Coronavirus updates: Virus may have grown more contagious; Single-dose vaccine enters final testing stage; US nears 7M cases – USA TODAY

A study by researchers in Houston indicates the coronavirus, which has infected almost 7 million people in the U.S. alone, may have mutated to a more contagious strain if not more deadly.

Help could be on the way. The United Kingdom is considering a plan to intentionally infect healthy volunteers to expedite a determination on which vaccine candidates are effective. And Johnson & Johnson has started the final testing phase of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, the first to reach this point requiring a single dose.

President Donald Trump suggested he may overrule the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s attempt to set a higher standard for vaccine approval. He called the FDA plan “a political move,” while the agency said it’s an effort to gain public trust.

The U.S. coronavirus case count, meanwhile, has now surpassed the estimated populations of all but 12 states. In Canada, which has nearly 150,000 confirmed cases, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country is facing a second wave of the virus.

Some significant developments:

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has reported more than 6.9 million cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and more than 201,000 deaths, a total that exceeds the population of cities such as Little Rock, Arkansas, Fort Collins, Colorado, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Globally, there have been almost 32 million cases and more than 977,000 fatalities.

📰 What we’re reading: Fever. Chills. Body aches. Shortness of breath. Some people infected with COVID-19 have battled such symptoms for months, wondering if they’d ever feel better again. Now, finally, a treatment program originally intended for geriatric patients is bringing relief for long-suffering patients.

🗺️ Mapping coronavirus: Track the U.S. outbreak, state by state.

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Pandemic travel collapse exposes booking industry’s secrets

The coronavirus has exposed a secret underbelly of the travel business. Many travel agencies operate Ponzi-style schemes where one traveler’s deposit pays for a previous traveler’s tickets and accommodations. Everything ran smoothly as long as bookings continued to roll in. The pandemic blurred the already muddy line between business ethics and fraud and has led to not just fried nerves, but official complaints and legal action. Through public records requests, USA TODAY obtained consumer complaints related to COVID-19 filed with attorneys generals and other agencies in 20 states. Scott Keyes, who runs the website Scott’s Cheap Flights, said online travel agencies often save money by providing little customer service.

“If a catastrophic event happens like a worldwide pandemic,” Keyes said, “they’re really up a creek.”

– Nick Penzenstadler and Josh Salman

Children may not be vaccinated until late in 2021 – or beyond

Children are not included in the ongoing trials for a COVID-19 vaccine, so it’s likely to be well into next year or beyond before they can get vaccinated against the coronavirus that causes the disease. The vast majority of children don’t get severely ill from COVID-19, but kids can still pass on the virus – to teachers, parents, grandparents. Emory University School of Medicine pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Evan Anderson called for a rapid expansion of clinical trials to include children, ideally providing results in time for them to be vaccinated before the 2021 school year.

“We owe it to our children not to delay moving forward with initial studies to evaluate promising vaccine candidates,” Anderson said.

Karen Weintraub

Britain considering infecting healthy volunteers to test vaccines

Britain could become the world’s first country to intentionally infect healthy volunteers with coronavirus in the world’s first “human challenge” trial to expedite a determination on which COVID vaccines work. The Financial Times reported that the government-funded studies could be announced next week and begin in January. British government officials would only say that discussions were underway for such a trial. The BBC said no deal had been signed as of Thursday. Britain has been struggling to neutralize an uptick in cases in recent weeks. Tighter restrictions, such as closing pubs at 10 p.m., go into effect across the country Thursday.

Prof Peter Horby of Oxford University told the BBC such a trial was a good idea and could quickly advance knowledge of the virus.

“I think the challenge trial has the potential to save thousands of lives and really bring the world out of the pandemic sooner,” Horby said.

Study: Coronavirus has grown more contagious

Researchers at Houston Methodist Hospital say a study of the second wave of the coronavirus to sweep across the city indicates a mutation that is more contagious than the original strain. The later infections show the virus still has the crown shape that gives the virus its name, but the newer version has more of the spikes that latch onto human cells. The study, which has not yet been subject to crucial peer review, found patients infected with the variant strain had more of the virus when diagnosed than the first round of patient in the spring. There was an upside: The study showed no indication that the mutation is any more deadly than the original. Outcomes remain primarily linked to pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and obesity.

“We’ve now done molecular analyses of the two waves of the pandemic and one thing that stands out is the increase in the mutated strain’s frequency over a short period of time,” Dr. James Musser, the study’s author, told the Houston Chronicle. “Clearly, this strain is very different.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison to resume some in-person instruction

University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the campus will begin to reopen Saturday following a two-week lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 among undergraduate students.

“No one wanted our semester to start this way, but it has underscored that strict adherence to public health protocols is essential to protecting campus health and operations,” Blank said in a message to campus Wednesday. “Our collective efforts have curbed the number of positive cases and reduced the positivity rate in campus testing over the past two weeks.”

The university was only one week into the school year when leaders all but shut down campus facilities, moved classes online and quarantined two of the largest dorms, which house 2,220 students in total. There will be changes. The reopening will be gradual. Not all classes will start up immediately and not all will return to fully in-person instruction. Classes that require specialized equipment will still be in-person or hybrid, but others may be modified.

– Devi Shastri, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Vaccine won’t ‘completely eradicate’ COVID-19

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top health expert, told a Senate panel Wednesday that Americans will likely have to continue wearing face masks and practice social distancing after a vaccine becomes available for the coronavirus.

“The vaccine availability will go a giant step to controlling the infection, but you’re not going to completely eradicate it or eliminate it,” Fauci said, adding that conditions won’t change overnight. Fauci said it’s unusual for a vaccine to be 100% effective. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warns of COVID-19 ‘second wave’ in Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that Canada is in a second wave of COVID-19 and warned the country is on the brink of a fall season that could be much worse than the spring. Trudeau noted that when Canada went into lockdown March 13 there were 47 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, and that Tuesday alone, Canada had well over 1,000. Many provinces slowly reopened over the summer.

“We can’t change today’s numbers or even tomorrow’s – those were already decided by what we did, or didn’t do, two weeks ago,” Trudeau said in a rare nationally televised address. But, he added, “Together, we have the power to get this second wave under control.”

Trudeau urged Canadians to keep wearing masks and to download the government’s COVID-app that lets a person know if they’ve come in close contact with someone who has tested positive.

Donald Trump suggests he’ll overrule FDA on COVID-19 vaccine

Hours after some of the administration’s leading health officials offered assurances that the search for a coronavirus vaccine would be conducted free of political interference, President Donald Trump on Wednesday undercut that notion and suggested he may overrule the Federal Drug Administration. Trump, who has predicted the arrival of a vaccine before the Nov. 3 election, questioned why the FDA would set a higher standard for granting emergency authorization for a vaccine, as the agency is reportedly planning on in an effort to gain public trust. 

The president said FDA guidance “has to be approved by the White House. We may or may not approve it.” Earlier in the day, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn addressed concerns of politics playing a role in the approval process, emphasizing that career scientists at the FDA drive decision making: “Science will guide our decisions,” Hahn said. “FDA will not permit any pressure from anyone to change that.” 

New Year’s Eve party in Times Square will feature more virtual elements

The New Year’s Eve celebration in New York’s Times Square will be pared down to allow for social distancing and will include enhanced virtual elements, organizers said Wednesday. Details of the in-person festivities are still being worked out, but essential workers and first responders will be among those honored.

“Whether you want to turn off and turn away from the bad news of 2020, or turn to the new year with a sense of hope, renewal and resolution, you’ll be able to join us virtually like never before as part of the Times Square 2021 celebration,” Jeff Straus, president of Countdown Entertainment, said in a statement.

COVID-19 resources from USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press