European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a news conference after a meeting of the College of Commissioners at EU headquarters in Brussels, June 17, 2022. (GEERT VANDEN WIJNGAERT / AP)
BRUSSELS / SAO PAULO / COPENHAGEN / OTTAWA / SAN SALVADOR / BELGRADE / ADDIS ABABA / WINDHOEK – European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is no longer in possession of text messages that she exchanged with Pfizer chief Albert Bourla to seal a COVID-19 vaccine deal, the Commission said in a letter published on Wednesday.
In an interview in April 2021, von der Leyen revealed she had exchanged texts with Bourla for a month when they were negotiating a massive vaccine contract.
But in response to a public access request by a journalist because of the importance of the deal, the Commission did not share the texts, triggering accusations of maladministration by the EU's ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly.
"The Commission can confirm that the search undertaken by the President's cabinet for relevant text messages corresponding to the request for access to documents has not yielded any results," the EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova said in the letter to the ombudsman, an EU watchdog.
In the letter, the Commission argues that text messages do not need to be registered and stored because they are treated as "short-lived, ephemeral documents". The same exception to the general registration requirement applies to documents with no important information, the letter said.
A spokesperson for the ombudsman said that it planned to publish a detailed analysis on the matter in the next couple of weeks.
The deal, negotiated via text messages and calls, according to what von der Leyen herself said in her interview with the New York Times, was the biggest contract ever sealed for COVID-19 vaccines, with the EU committing to buy 900 million Pfizer-BioNTech shots, with an option to buy another 900 million.
When the deal was formally announced in May 2021, the EU had already secured hundreds of millions of vaccines from several drugmakers, including another 600 million doses from Pfizer and BioNTech under two previous contracts with the two companies.
The deal was backed by all EU governments but was later called into question by some of them who are now trying to renegotiate or cut supplies from Pfizer and other vaccine makers amid a slump in vaccination and growing risks of wastage.
A woman is vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Hillbrow Clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Dec 6, 2021. (SHIRAAZ MOHAMED / AP)
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa reached 11,794,205 as of Wednesday evening, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.
The specialized healthcare agency of the African Union (AU) said the death toll across the continent stands at 254,079.
South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are among the countries with the most cases on the continent, said the Africa CDC.
South Africa has recorded the highest COVID-19 cases in Africa with 3,993,004 cases, followed by Morocco with 1,212,906 cases as of Wednesday evening.
A healthcare worker dons a bouffant cap as staff treat patients suffering from coronavirus disease at Humber River Hospital's Intensive Care Unit, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 29, 2021. (COLE BURSTON / AFP)
The federal government of Canada is extending current COVID-19 border measures for travellers entering the country, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) announced Wednesday.
Requirements for travelers arriving to Canada are expected to remain in effect until at least Sept 30, 2022, PHAC said in a news release.
"As we move into the next phase of our COVID-19 response, it is important to remember that the pandemic is not over. We must continue to do all that we can to keep ourselves and others safe from the virus. Canada's border measures will remain flexible and adaptable, guided by science and prudence," said Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos.
According to the news release, the pause of mandatory random testing will continue at all airports until mid-July, for travellers who qualify as fully vaccinated. The pause was put in place on June 11, and is allowing airports to focus on streamlining their operations, while the government moves forward with its planned move of COVID-19 testing for air travellers outside of airports to select test provider stores, pharmacies, or by virtual appointment.
Moving testing outside of airports will allow Canada to adjust to increased traveller volumes while still being able to monitor and quickly respond to new variants of concern, or changes to the epidemiological situation, PHAC said, adding that border testing is an important tool in Canada's detection and surveillance of COVID-19 and has been essential in helping slow the spread of the virus.
This file photo dated April 26, 2017 shows the Eli Lilly and Co corporate headquarters in Indianapolis. (PHOTO / AP)
Eli Lilly and Co
Eli Lilly and Co (LLY.N) said on Wednesday it will supply additional doses of its COVID-19 antibody drug to the US government in order to meet demand through late August.
As per the modified supply agreement with the government, Lilly will provide an additional 150,000 doses of bebtelovimab for about $275 million. The drug has also shown effectiveness against the Omicron variant.
The FDA authorized the drug earlier this year for emergency use in patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who are at high risk of progression to severe disease, including hospitalization or death.
Lilly said bebtelovimab retains effectiveness against Omicron as well as its fast-spreading BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, which now make up more than 50% of COVID cases in the United States.
Lilly said delivery will begin immediately and US has an option to buy additional 350,000 doses till Sept 14.
Hospital admissions due to COVID-19 in El Salvador are on the decline despite a recent spike in cases, Health Minister Francisco Alabi said Wednesday.
In an interview with a local radio station, Alabi said the increase in cases is due to "the circulation of one of the variants of concern" and attributed the decrease in hospitalizations to the progress of vaccination against COVID-19.
"If we compare the ratio of confirmed cases and hospitalizations between 2021 and 2022, it is clear that we have registered a decrease," the official said, adding that "being vaccinated has been fundamental."
Health authorities have confirmed that fully vaccinated people with two booster shots are the most protected against complications associated with the disease, he said.
To date, the Central American country has administered more than 10.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to its population of 6.5 million people, meaning more than 4.3 million Salvadorans are fully vaccinated.
Montenegro confirmed 221 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday by performing 980 tests — which local experts said was a serious, 22.55 percent increase in the infection rate.
Data from the Institute of Public Health of Montenegro show that the number of new cases doubled compared to the previous week, when the country with a population of some 600,000 registered less than 100 new infections per day.
Igor Galic, director of the Institute of Public Health, told public broadcaster RTCG that the infection rate increased as a consequence of frequent contact between people and non-adherence to the preventive measures.
The country has maintained its face mask mandate on public transportation and in medical institutions.
The coronavirus-related hospitalization rate and death rate are both decreasing in the country, making the situation better than last summer, according to Galic.
People queue to be tested for COVID-19 in Windhoek, Namibia, on June 15, 2021. (DIRK HEINRICH / AP)
Namibia's Ministry of Health and Social Services has revised the guidelines on COVID-19 isolation and quarantine.
Ben Nangombe, Executive Director of the Ministry of Health and Social Services, said in a statement availed on Wednesday that the duration of isolation for COVID-19 positive cases for people who are asymptomatic or have the mild disease has been reduced from 10 days to 5 days.
In terms of quarantine, Nangombe said the quarantine period for contact cases and suspected cases is hereby reduced from 7 days to 5 days.
"A COVID-19 test should be conducted on day 5, then quarantine ends immediately following the receipt of the negative results," he said, adding that any person who becomes a contact of a COVID-19 positive case and is presenting with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 is deemed a suspected case and should get tested for COVID-19, and self-quarantine at home until the test results are out.
People wearing protective face masks are seen inside a tram decorated with Christmas lights in central Oslo on Dec 9, 2021. (ODD ANDERSEN / AFP)
Norway recommends a booster COVID-19 vaccine dose to those who are 75 years and older in response to a rising number of cases, the government said on Wedneday.
Local municipalities should also plan to be able to offer a booster jab, which for most people would mean a fourth shot, to citizens from 65 years and up and to people with an underlying disease, from Sept 1, it added.
A woman looks at images of the 551 doctors who died amid the COVID-19 pandemic which are displayed at the so-called "Paseo de los Heroes" outside Peru's Medical College (CMP) in Lima, on Dec 08, 2021. (ERNESTO BENAVIDES / AFP)
Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)
COVID-19 cases in the Americas rose about 14 percent last week from the previous one, with 1.3 million new cases and 4,158 new deaths reported, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.
South America was the worst affected, with an increased COVID death rate up 32.8 percent from previous week, according to PAHO Director Dr. Carissa Etienne.
"In South America, there has been a significant increase in COVID-19 incidence, with almost half a million new COVID-19 cases reported during the last week – a 24.6 percent increase compared to the previous week," Etienne said in a press briefing.
The largest rise in infections were reported in Bolivia followed by Peru.
North America saw an increase of 7.7 percent compared to the previous week despite a drop in cases in Canada, as the United States and Mexico are trending in the opposite direction, PAHO said.
"In the context of evolving patterns of transmission, countries should not lower their guard," Etienne said.
She stressed that more attention needs to be paid to prepare the Americas' health systems for the long-term effects of post COVID-19 conditions, often referred to as long COVID-19, for which symptoms can be "extremely debilitating."
The most common symptom is severe and persistent fatigue, Etienne said, adding that people may also experience shortness of breath and loss of taste and smell.
Dozens of other symptoms associated with long COVID-19 have been reported, including brain fog, chronic pain and rapid heartbeat that can last for months after the initial infection.
In this file photo taken on January 10, 2022, a health worker shows a vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against the coronavirus disease COVID-19 at a vaccination center in Santiago. (JAVIER TORRES / AFP)
Pfizer and BioNTech
Germany's BioNTech, Pfizer's partner in COVID-19 vaccines, said the two companies would start tests on humans of next-generation shots that protect against a wide variety of coronaviruses in the second half of the year.
Their experimental work on shots that go beyond the current approach include T-cell-enhancing shots, designed to primarily protect against severe disease if the virus becomes more dangerous, and pan-coronavirus shots that protect against the broader family of viruses and its mutations.
In presentation slides posted on BioNTech's website for its investor day, the German biotech firm said its aim was to "provide durable variant protection".
The two partners are currently discussing with regulators enhanced versions of their established shot to better protect against the Omicron variant and its sublineages.
As part of a push to further boost its infectious disease business, BioNTech said it was independently working on precision antibiotics that kill superbugs that have grown resistant to currently available anti-infectives.
BioNTech, which did not say when trials could begin, is leaning on the technology of PhagoMed, which it acquired in October last year.
The Vienna-based antibiotics developer has done work on enzymes, made by bacteria-killing viruses, that break through the bacterial cell wall.
A 6 year-old child is comforted by her mother as she receives her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by a medical assistant at the Child Health Associates office in Novi, Michigan on Nov 3, 2021. (JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP)
In another development, Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE said on Wednesday they signed a $3.2 billion deal with the US government for 105 million doses of their COVID-19 vaccine, which could be delivered as soon as later this summer.
The deal includes supplies of a retooled Omicron-adapted vaccine, pending regulatory clearance, according to Pfizer.
Drugmakers have been developing vaccines to target the Omicron variant that became dominant last winter.
The average price per dose in the new deal is over $30, a more than 50% increase from the $19.50 per dose the US government paid in its initial contract with Pfizer.
Some of the vaccine earmarked for adults included in the contract will be in single-dose vials, which are more expensive to manufacture but reduce waste of unused shots from open vials.
"We look forward to taking delivery of these new variant-specific vaccines and working with state and local health departments, pharmacies, healthcare providers, federally qualified health centers, and other partners to make them available in communities around the country this fall," US Health and Human Services (HHS) official Dawn O’Connell said in a statement.
The US government also has the option to purchase up to 195 million additional doses, bringing the total number of potential doses to 300 million, the companies said.
The new contract should boost 2022 vaccine sales for Pfizer and BioNTech, which share profits from the shots. Pfizer has forecast COVID-19 vaccine sales of $32 billion this year. Analysts, on average, have forecast 2022 sales of around $33.6 billion for the shots.