By Ciara Linnane, MarketWatch , Lina Saigol
The number of confirmed deaths from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 worldwide edged closer to 900,000 on Wednesday, and the U.S. death toll moved close to 190,000, as AstraZeneca halted trials of its vaccine candidate after one participant was struck by an unexplained illness.
The news sent AstraZeneca shares /zigman2/quotes/200304487/composite AZN +0.97% /zigman2/quotes/203048482/delayed UK:AZN +1.42% lower, while the stocks of other drug makers developing vaccines, including Pfizer Inc., BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA -2.35% rallied.
In an emailed statement, AstraZeneca said: “As part of the ongoing randomized, controlled global trials of the Oxford coronavirus vaccine, our standard review process was triggered and we voluntarily paused vaccination to allow review of safety data by an independent committee.”
It added that it is working to expedite the review of the single event to minimize any potential impact on the trial timeline. “We are committed to the safety of our participants and the highest standards of conduct in our trials.”
A report in the New York Times said that the volunteer in the U.K. trial received a diagnosis of transverse myelitis, an inflammatory syndrome that affects the spinal cord. “However, the timing of this diagnosis, and whether it was directly linked to AstraZeneca’s vaccine, is still unknown,” the NY Times said. The British drugmaker declined to the comment. The Financial Times later reported that the trial may resume as early as next week, citing people familiar with the matter.
The news comes a day after AstraZeneca and eight other drug makers working on vaccines made a joint pledge to “stand with science” on coronavirus vaccines, making clear that they would not move forward with such products before demonstrating their safety and efficacy. The unusual pledge comes amid concerns the Trump administration may try to rush out a vaccine before the November presidential election.
The World Health Organization reiterated Wednesday that safety has to come first with vaccine development. Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the WHO, said at a news briefing that regardless of the speed with which drug makers are working, “it doesn’t mean that we start compromising or cutting corners on what would normally be assessed.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Task Force created to manage the pandemic, agreed.
In an interview with CBS, Fauci said it’s routine for a late-stage trial of a vaccine to be put on hold because of side effects, describing it as a safety valve, as the AP reported.
Fauci said a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine may be ready in early 2021.
“The more likely scenario is that we will know by the end of this calendar year and hopefully we’ll be able to start vaccinations in earnest as we begin early 2021,” he said.
In other news:
• French Prime Minister Jean Castex tested negative for the coronavirus in an initial test. Castex was tested after he spent part of the weekend with the head of the Tour de France cycling race, Christian Prudhomme, who tested positive, according to Reuters. France’s cabinet is holding its weekly meeting remotely for the first time since the end of the virus lockdown, AFP reported, and Castex is self-isolating at his official Paris Matignon residence for seven days.
• The British government is banning gatherings of more than six people in England, as officials try to keep a lid on daily new coronavirus infections after a sharp spike across the U.K. that has been largely blamed on party-going young adults disregarding social distancing rules, the AP reported. The law in England will change from next week to reduce the number of people who can gather socially from 30 to six, with some exemptions.
The number of confirmed cases of the virus rose to almost 3,000 on Sunday, before dipping to 2,460 on Tuesday. Failure to comply could result in a 100-pound ($130) fine. The U.K. has the fifth highest death toll from COVID-19 in the world at 41,675, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. On a per capita basis, it has the fourth highest mortality rate in the world with 61 deaths per 100,000 people, after Peru, Belgium and Spain, according to AFP data.
• Greece’s largest migrant camp on the island of Lesbos was destroyed in a fire that has left more than 13,000 asylum seekers homeless, the BBC reported . The Greek government has declared a four-day state of emergency. It’s unclear how the blaze began with some locals blaming migrants and others blaming locals.
The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said it was aware of “tensions” between nearby townsfolk and the migrants. “We urge all to exercise restraint,” it said, and asked anyone who had been at the camp “to restrict their movements and stay near [the site], as a temporary solution is being found to shelter them.”
• Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is in hospital in Milan after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, said doctors treating him have told him he was “No. 1” for the severity of his viral load, the Guardian reported. Berlusconi, 83, said that of the thousands of coronavirus tests carried out at San Raffaele hospital, doctors told him that he had the worst viral load. “[The virus] is very bad,” he said. “I’m giving it my all, I hope to make it and to get back on track,” he said in a phone call to a candidate from his Forza Italia party, the paper reported.