Coronavirus Update: World Health Organization declared pandemic a year ago today

One year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, more than 118 million cases of the coronavirus-borne illness have been confirmed around the world, with more than 2.6 million fatalities, and the U.S. accounts for about a fifth of that grim toll.

The pandemic has upended lives, sent economies into recession as nations locked down, created mass unemployment, put enormous strain on healthcare systems and hospitals, and transformed working life for many who are still unable to return to offices.

Central banks and governments have poured unprecedented levels of monetary and fiscal stimulus into economies to keep them afloat. But a swath of sectors, from airlines and travel-related businesses to companies engaged in retail and entertainment have suffered massive losses as stores, theaters and other public venues, were shuttered in an effort to contain the spread. Experts say some of the profound changes that have occurred will remain with us after the crisis is contained.

Positive news comes in the emergence of vaccines that have proved effective in clinical trials and in the real world, although drug manufacturers are scrambling to create sufficient supply to vaccinate the world.

In the meantime, experts stress the need to continue to comply with the safety measures recommended by health agencies, namely frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing a face mask in public. There is continued worry about those U.S. states that have decided to reopen for business and scrap face-mask mandates, even as their case numbers remain high and only a small percentage of their populations have received vaccinations.

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President Joe Biden has made containing the pandemic his top priority, and on Wednesday the House of Representatives approved the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which Biden is expected to sign into law later Thursday.

Biden is scheduled to mark the pandemic’s anniversary in a televised address to the country Thursday night.

Don’t miss: ‘A life-changing achievement’ — what the $1.9 trillion COVID bill means for families with kids

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The bill includes measures to help the struggling middle class, or what Biden has described as “the backbone of this nation — the essential workers, the working people who built this country, the people who keep this country going — a fighting chance,” as the New York Times reported.

Read now: Here’s who will get $1,400 stimulus checks as Biden prepares to sign $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill into law

Biden in the Thursday address is set to outline the next phase of the pandemic. The president is expected to add his own voice to the chorus clamoring for patience and for Americans to wear face masks and distance until mass vaccination has been accomplished.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Biden’s chief medical officer, went on NBC early Thursday to reinforce that message, which he has consistently pushed at White House briefings and in media appearances.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel … but we’ve got to keep putting our foot to the pedal when it comes to public health measures,” Fauci said in response to questions about the risks associated with Texas’s and Mississippi’s decisions to relax restrictions.

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Fauci said that if he’d known a year ago how high the death toll would be now, “It would have shocked me completely.”

It was exactly a year ago when he said at a congressional hearing that things would get much worse before they got better. “I did not — think that much worse was going to be 525,000 deaths,” he said Thursday.

Biden said Wednesday his administration will purchase an additional 100 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine by year’s end.

The announcement came at an event in Washington, D.C., that Biden held with the CEOs of J&J JNJ, -0.04%  and rival Merck & Co. MRK, -0.20%,  which is helping to produce J&J’s single-shot vaccine, in an unusual deal that was brokered by the Biden White House.

“I’m doing this because in this wartime effort we need maximum flexibility,” Biden said of buying the additional doses. “There’s always a chance that we’ll encounter unexpected challenges or there will be a new need for a vaccination effort. A lot can happen, a lot can change, and we need to be prepared.”

Some analysts viewed Wednesday’s move as a step toward engaging the federal government in what has come to be called “vaccine diplomacy.

“With this order, the U.S. will have enough doses to vaccinate 500 million people, and there are 330 million people in the country,” observed Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont, in a note.

“And by the way, there are at least two more vaccine candidates in the pipeline [in the Oxford–AstraZeneca  AZN, -2.29% AZN, -2.52% and Novavax NVAX, +8.77% vaccines] that could gain approval in the spring, and we would be committed to buy at least 100 million doses each from them upon approval,” Stanley added. “I have to assume that President Biden is positioning to donate the surplus doses overseas in an effort to gain friends and influence people globally.”

The U.S. vaccine program continues to make progress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker was showing that as of 6 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday, 127.9 million doses had been distributed to states, 95.7 million doses had been administered, 62.5 million Americans had received at least one dose, and 32.9 million Americans had received both doses and are fully vaccinated. That’s equal to 9.9% of the population.

The U.S. added 58,530 new cases on Wednesday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 1,477 people died. The U.S. has averaged 57,400 new cases a day in the past week, down 16% from the average two weeks ago.

See also: Americans debate what COVID-19 vaccine they want, but Fauci says to take what’s available to you

In other news:

There was a flurry of new developments relating to therapies and vaccines on Wednesday:

 • Vir Biotechnology VIR, +32.06% surged 35% in premarket trading on Thursday, after the company said its experimental COVID-19 treatment, being developed with pharmaceutical GlaxoSmithKline GSK, -0.17% GSK, -0.63%, significantly reduced hospitalization and death in high-risk adults, MarketWatch’s Callum Keown reported. The companies said the monoclonal-antibody drug — VIR-7831 — reduced death or hospitalization by 85% compared with a placebo in a clinical trial. Following the results, Vir and Glaxo said they plan to seek emergency-use authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and from regulators in other countries.

• Pfizer Inc. PFE, -0.66% and BioNTech SE BNTX, +4.67%,  along with the Israel Ministry of Health, said a real-world study showed “dramatically lower” rates of COVID-19 cases in people vaccinated with the companies’ BNT162b2 vaccine, MarketWatch’s Tomi Kilgore reported. The data also showed that protection from COVID-19 is even stronger two weeks after the second dose was taken. Vaccine effectiveness was at least 97% against symptomatic COVID-19 cases, hospitalization, severe and critical hospitalizations and deaths, and 94% effective against asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections. The data showed that those who have not been vaccinated are 44 times more likely to develop symptomatic COVID-19 and 29 times more likely to die from COVID-19.

Alerts and web-browser tools can help you book a Covid-19 vaccine appointment. Joanna Stern met up with Kris Slevens, an IT guy who has booked over 300 appointments for New Jersey seniors, to learn the best tricks to compete in the vaccine-booking hunger games.

• Kroger Co.  KR, -0.91% will increase its COVID-19 vaccine capabilities to 1 million doses per week through its pharmacies and clinics, as well as vaccination sites, MarketWatch’s Tonya Garcia reported. The first hour of daily pharmacy operations will be dedicated to vaccine administration. This “focus hour” will launch in Ohio and expand to other states as vaccine supply allows. Kroger is also planning 100 mass vaccination events nationwide, starting with partnerships in Kentucky and Ohio. Kroger is offering a $100 one-time payment to its own employees to get the vaccine, and will continue to require masks in Texas and Mississippi, where governors have lifted mandates. 

•CVS Health Corp. CVS, -0.41% will begin administering COVID-19 vaccines at additional sites nationwide, including seven locations in Illinois and Hawaii, 37 additional locations in New York, 119 locations in California, and 34 locations in Massachusetts. Vaccinations for eligible populations at some of these new locations could begin as soon as March 14. As the vaccine becomes more available, the retailer will expand distribution to other locations. CVS is administering COVID-19 vaccinations in 29 states and Puerto Rico at nearly 1,200 locations. 

See now: Flower shows and soccer matches will be the hottest post-pandemic events this summer

Public Health England said it’s designated a new coronavirus variant under investigation. The health authority said it’s found two cases in the southeast of England in individuals who had recently traveled to Antigua. Contact-tracing teams have completed thorough investigations to identify and follow up any close contacts, and no additional cases have been found, it said. A separate variant of concern, called P.1, has been found in 10 people, all of whom have links to travel or to a previously confirmed case in a person who had traveled to Brazil.

Read now: COVID-19 anniversary: New Yorkers take stock of a year in the life of the pandemic

• The Danish health authority said Thursday that it will pause vaccinations with AstraZeneca PLC’s coronavirus vaccine for 14 days after reports of cases of blood clots in those vaccinated, Dow Jones Newswires reported. “The Danish and European pharmaceutical authorities are keeping a close eye on the rollout of vaccines against Covid-19, both in terms of the more common mild side effects and the rare, but serious, possible side effects,” the Danish authority said in a statement posted on its website. It said the national board of health would wait for European Union drug authorities to investigate possible connections between AstraZeneca’s vaccine and the reported blood clot cases. The U.K. government said the jab was safe and effective, the Guardian reported. Norway and Iceland later followed Denmark and Italy halted a batch of jabs.

Today we’re on a road to normalcy not because of politicians and media enforcers. Our thanks lie with medical personnel who treated patients and discovered treatments on the fly. And private vaccine developers.

Latest tallies

The global tally for confirmed cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 stands at 118.2 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death is at 2.62 million. Almost 67 million people have recovered from COVID, the data show.

The U.S. has the highest case tally in the world at 29.2 million, or about a quarter of the global tally, and the highest death toll at 529,469, or about a fifth of the global toll. 

 Brazil has the second highest death toll at 270,656 and is third by cases at 11.2 million.

India is second worldwide in cases with 11.3 million and fourth in deaths at 158,189.

Mexico has the third highest death toll at 192,491 and 13th highest case tally at 2.1 million.

The U.K. has 4.3 million cases and 125,403 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 101,194 confirmed cases and 4,839 deaths, according to its official numbers.

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What’s the economy saying?

 The number of new applications for U.S. unemployment benefits fell sharply in early March to the lowest level since last November, MarketWatch’s Greg Robb and Jeffry Bartash reported.

Initial jobless claims filed traditionally through the states fell by 42,000 to 712,000 in the week ended March 6, the government said Thursday. That’s the lowest level since 711,000 claims were reported in the week ended Nov. 7. This was the lowest post-pandemic level of claims.

Economists surveyed by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast new claims would fall to a seasonally adjusted 725,000 from last week’s initial estimate of 745,000. That number was revised up by 9,000 to 754,000.

Another 478,000 applications for benefits were filed through a temporary federal-relief program. These numbers are unadjusted.

Read: Inflation worries are back. Should you worry?

he U.S. economy is regaining momentum after a winter lull as coronavirus cases decline and President Biden prepares to sign a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that includes $1,400 checks for most Americans.

Read:The economy is ready to rip after stimulus and faster coronavirus vaccinations

The U.S. labor market added the most jobs in four months in February and many companies indicate they plan to add more workers after the economy fully opens.

Yet the still-high number of layoffs as shown by jobless claims is a big concern. Economists predict they will gradually subside as more people get vaccinated and the pandemic fades.

“A sustained, strong downward trend in claims is just beginning,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomists. He said claims should fall to 500,000 or less by the end of May.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.58% and the S&P 500 SPX, +1.04% were higher Thursday.

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