Coronavirus update: Global case tally nears 26 million and experts are alarmed that U.S. will not join WHO-backed effort on vaccine

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The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 worldwide edged closer to 26 million on Wednesday, as experts sounded the alarm on the Trump administration’s decision not to work with an international effort to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine that is backed by the World Health Organization.

The news was not surprising, given that Trump has repeatedly criticized the WHO for being pro-China and is pulling the U.S. out of the world’s leading health agency.

“The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere, as the Associated Press reported

Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., said the decision was shortsighted and will hamper the battle to end the pandemic.

“Joining COVAX is a simple measure to guarantee U.S. access to a vaccine – no matter who develops it first,” tweeted Bera, a medical doctor. “This go-it-alone approach leaves America at risk of not getting a vaccine.”

The news came at a time when public health experts are concerned that U.S. public health agencies are becoming increasingly politicized during the current administration as Trump consistently rejects the advice of the doctors and scientists that head them. Trump has played down the pandemic from the outset, has been inconsistent in promoting the safety measures they insist are key to containing the spread and even accused the Food and Drug Administration of being part of the “deep state.”

The latest fear is that the U.S. is already following a herd immunity policy, one that is backed by a new member of the White House pandemic team. The Washington Post reported this week that Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist from Stanford’s Hoover Institution, is pushing for the U.S. to follow Sweden’s example, which has been widely criticized for a death toll that is far higher than that of neighboring countries. Atlas is not an infectious disease expert or epidemiologist.

Herd immunity is the notion that once a high proportion of a population has contracted or been vaccinated against an infectious disease, the likelihood of others in the population being infected is drastically reduced. Sweden did not lock down or even enforce restrictions on movement, relying instead on its citizens to responsibly follow public safety guidelines. The country has 57.08 deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 people, just ahead of the U.S. with 56.44 per 100,000 people, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. By comparison, neighbor Finland has just 6.09 deaths per 100,000 people, the data show.

Professor Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases at the Yale School of Public Health and co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership, told Democracy Now on Monday that the U.S. is ‘implicitly’ following herd immunity.

“Many people in the public health community have watched this with horror, the sort of implicit herd immunity strategy,” he said. The administration realizes that is politically toxic, he said, “so they don’t want to use the phrase, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. And this is essentially a herd immunity strategy.”

Gonsalves criticized the head of the FDA Dr. Stephen Hahn for kowtowing to the White House in granting an emergency use authorization for the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which has been found ineffective and potentially dangerous in clinical trials; and more recently with the EUA for convalescent plasma, which has not been fully tested.

A National Institutes of Health advisory group focused on COVID-19 said Tuesday that the efficacy and safety of convalescent plasma as a treatment for hospitalized coronavirus patients is still unknown, based on its assessment of published and unpublished clinical data.

Hahn said at the weekend that he would consider an EUA for a potential vaccine, even before the end of Phase 3 trials.

“The danger about the vaccine EUA before Phase 3 trial results are out is much more dire, because we give treatments to the sick and, in this case, to many people who are hospitalized,” said Gonsalves. “Vaccines go to millions of people. We depend on them to be effective, so people don’t get the wrong impression about what they should be doing in terms of social distancing and other behavior because they’re vaccinated.”

Atlas is also skeptical of face masks and does not believe that children can pass on the virus, according to a New York Times report. It cited one expert, Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University, as saying Trump did not like the advice he was getting from experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the task force, while Atlas is saying what the president wants to hear.

In other news:

• Australia has entered its first recession almost 30 years because of the pandemic, the BBC reported on Wednesday. Australian GDP fell 7% in the April to June quarter, after a fall of 0.3% in the first quarter. An economy is deemed to be in recession once it suffers two consecutive quarters of negative growth. Australia was the only major economy to avoid recession during the 2008 financial crisis, when it was buoyed by demand from China for its commodities and natural resources.

• Also from Australia, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is facing a backlash after he suggested that some elderly patients of the virus should be allowed to die by letting nature take its course. Abbott said politicians were not “thinking like health economists trained to pose uncomfortable questions about the level of deaths we might have to live with.” He made the comments in a speech at the Policy Exchange in London.

• A surge in news cases in South Korea is mostly being led by older people, the Guardian reported. More than 40% of the new cases in the country involve people who are older than 60, the paper said. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 267 new cases on Tuesday, boosting the total to 20,449 and 326 deaths. The latest rise in cases is pushing hospitals in Seoul to capacity with just 3% of beds now available for non-COVID critical cases, compared with 22% about 10 days ago.

• Germany is not going to have another lockdown in winter, according to its health minister Jens Spahn, speaking at a press briefing. Spahn said experts are learning more about the virus every day and would not make the same decisions if cases spike again in the colder months. “We are learning where the dangers are greatest, sadly when we socialize and celebrate together,” he said, according to a Reuters report.

Latest tallies

There are now 25.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins data, and at least 857,877 people have died. More than 17 million people are confirmed to have tested positive and recovered.

The U.S. has the highest case tally at 6.08 million and the highest death toll at 184,697. Brazil is second with 3.9 million cases and 122,596 deaths.

India is third with 3.8 million cases and 66,333 deaths. Russia, Peru, South Africa and Colombia are next measured by cases. Mexico has 606,036 cases and 65,241 deaths, the fourth highest in the world, followed by the U.K. with 339,420 cases and 41,592 deaths, the most in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

What’s the latest medical news?

A new study by Reykjavik-based deCODE Genetics, a subsidiary of the U.S. biotech company Amgen, with several hospitals, universities and health officials in Iceland, found that antibodies that people make to fight the new coronavirus last for at least four months after diagnosis and do not fade quickly as some earlier reports suggested, the Associated Press reported.

The study was based on tests on more than 30,000 people in Iceland, a popular center for medical research because of its small and closely related population and a long history of keeping careful medical records.

Some smaller studies previously suggested that antibodies may disappear quickly and that some people with few or no symptoms may not make many at all.

The results don’t necessarily mean that all countries’ populations will be the same, or that every person has this sort of response. Other scientists recently documented cases where people have been reinfected with the coronavirus months after their first bout.

Separately, a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association said a new study conducted by researchers in the U.K., Brazil, Canada, China, France Spain the U.S. found that treating critically ill COVID-19 patients with corticosteroid drugs reduces the risk of dying by 20%. The news supports results announced in June from a trial that found dexamethasone can reduce death rates in the same patient group.

What’s the economy saying?

Private-sector companies added or regained 428,000 jobs in August, ADP said Wednesday, but the modest gain won’t dispel worries about a slowdown in hiring over the summer as the U.S. recovers from the coronavirus, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

Wall Street economists had forecast an increase of 1 million private-sector jobs, according to Econoday.

The increase in hiring last month topped a revised 212,000 increase in July, the giant payroll processor said. Initially ADP had reported that just 167,000 new jobs were created in that month.

The economy has recouped fewer than half of the 20 million-plus jobs lost in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s worse, a number of companies such as American Airlines AAL, -2.06% and MGM MGM, +1.05% have recently announced new layoffs with their businesses still struggling months after the pandemic began.

”The U.S. labor market recovery continued at a fairly sluggish pace in August,” said senior economist Andrew Grantham of CIBC Economics.

A separate report found factory orders rose 6.4% in July for a third straight increase, reflecting a rebound in manufacturing after the economy reopened. Economists polled by MarketWatch had forecast a 6.2% gain.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.81% was up 146 points, while the S&P 500 SPX, +0.67% added 12 points on Wednesday.

See: MarketWatch Coronavirus Recovery Tracker

What are companies saying?

• AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. AMC, +9.22% expects to open 140 theaters by Thursday as one of the first big movies to release to theaters since the start of the pandemic drives demand for more theaters to open. The will then have roughly 70% of its theater locations open, which is approximately 420 locations. The move comes after the highly anticipated Christopher Nolan-helmed film “Tenet” had a strong international showing in its first weekend of release, grossing more than $50 million. “The first two weekends of operations have exceeded our expectations in terms of guests returning to the movies and in terms of their feedback about our extensive AMC Safe & Clean policies and procedures,” AMC Chief Executive Adam Aron said.

• Jack Daniel’s parent Brown-Forman Corp. BF.B, +11.90% reported fiscal first-quarter results that beat expectations, although gross margin contracted as price/mix decreased. Sales slipped 2% to $753 million, but were well above the FactSet consensus of $691.2 million. Reported U.S. sales rose 3% and developed international market sales grew 13%, while emerging market sales fell 20%. Jack Daniel’s family of brands sales fell 2%. Company-wide price/mix decreased 19%, reflecting unfavorable portfolio mix with growth in lower-priced brands and unfavorable channel mix resulting from the COVID-19-related restrictions, leading to gross margin contracting to 61.7% from 64.9%. The company did not provide financial guidance given uncertainties related to the COVID-19 pandemic•

• Macy’s Inc. M, +2.35% reported a fiscal second-quarter loss that was much narrower than expected as net sales topped forecasts during the pandemic. The company swung to a net loss for the quarter to Aug. 1 of $431 million, or $1.39 a share, from net income of $86 million, or 28 cents a share, in the year-ago period. Excluding non-recurring items, the adjusted per-share loss was 81 cents, compared with the FactSet loss consensus of $1.77. Sales dropped 35.8% to $3.56 billion, above the FactSet consensus of $3.50 billion, while same-store sales dropped 34.7% compared with expectations of an 18.6% decline. Digital sales increased 53%, and penetrated 54% of same-store sales. “Macy’s, Inc. performance for the quarter was stronger than anticipated across all three brands: Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Bluemercury, driven largely by the sales recovery of our stores,” said Chief Executive Jeff Gennette. Inventory declined 29%. Macy’s did not provide financial guidance given the uncertainties related to the pandemic.

• Vera Bradley Inc. s VRA, +29.39% posted a surprise profit for the second quarter as the handbag and accessories retailer saw a boost in e-commerce and demand for face masks during the pandemic. Fort Wayne, Indiana-based Vera Bradley said it had net income of $7.2 million, or 42 cents a share, in the quarter, up from income of $5.9 million, or 17 cents a share, in the year-earlier period. The number includes $3.8 million in after-tax charges, $1.1 million for a change in its income tax estimate, and a change in the numerator of the earnings per share calculation due to an accounting adjustment. It also includes income from Pura Vida, which the company acquired last year. Adjusted per-share earnings came to 32 cents, well ahead of the FactSet consensus for a loss per share of 7 cents. Revenue rose 10% to $131.8 million, including Pura Vida. Without that revenue, Vera Bradley had revenue of $99 million. The FactSet consensus was for revenue of $100 million. “We significantly expanded our consolidated gross margin rate in the quarter through sales of cotton masks, product collaborations, careful inventory management, and tightly controlled promotional activity,” Chief Executive Rob Wallstrom said in a statement. The company is not providing guidance, due to the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

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