Solving COVID
May 4, 2021

Researchers urgently want to know how long the current crop of effective COVID-19 vaccines protect against infection and also would like a quicker and more efficient way to test the efficacy of new vaccines. They are trying to check both of those boxes by studying antibody levels in people already exposed to the new coronavirus.

A study at Oxford University is deliberately exposing previously infected healthy young volunteers to the coronavirus again, using blood tests to learn what level of antibodies will protect people against getting sick again. "It may be not possible to reinfect with an antibody level above a certain amount," lead investigator Helen McShane told NPR News. When researchers find that level of antibodies — or antibody cutoff titer — they can develop blood tests to determine how long vaccines are effective.

A separate study involving the U.S. government's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Moderna is also trying to find the cutoff titer by examining antibodies in people who got COVID-19 symptoms after getting inoculated with Moderna's vaccine. "Because the Moderna vaccine is so very effective, it's taken a very long time to collect enough from the vaccinated individuals who became infected," BARDA's Chris Houchens tells NPR. Now that they have data from enough people, they should soon be able to calculate whether a certain level of antibodies can show that new vaccines are effective without having to test the vaccines on tens of thousands of people. You can listen to NPR's report below. Peter Weber

1:22 p.m.

President Biden announced Monday that the United States will export 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines by the end of June. Those doses are on top of the 60 million doses of the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca already earmarked for export.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has not received authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, so the U.S. wouldn't be able to distribute the doses produced in the country anyway, but the latest development is significant because the other companies' shots are in use domestically.

An anonymous Biden administration official told Bloomberg the measure is only a first step, and, as the vaccination rate plateaus in the U.S., the White House will increasingly turn its attention to helping curb the coronavirus pandemic abroad. The pivot comes as the global discrepancy in vaccinations has become more glaring — many lower-income countries are struggling to secure supplies even as the virus surges in many pockets of the world.

It's not yet clear where exactly the exported vaccines will go, or how the U.S. will decide which countries get them, but White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the criteria should become available soon. One thing Biden did clarify in his comments is that the U.S. won't use vaccines to secure favors from other countries. Read more at Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

6:06 a.m.

GlaxoSmithKline said Monday that a Phase 2 trial of its COVID-19 vaccine, developed with French partner Sanofi, showed a "strong neutralizing antibody response" in adult participates of all age groups and raised no safety issues. "We believe that this vaccine candidate can make a significant contribution to the ongoing fight against COVID-19 and will move to Phase 3 as soon as possible to meet our goal of making it available before the end of the year," said Roger Connor, president of GSK's vaccines program.

The Phase 3 trial, expected to start in the next few weeks, is slated to involve 35,000 adults from a number of countries. The vaccine is based on Sanofi's seasonal flu vaccine, combined with a immunity-boosting adjuvant from GSK. The companies had hoped to seek regulatory approval in the first half of 2021, but pushed back those plans after disappointing results in December. The favorable new findings will help GSK CEO Emma Walmsley stave off pressure from activist investor Elliott Management, which took a large stake in GSK in April, The Guardian reports. Peter Weber

May 13, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off Wednesday on administering Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to children ages 12 to 15, paving the way for vaccinations in this younger cohort to begin as soon as Thursday. President Biden hailed the move "as one more giant step in our fight against the pandemic." The "bottom line" is that the vaccine is "safe, effective, easy, fast, and free" for 12- to 15-year-olds, he said. "So my hope is that parents will take advantage of the vaccine and get their kids vaccinated."

Some states have already lined up vaccination drives for Thursday and Friday in anticipation of the decision, and Biden said 15,000 pharmacies are ready to start vaccinating adolescents as early as Thursday. He said children will be able to get their second Pfizer-BioNTech shot in a different location if they move around in the summer. Vaccinating kids and teens 12 and older is seen as a critical part of the effort to tame the pandemic and get schools fully reopened next fall. The U.S. has about 17 million adolescents age 12 to 15, representing 5.3 percent of the population, the Kaiser Family Foundation says.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky gave the final green light hours after the CDC's independent Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 14-0, with one recusal, to endorse the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents 12 to 15. The Food and Drug Administration had authorized emergency use of the vaccine in that age group on Monday.

Pfizer studied its vaccine in more than 2,200 kids age 12 to 15, and there were zero cases in the half that got the vaccine, versus 16 in the placebo group. Side effects were similar to what adults experience, but the children developed higher antibody levels than adults. At least 127 adolescents have died from COVID-19 this year, and as more adults get vaccinated, the 12-15 age group's share of infections has risen, hitting 9 percent of all cases in April, the CDC says. Peter Weber

May 12, 2021

The U.S. was administering an average of 3.3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses a day in mid-April, and then, to the alarm of public health officials, the numbers started steadily declining, dropping to a seven-day average of 1.98 million doses a day on May 8. Since then, the numbers have started rising again, hitting an average of 2.2 million daily doses administered by Wednesday, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data tabulated by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

Andy Slavitt, a White House COVID-19 adviser, gave the slight uptick a thumbs-up on Tuesday.

About 44.7 percent of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, including 71.6 percent of people 65 and older, the Journal reports, though those numbers vary from state to state. Connecticut, for example, has fully vaccinated 56.3 percent of all adults, while Alabama has vaccinated 33.2 percent. The overall vaccination rate is primed for a bump as adolescents age 12 to 15 become eligible, likely later this week.

The U.S. recorded its fourth straight day of fewer than 40,000 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday — Johns Hopkins University recorded 33,000 new cases, down from Monday's 36,898 cases. The last time the seven-day average of new cases — 38,826 as of Monday, the Journal reports — was that low was back in the mid-September trough between two waves of infections. Another 684 Americans died of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the recorded U.S. pandemic total to 582,800 deaths. Peter Weber

May 11, 2021

Numerous companies have developed combination tests that simultaneously look for influenza and COVID-19, which could be especially useful as the flu potentially makes a return this fall, The New York Times reports.

A "quad test" that can detect COVID-19, two types of influenza, and the respiratory syncytial virus is now available "at thousands of hospitals and clinics around the country," one of a number of similar tests, the Times writes. Though the Times notes that the flu season was "nonexistent" last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Washington in Seattle's Dr. Geoffrey Baird said it could re-emerge in the fall, and combination tests would help determine whether a person has the flu or the coronavirus.

"We in the laboratory are preparing for another big boom in testing," Baird added.

The Times also notes that the Sanford Health system, which includes over 40 South Dakota hospitals, plans to replace its antigen tests with "quad tests," with senior executive director of laboratories Rochelle Odenbrett telling the Times, "It's just amazing how the technology has evolved."

Oxiris Barbot, former New York City health commissioner, wrote in response to the Times' story about combo tests, "This stands to be a game changer for this coming fall's flu season." Read more at The New York Times. Brendan Morrow

May 11, 2021

President Biden on Tuesday announced that Uber and Lyft will offer all Americans free rides to and from COVID-19 vaccination sites beginning on May 24 through July 4, the day Biden has targeted for the U.S. reaching a 70 percent vaccination rate.

While the U.S. vaccine rollout has been swift for the most part over the last few months, demand is dwindling. Some of that is due to general hesitancy, but access is still an issue. The free rides from the ride-sharing companies, Biden said, are aimed at making sure "transportation is less of a barrier."

The president praised the companies' initiative. "I think that's really stepping up," he said. Tim O'Donnell

May 10, 2021

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents age 12 to 15.

Pfizer has said clinical trials show its COVID-19 vaccine to be 100 percent effective in this age group. The vaccine already has been approved for people age 16 and up.

The approval sets the stage for many middle schoolers and young high school students to be vaccinated before the next school year. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must also approve the authorization before vaccinations for the age group can begin. The Week Staff

May 10, 2021

The United States is "turning the corner" on COVID-19, Jeff Zients, President Biden's pandemic coordinator, said on CNN Sunday. Case and death rates are way down as vaccines become increasingly accessible. Rules are relaxing — but what about mask mandates?

As of this writing, 25 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and some cities and counties within the other 25 states still mandate public mask use. Many of those mandates are open-ended, but five states — Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia — have hit upon a metric that could be the political sweet spot.

That metric is 70 percent adult vaccination. It looks a little different in each state. In Michigan, the mask mandate will be lifted two weeks after 70 percent of residents age 16 and older are fully vaccinated. In Minnesota, the mandate ends at 70 percent of Minnesotans 16 and older or July 1, whichever comes first. (It will probably be the vaccination goal.) In Pennsylvania, it's 70 percent of residents 18 and up. In Vermont, it's at least one dose for 60 to 70 percent of all Vermonters and 70 to 85 percent of Vermonters 16 and up. And in West Virginia, it's partial vaccination for 70 percent of residents 16 and older.

This number is a little bit arbitrary from a public health perspective, because there's no firm scientific consensus on how much of the population needs to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity for COVID-19. However, 70 percent is about average for expert estimates on this, and of course it will be supplemented by natural immunity in the millions who already survived the virus.

But politically, the 70 percent metric (especially the single-dose version) is a great idea. It's not my first choice for an endgame, but it's good and should be acceptable even in more cautious blue states and cities. It should allay fears of recklessness while also encouraging vaccination among the casually vaccine hesitant. Polling recently reported by The New York Times showed the ability to go maskless is a strong incentive for vaccination for many Americans — and after last month's pause in distribution of the Johnson & Johnson shot apparently scared many fence-sitters away from vaccination, a strong incentive is what we need. Bonnie Kristian

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