A Patchwork: Europe and COVID-19 Vaccination Passports

(Reuters) – European Union leaders moved closer on Thursday to an agreement on certificates showing that citizens have been vaccinated against COVID-19, a move that could revive international travel and save this summer’s holiday season.

Some countries want an EU-wide approach instead of a patchwork of national schemes that in many cases are not intended to serve as travel documents. Halfway through a summit of leaders on the pandemic, officials said “convergence on a harmonised approach” to certificates was emerging.

Here’s where several EU member states and other European countries stand on vaccination certificates:

BETTER TOGETHER

GREECE has led calls for an EU-wide vaccine certificate to open up summer tourism. It has reached an agreement with Israel, which has launched a digital “Green Pass”, to ease travel for those with proof of vaccination. It issues certificates for people who have had twin shots.

Athens is in talks with Britain about a similar agreement, but its tourism minister was quoted as saying on Thursday that even unvaccinated Britons could visit the country.

SPAIN, AUSTRIA and BULGARIA also support a common EU approach. The government in Vienna says that, if there is no agreement at EU level by the spring, it will implement its own plan.

DOING THEIR OWN THING

DENMARK plans to launch a digital passport to document a traveller’s vaccination status, designed to be compatible with any future EU-wide scheme. SWEDEN plans a similar digital passport by summer, assuming an international standard is in place by then, as does FINLAND.

HUNGARY has announced that from March 1 it will issue a vaccination passport in the form of a card to citizens who have had the vaccine or have immunity after recovering from COVID-19. A decision about possible waivers from coronavirus restrictions will be taken later. People carrying the immunity passport will not have to go into quarantine.

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin ordered his government in January to consider issuing certificates to those who had been inoculated with domestic vaccines against COVID-19 for overseas travels.

THINKING ABOUT IT

BRITAIN is reviewing how COVID-19 status certificates could help reopen the economy. It will consider a system allowing vaccinated individuals to travel abroad more freely once more is known about the efficacy of vaccines against COVID-19 variants. The UK is working with the World Health Organization and other countries on an international framework for travel.

PORTUGAL is considering various options to resurrect the travel sector, but has cautioned that an EU-wide passport could lead to “some constraints” given delays in vaccinations.

WE HAVE OUR DOUBTS

GERMANY, which has restricted travel from neighbours with high rates of infection, is still in the early stages of debating the idea of vaccination certificates. There are widespread concerns that these could result in discrimination against those who choose not to be vaccinated.

ROMANIAN President Klaus Iohannis has said an EU vaccination passport would be divisive, splitting Europe between those who have been vaccinated and those who have not.

NO PLANS YET

POLAND has introduced a special QR code via its mObywatel app that can be scanned to confirm a user has been fully vaccinated, meaning they have received two doses. It has not yet said if it will introduce a specific vaccination “passport”.

FRANCE has not revealed any plans for a vaccination passport of its own, though travel industry lobbies and some opposition politicians have been pressing for such a scheme. ITALY does not have a national vaccination passport scheme.

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White House Working With Facebook and Twitter to Tackle Antivaxxers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House has been reaching out to social media companies including Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc’s Google about clamping down on COVID misinformation and getting their help to stop it from going viral, a senior administration official said.

President Joe Biden, who has raced to curb the pandemic since taking office, has made inoculating Americans one of his top priorities and called the move “a wartime effort.” But tackling public fear about taking the vaccine has emerged as a major impediment for the administration.

Since the onset of the pandemic, calls from lawmakers asking the companies to tackle the spread of COVID misinformation on their platforms have grown.

The White House’s direct engagement with the companies to mitigate the challenge has not been previously reported. Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain has previously said the administration will try to work with Silicon Valley on the issue.

“Disinformation that causes vaccine hesitancy is going to be a huge obstacle to getting everyone vaccinated and there are no larger players in that than the social media platforms,” said the source, who has direct knowledge of the White House’s efforts.

“We are talking to them … so they understand the importance of misinformation and disinformation and how they can get rid of it quickly.”

The Biden White House is especially trying to make sure such material “does not start trending on such platforms and become a broader movement,” the source said.

The source cited the example of the anti-vaccine protests at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in early February, and said the White House wants to stop events like that from happening again.

The protest, organized on Facebook through a page that promotes debunked claims about the coronavirus pandemic, masks and immunization, briefly blocked public access to the stadium – one of the largest vaccination sites in the country, where health authorities are administering more than 8,000 vaccines a day.

The event illustrated the extent to which social media platforms have become a critical organizing tool for movements such as the anti-vaccine drive, that spread misinformation and disinformation.

A growing number of anti-vaccine activists, emboldened by their rising social media following, have helped the movement gain strength in the United States. A report by the Center for Countering Digital Health in July 2020 found social media accounts held by anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7·8 million people since 2019.

The companies have repeatedly vowed to get rid of such material on their platforms but gaps remain in their enforcement efforts.

On Thursday, Senator Richard Blumenthal criticized the platforms in a tweet for carrying ads that he said funds and promotes “dangerous conspiracy theories, COVID-19 disinformation and malign foreign propaganda.”

A Facebook spokeswoman said that the company has reached out to the White House to offer “any assistance we can provide” and has recently announced a new policy to remove COVID and vaccine misinformation along with pages, groups, and accounts that repeatedly spread such material.

A Twitter spokesman said the company is “in regular communication with the White House on a number of critical issues including COVID-19 misinformation.”

Alphabet Inc’s Google did not comment on engagement with the White House, instead pointing to a company blog on and how it stops misinformation.

The source said the companies “were receptive” as they engaged with the White House. “But it is too soon to say whether or not it translates into lessening the spread of misinformation.”

There will be more details on how the White House is engaging with the social media companies on this issue in the “next ten days or so”, the source added.

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Approved U.S. COVID vaccines are safe, new review confirms

Approved U.S. COVID vaccines are safe, new review confirms

Only a tiny fraction of the nearly 14 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the first month of vaccinations produced any sort of adverse event, U.S. health officials report.

There were 6,994 reports of adverse events following a shot of the COVID vaccine between Dec. 14, 2020 and Jan. 13, 2021, amounting to about half a percent of the 13.8 million doses doled out during that period, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found.

“The CDC safety data on the first 13 million-plus vaccinations substantiates the fact that the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines are very safe and have a risk-benefit ratio that unequivocally favors their use,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore.

Symptoms most frequently reported were headache (22%), fatigue (16.5%) and dizziness (16.5%), according to the study published Feb. 19 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

There were 640 serious adverse events reported (9% of all adverse events), including 113 deaths.

Available records suggest that the COVID-19 vaccine played no part in these deaths, which mainly occurred among people in long-term care facilities, said the researchers, who were led by Julianne Gee, from the CDC’s COVID Response Team.

Cases of anaphylaxis were rare, amounting to 4.5 for every 1 million doses administered, the CDC found. By comparison, the flu vaccine causes 1.4 cases of anaphylaxis per million, the pneumonia vaccine 2.5 per million, and the shingles vaccine 9.6 per million.

There were a total of 62 reports of anaphylaxis: 46 from the Pfizer vaccine and 16 after the Moderna vaccine.

The data came from the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, as well as from an active surveillance system called V-safe, the researchers said.

To allay concerns about the rapid development and testing of the COVID-19 vaccines, the U.S. federal government “has implemented the most comprehensive vaccine safety monitoring program in its history,” the report added.

No unexpected patterns of reactions or other safety concerns have been identified during this early monitoring, the authors said.

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First COVID-19 Vaccine Trial for Pregnant Women Is Underway

Pfizer and BioNTech have officially begun a large-scale clinical trial of their COVID-19 vaccine in pregnant women, who had been excluded from the first round of trials.

According to a statement from the companies, they enrolled approximately 4,000 pregnant women who are 18 years of age or older and between 24 and 34 weeks of gestation in the trial.

The trial will include participants from the United States, as well as those from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mozambique, South Africa, Spain and the United Kingdom, ABC News reported.

Participants in the study will receive two doses at 21 days apart, and each individual will be followed for a minimum of 7 to 10 months so that the health of the mother and child can be assessed.

Half of the women in the study will get the vaccine, will the other half will get a placebo, Pfizer said. Participants who got a placebo shot in the trial will later be given the opportunity to get the actual vaccine.

"We are proud to start this study in pregnant women and continue to gather the evidence on safety and efficacy to potentially support the use of the vaccine by important subpopulations," said William Gruber M.D., senior vice president of Vaccine Clinical Research and Development for Pfizer. "Pregnant women have an increased risk of complications and developing severe COVID-19, which is why it is critical that we develop a vaccine that is safe and effective for this population."

"We are deeply thankful to the volunteers who are enrolling in the trial, and site investigators who are leading this work," Gruber added.

The announcement from Pfizer and BioNTech comes shortly after scientists at the National Institutes of Health said that vaccine developers needed to strengthen research efforts on how the COVID-19 vaccine affects pregnant women, per CBS News.

The outlet added that pregnant women have a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

"Pregnant and lactating persons should not be protected from participating in research, but rather should be protected through research," the group said in an article, which was published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Johnson & Johnson Has Only a Few Million COVID-19 Vaccine Doses in Stock as Likely Launch Nears

(Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson has only a few million doses of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine in its inventory even as likely U.S. regulatory authorization is only a few weeks away, White House officials said on Wednesday.

J&J remains committed to providing 100 million doses by June but deliveries are likely to be “back-end loaded” as J&J works with the U.S. government to boost supply, Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said during a press call.

“Across the last few weeks we’ve learned that there is not a big inventory of Johnson and Johnson. There’s a few million doses that we’ll start with,” Zients said.

J&J said in a statement it intends to immediately begin distributing doses upon U.S. authorization and expects to supply 100 million doses to the United States in the first half of 2021.

The United States has been struggling to hasten its vaccine rollout because of a limited supply of doses. Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have promised to deliver 200 million doses of their two-dose vaccines by the end of March but so far fewer than 72 million doses have been shipped around the U.S. and around 55 million shots have been given.

The U.S. paid J&J $1 billion in August to help fund the development of its vaccine in exchange for a guarantee of 100 million doses and an option to buy 200 million more. It also provided J&J with $456 million in March.

The Biden administration has promised to explore every option available to aid drugmakers, including J&J, in boosting vaccine production. It said it is deploying wartime powers through the Defense Production Act to help them secure needed supplies.

J&J’s experimental shot involves a single dose and can be stored in refrigerators as opposed to freezers, which could help speed up vaccinations.

Zients said the vaccine could be authorized in a couple of weeks. It is scheduled to be reviewed on Feb. 26 by a panel of outside advisors to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. J&J requested FDA authorization earlier this month.

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Pfizer says South African variant could significantly reduce protective antibodies

(This February 17 story corrects headline and first paragraph to show the reduction was in the protective antibodies elicited by the vaccine, not the protection of the vaccine overall)

Slideshow ( 2 images )

(Reuters) – A laboratory study suggests that the South African variant of the coronavirus may reduce protective antibodies elicited by the Pfizer Inc/BioNTech SE vaccine by two-thirds, and it is not clear if the shot will be effective against the mutation, the companies said on Wednesday.

The study found the vaccine was still able to neutralize the virus and there is not yet evidence from trials in people that the variant reduces vaccine protection, the companies said.

Still, they are making investments and talking to regulators about developing an updated version of their mRNA vaccine or a booster shot, if needed.

For the study, scientists from the companies and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) developed an engineered virus that contained the same mutations carried on the spike portion of the highly contagious coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa, known as B.1.351. The spike, used by the virus to enter human cells, is the primary target of many COVID-19 vaccines.

Researchers tested the engineered virus against blood taken from people who had been given the vaccine, and found a two- thirds reduction in the level of neutralizing antibodies compared with its effect on the most common version of the virus prevalent in U.S. trials.

Their findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Because there is no established benchmark yet to determine what level of antibodies are needed to protect against the virus, it is unclear whether that two-thirds reduction will render the vaccine ineffective against the variant spreading around the world.

However, UTMB professor and study co-author Pei-Yong Shi said he believes the Pfizer vaccine will likely be protective against the variant.

“We don’t know what the minimum neutralizing number is. We don’t have that cutoff line,” he said, adding that he suspects the immune response observed is likely to be significantly above where it needs to be to provide protection.

That is because in clinical trials, both the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and a similar shot from Moderna Inc conferred some protection after a single dose with an antibody response lower than the reduced levels caused by the South African variant in the laboratory study.

Even if the concerning variant significantly reduces effectiveness, the vaccine should still help protect against severe disease and death, he noted. Health experts have said that is the most important factor in keeping stretched healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed.

More work is needed to understand whether the vaccine works against the South African variant, Shi said, including clinical trials and the development of correlates of protection – the benchmarks to determine what antibody levels are protective.

Pfizer and BioNTech said they were doing similar lab work to understand whether their vaccine is effective against another variant first found in Brazil.

Moderna published a correspondence in NEJM on Wednesday with similar data previously disclosed elsewhere that showed a sixfold drop antibody levels versus the South African variant.

Moderna also said the actual efficacy of its vaccine against the South African variant is yet to be determined. The company has previously said it believes the vaccine will work against the variant.

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EU Adds Anti-Variant Clauses to New COVID Vaccine Supply Deals: Sources

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union is adding clauses to contracts with COVID-19 vaccine makers which would allow the bloc to gain access to possible upgraded shots that may offer better protection against variants of the virus, three EU sources said.

More contagious mutations are spreading fast in the EU and across the world, with the so-called British variant seen by experts as likely to become prevalent on the continent.

In new contracts with vaccine manufacturers, the EU is adding clauses that explicitly cover variants, three EU officials involved in talks with the companies told Reuters.

Vaccine makers are testing their shots against variants and are also working on tweaks that could make them more effective against virus mutations.

One official said the clauses would allow the EU not to buy vaccines that are not effective against widespread variants, and to order upgraded versions instead. However, the source said clauses were vague on the definition of variants and the actual legal power they would give the EU.

The three officials said that an anti-variant clause was included in a second contract finalised earlier in February with Pfizer and BioNTech for the supply of 300 million additional doses of their COVID-19 vaccine.

Pfizer and the European Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Studies have shown the Pfizer vaccine can be effective against the British and the South African variants. The company is also working on a booster shot that would be tailored against variants.

The EU now wants to add these clauses in new supply deals and is considering whether to upgrade its existing contracts, the officials said.

The bloc is negotiating new supply agreements with Novavax, Valneva and Moderna to increase its vaccine reserve beyond the nearly 2.3 billion doses which it has already secured from six pharmaceutical firms.

On Wednesday, the EU Commission will present a series of measures to boost the EU preparedness against variants, including new funds to help sequence the genome of the new coronavirus and spot variants.

Most EU countries have so far done little or no sequencing at all.

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Banned from Instagram for Repeatedly Sharing False Anti-Vaccine Claims

Multiple large-scale studies have found that vaccines are safe. There is no scientific link between vaccines and autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Instagram has banned Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy and a controversial anti-vaccine activist, from their platform for repeatedly sharing false claims about COVID-19 and vaccines.

"We removed this account for repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines," Facebook, which owns Instagram, said in a statement.

Kennedy, a former environmental lawyer, has spent the last few years vehemently fighting against vaccines. He has lobbied Congress to allow parents to opt out of state requirements for vaccinating their children, and a 2019 study found that his nonprofit, called Children's Health Defense, had paid for more than half of the ads on Facebook that promoted false claims about vaccines, according to The New York Times.

During the pandemic, Kennedy has used his Instagram and Facebook pages to put out misinformation about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines to his combined 11,000 followers. Facebook said that they do not have plans to remove his page on that platform "at this time."

Despite his efforts to discredit vaccines, Kennedy has said that he is not against safe vaccines and has vaccinated his children. His Facebook page, though, is filled with posts with vaccine misinformation. He also spoke at an August protest in Berlin to rally against Germany's coronavirus restrictions, which he said was a form of "totalitarianism."  

PEOPLE has contacted Kennedy for comment.

In December, Kennedy's niece, Dr. Kennedy Meltzer, published an op-ed in the Times calling out her uncle for the "dubious" claims against the COVID-19 vaccines that he posts on social media.

"I love my uncle. But when it comes to vaccines, he is wrong," Meltzer, an internal medicine resident physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, wrote. "His concern — that the COVID vaccine is potentially unsafe, and hasn't been properly tested — is widespread, and dangerously wrong."

"As a doctor, and as a member of the Kennedy family, I feel I must use whatever small platform I have to state a few things unequivocally," she continued. "I love my uncle Bobby. I admire him for many reasons, chief among them his decades-long fight for a cleaner environment. But when it comes to vaccines, he is wrong."

Mariah Kennedy Cuomo, the daughter of Kerry Kennedy and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said she was "so proud" of her cousin and called the op-ed "life-saving."

Mariah's mother Kerry, the president of the RFK Human Rights organization and sister to Kennedy, tweeted that her niece's op-ed was "excellent."

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the WHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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China to provide 10M COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries

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China will supply 10 million coronavirus vaccines to developing countries through an initiative co-led by the World Health Organization, called COVAX, according to China’s Foreign Ministry.

Spokesman Wang Wenbin said during a briefing Wednesday China is answering to a request from the WHO, to help supply vaccines to lower income countries.

He did not specify which Chinese vaccine would go to COVAX. Through the pandemic, the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been urging the importance of COVAX for a fair distribution of vaccines globally. Experts say widespread vaccination will help prevent emerging mutations in coronavirus strains and ultimately conquer the pandemic.

MODERNA’S COVID-19 VACCINE NOW RECOMMENDED FOR PREGNANT WOMEN, WHO SAYS IN GUIDANCE REVERSAL

China has already shipped large numbers of doses of its own vaccines, mainly to developing countries. It has pursued deals or donations with more than 30 nations far exceeding the 10 million doses it is providing to COVAX. In Turkey alone, Chinese company Sinovac Biotech Ltd. has struck a deal to sell 50 million doses.

Its global efforts are seen by many as an attempt to boost China’s reputation as it seeks to repair its image after the first cases of the coronavirus were detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. Earlier on during the pandemic, China donated face masks and protective gear to countries around the world as part of a diplomatic push.

Wenbin said the WHO is investigating emergency approvals for Chinese vaccines, though the products have met criticism for lacking data from late-stage trials.

A vaccine developed by Sinopharm has been authorized for use in China, and the company said the vaccine is 79.3% effective. Sinovac’s shot in particular has raised concerns after it initially announced an efficacy rate of 78% at protecting against symptomatic illness, but after counting mild cases announced that effectiveness is just over 50%, based on its trial in Brazil.

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The WHO intends to distribute 2 billion safe and effective vaccines to developing countries through COVAX in 2021. AstraZeneca has already agreed to supply 170 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, Pfizer signed on to provide 40 million doses, and Johnson & Johnson has signed a memorandum of understanding for 500 million doses of its one-shot vaccine. The agreements follow other deals, like 200 million doses from the Serum Institute of India and 200 million doses of the Sanofi/GSK vaccine candidate, according to the WHO.

Shipments are expected to begin in the first quarter of 2021.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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New York sisters hope to help more than 200 seniors sign up for COVID-19 vaccines

New York sisters help seniors get vaccinated

Ava and Lily Weinstein tell ‘Fox and Friends Weekend’ they created a service to help seniors sign up for COVID-19 vaccine after assisting their own grandparents.

Two sisters from New York have teamed up to help senior citizens in their community get vaccinated.

Ava and Lily Weinstein started a service to help seniors register online and make appointments to get the coronavirus vaccine.

The two teenagers were inspired to launch their business after their own grandparents had trouble navigating the system to register for the vaccines.

“We were helping out our grandparents and it was very hard and difficult for them…many people don’t have kids or grandchildren to help them…We want to get out of this pandemic as soon as we can…we wondered how other people are supposed to do this,” Ava Weinstein told “Fox and Friends Weekend” on Saturday.

Lily Weinstein said she and her sister started to reach out to people in the community by creating and handing out fliers in front of their grandparents’ apartment building.

“It’s the best feeling in the world. They are so nice and they just love that we are so ready to help them,” Lily Weinstein said.

Ava and Lily Weinstein said their grandparents happily received their first coronavirus vaccine and have been doing well. They are expected to receive their second shot by the end of February.

“Anybody can call us at 65 or older and eligible for the vaccine… in New York, we’re just primarily doing right now… we’ll put them on our list and help them,” Ava Weinstein said.

The Weinstein sisters now have more than 200 seniors on a waitlist that they are ready to help once more vaccine appointments are available.

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For more information, visit the sisters’ website at Covid19vaccineappointments.com.

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