First coronavirus cases reported in China one year ago

On Dec. 29, 2019, the first cases of unknown, pneumonia-like illnesses were reported to the World Health Organization. One year later, the illness that has come to be known as the coronavirus has claimed more than 1.8 million lives around the world, reaching every continent and wreaking havoc and despair in its wake.

According to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University, which has tracked the pandemic since it began, more than 82,835,000 cases have been reported worldwide. The U.S. continues to lead the world in the number of cases — 19.7 million — and deaths, with more than 342,000.

India is second in cases, with 10.2 million, while Brazil is second in deaths, with more than 193,000.

The cases that were reported one year ago occurred between Dec. 12-29, in Wuhan, China. On Thursday, China announced it has approved its first homegrown COVID-19 vaccine for general use, marking the addition of another vaccine in the global fight against a virus that is surging back in many places as winter sets in.

The two-dose vaccine from state-owned Sinopharm is the first approved for general use in China. The go-ahead comes shortly after the country launched a program to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year holiday in February. It also comes one day after British regulators authorized AstraZeneca’s inexpensive and easy-to-handle vaccine.

U.K. expected to approve AstraZeneca's COVID vaccine this week

The back-to-back approvals could bring poorer countries, many of which have been unable to secure the Pfizer and Moderna doses being snapped up by rich countries, one step closer to getting vaccines sooner. Pakistan’s science minister said Thursday that his government will buy 1.2 million doses of a Sinopharm vaccine, two days after its death toll topped 10,000.

Technically, China granted conditional approval for the vaccine, which means that research is still ongoing, and the company will be required to submit follow-up data as well as reports of any adverse effects after the vaccine is sold on the market, Chen Shifei, the deputy commissioner of the National Medical Products Administration, told a news conference.

The vaccine was developed by the Beijing Institute of Biological Products, a subsidiary of state-owned conglomerate Sinopharm. The company announced Wednesday that preliminary data from last-stage trials had shown it to be 79.3% effective.

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It is an inactivated vaccine, which means the virus was grown in a lab and then killed. The germ is then injected into the body to generate an immune response.

Final proof of its effectiveness will depend on publication of more data. Experts have said important data was missing from Wednesday’s announcement, such as the size of the control group, how many people were vaccinated and at what point the 79.3% efficacy rate was reached after injection.

Sinopharm is one of at least five Chinese developers that are in a global race to create vaccines for the disease that has killed more than 1.8 million people.

In addition to the emergency vaccinations already underway, China plans to start vaccinating high-risk population, such as seniors as well as people with existing chronic illnesses. Officials did not say what percentage of the population they will vaccinate in China.

“This is different in every country, but the general thinking is that it has to reach 60% to protect the entire population,” said Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the National Health Commission.

Under emergency use, 4.5 million doses have already been given, including 3 million in the last two weeks, Zeng said.

U.S. confirms 1st case of new COVID-19 strain found in UK

In the U.S., California on Wednesday announced the nation’s second confirmed case of the new and apparently more contagious variant of the coronavirus, offering a strong indication that the infection is spreading more widely in the United States.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the infection found in Southern California during an online conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“I don’t think Californians should think that this is odd. It’s to be expected,” Fauci said.

Newsom did not provide any details about the person who was infected.

The announcement came 24 hours after word of the first reported U.S. variant infection, which emerged in Colorado. That person was identified Wednesday as a Colorado National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak. Health officials said a second Guard member may have it, too.

The cases triggered a host of questions about how the version circulating in England arrived in the U.S. and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the United States.

“The virus is becoming more fit, and we’re like a deer in the headlights,” warned Dr. Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He noted that the U.S. does far less genetic sequencing of virus samples to discover variants than other developed nations, and thus was probably slow to detect this new mutation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.