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Health Highlights, March 1, 2021

By Robert Preidt HealthDay Reporter

AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine Easy to Update in Response to Variants

A COVID-19 vaccine still awaiting U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval may prove to be a powerful weapon in fighting the pandemic, according to its developers.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was approved earlier this month by the World Health Organization to be used internationally and is already being distributed in a number of countries, CBS News reported.

In the United States, clinical trials of the vaccine are expected to be completed in the coming weeks. Only then will an application for approval for emergency use of the vaccine be submitted to the FDA.

The vaccine's developers say their product is relatively easy to update to contend with new variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The vaccine's chief designer, Sarah Gilbert of Oxford University, said her team has been working for months on modifying the vaccine to fight new variants of the virus and expects that a new version will be available in the fall, CBS News reported.

She said the ability to quickly make changes to the vaccine is due to the "plug-and-play" platform used in the original vaccine.

"You decide what antigen you want to use from the virus you want to make a vaccine against, exactly which version of it, and then you just slot it in and you make your vaccine," Gilbert told CBS News.

She also stressed that, because Oxford has its own manufacturing facility on campus, modifications can be fast-tracked.

"We've established our pipeline," she said. "We make the first seed of stock of the vaccine in the manufacturing facility in Oxford. That's just a few minutes away from here on campus."

Gilbert said that a modified vaccine -- to take on not just the South African variant, but a number of variants of concern -- could be rolled out in the United States in a matter of months.

Even before modification, Oxford scientists say that their vaccine tackled the runaway variant first discovered in the United Kingdom. Real-life preliminary data shows that it kept hospitalizations down by 94%, even outperforming the Pfizer vaccine.

"We've seen the first widespread use of a vaccine in a setting where there's been a new variant that's emerged," Oxford Vaccine Group head Andrew Pollard told CBS News. "The vaccine has an impact against that variant. That is astonishing."

Part of the reason for that success is the 12-week gap between shots in the U.K., rather than the four-week program currently standard in the United States, Pollard said.

"If you give that vaccine to many, many more people as the first dose, that ends hospitalization and deaths immediately, while if you give two doses close together, you'll be selfishly giving those two doses to half the number of people, slowing down that rollout and the protection of the population," Pollard said.

U.S. to Monitor Air Travelers From African Nations With Ebola

Air travelers arriving in the United States from two African nations where the Ebola virus starting to circulate will be channeled to six airports beginning this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The agency said airlines "will collect and transmit passenger information to CDC for public health follow-up and intervention for all passengers boarding a flight to the U.S. who were in DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] or Guinea within the previous 21 days. This information will be shared with U.S. state and local health departments to appropriately monitor arrivals in their jurisdiction."

As of Feb. 25, Guinea had nine Ebola cases resulting in five deaths, and the Democratic Republic had eight cases, resulting in four deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

In a statement, the CDC said that the Ebola "outbreaks are centered in remote areas of these countries," and that "the risk of Ebola to the United States is extremely low," CBS News reported.

A source familiar with the decision said John F. Kennedy airport in New York, Dulles airport outside Washington, D.C., O'Hare in Chicago, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Los Angeles International Airport and Newark Liberty outside New York were all being considered as monitoring points. The CDC did not specify which airports it plans to use, CBS News reported.

This funneling approach harkens back to 2014 when travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea were directed to five of those airports, where they had their temperature taken upon arrival.

Between March 2014 and April 2016, there were more than 28,000 cases of Ebola in West Africa and 11,310 people died, according to the CDC.

Walmart Expands COVID-19 Vaccination Program

Walmart said it will expand its COVID-19 vaccination program to more than 1,400 pharmacies in 35 states.

The retailer will also partner with local community leaders and nonprofit groups to get vaccines to more vulnerable populations and will schedule vaccine events at 43 locations across 18 states, including drive-thru spots in Walmart parking lots, CBS News reported.

"We have focused most of our events in medically underserved neighborhoods," Dr. Cheryl Pegus, Walmart's executive vice president, health & wellness, said in a statement. "We will continue to engage within our communities to find new ways to reach additional customers with our vaccination programs as we work towards the eventual end of the pandemic."

The company will use COVID-19 vaccines supplied by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CBS News reported.

Walmart is planning events in the following states: Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia, CBS News reported.

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