Solving COVID
July 29, 2020

Some of the largest slums in Mumbai, India, may be nearing herd coronavirus immunity, a new serological survey found, Bloomberg reports.

The study tested 6,936 people across three suburbs in Mumbai — Dahisar, Chembur, and Matunga — and discovered that 57 percent of the subjects had coronavirus antibodies, a figure far higher than the 21 percent found in New York City in April and 14 percent in Stockholm, Sweden, in May. Per Bloomberg, epidemiologists generally believe a population must reach infection levels of 60 percent to achieve herd immunity, so the study indicates the neighborhoods are pretty much there. The survey appears to go hand-in-hand with a steep decline in cases in the slums in recent weeks, despite India having the world's fastest growth in infections overall.

Social distancing is a challenge in the crowded Mumbai neighborhoods, which seemingly makes them well-suited for the virus' spread, and the study suggests that it did so widely. Fortunately, the population in the slums is young and more likely to avoid severe cases of COVID-19. That, coupled with successful government containment measures that helped catch cases early and ensure high quality care, have kept the fatality low in the slums, even if many infections went undetected, Bloomberg notes.

It's encouraging that some of Mumbai's slums may be closing in on herd immunity without experiencing a high death rate, but the jury is still out on how long immunity lasts. It's also worth noting antibody rates were not nearly as high in other parts of Mumbai, where social distancing is more feasible. Read more at Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

12:58 p.m.

Testing accessibility has always been a problem when it comes to fighting the coronavirus. And even as that has improved, a slow turnaround rate has often made test results useless.

That's why some researchers and public health experts are starting to emphasize rapid result coronavirus tests even if they're less accurate than the time-intensive PCR tests, The New York Times reports. Their logic? "Even if you miss somebody on Day 1, If you test them repeatedly, the argument is, you'll catch them the next time around," said Omai Garner, director of clinical microbiology in the UCLA Health System.

The experts who back an emphasis on quicker tests cite the failure of long-term tests to stem coronavirus spread throughout the U.S. "If you had asked me this a couple months ago, I would have said we just need to be doing the PCR tests," said Susan Butler-Wu, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Southern California. But, she added, it's now "kitchen sink time, even if the tests are imperfect."

Still, PCR coronavirus tests rely on laboratory procedures to generate their results, and even quick-result tests require "specialized machines that are neither cheap nor easy to produce in bulk," the Times writes. But antigen tests, which identify a protein in the coronavirus, could be performed at any doctor's office or even at home, and could be mass-produced to cost just a few dollars each. Some companies are focused on developing these low-cost tests and ramping up their production until a vaccine is found.

Read more about the testing transformation at The New York Times. Kathryn Krawczyk

August 5, 2020

Seven states are teaming up with the goal of expanding rapid COVID-19 testing.

The governors of Maryland, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina have announced an interstate compact "to expand the use of rapid point-of-care antigen tests" during the coronavirus pandemic. The bipartisan group of governors is in talks to buy 500,000 antigen tests for each state.

"By banding together, the states are demonstrating to private manufacturers that there is significant demand to scale up the production of these tests, which deliver results in 15-20 minutes," the announcement said, touting this as the first such interstate testing agreement during the pandemic.

The compact was negotiated by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who on Tuesday thanked "my fellow governors for signing on to this groundbreaking bipartisan agreement" to "acquire millions of faster tests to help save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19," adding that "we will be working to bring additional states, cities, and local governments on board as this initiative moves forward." Brendan Morrow

August 4, 2020

Another vaccine is showing promising results in the fight to find a COVID-19 solution.

Novavax, a Maryland-based company with $1.6 billion federal funding behind its coronavirus vaccine development, released two preliminary studies Tuesday. In one, all of its more than 130 human volunteers produced antibodies to combat the coronavirus, and in another, monkeys developed strong a resistence to the virus.

All of the humans in Novavax's trial may have some form of protection against COVID-19, but 56 of them produced a high level of antibodies without any dangerous side effects, The New York Times notes. Volunteers who had two doses of the vaccine three weeks apart, plus a booster, had the best results. Their antibodies measured approximately four times higher than those in patients who'd recovered from coronavirus, Stat News reports. Still, more than 60 percent of recipients had side effects including pain, headaches, and fatigue. Eight people had to be hospitalized, though their side effects were not life threatening and they were quickly released.

Novavax's vaccines are only in their first phase of study, while other developers have some in a phase three, where large amounts of people receive the vaccine. Still, John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine who was not involved in the studies, told the Times these were some of the most promising vaccine results he has seen yet. "This is the first one I'm looking at and saying, 'Yeah, I'd take that,'" Moore said. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University who was not involved in the studies, cautioned there's no guarantee of safety until a phase three trial compares people who get the vaccine with people who got a placebo. It's still essential this study receives a peer review as well. Kathryn Krawczyk

August 4, 2020

The antiviral drug remdesivir's effectiveness at combating the coronavirus has been one of the biggest breakthroughs since the pandemic began. The catch is that the Gilead treatment is expensive and in short supply. So, a bipartisan group of state attorneys general are looking to the federal government to step in and change that.

In a letter to the heads of the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration, 31 attorneys general asked the agencies to exercise march-in rights granted to them by the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act to increase the supply of the drug and lower the price so it becomes more accessible to Americans.

The bill allows federal agencies to retain patent rights for drugs developed from federal funds, which Gilead received to boost remdesivir during the pandemic, if the manufacturer fails to achieve a reasonable price or "alleviate health or safety needs" of consumers. In this case, the letter argues, "it is clear that Gilead" has not done either of those things. Read the full letter here and more on the issue at USA Today. Tim O'Donnell

August 4, 2020

Eli Lilly & Co. has started a Phase 3 trial of its experimental antibody-based COVID-19 drug in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, testing whether the drug reduces the infection rate at facilities where residents or staff have recently tested positive for the new coronavirus. The study involves Eli Lilly driving specially modified RVs to newly infected nursing homes and injecting its COVID-19 drug, code-named LY-CoV555, in volunteers, The Wall Street Journal reports. The company said its drug may get government approval by the end of 2020.

Eli Lilly is already testing its antibody treatment, developed with Canadian biotech AbCellera Biologics, in hospitals on COVID-19 patents with mild and more severe cases. Researchers essentially cloned antibodies from one of the first U.S. patients to recover from COVID-19, hoping those proteins help the immune system fight the virus or prevent it from taking hold. If Eli Lilly's drug or another like it proves safe and effective, public health experts say it might serve as a bridge until a vaccine is available.

Nursing homes have been especially susceptible to deadly COVID-19 outbreaks. The new study, conducted in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, seeks to enroll 2,400 test subjects. Peter Weber

August 2, 2020

At first glance, taking public transportation seems like a particularly risky activity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, but in several major cities where ridership has rebounded, there haven't been any outbreaks linked to subways, buses, or commuter railways, The New York Times reports.

In Paris, contact tracers have not found public transportation to be linked to any of the city's 386 coronavirus clusters between early May and mid-July. The same goes for Tokyo's famously busy system, and an Austrian study also did not tie any outbreaks to public transportation in the country.

The findings are encouraging, but come with some caveats: Ridership still falls short of pre-pandemic levels in most places, and those cities where passengers are taking public transportation in more significant numbers have mandated masks, disinfected trains and buses, and ramped up service to avoid overcrowding. Of course, that will likely be the blueprint for many cities going forward, at least while the pandemic continues.

The trickier aspect might have to do with contact tracing. Experts warn that it's challenging to trace an outbreak to public transportation because there's little chance people will remember their precise train car, and it's even more difficult to track down who else was in the same space.

A lot remains unknown, but the Times reports that riding public transportation probably falls somewhere in between walking outdoors and dining indoors on the safety scale. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

July 30, 2020

Johnson & Johnson's coronavirus vaccine is showing signs of offering protection in a single dose.

The company has been testing several vaccine contenders on monkeys, and discovered its most effective vaccine produce an immune response and appeared safe in all of them, according to a study published Thursday in the scientific journal Nature. The company will now test the vaccine on humans to determine if it's safe and effective for widespread use.

Johnson & Johnson tested what turned out to be its most viable vaccine on six monkeys, and all of them remained completely safe from lung disease when exposed to the virus. Five of the six remained entirely safe from coronavirus infection when exposed as well. "This gives us confidence that we can test a single-shot vaccine in this epidemic and learn whether it has a protective effect in humans,” Johnson & Johnson's chief scientific officer Dr. Paul Stoffels told Reuters.

This is the second vaccine proven to be effective in monkeys, Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, noted to The New York Times. But "we can't take shortcuts" and rush into large-scale human trials just because of these results, she cautioned. More than 30 potential COVID-19 vaccines are now undergoing human trials worldwide, though Johnson & Johnson's is one of the few that may only require a single dose and not a follow-up booster shot. Kathryn Krawczyk

July 29, 2020

Xprize has unveiled a new $5 million competition to encourage the development of rapid COVID-19 testing.

The non-profit organization on Tuesday announced the Xprize Rapid COVID Testing competition to "accelerate the development of high-quality COVID-19 testing that is low cost, easy to use, and fast-turnaround, enabling frequent testing." Xprize and OpenCovidScreen are asking the "world's brightest, most innovative minds" to get involved and develop new fast and affordable testing solutions that might help facilitate a safe return to school and work amid the pandemic, as other COVID-19 testing methods can take days to produce a result.

The submissions, Xprize says, can be in one of four categories including at-home and point-of-care testing, and entries will be judged on factors like innovation, performance, turnaround time, and cost. Five teams will ultimately be awarded $1 million each, and the maximum turnaround time is 12 hours, TechCrunch reports.

"Fast, affordable, and accessible testing is crucial to containing the COVID-19 pandemic and safely reopening schools, businesses and other vital institutions around the world,” Xprize CEO Anousheh Ansari said in a statement. "Xprize Rapid COVID Testing is inspiring the best entrepreneurial and scientific teams to come together to work towards rapid, affordable COVID-19 testing at scale, and ultimately, getting the world up and running again."

Xprize is asking teams to register for the competition by the end of August. Brendan Morrow

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