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Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

Just as South Africa was preparing to distribute its first million doses of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine, devastating news emerged: A clinical trial failed to demonstrate that the vaccine offered protection against mild or moderate illness caused by the South African variant, which is estimated to make up 90 percent of all cases there.

As a result, the South African government paused the rollout of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. The country will store its supply in warehouses.

The company’s trial of about 2,000 people found that the vaccine was only about 10 percent effective against the South Africa variant. Because the trial volunteers were relatively young and unlikely to become severely ill, it was impossible to know whether the vaccine would safeguard against hospitalizations or death.

Even though the study was small and has yet to be peer-reviewed, there’s no point in giving people a vaccine if you don’t know whether it works, my colleague Carl Zimmer, who writes about science for The Times, told me.

“I know we’re in a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean you just throw out all the rules,” Carl said.

The South Africa study also found evidence that the natural immunity people acquired from past coronavirus infections did not protect them from mild or moderate infections from the South African variant. The variant has been identified in at least 32 countries, including the U.S.

These developments underscore the dangers posed by the emergence of coronavirus variants. “It looks like this one went from virtually zero in maybe October to being the predominant variant in South Africa in December,” Carl said. “So these things come out of nowhere and take over far faster than you can make a new vaccine for them.”

U.S. health officials are optimistic that the supply of vaccines and the rate of vaccination will steadily increase. But as algorithms decide where vaccines go and who gets them, Americans are experiencing wide disparities in access.

Only about 11 percent of Americans have received one or two doses of a vaccine, leaving millions more to deal with the uncertainty and anxiety that have come to define the rollout. In search of vaccines, people are scrolling through crashing websites at 3 a.m., driving 300 miles in the snow or hanging around grocery store pharmacies for hours on end.

Catherine Sharp, a freelance photographer in Brooklyn, has been trying to score vaccines for her father in New York and her mother in Illinois. “It was like a sneaker drop,” she told my colleague Jennifer Steinhauer. “It’s just impossible.”

In the meantime, both Catherine and her mother contracted the virus; her mother, a cancer survivor, was hospitalized. “This is my worst nightmare,” she said. “I just don’t understand the algorithm. A good 40 percent of my time is spent on this. I wake up, I get my coffee and say, “I’ve got to do this.’”

Grocery store workers across the country are also frustrated with the rollout. After 10 exhausting months of working during the pandemic, they initially felt encouraged by the federal government’s guidelines that prioritized frontline workers. But even as the variants make their work more dangerous, only 13 states have started specifically vaccinating grocery workers.

“Society in general is giving a very mixed message, celebrating grocery workers as essential early in the pandemic and now, less than a year later, putting grocery workers at the end of the queue,” said Marc Jones, the chief executive of an employee-owned grocery chain.

Despite the horror stories and headaches, some vaccination sites have managed to inoculate people at a brisk pace — but even those successes have had unintended consequences.

One clinic in Georgia worked so quickly that by the end of December it had vaccinated every health care worker, nursing home resident and staff member in the area who wanted a shot. But when it moved on to the next batch of eligible people — which includes essential workers like teachers — Georgia health officials suspended the clinic from the state’s vaccine program for six months for violating state guidelines.

  • Residents of California have become the unlikely standard-bearers for aggressive opposition to the vaccine at a time when virus cases continue to increase in the state.

  • Hungary may start rolling out a Covid-19 vaccine made in Russia this week, Reuters reports.

  • Britain’s vaccine minister said booster shots and annual vaccinations for the coronavirus would probably be necessary, as with annual flu shots.

  • Indonesia began inoculating people 60 and older after health officials concluded that the Chinese-made coronavirus vaccine they were using was safe for that age group.

That massage table I bought at a garage sale a couple of years ago? We pull it out at night and now all trivia bets and card game wins are paid off by minutes on the table. After nine months we may not be ready to hang out a shingle, but we have each found a way to release tension in each other and sleep better.

— Celeste Havener, Centennial Valley, Wyo.

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