Solving COVID
8:57 a.m.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a new guidance has acknowledged that COVID-19 can spread through the air, CNN reports.

The CDC's website as of Friday says that "airborne viruses, including COVID-19, are among the most contagious and easily spread" and that the coronavirus commonly spreads "through respiratory droplets or small particles, such as those in aerosols."

The CDC's latest guidance also says, "It is possible that COVID-19 may spread through the droplets and airborne particles that are formed when a person who has COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes. There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes)."

The guidance from the CDC, CNN notes, previously described COVID-19 as mainly spreading through "respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks" and within six feet. In the new guidance, when listing ways to protect oneself from COVID-19, in addition to steps such as social distancing and wearing a mask, the CDC also now says to "use air purifiers to help reduce airborne germs in indoor spaces."

The Washington Post notes that "scientists and public health experts have warned of mounting evidence that the novel coronavirus is airborne" for months, and University of Colorado at Boulder chemistry professor Jose-Luis Jimenez told the Post this acknowledgement from the CDC as a "major change."

"This is a good thing," Jimenez told the Post, "if we can reduce transmission because more people understand how it is spreading and know what to do to stop it."

Additionally, University of Maryland professor Donald Milton told CNN it's a "major improvement," adding, "I'm very encouraged to see that the CDC is paying attention and moving with the science. The evidence is accumulating." Brendan Morrow

September 18, 2020

The Trump administration's communications on a COVID-19 vaccine haven't exactly been seamless.

CDC Director Robert Redfield testified Wednesday that a vaccine won't be "fully available to the American public" until probably "late second quarter, third quarter 2021." That's consistent with estimates from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, and Moncef Slaoui, the chief scientist at Operation Warp Speed, the federal vaccine initiative.

President Trump said Redfield "made a mistake" with his timeframe and shared "incorrect information." He predicted there will be a vaccine before Election Day and up to 100 million doses delivered by the end of the year — more than double the CDC's most optimistic projection. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Thursday the goal is for 300 million doses by Jan. 1 and "we believe that we can get the vast majority of those at risk with a distribution model that would be available at the end of October."

Moderna, testing one of the most promising vaccine candidates in Phase 3 trials, said Thursday it may not even know if its vaccine works until next year. Stéphane Bancel, Moderna's CEO, said he anticipates massive vaccine shortages "in the first half of next year, at least maybe until Labor Day next year."

Assuming at least one of the half-dozen late-stage vaccines pans out and wins approval from an outside panel of experts, states will then have to overcome "a host of logistical and supply chain challenges" to get it distributed to the public, starting with health care and other essential workers, Politico reports. "State officials overseeing the largest and most complex vaccination campaign in history say the effort will require a level of careful coordination with the federal government that's been lacking during the pandemic."

"Many things could still go wrong," and "all the claims and counterclaims about when a vaccine will be ready and how safe it will be — some coming from Trump himself — have created a great deal of public hesitancy, beyond the regular anti-vaccination sentiments," Politico health editor Joanne Kenen writes. But "we've seen amazing science over the last eight or nine months," and "with each passing day, a vaccine is getting closer." Even if the first efforts "aren't as powerful as we'd like," she adds, it will help contain the virus. Peter Weber

September 17, 2020

Moderna is ramping up to have its coronavirus vaccine to the public early next year.

Stephane Bancel, CEO of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech company, told The Boston Globe that Moderna originally planned to determine its vaccine's effectiveness in October. But because infection rates are slowing, "which is great for the country," Bancel added, it's becoming "less and less probable" Moderna will have definitive results by then. "We've said November," Bancel said, but that timetable could stretch into December if infections slow even further.

Determining a vaccine's effectiveness requires there's a good amount of coronavirus infections out there, as a developer needs to know if the vaccine protects people from a virus better than a placebo. The Food and Drug Administration requires a vaccine to prevent at least 50 percent of infections to be considered effective. More than 25,000 people are currently enrolled in Moderna's phase three trial across the country.

If everything pans out, Bancel said Moderna will seek an emergency use authorization from the FDA to speed up the vaccine's approval process. And when that happens, Moderna can ship out the doses of the vaccine it has already produced to the federal government. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense pledged $1.5 billion for 100 million doses of Moderna's vaccine, but Bancel said that many doses won't be ready until early 2021.

Moderna's vaccine is among several the government is helping fund in hopes of rolling out hundreds of millions of doses as soon as possible. Read more at The Boston Globe. Kathryn Krawczyk

September 17, 2020

Coronavirus testing may soon be much easier.

Computer vision startup Gauss and biotech company Cellex announced Thursday they've created the first at-home COVID-19 test that can actually be done fully at home, Axios reports. While existing at-home tests still require sending test samples to a lab for analysis, this one coordinates with an app to deliver results at home in just 15 minutes.

To take the test, people follow a video and swipe a nasal swab through both nostrils, then put it in a tube of solution. Drops of that solution head into a rapid test cassette, which delivers lines as a visible test result. People then take a picture of those lines and upload it to Gauss's app, and it uses AI to determine results in about 15 minutes, Axios describes. This is a big change from typical tests that require sending samples out for analysis, though those PCR tests tend to be a bit more accurate than rapid tests. Gauss/Cellex's collaboration produces a correct positive test result 90 percent of the time, and a correct negative test result 100 percent of the time, Cellex CEO James Li said.

The Food and Drug Administration still has to approve the test, though it could grant it an emergency use authorization, which would get it out into the world earlier by avoiding much of the typical approval process. Then comes distribution and pricing; Li told Axios "our goal is to make this assay as widely available as possible." Kathryn Krawczyk

September 16, 2020

Eli Lilly's monoclonal coronavirus antibody drug is off to a "good start" after the pharmaceutical giant completed a small clinical trial, Stat News reports.

Only about 450 patients were enrolled in the trial, so there's a long way to go before Lilly finds anything definitive, but Stat reports the medicine — a manufactured version of the naturally-occurring antibodies the body produces to fend off the virus — appeared to reduce patients' hospitalization odds. Only 1.7 percent of the patients who received the drug went to the emergency room or were hospitalized, compared to 6 percent who took a placebo.

Again, it's unclear if that will hold up with further study, but Daniel Skovronsky, Lilly's chief scientific officer, said the early data are "extremely exciting" and "should give us confidence that neutralizing antibodies are going to be an important part of the solution" to the pandemic. Skovonrsky said the company will discuss additional clinical trials with regulators, as well as options like an emergency use authorization.

On the latter point, Eric Topol, the director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, suggested pumping the brakes. Topol is encouraged by the initial results, but doesn't think the drug currently "would qualify to even consider" an EUA. Read more findings from the trial at Stat News. Tim O'Donnell

September 16, 2020

Testing wastewater for a deadly virus isn't new — it has been used to identify polio outbreaks — but the idea has gained traction as cities and universities look for ways to plod toward normalcy as the world awaits a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. Universities have had great success monitoring for COVID-19 flare-ups by testing wastewater, or "all the dirty stuff from the toilets, showers, sinks, washing machines, dishwashers, you name it," Politico reports. And now "the CDC and HHS are working on a national wastewater surveillance system and data portal" for willing states and local governments.

People shed the coronavirus in their waste days before they show signs of illness, so finding COVID-19 in wastewater can give authorities "seven precious days for intervention," said Ian Pepper at the University of Arizona. His team tested the wastewater outside dorms every morning, but monitoring samples of sewage in Baton Rouge predicted an outbreak two weeks after Louisiana's governor lifted restrictions — then tracked the sharp decline in infections after the governor started requiring people to wear masks.

Setting up a nationwide wastewater surveillance system early in the pandemic would have helped alert officials before an outbreak took hold, says David Larsen, an epidemiologist and public health expert at Syracuse University, one of the schools that tests wastewater. "My kids would be in school right now. Our economy would not have tanked the way that it has."

And testing every U.S. ZIP code twice a week would cost about $3 billion a year, Larsen estimates. "It's really not much. The cost per person monitored is like $10, if that, a year." The payoff, he said, is it "would be huge to get us back to work" for the year before a vaccine becomes widely available. Peter Weber

September 13, 2020

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found Google searches for gastrointestinal problems could be a potential warning system for the location of coronavirus outbreaks, Bloomberg reports.

Using the Google Trends tool, the researchers determined that the volume of searches for those symptoms between Jan. 20 and April 20 correlated strongly with coronavirus cases in then-hot spots like New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, and Illinois, three to four weeks later.

COVID-19 patients often report gastrointestinal issues, like abdominal pain and diarrhea, and going forward, health officials could monitor those searches to try to pin down upcoming hot spots. "Our data underscore the importance of GI symptoms as a potential harbinger of COVID-19 infection and suggests Google Trends may be a valuable tool for predictions of pandemics with GI manifestations," the study says.

The results of the research suggest Google searches could operate in a similar, though probably less specific, fashion to wastewater, which is already being used as a predictive method for coronavirus infections in several cities across the world and even on college campuses. Read more at Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

September 12, 2020

When coronavirus cases were surging in the United States earlier this summer, Alaska was testing more people than any other state in America, The Wall Street Journal reports. It's now second, behind only Rhode Island, and it has the lowest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita in the nation. Sure, Alaska's population of 730,000 is relatively small, but testing is still a challenge considering the state's vastness. So, Alaskans got creative, the Journal reports.

Coronavirus testing samples need to be refrigerated, a difficult task when moving them from remote communities across "the barren expanses of Alaska." To keep them cold, some tests taken in fishing communities were placed in refrigerated boxes normally used to transport fish, while others were reportedly kept cool in the noses of airplanes. Snowmobiles and trucks were also used to transport the samples.

The big commercial laboratories conducting many tests in the U.S. don't operate in Alaska, the Journal notes, and the state subsequently had a tough time getting swabs. The solution was to strike a contract with a local manufacturer that used 3-D printing technology to produce plastic swabs, which were then processed in Alaska's own public health labs.

Some other examples of ingenuity include when the state's largest rural airline declared bankruptcy and grounded its fleet in April. Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. — a tribal organization that administers health care to Alaskans living in rural communities — scrambled to charter private flights and trained local health care workers to administer tests to account for the tests and samples it couldn't deliver without the aid of the airline.

The state has also increasingly deployed rapid tests in rural communities to avoid what would otherwise be lengthy turnaround times. Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

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