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From escape mutations to B.1.351: Here’s what you need to know about variants

Even though Covid-19 cases are on the decline, leading U.S. health officials are worried that more contagious — and possibly more deadly — variants of the virus could challenge the nation’s progress.

The three main “variants of concern” that have U.S. officials on edge were first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. The B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the U.K., is rapidly multiplying in the United States and is likely to become the nation’s dominant strain by March.

As the virus spreads, it makes a huge numbers of copies of itself, and each version is a little different from the one before it, experts say. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, has had plenty of opportunities to spread and replicate. As more people become infected, the more likely it is that problematic mutations will arise.

Here’s everything you need to know about why viruses mutate, why some are worse than others, what this means for life-saving vaccines and more.

— Noah Higgins-Dunn

Biden administration ups weekly vaccine shipment to states to 14.5 million doses

The Biden administration will now supply states with 14.5 million doses of coronavirus vaccine per week, marking another gradual increase in supply.

“Today on his weekly governors call with America’s governors, our Covid coordinator Jeff Zients announced the fifth consecutive week of supply increases,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing. “States will now receive 14.5 million doses this week, up from 8.6 million doses per week when the president took office.”

The bump in doses comes just a week after the administration said it would ship 13.5 million doses of vaccines to states per week. The administration is working to deliver a backlog of 6 million doses this week after a massive winter storm created bottlenecks in the government’s distribution channels.

—Noah Higgins-Dunn

Best Buy rewarding employees who get vaccine, paying other pandemic bonuses

Employees bring a television to Steve Steward’s car at a Best Buy store on Black Friday, traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Crowds are smaller this year due to the increasing popularity of on-line shopping amid concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Hennessy | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

After announcing store staff layoffs two weeks ago, Best Buy said it will pay pandemic-related bonuses to hourly workers and will also allow extra paid time off for employees who receive the coronavirus vaccine, CNBC’s Melissa Repko reports.

The electronics retailer’s sales jumped due to pandemic lockdowns as customers bought appliances and other electronics, with online sales tripling in the company’s third quarter.

The rise in online sales played a big part in the company’s decision to lay off employees in its recently announced reorganization, the company said.

“Our workforce will need to evolve to meet the evolving needs of customers while providing more flexible opportunities for our people,” Best Buy said in a statement.

Rich Mendez

Dr. Fauci is fully vaccinated, but still follows public health measures

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical advisor, is fully vaccinated for Covid but hasn’t changed much about his daily routine and public health measures, he told Washington D.C.’s NBC affiliate WRC-TV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people continue to use the tools that prevent the spread of Covid, even after immunization.

Fauci, who lives in northwest Washington D.C., said that he and his wife are “still very careful” about having guests. “If we have someone in the house that would be a non-occupant of the house, it’s somebody that we know has either been vaccinated or tests themselves very, very frequently,” he told WRC-TV.

Fauci said he doesn’t eat in restaurants, but instead gets takeout to support local restaurants. “We can cook at home every night, but we just go out deliberately to get takeout, at least a few times a week, maybe more,” he told WRC-TV.

Traveling is also out of the question for Fauci. “I’m at the age that still at a pretty high risk,” he said. Resuming travel is “not going to be like a light switch that you turn on and off,” he said.

Cory Stieg

Some schools still struggle to reopen, despite new federal guidelines

A classroom prepped for students at Oak Heights Elementary School in Washington State.

Source: Edmonds School District

Some schools have yet to return to in-person learning.

Despite President Joe Biden’s plan to help kindergarten-to-eighth-grade schools reopened as soon as possible, crowded classrooms, a shortage of available teachers and aging buildings with poor ventilation systems are just some of the challenges delaying the shift.

The Edmonds School District just north of Seattle, which includes 34 schools housing 22,000 students, has been fully remote since last March.

There is now a tentative re-entry plan to return to in-person learning on March 22. At that point, students in kindergarten, first and second grade will be able to attend in-person two days a week.

Gustavo Balderas, the district’s superintendent, said the schools have been able to tap some federal funds to purchase personal protective equipment and classrooms have been reconfigured to accommodate no more than 15 students — about half the size of a typical class pre-pandemic.

Still, the “teachers are nervous, and they are fearful and rightfully so,” he said. “The longer we wait, the more comfortable people are staying home.”

—Jessica Dickler

U.S. vaccine supply set to get a boost

The supply of Covid-19 vaccine in the United States is slated to substantially ramp up next month with manufacturers doubling the pace of production, company executives said in prepared remarks to be delivered to Congress on Tuesday.

Pfizer expects to provide more than 13 million doses per week of its two-shot vaccine to the U.S. by mid-March, more than double the weekly number of doses the company was sending earlier this month, Pfizer’s Chief Business Officer John Young said in written testimony.

By April, Moderna hopes to deliver 40 million doses per month, roughly double the current pace, according to the company’s President Dr. Stephen Hoge.

The U.S. supply is also expected to be helped by new manufacturers entering the fray. The FDA is scheduled to review Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine on Thursday. J&J’s Vice President of Medical Affairs Dr. Richard Nettles said in his prepared testimony that the company plans to ship more than 20 million doses to the U.S. by the end of March.

—Will Feuer

The coronavirus pandemic is hitting students of color the worst

A child attends an online class at a learning hub inside the Crenshaw Family YMCA during the Covid-19 pandemic on February 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Almost a year into the pandemic, many schools around the nation have yet to reopen their classrooms to students — and it is Black and Hispanic students who are suffering the most.

President Joe Biden has pledged to have a majority of K-8 students back in school full-time, five days a week, by the time he’s been in office for 100 days. Yet there has already been a significant learning loss, according to a December report by McKinsey & Company.

The firm estimates about 60% of K-12 students began the school year fully remote, while 20% began with a mix of both in-person and virtual. Another 20% went back into classrooms full time.

If everything remains status quo through the school year, students overall will lose nine months of math learning, the report predicted. Students of color, specifically, will lose 11 months or 12 months, compared with seven to eight months for white students.

That translates directly into a hit on their future earnings. White students would make $1,348 a year less over a 40-year working life, Hispanics would earn $1,809 less, and Black students would earn $2,186 a year less, according to early findings by the firm.

—Michelle Fox

Cuba open to inoculating tourists with domestically produced Covid vaccine

A general view of Varadero beach in Cárdenas, Cuba.

Manuel Romano | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Cuba’s most promising coronavirus vaccine candidate is due to begin late-stage clinical trials next week, putting the small island nation on the cusp of achieving an extraordinary medical breakthrough.

The vaccine, known as Soberana 02, is scheduled to enter Phase 3 trials from March 1, and officials say tests will include as many as 150,000 people within weeks. These tests represent the final stage before a vaccine is generally approved by national regulators.

Cuba’s Finlay Institute, the country’s leading biopharma institution, has hinted the vaccine could be available as an option to tourists later this year.

“People are already talking about sun, sea, sand and Soberana 02. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if people end up going to Cuba seeking the vaccine and I’m sure the Cubans will offer it,” Helen Yaffe, a Cuba expert and lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, told CNBC via telephone.

Sam Meredith

Airlines will benefit from pent-up demand when enough people are vaccinated, analyst says

Helane Becker, senior research analyst at Cowen, joined “Squawk Box” to discuss how airlines will benefit from “jailbreak” of pent-up demand when enough people are vaccinated.

—Melodie Warner

Home Depot’s earnings show trend of do-it-yourself projects continues

Home Depot’s fourth-quarter earnings revealed that many Americans are still investing in their homes.

The home improvement retailer topped Wall Street’s earnings estimates. Its U.S. same-store sales grew by 25% — matching the sharp growth rate it saw in the early quarters of the pandemic when homeowners tackled do-it-yourself projects, spruced up their yards and took advantage of mild spring weather.

Customers spent more when they visited the store, too. Home Depot said the average purchase rose nearly 11% to $75.69 in the fourth quarter. Sales per square foot jumped 24% to $528.01.

The company declined to provide an outlook, however, saying it does not know how long the global health crisis will last and what that will mean for consumer spending.

Melissa Repko

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