February 14, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

We anticipated that the Food and Drug Administration would approve a COVID-19 vaccine for children age 5 and under this week. But, for the second time, Pfizer has pulled back from seeking FDA approval, dashing hopes that parents might have had for a way to protect toddlers and babies from COVID-19.

Pfizer said it needs more data before it can confidently ask the FDA to approve a two-dose regimen because, the company said, “rates of infection and illness remain high in children of this age.” Pfizer said the omicron variant makes it more difficult to protect children with the current vaccines.

The company is now testing a three-dose pediatric vaccine to see if it will offer more protection for the youngest children.

As drug companies have developed their vaccines, delays like this have proven to be disruptive to public trust in vaccine safety and efficacy. But Dr. Peter Marks, head of the FDA division responsible for vaccine safety, says the delay should build parental confidence in the vaccine approval process, not undermine it.

“Rather than having any issue of causing anyone to question the process, I hope this reassures people that the process has a standard, that the process is one that we follow, and we follow the science in making sure that anything that we authorize has the safety and efficacy that people have come to expect from our regulatory review of medical products,” Marks told reporters.

The rush to get a pediatric vaccine recently took an odd turn. Over the last two years, drug companies have asked the FDA to consider their vaccines for approval. But, in recent weeks, it was the FDA that asked Pfizer to send over its data to get approval. So it is noteworthy that the company tapped the brakes this time.

The state and federal governments are so eager to get these pediatric vaccines that starting today, states can start placing their orders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it will be ready to ship as soon as the FDA and CDC approve it.

It is also noteworthy that the main concern that Pfizer expressed had to do with the vaccine’s efficacy, not its safety. And it is not the first delay. Everyone hoped Pfizer would bring the pediatric vaccines in December but just as now, that move for emergency approval was delayed at Pfizer’s request because the data did not show the vaccines worked as well for children 2 to 4 years old as Pfizer hoped. The two-dose pediatric vaccine did produce a good immune response for children 6 months to two months, according to Pfizer.

Newest data on boosters show you may need a fourth dose

The CDC just released data that shows why, one day, you may hear a call for you to get a fourth COVID-19 vaccine. Researchers are finding that even booster shots lose some of their immune boost after four months.

New data shows vaccines work well for teenagers

The last time we checked in on how the Pfizer vaccine is working for teenagers, the drug trials had only produced two months’ worth of data.  Now, six months down the road, new data still shows the vaccine’s efficacy was 91.3% for teenagers. But, just like adults, the protection wanes after six months. This data is from a big study of 44,165 teens who got vaccinated at 152 sites (130 sites in the United States, one in Argentina, two in Brazil, four in South Africa, six in Germany, and nine in Turkey).

Remdesivir appears to work against omicron

In this Thursday Oct. 15, 2020 file photo, A bottle containing the drug Remdesivir is held by a health worker at the Institute of Infectology of Kenezy Gyula Teaching Hospital of the University of Debrecen in Debrecen, Hungary. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP, File)

Gilead Sciences Inc. just released encouraging news that its drug remdesivir appears to be a viable treatment for people who are infected with COVID-19, including the omicron variant. Some other treatments that worked against previous versions of the virus could not help patients with omicron. The FDA approved remdesivir for hospitalized and nonhospitalized patients.

Conflicting reports about monoclonal antibody drug sotrovimab

There were great hopes in the medical world that a few monoclonal antibody drugs might still be able to treat COVID-19 patients and keep them from becoming seriously ill. But last week, one study said sotrovimab appeared not to be effective against omicron. However, the company that makes the drug says it will produce data this week showing it is a useful omicron treatment.

Stat summarizes why this matters:

Losing sotrovimab as an effective therapy would be another blow for doctors trying to keep Covid-19 patients out of hospitals — and for drug developers’ efforts to keep up with the evolving SARS-CoV-2 virus. Commonly used monoclonal antibodies from Lilly and Regeneron stopped working when confronted with Omicron, and the government halted distribution of the treatments as the newer variant overtook the previously dominant Delta variant.

Pfizer made $37 billion last year

It is right to say that Pfizer produced a sensationally effective vaccine at lightning speed. It is also right to say it was very profitable. The company just reported annual sales of $37 billion last year.

While considering whether that is a justifiable reward for a company that did what only a few others accomplished — brought a vaccine to even partial approval — there should also be room for critique like this from The Guardian:

Pfizer has sold the vast majority of its doses to the richest countries in the world – a strategy sure to keep its profits high. If you look at its global distribution, Pfizer sells a tiny proportion of its vaccines to low-income countries. By last October, Pfizer had sold a measly 1.3% of its supply to Covax, the international body set up to try to ensure fairer access to vaccines.

Pfizer wasn’t selling many doses to poorer countries, but neither would it allow them to produce the life-saving vaccine on their own, through licensing or patent sharing.

That’s because, at the root of the Pfizer model, are a set of intellectual property rules, laid down in trade deals. These effectively allow big pharma corporations to operate as monopolies, with no responsibility to share the knowledge they own, however much society needs it.

This critical essay says that a heck of a lot of public taxpayer money, along with private research funding, went into developing this vaccine.

The truth is, they aren’t the sole inventors of the vaccine. That was the work of public money, university research and a much smaller company, Germany’s BioNTech. As one former US government official complained, the fact we call it the “Pfizer” vaccine is “the biggest marketing coup in the history of American pharmaceuticals”.

A Stat news analysis in 2018 concluded that Pfizer developed only a fraction – about 23% – of its drugs in-house. And a US Government Accountability Office report the previous year noted that the industry model is increasingly to simply buy up smaller firms that have already developed products. This allows them to monopolize that knowledge and maximize the price of the resulting medicines. Pfizer has channeled $70bn (£52bn) to its shareholders , directly through dividend payments, and through stock-buybacks. This dwarfs its research budget for the same period.

Once the pandemic passes, we should have a serious conversation about who owns such licenses to globally important medicines.

Covering the Russian threat to Ukraine

A view of Ukraine’s the Motherland Monument in Kyiv Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022. In addition to the more than 100,000 ground troops that U.S. officials say Russia has assembled along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, the Russians have deployed missile, air, naval and special operations forces, as well as supplies to sustain a war. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

My Poynter colleague Kelly McBride and I pulled together some ethical considerations and advice and resources that we hope will help you think through how you will cover a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

You might keep an eye on oil prices in the days ahead. As soon as the White House announced Americans should scoot out of Ukraine ASAP, oil prices shot up. Some analysts say they would not be surprised to see oil at $100 per barrel even this week if Russia invades Ukraine. CNBC notes:

“The market has been concerned about this outcome for several weeks, but most believed it would not occur or would at least be after the Olympics,” noted CIBC Private Wealth’s Rebecca Babin. “The key consideration for crude will be what kind of sanctions the US and allies move forward” should Russia invade.

“That is what will ultimately determine how crude supply is impacted,” she said. Babin added that the sharp move higher, based on speculation, speaks to how tight the oil market’s fundamentals are right now. Growing demand coupled with low inventory and constrained new supply is stoking fears in the market.

There are about a million Americans of Ukrainian descent living in the United States. A third of them arrived after Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

Cities with the biggest Ukrainian populations are New York City, with 160,000; Philadelphia, with 60,000; Chicago, with 46,000; Los Angeles, with 34,000; Detroit, with 33,000; Cleveland, with 26,000; and Indianapolis, with 19,000. In 2018, the number of Ukrainian Americans surpassed 1 million.

Some smaller towns may not have a big number of Ukrainian citizens but as a percentage of their total population, Ukrainians make up a significant portion of these communities:

The top 5 U.S. communities with the highest percentage of people claiming Ukrainian ancestry are:

  1. Cass Township, Pennsylvania: 14.30%
  2. Belfield, North Dakota: 13.60%
  3. Gulich Township, Pennsylvania: 12.70%
  4. Gilberton, Pennsylvania: 12.40%
  5. Wilton, North Dakota: 10.30%

The Shevchenko Scientific Society offers more on Ukrainian immigration.

USDA monitoring new bird flu among poultry

A new “bird flu” has been detected on a farm in Indiana and it has poultry farmers around the globe on alert. This is not a threat to humans, but it could be a big issue for the food supply chain. Indiana poultry farmers killed 30,000 turkeys to try to contain the virus. The U.S. Agriculture Department says:

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has confirmed the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in a commercial turkey flock in Dubois County, Indiana. This is the first confirmed case of HPAI in commercial poultry in the United States since 2020.

Avian influenza does not present an immediate public health concern. No human cases of these avian influenza viruses have been detected in the United States. As a reminder, the proper handling and cooking of poultry and eggs to an internal temperature of 165 ˚F kills bacteria and viruses.

LiveScience reports that this is not the first time this virus has turned up in the U.S.:

The highly pathogenic strain detected in Indiana turkeys is known as H5N1 and was first spotted in wild bird populations in North and South Carolina last month, according to the Des Moines Register. Wild birds in eastern Canada also tested positive for the virus around that time, MPR News reported.

Then, on Monday (Feb. 7), an Indiana farmer found about 100 dead turkeys in one of his barns and saw that the surviving turkeys appeared lethargic, the IndyStar reported.

Are they swabworthy? Valentine’s dating in 2022.

A bus passes a mural of a couple kissing while wearing face masks in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Happy Valentine’s Day. We are entering a new phase. 2020 introduced the virtual date. Now that we are coming out of our homebound holes again, Washington Post Lifestyles writer Lisa Bonos says singles have new decisions to make:

Once vaccinations started in 2021, meeting strangers in person got safer and easier. Then the delta and omicron variants hit, nudging some to rethink their covid protocols. Should I ask my date to take a test before a first date, or only if we plan to be together inside? And who’s responsible for supplying: The person who’s more cautious, whoever has more on hand – or is it each germ machine for themselves?

Still, it’s hard to know what to do: The CDC does not specify whether a test is recommended before you swap saliva with a stranger or invite them to come upstairs. Clare O’Connor, head of content for the dating app Bumble, says that asking someone the last time they were tested for the coronavirus is similar to asking whether they’ve had a recent STI test. “It’s a precaution you take when you’re considering getting intimate with somebody.”

Some daters who live in vaccine-resistant areas are still asking that big question from 2021: Have you had your jab? A 28-year-old designer in Kentucky, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for professional privacy, asks every man she matches with online whether he’s vaccinated. “If they’re not, that’s too bad. I’m not meeting you,” she says. “They’re usually angry at me and confused as to why I care.” She tells them that it’s for her safety.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy offers some practical advice in time for Valentine’s Day. He told the dating app Hinge:

“Dating during the COVID-19 pandemic: It’s not simple, but it’s definitely possible.” He added, “A lot of people have really struggled during this pandemic and if you’re feeling that way just remember that you are not alone.”

Watch his video with pandemic dating safety.

USA Today quotes Harvard Medical School:

Harvard Medical School recommends following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but if both parties “are healthy and feeling well, are practicing social distancing and have had no known exposure to anyone with COVID-19, touching, hugging, kissing, and sex are more likely to be safe.”

Bumble offers this advice:

The health risks around hanging out with any new romantic interest IRL are very real. COVID is spread via droplets that are released when an infected person talks, coughs, or even just breathes. The CDC classifies being around someone for more than 15 minutes as being in “close contact,” which means any in-person date is an exposure risk. In addition to that, interacting without masks—to talk, kiss, or do anything else—puts you at greater risk, as does having your date take place indoors, where COVID droplets can circulate, making transmission much more likely.

Of course, you can still date, form a meaningful relationship, and even find love during the pandemic. You just have to put safety first, which is where the COVID conversation comes in. If you ask the right questions, you’ll be able to ascertain how seriously your potential date is taking coronavirus and its related protocols. Infectious diseases expert Dr. Ravina Kullar recommends learning your match’s “attitudes towards social distancing [and] wearing masks” before you meet up. Their answers will help you make a much more informed choice about whether to go on an in-person date.

A New York Times piece went so far as to say COVID-19 has “changed dating forever.” Maybe, or maybe not, but people who know about such things say the pickup line “I’m vaccinated” seems to have some attraction.

Chocolate supply shortage

I am sorry to pass this one along to those of you who will take it badly, but chocolate supplies are getting tight. Hershey says it will raise prices on practically everything soon. Of course, the price hikes are not just because of cocoa supplies. Chocolate also requires sugar and milk, and those prices are rising fast. Plus, add in higher labor costs.

And there is this from Harvard Business School. West Africa currently accounts for 70% of the world’s supply of cocoa beans, which are the most significant raw material in Hershey’s chocolate production supply chain. Well, Harvard researchers say:

By 2030 parts of West Africa will be too hot and dry to adequately produce cocoa. As a result, the world may face a significant decline in cocoa production due to the combined effects of climate change and farmers choosing to switch to more lucrative crops. This poses a significant threat to Hershey’s supply chain.

So yes, within eight years, there could be a severe and sustained global chocolate shortage. It may be time to find another source of comfort. Bananas and peanut butter work for me.

He documented COVID in jails and prisons

I hope you will take a moment to read a heartfelt tribute thread to Timothy Williams, a journalist who doggedly led a team at The New York Times to document the depth of the pandemic in jails and prisons. May all of us leave such a legacy of admiring colleagues and important and useful work.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

More News

Back to News