Health Highlights: Jan. 4, 2021

Below are newsworthy items compiled by the HealthDay staff:

South African Scientists Testing to See If Vaccines Work Against New COVID-19 Variant

South African scientists are testing COVID-19 vaccines to see if they're effective against the country's variant virus, the Associated Press reported Monday.

Britain's health minister, Matt Hancock, and others in the U.K. worry that vaccines may not be effective against the South African variant, which can spread faster than prior variants.

"This is the most pressing question facing us right now," said Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases expert who is working on the country's genomic studies of the variant, told the AP.

"We are urgently doing experiments in the laboratory to test the variant" in the blood of people with antibodies and in the blood of people who have received vaccines, Lessells said.

The South African variant, 501.V2, is more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus and is the dominant strain in the country's coastal areas.

South Africa is experiencing another wave of COVID-19 that is larger than its first outbreak.

Mutations of the COVID-19 virus are common and to be expected, Lessells noted. Another faster-spreading variant has been spotted in the U.K. and has already been detected in three U.S. states.

"As more genomic surveillance is done and better genomic surveillance is done, we will almost certainly see more variants in other parts of the world," Lessells told the AP.

Larry King Hospitalized With COVID-19

Talk show host Larry King, 87, is in Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles suffering from COVID-19, CBS News reported Sunday.

King has battled a series of health problems in life, including a near-fatal stroke in May 2019 and a heart procedure. In 1987, he had a heart attack and has also had prostate and lung cancer.

Last year, his son, Andy and his daughter, Chaia, died within weeks of each other, CBS News reported.

King hosted "Larry King Live" on CNN from 1985 until 2010. Since 2012, he has hosted a talk show on Ora TV and RT America called "Larry King Now."

Britain to Try Mix-and-Match COVID-19 Vaccinations

If a second dose of the first COVID-19 vaccine isn't available or the maker isn't known, then another vaccine may be used, new British guidelines say, The New York Times reported Sunday.

The new guidance contradicts those in the United States, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that Covid-19 vaccines "are not interchangeable," and that "the safety and efficacy of a mixed-product series have not been evaluated. Both doses of the series should be completed with the same product."

Some experts say the British policy is gambling. "There are no data on this idea whatsoever," John Moore, at Cornell University, told the Times. Britain officials "seem to have abandoned science completely now and are just trying to guess their way out of a mess," he said.

Britain has green-lighted vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca. According to the new guideline, "every effort should be made" to use the same vaccine for the second dose. But if "the same vaccine is not available, or if the first product received is unknown, it is reasonable to offer one dose of the locally available product" for the second shot.

"This option is preferred if the individual is likely to be at immediate high risk or is considered unlikely to attend again," the guidelines say. Because both vaccines attack the virus in the same way, "it is likely the second dose will help to boost the response to the first dose."

But there's no proof that the vaccines are interchangeable.

"None of this is being data-driven right now," Dr. Phyllis Tien, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told the Times. "We're kind of in this Wild West."

Both vaccines teach immune cells to recognize and fight off the virus. But they use different methods and contain different ingredients.

With no evidence to back it, this approach seems "premature," Saad Omer, a vaccine expert at Yale University, told the Times.

The newspaper also reported that second doses may be delayed as the country tries to vaccinate more of its citizens more quickly.

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