Covid updates: WHO warns of second wave in Africa, U.S. confirms cases with new South African strain

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White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci has said the newly developed mRNA technology used for the Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines will make it easy to adapt the shots for new coronavirus strains that have emerged in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. The drugmakers are already working on so-called booster shots, and they won't need to go through the same large-scale clinical trials that were required for the original vaccines to receive the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's emergency use authorization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health also plan to study how effective existing Covid-19 vaccines are against new variants.

Here are the biggest developments Thursday:

The U.S. is recording at least 162,000 new Covid-19 cases and at least 3,200 virus-related deaths each day, based on a seven-day average calculated by CNBC using Johns Hopkins University data.

The following data was compiled by Johns Hopkins University:

  • Global cases: More than 101.25 million  
  • Global deaths: At least 2.18 million
  • U.S. cases: More than 25.70 million
  • U.S. deaths: At least 431,882

Yellowstone visits fell just 5% in 2020

Visitations to the Yellowstone national park remained relatively high in 2020 despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Data compiled by the National Parks Service showed that more than 3.8 million people visited Yellowstone last year. That's down just 5.3% from 4.02 million in 2019.

Last year also marked the 14th straight year in which total Yellowstone visitors topped 3 million even as the Covid outbreak forced the closure of numerous park facilities.

However, 2020 was also the first year since 2014 that annual visitors did not top 4 million.

Fred Imbert

Novavax says its vaccine is more than 89% effective

Novavax said phase three U.K. clinical trials have found the company's coronavirus vaccine to be more than 89% effective, CNBC's Berkeley Lovelace reports.

The trial of 15,000 participants resulted in 56 Covid cases in the placebo group and just 6 cases in the vaccinated group.

Novavax CEO Stanley Erck said in a statement the company now "has the potential to play an important role in solving this global public health crisis."

—Sara Salinas

Covid variants are 'fueling Africa's second wave,' the World Health Organization says

A health worker wearing a protective suit takes a swab from a resident during a door-to-door testing in an attempt to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Umlazi township near Durban, South Africa, April 4, 2020.
Rogan Ward | Reuters

The World Health Organization said in a statement new coronavirus variants that are highly contagious are "fueling Africa's second wave," and the variant first identified in South Africa "is predominant and powering record case numbers in South Africa and the sub-region."

According to the WHO, the B.1.351 strain first found in South Africa has now been detected in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, the French Indian Ocean region of Mayotte, Zambia and 24 other non-African nations. Between Dec. 29 and Monday, the continent recorded 50% more Covid cases than in the previous 4-week period. Coronavirus deaths are also on the rise, roughly doubling over that same period.

The agency is working with the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to set up laboratories to conduct surveillance efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda. The WHO said each country should send at least 20 samples to the labs, which will "help map the fast-evolving situation and best target responses at all levels."

—Noah Higgins-Dunn

Lowe's set to hire 50,000 workers for the spring ahead of renovation season

A customer pays for his purchases inside a Lowe's store in Cary, North Carolina.
Jim R. Bounds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Lowe's plans to hire 50,000 workers in the U.S. ahead of the spring season when Americans stuck at home are likely to turn to remodeling, Reuters reports.

The company said it would pay frontline workers around $80 million in additional discretionary bonuses, which would result in a total of almost $1.3 billion in Covid-19 financial commitment to its employees and communities, according to Reuters.

Lowe's said it has hired more than 90,000 workers for permanent positions in the last year.

Rich Mendez

Pelosi says Covid relief process will start next week

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats will start the process next week to approve another coronavirus relief bill — with or without Republican support.

The chamber plans to pass a budget resolution, a step toward using reconciliation. Through the process, Democrats could pass an aid package without any GOP votes.

President Joe Biden is trying to win Republican support for his $1.9 trillion relief package, which includes vaccine distribution money, $1,400 direct payments and a $400 per week unemployment supplement. However, Republicans have criticized the price tag and appear unlikely to back large parts of the proposal.

Democrats have to decide now whether to move forward as soon as possible or wait to see whether they can strike a deal with the GOP. Pelosi said she hopes lawmakers can craft a bipartisan plan, but wants to make sure Congress is "ready" in case Democrats decide to use reconciliation.

—Jacob Pramuk

State legislatures making push to limit governors' pandemic response ability

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan takes his mask off as he arrives for a press conference to address COVID-19 concerns in Annapolis, MD on November 17.
Bill O'Leary | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Legislators from Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, Indiana and Pennsylvania are moving to curb the authority of governors to impose emergency restrictions such as mask rules and business shutdowns, according to the Associated Press.

Lawmakers from more than half of U.S. states have filed bills to minimize their governor's powers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the news service said.

In addition, officials are looking to reduce the power of local authorities' emergency powers. Most notably in states where governors defer most shutdown decisions to local municipalities, like Missouri.

Christian Nunley

First cases of South African Covid variant confirmed in U.S.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said in a statement that they detected the nation's first two cases of a new, highly contagious strain of the virus first found in South Africa known as B.1.351.

The strain was found in two adults with no travel history or connection with one another, the department said. All three main variants of concern — those first found in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil — have now been identified in the United States.

The B.1.351 variant has given scientists, including White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, more cause for concern because early data suggests it could more easily evade the antibodies provided by some coronavirus treatments and may reduce the effectiveness of the current line of available vaccines.

"CDC is early in its efforts to understand this variant and will continue to provide updates as we learn more," the health agency said in a statement. "CDC's recommendations for slowing the spread—wearing masks, staying at least 6 feet apart from others, avoiding crowds, ventilating indoor spaces, and washing hands often—will also prevent the spread of this variant."

—Noah Higgins-Dunn

New York AG says state undercounted nursing home deaths

The New York Department of Health underreported Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%, according to a new report published by New York Attorney General Letitia James.

The investigation found that the number of Covid deaths among nursing home residents in some facilities rose by more than 50% after counting residents who died in the hospital. The state's official Covid-19 death toll in nursing homes excludes patients who died after being transported to a hospital.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has faced criticism for failing to disclose the total number of nursing-home residents who have died of Covid-19. In her sweeping report, James, also a Democrat, found that "many nursing home residents died from Covid-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes, which is not reflected in D.O.H.'s published total nursing home death data."

—Will Feuer

How scientists can 'copy and paste' mRNA vaccines for variants

New coronavirus variants raise concerns about the efficacy of the vaccines currently authorized for use against the virus. Both Moderna and Pfizer's vaccines utilize messenger RNA technology, which is easier to modify and can be manufactured quicker than conventional vaccines.

These mRNA vaccines work by giving our cells instructions for making non-infectious spike proteins on the virus that causes Covid. If exposed to the actual virus, the body recalls how to trigger an immune response and create antibodies that fight the virus.

It's possible to replace one sequence of mRNA in the vaccine for another in a matter of weeks.

Moderna announced Monday that the drugmaker is creating a vaccine booster for the South African variant "out of an abundance of caution." The booster will use the same technology, chemistry and manufacturing process as the initial vaccine, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel told CNBC's "Squawk Box" Monday. "So, the products are very similar with just a few mutation changes...."

Dr. Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna, told Time that making the booster is essentially a matter of "copying and pasting" in the South African mutation.

Cory Stieg

Stuck in snowstorm, health-care workers vaccinate other stranded drivers

Josephine County Public Health staff setting up an impromptu clinic on the way back to Grants Pass when a snowstorm stranded about 20 personnel on Highway 199 near Hayes Hill.
Courtesy: Josephine County Public Health

Health-care workers stuck in a snowstorm Wednesday on their way back from a Covid-19 vaccination event were able to use six doses before they expired, the Associated Press reported.

The six doses were given to other stranded drivers on the highway. The health-care workers walked from vehicle to vehicle offering the vaccine to drivers, according to AP.

Josephine County Public Health Director Mike Weber told the Associated Press it was one of the "coolest operations he'd been a part of."

Rich Mendez

U.S. initial jobless claims total 847,000, less than expected

First-time filers for unemployment benefits in the U.S. totaled 847,000 last week, less than the 875,000 first-time claims expected by economists polled by Dow Jones, reports CNBC's Thomas Franck.

Jobless claims for the previous week were revised upwards by 14,000 to 914,000.

Continuing claims showed a decrease for the week, falling by 203,000 to 4.77 million, a new pandemic-era low. Some 5.05 million continuing claims were expected.

—Melodie Warner 

U.S. GDP increased 4.0% in fourth quarter, slightly less than expected

U.S. gross domestic product increased 4.0% in the fourth quarter, slightly below the 4.3% expectation from economists surveyed by Dow Jones., reports CNBC's Jeff Cox.

Activity seemed to slow as the year came to a close, as a slower than anticipated rollout of Covid-19 vaccines combined with a continued rise in cases and restrictions on activity across the country.

—Melodie Warner 

American, Southwest post record annual losses amid travel restrictions

Southwest Airlines flight 1117 from St. Louis lands at Boston Logan International Airport on March 13, 2019. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
John Tlumacki | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines reported record quarterly losses and forecast difficult months ahead as the industry deals with new travel restrictions and a slow rollout of vaccines, reports CNBC's Leslie Josephs.

American posted a fourth-quarter loss of $2.2 billion as revenue tumbled more than 64% to $4.03 billion. The airline also said it expects first-quarter capacity to be down 45% from 2019 and expects revenue to be 60% to 65% lower than the year-ago quarter.

Separately, Southwest reported its first annual loss since 1972 and said it would remain conservative with capacity through March, citing weak demand.

Southwest forecast January revenue will be down 65% to 70% compared with 2019, slightly better than a decline of as much as 75% which it previously forecast after cancellations stabilized. The Dallas-based airline said February revenue will likely fall 65% to 75% compared with a year ago.

—Melodie Warner 

EU suggests AstraZeneca diverts supplies of Covid vaccine from UK

The European Union has suggested that drugmaker AstraZeneca divert supplies of its coronavirus vaccine from the U.K. to mainland Europe, as a battle over production delays and supply continues.

It comes after AstraZeneca told the EU last week that it would initially deliver far fewer doses of its Covid vaccine to the 27-member bloc than originally pledged as it deals with production issues at its continental plants.

The EU demanded on Wednesday that the pharmaceutical giant fulfill its agreement to supply it with coronavirus vaccines, by whatever means necessary.

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said talks with the company, which continued Wednesday, had been "constructive." But she also tweeted that "contractual obligations must be met, vaccines must be delivered to EU citizens."

Holly Ellyatt

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