Solving COVID
June 23, 2020

Imperial College London has "reached a significant milestone" after delivering a small dose of its coronavirus vaccine candidate to the first healthy volunteer in its trial. So far, all has gone according to plan. The clinical team is closely monitoring the participant's health, which remains in good condition, and there are no safety concerns.

Developing a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus is crucial during the pandemic, and it's worth keeping an eye on every effort. But Imperial College's candidate stands out because it's based on a new self-amplifying RNA technology, which has never before been involved in human trials. If it proves safe and effective, Imperial College believes it could revolutionize — and reduce the cost of — vaccine development, allowing scientists to take on emerging diseases like COVID-19 much more quickly in the future.

The initial volunteer will receive a booster shot in four weeks, and several other volunteers will enter the trial to further assess the vaccine's safety and find the right dosage. Then, in the next few weeks, Imperial College will administer doses to 300 healthy volunteers. If that goes well, larger trials will take place throughout the year. Read more about Imperial College's vaccine development here. Tim O'Donnell

January 26, 2021

President Biden announced Tuesday that his administration intends to order an additional 100 million doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines. The extra 200 million doses, which Biden said should arrive by the summer, would boost the country's supply by about 50 percent to 600 million shots total, meaning that there would be enough shots available to inoculate 300 million people in the coming months without the Food and Drug Administration granting approval for any other vaccine candidates.

It's another sign that the government is raising expectations for the vaccine rollout. On Monday, Biden upped the daily vaccination goal from 1 million to 1.5 million throughout his first 100 days in office and suggested that any American who wants a shot could be able to get one by the spring.

FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver applauded the administration for getting more ambitious, though he noted it could be difficult — impossible, even, unless the shots are approved for children — to find 300 million willing Americans to get vaccinated by the end of summer. Tim O'Donnell

January 26, 2021

Multiple reports published Tuesday from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that schools have seen little transmission of the coronavirus and that spread can likely be kept low with the "proper prevention efforts" including masks, social distancing, and smaller cohorts of students, The Washington Post reports.

In one study, researchers looked at 17 rural K-12 schools in Wisconsin during the fall semester and found that just seven out of 191 COVID-19 cases among students and staff members were the result of in-school transmission, and none of the staff members were infected at school.

Two other domestic studies of school districts in Mississippi and North Carolina that were reviewed by the CDC offered similar findings. "The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring," three CDC researchers wrote in a viewpoint piece in the Journal of American Medical Association. "There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission."

The agency, however, is cautioning that indoor sports and other extracurricular activities that do not allow for distancing or mask usage pose a higher risk, the Post notes. For instance, another CDC report released Tuesday described two Florida high school wrestling tournaments in December that resulted in 30 percent of the 130 athletes, coaches, and referees who participated becoming infected. Read more at The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

January 26, 2021

Pfizer will be able to provide the United States with 200 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine it developed alongside BioNTech by the end of May, CEO Albert Bourla said Tuesday, per Bloomberg. That's two months ahead of the previous July 31 deadline the company had set for itself.

The reason for the apparent fast-tracking is actually a Food and Drug Administration-approved label change, which went into effect Monday, allowing health care workers to extract an additional sixth dose from each vial, so production levels won't necessarily increase. Bourla also said the alteration means Pfizer will be able to deliver 120 million doses to the U.S. by the end of March, 20 million more than promised when the vaccine was initially granted emergency use.

As Bloomberg notes, the expedited timeline comes amid widespread concern about the slower-than-anticipated pace of the vaccine rollout in the U.S., so it's welcome news, though Bourla also suggested things will pick up in the coming weeks, either way. Read more at Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

January 26, 2021

Researchers reported Monday in the journal Science that a drug developed to fight multiple myeloma has proved 27.5 times more effective at treating COVID-19 than remdesivir in laboratory studies with infected human lung and kidney cells. The drug, Aplidin or Plitidepsin, was also effective at fighting COVID-19 in lab mice. Aplidin was developed in Spain from a tubular, plantlike marine animal called a sea squirt. It has gone through a Phase II trial against COVID-19 and is awaiting a Phase III trial.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, started exploring Aplidin's use as a treatment for COVID-19 in March. Instead of looking through databases of existing drugs to find one that targeted the virus, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, the UC San Francisco team sought out drugs that would protect key human proteins from being hijacked by the coronavirus. Experts not involved in the study said the research was promising but needed confirmation in human trials.

Effective treatments will be crucial for keeping down the death toll as new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus emerge and spread. The approved COVID-19 vaccines appear slightly less effective against the new strains, and scientists have yet to show that vaccinated people stop transmitting the coronavirus. A second study, not yet published or peer-reviewed, suggests that Aplidin is equally effective against one of the new strains that had spread throughout Britain.

"Work on treatments has been ongoing since the outbreak began and we have seen the benefits," Chris Beyrer, professor of public health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Journal Sentinel. "Survival is actually better than it was in March, April, May." Peter Weber

January 25, 2021

Merck, one of the world's most storied vaccine makers, is abandoning the development of its two COVID-19 vaccines after initial trials resulted in inadequate immune responses, Stat News reports. Both vaccines produced lower levels of coronavirus antibodies than have been found in the blood of individuals who recovered from natural COVID-19 infections. For reference, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines produced antibody levels several times higher than natural infections.

The unsuccessful trials are disappointing in large part because both Merck vaccines would have required just one dose, writes Stat. One of the candidates, which uses the same virus as the one in Merck's successful Ebola vaccine, was being developed in partnership with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, which has said it will try to determine if using an oral or intranasal administration route will work better than the current intramuscular injection. It's unclear if Merck will continue to collaborate — IAVI's president Mark Feinberg told Stat he hopes they do — because the pharmaceutical company has suggested it will now turn its focus to developing COVID-19 therapeutics.

As Stat notes, the results show just how difficult vaccine development can be, especially in such a short amount of time, making the rapid success of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots seem all the more remarkable. Read more at Stat News. Tim O'Donnell

January 25, 2021

Moderna's coronavirus vaccine is still doing its job. But when it comes to the COVID-19 variant first found in South Africa, there could be some room for improvement.

More transmissible variants of COVID-19 first appeared overseas in the past month, and have since been found in the U.S. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been found effective against the B117 variant that was first found in London, and Moderna has confirmed it found no reduction in antibodies when its vaccine was used against that strain. But when researching the B1351 strain, Moderna saw a sixfold reduction in antibodies produced, a study released Monday indicates.

Despite the shortfall, Moderna affirmed that the antibodies produced with the vaccine "remain above levels that are expected to be protective" against either strain. But "as an insurance policy," the company is working on a booster shot that could make the vaccine more effective against the South Africa-based strain, Moderna's chief medical officer Dr. Tal Zaks told The New York Times. "I don't know if we need it, and I hope we don't," he added.

So far, there has been no evidence to suggest the B1351 strain is more deadly than the more widespread virus, only that it spreads faster. The B117 variant also spreads up to 50 percent faster than the original strain, and the U.K. has found early evidence that it could be more deadly. Kathryn Krawczyk

January 25, 2021

West Virginia is doing better than probably any other state in vaccinating its population against COVID-19. About 9 percent of West Virginians have already gotten their first dose, better than any state but Alaska, and West Virginia is No. 1 in giving out second doses, The New York Times reports. West Virginia has used 83 percent of the doses allocated to the state, by far the highest percentage.

Part of West Virginia's success is its size: With 1.8 million residents, its population is smaller than several U.S. cities. But the state's population is also older and less healthy than average. "People are dying every day," Albert Wright Jr., CEO of WVU Medicine, the state's largest health-care provider, told the Times. "We just realized, the only way out of this is to vaccinate our way out." The Times highlights three decisions that put West Virginia "at the top of the charts," as former FDA chief Dr. Mark McClellan said:

1. No to the feds: West Virginia decided early on to opt out of a federal program that relied on Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate people in nursing homes and long-term car facilities. Instead, West Virginia created a network of local pharmacies and nursing homes, to great success. "Using your local partners and really having more control over where the vaccine is going, that's what has been successful for West Virginia," Association of Immunization Managers chief Claire Hannan told the Times.

2. Yes to the National Guard: West Virginia also put the National Guard at the center of its vaccination effort, a step other states have started taking amid slow rollouts. The National Guard "are logistical experts," said Jim Kranz, a vice president at the West Virginia Hospital Association.

3. Only promise what you have: West Virginia, after some mishaps, has also decided to require appointments for people to get vaccinated, and the state won't set up such appointments until they have the vaccines sitting in their own freezers. Other states have over-promised, only to have to cancel appointments when the vaccine ran out.

West Virginia's biggest hurdle now is the scarcity of vaccine supply, something it has no control over. The federal government is expecting hundreds of millions of more doses in the next few months. Read more about West Virginia's success at The New York Times. Peter Weber

January 22, 2021

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday that there's "some evidence" a surging COVID-19 variant may be more deadly than the original strain.

The B117 strain was first identified in London, and has since spread across the U.K. and arrived in other U.S. and other countries. "In addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant ... may be associated with a higher degree of mortality," Johnson said in a Friday press conference.

Before Johnson's announcement, evidence suggested the variant was no more inherently deadly than the original COVID-19 strain. But evidence the U.K.'s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group assessed for the government shows that it could be up to 30 percent more deadly. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific advisor, cautioned that the data is "not yet strong," saying "there's a lot of uncertainty around these numbers and we need more work to get a precise handle on it."

Even if the variant is not necessarily more deadly, its rapid transmission rate could allow it to infect — and therefore kill — more people. Still, research suggests both major COVID-19 vaccines currently in distribution will still be just as effective against the new strain. Kathryn Krawczyk

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