Covid updates: Millions of fake N95 masks seized; U.S. investing in variant detection

The coverage on this live blog has ended — for up-to-the-minute coverage on the coronavirus, visit CNBC's latest live blog.

The U.S. continues to see a decline in new Covid-19 cases as the Biden administration works to increase the number of Covid vaccine doses shipped to states and retail pharmacies. Since being inaugurated on Jan. 20, President Joe Biden has increased the number of doses shipped weekly to states by 57%. Yet, White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci on Tuesday said he now expects vaccines to be widely available to the general public by mid-to-late May or early June, a slight delay from his earlier forecast of late March or early April.

Here are some of the biggest developments Wednesday:

The U.S. is recording at least 80,500 new Covid-19 cases and at least 2,100 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 109.83 million 
  • Global deaths: At least 2.42 million
  • U.S. cases: More than 27.81 million
  • U.S. deaths: At least 489,933

Nation's top health officials warn fast-spreading variants could delay nation's control of pandemic

The U.S. needs to rapidly deploy Covid-19 vaccines and ramp up its surveillance before highly contagious variants take hold or the virus mutates again and makes the pandemic even worse, the nation's top health experts warned in a viewpoint published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA.

In the U.S., the level of viral spread in the community needs to be "aggressively decreased" and Americans should postpone travel and avoid crowds to ensure the variants don't continue spreading, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's Covid incident manager, wrote in the paper.

They added that the U.S. should not only be prepared to address the variants found in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil, but other potential mutations that might arise domestically. A previous CDC study in January warned that the variant found in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7, is likely to become the dominant strain circulating in the U.S. by March.

"Modeling data have illustrated how a more contagious variant, such as B.1.1.7, has the potential to exacerbate the trajectory of the US pandemic and to reverse the present downward trend in new infections and further delay control of the pandemic," the experts said in the paper.

—Noah Higgins-Dunn

U.S. to pay more than $200 million in WHO membership fees held back by Trump

A sign of the World Health Organization (WHO) at its headquarters in Geneva.
Fabrice Coffrini | Getty Images

The U.S. will pay the World Health Organization more than $200 million in membership fees that were halted by the Trump administration, CNBC's Amanda Macias reported.

Trump withheld payments to the WHO after blaming the organization for "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus."

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Wednesday the move to pick up deferred payments and to continue membership payments "reflects our renewed commitment to ensuring the WHO has the support it needs to lead the global response to the pandemic even as we work to reform it for the future."

Blinken also called on global officials to be aware of vaccine misinformation and to share any information of the origins of the coronavirus with officials who are investigating the matter.

Rich Mendez

DHS seizes 11 million fake N95 masks

The Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday it seized more than 11 million counterfeit 3M N95 masks that were destined for frontline health-care workers.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at a press conference that more raids can be expected over the next few weeks. Criminal charges, he added, are forthcoming. He and other DHS officials declined to provide details, saying it's policy not to comment on an ongoing investigation.

"We are at a vulnerable time, of course, with the pandemic costing so many lives and causing so much harm," Mayorkas said. "And that individuals, criminals exploit our vulnerabilities for a quick buck is something that we will continue to aggressively pursue."

Fake N95 masks have flooded the U.S. market during the pandemic, slipping past investigators and finding their way into hospitals and medical facilities. Mayorkas noted that when frontline health-care workers use fake N95 masks, it puts the whole community at risk as it increases the risk of spread of the coronavirus.

—Will Feuer

When to take over-the-counter pain medication for vaccine side effects — and other tips

It's safe to take over-the-counter pain medications after getting the Covid vaccine to manage side effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, it's not recommended to pre-treat the symptoms and take a pain medication beforehand.

The concern is that taking pain medications that reduce fevers and inflammation could also dampen your immune system's response to the vaccine. A recent study out of Yale found that giving mice nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aka "NSAIDS") before being exposed to SARS-CoV-2 led to fewer protective antibodies from the virus.

The common side effects for the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccines include pain and swelling at the injection site and flu-like symptoms including fatigue, headache, fever and chills.

The CDC recommends talking to your doctor about taking ibuprofen, aspirin, antihistamines or acetaminophen to cope with side effects, which can last a few days.

Applying a cool, wet cloth to the spot on your arm where the shot was given can relieve pain, according to the CDC. It's also important to drink lots of fluids if feverish, and wear lightweight clothing to keep comfortable.

—Cory Stieg

New York governor announces more reopenings but warns variants could hinder progress

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a series of planned reopenings amid a decline in Covid-19 cases following the holidays, but said state officials are keeping a close eye on the spread of highly transmissible virus variants that could reverse progress.

Indoor family entertainment centers, like arcades, trampoline parks or laser tag facilities, will be allowed to reopen starting March 26 at 25% capacity with additional precautions, like social distancing, mask wearing and frequent cleaning.

Outdoor amusement parks can reopen on April 9 at 33% capacity with similar requirements, and parents can plan for overnight summer camps to return at some point in June, the Democratic governor said on a call with reporters.

New York has now identified 82 Covid-19 cases with the variant first identified in the United Kingdom, known as B.1.1.7., with an additional 12 cases added since Saturday. Cuomo added that most of those new cases were found in the New York City area.

—Noah Higgins-Dunn

New Jersey governor extends state's public health emergency

Phil Murphy, New Jersey's governor, speaks at a news conference after touring the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center Covid-19 vaccination site in Edison, New Jersey on January 15, 2021.
Mark Kauzlarich | Bloomberg | Getty Images

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Twitter that the state will be extending its public health emergency for another 30 days.

The public health emergency mandate gives the governor authority to continue taking executive action to combat the virus. The order also maintains current capacity restrictions for public gatherings as well as indoor and outdoor mask mandates when in public.

New Jersey recorded over 3,000 new Covid cases and 31 virus-related deaths in the past day, according to John Hopkins University data. There are still over 2,000 patients hospitalized with the virus in the state, according to New Jersey's Department of Health.

Rich Mendez

MGM to resume 24/7 operations at 3 resorts

Visitors play a socially-distanced electronic table game of roulette at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino after the Las Vegas Strip property opened for the first time since being closed in mid-March because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on July 1, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller | Getty Images

MGM Resorts will be resuming 24/7 operations in three of its resorts — Mandalay Bay, Park MGM and The Mirage — starting March 3, the company announced Wednesday in a statement.

MGM's resorts have been implementing mid-week closures to accommodate lower demand in entertainment and travel due to the pandemic.

"As we begin to see positive signs around the public's sentiment about traveling, coupled with important progress on the vaccination front and decreasing COVID-19 case numbers, bringing Mandalay Bay, Park MGM and The Mirage back to full-week operations is an important step for us," said MGM Resorts' CEO and President Bill Hornbuckle.

The company also announced the return of some of its live shows later this month.

—Katie Tsai

Biden administration investing over $1.6 billion to expand testing, sequencing

Healthcare workers from the Medical University of South Carolina administer free Covid-19 tests at a site in a parking lot between Edmund's Oast and Butcher & Bee restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.
Micah Green | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it will invest more than $1.6 billion to increase Covid-19 testing programs in schools and elsewhere and increase genomic sequencing in the United States.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense will invest $650 million to expand testing in K-8 schools and "underserved congregate settings, such as homeless shelters," the White House said.

HHS and DOD will also invest $815 million to increase domestic manufacturing of testing supplies and raw materials that have created shortage issues.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will invest an additional $200 million into its genomic sequencing efforts to help track new variants of the coronavirus in the U.S.

Carole Johnson, the White House's Covid-19 testing coordinator said the funding is meant to increase testing in the short term, but called on Congress to pass President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion aid package, called the American Rescue Plan, which includes $50 billion in funding for testing.

Will Feuer

Scientists push CDC to get serious on airborne spread, improve workplace mask standards

More than a dozen top scientists are pushing the Biden administration to require N95 air filtration masks for employees in risky workplaces and issue air safety standards.

The 13 scientists, which include several who advised President Joe Biden on the pandemic during the transition, called on the administration to acknowledge that the virus is more airborne than previously thought. The group, which includes David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under Obama, also called on OSHA to issue new standards that require enhanced ventilation in high-risk workplaces.

"CDC guidance and recommendations do not include the control measures necessary for protecting the public and workers from inhalation exposure to SARS-CoV-2," the authors wrote in a letter sent Monday to White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients. The letter was also sent to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's chief medical advisor.

Will Feuer

J&J only has a few million vaccine doses ready as it nears U.S. approval

Johnson & Johnson Coronavirus vaccine illustration
Dado Ruvic | Reuters

Johnson & Johnson has only manufactured "a few million" doses of its single-shot Covid-19 vaccine ahead of its regulatory clearance expected later this month, President Joe Biden's coronavirus czar said.

The administration has learned in the last couple of weeks that J&J will only have a few million doses ready when the vaccine is likely authorized by the FDA, Jeff Zients told reporters during a White House news briefing on the pandemic.

J&J currently has a deal with the U.S. government to supply 100 million doses of its vaccine by the end of June, Zients said. Assuming the vaccine is authorized, the administration will work with J&J to ramp up supply as quickly as possible, he said, adding U.S. officials hope many of those doses will be available in the early months of its rollout.

"We're doing everything we can working with the company to accelerate the delivery schedule," he said.

–Berkeley Lovelace Jr.

Franchising industry expects to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels

An employee wearing a protective mask and gloves hands an order to a customer at a Wendys Co. restaurant in Richmond, California, U.S., on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The franchising industry is set to make a comeback after the coronavirus pandemic left the future of the industry in question.

A new report shows that the rebound could be successful if Covid is handled efficiently, according to CNBC's Kate Rogers.

The International Franchise Association estimates that more than 26,000 franchised locations will be added this year, which amounts to a rise of 3.5%. The gain should offset last year's setbacks.

The expert group also expects employment in the industry to rise by 10% to about 8.3 million workers.

Last year, the industry's employment fell 11.2% due to pandemic shutdowns and closures. This year's boost is in part due to a rise in the commercial and residential services industry and especially from the quick-service restaurant category.

Rich Mendez

CDC warns against travel after investigation into people with contagious variant in Minnesota

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking Americans to postpone their travel plans after a newly released investigation found Minnesota residents who were infected with a highly contagious Covid variant had histories of domestic and international travel before displaying symptoms.

The CDC and Minnesota health officials identified eight Covid-19 cases with the variant first identified in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7, between Dec. 18 and Jan. 11. After follow-up investigations, the Minnesota Department of Health found that six of those people had recent travel histories.

Two people had traveled to West Africa and one had traveled to the Dominican Republic two weeks before illness onset. Three additional people had traveled to California two weeks before their illness, where one of them tested positive and quarantined before returning to Minnesota, the CDC found.

So far, there are at least 1,277 Covid-19 cases with the B.1.1.7 variant in 42 states, according to the CDC's most recent data.

—Noah Higgins-Dunn

Henry Schein CEO on how to make the U.S. vaccine rollout more efficient

Henry Schein CEO on how to make the U.S. vaccine rollout more efficient
Henry Schein CEO on how to make the U.S. vaccine rollout more efficient

Medical supply distributor Henry Schein has a unique view on the pandemic and the recovery. Henry Schein CEO Stanley Bergman joined CNBC's "Squawk Box" to give his insight on how to improve the vaccine rollout in the United States.

Hong Kong Disneyland to reopen Friday

An actor dressed as Goofy rides the Dumbo the Flying Elephant attraction in Fantasyland at Walt Disney Co.'s Disneyland Resort during its reopening in Hong Kong, China, on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.
Lam Yik | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Disney's Hong Kong theme park is set to reopen on Friday.

Hong Kong Disneyland has been closed three times in response to spikes in coronavirus cases in the last year, with the most recent closure going into effect on Dec. 2, 2020.

Like previous reopenings, the park will implement a number of safety precautions including mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and increased sanitation measures. Attendance at the parks will also be capped in accordance with local government guidance.

The park will be operated five days a week, closing on Tuesday and Thursdays, the company said. All guests will be required to provide their contact information to the park in the event of an outbreak that requires contact tracing.

Currently, only Disney parks in Shanghai, Tokyo and Florida are open. Disneyland Paris and Disneyland in California remain closed indefinitely due to government restrictions. These closures and capacity restrictions have weighed heavy on Disney's bottom line.

The company said the Covid outbreak cost its parks, experiences and products segment around $2.6 billion in lost operating income during the December quarter, the fourth quarter in a row that the company reported this kind of loss. Its revenue for this division fell 53% to $3.58 billion in the fiscal first quarter.

—Sarah Whitten

UK to expose volunteers to Covid in world’s first ‘human challenge’ study

The U.K. is set to be the first country to run a Covid-19 "human challenge" study, following approval from the country's clinical trials ethics body.

The first Covid-19 human challenge trial will see up to 90 volunteers, aged 18 to 30 years, exposed to Covid-19 "in a safe and controlled environment to increase understanding of how the virus affects people," the British government said in a statement Wednesday.

Researchers are calling on healthy young people, who are at the lowest risk of complications resulting from coronavirus, to volunteer for the study. Volunteers will be compensated for the time they spend in the study, which is set to begin within a month.

Holly Ellyatt

TransferWise's co-founder wants to fight the pandemic

Taavet Hinrikus, co-founder and chairman of TransferWise, speaks at a tech conference in London on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg via Getty Images

TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus launched a new venture looking to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Called Certific, Hinrikus' new company aims to improve the experience of testing for the coronavirus remotely from home. Certific's app verifies users' identities and instructs them on how to take Covid-19 tests with trained doctors at the ready to verify the test result and provide certification.

It's only available for individuals and businesses in the U.K. for now, but Hinrikus hopes to expand it to other countries over time. Certific also plans to integrate vaccine information further down the line. This could pave the way for vaccine passports to prove people have had the vaccine and get them back to work and play.

—Ryan Browne

Russia and China seek to advance their interests abroad via vaccine diplomacy

A health worker gets the Sputnik V vaccine at the Centenario Hospital in Rosario, Santa Fe Province, as the vaccination campaign against the novel coronavirus Covid-19 started in Argentina, on Dec. 29, 2020.
STR | AFP | Getty Images

Russia and China are both seen adopting a transactional approach to one of the world's most in-demand commodities in order to secure foreign policy gains, prompting analysts to warn that the concept of vaccine diplomacy is here to stay.

Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC via telephone that Russia, China, and to a lesser extent India, are betting on providing Covid vaccines to emerging or low-income countries to advance their interests.

"In the past, although it is actually still the case, we saw that China launched the Belt and Road Initiative, we saw that Russia did a number of things especially in the Middle Eastern countries with nuclear power plants, and vaccine diplomacy is a new brick in the whole edifice of their attempt to bolster their global standing," Demarais said.

In total, 26 countries including Argentina, Hungary, Tunisia and Turkmenistan, have authorized Russia's Sputnik V vaccine. China's queue of clients for Covid vaccines includes Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, among others.

—Sam Meredith

New York attorney general sues Amazon over Covid-19 safety shortfalls

New York State Attorney General Letitia James
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

New York Attorney General Letitia James sued over its handling of worker safety issues around the Covid-19 pandemic at two of the retailer's warehouses, Reuters reports.

James on Tuesday charged Amazon with "flagrant disregard" of the steps needed to protect workers from Covid at two of its New York City warehouses — a Staten Island fulfillment center and a Queens distribution center, according to Reuters.

The complaint comes days after Amazon filed its own lawsuit seeking to block the New York AG from regulating its workplace safety response to the pandemic. Amazon said the company operates in an area that is already governed by federal law.

Terri Cullen

Ahold Delhaize CEO says Covid 'pain' is taking its toll on business

Covid 'pain' taking its toll on business, Ahold Delhaize CEO says
Covid 'pain' taking its toll on business, Ahold Delhaize CEO says

Ahold Delhaize CEO Frans Muller talks with CNBC about the Dutch grocer's full-year 2020 results and the outlook for 2021 amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Calls for global 'pandemic treaty' grow as anxiety swells over Covid origins

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is among several officials proposing a global "pandemic treaty" to ensure more transparency about future pandemics. The call comes amid unease over China's reluctance to share information about the coronavirus outbreak.

The proposed international treaty on pandemics would have countries agree to share data around outbreaks, establish a global pandemic early warning system and build a network of zoonotic disease research hubs looking at how viruses can jump from animals to humans.

The U.K. and the U.S. have voiced concern over the level of access that was afforded to a World Health Organization mission to China, aimed at discovering the origins of the novel coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan in late 2019.

China has said that it cooperated fully with the WHO team and has also repeatedly stressed that the coronavirus could have originated elsewhere.

Holly Ellyatt

Read CNBC’s previous live coverage here: