Windblown “alien things” caused massive COVID outbreak, North Korea says

Balloons carrying anti-North Korea leaflets are released by North Korean defectors, now living on South Korea, on February 16, 2013, in Paju, South Korea.

Enlarge / Balloons carrying anti-North Korea leaflets are released by North Korean defectors, now living on South Korea, on February 16, 2013, in Paju, South Korea. (credit: Getty | Chung-Sung Jun)

After an intense, detailed investigation, North Korea has determined what sparked an explosive outbreak of COVID-19 that has led to over 4.7 million “fevers” within its borders since late April. The culprit: “alien things” blown into the country from the South.

According to a report from the official KCNA news agency, North Korea’s outbreak began in early April when an 18-year-old soldier and a five-year-old kindergartener made contact with “alien things in a hill” in the area of Ipho-ri in Kumgang County, which is in the country’s southeastern corner near the border. The two later tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and epidemiological analyses found that those cases were solely behind the country-wide outbreak; the two infections link to greater spread in Kumgang and, from there, into the rest of North Korea.

“It was also ascertained,” the report reads, “that the fever cases reported in all areas and units of the country except the Ipho-ri area till mid-April, were due to other diseases.” The report did not include any information about how officials came to that conclusion.

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Fauci reports COVID rebound, says his is “much worse” than initial illness

Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci at Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill May 17, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci at Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill May 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Alex Wong)

The country’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, has been struck by a phenomenon that appears to be becoming more common in the latest stage of the pandemic—rebounding bouts of COVID-19 after a course of the antiviral drug Paxlovid.

In an interview Tuesday at Foreign Policy’s Global Health Forum, Fauci recounted the progression of his infection to his current rebound, which he said has been much worse than his first round with the disease. Fauci—the director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and chief medical advisor to the president—is 81 years old and has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and boosted twice.

He first tested positive on a rapid antigen test on June 15 and experienced “very minimal symptoms.” But his symptoms worsened and he began a five-day course of Paxlovid. “And I felt really quite well,” Fauci said, adding that he just had mild nasal congestion and fatigue. When he had finished the five-day course, he had reverted to negative on antigen tests for three consecutive days. But, “then on the fourth day—just to be absolutely certain—I tested myself again, and I reverted back to positive … and then over the next day or so I started to feel really poorly, much worse than in the first go-around.”

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COVID rebounds: Immune responses may be reignited by cleanup of viral scraps

A box of Paxlovid, the Pfizer antiviral drug.

Enlarge / A box of Paxlovid, the Pfizer antiviral drug. (credit: Getty | Europa Press News)

Pfizer’s antiviral pill Paxlovid is among the most treasured tools for hammering COVID-19; it can knock back the relative risk of hospitalization and death by 89 percent in unvaccinated patients at high risk of severe disease. But, as use of the convenient drug has grown in the US, so have troubling reports of rebound cases—people who took the pill early in their infection, began feeling better, and even tested negative but then slid back into symptoms and tested positive again days later.

It’s still unclear just how common the phenomenon is, but it certainly happens in some proportion of Paxlovid-treated patients. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even issued a health alert over the rebound reports.

But, amid the rising awareness, it has also become clear that patients who have not been treated with Paxlovid can also rebound. In fact, in Pfizer’s clinical trials of Paxlovid, researchers noted that about 1 percent to 2 percent of both treatment and placebo groups had rebounds.

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#antiviral, #biology, #covid-19, #medicine, #nih, #paxlovid, #rebound, #sars-cov-2, #science, #symptoms

Long COVID 20-50% less likely after omicron than delta in vaccinated people

A long COVID patient sits with her daughter in her wheelchair while receiving a saline infusion at her Maryland home on Friday, May 27, 2022.

Enlarge / A long COVID patient sits with her daughter in her wheelchair while receiving a saline infusion at her Maryland home on Friday, May 27, 2022. (credit: Getty | The Washington Post)

Among adults vaccinated against COVID-19, the odds of developing long COVID amid the omicron wave were about 20 percent to 50 percent lower than during the delta period, with variability based on age and time since vaccination.

The finding comes from a case-control observational study published this week in The Lancet by researchers at Kings College London. The study found that about 4.5 percent of the omicron breakthrough cases resulted in long COVID, while 10.8 percent of delta breakthrough cases resulted in the long-term condition.

While the news may seem a little reassuring to those nursing a breakthrough omicron infection, it’s cold comfort for public health overall since the omicron coronavirus variant is much more transmissible than delta.

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US can’t afford fall boosters for all—even after cuts to test and PPE spending

A sign for a vaccine site stands in Staten Island on November 29, 2021, in New York City.

Enlarge / A sign for a vaccine site stands in Staten Island on November 29, 2021, in New York City. (credit: Getty | Spence Platt)

With pandemic funding running out, the Biden administration is repurposing $10 billion to buy next-generation COVID-19 booster doses for the fall, as well as treatments, including the anti-viral Paxlovid and monoclonal antibodies.

The funding will be pilfered from federal programs that support COVID-19 test availability and domestic production, as well as stockpiles of essential resources, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. Funding for research on coronavirus vaccines and new treatments will also take a hit.

“These were incredibly painful decisions,” White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha said in a press briefing Thursday.

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FDA advisors overwhelmingly endorse Novavax COVID-19 vaccine

Empty vials of the Novavax Inc. Nuvaxovid COVID-19 vaccine arranged at the Tegel Vaccine Center in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, March 7, 2022.

Enlarge / Empty vials of the Novavax Inc. Nuvaxovid COVID-19 vaccine arranged at the Tegel Vaccine Center in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, March 7, 2022. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg )

A committee of independent, expert advisors for the Food and Drug Administration voted overwhelmingly to authorize the two-dose Novavax COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, with 21 of 22 committee members voting in favor of the vaccine and one member abstaining.

The endorsement is only for a two-dose primary series in adults, not for boosters. The FDA is not obligated to follow the advice of its committee—the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC)—but the agency typically heeds its advice. If the FDA authorizes the vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will need to sign off on use before it becomes available.

The decision regarding the Novavax vaccine, which is already authorized in dozens of other countries, is not a straightforward one in the US. The vaccine has some advantages over currently approved vaccines but has several strikes against it.

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BA.4, BA.5 gain ground in US, pose higher risk of breakthrough infections

A person holds a positive SARS-CoV-2 rapid test on February 17, 2022 in Berlin, Germany.

Enlarge / A person holds a positive SARS-CoV-2 rapid test on February 17, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. (credit: Getty | Thomas Trutschel)

Omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1 has overtaken BA.2 as the dominant version of the pandemic coronavirus in the US, now accounting for an estimated 59 percent of cases nationwide. But BA.2.12.1’s reign may end as quickly as it began, with yet another batch of omicron subvariants gaining ground—BA.4 and BA.5—and threatening to cause more breakthrough infections.

BA.2.12.1 has a transmission advantage over BA.2, which itself has an edge over the initial omicron subvariant, BA.1, that caused a towering surge of US cases in mid-January. BA.2 peaked in mid-April, accounting for 76 percent of US cases at its height. But then came BA.2.12.1, which is named for being the 12th lineage stemming from BA.2 and the first branch of that BA.2.12 lineage.

When BA.2 peaked in mid-April, BA.2.12.1 accounted for about 18 percent of cases. It reached about 43 percent prevalence by mid-May and has since overtaken BA.2, which currently accounts for only about 35 percent of cases. BA.2.12.1 is dominant in every region of the country, except for the Northwest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Sliding to mild? Nope—omicron BA.2 caused worse COVID symptoms than BA.1

Sliding to mild? Nope—omicron BA.2 caused worse COVID symptoms than BA.1

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency)

Despite early suggestions that the omicron coronavirus subvariant BA.1 would be mild, a massive wave of infections in January caused spikes in hospitalizations and more excess deaths than earlier variants. And subsequent omicron subvariants don’t appear to be easing up.

According to a preprint study involving data from more than 1.5 million people in the United Kingdom, an infection with the omicron subvariant BA.2 was more likely to be symptomatic, more likely to cause a larger number of symptoms, and more likely to cause symptoms that people said affected their daily lives “a lot,” compared to an infection with BA.1.

In fact, BA.2 wasn’t just worse than BA.1; it was bad overall. The study authors analyzed symptom reports linked to infections of the ancestral coronavirus strain and variants alpha, delta, omicron BA.1, and omicron BA.2. The authors found that BA.2 infections were the most likely to cause symptoms compared with all the other variants. And the finding held up when the authors adjusted for time since a booster dose in people who were triple vaccinated, suggesting that waning vaccine protection could not explain the increase in symptom reporting.

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Pfizer says 3-dose COVID vaccine for under 5s produces strong immune response

Vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Enlarge / Vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. (credit: SOPA images)

Pfizer and BioNTech will request authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration this week for their three-dose COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 6 months to under 5 years, the companies announced this morning.

Top-line clinical trial results indicate that the vaccine series is safe and produces a strong immune response against the pandemic virus, according to the companies.

“The study suggests that a low 3-[microgram] dose of our vaccine…  provides young children with a high level of protection against the recent COVID-19 strains,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said in a statement.

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Sixth child in US dies of unexplained hepatitis as global cases top 600

Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C.

Enlarge / Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

A sixth child has died in the United States from puzzling liver inflammation—aka hepatitis—and the number of unexplained cases has risen to 180 across 36 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest death was announced in a press briefing Friday, led by CDC Deputy Director for Infectious Diseases Jay Butler, who said it was reported to the agency Thursday. He did not indicate in which state the death occurred.

In addition to the deaths, 15 of the 180 cases required liver transplants, Butler reported. The cases all occurred in children under the age of 10 but skewed to preschool-age children, with the median age being around 2 years.

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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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Omicron caused spike in breathing condition in babies and toddlers, study finds

Parents look after their son, age 5, who is being treated for croup and asthma in an emergency room at a California hospital March 24, 2010.

Enlarge / Parents look after their son, age 5, who is being treated for croup and asthma in an emergency room at a California hospital March 24, 2010. (credit: Getty | Mark Boster)

The omicron coronavirus variant caused a spike in cases of a potentially severe breathing condition in babies and toddlers, according to a hospital study recently published in the journal Pediatrics.

The study is small, focusing only on COVID-19-associated cases at one large children’s hospital in Massachusetts during the pandemic. But, it provides some of the initial data on the subject and backs up anecdotes from health care providers that the latest pandemic variant causes more cases of laryngotracheobronchitis—aka croup—in younger children than earlier variants.

Generally, croup is a common upper-respiratory tract condition in which significant inflammation and swelling develop in the larynx and trachea, imperiling breathing. Some viral infection usually triggers swelling, but allergies and other irritants can also be culprits. Croup can occur at any age but mostly strikes the tiny upper airways of infants and young children, ages 3 months to 5 years.

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Switch to Moderna booster after Pfizer shots better against omicron in 60+

The Comirnaty (Pfizer/BioNTech) and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

Enlarge / The Comirnaty (Pfizer/BioNTech) and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. (credit: Getty | Marcos del Mazo)

People ages 60 and older who were initially vaccinated with two Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine doses were better protected from the omicron coronavirus variant after being boosted with a Moderna vaccine rather than another dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Those results are according to interim data from a small but randomized controlled clinical trial in Singapore and published this week in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

The study—involving 98 healthy adults—can’t determine if the Moderna booster is simply superior to a Pfizer-BioNTech booster for older adults or if a mix-and-match booster strategy is inherently better. It also focused solely on antibody levels, which may or may not translate to significant differences in infection rates and other clinical differences. It also only followed people for 28 days after a booster, so it’s unclear if the Moderna booster’s edge will hold up over time.

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450 cases, 11 dead worldwide in growing child hepatitis mystery

Adenoviruses remain the leading suspect, though no cause has been identified.

Enlarge / Adenoviruses remain the leading suspect, though no cause has been identified. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The global tally of unexplained hepatitis cases in children has reached about 450, including 11 reported deaths, according to an update from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The cases come from more than two dozen countries around the world, with about 14 countries reporting more than five cases. The countries with the largest case counts so far are the United Kingdom and the United States.

In the UK, officials have identified 163 cases in children under the age of 16, 11 of whom required liver transplants. Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control reported 109 cases under investigation in children under the age of 10 from 25 states. Of those cases, 14 percent required liver transplants, and five children died.

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#adenovirus, #cdc, #ecdc, #hepatitis, #outbreak, #sars-cov-2, #science, #who

Puzzling cases of hepatitis in kids leaps to 109 in 25 states, CDC reports

Huge facade for CDC headquarters against a beautiful sky.

Enlarge / Signage outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 14, 2020. (credit: Bloomberg | Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now investigating 109 cases of unexplained liver inflammation—hepatitis—in young children from 25 states over the past seven months. Of the 109 affected children, five have died, and 15 (14 percent) required liver transplants. The children were all under the age of 10, and 90 percent were hospitalized.

The CDC’s announcement Friday marks a dramatic uptick in the US’s reported cases, which was limited to nine confirmed cases in Alabama just three weeks ago. The cases also add to a mounting global tally, which reached upward of 300 cases from more than two dozen countries.

But, despite the boom in cases, CDC and international health investigators are still puzzled about the cause of the illnesses. Severe hepatitis is rare in young children, and unexplained cases of severe hepatitis are rarer.

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#adenovirus, #cdc, #children, #hepatitis, #infectious-disease, #outbreak, #outbreak-investigation, #sars-cov-2, #science

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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BA.2.12.1 poised to become dominant in US, raising concern for future vaccines

A medical worker arranges nucleic acid samples at a makeshift nucleic acid testing site on May 3, 2022 in Beijing, China.

Enlarge / A medical worker arranges nucleic acid samples at a makeshift nucleic acid testing site on May 3, 2022 in Beijing, China. (credit: Getty | Pang Songgang)

The omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1 is poised to become dominant in the US, currently accounting for an estimated 36.5 percent of all US SARS-CoV-2 cases, according to the latest estimates released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The subvariant’s ascent is the latest rapid succession of omicron subvariants, from the sky-scraping peak of cases from the initial omicron subvariant BA.1 in January, to the current bump driven by the subvariant BA.2, which achieved dominance in March. As before, the reason for the viral usurping is that omicron subvariants continue to evolve advantages: BA.2.12.1 has a transmission advantage over BA.2, which had a transmission advantage over BA.1, which had a significant advantage over delta.

The imminent reign of BA.2.12.1 raises concern for yet another wave of infections and poses questions about how effective future omicron-specific vaccines could be against symptomatic infections.

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Omicron subvariants BA.4, BA.5 evade protection from earlier omicron infection

A Covid-19 testing tent stands in Times Square on April 27, 2022 in New York City.

Enlarge / A Covid-19 testing tent stands in Times Square on April 27, 2022 in New York City. (credit: Getty | Spencer Platt)

Enduring an initial omicron infection may not spare you from omicron’s subvariants, according to preliminary data from South Africa.

The country is currently at the start of a new wave of infections, primarily driven by two omicron coronavirus subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5. Despite a towering wave of cases from the initial BA.1 omicron variant in December that infected a large chunk of the country, new omicron cases increased 259 percent in the last two weeks, according to data tracking by The New York Times. Hospitalizations are also up, and deaths have increased by 18 percent.

Preliminary data posted online last week helps explain why cases are once again surging—the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants can evade neutralizing antibodies generated by infections from BA.1. For the study, led by virologist Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute, researchers pitted neutralization antibodies from people infected with BA.1 up against BA.4 and BA.5 in a lab. They had samples from 24 unvaccinated people infected with BA.1 and 15 vaccinated people who had also had a BA.1 infection (eight people were vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and seven had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine).

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Details of 9 puzzling hepatitis cases rule out SARS-CoV-2 as culprit, CDC says

Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C.

Enlarge / Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ruled out the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, as a possible cause of the puzzling, international outbreak of severe hepatitis (liver inflammation) in children, according to a statement released Friday.

The outbreak has sickened more than 170 children in more than a dozen countries in recent months, with case counts ticking up by the day. Around 10 percent of the children—mostly under the age of 10—have required liver transplants. The World Health Organization has reported one death.

In the US, officials in at least five states have reported at least 25 confirmed or possible cases: Alabama (9), North Carolina (2), Wisconsin (4), Illinois (3), and California (7). At least three of the US cases have required liver transplants and officials in Wisconsin are investigating a possible death linked to the outbreak.

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75% of US children have now had COVID, up from 44% due to omicron

A child arrives at an elementary school vaccination site for children ages 5 to 11 in Miami in November 2021.

Enlarge / A child arrives at an elementary school vaccination site for children ages 5 to 11 in Miami in November 2021. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

At least 75 percent of US children have now been infected with the pandemic coronavirus, up from roughly 44 percent before the omicron wave, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Children in the age groups of 0 to 11 and 12 to 17 have the highest infection rates and saw the most significant increases during the omicron wave compared with any other age group. About a third of all children in the country were newly infected during the omicron wave. Together, the data showcase just how poorly the country has done at shielding children—including those not yet eligible for vaccination—from the pandemic virus.

The new data dovetails with a study published by the CDC in February, which found that the peak rate of pediatric hospitalizations during the omicron wave was four times higher than the peak seen during the delta wave last fall. The largest increase was seen in children ages 0 to 4, who had a peak hospitalization rate five times higher than the peak amid delta.

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WHO reports first child death, 17 transplants in growing hepatitis mystery

Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C.

Enlarge / Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

At least one child has died of unexplained liver inflammation in a growing international outbreak of puzzling hepatitis cases in children, according to the World Health Organization.

The outbreak tally has reached more than 170 cases in 12 countries and is expected to continue growing. At least 17 children—10 percent of the cases—have required liver transplants. The ages of the affected children range from one month to 16 years, though the majority are children younger than 10 and many younger than 5.

Over the weekend, the WHO reported 114 cases in the United Kingdom, 13 in Spain, 12 in Israel, six in Denmark, fewer than five in Ireland, four in the Netherlands, four in Italy, two in Norway, two in France, one in Romania, and one in Belgium. The WHO also noted nine cases in the US, all in Alabama. But two additional cases were reported in North Carolina last week, bringing the US total to at least 11. Two of the US cases resulted in transplants.

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Fauci confirms parents’ nightmare: FDA may delay COVID vaccines for kids under 5

Fauci confirms parents’ nightmare: FDA may delay COVID vaccines for kids under 5

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Congressional Quarterly)

The Food and Drug Administration is considering holding off on reviewing Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for children under age 5 until it has data from Pfizer and BioNTech on their vaccine for young children. The plan would push back the earliest possible authorization for a vaccine in the age group from May to June—yet another blow to parents who are anxious to protect their young children as the rest of the country ditches pandemic precautions, despite recent upticks in cases.

The FDA’s plan to delay the review was first reported by Politico Thursday morning, with sources telling the outlet that FDA officials worry about green-lighting Moderna’s vaccine, only to find out just a few weeks later that Pfizer’s offers superior protection.

In an interview with CNN’s Kasie Hunt later in the day Thursday, top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci confirmed that the regulator is considering waiting until summer, likely June, to authorize vaccines for kids under 5. Fauci said the delay was intended to avoid confusion about the vaccines, but he emphasized that he was not involved in the regulators’ decisions and couldn’t explain their thinking further.

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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

Delta dragged for mask stance, walks back “ordinary seasonal virus” line

Delta dragged for mask stance, walks back “ordinary seasonal virus” line

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Delta Air Lines on Tuesday walked back calling the deadly pandemic virus SARS-CoV-2 an “ordinary seasonal virus” after widespread backlash from health experts and travelers, who noted that the virus that has killed nearly a million Americans so far is neither ordinary nor necessarily seasonal.

The downplayed descriptor for the coronavirus appeared in a news release the airline released Monday announcing that masks are now optional for employees and customers on domestic and some international flights. The change came on the heels of a federal judge’s order that vacated the federal mandate for masking on mass transit and transit hubs, which include airplanes and airports but also transit stations, buses, trains, subways, ferries, taxis, and rideshares.

“We are relieved to see the US mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus,” Delta originally wrote in its news release Monday. The company updated the release Tuesday to read: “We are relieved to see the US mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 transitions to a more manageable respiratory virus—with better treatments, vaccines, and other scientific measures to prevent serious illness.”

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#airlines, #covid-19, #delta, #masks, #omicron, #sars-cov-2, #science, #transit

Meet the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer test just authorized by the FDA

Man providing a sample into the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer.

Enlarge / Man providing a sample into the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer. (credit: InspectIR)

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced the authorization of the first breath-based test for COVID-19.

The InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer offers highly accurate test results in about three minutes, without the need for uncomfortable swabbing or collection of hazardous samples. But, before you get your hopes up for a handheld device you can huff into as you head out the door, it’s not quite that convenient. The test requires a high-tech device about the size of a carry-on suitcase—demo versions are literally housed in hard-shelled roll-aboard cases—and it requires a trained technician to operate. To take the test, a person has to sit next to the traveling instrument and blow into it through a straw for about 10 seconds.

The instrument inside the luggage is actually performing gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), which is a gold-standard analytical technique to finely separate out the components of a mixture. Generally, GC-MS samples are vaporized and mixed with an inert carrier gas before going through a capillary column, which separates out components by their boiling point and polarity. Then those components are ionized and fragmented and further separated out by their mass-to-charge ratios. The end readout is various peaks on a gas chromatogram, with each peak having a unique mass spectrum, allowing for the unambiguous identification of specific compounds.

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#breathalyzer, #covid-19, #fda, #gc-ms, #sars-cov-2, #science, #test

Puzzling cases of severe liver disease in children spark international probe

A baby being treated with blue light, a jaundice-prevention measure.

Enlarge / A baby being treated with blue light, a jaundice-prevention measure. (credit: Getty | Picture Alliance)

Health officials in Scotland on Thursday published early findings from a burgeoning international investigation into dozens of puzzling cases of severe liver inflammation among children. A few cases have already led to acute liver failure and liver transplants.

Thursday’s report detailed 13 severe cases in Scotland, mostly in children between the ages of 3 and 5 and nearly all occurring in just March and April this year. Scotland usually tallies fewer than four such cases of unexplained liver inflammation—aka hepatitis—in children over the course of an entire year. Of the 13 cases this year in Scotland, one has led to a liver transplant and five are still in the hospital. No deaths have been reported.

Meanwhile, health officials in England reported approximately 60 unexplained severe hepatitis cases in 2022, most of which were in children ages 2 to 5. Some of those cases progressed to acute liver failure, and a few have also led to liver transplantation. Again, no deaths have been reported.

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#adenovirus, #cdc, #cluster, #hepatitis, #infectious-disease, #liver-transplant, #outbreak, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science

Autopsies suggest COVID’s smell loss is caused by inflammation, not virus

A woman holds a nasal swab for a COVID-19 antigen rapid test in front of her desk on January 5 in Berlin.

Enlarge / A woman holds a nasal swab for a COVID-19 antigen rapid test in front of her desk on January 5 in Berlin. (credit: Getty | Thomas Trutschel)

Although the loss of smell and taste became apparent symptoms of COVID-19 early in the pandemic, researchers are still working out why that happens—is the virus directly infecting and destroying the cells responsible for these critical senses, or is it collateral damage from our immune systems fighting off the invading foe?

According to a postmortem study out this week in JAMA Neurology, it’s the latter. The study—which dove deep into the noses, nerves, and brains of 23 people who died of COVID-19—is the most detailed look at the coronavirus’ effects on our sniffers. Researchers concluded that inflammation—not the virus—is behind the loss of smell and taste during a bout of COVID-19, which is good news in some ways. It suggests that treatments with anti-inflammatory drugs could prevent severe or long-term damage to those critical senses.

The finding follows a mix of data on the effects of SARS-CoV-2 on our sense of smell. Some data suggested that the virus can infect the nerves that carry smells signals to our brain—olfactory neurons. Thus, the lost senses could be caused by direct infections. But others found that the virus wasn’t present in those neurons at death.

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#covid-19, #inflammation, #nasal, #neurology, #neurons, #olfactory, #sars-cov-2, #science, #smell, #taste, #virus

DC’s Gridiron COVID outbreak tally hits 72 as cases tick up nationwide

US President Joe Biden (C) signs the Postal Service Reform Act into law during an event with (L-R) Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and retired letter carrier Annette Taylor and others in the State Dining Room at the White House on April 6, 2022, in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / US President Joe Biden (C) signs the Postal Service Reform Act into law during an event with (L-R) Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and retired letter carrier Annette Taylor and others in the State Dining Room at the White House on April 6, 2022, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Chip Somodevilla )

At least 72 of the over 600 people who attended the mostly maskless Gridiron dinner—an exclusive annual event frequented by high-profile Washington, DC, elites—have since tested positive for COVID-19. The dinner took place on April 2.

The growing tally may herald a nationwide rise in infections from the BA.2 omicron subvariant amid relaxed health measures. BA.2 is now the dominant variant circulating in the US and is more transmissible than the initial ultra-transmissible omicron subvariant, BA.1.

So far, over 20 states and Washington, DC, are reporting upticks in cases over the past two weeks, and nearly 10 states are seeing an increase in hospitalizations, according to data tracking by The New York Times. Over half of the country’s wastewater sites monitoring for SARS-CoV-2 levels have also detected rises in the past two weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The monitoring is intended to act as an early warning signal for case surges.

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#ba-2, #biden, #coroanvirus, #covid-19, #fauci, #harris, #infectious-disease, #omicron, #pelosi, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science

NIH begins trial of COVID boosters to fight future variants

Extreme close-up photo of a gloved hand holding a tiny jar.

Enlarge / A vial of the current Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (credit: Getty | Ivan Romano)

Mild or not, more SARS-CoV-2 variants are inevitable. To avoid any blips in our pandemic endgame, researchers at the National Institutes of Health on Thursday announced the start of a complex Phase II clinical trial to find the best COVID-19 booster regimen to protect against variants that emerge in the wake of omicron.

“We are looking beyond the omicron variant to determine the best strategy to protect against future variants,” Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a statement. “This trial will help us understand if we can use prototype and variant vaccines alone or together to shift immune responses to cover existing and emerging COVID-19 variants.”

Evidence so far suggests that the current vaccines—which are based on an early version of SARS-CoV-2 isolated in Wuhan, China—can muster protection against most of the variants that have swept across the globe so far. However, current vaccines have struggled against omicron, an ultratransmissible variant that is the most divergent variant yet. As such, researchers are wary that an omicron-specific vaccine alone will not generate broad protection against any future variant that may be more closely related to past variants—such as beta, a variant first detected in South Africa in 2020 suspected of being more severe than past variants, and delta, a highly transmissible variant that swept through the US before the emergence of omicron.

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

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

Swab, test, repeat: A 2nd rapid COVID test more than doubled result accuracy

Extreme close-up photograph of fingers handling a cardboard strip.

Enlarge / A pharmacist at the Community Pharmacy of Saco demonstrates how Abbott’s BinaxNow COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test works by using a nasal swab and a solution onto a test strip. (credit: Getty | Portland Press Herald)

To quickly confirm an asymptomatic case of COVID-19, a second rapid test within an hour of a positive result can boost the accuracy of the result from 38 percent to 92 percent, according to a new study in JAMA Network Open.

The finding could guide future use of rapid tests for quick-turnaround decisions on interventions, as well as in situations where lab-based PCR testing is too costly or unavailable entirely.

Currently, rapid tests are considered most accurate when used on people who are suspected of having COVID-19 and are within the first seven days of having COVID-19-related symptoms. For Abbot’s BinaxNow rapid test, for example, the test accurately identified infections in about 82 percent of symptomatic people (102/125 cases) and provided accurate negative results in about 98 percent of symptomatic people (227/231 cases).

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#accuracy, #covid-19, #false-positive, #omicron, #rapid-tests, #sars-cov-2, #science, #testing

Delta-omicron recombinant virus no reason for panic, health experts say

Transmission electron micrograph of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle isolated from a patient sample and cultivated in cell culture.

Enlarge / Transmission electron micrograph of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle isolated from a patient sample and cultivated in cell culture. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

Researchers in France have reported the first compelling genetic evidence of a recombinant SARS-CoV-2 virus that contains elements of both the omicron coronavirus variant and the delta variant. However, health experts at the World Health Organization and elsewhere have been quick to note that such a recombinant virus is expected to arise and, so far, there’s no reason to be worried about the hybrid.

The delta-omicron recombinant—a combination of the delta AY.4 subvariant’s backbone and the omicron BA.1 subvariant’s spike protein—has been circulating at very low levels since at least early January 2022 in France. Researchers have also reported a smattering of cases in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. So far, epidemiology data on the recombinant’s spread does not raise any red flags, and the variant does not appear to cause more severe disease, according to WHO technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove, who addressed the variant in a press briefing this week. However, researchers are in the process of conducting more studies on the recombinant and will be monitoring it closely, as the organization does with other new variants, she noted.

Coronaviruses are known to recombine, and researchers fully expected that such recombinant SARS-CoV-2 viruses would crop up from time to time. Generally, recombination can happen when two variants infect one person at the same time and invade the same cells. In this scenario, the cellular machinery that viruses hijack to make clones of themselves can sometimes abruptly switch from translating the genetic code of one of the variants to the code of the other, resulting in a mosaic virus.

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#covid-19, #delta, #genetic, #infectious-disease, #mutation, #omicron, #recombination, #sars-cov-2, #science, #sequencing, #variant, #virus

COVID ups risks of dementia, cognitive impairment, and decline in older survivors

Health care workers treat a COVID-19 patient at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. Photographer: Allison Dinner/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Enlarge / Health care workers treat a COVID-19 patient at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. Photographer: Allison Dinner/Bloomberg via Getty Images. (credit: Getty| Bloomberg)

People over 60 who survive COVID-19 have higher risks of dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and cognitive decline—particularly if they had severe COVID-19—according to a study out this week in JAMA Neurology.

The study followed over 1,400 older COVID survivors in Wuhan, China, who were among some of the first people in the world to be hospitalized for COVID-19. The patients were discharged between February 10 and April 10, 2020, from three COVID-19–designated hospitals in Wuhan. Researchers followed their neurological health for a full year afterward.

Their experiences in that year do not bode well for the rest of the world. The study authors, led by neurologist Yan-Jiang Wang of the Third Military Medical University, found that long-term cognitive decline is common after an infection with the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. As such, health care systems around the world need to prepare for what could be a substantial increase in the number of people requiring dementia care.

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#cognitive-decline, #covid-19, #dementia, #infectious-disease, #neurology, #sars-cov-2, #science, #severe-disease, #wuhan

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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#biology, #covid-19, #health, #medicine, #neuroscience, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #virology

43% of Americans—140 million—have had COVID, CDC estimates

A plastic tray holds vials of blood upright.

Enlarge / Blood samples for COVID-19 antibody testing. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

An estimated 140 million people in the US—around 43 percent—have had COVID-19, according to the latest analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using data from the end of January.

The estimate of people infected with COVID-19 is nearly double the CDC’s cumulative tally of cases reported at the end of January, which totaled around 74 million. These numbers are expected to differ because many COVID-19 cases are not detected or reported—i.e., people may not get tested at all or take a home-test that is not reported. That means officials case counts are expected to be a significant undercount of actual infections. However, case reports can also include infections in people who have tested positive multiple times, effectively counting some people more than once.

The CDC has been estimating actual infections over time, which provides more insight into the recent tsunami of cases from the ultratransmissible omicron variant. Based on data from the end of November, the CDC estimates that about 37 million people became infected with the pandemic coronavirus in December and January. The number of cases reported to the CDC during that time frame was around 26 million.

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#antibodies, #cdc, #covid-19, #infection, #sars-cov-2, #science, #seroprevalence, #vaccination

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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#cdc, #covid-19, #masks, #medicine, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science

Booster protection from omicron hospital stay dips from 91% to 78%

A vial containing Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a vaccination center.

Enlarge / A vial containing Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a vaccination center. (credit: Getty | SOPA Images)

COVID-19 booster doses are largely holding up against the ultratransmissible omicron variant, despite the fact that protection inevitably wanes over time, according to a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, with the boosters’ inevitable waning and omicron’s ability to dodge some immune responses, fourth doses may be needed in the future to sustain or improve protection against COVID-19, the study authors note.

The study, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, estimated booster effectiveness against severe disease and hospitalizations. It charted a slight decline in booster effectiveness from less than two months after a booster dose to over four or five months after the third jab. The latter time frame is the latest for which there is available booster data, based on when the shots became widely offered. The study collected data from patients in 10 states, including from over 240,000 visits to emergency rooms or urgent care centers and more than 93,000 hospitalizations.

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#booster, #cdc, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine-effectiveness

Monkey study casts doubt on need for an omicron-specific booster

Extreme close-up photo of a gloved hand holding a tiny jar.

Enlarge / A vial of the current Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (credit: Getty | Ivan Romano)

In a small group of monkeys, an omicron-specific version of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine did not protect against the omicron variant better than Moderna’s current, highly effective booster. This finding casts doubt on whether a switch to variant-specific doses is necessary.

The study was led by researchers at the National Institutes of Health and posted on a preprint server last Friday. The study has not been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal. It also has all the limitations of an animal study and only involved eight monkeys. The study’s findings will have to be verified in human trials, which are currently underway.

Still, there’s good reason to think the finding will hold up. As the authors of the study note, this isn’t Moderna’s first variant-specific booster. The company had previously developed a booster against the concerning variant beta. As with the omicron-specific booster, the beta-booster didn’t outperform the original vaccine at protecting primates from beta. And that finding later held up in human trials.

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#animal-study, #booster, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #moderna, #monkeys, #omicron, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine-efficacy, #variants

CDC turns to poop surveillance for future COVID monitoring

Aeration System, Hill Canyon Wastewater Treatment Plant, Camarillo, Ventura County, California.

Enlarge / Aeration System, Hill Canyon Wastewater Treatment Plant, Camarillo, Ventura County, California. (credit: Getty | Universal Images Group)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday announced it is now publicly logging levels of SARS-CoV-2 found in sewage from around the country. The announcement elevates a growing system for wastewater surveillance that the CDC says will eventually be aimed at other infectious diseases.

The system began as a grassroots research effort in 2020 but has grown to a network of more than 400 wastewater sampling sites nationwide, representing the feces of approximately 53 million Americans. The CDC is now working with 37 states, four cities, and two territories to add more wastewater sampling sites. The health agency expects to have an additional 250 sites online in the coming weeks and more after that in the coming months.

In a press briefing Friday, Dr. Amy Kirby, the CDC’s program lead for the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS), called the sampling a critical early warning system for COVID-19 surges and variants, as well as “a new frontier of infectious disease surveillance in the US.”

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#cdc, #covid-19, #omicron, #rna, #sars-cov-2, #science, #surges, #variants, #wastewater

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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#biology, #covid-19, #immunology, #medicine, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #t-cells, #vaccines

OSHA will try a different route to a vaccine mandate for businesses

Image of a gloved hand holding a cotton ball to a person's arm.

Enlarge (credit: OSHA)

On Tuesday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced it was withdrawing its planned vaccine mandate for businesses with 100 or more employees. The decision comes in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that blocked OSHA from implementing the mandate while lawsuits opposing it made their way through lower courts.

But the agency also indicated it as still working on getting the mandate implemented via a completely different, albeit slower, mechanism.

OSHA’s initial attempt to implement a vaccine mandate was done under a clause of US law that allows the agency to issue temporary emergency standards in response to “new hazards.” Reasoning that SARS-CoV-2 represents a new hazard, the emergency standard would require vaccination or testing and apply to companies with 100 or more employees, provided those employees were not consistently working outdoors.

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#covid-19, #mandate, #osha, #policy, #sars-cov-2, #science, #supreme-court, #vaccines

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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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #omicron, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #tedros, #variants, #who

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

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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Omicron is not mild and is crushing health care systems worldwide, WHO warns

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference on December 20, 2021, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva.

Enlarge / World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference on December 20, 2021, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. (credit: Getty| Fabrice Coffrini)

The World Health Organization on Thursday pushed back against the consistent chatter that the ultra-transmissible omicron coronavirus is “mild,” noting that the variant is causing a “tsunami of cases” that is “overwhelming health systems around the world.”

“While omicron does appear to be less severe compared to delta—especially in those vaccinated—it does not mean it should be categorized as ‘mild,'” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press briefing Thursday. “Just like previous variants, omicron is hospitalizing people, and it is killing people.”

The warning comes as the US is still experiencing a vertical rise in cases and hospitalizations from the quick-spreading variant. In the week ending on January 1, omicron was estimated to account for 95 percent of all cases in the US, according to the latest analysis by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The delta variant, which was making up over 99 percent of US cases as recently as the week ending on December 4, has now been relegated to just 5 percent of cases.

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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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#covid-19, #im