How hiring the wrong medical “expert” derailed US pandemic response

Image of a man speaking from behind a podium.

Enlarge / Scott Atlas, a White House adviser, used his position to advocate for allowing the SARS-CoV-2 virus to spread and tried to block testing for it, which would further that goal. (credit: MANDEL NGAN / Getty Images)

While one congressional committee seems to be grabbing all the headlines recently, other investigations of the Trump administration have continued in the background. One of them is trying to determine how the US’s response to the coronavirus pandemic went so wrong that the country ended up with over a million deaths and one of the worst per-capita death rates in the world. In its own words, the committee’s goal is “to ensure the American people receive a full accounting of what went wrong and to determine what corrective steps are necessary to ensure our nation is better prepared for any future public health crisis.”

In its latest report, released on Tuesday, the committee details the White House career of Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no infectious disease experience. Atlas’ hiring by the White House was expected to be so controversial that he was initially instructed to hide his staff ID from the actual government public health experts. Yet he quickly became a driving force for the adoption of policies that would achieve herd immunity by allowing most of the US population to be infected—even as other officials denied that this was the policy.

How’d this guy get here?

Atlas’ lack of relevant expertise raises questions as to why he was hired in the first place. The new report details that he wasn’t shy about voicing his opinions about the pandemic response, making multiple TV appearances to complain about the policies advocated by actual public health experts. He also directly reached out to a senior government official, calling the US’s response “a massive overreaction” to a virus he estimated “would cause about 10,000 deaths.”

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#birx, #cdc, #covid-19, #donald-trump, #fauci, #pandemic, #policy, #redfield, #science, #scott-atlas

Pfizer warns of “constant waves” of COVID as complacency grows

A woman wears a facemask as she walks by the Pfizer world headquarters in New York on November 9, 2020.

Enlarge / A woman wears a facemask as she walks by the Pfizer world headquarters in New York on November 9, 2020. (credit: Getty | KENA BETANCUR )

Growing complacency about COVID-19 and politicization of the pandemic response will cost lives as the world is hit by new waves of the virus in the coming months, Pfizer’s chief executive has warned.

Albert Bourla said people were growing “tired” of the measures introduced to slow the spread of the virus, while “politicians want to claim victory.” Compliance with authorities’ requests for people to get booster shots would fall even among those who are already vaccinated, he predicted.

This, combined with waning immunity from previous infections and vaccinations, was likely to lead to “constant waves” of COVID variants and deaths, he said.

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#covid-19, #pandemic, #pfizer, #pfizer-biontech, #science, #vaccines

Kids 5 to 11 get FDA OK for COVID-19 booster doses

A boy gives a nurse a high five before receiving a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site for 5-11 year-olds at Eastmonte Park in Altamonte Springs, Florida.

Enlarge / A boy gives a nurse a high five before receiving a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site for 5-11 year-olds at Eastmonte Park in Altamonte Springs, Florida. (credit: Getty | SOPA)

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday authorized booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 through 11, the first booster dose for the age group intended to revive waning immune protection.

The authorization comes as the US continues to see COVID-19 cases rise due to the extremely transmissible omicron coronavirus subvariants, specifically BA.2 and BA.2.12.1, which now account for an estimated 51 percent and 47.5 percent of all reported cases, respectively. Transmission levels are considered high in just over 50 percent of US counties, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The seven-day average of new daily cases is nearly 96,000, up 57 percent in the last two weeks, according to data tracking by The New York Times. Hospitalizations are around 22,000, up 26 percent. Daily deaths are averaging around 300.

But some experts highlight that data on the current omicron-subvariant wave is muted because testing sites have shuttered, and many people are relying on at-home testing results that are largely not reported. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, tweeted over the weekend that the current wave could rival that of the original omicron wave in January. He strongly urged Americans to get vaccinated and boosted and to vaccinate their children.

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#booster, #cdc, #children, #children-5-to-11, #covid-19, #fda, #pandemic, #pfizer-biontech, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccines

Pandemic killed 15M people in first 2 years, WHO excess death study finds

A woman watches white flags on the National Mall on September 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Over 660,000 white flags were installed here to honor Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 epidemic.

Enlarge / A woman watches white flags on the National Mall on September 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Over 660,000 white flags were installed here to honor Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 epidemic. (credit: Getty | Chen Mengtong)

An estimated 14.91 million people worldwide died in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis of global excess deaths released Thursday by the World Health Organization.

The estimate—with a 95 percent confidence interval of 13.3 million to 16.6 million—is significantly larger than the number of reported deaths directly caused by COVID-19 during that time, which was around 5.42 million by official counts. But, estimates of excess death try to capture the true toll of the pandemic—direct and indirect deaths. The estimate is done by comparing the number of deaths that occurred during a time period to those expected to occur in that period based on historical mortality data and modeling. Such modeling also accounts for historical differences, such as fewer traffic and influenza deaths during the pandemic due to movement and health restrictions.

Thus, excess death estimates aim to capture not only reported COVID-19 deaths, but unreported COVID-19 deaths, and deaths indirectly caused by COVID-19. Those can include people dying of preventable, non-COVID conditions because they delayed or avoided health care in fear of becoming infected, or because their healthcare system was overburdened with COVID-19 patients and unable to provide optimal care.

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#covid-19, #excess-deaths, #infectious-disease, #mortality, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #who

Combo COVID booster is the way to go this fall, Moderna data suggests

A tray of prepared syringes for booster vaccinations with Moderna's vaccine.

Enlarge / A tray of prepared syringes for booster vaccinations with Moderna’s vaccine. (credit: Getty | Picture alliance)

A COVID-19 booster targeting two versions of the coronavirus in one shot offered stronger and broader protection than the current booster, which targets only one version, according to clinical trial results released this week by vaccine maker Moderna.

The results are preliminary and have not been peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal. But Moderna touted the findings as evidence that bivalent or multivalent vaccines—those that target two or more versions of the virus in a single shot—are the way forward for COVID-19 boosters.

Moderna and other vaccine makers are on a mission to develop boosters that could restore the once extraordinarily high levels of protection that mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines initially provided, while also protecting against future variants. The first-generation mRNA vaccines were all designed to target the ancestral version of SARS-CoV-2 isolated in Wuhan, China—and they did so quite effectively, showing efficacy against symptomatic disease in the ballpark of 95 percent. But the virus has evolved into variants that can evade vaccine-derived protections. The latest variant, omicron, significantly reduced vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease, though protection against severe disease remains strong. Booster doses of the current vaccine design buoy protection but don’t restore the high levels seen previously. And the virus continues to evolve.

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#beta, #booster, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #delta, #infectious-disease, #moderna, #nih, #omicron, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine

Largest trial to date finds ivermectin is worthless against COVID

A box of Ivermectina medicine manufactured by Vitamedic in Brazil.

Enlarge / A box of Ivermectina medicine manufactured by Vitamedic in Brazil. (credit: Getty | SOPA Images)

The largest clinical trial to date on the use of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin against COVID-19 concluded that the drug is completely ineffective at treating the pandemic disease, according to results published in The New England Journal of Medicine late Wednesday.

The double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial was primarily designed to test if ivermectin could reduce the need for hospitalization among 1,358 COVID-19 patients who were at high risk of severe disease. Ivermectin did not, according to the international team of researchers behind the trial, dubbed TOGETHER. “We did not find a significantly or clinically meaningful lower risk of medical admission to a hospital or prolonged emergency department observation with ivermectin,” the researchers reported.

The folks with TOGETHER also found that the drug failed to reduce all other secondary outcomes of COVID-19, including the time to recovery, time to viral clearance on PCR test, time spent in the hospital, the need for mechanical ventilation, the duration of mechanical ventilation, death, or the time to death. “We found no important effects of treatment with ivermectin on the secondary outcomes,” the researchers wrote.

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#anti-parasitic, #clinical-trial, #covid-19, #fda, #infectious-disease, #ivermectin, #misinformation, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science

Pfizer, Moderna vaccines aren’t the same; study finds antibody differences

A vial of COMIRNATY (Pfizer/BioNTech) and a vial of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

Enlarge / A vial of COMIRNATY (Pfizer/BioNTech) and a vial of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. (credit: Getty | Marcos del Mazo)

The mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have proven highly effective at priming our immune systems to fight the pandemic coronavirus—preventing substantial amounts of infection, severe disease, and death throughout several waves of variants. But, despite their similar design and efficacy, the two vaccines are not exactly the same—and our immune systems don’t respond to them in the same way.

An early hint of this was some real-world data that found startling differences in the effectiveness of the two vaccines, despite both shots performing nearly identically in Phase III clinical trials—95 percent and 94 percent. Amid last year’s delta wave, a Mayo Clinic study found that Pfizer’s effectiveness against infection dipped to 42 percent while Moderna’s only fell to 76 percent.

According to a new study in Science Translational Medicine, such differences might be explained by evidence that the two vaccines spur the immune system to produce slightly different antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

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#antibodies, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #immune-response, #infectious-diseae, #moderna, #pandemic, #pfizer, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccines

Omicron is trouncing the argument for “natural immunity” to COVID

A 13-year-old celebrates getting the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Hartford, Connecticut, on May 13, 2021.

Enlarge / A 13-year-old celebrates getting the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Hartford, Connecticut, on May 13, 2021. (credit: Getty | JOSEPH PREZIOSO )

So-called “natural immunity” against COVID-19 has always been a dodgy argument for avoiding vaccination during the pandemic. But amid omicron, natural immunity is clearly rubbish.

Unvaccinated people who have recovered from an infection with the omicron coronavirus variant are left with paltry levels of neutralizing antibodies against omicron and almost no neutralizing antibodies against any of five other coronavirus variants, including delta. People who were vaccinated before getting an omicron infection, on the other hand, have strong protection against all five variants, and they are among the highest levels of neutralizing antibodies seen against omicron.

That’s all according to a new study surveying neutralizing antibody profiles in people who have all recovered from an omicron infection, with or without pre-existing immunity. The study was published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine by a team of Austrian researchers. The researchers were led by virologist Janine Kimpel of the Medical University of Innsbruck.

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#antibodies, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #immunity, #infectious-disease, #omicron, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #variant

Florida’s latest anti-health political stunt is to cast doubt on kids’ vaccines

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Rosen Shingle Creek on February 24, 2022, in Orlando, Florida.

Enlarge / Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Rosen Shingle Creek on February 24, 2022, in Orlando, Florida. (credit: Getty| Joe Raedle)

Sometimes fighting a common enemy can unite a country, inspiring solidarity, bravery, and sacrifice. Ordinary citizens become heroes; leaders become icons. But sometimes—like in the United States right now—a common enemy wins by exploiting divisions.

As the US faced down a global viral threat two years ago, its people and leaders couldn’t seem more factious and impotent against a shared foe. Most Americans seemed to embrace the evolving consensus of public health experts, heeding advice to follow basic and simple measures, like getting a safe and effective vaccine and wearing a mask. These measures might otherwise seem uncontroversial and like minor inconveniences. A vocal minority of Americans, however, leaned hard in the opposite direction, claiming that joining the fight against a deadly enemy infringed on their freedom—as if the US Constitution enshrined the right to freely spread disease and suffering to family, friends, and fellow Americans.

Two years later, the US has tallied nearly 80 million cases. Nearly 960,000 people—grandparents, parents, siblings, children, infants, precious loved ones all—are dead. Nine hundred and sixty thousand. It’s an unfathomable loss—a toll one might at least hope would stir reconsideration in those not fighting for the greater good. Yet, here we are two years and nearly 1 million deaths later, and many have not changed their positions. Some Americans still deny the devastating realities of the pandemic. Some spread dangerous misinformation, twist facts, and squabble over trivial points as lives hang in the balance.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #desantis, #florida, #infectious-disease, #ladapo, #masks, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #vaccines

Extensive study finds small drop in brain volume after COVID-19

Extensive study finds small drop in brain volume after COVID-19

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

Infection by SARS-CoV-2 causes a dizzying array of symptoms beyond the respiratory distress that is its most notable feature. These range from intestinal distress to blood clots to the loss of smell, and symptoms vary wildly from person to person.

Figuring out exactly what the virus does inside the human body is likely to take years. But we got a bit of data this week from a detailed study of images of the brains of COVID patients. The images were taken before and after the patients were infected. The results suggest some regions of the brain connected to the olfaction system may shrink slightly in the wake of an infection, although the effect is minor and its consequences are unclear.

Hitting the biobank

This is yet another study that relies on the UK’s Biobank. The Biobank lets users of the UK’s National Health Service volunteer to link their medical records to their genetic profiles and provide medical researchers with a resource of large, population-level studies of risk. In this case, a research team largely based in the UK combed the Biobank for people who had had brain scans prior to a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

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Researchers may have ID’ed first deer-to-human SARS-CoV-2 transmission

Researchers may have ID’ed first deer-to-human SARS-CoV-2 transmission

(credit: Photograph by imelda)

One of the more disturbing aspects of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is its ability to readily hop between a variety of species, ranging from domesticated animals like cats and mink to wild deer. This creates a potential risk. While spreading in other animals, the virus can pick up mutations that make it look unfamiliar to the human immune system or evolve to cause a different collection of symptoms.

These risks, however, depend on the virus being able to move back to humans after evolving in a different host. And, so far, the only cases where that’s known to have happened all involve people who have worked on mink farms. But a pre-peer-review manuscript is now indicating that Canadian health authorities have identified an instance where a SARS-CoV-2 variant circulating in deer ended up back in a human patient.

Deer season

In response to findings in the US, where SARS-CoV-2 appears to be widespread in both wild and farmed deer populations, Canadian health authorities decided to initiate screening of their own deer population. During the last two months of 2021, which overlapped with deer hunting season, samples were collected from nearly 300 deer killed by hunters; those were all screened for the presence of SARS-CoV-2.

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#biology, #covid-19, #deer, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #virology

CDC issues new guidance on mask use

Image of a color-coded map of the US.

Enlarge / The new standards place most of the country in a state where mask use is optional. (credit: CDC)

In a widely expected move, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines for the use of masks and other precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. While the precautions people should take—vaccinations and mask use—are largely unchanged, the metrics that will trigger changes in suggested precautions will shift from being focused purely on case counts to including information on the severity of cases and hospital capacity.

The move had been hinted at for weeks, and it comes in response to a wide range of pressures. These include the rapidly falling numbers of new cases following the peak of omicron infections earlier this year, changes made in policies at the state level, and a general fatigue regarding pandemic precautions among the public. During a press call announcing the changes, however, CDC head Rochelle Walensky said the agency had been considering the changes for some time.

What’s new

Walensky announced the changes by saying, “We’re in a stronger place today,” before elaborating that this is because, “with widespread population immunity, the overall risk of severe disease is lower.” Given that situation, the CDC has decided to shift the focus of its advice to cases of severe illness and the strain those put on the health care system.

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As states drop masking, CDC stands by guidance: “We are not there yet”

A masked woman in a business suit gestures while speaking into a microphone.

Enlarge / Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on January 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (credit: Getty | Pool)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is standing by its mask guidance, despite more and more states easing recommendations as the wave of omicron cases continues to recede.

The CDC’s current mask guidance says that people who are up to date on their vaccinations (i.e., vaccinated and boosted if eligible) should wear a mask in indoor public settings in any area that has substantial or high transmission. The agency defines substantial transmission as having between 50 to 99.99 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days. High transmission is having 100 or more new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days.

Currently, 99.1 percent of counties in the entire country have high transmission. Thus, per CDC guidance, nearly the entire country should continue to recommend masking indoors.

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#cdc, #covid-19, #fauci, #infectious-disease, #masks, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #walensky

For T-cells, omicron is nothing unusual

Image of two spherical objects with a set of processes between them.

Enlarge / False-color image of a T-cell (orange) latching on to a cell in preparation for killing it. (credit: Getty Images)

From the start, the omicron variant had people worried because its version of the spike protein carried mutations in many of the sites that are recognized by antibodies. This meant that antibodies generated to combat earlier variants like delta were less likely to recognize the newcomer. These fears have played out in the form of lowered immunity to omicron, along with the failure of some antibody-based therapies.

But all those fears were focused on the immune system’s antibody response; the immune system also produces T-cells that recognize the virus, and it’s not clear how omicron affected their response. Based on two recently published papers, the answer is “not much at all,” which could help explain why the vaccines continue to protect from severe disease.

Those other cells

The T-cell-based immune response works very differently from that of antibody-producing cells. It relies on the fact that all cells chop up a small fraction of the proteins they make. Specialized proteins then grab on to some of the resulting protein fragments and display them on the cell’s surface. Once on the surface, they can be recognized by a receptor on the surface of T-cells.

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Gov’t watchdog slams federal COVID response, puts HHS on “high risk” list

(L-R) Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the President, Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and Dawn O'Connell, assistant HHS secretary for preparedness and response, testify during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on January 11, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

Enlarge / (L-R) Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the President, Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and Dawn O’Connell, assistant HHS secretary for preparedness and response, testify during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on January 11, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (credit: Getty | Pool)

The US Health and Human Service Department has botched multiple aspects of its COVID-19 pandemic response, and those failures can be linked back to long-standing leadership and preparedness deficiencies the department has failed to address for more than a decade, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

“These deficiencies have hindered the nation’s response to the current COVID-19 pandemic and a variety of past threats, including other infectious diseases—such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic, Zika, and Ebola—and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes,” the GAO concluded.

The new report, released Thursday, is the GAO’s ninth assessment of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it lays out a series of deficiencies it found at the HHS. But the GAO also emphasizes that it has been here before with the HHS, which encompasses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), among other components. Since 2007, GAO has given the HHS 115 recommendations for how it can improve its leadership and coordination of public health emergency responses—and the HHS has yet to address 72 of them.

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WHO warns of potential for more variants as omicron subvariant found in US

A man with a loosened necktie stands in front of a logo for the World Health Organization.

Enlarge / World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (credit: Getty | Fabrice Cof)

The head of the World Health Organization on Monday dampened optimism that the pandemic will subside in omicron’s wake, noting that global conditions are still ideal for the emergence of new variants.

“There are different scenarios for how the pandemic could play out and how the acute phase could end,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a WHO executive board meeting Monday. “But it is dangerous to assume that omicron will be the last variant or that we are in the endgame. On the contrary, globally, the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.”

Many US experts and officials have expressed cautious hope that the towering omicron wave could signal the final throes of the pandemic. In this beatific vision, the country will see a lull in transmission after COVID-19 cases peak and decline. With at least 15.8 million people infected just since the start of this year, the ultratransmissible variant is significantly boosting collective immunity across the US, which already has 63 percent of the population fully vaccinated.

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Two cannabinoids have opposing effects on SARS-CoV-2 in culture

Don't try this at home. Seriously. We mean it.

Enlarge / Don’t try this at home. Seriously. We mean it. (credit: Anna Efetova)

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have tested a wide range of drugs to see if they inhibit the virus. Most of these tests didn’t end up going anywhere; even the few drugs that did work typically required concentrations that would be impossible to achieve inside human cells. And a few (looking at you, ivermectin and chloroquine) took off with the public despite iffy evidence for effectiveness, seemingly causing nearly as many problems as they would have solved if they actually worked.

Nevertheless, two years on, word of yet another one of these drug experiments caused a bit of a stir, as the drug in question was a cannabinoid. Now, the full data has gone through peer review, and it looks better than you might expect. But the number of caveats is pretty staggering: the effect is small, it hasn’t been tested in patients, the quality assurance of commercial cannabidiol (CBD) products is nearly nonexistent, and—probably most importantly—another cannabinoid blocks the effect entirely.

With that out of the way, on to the data.

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#biology, #cannabis, #cbd, #covid-19, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science

Supreme Court on vaccine mandates: Hospitals OK, general employment a no

Statuary and facade outside neoclassical federal building.

(credit: Getty Images)

The Biden administration has made vaccine mandates central to its attempts to limit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or at least it has tried to; various states and other organizations have used the courts to challenge the federal government’s authority to impose these mandates. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding two of the most significant mandates: one for all hospital workers issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and a second for all employees of large companies issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

By the time the cases were argued before the Supreme Court, the HHS rule was already blocked by a stay issued by a lower court. By contrast, the OSHA rules had seen a lower court lift earlier stays, leaving it on the verge of enforcement.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued expedited rules that reflected the tone of the questioning the week before. The OSHA rule is now subject to a stay that blocks its implementation, a decision that saw the court’s three liberal justices issue a dissent. The stay against the HHS rules, by contrast, was lifted, but only by a close 5-4 ruling.

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#covid-19, #pandemic, #policy, #public-health, #science, #supreme-court, #vaccine-mandates, #vaccines

Immune system vs. virus: Why omicron had experts worried from the start

Illustration of antibodies responding to an infection of SARS-CoV-2.

Enlarge / Illustration of antibodies responding to an infection of SARS-CoV-2. (credit: Getty Images/Kateryna Kon/Science Photo Library)

Right from omicron’s first description, researchers were concerned about the variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Looking over the list of mutations it carried, scientists could identify a number that would likely make the variant more infectious. Other mutations were even more worrying, as they would likely interfere with the immune system’s ability to recognize the virus, allowing it to pose a risk to those who had been vaccinated or suffered from previous infections.

Buried in the subtext of these worries was a clear implication: Scientists could simply look at the sequence of amino acids in the spike protein of a coronavirus and get a sense of how well the immune system would respond to it.

That knowledge is based on years of studying how the immune system operates, combined with a lot of specific information regarding its interactions with SARS-CoV-2. What follows is a description of these interactions, along with their implications for viral evolution and present and future variants.

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Tracking Facebook connections between parent groups and vaccine misinfo

Tracking Facebook connections between parent groups and vaccine misinfo

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Joe Amon)

Misinformation about the pandemic and the health measures that are effective against SARS-CoV-2 has been a significant problem in the US. It’s led to organized resistance against everything from mask use to vaccines and has undoubtedly ended up killing people.

Plenty of factors have contributed to this surge of misinformation, but social media clearly helps enable its spread. While the companies behind major networks have taken some actions to limit the spread of misinformation, internal documents indicate that a lot more could be done.

Taking more effective action, however, would benefit from more clearly identifying what the problems are. And, to that end, a recent analysis of the network of vaccine misinformation provides information that might be helpful. It finds that most of the worst misinformation sources are probably too small to stand out as being in need of moderation. The analysis also shows that the pandemic has brought mainstream parenting groups noticeably closer to groups devoted to conspiracy theories.

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#computer-science, #medicine, #misinformation, #pandemic, #science, #vaccines

New data on using J&J vaccine to boost itself

Image of injection syringes.

Enlarge (credit: RAJESH JANTILAL / GETTY IMAGES)

Based on various measures, the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has appeared to be less effective than those based on mRNA technology. It has also been associated with some rare blood clotting complications that recently caused the CDC to revise its endorsement of the vaccine. Still, the vaccine is easy to produce, transport, and store, and there have been some indications that it provides longer-lasting protection than some alternatives. And there have also been indications that at least some of the efficacy differences came from its use as a single-dose vaccine.

With all vaccines now expected to include a booster significantly after the initial vaccine dose, we’re starting to get a sense of how the J&J vaccine performs in more than one dose. Early results indicated that a J&J vaccine boosted by an mRNA dose provides a big increase in protective antibodies. But a J&J/J&J combination didn’t look to be as effective.

Recent research preprints, however, may indicate that the protection continues to increase over time, engages non-antibody-producing immune cells, and provides some protection against the omicron variant.

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CDC draws criticism for shorter COVID quarantine, isolation as omicron bears down

Travelers wait in line to check-in at LaGuardia Airport in New York, on December 24, 2021. -On Christmas Eve, airlines, struggling with the Omicron variant of Covid-19, have canceled over 2,000 flights globally, 454 of which are domestic, into or out of the US.

Enlarge / Travelers wait in line to check-in at LaGuardia Airport in New York, on December 24, 2021. -On Christmas Eve, airlines, struggling with the Omicron variant of Covid-19, have canceled over 2,000 flights globally, 454 of which are domestic, into or out of the US. (credit: Getty | YUKI IWAMURA)

As the ultratransmissible omicron coronavirus variant bears down on the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday made a controversial decision to ease COVID-19 isolation and quarantine rules.

The country’s omicron surge has sent graphs of case counts vertical, and is already causing severe strain on health systems, shuttering businesses, and wreaking havoc on holiday travel and festivities. The US is currently averaging over 243,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, near the country’s all-time high of an average just over 250,000 per day set in early January 2021. Still, federal officials and public health experts say this is only the beginning of omicron’s towering wave, which may not peak until next month.

The CDC’s decision Monday is intended to ease the economic burden of the skyrocketing cases and follows an accumulation of data suggesting that infectiousness tends to wane two to three days after the onset of symptoms. However, some public health experts called the new rules “reckless” for not incorporating testing requirements.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-diseases, #infectiousness, #isolation, #omicron, #pandemic, #public-health, #quarantine, #rapid-tests, #science, #testing, #transmission, #variant

Details released on the Trump administration’s pandemic chaos

Image of a man speaking from behind a podium.

Enlarge / Scott Atlas, a White House adviser, used his position to advocate for allowing the SARS-CoV-2 virus to spread and tried to block testing for it, which would further that goal. (credit: MANDEL NGAN / Getty Images)

Over the past few months, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has been investigating the previous administration’s haphazard and sometimes counterproductive response to the pandemic. As testimony was taken and documents were examined, some of the details of the conflicts between politicians and public health would sporadically come out via press releases from subcommittee members. But on Friday the group issued a major report that puts these details all in one place.

The report confirms suspicions about the Trump administration’s attempt to manipulate the public narrative about its response, even as its members tried to undercut public health officials. So, while reading may trigger a sense of “I thought we knew this,” having it all in one place with the evidence to back it up still provides a valuable function.

Sidelining the CDC

In late February of 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to pick up in the US, the CDC held a press conference in which Nancy Messonnier issued stark warnings about the potential for COVID-19 to interfere with life in the US. The subcommittee heard testimony that her somber warning angered then-President Trump and, as a result, the CDC was blocked from holding any further press conferences for over three months, during which time the US experienced its first deadly surge of infections.

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#cdc, #covid-19, #fda, #government, #pandemic, #science, #trump-administration

Vaccine trial finds a glitch with children in one age range

Image of a health worker preparing an injection.

Enlarge (credit: Reshi Irshad / Getty Images)

On Friday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their latest vaccine trial was showing some odd results in children within a specific age range. Children in the 2- to 5-year age group didn’t produce as strong of an antibody response to the vaccine as older and younger children did. As a result, the trial is being modified to include a third dose of vaccine for participants in this age group.

The trial was designed to enroll as many as 4,500 children to test the safety and efficacy of the companies’ messenger RNA vaccine. It included an early test of how well the vaccine was tolerated in different age groups. Based on these results, the companies went ahead with a two-tiered strategy: children from 5 to 11 years of age got two doses of 10 µg; younger children (down to six months in this trial) received two doses of 3 µg.

The trial is ongoing, and both the participants and doctors involved remain blinded to the status of the participants. But blood samples were obtained from some participants one month after the second dose and analyzed by a separate group of researchers who were not blinded as to the vaccine/placebo status of the participants. The analysis they performed showed an unexpected pattern.

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#biology, #covid-19, #immunology, #medicine, #pandemic, #science, #vaccines

After months-long battle, Apple takes the due date off its return-to-office plans

An enormous ring-shaped building on a green campus.

Enlarge / Apple’s global headquarters in Cupertino, California. (credit: Sam Hall/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It’s been a rocky road for Apple’s return-to-office plans. Over the past few months, we’ve reported on numerous stops and starts, but the industry behemoth seems to have come to the hardest stop yet, according to a Bloomberg report.

According to a memo sent to Apple employees by CEO Tim Cook, the company’s return-to-office date (which was last set at February 1 a few weeks ago) has once again been delayed—but this time, it has been delayed to a “date yet to be determined.” Up to this point, previous delays had set a new target. Not so this time.

Cook wrote in the memo that the delay is due to “rising cases in many parts of the world” as well as “the emergence of a new strain of the virus.” He described the change in plans as a delay, though, not a cancellation. Employees will get at least four weeks of notice before a new return-to-office date, he added.

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#apple, #covid-19, #pandemic, #remote-work, #return-to-office, #tech, #tim-cook, #work-from-home

Current vaccines are enough to fight omicron, but massive wave is coming fast

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the President, during the daily press briefing at the White House on December 1, 2021, in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the President, during the daily press briefing at the White House on December 1, 2021, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Anna Moneymaker)

Though booster doses of current vaccines can foil the ultra-transmissible omicron coronavirus variant, a towering wave of omicron cases may peak in the US as soon as January, officials warn.

Scientists are still racing to fully understand the variant, which first gained international attention in late November. But a few things are becoming increasingly clear: The variant spreads stunningly fast, and it can largely circumvent protection from two vaccine doses. However, people who have received a third vaccine dose are well-protected against severe disease.

In a White House press briefing Wednesday, top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci reviewed the early laboratory and real-world data on vaccine effectiveness. Numerous laboratory studies have all shown that levels of neutralizing antibodies from two doses of a vaccine are significantly lower against omicron—potentially so low that they do not protect against the variant. But studies looking at neutralizing antibodies after a third dose consistently find a substantial increase in protection. One study found a 38-fold rise in the level of neutralizing antibodies against omicron after a third dose of an mRNA vaccine.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #delta, #fauci, #infectious-disease, #omicron, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science

Pfizer’s anti-COVID drug still looks effective after further analysis

Scenes like this might become less common if a new SARS-CoV-2 protease inhibitor becomes widely available.

Enlarge / Scenes like this might become less common if a new SARS-CoV-2 protease inhibitor becomes widely available. (credit: Getty Images)

On Monday, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer released more data on its anti-COVID-19 drug, named Paxlovid. The company had released its initial data on the drug in early November, and it looked extremely promising: a drop in hospitalization and death of 89 percent in high-risk patients. But preliminary results like that don’t always hold up, as we saw with a drug from Merck. But there’s good news in this case: Paxlovid appears to be just as effective once more patients and numbers from a second trial are included.

On trial

Paxlovid inhibits a viral protein called a protease, which normally breaks chemical bonds in other viral proteins, converting them into their mature, functional forms. This processing is needed before the virus is able to copy its own genome, so inhibiting the protease should block viral reproduction.

Pfizer started at least two clinical trials with Paxlovid. One involved unvaccinated individuals who are at high risk from COVID-19 due to age or health issues. The second trial involved moderate risks: either unvaccinated individuals with no risk factors, or those who have been vaccinated but are at elevated risk. In both trials, treatments started within days of a confirmed infection.

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#clinical-trial, #covid-19, #medicine, #pandemic, #pfizer, #pharmacology, #science

Missouri tells health depts to “stop enforcing and publicizing” COVID measures

A man in a suit speaks in front of a Neoclassical building.

Enlarge / Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise sharply in Missouri, local health departments are abandoning efforts to stop the spread of the pandemic disease, saying their hands have been tied by the state’s attorney general and a recent court ruling.

One local agency, the Laclede County Health Department, northeast of Springfield, announced that it has ceased all COVID-19 related work, including case investigations, contact tracing, quarantine orders, and public announcements of current cases and deaths.

“While this is a huge concern for our agency, we have no other options but to follow the orders of the Missouri Attorney General at this time,” the department wrote in a Facebook post on December 9.

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#covid-19, #health-departments, #infectious-disease, #isolation, #missouri, #pandemic, #quarantine, #science

Willfully unvaccinated should pay 100% of COVID hospital bills, lawmaker says

People associated with the far-right group America First attend an anti-vaccine protest in front of Pfizer world headquarters on November 13, 2021, in New York City.

Enlarge / People associated with the far-right group America First attend an anti-vaccine protest in front of Pfizer world headquarters on November 13, 2021, in New York City. (credit: Getty | Stephanie Keith)

People who choose to remain unvaccinated and subsequently become severely ill with COVID-19 should be responsible for paying the entirety of their hospital bills out of pocket, according to Illinois Representative Jonathan Carroll.

The Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Northbrook introduced legislation Monday that would amend the state’s insurance code so that accident and health insurance policies in 2023 would no longer cover COVID-19 hospital bills for people who choose to remain unvaccinated. Carroll said the rule would not apply to those with medical conditions that prevent vaccination.

The bill will likely face considerable political and legal opposition. Most notably, federal law prevents insurers from denying coverage or increasing rates based on a change in a person’s health status, such as a new diagnosis of COVID-19.

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#covid-19, #hospitalization, #infectious-disease, #insurance, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #unvaccinated, #vaccine

Omicron suspected in cruise-ship outbreak in New Orleans; 17 cases so far

A cheerfully painted cruise ship towers over a rocky port.

Enlarge / MARSEILLE, FRANCE – 2020/05/25: The Norwegian Getaway cruise ship arrives in Marseille. (credit: Getty | SOPA images)

A Norwegian Cruise Line ship with 3,200 passengers and crew disembarked in New Orleans Sunday amid an onboard COVID-19 outbreak that includes a suspected case of the omicron coronavirus variant. So far, a total of 17 people who were aboard have tested positive.

The news raises concern that the outbreak could continue to grow and put those on land at further risk of the variant. Cruise ships are notorious for harboring outbreaks. At the dawn of the pandemic, several outbreaks at sea demonstrated just how easily the coronavirus can spread in such tightly packed and highly social vessels. And the omicron variant may be the most transmissible variant yet identified. Early data from South Africa suggests it could spread more than twice as quickly as the already hypertransmissible delta variant.

Over the weekend, state, local, and federal health officials worked with Norwegian Cruise Line to put disease-prevention protocols in place as people disembarked from the ship, Norwegian Breakaway. In a media statement Sunday, Norwegian Cruise Line said that everyone who disembarks will be tested. “Any guests who have tested positive for COVID-19 will travel by personal vehicle to their personal residence or self-isolate in accommodations provided by the Company according to CDC guidelines,” the cruise line said.

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#coroanvirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #omicron, #pandemic, #science

2nd US omicron case just traveled to NYC anime convention with 53K attendees

Costumed people attend Anime NYC at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City on November 20, 2021.

Enlarge / Costumed people attend Anime NYC at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City on November 20, 2021. (credit: Getty | Kena Betancur)

US health officials have identified a second case of the omicron coronavirus variant in a Minnesota man, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday. Unlike the first case, the man had not traveled internationally but had recently returned home to Minnesota from an anime convention in New York City attended by 53,000 people.

The case suggests that there is domestic transmission of the worrisome variant and that it has been circulating in the US undetected until now.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health and the CDC, the man is a resident of Hennepin County and traveled to New York City to attend the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Javits Center from November 19 to 21. The man had been vaccinated. He developed mild symptoms on November 22 and sought COVID-19 testing on November 24. He has since recovered from the infection.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #omicron, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #variant

Moderna plans omicron booster for March as Biden unveils winter COVID plan

US President Joe Biden at the White House on December 01, 2021, in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / US President Joe Biden at the White House on December 01, 2021, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Anna Moneymaker)

President Joe Biden will announce plans today to increase protections against COVID-19 this winter as the delta coronavirus variant continues to ravage the country and the worrisome omicron variant looms. Biden will make the announcement this afternoon in remarks during his visit to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The president’s plan includes expanding access to free at-home rapid testing and setting policy to ensure that over-the-counter, at-home tests are covered by health insurance plans. It also tightens health protocols for travel. Starting early next week, every inbound international traveler to the US will need to test negative within one day of their departure, regardless of nationality and vaccination status. The plan also calls for extending mask requirements on airplanes, trains, and public transit into March.

To fight surges in cases from delta and omicron, the administration is assembling over 60 emergency medical response teams to deploy to states in crisis. The administration is also working to secure 13 million doses of antiviral treatments.

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#biden, #booster-doses, #covid, #covid-19, #delta, #infectious-disease, #omicron, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #vaccination, #vaccines

US preps vaccine contingencies amid panic over poorly understood omicron

Two white-haired men in suits speak at a podium.

Enlarge / WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 29: Anthony Fauci (R), Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to the President, speaks alongside US President Joe Biden as he delivers remarks on the Omicron COVID-19 variant following a meeting of the COVID-19 response team at the White House. (credit: Getty | Anna Moneymaker)

Amid global panic over the recently identified omicron coronavirus variant, US President Joe Biden on Monday urged Americans to stay calm and continue following health measures known to be highly effective at combating COVID-19—namely, masking, vaccination, and boosting.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said in remarks delivered from the White House Monday. He touted the power of current vaccines and America’s scientific prowess in being able to address the potential threat. “We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed—not chaos and confusion.”

Flanking Biden during the remarks was top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci. Earlier today, Biden huddled with Dr. Fauci and the rest of the White House COVID-19 Response Team to discuss the threat of omicron. Biden reported that, so far, Fauci and the team believe that current vaccines will “provide at least some protection” against omicron—particularly against severe disease—and that booster doses “strengthen that protection significantly.”

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#cdc, #covid-19, #disease, #infectious-disease, #omicron, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #severity, #transmission, #vaccine, #variant, #who

Why Omicron quickly became a variant of concern

That's a lot of mutations.

Enlarge / That’s a lot of mutations. (credit: Stanford)

On Friday, the World Health Organization officially named a new version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus a variant of concern, and attached the Greek letter omicron to the designation. The Omicron variant is notable for the sheer number of mutations in the spike protein of the virus. While Omicron appears to have started spreading in Africa, it has already appeared in European countries like Belgium and the UK, which are working to limit its spread through surveillance and contact tracing.

As of now, the data on the variant is very limited; we don’t currently know how readily it spreads compared to other variants, nor do we understand the degree of protection against Omicron offered by vaccines or past infections. The new designation, however, will likely help focus resources on studying Omicron’s behavior and tracing its spread.

Many changes

While the Delta variant’s version of spike has nine changes compared to the virus that started the pandemic, Omicron has 30 differences. While many of these haven’t been identified previously, a number of these have been seen in other strains, where they have a variety of effects. These include increasing infectiveness of the virus, as a number of the changes increase the affinity between the spike protein and the protein on human cells that it targets when starting a new infection.

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#biology, #medicine, #omicron, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #virology

Pandemic skyrockets in Europe; COVID is the No. 1 cause of death

North Rhine-Westphalia, Herten: The crew of a Dutch ambulance brings a COVID-19 patient from Rotterdam to St. Elisabeth Hospital in Herten.

Enlarge / North Rhine-Westphalia, Herten: The crew of a Dutch ambulance brings a COVID-19 patient from Rotterdam to St. Elisabeth Hospital in Herten. (credit: Getty | Picture alliance)

Health officials in Europe are pleading for people to adopt more health precautions as the region grapples with its most dramatic surge of COVID-19 cases yet in the pandemic.

Cases have been skyrocketing across the European region since the start of October, with cases rising from around 130,000 per day to the current all-time high of more than 330,000 per day. For the week ending November 21, the region of 53 countries—including the European Union, the United Kingdom, Russia, and several countries in Central Asia—reported 2,427,657 new cases, representing 67 percent of all COVID-19 cases reported globally.

The region also accounted for 57 percent of all COVID-19 deaths worldwide, with 29,465 deaths in the week ending on November 21, according to a weekly report by the World Health Organization. During the week, daily COVID-19 deaths increased to close to 4,200, doubling from 2,100 daily deaths seen at the end of September, the WHO noted.

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#covid-19, #europe, #germany, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #science, #vaccines, #who

Child COVID cases are on the rise, jumping 32% in latest surge

A health care worker prepares to administer Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines at an elementary school vaccination site for children ages 5 to 11.

Enlarge / A health care worker prepares to administer Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines at an elementary school vaccination site for children ages 5 to 11. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Cases of COVID-19 are increasing in children, and they continue to account for an out-sized proportion of infections, according to the latest data compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The fresh data comes at the start of a holiday week and a new surge in cases, worrying experts that the pandemic—and its impact on children—will only worsen as the country heads into the winter months. Travel during this week will likely rival pre-pandemic levels, according to estimates by AAA and the Transportation Security Administration. And many families are anxious to resume holiday traditions and packed family gatherings, in which unvaccinated children are at risk of getting and transmitting the virus.

In the week of November 11 to 18, nearly 142,000 children reported getting COVID-19. That’s an increase of 32 percent from two weeks ago. Overall, cases of COVID-19 in the US have increased 27 percent in the past two weeks.

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#children, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #infection, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #vaccine

Apple employees will return to the office this February, leaked Cook email says

Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Enlarge / Apple CEO Tim Cook. (credit: Chris Foresman)

Few large companies have had a more contentious internal argument over remote work amid the pandemic than Apple, but it is moving ahead with bringing many employees back into physical offices starting in February.

As previously reported by CNBC, Apple CEO Tim Cook, in an email to employees, announced both a new return-to-office date and a revised work-from-home policy for the people who make iPhones, macOS, and many other products.

Cook described the return to the office as a “hybrid work pilot,” with multiple phases and different rules depending on the nature of each employee’s work.

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#apple, #covid-19, #pandemic, #remote-work, #tech, #tim-cook, #work-from-home

Doctors are fighting back against fringe doctors pushing COVID misinformation

Close-up photograph of hand rooting around medicine cabinet.

Enlarge / A box and container of ivermectin. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

More doctors across the country are pushing back against fringe members of the medical community for spreading COVID-19 misinformation and touting unproven treatments.

Over the weekend, nearly 100 physicians in Alaska signed onto a letter urging the state medical board to investigate doctors in the state who have promoted vaccine skepticism and pushed unproven treatments, namely the antiparasitic drug ivermectin and the antimalaria drug hydroxychloroquine.

Merijeanne Moore, a private-practice psychiatrist in Anchorage, told Anchorage Daily News that she wrote the letter in response to an event last month called Alaska Early Treatment Medical Summit. The event featured prominent out-of-state vaccine skeptics as well as at least two Anchorage doctors steeped in vaccine skepticism and misinformation.

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#covid-19, #covid-19-vaccines, #infectious-disease, #ivermectin, #medical-license, #misinformation, #pandemic, #public-health, #science

38% of US adults believe government is faking COVID-19 death toll

A man walks through "In America: Remember," a public art installation commemorating all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19, on the National Mall September 21, 2021, in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / A man walks through “In America: Remember,” a public art installation commemorating all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19, on the National Mall September 21, 2021, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images / Drew Angerer)

From the very beginning, misinformation has plagued the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, undermining efforts to stop the spread of the disease and save lives. New survey data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) spotlights just how monstrous the problem of misinformation is.

Among a nationally representative sample of US adults, 78 percent reported that they had heard at least one of eight common COVID-19 falsehoods and either said the falsehood is true or said they’re not sure if it’s true or false.

The most common falsehood that people marked as true was that “the government is exaggerating the number of COVID-19 deaths.” Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they had heard this falsehood and that it is true. An additional 22 percent said they had heard it but weren’t sure if it is true or false.

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#covid-19, #fox, #infectious-disease, #misinformation, #newsmax, #oan, #pandemic, #public-health, #science

Pfizer says its antiviral pill can cut 89% of COVID hospitalizations and deaths

Pfizer headquarters in Manhattan on November 19, 2020.

Enlarge / Pfizer headquarters in Manhattan on November 19, 2020. (credit: Getty | Anadolu Agency)

An antiviral pill developed by Pfizer reduced COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths by about 89 percent in a trial involving 774 newly infected people at risk of developing severe disease. That’s according to a press release posted Friday by the company; the full data has not yet been released, published, or peer-reviewed.

Still, Pfizer said the results looked promising enough that an independent data-monitoring committee recommended the trial end early. Pfizer said it now plans to submit its data as soon as possible to the Food and Drug Administration for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

Pfizer’s oral antiviral—PF-07321332—is the second drug candidate to generate buzz as an easy-to-use and highly effective COVID-19 treatment. Last month, Merck announced that its oral antiviral treatment, molnupiravir, cut the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 by roughly 50 percent in newly infected, at-risk people. Merck has applied for an EUA, and FDA advisers will review the application on November 30.

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#antiviral, #covid-19, #drug, #drug-development, #infectious-disease, #oral, #pandemic, #pfizer, #public-health, #science

New study suggests SARS-CoV-2 spreading widely within wild deer population

Image of young deer leaping a roadside gulley.

Enlarge (credit: Raymond Gehman / Getty Images)

Earlier this year, researchers found evidence that many wild deer in Michigan had antibodies suggesting that they had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. That’s a significant cause for concern, as a large population of susceptible animals could act as a reservoir that could allow the virus to spread back to humans.

At the time, however, uncertainties abounded. The study looked at only a small sample of the deer population of one state—we didn’t know how the animals were exposed, and we didn’t know whether the virus was actually spreading among wild deer. Since then, a few of the blanks have been filled in; critically, deer-to-deer transmission has been observed in captivity. On Monday, a preprint of a new paper answered some questions, showing that infection is widespread in a second state, driven both by its spread from humans and deer-to-deer transmission.

Overall, that news is not especially good, though we still don’t understand what risks it might pose to humans.

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#biology, #covid-19, #deer, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #virology, #zoonosis

More than 5 million people have died of COVID-19 worldwide

A man walks through "In America: Remember," a public art installation commemorating all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19, on the National Mall September 21, 2021, in Washington, DC. The concept of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, the installation includes more than 660,000 small plastic flags, some with personal messages to those who have died, planted in 20 acres of the National Mall.

Enlarge / A man walks through “In America: Remember,” a public art installation commemorating all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19, on the National Mall September 21, 2021, in Washington, DC. The concept of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, the installation includes more than 660,000 small plastic flags, some with personal messages to those who have died, planted in 20 acres of the National Mall. (credit: Getty Images / Drew Angerer)

More than 5 million people worldwide have now died from COVID-19, according to data tracking by Johns Hopkins University. The global case count is nearly 250 million.

The official death tally reached 5,004,524 million as of late Monday, but that number is certainly an undercount. Some experts suspect the actual death toll may be as high as 10 million.

The milestone comes as cases and deaths are on the decline in the US. This summer’s wave of cases driven by the hypertransmissible delta variant is finally subsiding. But cases are still quite high and now hovering around 73,000 a day.

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#cases, #covid-19, #deaths, #global, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #variants

COVID trial using antidepressant cut short due to apparent effectiveness

Image of a female pharmacist wearing a face mask.

Enlarge (credit: FG Trade / Getty Images)

Despite the wide availability of vaccines, the most recent surge in COVID-19 cases left several US states struggling to provide adequate health care to their citizens. The situation reinforces the potential value of drugs like molnupiravir, which reduce the need for hospitalization among those with COVID-19. But monupiravir will be expensive and will likely be difficult to supply globally for some time. So ongoing trials that test existing drugs for effectiveness against COVID-19 can still provide significant value.

One of those trials has just produced some promising results. A cheap generic drug, developed as an antidepressant, appears to reduce hospitalization rates. While the effect was limited, it was clear enough to cause the trial to be cut short.

A decent trial

The drug in question is called fluvoxamine and is part of the class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which are used to treat depression. There is absolutely no reason to expect that fluvoxamine would be effective against SARS-CoV-2, but a small trial tested it anyway, and the study looked promising. So the drug was picked up by a project called the TOGETHER trial, which is running a series of clinical trials using cheap drugs that are already approved for use.

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#clinical-trials, #covid-19, #drugs, #medicine, #pandemic, #science, #treatments

CDC advisory panel unanimously approves expanded COVID vaccine boosters

Image of vaccine vials and syringes.

Enlarge (credit: iStock / Getty Images)

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control’s expert advisory committee on vaccines met to vote on new guidelines for the use of boosters to sustain the immunity provided by the COVID-19 vaccines in use in the US. The day prior, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) that greatly expanded the number of vaccinated people who could receive a booster shot. That set the stage for the CDC to determine whether the FDA approval should be adopted as formal health policy.

A key step in the CDC’s policymaking process is approval by its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). While the CDC director isn’t bound to follow ACIP’s advice (and notably didn’t in an earlier booster decision), overruling ACIP is unusual. Given that ACIP has now voted unanimously to expand booster use to Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients, the CDC director will likely follow its guidance.

FDA sets the stage

On Wednesday, the FDA announced that it was expanding its EUA for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots. Earlier this month, the FDA approved Pfizer/BioNTech boosters for people who are six months out from receiving their initial doses and are at risk of exposure (like health care workers) or severe COVID cases (the elderly and those with health conditions). The CDC approved this guidance despite a split vote against it from its advisory committee.

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#booster-doses, #cdc, #covid-19, #fda, #medicine, #pandemic, #policy, #public-health, #science, #vaccines

Anti-vaccine school in Florida tells kids to stay home if they get a COVID shot

Centner Academy private school building is seen in Miami's Design District in Miami on April 27, 2021.

Enlarge / Centner Academy private school building is seen in Miami’s Design District in Miami on April 27, 2021. (credit: Getty | CHANDAN KHANNA)

An anti-vaccine private school in Miami, Florida, is requiring students who receive a COVID-19 vaccine to stay home for 30 days after each shot, according to local news outlet WSVN.

In a letter to parents, the school once again spread vaccine misinformation, falsely claiming that COVID-19 vaccines can cause “potential transmission or shedding onto others.” No COVID-19 vaccines in use in the US include a live virus; there are only mRNA-based vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) and a nonreplicating viral vector-based vaccine (J&J) in use here. These COVID-19 vaccines do not cause “shedding” or pose any risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to others.

The school, the Centner Academy, is well-known for its anti-vaccine rhetoric and vaccine misinformation. The academy notes that it is against all vaccine mandates and does not require any immunizations for its students, citing “freedom of choice.” Without evidence, it links routine, safe, and life-saving childhood vaccinations to the rise of a variety of health conditions such as diabetes and offers to help parents obtain exemptions from state vaccine requirements. Like many anti-vaccine groups, Centner plays up fears of harms and falsely suggests that there have been insufficient safety studies on vaccines. Centner’s tuition ranges from $15,000 to $30,000 per year.

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Conservative media viewing correlates with intention to use ivermectin

Image of a person gesturing while speaking.

Enlarge / Whether you trust this man likely depends on whether you watch right-wing news. (credit: Getty Images)

The US public’s response to the pandemic has been chaotic. Some people have observed strict social distancing, happily went into lockdown when case counts got high, and got a vaccine as soon as it became available. Others were nearly the opposite, protesting any public health measures and refusing the vaccine. And a whole lot of the population ended up somewhere between the two extremes.

Obviously, for a complex response like that, multiple factors are probably in play, untangling them can be difficult. For example, conservatives in the US have received anti-vaccine messages from their political leaders, but that’s coming on top of a long-term trend of mistrust toward scientific information.

This week, however, a bit of data has come out that does a fairly good job of untangling those complications. One study indicates that skepticism toward scientific information appears to be linked to whether people followed lockdown instructions from health authorities. And a survey indicates that people are more likely to try untested “cures” for COVID-19 if they watch right-wing news sources.

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As Florida punishes schools, study finds masks cut school COVID outbreaks 3.5X

A second-grade teacher talks to her class during the first day of school at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021.

Enlarge / A second-grade teacher talks to her class during the first day of school at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021. (credit: Getty | Paul Bersebach)

Schools with universal masking were 3.5 times less likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak and saw rates of child COVID-19 cases 50 percent lower in their counties compared with schools without mask requirements. That’s according to two new studies published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new data lands as masks continue to be a political and social flash point in the US. And children—many of whom are still ineligible for vaccination—have headed back into classrooms.

In one of the newly published studies, health researchers in Arizona looked at schools with and without mask policies in Maricopa and Pima Counties. Together, the counties account for more than 75 percent of the state’s population. The researchers identified 210 schools that had universal masking requirements from the start of their school years. They compared those to 480 schools that had no mask requirements throughout the study period, which ran from July 15 to August 30.

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The anonymous meta-analysis that’s convincing people to use ivermectin

Image of a woman in protective clothing dispensing pills.

Enlarge / A pharmacist prepares to dispense ivermectin prescriptions. (credit: Picture Alliance / Getty Images)

If you’ve looked into the controversy regarding the use of ivermectin for treating COVID-19, chances are you’ve come across links to a site called c19ivermectin.com (or one of its many relatives) that claims to host a regularly updated aggregation of all the latest studies into a single meta-analysis of the effects of the drug. We here at Ars have been asked—by email, in the comments, and via our feedback form—to check out c19ivermectin.com, which purports to provide evidence ivermectin is an effective therapy.

So we have. And we’re suggesting you don’t, because it’s not a reliable source of information.

We want an old drug

Why is anyone talking about ivermectin at all? Early on in the pandemic, before the development of effective vaccines, there was a rush to find treatments that could be rapidly rolled out to the public. As such, researchers focused on testing drugs that were already approved for other problems, since this would lower the regulatory hurdles and safety testing needed. Plenty of existing drugs were tested in cell culture, and a few were trialed in humans.

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US hospitals buckling under delta surge: 25% of ICUs are over 95% full

Masked people stand in front of a tent amidst traffic cones.

Enlarge / PALM BAY, FLORIDA, 2021/07/29: A woman arrives at a treatment tent outside the emergency department at Palm Bay Hospital. (credit: Getty | SOPA images)

The current surge of the COVID-19 cases driven by the hypertransmissible delta variant is straining hospitals across the US, particularly in the South. Twenty-five percent of hospital intensive care units around the country are now above 95 percent full. That percentage is up from 20 percent in July and just 10 percent in June, according to data tracking by The New York Times.

The spike in critical care follows a surge in cases and hospitalizations. Average new daily cases in the country skyrocketed from around 12,000 a day in late June to the 150,000 or so in mid-September. Hospitalizations have likewise risen, shooting up from an average of nearly 17,000 a day at the start of July to around 100,000 now. Though cases and hospitalizations are starting to plateau or decline slightly, they are still extremely high. Deaths, meanwhile, are increasing. In the past two weeks, deaths have increased 40 percent to the current average of nearly 1,900 per day.

Most of the cases and nearly all of the hospitalizations and deaths remain among the unvaccinated. Around 60,000 people in the US have died of COVID-19 since the start of July. With highly effective vaccines freely available, nearly all of the current deaths are preventable.

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