U. health commissioner Friday was expected to announce curbs on vaccine exports from the 27-member bloc to outside countries, including a requirement that drugmakers seek prior authorization.

The decision drew criticism from industry bodies such as the International Chamber of Commerce. In a letter to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen this week, the Paris-based chamber said such a move would have a “devastating” impact on global vaccine supplies.

“Our immediate fear is that the proposed E.U. export controls risk triggering retaliatory actions by third countries that could very rapidly erode essential supply chains,” ICC Secretary General John Denton wrote in the letter, the Financial Times reported.

“Such a chain of events — which seems entirely foreseeable given the rapid escalation in trade barriers on personal protective equipment at the outset of the pandemic — would have devastating implications on the supply of vaccines globally, including across E.U. member states,” he said.

In its first vaccine safety update, the E.U.’s medical regulatory agency said Friday that no new side effects were identified in those immunized with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The European Medicines Agency also said that data did not show a link between the shot and a number of deaths that were reported post-vaccination.

Its safety committee “carried out an analysis of the cases and took into account the presence of other medical conditions and the death rate for corresponding age groups in the general population,” the EMA said in a statement. The committee “concluded that the data did not show a link to vaccination … and the cases do not raise a safety concern.”

In the United States, Maryland biotech company Novavax announced Thursday that its vaccine candidate proved effective against coronavirus infections, including in hot spots suffering outbreaks of the new variants. In a trial in Britain, where a more contagious strain is dominant, the vaccine was 89 percent effective, the company said.

More worrying, however, were the results from Novavax’s South African trial, where most participants were infected with the B.1351 variant. The vaccine’s efficacy in those cases dropped to between 49 and 60 percent, depending on whether the participant was also infected with HIV.

Britain and Germany were rolling out new travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of both the B.1351 variant, as well as a separate strain first identified in Brazil. On Friday, the British government banned direct passenger flights from the United Arab Emirates, where a surge in new infections has been blamed on a flood of international travel to and from Dubai.

Scientists and drug companies say the variant first identified in South Africa has evaded key antibody treatments and vaccines, potentially blunting efforts to tame the pandemic.

The B.1351 variant has now infected people in at least seven African countries, including Botswana, Ghana and Kenya, said the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti.

The virus continued to take an increasingly grim toll. In Mexico, the number of coronavirus deaths has surpassed those in India, according to Health Ministry figures. With more than 155,000 deaths, the country now has the third-highest number of fatalities worldwide.

Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.