Solving COVID: March 24, 2021
Companies race to create oral vaccine, Texas plans to open vaccines to all adults, and more
Where things stand
The United States is now averaging 2.5 million COVID-19 vaccinations a day. Roughly 1 in 4 people in the U.S. have received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 75 percent of Americans over the age of 65 have been at least partially vaccinated. That's one big reason why deaths continue to decline: About 900 people are dying from coronavirus in America ever day, which is down 40 percent from two weeks ago, and hospital admissions are at their lowest point since last October. "The worst may in fact be behind us," Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health, told NPR. But we're still seeing more than 50,000 new daily coronavirus cases, "a number that has been basically flat for two weeks," The New York Times explains. States like Michigan and New Jersey are seeing caseloads spike. And while America may soon be rounding a corner, globally, deaths are on the rise as new variants take off and vaccine shortages linger.
COVID-19 vaccines appear to cause sharp drop in infections in health-care workers
Three separate studies of health-care workers in American and Israeli health systems suggest COVID-19 vaccinations are having a positive effect. The studies, all published in The New England Journal of Medicine, suggested vaccinations have played a role in significantly reducing COVID-19 infections at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem, and the health systems of both the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, Los Angeles. In the UC systems, of the more than 14,000 people tested for COVID-19, only seven received positive results more than 15 days after their second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine. At UTSW, meanwhile, only four of the 8,211 fully vaccinated employees tested positive for COVID-19 in the first six weeks or so of the system's vaccination drive, compared to 234 of the 8,969 who hadn't been vaccinated at all.
The race is on to create an oral COVID-19 vaccine
The Israeli-American pharmaceutical company Oramed Pharmaceuticals Inc. is expecting to launch a clinical human trial for an oral COVID-19 vaccine in the second quarter of 2021, The Jerusalem Post reports. CEO Nadav Kidron said an oral vaccine "would eliminate several barriers to rapid, wide-scale distribution, potentially enabling people to take the vaccines themselves at home." He added that they could especially come in handy if yearly COVID-19 vaccinations are recommended, as with the flu shot, but said because the candidate targets three structural proteins on the virus, rather than the single spike protein, it "should be much more resistant to COVID-19 variants." Kidron also said it will be cheaper to produce and easier to store than vaccines that are administered via shot. Meanwhile, San Francisco-based biotech company Vaxart is also working on an oral COVID-19 vaccine. The company is in the midst of a Phase 2 "dose-ranging study" and could move to an efficacy study later in the year.
Texas is making all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccination next week
Texas officials announced Tuesday that beginning March 29, all adults in the state will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. "We are closing in on 10 million doses administered in Texas, and we want to keep up the momentum as the vaccine supply increases," said Imelda Garcia, Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel chair. At the moment, the only states where all adults are eligible to get vaccinated are West Virginia, Alaska, and Mississippi. But President Biden earlier this month announced he was directing states to make all adults eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine by the beginning of May. "That doesn't mean everyone's going to have that shot immediately," Biden said, "but it means you'll be able to get in line beginning May 1."
Protective vaccine antibodies appear to pass to babies in utero
Promising new research suggests COVID-19 vaccines given to pregnant women may protect not only the mother-to-be, but her unborn child, as well. Scientists last week reported the first known case of a baby being born with SARS-CoV-2 antibodies following her mother's vaccination. The mother received her first dose of the Moderna shot at 36 weeks pregnant, and gave birth before she could receive her second shot. Antibodies were detected in blood samples taken from the umbilical cord, "thus, there is potential for protection and infection risk reduction from SARS-CoV-2 with maternal vaccination," the researchers write in a preprint study. As with adults, it's not clear how long this immunity will last in newborns, but another preprint study — which has not yet been peer-reviewed — found antibodies in the breastmilk of vaccinated women, "indicating that at least some immunity could be transferred to babies both before and after birth," The Washington Post reports.