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Coronavirus Live Updates: Vaccine Tests Show Early Promise, Drug Maker Says, Rallying Wall Street

2020-05-18 18:43:47

Stocks climbed after encouraging data about the first virus vaccine tested in people.

The drug maker Moderna said on Monday that the first coronavirus vaccine to be tested in people appeared to be safe and able to stimulate an immune response against the virus.

The findings, which helped prompt a rally on Wall Street, are based on results from the first eight people who each received two doses of the experimental vaccine starting in March.

Those people, healthy volunteers ages 18 to 55, made antibodies that were then tested in human cells in the lab and were able to stop the virus from replicating — the key requirement for an effective vaccine. The levels of those so-called neutralizing antibodies matched the levels found in patients who had recovered after contracting the virus in the community. Two more age groups — 55 to 70, and 71 and over — are now being enrolled to test the vaccine.

Though encouraging, the findings do not prove that the vaccine works. Only larger, longer studies can determine whether it can prevent people in the real world from getting sick. Moderna’s technology, involving genetic material from the virus called mRNA, is relatively new and has yet to produce any approved vaccine.

Moderna produced the vaccine in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is led by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci and has been leading the clinical trials. That institute, part of the federal National Institutes of Health, is also involved in research on other experimental coronavirus vaccines.

If those trials go well, a vaccine could become available for widespread use by the end of this year or early 2021, Dr. Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said in an interview. The number of doses that could be ready is unclear, but Dr. Zaks said, “We’re doing our best to make it as many millions as possible.”

Despite the uncertainties, the company’s announcement rapidly encouraged investors, who also welcomed a pledge from Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman, that there was “really no limit” to what the central bank could do with its emergency lending facilities.

The S&P 500 rose more than 3 percent by early Monday afternoon, and Moderna’s shares surged more than 25 percent.

The rally had all the characteristics of one focused on the prospects for a return to normal. Travel stocks, like United Airlines, Expedia Group and Marriott International, were among the best performers in the S&P 500.

Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of Health and Human Services, sharply criticized the World Health Organization on Monday, saying its handling of the outbreak in China led to unnecessary deaths.

Mr. Azar’s combative remarks, delivered in a prepared video to the World Health Assembly, the global health agency’s annual meeting and its first during the pandemic, is a significant escalation of the Trump administration’s efforts to deflect blame over the United States government’s halting response to the virus.

“We must be frank about one of the primary reasons that this outbreak spun out of control,” Mr. Azar said. “There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives.”

Mr. Azar’s comments were a strident amplification of criticism by Mr. Trump and Republicans in Congress who have castigated the W.H.O. for what they have described as a bungled response to the outbreak in China by promoting misinformation from Beijing. The health agency has denied the claims and insisted that it was transparent and open.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the W.H.O., on Monday appeared to bow to calls by member states for an evaluation of its handling of the pandemic, saying the agency would review “lessons learned” about its global response. But Mr. Tedros’s remarks did not address Mr. Trump’s demands that the health agency investigate unproven allegations that the virus originated in a lab in China.

President Xi Jinping of China, in a pointed challenge to Mr. Trump, offered on Monday to provide $2 billion in the fight against the pandemic and called on other nations to increase their contributions to the W.H.O.

Mr. Xi’s remarks were likely to ratchet up pressure on Mr. Trump, who last month announced that the United States would withhold its annual contribution of about $550 million to the organization, accusing it of promoting disinformation from China about the outbreak.

In his remarks, Mr. Xi also defended his country’s handling of the outbreak and appeared to brush aside calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus — a demand the United States has been promoting — saying such forensics should wait until the crisis had subsided.

The $2 billion would be a vast increase in China’s contribution to the W.H.O., which last year totaled $43 million. In April, after the United States announced it would cut funding to the organization, Beijing said it would provide an additional $30 million.

The report is the first in what will be a monthly review of how the funds are being used. The money, which was allocated as part of the $2 trillion CARES Act, is being used to provide grants and loans to airlines and companies that are vital to national security and to backstop lending programs designed by the Fed.

The programs are just getting up and running. The report says that Treasury has yet to disburse the $46 billion in grant and loan money to airlines or businesses critical to national security. Thus far, it has only used $37.5 billion for the Fed’s Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility, which purchases outstanding corporate bonds through a special purpose vehicle. The Fed’s other facilities, which are intended to keep credit flowing to businesses and state and local governments, are expected to be operational in the coming weeks, though the timeline remains highly uncertain.

The bipartisan commission is comprised of two Republicans, Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Representative French Hill of Arkansas, and two Democrats, Bharat Ramamurti, a former economic adviser to Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Donna Shalala of Florida.

The commission questioned how the Fed and Treasury will measure the success of the programs. Signaling its areas of concern, it questioned if the Fed facilities will favor large companies over smaller ones and if the agencies believe that the loan money will help stabilize the economy regardless of how it is used.

The next report is due in late June.

Democrats want Treasury and the Federal Reserve to take more risks in their lending program.

A group of Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee are sending Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin a letter urging them to take greater risks in their lending program meant to keep credit flowing to midsize businesses.

The so-called “Main Street” lending program, first unveiled March 23, has yet to get up and running. When it does, it will be backed by $75 billion of the $454 billion that Congress gave the Treasury Department as part of the CARES relief law to support the Fed’s emergency loan efforts.

Mr. Powell and Mr. Mnuchin will testify before the Senate Banking Committee tomorrow.

Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, has expressed concern that the program is taking too long to get up and running, and that its terms are too cautious, limiting the chances that it will lose taxpayer money but also potentially curbing its effectiveness. He led the Monday letter, which was given to The New York Times by his office.

“The current crisis facing the U.S. economy is distinguishable from previous economic downturns, and therefore demands a different approach,” the letter said, acknowledging that the Fed’s emergency lending programs are usually structured as backstops meant to be used only as a last resort, but arguing that this one should not be.

“The vast majority of these firms are not seeking public assistance due to risky behavior,” the Senators wrote, adding that “should firms fail to receive affordable financing terms under these facilities, many will be left with a choice between declaring bankruptcy, posing long-term risks to the economy, or opening up too quickly.”

The Senators said that they do not think the Fed and Treasury need to return the money appropriated in the CARES Act in a baseline scenario, as Mr. Mnuchin has said they expect to do.

“In our view, the significant capital protecting the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet should be viewed as capital that does not need to be paid back in full,” they wrote. “Losses to Treasury capital should be tolerated in order to ensure financing reaches the borrowers most in need.”

Hotlines in California were deluged on Monday as the state began taking applications for $75 million in cash assistance to help undocumented immigrants weather the Covid-19 economic downturn.

The one-time grants of $500 per person or $1,000 per household will be awarded to about 150,000 people who phone in on a first-come, first served basis, state officials said. Philanthropic organizations and private donors pledged an additional $50 million, for another 100,000 immigrants. Miriam Jordan reports.

There are an estimated 10.6 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., of whom 2 million live in California, more than any other state.

Undocumented immigrants are among the most vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic; many work in jobs in homes, hotels and restaurants that have been shut down during state-ordered lockdowns.

In anticipation of the payments, people looking for information on how to apply over the weekend directed a flurry of calls to the 12 nonprofit organizations contracted to vet the applications. By Monday, when the phone lines opened, many people reported they could not get through.

The sign-ups were being conducted almost entirely by telephone to avoid hazardous in-person contacts.

To qualify for the money, applicants must prove they are undocumented, out of work because of the health crisis and not eligible for federal stimulus checks or unemployment benefits.

Groups opposed to the program sued to block the state from using taxpayer dollars, arguing that it was illegal. The cases were dismissed by the court.

More than 2.2 million A.P. tests were taken last week, in subjects ranging from computer science to art history to physics. A second week of testing begins today.

The College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the exams, said only 1 percent of test takers had problems submitting their answers online last week. But some students have complained that the technical failures were more widespread and have said that as many as a quarter of students in some high school classes had difficulty with the online testing system.

They took to social media to post videos of the system failing, and even shared photographs of faces stained with tears of frustration.

On Sunday, the College Board announced that students taking exams this week will have the option of emailing their answers if they are unable to upload them. But students who had difficulties last week will have to take makeup exams in early June — a solution that some families called unfair, because it would force students to take stressful tests multiple times.

On Twitter, one student posted that she could not submit her chemistry test and wrote, “Thanks @CollegeBoard. Now I get to stress about this test for the next three weeks when I should be worried about my other classes.”

The College Board, which also oversees the SAT, a standardized test that serves as a gateway to college for millions of applicants each year, also said that it would develop digital versions for students to take at home in the fall if the pandemic continues to require social distancing.

When big companies got loans backed by the federal government’s $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program, outrage ensued. Many people expressed anger that the government’s main vehicle for helping mom-and-pop shops struggling during the pandemic was being undermined.

Escalade returned the funds, hoping to avoid running afoul of new federal guidelines for the loans and betting states would loosen stay-at-home restrictions enough to restart operations. RealNetworks kept its loan and says it will use it to bring workers back this week.

The survey, conducted by the Global Strategy Group for two equal-rights organizations, Color of Change and UnidosUS, included interviews with 500 business owners and 1,200 workers from April 30 to last Monday. Just 12 percent of the owners who applied for government-backed loans in the $650 billion program reported receiving what they had asked for, and nearly half of all owners said they anticipated having to permanently close in the next six months.

By comparison, in a survey of small businesses by the Census Bureau from April 26 to May 2, three-quarters said they had asked for a loan and 38 percent of them said they had received one.

The program was the first time some black and Latino business owners had ever sought a bank loan. Two-thirds of the respondents sought loans of under $50,000 through the government’s aid program. Nearly half said they had to lay off at least some employees.

Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, said the survey showed that “if we don’t get policies to protect these communities, we will lose a generation of black and brown businesses, which will have deep impacts on our entire country’s economy.”

The state’s standards that New York City has yet to meet are:

  • A rate of new hospitalizations below 2 per 100,000 residents a day. In New York City, that works out to around 170 per day. According to the state, the number in the city is around 200 per day.

In the regions that can restart, construction, manufacturing, and wholesale trade can resume. Some retail businesses may open for curbside service only. Five regions became eligible on Friday and a sixth, the region around Buffalo, can reopen on Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday.

Other activities that are allowed include drive-in movies, landscaping and gardening businesses and “low-risk recreational activities” like tennis.

Beaches in New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and elsewhere in New York State will open for swimming then, albeit with crowd limits and social distancing rules in place on the sand.

The city is prepared to fence off the beaches if they start to get crowded, the mayor warned.

Another 106 people died in the state, Mr. Cuomo said.

Dr. Rick Bright, who became a federal whistle-blower after he was stripped of his position running a medical research agency, has reported to his new assignment at the National Institutes of Health, his lawyers said.

Dr. Bright was ousted head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority on April 21, he has said, after he objected to the widespread use of an unproven malaria drug being touted by Mr. Trump as a treatment for Covid-19.

While his new mission is unclear, Francis Collins, the director of the health institutes, recently told reporters that Dr. Bright is now a “senior adviser” to him. “His precise role is under development,” Dr. Collins said.

Dr. Bright had been on medical leave for hypertension and then vacation leave, he told Congress last week — an admission that prompted sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers, as well as Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s trade adviser, who called him “a deserter.”

In a statement, his lawyers, Debra S. Katz and Lisa Banks, said Dr. Bright went to N.I.H. on Monday. “Following the required on-boarding process, he is prepared to begin working when N.I.H. is ready,” they said.

In Massachusetts, one of the hardest-hit states, Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday presented his four-phased strategy to gingerly resume public life, replacing his “stay at home” advisory with a new one, “safer at home.”

The four stages, which begin today and last for three weeks apiece, are known as “start,” “cautious,” “vigilant” and “new normal,” with each new phase replacing the previous guidelines with slightly looser ones. Progress from one stage to the next is contingent on a continuing decline in the virus’s spread, Mr. Baker warned.

“If we don’t keep up the fight, and don’t do the things that we all know we have to do, and know we can do, we run the risk of creating a second spike in the fall,” he said.

Across the country, governors are engaging in a precarious balancing act, weighing the risks of reopening their states with the acute need to minimize economic harm. The pendulum will move further toward the economy this week, when several more states, including Connecticut, Kentucky and Minnesota, move to reopen.

But even governors who have allowed certain returns to business have expressed hesitance, and public health officials have been warning for weeks that reopening too soon could lead to a devastating second outbreak.

“This is really the most crucial time,” Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican, said Sunday on CNN. “And the most dangerous time.”

Similarly, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a Democrat, said on CNN that he understood the hardship and stress people were facing. “The question is,” he added, “how do you toggle back and make meaningful modifications to the stay-at-home order?”

Mr. Trump, in telephone comments during a golf broadcast on Sunday, he said he missed sports and wanted “big, big stadiums loaded with people.”

Stores and malls could reopen in Minnesota beginning Monday; the enormous Mall of America, in Bloomington, has said that it does not plan to reopen its shops until June 1. On Wednesday, hard-hit Connecticut is expected to reopen salons, museums and office buildings. By Friday, stores and restaurants are expected to open back up in Kentucky.

Even in lower-risk counties, a significant proportion of the population is living with these conditions.

Public health experts warn that these areas may not be adequately prepared for new waves of infection, even as some have lifted restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus.

“Places that have not seen a lot of infection yet should be thinking about what infection is going to mean once they have an outbreak there,” said Micaela E. Martinez, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“This infection is highly contagious and we have no vaccine, so it will inevitably sweep through our populations unless we have very tight measures in place to prevent that from happening,” Dr. Martinez said. Once it does, the overall health of a community will matter, she added.

In his 20 years in and out of homelessness, Ollie Harris has seen a lot of things. But what happened on a recent Friday near his tent in Oakland, Calif., was new.

“Would you like to be tested today?” asked a woman who was wearing a surgical mask.

“I might as well,” Mr. Harris replied. A nurse quickly swabbed Mr. Harris’s nostrils and throat and then jotted down his information.

So far, their work has raised as many questions as it has answered. But there have also been intriguing, if still tentative, findings.

The experts leading these efforts said they acted to fill a void. Eva Harris, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, said that watching the virus spread around the world while bickering government leaders hesitated to act was like witnessing the Titanic speeding toward the iceberg.

“We finally just said, ‘OK, it hit,’ and still nothing happened, so we need to get involved,” she said.

He would run from crashing patient to crashing patient, always at the bedside where it was most dangerous.

“One of the sad stories of this pandemic is that we’re losing people that we couldn’t afford to lose,” Dr. Robert F. Foronjy, Dr. Mahoney’s boss, said.

After nearly two months under lockdown — with the only access roads closed off by checkpoints — the Florida Keys will reopen to visitors on June 1, officials announced.

The archipelago has been blocked off to anyone who does not work or live there since late March. Hotels were ordered closed, and visitors who flew in through the airport were screened and instructed to self-isolate for two weeks.

The measures worked: Monroe County had just 100 confirmed cases and three deaths, according to state data. The three heavily populated counties to the north — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — had a total of more than 25,000 cases and 1,000 deaths.

“I have to say, it’s probably one of the toughest decisions we have ever had to make as a county,” said Heather Carruthers, the mayor of Monroe County. “First, closing the Keys to visitors was heartbreaking. We knew what an impact that would have on our locals, and it’s not who we are. We’re the ‘Come as you are’ county.”

Ms. Carruthers said that the decision to reopen was just as hard, because it was clear that it was precisely because of the strict measures that the Keys was able to keep the virus at bay. But as the infection rates in Miami and Fort Lauderdale have improved, she said, it has become clear that the Keys had to come up with its own “new normal.”

Health officials will be keeping a close eye on the number of infections to decide whether restrictions should be restored, she said.

Keep up with Times correspondents around the globe.

Japan’s economy becomes the largest to officially enter a recession. A Canadian military jet crashes during a flyover for virus workers.

Reporting was contributed by Ellen Barry, Alan Blinder, Neal E. Boudette, Max Brimelow, Jane E. Brody, Julie Chang, Matthew Conlen, Michael Cooper, Pedro Cota, Melina Delkic, Emily Flitter, Jacey Fortin, Dana Goldstein, Abby Goodnough, Denise Grady, Kristen Hwang, Adam Liptak, Alex Matthews, David McCabe, Sarah Mervosh, Andy Newman, Sharon Otterman, Nadja Popovich, Alan Rappeport, Frances Robles, Rick Rojas, Marc Santora, Michael Schwirtz, Anjali Singhvi, Jeanna Smialek, Kaly Soto, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Eileen Sullivan, Neil Vigdor and Michael Wilson.


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