Solving COVID
February 24, 2021

Moderna announced on Wednesday it will begin testing a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine designed to target the coronavirus variant first reported in South Africa.

The pharmaceutical company said it has sent doses of the booster shot to the U.S. National Institutes of Health for clinical trials. In a statement, CEO Stéphane Bancel said Moderna is "committed to making as many updates to our vaccine as necessary until the pandemic is under control."

Moderna previously revealed that preliminary studies showed the vaccine still made neutralizing antibodies above protective levels for the South African variant, but because it was a reduced level, it prompted the company to begin tweaking the vaccine against the strain, as well as variants that first spread in the United Kingdom and Brazil.

Moderna is already conducting tests involving giving a third dose of its original vaccine as a booster to people who have received two doses, and the new clinical trials will evaluate the safety of the variant-specific booster and a "multivalent booster candidate" that is one dose of the variant-specific booster and original vaccine, NBC News reports. Catherine Garcia

April 13, 2021

Use of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine has been paused in multiple states after the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control issued an advisory recommending they do so "out of an abundance of caution." The reason is a tiny handful of unusual blood clotting events — just six of them, to be precise, out of a total of 6.8 million doses administered in the United States thus far.

This is an incomprehensible decision. As Helen Branswell writes at STAT News, every single clotting event involved a woman aged between 18 and 48 with a condition called thrombocytopenia (or low blood platelets). It isn't even clear yet that the vaccine actually caused the clots — the background rate of this particular kind of clotting is about five per million people, per year.

Now, of course public health authorities should be vigilant about potential side effects, and they should inform the medical and scientific communities about any troubling data that comes up. It would be understandable to pause a treatment that was just a precaution for some rare disease. But we are still right in the middle of a deadly viral pandemic, and cases are increasing: up from about 55,000 per day in mid-March to 70,000 per day, thanks mainly to an exploding outbreak in Michigan. Deaths are falling, but still coming in at about 750 per day. COVID-19 is a serious disease, even for younger people — indeed, one of the common complications is dangerous blood clots.

It might be reasonable to recommend that women under 50, or anyone with thrombocytopenia, get one of the other vaccines while scientists try to figure out what is going on. But pausing all use of the J&J vaccine will certainly prevent many thousands of people from getting vaccinated so long as the pause lasts, and will likely do long-term damage to the reputation of all the vaccines. The anti-vaccine crowd on Fox News is going to to go nuts with this, spreading fear and paranoia and increasing the resistance of Republicans to vaccination. This decision is the opposite of caution. Ryan Cooper

April 13, 2021

The B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant first discovered in Britain spreads more easily that older strains, sending more people to the hospital, but it doesn't lead to more severe cases or higher rates of death once patients are hospitalized, a study published Monday in the journal The Lance Infectious Disease found.

"If you need hospitalization, you're not worse with this variant compared to the previous virus strain," said Eleni Nastouli, senior author of the paper and a clinical virologist and pediatrician at University College London. "Of course, if you're requiring hospital admission for COVID, that is a worry," she conceded. "But it's not more than the previous strain."

It has been clear for months that the B.1.1.7 variant is more contagious than earlier ones, and other researchers have found that it is deadlier overall. One of those researchers, Nicholas Davies at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Wall Street Journal the new study doesn't contradict the other ones. The current evidence points to the U.K. strain being "more likely to land you in the hospital," he said, but no likelier to have a bad outcome once you are hospitalized.

The study was conducted last fall, before a B.1.1.7-fueled surge overwhelmed British hospitals. Peter Weber

April 12, 2021

Regeneron's antibody cocktail could effectively provide "immediate protection to unvaccinated people," the company said Monday.

Regeneron announced that in a phase 3 trial, its monoclonal antibody cocktail protected against COVID-19 among people who were living with someone infected with the coronavirus, The New York Times reports.

This trial consisted of 1,505 people who lived in the same household as a person who tested positive for COVID-19 within the previous four days, and the antibody cocktail reduced the risk of symptomatic COVID-19 by 81 percent. Regeneron says it will ask the FDA to expand the emergency use authorization given to the antibody cocktail, which is now used for high-risk people infected with COVID-19.

"These antibodies may be particularly useful in individuals who are not yet vaccinated, and may also have potential in those who are immunosuppressed and may not respond well to vaccines," Dan Barouch, the trial's co-principal investigator, said.

Regeneron Chief Scientific Officer George Yancopoulos also said the antibody cocktail "may help provide immediate protection to unvaccinated people who are exposed to the virus." This study was the newest evidence suggesting that drugs of this kind "not only prevent the worst outcomes of the disease when given early enough, but also help prevent people from getting sick in the first place," the Times wrote, while The Wall Street Journal noted the Regeneron drug could "provide temporary stopgap protection as people await vaccines."

Myron Cohen, one of the lead investigators of the study, also pointed out to Stat News that it's a "really, really big deal" that the Regeneron study administered the antibody drug via an injection, as needing to start an IV to use such antibody drugs has "unequivocally" been a barrier. Brendan Morrow

April 11, 2021

Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Gao Fu is walking back comments he made about the country's COVID-19 vaccines.

The vaccines "don't have very high protection rates," Gao reportedly said Saturday at a conference in Chengdu. "It's now under formal consideration whether we should use different vaccines from different technical lines of the immunization process," he added, explaining that China was considering a few different options for how to boost effectiveness. A dosage increase, mixing vaccines, or turning to mRNA technology (the kind used in the highly effective and safe Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines) were all on the table.

The comments were noteworthy for a couple of reasons. For one, it was quite simply a "rare admission" from Beijing, The Associated Press writes. But, more importantly, China has already exported hundreds of millions of doses of two vaccines developed by Chinese drug makers, Sinovac and Sinopharm, to dozens of countries, including Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, Hungary, and Brazil. So, this could turn into a global predicament.

Now, though, Gao is telling Chinese state media that the reaction to his remarks "was a complete misunderstanding" and that he was really just suggesting that the question of how to improve vaccines' effectiveness is one "that needs to be considered by scientists around the world" because of the novelty of the virus. He did not, however, specifically address protection levels of the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines. Tim O'Donnell

April 10, 2021

There could one day be a COVID-19 equivalent to a carbon monoxide detector.

General Electric is developing a new sensor which could potentially detect the coronavirus and other viruses in the air, on a surface, or on someone's breath, Fast Company reports. The National Institutes of Health awarded the company a two-year research grant to work on the project, which will build upon two papers published by GE's principal scientist, Radislav Potyrailo, and his team.

The sensor that would detect the virus would be a microchip "smaller than a dime," Fast Company reports. Potyrailo is hopeful about the long-term prospects of the project, but he acknowledged the system is hard to build because it needs to be small enough to keep larger contaminants like pollen out to ensure only the right particles are detected.

If a prototype is available in the next couple of years, GE reportedly envisions the sensors in grocery stores, hotel rooms, and perhaps even within individuals' phones and watches. An actual GE COVID-19 sensor is a long way off, and there are many questions to answer, such as how long one would remain reliable before breaking down. But it's all in the works. Read more about how the sensor could detect viruses like the novel coronavirus at Fast Company. Tim O'Donnell

April 9, 2021

After recently unveiling positive trial results, Pfizer and BioNTech are looking to get their COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in adolescents between 12 and 15 before the next school year.

Pfizer announced Friday that it has submitted a request to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve its COVID-19 vaccine for use in adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15.

The request came after the companies last week said a phase 3 study showed the vaccine, which has already been approved for those 16 and older, to be 100 percent effective in this age group. The study consisted of 2,260 adolescents between 12 and 15, and there were no COVID-19 cases reported among the group that was vaccinated, with the vaccine demonstrating "robust antibody responses, exceeding those recorded earlier in vaccinated participants aged 16 to 25 years old," the companies said.

Pfizer's goal, it says, is to make the vaccine available to adolescents between 12 and 15 before the start of the 2021 school year. Meanwhile, according to NBC News, the company is also studying the vaccine in children between 6 months and 11 years old, and the first participants in that trial were dosed last month. Brendan Morrow

April 8, 2021

About 56 percent of Israel's 9.2 million citizens are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and another 15 percent have recovered from the disease, putting Israel squarely in herd immunity territory, Israeli public health experts tell the news and travel site Israel21c. Herd immunity, or the point at which enough people in a population have developed antibodies to a disease that non-immune people are protected, is estimated to kick in at about 65 percent to 70 percent with COVID-19, explained Dr. Eyal Leshem at Israel's Sheba Medical Center, the country's largest hospital.

"We're seeing a decline in the number of cases now despite the return to mass gatherings and schools following the third lockdown, because most of the people the infected person will meet are immune by now," Leshem said. Israel has an aggressive, very successful immunization program, but children aren't yet vaccinated and neither are all adults, so it isn't out of the woods entirely.

Currently, Israel is closed to most non-citizens, and when tourism resumes, "Israel is expected to be a very safe place for travelers because of our lower risk of transmission," Leshem told Israel21c. As long as travelers are fully vaccinated or test negative for the virus, tourism will have "a reasonable risk-benefit balance" for Israel, too, but "there are no magic tricks here," he added. "If unvaccinated people travel without full quarantine and testing, we will increase the risk of reintroducing the disease to Israel." Peter Weber

April 4, 2021

At the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services, Johnson & Johnson will take charge of the Baltimore contract plant that ruined 15 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, senior federal health officials told The New York Times. Johnson & Johnson confirmed the news Saturday night.

The doses were spoiled because of a mistake at a facility run by Emergent BioSolution, a manufacturing partner to both Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, which has also developed a COVID-19 vaccine, albeit one that has yet to be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. Workers at the plant accidentally mixed up the ingredients of the two shots, delaying future shipments of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, though reportedly not enough to force Johnson & Johnson to modify its goal of delivering 100 million doses to the U.S. government by the end of May.

The error was caught and none of the contaminated doses made it out of the plant, but the Biden administration isn't taking any more chances — production of the AstraZeneca vaccine will move to an alternative site, the company said in a statement. Read more at The Washington Post and The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

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