Solving COVID
July 29, 2020

Xprize has unveiled a new $5 million competition to encourage the development of rapid COVID-19 testing.

The non-profit organization on Tuesday announced the Xprize Rapid COVID Testing competition to "accelerate the development of high-quality COVID-19 testing that is low cost, easy to use, and fast-turnaround, enabling frequent testing." Xprize and OpenCovidScreen are asking the "world's brightest, most innovative minds" to get involved and develop new fast and affordable testing solutions that might help facilitate a safe return to school and work amid the pandemic, as other COVID-19 testing methods can take days to produce a result.

The submissions, Xprize says, can be in one of four categories including at-home and point-of-care testing, and entries will be judged on factors like innovation, performance, turnaround time, and cost. Five teams will ultimately be awarded $1 million each, and the maximum turnaround time is 12 hours, TechCrunch reports.

"Fast, affordable, and accessible testing is crucial to containing the COVID-19 pandemic and safely reopening schools, businesses and other vital institutions around the world,” Xprize CEO Anousheh Ansari said in a statement. "Xprize Rapid COVID Testing is inspiring the best entrepreneurial and scientific teams to come together to work towards rapid, affordable COVID-19 testing at scale, and ultimately, getting the world up and running again."

Xprize is asking teams to register for the competition by the end of August. Brendan Morrow

August 11, 2020

Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the United States has emphasized ratcheting up vaccine production even before federal approval so that, if and when the time comes, the stockpile is ready to go. The same can't be said about a potential treatment known as monoclonal antibodies, however, Stat News reports.

Monoclonal antibodies are pretty much what they sound like — antibodies that have been genetically engineered into new medicines. Immunologists and virologists are reportedly optimistic they could play a role in fighting COVID-19, and data from two separate clinical trials run by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly are expected to be released in the fall, possibly indicating whether the therapies are safe and effective.

But even if they are, it may be too late. Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the U.S. "may have a missed a window" to scale up production of the treatments, which otherwise "could have been an important bridge to a vaccine." Perhaps more importantly, he added, they could also serve as a "hedge in the event vaccines are delayed or don't work." Ultimately, despite the antibodies' potential to change the tides of the pandemic, Gottlieb said, "we just don't have enough doses to realize that goal." Read more at Stat News. Tim O'Donnell

August 11, 2020

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday that Russia has become the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine, claiming victory in a global race to conquer COVID-19. The vaccine was developed by Moscow's Gamaleya Institute, and Putin said one of his two daughters is among the Russians already inoculated with the vaccine, joining a small group that includes the researchers who developed it and about 50 members of Russia's military.

Medical experts expressed concerns that the Kremlin aggressively and dangerously rushed the vaccine approval process, putting global prestige over public health. Putin said the Gamaleya vaccine had proven effective in two months of early-stage human trials and offered lasting immunity. Russian officials said Phase III trial of the vaccine will be conducted in Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and maybe Brazil as thousands of Russian medical workers, teachers, and other groups are inoculated. The World Health Organization lists the Gamaleya vaccine trial as in Phase I.

Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci testified earlier this month that countries should only roll out vaccines after extensive testing. "I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone, because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing, I think, is problematic at best," Fauci told Congress. Peter Weber

August 9, 2020

The coronavirus is a serious, often-deadly pathogen, yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 40 percent of all cases are asymptomatic. In some isolated outbreaks in prisons and food processing plants where thousands of people contracted COVID-19, as many as 94 percent of infected individuals presented no symptoms. The Washington Post spoke to experts and suggested four possible reasons as to why, though it's important to note the research in all cases is in early stages.

T-Cells: T-cells, a type of white blood cell that generally provides longer-lasting immunity than antibodies, may be the key to understanding resistance. One research group found that, among uninfected blood samples donated to a blood bank between 2015 and 2018, a "remarkable" 40 to 60 percent recognized the coronavirus, suggesting some people may have an immune response based on memory of other, less potent coronaviruses.

Vaccines: The Mayo Clinic is studying whether vaccines for other pathogens can protect against the virus, as has been proven in other situations. Seven types of vaccines given one, two, or five years in the past were found to be associated with a lower rate of coronavirus infection, particularly pneumonia and polio vaccines.

Allergies: Scientists have noted children with asthma and allergies surprisingly don't seem to be at high risk of developing serious cases of COVID-19. One theory is that those children have a reduced number of ACE2 receptors, the protein the virus latches onto before replicating inside the body. Without those receptors, the virus' chance of causing damage could decrease, meaning allergies may offer protection in this case.

Masks: Masks are discussed as a preventative measure, but they may contribute to more mild infections, as well. The most direct evidence of this theory is a comparison of two cruise ships. On the Diamond Princess, where masks weren't used, 47 percent of the positive cases were asymptomatic, whereas an Antarctic-bound Argentine cruise ship that had a similar outbreak, but provided masks to all passengers and crew, saw an 81 percent asymptomatic rate. Read more at The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

August 7, 2020

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is trying to make sure an eventual coronavirus vaccine is affordable for everyone.

The foundation has donated $150 million to the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine maker, the Gavi vaccine alliance announced Friday. The money will help speed up the development and distribution of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine and make it available to 92 poorer countries for no more than $3 per dose.

"Too many times we've seen the most vulnerable countries left at the back of the queue when it comes to new treatments, new diagnostics and new vaccines," said Gavi CEO Dr. Seth Berkley. But the consequences of such inequities when distributing a COVID-19 vaccine would be devastating. "If only the wealthiest countries in the world are protected, then international trade, commerce and society as a whole will continue to be hit hard as the pandemic continues to rage across the globe," Berkley continued.

The Serum Institute of India is one of several manufacturers working with AstraZeneca to make its candidate vaccine. It's also the go-to supplier for the World Health Organization, The Wall Street Journal notes. A total of 92 countries will be eligible to receive the discount vaccine as Gavi seeks $2 billion total to further support vaccine access. Kathryn Krawczyk

August 7, 2020

Gilead Sciences' potential coronavirus treatment is getting a supply chain boost.

Pfizer has entered a multi-year agreement with Gilead to manufacture its antiviral drug remdesivir, which has been FDA approved for emergency use to fight coronavirus, the pharmaceutical company announced Friday. The partnership is intended to ramp up production of the intravenous drug.

While no drug has been approved for the treatment of coronavirus, remdesivir has been approved for emergency use. A study showed the drug, which was developed as a potential Ebola treatment, significantly reduced the risk of death in severely sick COVID-19 patients. At the beginning of July, the Trump administration bought up all the remdesivir Gilead was set to produce in July, August, and September. Pfizer will start ramping up that production even further through contract manufacturing services at its McPherson, Kansas, facility.

Concerns still remain over the price of remdesivir. At $520 per dose, it could cost a patient $3,000 over a typical coronavirus treatment. State attorneys general have sought to enforce a federal patent law that would force Gilead to increase the supply of the drug and lower its price; the partnership with Pfizer will hopefully provide Gilead the bandwidth to do that. Kathryn Krawczyk

August 6, 2020

Testing accessibility has always been a problem when it comes to fighting the coronavirus. And even as that has improved, a slow turnaround rate has often made test results useless.

That's why some researchers and public health experts are starting to emphasize rapid result coronavirus tests even if they're less accurate than the time-intensive PCR tests, The New York Times reports. Their logic? "Even if you miss somebody on Day 1, If you test them repeatedly, the argument is, you'll catch them the next time around," said Omai Garner, director of clinical microbiology in the UCLA Health System.

The experts who back an emphasis on quicker tests cite the failure of long-term tests to stem coronavirus spread throughout the U.S. "If you had asked me this a couple months ago, I would have said we just need to be doing the PCR tests," said Susan Butler-Wu, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Southern California. But, she added, it's now "kitchen sink time, even if the tests are imperfect."

Still, PCR coronavirus tests rely on laboratory procedures to generate their results, and even quick-result tests require "specialized machines that are neither cheap nor easy to produce in bulk," the Times writes. But antigen tests, which identify a protein in the coronavirus, could be performed at any doctor's office or even at home, and could be mass-produced to cost just a few dollars each. Some companies are focused on developing these low-cost tests and ramping up their production until a vaccine is found.

Read more about the testing transformation at The New York Times. Kathryn Krawczyk

August 5, 2020

Seven states are teaming up with the goal of expanding rapid COVID-19 testing.

The governors of Maryland, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina have announced an interstate compact "to expand the use of rapid point-of-care antigen tests" during the coronavirus pandemic. The bipartisan group of governors is in talks to buy 500,000 antigen tests for each state.

"By banding together, the states are demonstrating to private manufacturers that there is significant demand to scale up the production of these tests, which deliver results in 15-20 minutes," the announcement said, touting this as the first such interstate testing agreement during the pandemic.

The compact was negotiated by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who on Tuesday thanked "my fellow governors for signing on to this groundbreaking bipartisan agreement" to "acquire millions of faster tests to help save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19," adding that "we will be working to bring additional states, cities, and local governments on board as this initiative moves forward." Brendan Morrow

August 4, 2020

Another vaccine is showing promising results in the fight to find a COVID-19 solution.

Novavax, a Maryland-based company with $1.6 billion federal funding behind its coronavirus vaccine development, released two preliminary studies Tuesday. In one, all of its more than 130 human volunteers produced antibodies to combat the coronavirus, and in another, monkeys developed strong a resistence to the virus.

All of the humans in Novavax's trial may have some form of protection against COVID-19, but 56 of them produced a high level of antibodies without any dangerous side effects, The New York Times notes. Volunteers who had two doses of the vaccine three weeks apart, plus a booster, had the best results. Their antibodies measured approximately four times higher than those in patients who'd recovered from coronavirus, Stat News reports. Still, more than 60 percent of recipients had side effects including pain, headaches, and fatigue. Eight people had to be hospitalized, though their side effects were not life threatening and they were quickly released.

Novavax's vaccines are only in their first phase of study, while other developers have some in a phase three, where large amounts of people receive the vaccine. Still, John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine who was not involved in the studies, told the Times these were some of the most promising vaccine results he has seen yet. "This is the first one I'm looking at and saying, 'Yeah, I'd take that,'" Moore said. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University who was not involved in the studies, cautioned there's no guarantee of safety until a phase three trial compares people who get the vaccine with people who got a placebo. It's still essential this study receives a peer review as well. Kathryn Krawczyk

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