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Moderna seeks regulatory nod for COVID vaccine in very young children, and WHO reports second straight week with cases rising globally

Moderna Inc. will seek an emergency-use authorization from regulators in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere for its COVID-19 vaccine in babies, toddlers and preschoolers, after a late-stage trial found it produced virus-fighting antibodies that were just as strong as in young adults.

Moderna
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said in the coming weeks it would ask regulators in the U.S. and Europe to authorize two small-dose shots for youngsters under 6. The company also is seeking to have larger-dose shots cleared for older children and teens in the U.S.

The nation’s 18 million children under 5 are the only age group not yet eligible for vaccination. Competitor Pfizer
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currently offers kid-sized doses for school-age children and full-strength shots for those 12 and older.

But parents have been waiting for news on shots for very small children and disappointed by setbacks. Pfizer is testing even smaller doses for children under 5 but had to add a third shot to its study when two didn’t prove strong enough. Those results are expected by early April.

Vaccinating the littlest kids “has been somewhat of a moving target over the last couple of months,” Dr. Bill Muller of Northwestern University, an investigator in Moderna’s pediatric studies, told the AP in an interview before the company released its findings.

Late last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that children were hit especially hard by the omicron variant that was first detected in November and were hospitalized at five times higher rates than during the delta surge.

About 400 children below the age of 5 had died from COVID since the start of the pandemic.

See now: Two years of COVID-19: How the pandemic changed the way we shop, work, invest and get medical care

COVID-19 vaccines don’t prevent infection with the omicron mutant as well as they fended off earlier variants — but they do still offer strong protection against severe illness.

Moderna reported that same trend in the trial of children under 6, conducted during the omicron surge. While there were no severe illnesses, the vaccine proved just under 44% effective at preventing any infection in babies up to age 2, and nearly 38% effective in the preschoolers.

The news comes as COVID cases are starting to climb again in Europe and in parts of the U.S. The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose for a second straight week, according to World Health Organization data, after falling consistently since the end of January, as the BA.2 subvariant continued its spread.

Cases rose 7% in the week through March 20 to more than 12 million cases, while deaths fell 23% to just under 33,000, the WHO said in its weekly epidemiological update. 

On a country-by-country basis, the highest numbers of new cases were in South Korea, Vietnam, Germany, France and Australia. The highest numbers of reported deaths were in Russia, the U.S, Brazil, South Korea and China.

The WHO also said it is monitoring several recombinant variants of the virus, including one that has been unofficially named deltacron because it combines features of the delta and omicron variants.

“Two Delta and Omicron recombinants and one BA.1 x BA.2 recombinant have now been given Pango lineage designations XD, XE and XF,” the agency wrote, referring to the system used to name and track variants as they emerge.

However, “none of the preliminary available evidence indicates that these recombinant variants are associated with higher transmissibility or more severe outcomes,” said the WHO. Recombinant variants are a natural phenomenon and can be expected, it added.

U.S. COVID numbers, meanwhile, continue to decline, and the country is now averaging 29,288 new cases a day, according to a New York Times tracker, down 26% from two weeks ago.

The average daily number of hospitalizations stands at 20,984, down 41% from two weeks ago. Deaths are averaging 1,009 a day, down 30% from two weeks ago, but still an undesirably high number.

See now: European countries lifted COVID restrictions ‘too brutally,’ says WHO regional head, allowing BA.2 variant to spread

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday she has tested positive for COVID-19 with “mild” symptoms, the AP reported. On social media, the former Democratic presidential candidate said she was “feeling fine” and that her husband, former president Bill Clinton, had tested negative and was quarantining until their household was fully cleared. The former secretary of state and first lady, 74, said she was “more grateful than ever for the protection vaccines can provide against serious illness” and urged people to get vaccine and booster shots.

• South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said restrictive COVID-19 regulations that have weighed on the nation’s struggling economy for two years would be removed on Wednesday, with the national state of disaster also to end soon, Reuters reported. The state of disaster has been in place since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Its extension last week until April 15 drew criticism from businesses hard hit by its measures.

Read also: Moderna’s stock, down 60% since the summer’s delta wave, is rising again as COVID-19 cases increase

Hong Kong, which has faced a record surge in Covid-19 cases and the world’s highest death rate, has been under strict restrictions. WSJ’s Diana Chan reports on how everyday life has changed in the city, from panic buying to an exodus of residents. Photo: Emmanuel Serna/Zuma Press

• New Zealand will scrap vaccine mandates for a number of sectors, including teachers and the police, from April 4, as the current COVID-19 outbreak nears its peak, ABC News Australia reported. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said only those working with vulnerable people, such as in the aged-care and health sectors and border workers, would need to be vaccinated from April 4, and passes would no longer be required for restaurants and other public places.

• The South Korean government has asked crematories to increase their burning capacity and funeral homes to secure more refrigerators as the nation continues to suffer from the highest death rate from COVID in the world, the New York Times reported. COVID deaths rose 45% in the week through March 19 from the previous week and totaled 429 on Thursday, according to government data, the most in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 474.3 million on Tuesday, while the death toll rose above 6.1 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 79.8 million cases and 973,268 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 217.1 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 65.4% of the population. But just 96.7 million are boosted, equal to 44.6% of the vaccinated population.

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