Dr. Anthony Fauci sees 'sobering' data on South Africa variant; US daily cases below 100K, but danger lurks: Latest COVID-19 updates

Data on the South Africa variant of the coronavirus is "sobering," and current vaccines are less effective against it than the original strain or U.K. variant, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday.

Fauci, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," said less is known about the South African variant than the U.K. version, which has proved to be more transmissible than the original version of the virus.

"But we do know that it (the South Africa variant) evades the protection from some of the monoclonal antibodies, and it diminishes somewhat the capability and the effectiveness of the vaccine to block it," Fauci said. "It doesn’t eliminate it, but it diminishes it by multiple fold.

Fauci said there was "still some cushion left" so that current vaccines do provide some protection against it. He added that, in South Africa, there were people who got infected with the original virus, recovered and then got reinfected with the South Africa variant. That indicates prior infection does not protect someone from reinfection with the South Africa variant, he said.

"Somewhat good news is it looks like the vaccine is better than natural infection in preventing you from getting reinfected," Fauci said.

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In the headlines:

►A Los Angeles County woman died shortly after receiving the Pfizer vaccine, local health officials said. Dr. Michael E. Morris, director of Kaiser Permanente Southern California’s vaccination program, said in a statement that the woman, 78, "passed away unexpectedly" Friday after being vaccinated. He also said that, according to her family, the woman had a history of heart illness. The county Public Health Department said her death appeared to be unrelated to the vaccine.

►New Zealand's largest city went into lockdown for at least three days Sunday and police set up checkpoints at eight locations at Auckland's border. The crackdown comes after three family members tested positive. The entire nation of about 5 million people has fewer than 50 known cases currently.

►The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not currently recommend required COVID-19 testing before domestic air travel, the CDC said in a statement to CNN on Saturday. Federal officials had said this week they were considering domestic testing requirements.

China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to a World Health Organization team probing the origins of the pandemic, one of the team’s investigators, Dominic Dwyer, told Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. The head of the WHO said Friday that all hypotheses into the origins of the coronavirus were still being investigated and analyzed after a team of investigators said earlier this week that the theory that the virus leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan would no longer be pursued.

Florida state health officials reported that more than 10,000 residents and staff of long-term care facilities have died of COVID-19.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has more than 27.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 485,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 108.7 million cases and 2.39 million deaths. More than 70 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 52.8 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we're reading: People of color have suffered the most from COVID-19. But now that a vaccine is here, they are far less likely to have received a first dose – for many of the same reasons. Read more.

Ellen Yun loads Valentine's Day gifts for her mom, sister and brother in-laws, nephew and her two children Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, outside a Chicago area grocery store. Yun said she had shopped for her husband earlier.
Ellen Yun loads Valentine's Day gifts for her mom, sister and brother in-laws, nephew and her two children Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, outside a Chicago area grocery store. Yun said she had shopped for her husband earlier.

COVID-19 cases continue to decline, but variants are on the rise

New COVID-19 cases in the United States have been slowly dropping since a peak several weeks ago, with the average per day falling below 100,000 Friday for the first time since Nov. 4 and staying under that figure Saturday as well. That's still more than one new case every second, but it's less than half the rate the country was reporting in January.

However, the number of known coronavirus variant infections has surged in recent weeks. The 1,193 cases of variants reported Sunday represent nearly 200 cases more than on Thursday night, nearly doubling the total on Feb. 4.

The B.1.1.7 variant first seen in the United Kingdom, considered at least 50% more contagious than the original strain, accounts for the vast majority of the known cases with 1,173. It is spreading quickly and could become the predominant strain in the U.S. by the end of March.

Florida has nearly 1/3 of the nation's known total cases with 379.

– Mike Stucka

New Orleans gets tough with Mardi Gras celebrations

New Orleans is tamping down its annual Mardi Gras celebrations this week and health officials in other cities are warning would-be revelers to do the same amid a spike in coronavirus variant cases across the nation. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered bars closed during the Mardi Gras weekend that started Friday and runs through Tuesday. Parades are canceled and there are limits on gatherings.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the annual pre-Lenten bash celebrated along much of the Gulf Coast. Last year’s revelry is believed to have contributed to an early surge that made Louisiana a coronavirus hot spot.

FDA policy to allow antibody tests without authorization 'flawed,' officials say

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration policy of allowing companies to market their COVID-19 antibody tests without authorization was "flawed" and allowed ineffective products to flood the market, two FDA officials wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine on Saturday.

In March, the agency began allowing companies to market their antibody tests without FDA emergency use authorization as long as the companies notified the agency and could show that the test worked.

"As a result, the market was flooded with serology tests, some of which performed poorly and many of which were marketed in a manner that conflicted with FDA policy," according to the FDA's Jeffrey Shuren and Timothy Stenzel.

Inexperienced or dubious companies capitalized on the lack of FDA oversight, including one that sells vape pens and one headed by a self-proclaimed technology evangelist, a USA TODAY investigation last year found.

– Grace Hauck

Massachusetts program to vaccinate people who accompany seniors quickly 'abused'

Some people in Massachusetts are offering rides and even money for a chance to take advantage of a state rule that allows those who accompany people age 75 and older to a coronavirus vaccination appointment to get a shot at the same time.

The rash of online ads from people looking to cut the vaccination line drew a stern rebuke from Gov. Charlie Baker, who warned against offers of help from complete strangers. "If you’re contacted by somebody soliciting to take you to a site, please report it to the authorities," Baker said. Seniors should accept help only from someone they trust, he said.

"While it may have been well-meaning, it took less than 24 hours for this new state policy to be abused," Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell in a statement.

Democratic state Rep. Steve Owens said a group of lawmakers have urged Baker to pause the program, noting that he saw an ad from someone offering $250 to drive an eligible resident to a vaccination site.

University of Oxford testing vaccine in children

The University of Oxford plans to test its COVID-19 vaccine – which is being produced and distributed by AstraZeneca – in children for the first time, becoming the latest vaccine developer to assess whether its coronavirus shot is effective in young people.

The trial announced Saturday seeks to recruit 300 volunteers ages 6 to 17, with up to 240 receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and the remainder a control meningitis vaccine.

Andrew Pollard, chief researcher on the Oxford vaccine trial, says that while most children don’t get severely ill from COVID-19, "it is important to establish the safety and immune response to the vaccine in children and young people as some children may benefit from vaccination."

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news: Anthony Fauci; South Africa variant; Mardi Gras; China