Solving COVID
December 26, 2020

Scientists are homing in on the potential cause of allergic reactions to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded six severe allergic reactions (all of which were treated successfully) out of the 272,001 doses administered through Dec. 19, and the compound polyethylene glycol, known as PEG, has become a leading suspect in the cases, The Wall Street Journal reports. While still speculative at this point — allergies to PEG are rare and the reactions may have been to something else, per the Journal — PEG is found in other drugs, cosmetics, and food and is known to trigger anaphylaxis on rare occasions, though not all forms of the compound are "equal" in terms of allergic potential.

Part of the challenge of pinpointing PEG as the likely catalyst for the reactions is that the compound in the vaccines "is different than what has been previously associated with allergic reactions," James Baker, an immunologist who heads the Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and the Biological Sciences at the University of Michigan, told the Journal.

PEG is also found in the Moderna vaccine. A health care worker became the first known person to experience an allergic reaction to that shot on Thursday. Dr. Hossein Sadrzadeh, who said he has a history of allergies, reported tingling sensations, an elevated heart rate, and low blood pressure shortly after his inoculation. The symptoms were akin to a reaction he had previously had to shellfish, he said. He was discharged a few hours later.

The incidents, while concerning, are rare — more than 1 million Americans have been vaccinated — and scientists and public health officials maintain the vaccines are safe, effective, and crucial to ending the pandemic. Read more at The Wall Street Journal and CNN. Tim O'Donnell

12:45 p.m.

Israel has vaccinated at least 25 percent of its population against the coronavirus so far, which leads the world and makes it "the country to watch for herd effects from" the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, says infectious disease expert David Fishman. Recently, the case rate in Israel appears to have declined sharply, and while there could be a few reasons for that, it's possible the vaccination effort is beginning to play a role.

One study from Clalit that was published last week reports that 14 days after receiving the first Pfizer-BioNTech shot, infection rates among 200,000 Israelis older than 60 fell 33 percent among those vaccinated compared to 200,000 from the same demographic who hadn't received a jab.

At first glance, Fishman writes, that might seem disappointing since clinical trials suggested the vaccine was more than 90 percent effective. But he actually believes the 33 percent figure is "auspicious." Because vaccinated and non-vaccinated people are mingling, there could be "herd effects of immunization." In other words, when inoculated people interact with people who haven't had their shot, the latter individual may still be protected because the other person is. On a larger scale, that would drive down the number of infections among non-vaccinated people, thus shrinking the gap between the two groups' infection rates.

More data needs to come in, and Fishman thinks "we'll know more" this week, but he's cautiously optimistic about how things are going. Tim O'Donnell

January 16, 2021

India on Saturday began what is likely the world's largest coronavirus vaccination rollout when the country's first dose was administered to a sanitation worker at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. All told, more than 190,000 people received a shot on day one, which fell short of the initial target, but there were no reports of large-scale problems, The Washington Post reports.

The government of the world's second most populous nation, which the Post notes has a "long track record of mass-producing vaccines at affordable prices," is hoping to inoculate 300 million people against the coronavirus by the summer, beginning with 30 million frontline health care workers, followed by 270 million people who are either over 50 years old or have illnesses that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

New Delhi has granted emergency approval to the vaccine produced by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, which also received a green light in the United Kingdom, as well as one developed by Bharat Biotech, an Indian pharmaceutical company. The latter has gone through early stage trials, but Bharat Biotech has yet to provide any data, which concerns medical experts in India, but some of the country's top doctors reportedly received it without hesitation. Read more at The Associated Press and The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

January 14, 2021

Contracting COVID-19 is nearly as effective at preventing reinfection as the two top coronavirus vaccines — but there are a few catches.

A study by Public Health England, which has yet to be peer reviewed, tested 21,000 health-care workers across the U.K. and found 6,614 of them had antibodies against COVID-19, indicating they'd contracted the virus in the past. But of those who'd been infected, 44 had possibly gotten the virus again despite their antibodies, indicating an 83 percent chance of protection against reinfection over five months, CNN reports.

As Forbes notes, 83 percent isn't far off from the 95 percent effectiveness provided by Moderna's vaccine, or the 94 percent from Pfizer's. Still, that percentage means it's very possible for people who've gotten the virus to contract it again, the study notes. That fact has been proven over the past year as people who've recovered from COVID-19 have tested positive for it again months later. Researchers also found those who were seemingly immune to the virus may still carry it around and transmit it to other people, showing why it's still important to wear a mask and take other precautions regardless of past infections or vaccination.

The study will keep monitoring the workers for a year to determine just how long the antibody protections last. Kathryn Krawczyk

January 14, 2021

Johnson & Johnson's coronavirus vaccine proved safe and provoked an immune response in young and elderly volunteers alike, according to trial results published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. Most trial participants got just one shot of a high or low vaccine dose, or a placebo, although some people aged 18 to 55 got two doses. Most of the volunteers who got the vaccine produced the neutralizing antibodies, which defend cells from the virus, after 28 days. Researchers reported some side effects, including fever, fatigue, headache, and pain at the injection site. Dr. Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at J&J, said the data gave the company "confidence" the vaccine will prove highly effective. Results from the larger phase-three trial are expected later this month. Harold Maass

January 13, 2021

Britain on Tuesday began a large-scale trial of a new COVID-19 treatment in which patients inhale aerosolized interferon beta proteins into the lungs with a nebulizer. The treatment, developed at Southampton University Hospital and produced by biotech firm Synairgen, cut the odds of COVID-19 patients developing severe symptoms by nearly 80 percent, according to a small, phase 2 trial of 100 patients. The new phase 3 study involves more than 600 subjects in 20 countries, half of whom will get the treatment and half a placebo inhalant.

The body produces interferon beta to fight off viral infections, but the new coronavirus appears to suppress production of the proteins as part of its mechanism to evade patients' immune responses, BBC News reports. Synairgen hopes a direct shot of aerosolized interferon beta straight to the lungs will provoke a strong anti-viral response. The early results are promising, but experts warn that promising treatments don't always pan out.

"We've had other drugs in similar circumstances, we've had hydroxychloroquine, for example," Dr. Lamis Latif tells BBC News. "But again, when that reached further trials, it wasn't as promising as it initially made up to be. Peter Weber

January 12, 2021

Millions of Americans are on their way to getting vaccinated for the virus, as well as many more people around the world. But despite the fact that slow vaccine rollouts mean the U.S. won't achieve herd immunity for months to come, a study published Tuesday in Science also suggests COVID-19 is "here to stay," The New York Times reports.

Right now, COVID-19 is incredibly dangerous and often deadly because it's brand new to the human body. But once people's immune systems are introduced to the virus, either by contracting it or, hopefully, through a vaccine, they'll get better at fighting the virus off. Things are different for children, who have strong immune systems because they're constantly experiencing viruses and pathogens that are new to their bodies. For example, they start contracting common cold coronaviruses at around age 3 to 5 and fight them off, building up immunity as they're infected again and again over the years.

So after most Americans are vaccinated, severe coronavirus infections will likely still happen — albeit rarely — among adults. Then, years or decades later, those severe reactions will likely peter out due to increased immunity among adults, Jennie Lavine, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University, who led the study, told the Times. That's when COVID-19 will likely join the league of endemic coronaviruses that cause the common cold, Lavine and her team predicted after comparing COVID-19 to other coronaviruses. And again, because of the immunity adults have picked up, COVID-19 will likely only infect children under five years old — and they'll probably only end up with some sniffles or no symptoms at all.

Read more at The New York Times and find the whole study at Science. Kathryn Krawczyk

January 12, 2021

Israel is planning to provide COVID-19 vaccines to Holocaust survivors, both within the country and across the diaspora, Israel Hayom reports, per The Jerusalem Post.

The operation is reportedly in the early stages — Israel's Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich has instructed the Shalom Corps to strategize, and the group has reportedly approached large medical shipping companies about logistics. Meanwhile, the diaspora affairs ministry is reportedly working with Israel's health ministry to coordinate with Pfizer and Moderna, the companies producing coronavirus vaccines authorized in Israel. The intention is reportedly to provide survivors around the world with additional vaccines, rather than take from Israel's quota.

"In a time of acute global crisis in the face of the coronavirus, we have the privilege to repay, if only slightly, Holocaust survivors who survived the inferno of Nazi oppression," Yankelevich told Israel Hayom.

Israel has received international praise for its vaccination program, which includes inoculating roughly 150,000 people, or a world-leading 1.5 percent of the population, per day, putting the country on pace to complete the mission within a matter of months. At the same time, Jerusalem has faced criticism for not distributing vaccines to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, instead contending the Palestinian Authority holds that responsibility. Read more about the plan to vaccinate Holocaust survivors around the world at The Jerusalem Post. Tim O'Donnell

January 12, 2021

As the United States' COVID-19 vaccination efforts get off to a slow start, the Trump administration will reportedly issue some key new guidelines to states.

The federal government is set to make "three big changes" to its COVID-19 vaccination guidelines, Axios reported on Tuesday, citing an administration official. The first will be recommending states "open the vaccination process to everyone older than 65 and to adults of all ages who have a pre-existing condition that puts them at greater risk for serious infection," Axios reports.

Additionally, Axios reports the Trump administration will seek to expand the venues where Americans can receive vaccinations. Finally, the government will recommend no longer holding back doses to ensure all Americans can receive a second shot, according to Axios. President-elect Joe Biden's transition previously announced plans to release almost all available vaccine doses.

News of the recommendations was confirmed by Bloomberg and The Associated Press. They come amid a slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the U.S., as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 9 million Americans have received a dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to The New York Times. The Trump administration's goal was for 20 million Americans to receive a vaccine dose by the end of 2020. Brendan Morrow

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