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China slams Biden for investigation of coronavirus origins as WHO says Africa urgently needs 20 million AstraZeneca doses

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 168 million on Thursday, as China hit back at President Joe Biden’s push to have U.S. intelligence investigate the origins of the coronavirus, amid renewed concerns it may have come from a laboratory in Wuhan.

Biden also said the U.S. would work with allies “to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence.” The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China.

China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian lashed back at a briefing on Thursday, accusing the U.S. of playing politics and calling on it “to do the same as China and immediately cooperate with the World Health Organization on origin tracing research in a scientific manner,” the Associated Press reported.

Lijian said Biden’s order showed the U.S. “does not care about facts and truth, nor is it interested in serious scientific origin tracing.”

A World Health Organization delegation traveled to China earlier this year to determine the cause of the outbreak but was unable to reach a definitive conclusion. Other theories include that the virus came from an animal at a wet market in Wuhan, possibly a bat. The virus has caused the deaths of 3.5 million people worldwide, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

There was a flurry of news on treatments and vaccines on Thursday. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to an antibody developed by GlaxoSmithKline PLC
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and Vir Biotechnology Inc.
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 in mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in adults and pediatric patients who are at high risk of severe illness, including hospitalization or death.

Vir Chief Executive George Scangos said an interim analysis of data produced in a laboratory found the antibody treatment showed an 85% reduction in all-cause hospitalizations or death and is effective against all known variants of concern, including the emerging variant from India. 

Separately, Glaxo and French drug company Sanofi
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said they began global Phase 3 efficacy studies of their jointly produced COVID-19 candidate. The randomized, double-blind placebo controlled study will involve more than 35,000 volunteers aged 18 and older from the U.S., Africa, Asia and Latin America. In a two-stage approach, the study will first look at how effective the vaccine is against the original D.614 (Wuhan) virus, and then see how it works against the B.1.351 South African variant.

The U.S. vaccine program has now fully inoculated 39.7% of the population, while 49.7% has received at least one dose. Among American adults aged 18 and over, 50.3% of the population is fully vaccinated. In the 65-years and older group, 74% are fully vaccinated, the CDC ‘s vaccine tracker shows.

U.S. case numbers, fatalities and hospitalizations are all improving. The seven-day average of new cases stood at about 23,000 on Wednesday, according to a New York Times tracker, down 37% from two weeks ago. Daily deaths are averaging 517 a day, down from more than 3,300 at the January peak.

Elsewhere, however, vaccines are still in short supply. The following chart highlights the inequity in vaccine distribution that has been repeatedly called out by the WHO and other public agencies. Sudan, for example, has vaccinated just 0.2% of its population.

The WHO said Africa needs at least 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the next six weeks to get second doses to people who have received a first dose within the recommended 8 to 12 week interval.

Outside of that urgent need, Africa needs another 200 million doses of any COVID-19 vaccine available to enable the continent to vaccinate 10% of its population by September, a goal expressed by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for all countries at the start of the agency’s annual meeting this week.

So far, only 28 million vaccine doses have been administered in Afrida, equal to less than two per 100 people.

“As supplies dry up, dose-sharing is an urgent, critical and short-term solution to ensuring that Africans at the greatest risk of COVID-19 get the much-needed protection,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, in a statement. “Africa needs vaccines now. Any pause in our vaccination campaigns will lead to lost lives and lost hope.”

A Word from the Experts: Rick Bright wants to wipe out this virus — but it’s going to take better COVID-19 vaccines, distributed to 70% of the world’s population

In other news:

• CureVac’s
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CEO said the company’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine can still play an important role in the pandemic fight given the “rapid spread” of concerning variants, MarketWatch’s Callum Keown reported. Franz-Werner Haas said the German company’s shot, called CVnCoV, was in the final stages of development and had benefited from the diverse range of virus variants included in its trials. He noted that new strains emerging in recent months had superseded the original strain, which spread across the world last year.

See also: Will we need COVID-19 booster shots? Increasingly, the expectation is yes

• The head of the Japan Doctors Union warned of the possible emergence of an “Olympic strain” of the coronavirus if the games are held as planned in two months, the Washington Post reported. Naoto Ueyama has consistently urged that the games be canceled given the state of the pandemic, with cases still rising and the healthcare systems showing signs of stress. “It is dangerous to hold the Olympics here in Tokyo this July,” he warned in a news conference, saying that with people coming into Japan from over 200 nations around the world, “all of the different mutant strains of the virus that exist in different places will be concentrated and gathered here in Tokyo.”

Indoor dining, workout classes, concerts. These once commonplace events are coming back into daily life. But because of Covid-19, everyone now has a different level of comfort. What happens in the brain as we decide what’s risky or not? Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

• Melbourne, capital of Australia’s second most populous state Victoria, is entering a 7-day lockdown to counter a fresh wave of infections, the BBC reported. The lockdown is scheduled to begin at midnight Thursday. Melbourne has recorded 26 cases and identified 150 sites where people may been exposed. The city is mostly finding the strain first detected in India, which is far more contagious than the original virus.

• Roughly two weeks after a ransomware attack on the Irish national health service, hospitals are still struggling to get IT systems working, disrupting healthcare across the country of 4.9 million, according to media reports. The attack was conducted by a ransomware gang called Conti, that last week gave Ireland a tool to help reverse the damage, but is still threatening to leak stolen data unless the country pays a ransom, Beckers Health IT reported earlier this week. The clinical head of cancer services for the UL Hospitals Group has said the cyberattack on the HSE’s computer systems has had a “devastating” impact on his team’s ability to treat and manage patients, particularly those awaiting investigative procedures, the Irish Times reported.

• Two COVID-19 vaccines from China’s state-run Sinopharm
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have shown more than 70% efficacy against symptomatic cases, according to the first detailed results of a large late-stage study, MarketWatch’s Lina Saigol reported. The two inactivated vaccines developed by China National Biotec Group, a subsidiary of Sinopharm, were found to be 72.8% and 78.1% effective against symptomatic COVID-19, based on findings from the Phase 3 trial. Results of the peer-reviewed study were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on May 26. The results combined findings from trials in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan including a total of 40,832 volunteers. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization granted emergency use authorization for the Sinopharm vaccine.

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 168 million on Thursday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll rose above 3.5 million.

The U.S. continues to lead the world in total cases with 33.19 million and deaths with 592,501.

 India is second worldwide with 27.4 million cases, and third with 315,234 deaths, although those numbers are understood to be greatly undercounted, given a shortage of tests.

Brazil is third in cases with 16.3 million and second in deaths with 454,429.

Mexico is fourth by fatalities with 222,232 and 2.4 million cases.

The U.K. has 4.5 million cases and 128,020 deaths, the fifth-highest in the world and most of any country in Europe.

China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 102,925 confirmed cases and 4,846 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.

What’s the economy saying?

New applications for regular unemployment benefits fell in late May for the fourth week in a row as the U.S. economic recovery from the waning coronavirus pandemic induced companies to hire more workers, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

Initial jobless claims sank 38,000 to 406,000 in the week ended May 22, the government said Thursday. That’s the fewest number of requests for compensation since the onset of the pandemic nearly 15 months ago.

Economists surveyed by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast new claims would fall to a seasonally adjusted 425,000.

New requests for compensation are down sharply from about 900,000 in early January.

The number of new applications had been running in the low 200,000s before the viral outbreak last year, however.

Read: Why aren’t Americans happier about the economy? They are paying higher prices for almost everything

“Fewer Americans are getting laid off as COVID-19 levels drop, and many employers are now worried about finding and keeping workers,” said corporate economist Robert Frick at Navy Federal Credit Union.

“At current rates, we should see normal claims numbers of about 200,000 weekly sometime this summer, ” he said.

Separately, orders for long-lasting goods fell in April for the first time in a year because of a chip shortage bedeviling auto makers, but business investment rose again in a sign that a key part of the U.S. economy is still expanding rapidly.

Orders for durable goods slipped 1.3% last month, the government said Thursday. Economists polled by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast a 0.9% increase.

The decline stemmed almost entirely from a big drop in bookings for new cars and trucks.

Auto makers have plenty of demand, but they can’t fill new orders fast enough because of an ongoing global shortage of computer chips. These shortages are likely to drag on for months until bottlenecks created by the pandemic are eliminated and pent-up demand is sated.

Read: The U.S. economy has suffered a few missteps. Just how bad is it?

The U.S. economy expanded at an annualized 6.4% pace in the first quarter unrevised from the prior estimate released last month, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

Economists polled by the Wall Street Journal were expecting a 6.6% rate.

While consumer spending was revised higher, this was offset in part by stronger import growth, the government said.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average
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rose nearly 200 points and the S&P 500
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gained 0.3%.

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