Solving COVID: May 20, 2020

The Week Staff
Vaccination.
Illustrated | AP Images
Our 'Solving COVID' newsletter is a weekly roundup of the latest scientific advancements being made against the coronavirus pandemic. It tracks developments in testing, treating, and vaccinating. To receive the newsletter every week, please enter your email below:

1.

Potential coronavirus vaccine shows early promise

Massachusetts biotechnology company Moderna announced Monday that its potential COVID-19 vaccine showed promising early results in clinical trials. Eight patients developed antibodies at levels similar to those of people who recovered from the coronavirus, the company said. Critics caution that Moderna did not publish all the data, and say the announcement was too vague to draw any conclusions. "These are partial findings from a small, early-stage study," Boston Globe reports. "It's not known whether the dozens of other people in the study will have the same results." But Moderna described the interim data as "positive," with Chief Medical Officer Tal Zaks saying that the findings, though early, "substantiate our belief that mRNA-1273 has the potential to prevent COVID-19 disease." Moderna is moving into phase two of its clinical trials, having received approval from the Food and Drug Administration, and it says the third phase is expected to begin in the summer. [The Washington Post, Stat News]

2.

Doctors say growing 'toolbox' of coronavirus treatments gives them hope

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, doctors "were flying blind" as they tried to treat a disease with mysterious symptoms and very little research, Jose Pascual, a critical care doctor at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, told The Washington Post. But health-care workers everywhere have since "devised a toolbox, albeit a limited and imperfect one, of drugs and therapies" they believe are improving patients' chances of survival every day. Unexpected "curveballs" — like new symptoms and side effects — from the virus quickly became lessons. Hospitals started quickly measuring oxygen levels in any suspected coronavirus patients, and learned how to boost breathing support. They knew to look for effects in other parts of the body, not just the lungs. And after some once-promising drugs proved unhelpful, doctors have been able to rule them out in favor of more effective drugs. Of course, experimental approaches will have to be further researched through randomized clinical trials before they're approved for general use. [The Washington Post]

3.

Researchers find biomarkers that can predict COVID-19 patients' survival chances

Two COVID-19 studies released last week offer tools that might help hospitals better triage patients. Researchers in China reported in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence that an analysis of blood samples taken from 485 coronavirus patients in Wuhan discovered biomarkers that can predict whether a coronavirus patient will die within 10 days, with more than 90 percent accuracy, Business Insider reports. A computer model the researchers developed looks for high levels of the enzyme lactic dehydrogenase (LDH), linked to lung damage; lymphopenia, or low levels of infection-fighting white blood cells; and a rise in inflammation-signaling high-sensitivity C-reactive proteins (hs-CRP). "... This simple model can help to quickly prioritize patients, especially during a pandemic when limited health-care resources have to be allocated," the researchers said. A second paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found 10 biomarkers researchers said could predict a patient's risk. They turned risk predictors — high LDH levels and low levels of lymphocytes plus age, history of cancer, shortness of breath — into a coronavirus risk "calculator." [Stat News, Business Insider]

4.

Study suggests recovered patients' plasma is safe for treating COVID-19

An experimental COVID-19 treatment known as convalescent plasma transfusions appears to be safe and could be a worthwhile treatment after it's studied more, a recently published study suggests. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, Michigan State University, and Johns Hopkins University looked at 5,000 coronavirus patients around the country who received convalescent plasma transfusions from recovered patients. Less than 1 percent of the treated patients saw "serious adverse effects" after the transfusions, and there was a 14.9 percent mortality rate seven days after transfusions. Two-thirds of these patients were critically ill to begin with, so "the mortality rate does not appear excessive," the study said. While this study doesn't determine whether convalescent transfusions effectively treat coronavirus, it does suggest they are safe for wider research. The study will need to be peer reviewed and replicated in official medical journals before it can be considered an approved way of treating COVID-19. [Medrxiv, The Wall Street Journal]

5.

Recovered coronavirus patients who tested positive again weren't infectious, Korean CDC finds

The Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied 285 COVID-19 survivors who initially recovered from the illness but then tested positive again. They found these patients' virus samples couldn't be grown in culture, suggesting the patients had indeed recovered and were actually shedding non-infectious or dead virus particles, rather than suffering from a lingering infection. South Korean health authorities — who have received praise for setting a global standard during the pandemic — will no longer consider COVID-19 patients infectious after they recover, and won't require additional tests after patients are discharged from their isolation period. That means those patients won't have to test negative before returning to work or school. Another positive sign from the findings is that almost all of the cases for which blood samples were taken showed antibodies against the virus, suggesting that people who were previously infected do indeed build up some form of protection. [Bloomberg]