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COVID-19 roundup: Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine trial shows ‘robust’ immune response in early results

A scientist is pictured working at Oxford Vaccine Group's laboratory facility at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, west of London, U.K., in June 2020. Steve Parsons/AFP via Getty Images
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It’s day 132 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 110,654 as of publication time, up 316 since yesterday—a 12.4 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 360.8 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

More young people are getting sick in the latest COVID-19 outbreaks in Canada, the United States and Africa, pushing public officials to urge increased vigilance.

In the lab: A COVID-19 vaccine candidate being developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca generated “robust” immune responses in a study of over 1,000 patients, according to results published in the medical journal The Lancet. 

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The early but promising results mean researchers remain on schedule to have the shot—described by the World Health Organization (WHO)’s chief scientist last month as the world’s most advanced vaccine candidate—ready for mass production by September. It’s one of 23 potential vaccines that are being tested in clinical trials worldwide, according to the WHO. AstraZeneca plans to make two billion doses if the vaccine works, and sell them for no profit.

The Lancet also published results of another vaccine from Chinese biotech CanSino Biologics, which showed it, too, induced immune responses. Pfizer and partner BioNTech also announced early positive results from a trial in Germany.

However, all these vaccines are still unproven, and “must be tested on much larger populations of participants to assess their efficacy and safety,” according to researchers Naor Bar-Zeev and William Moss. Biotech investor Peter Kolchinsky also recommended caution pending more data: “We can expect better results from better vaccines coming up behind,” he tweeted. Oxford’s Andrew Pollard, the lead author on Oxford’s vaccine study, also said they need “more research” to be sure the vaccine works: “We hope this means the immune system will remember the virus, so that our vaccine will protect people for an extended period.”

That hasn’t stopped wealthy countries from pre-ordering supplies well in advance. The U.S. government has funded several vaccine candidates, including Oxford’s, agreeing to pay AstraZeneca up to US$1.2 billion for around 300 million doses. The Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy have secured 300 million to 400 million doses of the potential vaccine. Last week, Russia—which is producing its own vaccine that has reportedly been administered to top business executives and political officials—said it had agreed to manufacture AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Meanwhile, on Monday, the U.K. agreed to purchase 90 million doses of German and French candidates. Health Canada did not respond to The Logic’s request for comment by the time we hit “send” on this newsletter.

Public health officials are urging guarded optimism. A vaccine has never been produced within a year to 18 months, and even if one is produced, it may not curb the pandemic entirely. Those concerns may be addressed tomorrow, when AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Moderna testify before a U.S. House Committee of Energy and Commerce on their vaccine development efforts, with lawmakers looking to probe their promises to produce a vaccine by next year and the costs of doing so.

In the markets: All major North American indices closed up on news of positive early results from Oxford’s early vaccine trials. The Canadian dollar rose to 73.85 cents U.S. in late afternoon trading. 

Canadian investors are preparing for the start of earnings season, which kicks off Tuesday with Canadian National Railway, followed by Rogers, Loblaw and Suncor later in the week. A growing number of U.S. firms are converting furloughs into permanent layoffs as surging coronavirus cases prompt business leaders to start planning for a disruption lasting years. The U.S. has surpassed 140,000 deaths from the virus and case numbers continue to rise. 

China’s Shanghai Composite rose 3.1 per cent after regulators said domestic insurers could assign 45 per cent of their assets to equity investments, up from the prior cap of 30 per cent. European investors are pouring funds into renewable energy firms, while crowdfunding has helped green tech startups get funding. The environmental bets come as national leaders are deadlocked on day four of negotiations over a €1.8-trillion COVID-19 recovery package that some authorities have suggested would be 30 per cent allocated to climate-related projects. Italian government bonds rallied sharply on hopes that the deadlock would break soon. 

“Even the most favourable outcome in vaccine development would come too late to save the U.S. economy from the spread of the virus over the next three months”: Fulcrum Asset Management chairman Gavyn Davies argued that markets aren’t accounting for the fact that many states may impose strict lockdowns due to the rapid increase in coronavirus cases nationwide. 

Cross-country checkup: The number of active COVID-19 cases in Ontario outpaced recoveries for the fourth day in a row; the province reported 135 new cases on Monday and 106 recoveries. The Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex regions still do not have a date for when they can join the rest of the province in Stage 3 of reopening. Quebec Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault said COVID-19 is “under control” in the province—despite reporting 150 new cases on Monday—crediting adherence to physical distancing and mask-wearing. Alberta is now leading the country in new daily cases on a per capita basis. 

Trace me on my cellphone: Exposure-notification app COVID Alert “possibly will be coming out Friday,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Monday, citing communication with the federal government. The system was originally supposed to launch on July 2, but was delayed as the Canadian Digital Service continued to test and review it. Across the pond, Ireland’s Covid Tracker app racked up 1.3 million downloads in eight days, in a country of 4.9 million. The system, based on Apple and Google’s Bluetooth API, cost £773,000. The U.K. health department acknowledged it did not conduct a privacy assessment, mandatory under the General Data Protection Regulation, before launching its tracing program. Health authorities have asked Google to remove a requirement that apps built on its exposure-notification API have access to location data; the company said the apps don’t actually use that information. Meanwhile, Uber is offering health authorities data about drivers and customers, and blocking those with confirmed infections, at their recommendation. 

Bay Street to Main Street: National home prices increased 0.7 per cent between June and May, the smallest rise in 17 years. Prices are actually down 0.1 per cent when corrected for seasonal pressures, the first decrease in 11 months. The downturn comes as many regions in Canada resume open houses, relying on handwashing stations and logs for contact tracing. 

Some investors remain bullish on the Canadian housing market. There were 13,358 rental apartment units under construction during the second quarter in the Toronto region, close to a 40-year high. A minority of consumers are also optimistic that prices will rise. Twenty-four per cent of Canadians expect housing prices to go up, according to a survey conducted by Bloomberg. That’s more than double the amount in May, but below pre-pandemic levels of 40 per cent. 

  • Canadians are feeling better about their personal debt levels than they have in three years, according to a survey of over 2,000 people for bankruptcy firm MNP.
  • National consumer confidence, as measured in a weekly poll conducted by Bloomberg, ticked up slightly to 46.7 last week, but remained largely where it’s been since June. 
  • Activist investor Eric Rosenfeld is looking to join the board of Canaccord Genuity, the largest non-bank brokerage in Canada, next month. 
  • California-based data-warehousing startup Snowflake has acquired Toronto-based software firm Cryptonumerics ahead of the former’s planned Nasdaq IPO later this year. 
  • British Columbia has appointed Gerri Sinclair, an executive with experience at Kensington Capital, Microsoft and Vancity, to serve as innovation commissioner for a one-year term. 
  • Eighteen lobby groups are asking the government to do more to help restaurants, stating that the industry could collapse due to the pandemic. 

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • U.K. universities are cutting thousands of academics on contract as the institutions experience a steep drop in income due to the pandemic. 
  • Following new warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. companies are concerned that retrofitting their workplaces with plexiglass barriers won’t effectively safeguard against the virus. 
  • While Texas struggles with persistent high levels of COVID-19, All Axis Machining in Dallas has kept operating thanks to eight robots carrying out tasks such as sanding, part inspection and laser marking. 

Around the world: U.S. Congress returns to Washington this week facing a critical deadline to deliver another round of stimulus checks as its US$600 weekly unemployment benefit runs out next week. The negotiations come as 16 states and Puerto Rico set new records for weekly new coronavirus cases on Saturday. Australia’s acting chief medical officer said it would take “weeks” to control a new outbreak in Melbourne. German scientists are recruiting 4,000 concert-goers for a €990,000 “coronavirus experiment”: each will be given a wearable contact-tracing device and a bottle of fluorescent disinfectant to understand how COVID-19 spreads in large, indoor events, with help from vapours from a fog machine. Movie theatres in China are reopening after a six-month closure. Now playing: all eight Harry Potter films, Pixar’s Coco and the 2006 Will Smith film The Pursuit of Happyness.

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The Knights of Coronavirus: A Swedish island has hired medieval knights to patrol popular spots on horseback to remind vacationers to behave responsibly.

* We’re emphasizing new cases, rather than running totals, because “flattening the curve” is when each day’s new cases are fewer than those of the previous day. The percentage increase is determined based on how today’s cases compare to a rolling seven-day prior average.

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