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South Africa’s Biovac in talks to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines

By Wendell Roelf and Alexander Winning

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – A South African company part-owned by the government is in talks with the global COVID-19 vaccine distribution scheme and pharmaceutical companies to produce some of the vaccines the country needs to protect itself against the disease.

The Biovac Institute, a Cape Town-based joint venture between the government and private sector, could produce up to 30 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines per year, depending on the technology involved, Chief Executive Morena Makhoana told Reuters.

Depending on whether the vaccines require a one- or two-dose regimen, that could be enough for a quarter or half of South Africa’s population.

“We need to look at who is likely to get to the finishing line and who has the technological fit,” Makhoana said, when asked which vaccine candidate Biovac might partner with. “Discussions are happening and we are fairly confident that … we will be able to clinch a deal.”

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the foundation that co-leads the COVAX scheme alongside the World Health Organization and vaccines alliance GAVI, has identified Biovac as a potential drug product manufacturer but has not signed an agreement yet, a CEPI spokesman said.

Drug product manufacturing typically includes steps like vaccine formulation, filling and finishing of vials, labelling and packaging, he said.

The COVAX scheme aims to deliver 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021. CEPI is reserving capacity with vaccine manufacturers worldwide so that goal can be met.

South Africa has submitted a non-binding confirmation of intent to participate in COVAX.

Makhoana said Biovac could not make “live virus” vaccines at this stage, precluding some vaccines being trailed in South Africa in partnership with Oxford University and Johnson & Johnson. He declined to name the companies Biovac was speaking to.

The Department of Science and Innovation, the ministry that manages the government’s stake in Biovac, supports its ambitions because it wants to stimulate local manufacturing and limit the impact of vaccine procurement on the country’s balance of payments, Director-General Phil Mjwara said.

Currently South Africa’s government buys about 95% of the vaccines supplied annually by Biovac, covering diseases such as tuberculosis, cervical cancer and influenza, with the rest sold to countries in the rest of Africa.

In the past Biovac has partnered with companies like Pfizer and Sanofi.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf and Alexander Winning; Editing by Tim Cocks and Elaine Hardcastle)

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Nurses at Backus Hospital in Norwich plan to strike Tuesday in protest over contract talks

Nurses at Backus Hospital in Norwich are set to strike Tuesday and Wednesday to protest what they say is the company’s refusal to negotiate a contract.

The hospital and Backus Federation of Nurses, part of AFT Connecticut that represents more than 400 nurses have been in contract talks since June. The two sides differ on compensation, improved distribution of personal protective equipment and recruiting and keeping new nurses, according to the union.

A spokeswoman for parent company Hartford HealthCare did not immediately respond to questions about staffing at Backus Hospital during the walkout. Donna Handley, president of the hospital, said earlier this month Backus will remain open during a strike and will work to reach an agreement.

Union President Sherri Dayton said recent negotiations led to progress on improved protective gear policies, expanded access for breastfeeding by new mothers and accountability for safe patient limits.

But the company has not yielded on calls by the union to improve recruitment and retention of nurses, the union said.

The union has organized a rally Tuesday at the hospital and will be joined by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and other labor leaders and elected officials.

Nurses at the not-for-profit hospital are seeking higher pay and more staff to relieve nurses who often work hours after the end of their shifts, the union said. They also say they are forced to reuse personal protective equipment kept in paper bags until it’s compromised or soiled and are demanding Hartford Healthcare keep a three-month supply of N95 masks.

Hartford HealthCare insists personal protective equipment is always available to patients and staff.

Stephen Singer can be reached at [email protected]

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D.C., White House officials begin talks on contact-tracing efforts after outbreak

Bowser (D) on Wednesday said the White House and D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt discussed contact tracing Tuesday, although it wasn’t clear what action might emerge from the talks.

“I can tell you that Dr. Nesbitt asked them about their processes. She shared with them our capabilities and how we could be supportive, as well, and I suspect that that dialogue will continue,” she said.

Bowser said Monday the city reached out to the White House last week about the outbreak but had received no response.

Asked Wednesday about the outbreak that involves more than a dozen people — including President Trump, first lady Melania Trump, several aides and journalists — Bowser said officials are “concerned about the spread of covid-19 in our city, regardless of where it happened.”

She encouraged anyone who works at the White House who thinks they might have been exposed to the virus to get tested at a city-operated testing location, a private doctor or through the White House.

“All D.C. residents should recognize that D.C. Health protects their information, and so D.C. Health will not talk about a specific White House staffer to anybody,” Bowser said.

In a phone call Wednesday with members of the D.C. Council, Nesbitt said she expects to have more discussions with White House officials about the outbreak.

“They have clarified for us what their contact-tracing process is, and our conversations will continue to be ongoing to ensure that we are getting all of the information that is necessary and the contact tracing and testing infrastructure is sufficient to capture everything that needs to be done,” she said.

During the call, Nesbitt noted that of 246 recent interviews with D.C. residents who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, 22 percent contracted it at a workplace, 13 percent while traveling, 19 percent at a restaurant and 22 percent at a social gathering.

The Rose Garden event Sept. 26 suspected of being at the center of the outbreak came as D.C.’s seven-day rolling average of new cases dropped below 40 this month, the lowest since early July. The rolling average of new cases stood at 53 on Wednesday — the highest since Sept. 17 — stemming mostly from a one-day spike Tuesday of 105 additional cases.

The 45 new D.C. cases announced Wednesday was near the city’s recent average, while the 1,014 new daily cases reported across the greater Washington region was the lowest since Sept. 28.

D.C. officials have said Tuesday’s jump could be the result of a backlog of more than 8,000 coronavirus test results the city recently received on a single day, rather than having any White House connection. Health officials said they are looking for trends in new infections but have warned against drawing conclusions after a single-day increase.

The growing spotlight on the White House outbreak has led to a rise in residents seeking coronavirus tests this week, with numbers up at the city’s free testing sites.

The region’s Democratic congressional delegation sent a letter Tuesday

‘It’s a Slaughter’; Trump Halts COVID Relief Talks; Mask Up Between Bites in Calif.

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William Foege, MD, the former CDC director under Presidents Carter and Reagan, suggested in a private letter to the agency’s current leader, Robert Redfield, MD, that he orchestrate his own firing by revealing the CDC’s failings and the meddling from the White House. “It’s a slaughter and not just a political dispute,” he wrote. (USA Today)

As of 8:00 a.m. ET Wednesday, the estimated U.S. COVID-19 toll reached 7,501,869 cases and 210,918 deaths — up 42,767 and 722, respectively, since the same time a day ago.

President Trump ordered his legislative team to halt negotiations with Congress on a coronavirus relief bill until after the election, but later tweeted that a total of $160 billion should be approved for airline relief and for paycheck protection. (The Hill)

Rick Bright, the administration’s vaccine-expert-turned-whistleblower, resigned from his job at NIH — a job he had been demoted to after being removed from his position as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. (STAT)

The FDA released its revised guidance for emergency use authorization of COVID-19 vaccines — guidance that would likely guarantee a vaccine wouldn’t be authorized until after Election Day. Stay tuned to MedPage Today for in-depth coverage of this issue.

Efficacy data from one or two COVID-19 vaccine candidates are expected in the next month or two, according to Moncef Slaoui, PhD, the chief advisor to Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s project to speed up vaccine development. (Reuters)

In a small trial of patients with mild cases, the antidepressant fluvoxamine reduced the likelihood of clinical deterioration compared with placebo, the COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund announced.

Wondering how to ask a stranger to put on their mask? Be discreet, experts say. (AP)

And speaking of masks, going out to eat in a restaurant? Don’t forget to wear your mask between bites, say California officials. (CBS News)

Presidential adviser Stephen Miller and three other White House officials tested positive for COVID-19, while the top U.S. general and several senior Pentagon officials are quarantining after being exposed to a Coast Guard admiral who tested positive for the coronavirus. (New York Times, CNN)

Facebook removed a post from President Trump suggesting that influenza is more lethal than COVID-19, saying it broke the site’s rules regarding misinformation. For comparison, COVID-19 in the U.S. has now killed more people than the last five flu seasons combined. (CNN)

State officials are investigating Trump’s fundraiser last week at his Bedminster, N.J. country club to see whether it violated guidelines on large gatherings. (NBC News)

As if a bobblehead and donuts weren’t enough, now NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, MD, has his own action figure. (The Hill)

A Frontline/AP investigation published in The Washington Post details the breakdown in the U.S. supply chain for personal protective equipment to help fight the spread of COVID-19.

In other news:

Olivia Newton-John tearfully talks breast cancer diagnosis: ‘I knew immediately something was wrong’

Olivia Newton-John opened up about the first time she was diagnosed with breast cancer in a tearful video shared on Monday.

The “A Little More Love” singer was first diagnosed with the disease in 1992, had a secret battle with cancer in 2013 and her most recent diagnosis in 2017.

Newton-John, 72, currently has stage four metastatic breast cancer.

JOHN TRAVOLTA PRAISES ‘GREASE’ CO-STAR OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN AMID HER CANCER BATTLE: ‘I’M VERY PROUD OF HER’

The “Grease” actress announced a new foundation in her name to help other cancer survivors.

Olivia Newton-John attends 2018 G'Day USA Los Angeles Black Tie Gala 

Olivia Newton-John attends 2018 G’Day USA Los Angeles Black Tie Gala 
(Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

“I am probably one of those people who’s living beyond cancer, living beyond probably what people expected to happen,” the Australian singer said in her video.

She then got tearful recalling her 1992 diagnosis and said, “I knew immediately something was wrong.

“I had a mammogram. The mammogram was benign and I had a needle biopsy that was also benign,” Newton-John said. But she persisted and got a surgical biopsy, which then led to her breast cancer diagnosis.

OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN GIVES HEALTH UPDATE ON BREAST CANCER DIAGNOSIS

The singer added: “I don’t say this to scare women, but you have to just trust your instincts.

“All this was overwhelming. It was a feeling of dread, terror, the unknown,” she said of that time.

Newton-John then added she chose to be strong moving forward for the sake of her daughter, Chloe Lattanzi.

“I made the decision that I was going to be okay. I had to believe I was going to be okay, that my daughter was the most important thing in my life and I would be okay for her,” the Grammy winner said.

KELLY PRESTON: JOHN TRAVOLTA’S ‘GREASE’ CO-STAR OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN SAYS HER ‘HEART BREAKS’ OVER THE LOSS

She also discussed her combination of cancer treatments ranging from chemotherapy, meditation, acupuncture, massage, and plant medicine to help her manage her pain.

Newton-John has long been an advocate for medicinal marijuana.

“Plant medicine has played an amazing role in my life. I have seen the incredible beauty of the plants and their healing abilities,” the actress said. “I know it sounds strange but if I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you about kinder therapies.”

She added: “Your body wants to heal itself. That’s why I’m excited to start this foundation.”

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The Olivia Newton-John foundation notes on their website, “We will fund the discovery of kinder therapies and advocate for more effective ways to prevent, treat and cure all cancers.”

In January, the actress gave a positive health update and revealed her tumors shrunk in size.

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