A compelling link between severe COVID and immune system response

https://mailchi.mp/45f15de483b9/the-weekly-gist-october-9-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

Help for your immune system.

One of the most perplexing elements of the novel coronavirus is its variability. It’s common knowledge that while many infected people will experience mild symptoms, those who are older, male and have underlying chronic disease are at much higher risk of severe disease and death.

Two recent papers published in Science provide some of the most compelling evidence behind the impaired immune response seen in severely affected patients—and a potential link to the gender disparities in outcomes.

Both papers are centered on the role of Type I interferon, an immune protein that provides a first line of defense in viral illness.

The first study analyzed the DNA of over 650 patients with severe COVID to assess mutations in the genes that code for interferon-1. Some 3.5 percent of patients with life-threatening COVID carried mutations, but these were found in none of the control patients who only had mild disease.

The second paper evaluated the presence of antibodies to the patient’s own interferon, finding that 14 percent of patients with severe disease had these “auto-antibodies”, which are extremely rare in the general population. Interestingly, 12.5 percent of severely ill men had the antibodies, compared to just 2.6 percent of women with severe disease. Previous work linked poor interferon response to the X chromosome, highlighting the potential increased risk for men. 

Taken together, these studies indicate that impaired Type I interferon could contribute to 1 in 7 severe COVID cases. Scientists are hopeful this work could lead to new diagnostics that estimate a patient’s risk of poor outcomes. This growing body of work, with new insights published every week in Science and other journals, underscores the rapid advances being made in understanding and treating this novel and complex disease.

A high-profile reminder of the importance of therapeutics

https://mailchi.mp/45f15de483b9/the-weekly-gist-october-9-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

Stemline Therapeutics Inc (NASDAQ:STML): What's The Other Side Of The  Story? - Market Exclusive

Along with the many political and public health questions raised by President Trump’s recent and very public bout with COVID-19 is the issue of when the public might have access to the same monoclonal antibody therapy that he received from doctors last week.

Having seen the President tout the benefits of Regeneron’s experimental antibody cocktail, COVID patients have reportedly been asking physicians about participating in clinical trials of the therapy, which is only available on a “compassionate use” basis outside of ongoing studies.

On Wednesday, Regeneron announced it had submitted a request to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the treatment, claiming that early data from ongoing trials showed promise in moderating coronavirus symptoms.

Eli Lilly, which is developing a similar antibody therapy, also announced plans to apply for an EUA, saying its drug has shown the ability to reduce hospitalizations among those infected with the virus.

The US government has already paid Regeneron $450M to access up to 300,000 doses of the therapy, and on Friday a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said the government would acquire up to a million doses from Regeneron and Eli Lilly by the end of the year, which it will allocate to hospitals in a similar approach to the way it has distributed Gilead Science’s antiviral drug remdesivir, which the President was also given last week.
 
News on the availability of potentially effective therapies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 is welcome, particularly as the timeline for COVID vaccines appears to be lengthening.

In guidance released this week, the FDA said it would require pharmaceutical companies to submit two months’ worth of data on vaccine safety and efficacy after patients received their final dose, as part of the EUA application process. The data requirement effectively means that, despite repeated promises from the White House, none of the vaccine candidates being developed will be available before the November 3rd Presidential election.

The head of the government’s vaccine program said separately this week that he expects data on vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna to be available by December. As many have predictedit will take months beyond that for a safe and effective vaccine to be distributed and administered to a majority of Americans.

Challenges will abound: ensuring sufficient manufacturing capacity, managing a complex supply chain, setting up specialized distribution and vaccination centers, and tracking those vaccinated (especially if two shots will be required). A massive public education campaign will also be needed to overcome vaccine hesitancy and ensure widespread immunization. And all of that will take time, and money. 

President Trump’s recent and unfortunate illness underscores the importance of paying equal attention to the development of therapies and treatments—which are essentially a holding maneuver to get us through the coming winter and spring, and eventually to the promise of immunity that lies beyond.

Medical ethics in pandemic times

https://www.axios.com/medical-ethics-clinical-trials-pandemic-eb77f819-76f1-45b0-af8a-cf181bc1607b.html

The Importance of Medical Ethics | Medical Ethics – theMSAG

The COVID-19 pandemic is rife with scientific and medical uncertainty, including debates about the ethics of using experimental treatments.

The big picture: As the global pandemic continues, the tension between providing the best available care for patients and performing trials to determine whether that care is effective risks complicating the medical response.

The big question: Is it unethical to withhold a possible treatment from someone who instead receives a placebo, or to continue to administer that treatment without having collected data on whether it works?

Driving the news: President Trump received an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail via expanded access or “compassionate use,” which allows someone to access a treatment outside of a clinical trial before it is approved, provided their doctor, the drug company and the FDA agree.

  • Experts say his subsequent claims of the treatment being a cure risks reducing enrollment in clinical trials, flooding companies with requests for access to a limited number of doses and creating false hope for patients.
  • And the president’s treatment raised questions about fairness — would other COVID-19 patients have similar access?
  • “It’s important that we not say the president got access to a beneficial experimental intervention because we don’t know if it is beneficial or if there are adverse events associated with it, says Alex John London, director of the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. 

He and other ethicists say the president’s treatment highlights a broader question about the ethical obligation doctors have to the science needed to determine if those treatments are effective.

Between the lines: Offering patients experimental COVID-19 drugs via emergency use authorizations, expanded access programs and compassionate use can slow needed clinical trials.

  • Researchers have struggled to enroll people in clinical trials in which they may receive a placebo if patients can access a drug directly.
  • One example: “There’s been some hiccups with the expanded access use for convalescent plasma, because it was something that precluded people from enrolling in a randomized control trial, so it took longer, and we still don’t quite know how well convalescent plasma works,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

More than 100,000 COVID-19 patients at almost 2,800 U.S. hospitals received convalescent plasma from people who survived the virus and developed antibodies to it.

  • “It’s easy for people to say you enrolled 100,000 people, there should have been a trial. But a small number of those 2,800 hospitals would have been capable of doing those trials,” says the Mayo Clinic’s Michael Joyner, who leads the program.
  • There are now smaller trials taking place to answer questions about the effectiveness of plasma in treating the disease in different stages.
  • But if this happens again, Joyner says programs at academic medical centers should be peeled off earlier to form clinical trials run in parallel.

The gold standard for determining whether a treatment works is through randomized controlled trials in which people are randomly assigned to receive a treatment or to be in a control group.

  • In the uncertainty and urgency of a pandemic, some physicians argue randomizing people to receive a placebo goes against physicians’ ethics and that it is better to do something to help patients than do nothing.
  • “That’s a false dichotomy because the question is, what should we do?” says London.

From a doctor’s perspectiveit’s important to weigh the collective value of theearly drug data and the individual needs of the patient, Adalja says.

  • “I do think you have to be extra careful when you’re thinking about drugs that you don’t have strong randomized control trial data for, or the data is incomplete or inconclusive,” he adds.
  • “What people have to ask themselves is what constitutes evidence or proof and where do you want to make the bets in a pandemic?” says Joyner.
  • “There is a moral, legal and public health obligation to do those trials before people use those products,” says Alison Bateman-House, a professor of medical ethics at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine who co-chairs an international working group on pre-approval access to treatments.
  • She says she understands the emotional pull on doctors to help patients whose health is quickly deteriorating, “but it is not evidence-based medicine.”

“There is no ethical obligation to give anyone an unproven substance.”

Alison Bateman-House, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

In a forthcoming paper, London argues that when medical professionals don’t have the knowledge they need to treat patients, it is their responsibility “to band together and run studies to get evidence to discharge [their] very ancient medical obligation.”

  • Medical ethics should be updated to include a responsibility to learn in the face of uncertainty, says London, who was part of a committee that called for research to be incorporated into the response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.
  • The U.K.’s large randomized RECOVERY trial is based in part on the Ebola experience, says London. “Because of it, we know dexamethasone is effective and hydroxychloroquine is not.”

What to watch: How the FDA’s handling of treatments during the pandemic influences other drugs and diseases once the pandemic ends.

The bottom line: “Medicine doesn’t have a good handle on uncertainty, and that is a problem,” says London.

Six reasons to be optimistic amid COVID-19

Six reasons to be optimistic amid COVID-19

Being more optimistic lowers the risk of CVD and early death: JAMA

Although COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising, there is also some positive news on the horizon, according to Joseph Allen of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In a July 14, 2020 Washington Post op-ed, Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings program, wrote that progress is being made in treatments, testing, and vaccines, and that there’s growing agreement about ways to curb the spread of infection.

Among positive developments, Allen cited:

  • Therapeutic treatments, such as cloned antibodies, are showing to be effective both to treat and prevent COVID-19.
  • Rapid, low-cost saliva tests for COVID-19 are being developed and could be a game-changer.
  • Universal mask-wearing is catching on.
  • Consensus has emerged that airborne spread of the coronavirus is happening, and the World Health Organization and other organizations are now recommending the use of healthy building strategies such as higher ventilation, better filtration, and the use of air-cleaning devices.
  • Several studies suggest that past exposure to common-cold coronaviruses may help protect some people from COVID-19 infection.
  • Vaccine trials seem to be working and drug makers have said they may be able to deliver doses as early as October.

“For the first time in history, nearly every scientist in the world is focused on the same problem,” Allen wrote. “This is starting to pay real dividends.”

Read Joseph Allen’s Washington Post op-ed: Need some good news about covid-19? Here are six reasons for optimism.

 

 

 

 

The state of the global race for a coronavirus vaccine

https://www.axios.com/race-for-coronavirus-vaccine-us-china-oxford-eace8d13-59b6-404f-9dd9-569d00e01f58.html

The state of the global race for a coronavirus vaccine - Axios

Vaccines from the U.K., U.S. and China are sprinting ahead in a global race that involves at least 197 vaccine candidates and is producing geopolitical clashes even as it promises a possible pandemic escape route.

Driving the news: The first two candidates to reach phase three trials — one from the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, the other from China — both appear safe and produce immune responses, according to preliminary results published today in The Lancet.

  • A vaccine from Moderna, the U.S. biotech firm, is heading into phase three trials after similarly encouraging initial results.
  • There are at least 16 other vaccines currently in clinical trials in Australia, France, Germany, India, Russia, South Korea, the U.K., the U.S. and China, which is experimenting with a variety of vaccine types and has five candidates already in trials.

What they’re saying: Experts are increasingly confident that it’s no longer a question of if but when vaccines will be available.

  • “Absolutely, for sure, we will get more than one vaccine,” Barry Bloom, a professor of public health at Harvard, told reporters today.
  • He cautioned that it’s not yet clear which vaccines will win the race and that we won’t know how effective they are in protecting against COVID-19 — and for how long — until after phase three trials.

Pressed on when a vaccine could be approved, Bloom said that while it seemed “utterly crazy seven months ago,” January was looking increasingly realistic.

  • Richard Horton, The Lancet‘s editor-in-chief, is more cautious: “If we have a vaccine by the end of 2021, we will have done incredibly well.”
  • Zeke Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, splits the difference: “Seven months after we got the genome, to have three vaccines in phase three is literally unprecedented. If in six to eight months we get a license, that will be, again, totally unprecedented in world history.”

But, but, but: “Getting something approved doesn’t protect you from COVID,” Emanuel warns.

  • The challenges of producing, distributing and delivering a vaccine (particularly in two doses, as the Oxford vaccine requires) around the entire world are hard to even fathom.
  • Even distributing a vaccine in one country will require an unprecedented buildup of facilities, materials (like glass vials), personnel and protocols, assuming enough people are even willing to take it.

Illustration of syringe in the earth

The global picture is even murkier. Several countries and pharmaceutical companies have committed to “fair and equitable” distribution.

  • In principle, that would suggest a vulnerable front-line worker in Uganda, say, should get the vaccine before a young, healthy person in the United States.
  • In practice, well … no one really knows.

The bottom line: “It’s very fragmented, and in some ways that’s understandable,” Horton says. “But the danger of that is that many countries will lose out and only the strongest country, the country with the most money, will win.”

  • If countries hoard supplies rather than prioritizing at-risk people elsewhere, Bloom says, “that should be a cause not just of global concern but of global shame.”

For now, governments are prioritizing their own populations.

  • The Trump administration is pouring at least $3.5 billion into the development and manufacture of three leading vaccine candidates, with the promise of hundreds of millions of doses should they prove safe and effective.
  • Even as the homegrown Oxford vaccine takes a global lead, the U.K. is hedging its bets by purchasing 90 million doses being developed by German and French companies.
  • The U.K. and U.S. have both also put in large pre-orders of the Oxford vaccine, though AstraZeneca says 1 billion doses will also be manufactured in India and distributed mainly to other low- and middle-income countries.
  • The WHO and EU are attempting to create a framework for distributing the vaccine globally, though the U.S. has declined to take part.

Illustration of syringes forming a health plus/cross

What to watch: Managing the largest vaccination project in history will clearly require global collaboration — but it’s also becoming a competition between rival powers.

  • Six months from now, we will be in a situation where a few countries will have vaccines, and we believe those countries will be the UK, Russia, China and the US,” Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, told the FT.

Between the lines: Others are less certain Russia will be in that group, though Dmitriev says a vaccine bankrolled by his fund and developed by the state-run Gamaleya Institute will move into phase three trials next month.

“Basically other countries will decide, you know, which vaccine to buy … and who do you trust?”

— Kirill Dmitriev

State of play: There’s a clear lack of trust among the competitors.

  • According to the U.S, U.K. and Canada, hackers linked to Russian military intelligence have attempted to steal vaccine research in order to aid their own efforts.
  • The U.S. has also accused China of pilfering American research.
  • House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy will introduce a bill on Tuesday that would sanction foreign hackers attempting to steal U.S. vaccine research, according to a copy of the bill obtained by Axios’ Alayna Treene.

Zoom out: It will be a victory for humanity when the first coronavirus vaccines are approved. But the competition to obtain one early goes beyond national pride.

  • Vaccines will save countless lives, drive economic recoveries, and could provide rare opportunities to generate goodwill and influence abroad.
  • “There’s a huge soft power advantage to the U.S. ensuring that other countries can get the vaccine and protect themselves,” Emanuel says. The same would, of course, be true for China.

The bottom line: The race is on, but it won’t end when the first vaccine is approved.

 

 

 

We’re still in the early stages of the vaccine race

https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-vitals-a91eb4fb-e10d-46cf-b919-96e1e6e08b22.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

Oxford and CanSino released coronavirus vaccine data. It's still ...

New clinical trial data from two experimental coronavirus vaccines — one from Oxford University and AstraZeneca in the U.K., and the other from CanSino Biologics in China — are providing cautious optimism in the race to combat the pandemic, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

The big picture: Science has never moved this fast to develop a vaccine. And researchers are still several months away from a clearer idea of whether the leading candidates help people generate robust immune responses to this virus.

Driving the news: The Oxford and CanSino vaccines didn’t lead to any severe adverse reactions or hospitalizations, according to the results released yesterday.

  • Safety — not efficacy — was the main thing these studies were supposed to be testing. And they performed well enough to move on to further trials.
  • Competing candidates from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have also performed well in safety trials.

Yes, but: Future trials will be the ones that tell us whether any of these potential vaccines actually trigger patients’ immune systems to respond to the virus.

  • In the results released yesterday, Oxford researchers gave their vaccine to 543 people but only tested 35 for “neutralizing antibodies.” A separate, nonrandomized group of 10 people got a booster dose of the Oxford vaccine a month after the initial dose.
  • Preliminary antibody responses from CanSino’s vaccine were “disappointing” to several experts.

The bottom line: There are 23 coronavirus vaccines in clinical testing right now, according to the World Health Organization.

  • We now have data on the first four, but the studies mostly are confirming that the vaccines aren’t severely harmful and that large-scale studies are warranted — not that they definitely work yet.
  • “It is good and hopeful news indeed, but we’ll only know when the large trials are done,” tweeted Robert Califf, a former FDA commissioner under President Obama.

 

 

 

A coronavirus vaccine: Where does it stand?

https://www.politifact.com/article/2020/jul/13/coronavirus-vaccine-where-does-it-stand/?fbclid=IwAR3hk04P0N3AuJXsKCr_JqV8vu0qZ6njsHE3if6xX6E2AxsllV1m81LjtX4

Coronavirus vaccines get a biotech boost

IF YOUR TIME IS SHORT

Scientists are expressing cautious optimism that a vaccine can be ready to go by the late spring of 2021, although it’s unclear how much longer it would take to distribute the vaccine widely.

Two possible vaccines are in phase 3 clinical trials; once those trials are completed, they would be candidates for approval. Another eight vaccines have begun phase 2 trials. And more than 100 other vaccines that haven’t begun clinical trials are in the pipeline.

• The Food and Drug Administration recently produced guidelines for the minimum effectiveness of vaccines seeking the agency’s approval. Vaccine officials say these guidelines are important to ensure public confidence in vaccines.

 

More than four months into the coronavirus pandemic, how close is the U.S. and the world to a safe and effective vaccine? Scientists say they see steady progress and are expressing cautious optimism that a vaccine could be ready by spring of 2021.

As of early July, there were roughly 160 vaccine projects under way worldwide, according to the World Health Organization

Generally, a vaccine trial has several phases. In an initial phase, the vaccine is given to 20 to 100 healthy volunteers. The focus in this phase is to make sure the vaccine is safe, and to note any side effects.

In the second phase, there are hundreds of volunteers. In addition to monitoring safety, researchers try to determine whether shots produce an immune-system response.

The third phase involves thousands of patients. This phase continues the goals of the first two, but adds a focus on how effective the vaccine is. This phase also collects data on more unusual negative side effects.

In ordinary circumstances, these phases take years to complete. But for coronavirus, the timeline is being shortened. This has spurred more public-private partnerships and significantly increased funding.

Here’s a rundown of the 13 vaccine candidates that are furthest along in the clinical phases:

Coronavirus vaccines that are the furthest along:

A Coronavirus Vaccine: Where Does It Stand? – Corridor News

The three vaccine candidates that are furthest along are both in phase 3. 

One is being developed by researchers at Oxford University in the U.K. It uses a weakened version of a virus that causes common colds in chimpanzees. Researchers then added proteins, known as antigens, from the novel coronavirus, in the hope that these could prime the human immune system to fight the virus once it encounters it.

Another candidate in a phase 3 trial is being developed in China. It uses a killed, and thus safe, version of the novel coronavirus to spur an immune reaction.

And on July 15, the biotech company Moderna, which is partnering with the National Institutes of Health, announced that it would be moving to phase 3 within two weeks.

Two others have made it as far as phase 2, while eight others are finishing their phase 1 trials while also beginning phase 2 trials.

These candidates are being developed by a mix of corporations and institutions in several countries. These efforts seek to leverage a range of different technologies.

One uses RNA material that provides the instructions for a body to produce the needed antigens itself. This is a relatively untested approach to vaccination, but if it works, it has aspects that could make it easier to manufacture. Another approach is similar, but uses DNA instead of RNA.

One U.S. biotech firm, Novavax, is receiving federal funding to produce a vaccine that uses a lab-made protein to inspire an immune response.

Beyond these, another 10 vaccine candidates are in phase 1 clinical trials, while another 140 haven’t reached the clinical phase yet.

Having so many potential vaccines this far along is impressive, experts say, given the short time scientists have known about the novel coronavirus. 

“Overall, the pace of development and advancement to Phase 3 trials is impressive,” said Matthew B. Laurens, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health. “The public-private partnerships have been highly successful and are achieving goals for rapid vaccine development.”

In addition, the fact that several types of vaccine approaches are being tested means we aren’t putting all of our eggs in one basket.

“We will need several candidates should any one of these experience difficulties in manufacturing or show a safety signal when implemented in larger numbers of people,” Laurens said.

Meanwhile, at a time of rising public skepticism of government and vaccines, the Food and Drug Administration recently released additional guidelines on vaccine effectiveness. The new guidance requires vaccines to prevent or decrease the severity of the disease at least 50% of the time if they are to win the agency’s approval.

The FDA guidelines “reaffirmed the very rigorous FDA process for approving any vaccine. That gives a great deal of reassurance that this was going to be handled by the book,” said William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “The more we talk about doing things fast, the more the public thinks, ‘They’re probably cutting corners.’”

How fast will we have access to a workable vaccine?

In early April, Kathleen M. Neuzil, director of the University of Maryland’s vaccine center, told PolitiFact that if all went well, there might be five or six vaccines in trials within six months. Now, three and a half months later, there are two to three times that number.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other officials have remained consistent in their estimation of the timeline: 12 to 18 months from the start of the pandemic, or roughly the late spring of 2021.

Schaffner told PolitiFact that he continues to see the first quarter of 2021 as a reasonable target. “I think that’s where the needle is pointing,” he said.

It remains to be seen how fast vaccines can be manufactured and distributed once approved for general use. Officials are also grappling with which Americans will get access first. So it’s unclear how long a person would have to wait to get vaccinated.

Laurens said he is not overly concerned about the distribution, because that is something that officials have long experience with. “Well-established programs exist for vaccine distribution, including for seasonal vaccination of large numbers of individuals,” he said.

Another hopeful sign, Schaffner said, is that the coronavirus itself seems to be relatively stable. There had been concern that the novel coronavirus, like many other viruses, is mutating over time. If the virus changes enough, that could become a problem that bedevils vaccine researchers.

But so far, that hasn’t happened. Even if evidence emerges that mutations are making the virus more transmissible, or that a new variant is making people sicker, that shouldn’t affect the vaccine process. “The central core of the virus would remain the same,” Schaffner said.

During the past month, there has been relatively little news about how much progress is being made on particular vaccines. Schaffner is not worried by the relative quiet.

“In a vaccine trial, if there’s an adverse safety finding, the guillotine comes down and that trial is stopped,” he said. “So quiet is good, because we’d know if something bad happens.”

 

 

 

Op-Ed: We Still Don’t Know the Risk Posed by COVID-19

https://www.medpagetoday.com/infectiousdisease/covid19/87629?xid=fb_o&trw=no&fbclid=IwAR2V6CbOCIXDf2K9sJCcRb0PhbqM4inXixe_poOFYudOcoUFZCmU2JzyrDg

Op-Ed: We Still Don't Know the Risk Posed by COVID-19 | MedPage Today

The need for a coordinated national research strategy

Confused about the risks of dying from the coronavirus or of catching it from someone who seems healthy? We all are, and the dizzying differences in scientific opinion are now linked to political perspectives. Progressives cite evidence that loosening restrictions would cost lives and offer little benefit to the economy, while conservatives embrace evidence that the risks are low. We offer a guide to help navigate the tangle of numbers and suggest a way forward.

Google and many others display the number of cases and deaths (3.6 million and 138,840, respectively, by July 17). This invites a simple calculation for understanding the risk: divide the number who have died by the number who have been diagnosed. So, the chance of dying if infected is about 3.9%. Right? Well, not so fast. Six months into the pandemic, neither the number of deaths nor the number of people infected is known.

Some argue that deaths have been overemphasized since people who die of COVID are mostly older and sicker. Others suggest deaths have been overcounted since if a patient tests positive for COVID-19, it will likely be listed as the cause of death even if the person succumbs to another illness or, in some jurisdictions, dies due to an accident or suicide. Others argue that deaths have been undercounted.

Missing from the tally on any given day are those who died before testing was available, those who died shortly before or after but whose death has not yet been reported, or who died as an indirect result of the epidemic such as failing to seek medical care for fear of going to the hospital.

One carefully designed recent analysis compared deaths this year to the number of people who die during a “normal” year. The analysis concluded that through May, almost 100,000 people died from COVID-19 in addition to 30,000 who died from other causes related to the pandemic.

In short, uncertainty remains about the number of deaths due to COVID-19, which is supposed to be the easy part.

Estimating the number of people who have been infected is harder still. Most infected people are never formally diagnosed and never become one of the “cases” in the news. The limitations of the tests and the difficulty of attracting a representative population to be tested make it hard to estimate the true number of infections. The preferred test (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction-based tests) uses RNA technology to see if the virus is present in nasal or oral swabs. It is a good test, but still may miss infections in up to 30% of cases.

A second type of test uses blood samples to look for an antibody called immunoglobulin (Ig)G that implies the person was previously infected. Based on IgG test results, the CDC assumes that 5% to 8% of the population has been infected. That would mean 24 million Americans have already had COVID-19 or a very similar illness. That is more than 10 times the number of confirmed cases.

The number is consequential: a higher infection rate for the same number of deaths implies that the virus is less deadly.review by a prominent epidemiologist considered 23 population studies with sample sizes of at least 500 people and found the percentage who have positive antibodies ranged from 0.1% to 48% — a 480-fold difference. Although the study was robustly criticized and at odds with highly citedpeer-reviewed research, it has appeared in over 30 news outlets, and the range of estimates allows people to pick a number that justifies their political position.

Contributing to this uncertainty is the FDA decision to, in a hurry to catch up for lost time, temporarily relax its standards for approving tests. Among over 300 antibody tests currently on the market, data on only a handful are publicly available, and some are being recalled.

The other number we need to know is how many people are spreading the infection without knowing it. Estimates are all over the place. Some major employers, including Stanford Healthcare, have systematically tested all of their employees and found very few infected people who do not have symptoms. In contrast, a CDC study of young, healthy adults working on an aircraft carrier found that 20% of those infected reported no symptoms.

So here we are, months into the epidemic without consensus on the basic information about how many people are infected, the risk of death for those infected, or the risk of asymptomatic transmission. In contrast to official agencies that use transparent methods to report the weather or the unemployment rate, trust in our official health statistics agencies has broken down as reports continue to emerge form myriad sources with conflicting methodologies and motivations.

The time has come to activate impartial groups, like the National Academy of Medicine, to build consensus on how to monitor the epidemic. We know the risks are serious. As cases have started to rise, whether or not the number of U.S. deaths is higher or lower than 130,000, the risk of inaction is too high.

We are staying near home, wearing masks, and treating COVID-19 as a serious threat to public health.

 

 

What happens if Covid-19 symptoms don’t go away? Doctors are trying to figure it out.

https://www.vox.com/2020/7/14/21324201/covid-19-long-term-effects-symptoms-treatment

Covid-19 long-term effects: People with persistent symptoms ...

People with long-term Covid-19 complications are meanwhile struggling to get care.

In late March, when Covid-19 was first surging, Jake Suett, a doctor of anesthesiology and intensive care medicine with the National Health Service in Norfolk, England, had seen plenty of patients with the disease — and intubated a few of them.

Then one day, he started to feel unwell, tired, with a sore throat. He pushed through it, continuing to work for five days until he developed a dry cough and fever. “Eventually, I got to the point where I was gasping for air literally doing nothing, lying on my bed.”

At the hospital, his chest X-rays and oxygen levels were normal — except he was gasping for air. After he was sent home, he continued to experience trouble breathing and developed severe cardiac-type chest pain.

Because of a shortage of Covid-19 tests, Suett wasn’t immediately tested; when he was able to get a test, 24 days after he got sick, it came back negative. PCR tests, which are most commonly used, can only detect acute infections, and because of testing shortages, not everyone has been able to get a test when they need one.

It’s now been 14 weeks since Suett’s presumed infection and he still has symptoms, including trouble concentrating, known as brain fog. (One recent study in Spain found that a majority of 841 hospitalized Covid-19 patients had neurological symptoms, including headaches and seizures.) “I don’t know what my future holds anymore,” Suett says.

Some doctors have dismissed some of his ongoing symptoms. One doctor suggested his intense breathing difficulties might be related to anxiety. “I found that really surprising,” Suett says. “As a doctor, I wanted to tell people, ‘Maybe we’re missing something here.’” He’s concerned not just for himself, but that many Covid-19 survivors with long-term symptoms aren’t being acknowledged or treated.

Suett says that even if the proportion of people who don’t eventually fully recover is small, there’s still a significant population who will need long-term care — and they’re having trouble getting it. “It’s a huge, unreported problem, and it’s crazy no one is shouting this from rooftops.”

In the US, a number of specialized centers are popping up at hospitals to help treat — and study — ongoing Covid-19 symptoms. The most successful draw on existing post-ICU protocols and a wide range of experts, from pulmonologists to psychiatrists. Yet even as care improves, patients are also running into familiar challenges in finding treatment: accessing and being able to pay for it.

What’s causing these long-term symptoms?

Scientists are still learning about the many ways the virus that causes Covid-19 impacts the body — both during initial infection and as symptoms persist.

One of the researchers studying them is Michael Peluso, a clinical fellow in infectious diseases at the University of California San Francisco, who is currently enrolling Covid-19 patients in San Francisco in a two-year study to study the disease’s long-term effects. The goal is to better understand what symptoms people are developing, how long they last, and eventually, the mechanisms that cause them. This could help scientists answer questions like how antibodies and immune cells called T-cells respond to the virus, and how different individuals might have different immune responses, leading to longer or shorter recovery times.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, “the assumption was that people would get better, and then it was over,” Peluso says. “But we know from lots of other viral infections that there is almost always a subset of people who experience longer-term consequences.” He explains these can be due to damage to the body during the initial illness, the result of lingering viral infection, or because of complex immunological responses that occur after the initial disease.

“People sick enough to be hospitalized are likely to experience prolonged recovery, but with Covid-19, we’re seeing tremendous variability,” he says. It’s not necessarily just the sickest patients who experience long-term symptoms, but often people who weren’t even initially hospitalized.

That’s why long-term studies of large numbers of Covid-19 patients are so important, Peluso says. Once researchers can find what might be causing long-term symptoms, they can start targeting treatments to help people feel better. “I hope that a few months from now, we’ll have a sense if there is a biological target for managing some of these long-term symptoms.”

Lekshmi Santhosh, a physician lead and founder of the new post-Covid OPTIMAL Clinic at UCSF, says many of her patients are reporting the same kinds of problems. “The majority of patients have either persistent shortness of breath and/or fatigue for weeks to months,” she says.

Additionally, Timothy Henrich, a virologist and viral immunologist at UCSF who is also a principal investigator in the study, says that getting better at managing the initial illness may also help. “More effective acute treatments may also help reduce severity and duration of post-infectious symptoms.”

In the meantime, doctors can already help patients by treating some of their lingering symptoms. But the first step, Peluso explains, is not dismissing them. “It is important that patients know — and that doctors send the message — that they can help manage these symptoms, even if they are incompletely understood,” he says. “It sounds like many people may not be being told that.”

Long-term symptoms, long-term consequences

Even though we have a lot to learn about the specific damage Covid-19 can cause, doctors already know quite a bit about recovery from other viruses: namely, how complex and challenging a task long-term recovery from any serious infection can be for many patients.

Generally, it’s common for patients who have been hospitalized, intubated, or ventilated — as is common with severe Covid-19 — to have a long recovery. Being bed-bound can cause muscle weakness, known as deconditioning, which can result in prolonged shortness of breath. After a severe illness, many people also experience anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

A stay in the ICU not uncommonly leads to delirium, a serious mental disorder sometimes resulting in confused thinking, hallucinations, and reduced awareness of surroundings. But Covid-19 has created a “delirium factory,” says Santhosh at UCSF. This is because the illness has meant long hospital stays, interactions only with staff in full PPE, and the absence of family or other visitors.

Theodore Iwashyna, an ICU physician-scientist at the University of Michigan and VA Ann Arbor, is involved with the CAIRO Network, a group of 40 post-intensive care clinics on four continents. In general, after patients are discharged from ICUs, he says, “about half of people have some substantial new disability, and half will never get back to work. Maybe a third of people will have some degree of cognitive impairment. And a third have emotional problems.” And it’s common for them to have difficulty getting care for their ongoing symptoms after being discharged.

In working with Covid-19 patients, says Santhosh, she tells patients, “We believe you … and we are going to work on the mind and body together.”

Yet it’s currently impossible to predict who will have long-lasting symptoms from Covid-19. “People who are older and frailer with more comorbidities are more likely to have longer physical recovery. However, I’ve seen a lot of young people be really, really sick,” Santhosh says. “They will have a long tail of recovery too.”

Who can access care?

At the new OPTIMAL Clinic at UCSF, doctors are seeing patients who were hospitalized for Covid-19 at the UCSF health system, as well as taking referrals of other patients with persistent pulmonary symptoms. For ongoing cough and chest tightness, the clinic is providing inhalers, as well as pulmonary rehabilitation, including gradual aerobic exercise with oxygen monitoring. They’re also connecting patients with mental health resources.

“Normalizing those symptoms, as well as plugging people into mental health care, is really critical,” says Santhosh, who is also the physician lead and founder of the clinic. “I want people to know this is real. It’s not ‘in their heads.’”

Neeta Thakur, a pulmonary specialist at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center who has been providing care for Covid-19 patients in the ICU, just opened a similar outpatient clinic for post-Covid care. Thakur has also arranged a multidisciplinary approach, including occupational and physical therapy, as well as expedited referrals to neurology colleagues for rehabilitation for the muscles and nerves that can often be compressed when patients are prone for long periods in the ICU. But she’s most concerned by the cognitive impairments she’s seeing, especially as she’s dealing with a lot of younger patients.

These California centers join new post-Covid-19 clinics in major cities across the country, including Mount Sinai in New York and National Jewish Health Hospital in Denver. As more and more hospitals begin to focus on post-Covid care, Iwashyna suggests patients try to seek treatment where they were hospitalized, if possible, because of the difficulty in transferring sufficient medical records.

Santosh recommends that patients with persistent symptoms call their closest hospital, or nearest academic medical center’s pulmonary division, and ask if they can participate in any clinical trials. Many of the new clinics are enrolling patients in studies to try to better understand the long-term consequences of the disease. Fortunately, treatment associated with research is often free, and sometimes also offers financial incentives to participants.

But otherwise, one of the biggest challenges in post-Covid-19 treatment is — like so much of American health care — being able to pay for it.

Outside of clinical trials, cost can be a barrier to treatment. It can be tricky to get insurance to cover long-term care, Iwashyna notes. After being discharged from an ICU, he says, “Recovery depends on [patients’] social support, and how broke they are afterward.” Many struggle to cover the costs of treatment. “Our patient population is all underinsured,” says Thakur, noting that her hospital works with patients to try to help cover costs.

Lasting health impacts can also affect a person’s ability to go back to work. In Iwashyna’s experience, many patients quickly run through their guaranteed 12 weeks of leave under the Family Medical and Leave Act, which isn’t required to be paid. Eve Leckie, a 39-year-old ICU nurse in New Hampshire, came down with Covid-19 on March 15. Since then, Leckie has experienced symptom relapses and still can’t even get a drink of water without help.

“I’m typing this to you from my bed, because I’m too short of breath today to get out,” they say. “This could disable me for the rest of my life, and I have no idea how much that would cost, or at what point I will lose my insurance, since it’s dependent on my employment, and I’m incapable of working.” Leckie was the sole wage earner for their five children, and was facing eviction when their partner “essentially rescued us,” allowing them to move in.

These long-term burdens are not being felt equally. At Thakur’s hospital in San Francisco, “The population [admitted] here is younger and Latinx, a disparity which reflects who gets exposed,” she says. She worries that during the pandemic, “social and structural determinants of health will just widen disparities across the board.” People of color have been disproportionately affected by the virus, in part because they are less likely to be able to work from home.

Black people are also more likely to be hospitalized if they get Covid-19, both because of higher rates of preexisting conditions — which are the result of structural inequality — and because of lack of access to health care.

“If you are more likely to be exposed because of your job, and likely to seek care later because of fear of cost, or needing to work, you’re more likely to have severe disease,” Thakur says. “As a result, you’re more likely to have long-term consequences. Depending on what that looks like, your ability to work and economic opportunities will be hindered. It’s a very striking example of how social determinants of health can really impact someone over their lifetime.”

If policies don’t support people with persistent symptoms in getting the care they need, ongoing Covid-19 challenges will deepen what’s already a clear crisis of inequality.

Iwashyna explains that a lot of extended treatment for Covid-19 patients is “going to be about interactions with health care systems that are not well-designed. The correctable problems often involve helping people navigate a horribly fragmented health care system.

“We can fix that, but we’re not going to fix that tomorrow. These patients need help now.”

 

 

 

Coronavirus drugmakers’ latest tactics: Science by press release

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/05/drugmakers-media-coronavirus-303895

Coronavirus drugmakers' latest tactics: Science by press release ...

Pharmaceutical companies are using the media to tout treatments that are still under review.

Vaccine maker Moderna attracted glowing headlines and bullish investors when it revealed that eight participants in a preliminary clinical trial of its coronavirus vaccine had developed antibodies to the virus. The company’s share price jumped nearly 20 percent that day as it released a massive stock offering.

But the full results of the 45-person safety study haven’t been published, even though Moderna began a second, larger trial in late May aimed at determining whether the vaccine works. Several vaccine researchers say the scant public information on the earlier safety study is hard to evaluate because it addresses less than 20 percent of participants.

Call it science by press release — a tactic that pharmaceutical companies are increasingly relying upon to set their experimental coronavirus drugs and vaccines apart in a crowded field, shape public opinion and court regulators. Public health experts say the approach could increase political pressure on federal health officials to green-light drugs and vaccines before it is clear they are safe or effective, with potentially dangerous consequences.

“There’s a long history of pharmaceutical manufacturers putting out self-serving press releases related to clinical trial data that they’re developing that present an overly rosy picture of the data, usually with a boilerplate disclaimer at the end, which is fairly useless,” said Aaron Kesselheim, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies drug regulation and pricing.

There are already signs of hype and political pressure influencing the U.S.’ coronavirus response. The Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine in March without any proof that it was safe or effective for coronavirus patients — but with the backing of President Donald Trump, who had begun touting the treatment during daily White House briefings.

Subsequent studies have found that hydroxychloroquine doesn’t help those with Covid-19 and can cause potentially fatal side effects. And a top government scientist, Rick Bright, filed a whistleblower complaint in May alleging that he was ousted from his job leading the Biomedical Advanced Research Authority after he resisted political pressure to greenlight widespread use of the drug.

“The FDA has remained an unwavering, science-based voice helping to guide the all-of-government response,” agency Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement. “I have never felt any pressure to make decisions, other than the urgency of the situation around COVID-19.”

But observers aren’t so sure. “From the outside looking in, there seems to be more political pressure than ever,” said Marc Scheineson, a former associate commissioner at the FDA and head of the FDA group at Alston & Bird. “The example in the White House is trickling down and there is a lot of pressure on the FDA … to color information on the optimistic side for political purposes and that is a hugely disturbing trend.”

A spokesperson for Moderna, which has received nearly a half billion dollars from the U.S. government and praise from Trump, said the company previewed its vaccine trial results by press release because it was concerned that the data might leak. The National Institutes of Health’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, had hinted at the results in an interview with National Geographic, and data from a trial of the experimental drug remdesivir had leaked in April.

“You had this data moving widely around NIH and the remdesivir leak was also in our minds,” the Moderna spokesperson said.

But Peter Bach, director of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Center for Health Policy and Outcomes, said Moderna’s effort to preview its findings in the press “could be construed as an effort to make sure they are part of the conversation — and it worked on that front.”

Other groups have also previewed their hotly anticipated vaccine studies in the press. In late April, The New York Times revealed that six monkeys given a vaccine developed by researchers at the U.K.’s University of Oxford had stayed healthy for 28 days despite sustained exposure to the coronavirus. The article quoted Vincent Munster, a researcher at the NIH’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory, which conducted the monkey study at the British scientists’ behest.

The Oxford researchers, who signed a deal with AstraZeneca two days later to develop the experimental vaccine, did not publish a formal scientific analysis of the monkey data until mid-May. The study revealed that the noses of vaccinated monkeys and unvaccinated monkeys contained similar levels of coronavirus particles, suggesting that the vaccinated animals could still spread the disease — and the vaccine might not be as effective as the earlier data had hinted.

AstraZeneca has since inked a $1.2 billion deal with the U.S. government to provide 300 million vaccine doses, and a £65.5 million ($80 million) agreement with the U.K. government to supply 30 million doses.

Liz Derow, a spokesperson for Oxford’s Jenner Institute, where the vaccine researchers are based, said they did not give the monkey data to The New York Times. The NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, which operates the Rocky Mountain Laboratory, said it did not provide the data to the newspaper — but one of its researchers, Vincent Munster, spoke to a Times reporter about the monkey findings at the request of the Jenner Institute.

“I was really disturbed by not just Moderna, but the Oxford group as well, presenting a press release without data, without a scientific review, without knowing what the press release was based on,” said Barry Bloom, an immunologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. “And very positively enough to raise the stock price so two days later officials within the company sold their stock and made a whole lot of money, whether or not the vaccine works.”

Four of the pharmaceutical firm’s top executives together saw gains of $29 million from prescheduled sales of shares in the company in the two days following the vaccine announcement. The company has not yet responded to a request for comment on the stock sales.

Neither the Oxford nor Moderna vaccines are available to the public. But some drugs whose safety and efficacy are now being studied have already been repurposed or authorized for emergency use during the pandemic. The rush to release snippets of information on drug trials to the press ahead of full results has left some doctors wondering how to best treat their patients.

After leaked data from a trial of Gilead’s experimental antiviral remdesivir suggested the drug might be the first shown to help coronavirus patients, the company put out a press release in late April teasing results from a larger, government-run study. Hours later, Fauci revealed some findings of the study during an Oval Office press spray.

But the full analysis of the NIAID trial results was not published until three weeks later. Until that point, frontline physicians had no way to know that patients on ventilators did not benefit from remdesivir treatment — meaning that doctors may have inadvertently wasted some of the United States’ limited stock of the drug.

This lack of understanding on how to use remdesivir was evident in a recent survey more than 250 hospitals by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, which found that just 15 percent planned to use their remdesivir doses as described in the FDA’s emergency authorization for the drug.

Andre Kalil, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who led the NIAID trial, told POLITICO that physicians could have patterned their use of remdesivir on the dosages given during the trial.

Others say doctors using experimental treatments should have as much information as possible.

“If we want doctors to make rational medical decisions based on data, then before an authorized product reaches patients, the data should be available to review in some way, not just a press release,” said Walid Gellad, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing.

Kesselheim, too, said that clinical trial data should be made public alongside any emergency authorizations to give physicians “the maximum amount of help they need in figuring out how to prescribe the drug.”

Gilead did not respond to a request for comment. But NIAID said that the urgency of the coronavirus prompted Fauci to share initial results before a full analysis was ready for publication.

Ivan Oransky, a professor of medical journalism at New York University and co-founder of the blog Retraction Watch, which monitors errors and misconduct in scientific research, told POLITICO he fears that the temptation to conduct science by press release will get “worse before it gets better.”

The world is growing more desperate for drugs and vaccines that could bring the coronavirus to heel. And many members of the public and politicians are treating every scrap of scientific information about the pandemic equally, he said — whether data comes from a peer-reviewed study or a company press release.

“There have been mechanisms to review science critically that, given the speed of Covid, have gone out the window,” said Bloom.

And interpreting results of clinical trial data can be difficult under the best of circumstances — especially when that data concerns a virus that was unknown to science until December of last year. When to end a trial and which conclusions to highlight are in many cases a matter of discretion, said Scheineson.

“It’s an art, not a science, in that respect,” he said. “I, for one, will not be the first in line to the new Moderna vaccine.”