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Coronavirus Update: U.S. on track to almost triple vaccine output in March, as new variants pressure Europe and Brazil

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The U.S. vaccine program is expected to be boosted by the end of March as manufacturers ramp up production to almost triple the output achieved in February, raising hopes the nation can move faster to get jabs into arms and avoid the spike in cases that is being caused by new variants in Europe and elsewhere.

The U.S. is expected to manufacture 132 million vaccine doses in March, compared with 48 million in February, according to estimates from Evercore analysts. That’s after companies, with help from the federal government, were able to raise output and scale up production by taking steps such as making certain raw materials themselves, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

Pfizer Inc.
PFE,
+1.13%
,
for example, has started to recycle special filters needed for the manufacturing process, while Moderna Inc.
MRNA,
+1.43%

has shortened the time needed to inspect and package new vials, the paper reported. The government has helped companies access supplies using the Defense Production Act, providing $105 million in funding to help Merck & Co.
MRK,
-0.79%

make the Johnson and Johnson
JNJ,
-0.04%

vaccine in a deal brokered by the Biden administration.

There was good news on the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca PLC
AZN,
+3.01%

AZN,
+2.91%

and Oxford University, in the shape of a U.S. clinical trial involving more than 32,000 people that found it to be safe and 79% effective in preventing symptomatic disease.

AstraZeneca said it would continue to analyze the data and prepare its request for emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a move that, if approved, would add a fourth jab to the existing programs of the Pfizer, Moderna and J&J ones, as the Journal reported.

The news comes after several countries temporarily halted use of the AstraZeneca jab due to serious blood clotting in a very small number of patients in Europe who received the shot. The U.S. trials identified no increased risk of serious blood clotting. European and U.K. medicine regulators had already endorsed the shot and said the clotting issues were not proven to be linked to it.

Raymond James analyst Chris Meekins said there is a race happening, between vaccines and variants.

“As we warned months ago, some variants of the virus are concerning,” Meekins wrote in a Monday note to clients. “While our nationwide case, hospitalization, and death counts remain encouraging, warning signs from new variants in Michigan and New York bear watching. Other nations trailing the U.S. on vaccinations, face significant surges due to variant strains. “

The global tally of COVID cases rose for a second straight week, averaging 459,000, a six-week high, said Meekins. Brazil, which is grappling with the highly infectious P1 variant, added as many cases as the U.S. and India combined, and cumulative case count topped India’s to become number 2 globally.

“Europe’s situation also deteriorated: from France in the West to Ukraine in the east, there is a third wave,” he wrote.

Germany and France are extending lockdowns, while Brazil is urging local authorities to give more people a first jab, instead of preserving doses for second jabs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. ET Sunday, 156.7 million doses had been delivered to states, 124.5 million doses had been administered and 81.4 million people had received at least one dose, equal to 24.5% of the population. A full 44.1 million Americans had received two doses, equal to 13.3% of the population.

See also: Gowns, masks, sanitizer—but where’s the emotional PPE?

The U.S. added at least 34,217 new cases on Sunday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 444 people died. Those numbers may be underreported given reduced staffing at hospitals on weekends. The U.S. has averaged 54,404 cases a day in the past week, down 7% from two weeks ago.

The U.S. continues to lead the world by cases, at almost 30 million, or about a fifth of the global tally, and deaths at 542,359, or about a quarter of the global number.

Don’t miss: Vaccines are here. That’s no reason to call off the hunt for effective COVID-19 treatments.

In other news:

• Miami Beach officials warned Sunday that the unruly spring break crowd gathering by the thousands, fighting in the streets, destroying restaurant property and refusing to wear masks has become a serious threat to public safety, the Associated Press reported. After more than 1,000 arrests over the weekend, officials voted to extend for another week a highly unusual 8 p.m. curfew along famed South Beach, with the possibility of extending it well into April if needed, and stressed this isn’t the typical spring break crowd. They said it’s not college students, but adults looking to let loose in one of the few states fully open during the pandemic. Local officials have struggled to enforce COVID ordinances. Florida has no statewide mask rules, limits on capacity or other such restrictions, courtesy of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pro-business stance.

• Kent Taylor, founder and CEO of the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain, has died aged 65. His family and the company say he took his own life after suffering from symptoms related to COVID-19, including severe tinnitus, the AP reported. Taylor’s family and the company on Sunday confirmed his death in a statement. Tinnitus is a common condition involving ringing or other noises in one or both ears. Experts say the coronavirus can exacerbate tinnitus problems. “Kent battled and fought hard like the former track champion that he was, but the suffering that greatly intensified in recent days became unbearable,” the statement said.

• Shares of U.K.-listed airlines skidded on Monday on worries a potential third wave of COVID-19 cases will derail summer holidays, MarketWatch’s Steve Goldstein reported. International Airlines Group 
IAG,
-3.89%
,
 easyJet
EZJ,
-4.76%
,
 TUI 
TUI,
-3.85%
,
 Wizz Air 
WIZZ,
-1.87%
,
 and Ryanair 
RYA,
-2.45%

 declined between 3% and 6% after scientific advisers were reportedly urging U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to lift a ban on foreign holidays. The news comes as Germany was poised to extend a lockdown and as the European Union has struggled in its vaccination campaign and now is considering blocking exports of AstraZeneca vaccines to the U.K.

• Moderna has agreed to supply the Philippines with an additional seven million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, MarketWatch’s Tomi Kilgore reported. That brings the total number of doses the Philippines has secured from Moderna to 20 million, including the previously announced supply agreement of 13 million doses, in which deliveries would begin in mid-2021. Moderna said its vaccine is currently not approved for use in the Philippines, so will work with regulators to pursue approvals before the doses are distributed.

•More than 6,000 people, most of them unmasked, participated in an illegal street party in the French city of Marseille over the weekend, in what was described as an “unacceptable” breach of rules, AFP reported. Marseille was not among the 16 different regions which entered a fresh lockdown on Saturday, with its current caseload lower than national hot spots such as nearby city Nice along the Mediterranean coast or the capital region. “It’s completely unacceptable at a time when all of us are making efforts, are adapting and organizing ourselves to respect the different rules in order to fight against the pandemic,” interior ministry spokeswoman Camille Chaize told Franceinfo radio on Monday. Nine people had been arrested and dozens had been fined, she said.

Alerts and web-browser tools can help you book a Covid-19 vaccine appointment. WSJ’s Joanna Stern met up with Kris Slevens, an IT guy who has booked over 300 appointments for New Jersey seniors, to learn the best tricks to compete in the vaccine-booking Hunger Games. Photo illustration: Emil Lendof for The Wall Street Journal
Latest tallies

The global tally of COVID-19 cases rose above 123 million on Monday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll grew to 2.71 million.

Almost 70 million people have recovered from COVID, the data show.

Brazil has the second-highest death toll after the U.S. at 294,042 and second-highest case tally at 11.9 million.

India is third with 11.6 million cases and fourth by deaths at 159,967.

Mexico has 198,036 fatalities, or third-highest in the world, and 13th highest by cases.

The U.K. has 4.3 million cases and 126,393 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 101,533 confirmed cases and 4,839 deaths, according to its official numbers.

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