Coronavirus variant that spreads easily doesn’t do so by surviving in air better

People practice social distancing in white circles in Domino Park in Williamsburg during the coronavirus pandemic on May 17, 2020, in New York City.

Enlarge / People practice social distancing in white circles in Domino Park in Williamsburg during the coronavirus pandemic on May 17, 2020, in New York City. (credit: Getty | Noam Galai)

The B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant is estimated to spread about 50 percent more than previous versions—but it doesn’t seem to manage that higher transmissibility by surviving in the air better than other versions of the virus, according to a new study.

In lab experiments looking at virus survival in artificially produced aerosolized particles, a B.1.1.7 lineage virus had about the same survival rate as a strain of the virus that was circulating in Wuhan, China in January 2020, according to the study, which published recently in The Journal of Infectious Diseases.

For the study, government researchers created aerosolized particles that mimic those spewed from deep in a person’s lungs, then tested how well the viruses survived in those particles under different temperature, humidity, and light conditions.

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Study finds 3-ft distancing in schools is enough—but debate is far from over

Spring Township, PA - August 21: A first grade classroom where the desks are spaced out for social distancing.

Enlarge / Spring Township, PA – August 21: A first grade classroom where the desks are spaced out for social distancing. (credit: Getty | Ben Hasty)

The most sensitive and heated topic of the entire pandemic is—without a doubt—the welfare of our children. How can we best protect them from this devastating virus? What role do they play in spreading it? How can we even come close to meeting all their health, developmental, educational, and social needs as we try to navigate our topsy-turvy reality?

The path to daycare and school might as well be rerouted through a minefield. And the hazards don’t end when you reach the front doors. This nightmare has only been exacerbated by media reports of single studies that yanked parents, educators, and caretakers from one extreme to the other: Don’t worry, children are completely unaffected by the virus and don’t spread it! No, wait, they’re actually superspreaders, who can develop a deadly multisystem inflammatory syndrome!

More than a year into the pandemic, it’s very clear that the inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) is rare. And although children can certainly catch and spread the virus, mounting studies continue to find that children generally have less severe disease than adults. Also, a consensus has emerged that schools do not tend to be hotbeds of virus transmission. While having schools open has been linked to higher community spread, studies have found basic precautions can be effective at limiting spread within schools.

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Ebola outbreak erupts in Guinea as cases tick up in the DRC

Health care workers wearing personal protective equipment stand in a tent with patient beds at an Ebola Treatment Center in Coyah, Guinea, on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015.

Enlarge / Health care workers wearing personal protective equipment stand in a tent with patient beds at an Ebola Treatment Center in Coyah, Guinea, on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Two unrelated Ebola outbreaks have erupted in two countries that have already faced some of the worst of the deadly viral disease.

Health officials in Guinea on Sunday declared an Ebola outbreak in Gouéké in N’Zerekore prefecture, located in the southeast area of the country. Officials have linked seven people to the outbreak so far, including three deaths. Six people fell ill with an Ebola-like illness after attending a funeral. Three of those cases have been confirmed, and two of the six have died.

The outbreak marks the first time Ebola has been found in Guinea since 2016, when the largest Ebola outbreak ever recorded ended. The outbreak, which spanned 2014 to 2016, tallied more than 28,600 cases and over 11,000 deaths. Guinea was one of the three hardest-hit countries in the outbreak.

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Moderna is developing three new mRNA-based vaccines for seasonal flu, HIV and Nipah virus

Moderna, the biotech company behind one of the two mRNA-based vaccines currently being rolled out globally to stem the tide of COVID-19, has announced that it will purse development programs around three new vaccine candidates in 2021. These include potential vaccines for HIV, seasonal flu and the Nipah virus. Moderna’s development and clinical trial of its COVID-19 vaccine is among the fastest in history, and thus far its results have been very promising, buoying hopes for the efficacy of other preventative treatments being generated using this technology which is new to human clinical use.

An mRNA vaccine differs from typical, historical vaccines because it involves providing a person with just a set of instructions on how to build specific proteins that will trigger a body’s natural defenses. The mRNA instructions, which are temporary and do not affect a person’s actual DNA, simply prompt the body’s cells to produce proteins that mirror those used by a virus to attach to and infect cells. The independent proteins are then fought off by a person’s natural immune response, which provides a lasting lesson in how to fight off any future proteins that match that profile, including those which help viruses attach to and infect people.

Moderna’s new programs will target not only seasonal flu, but also a combinatory vaccine that could target both the regular flu and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to COVID-19. The HIV candidate, which is developed in collaboration with both the AIDS Vaccine Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is expected to enter into Phase 1 trials this year, as will the flue face. Nipah virus is a highly lethal illness that can cause respiratory and neurological symptoms, and which is particularly a threat in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Singapore.

mRNA-based vaccines have long held potential for future vaccine development, in part because of their flexibility and programmability, and in part because they don’t use any active or dormant virus, which reduces their risks in terms of causing any direct infections up front. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred significant investment and regulatory/health and safety investment into the technology, paving the way for its use in other areas, including these new vaccine candidate trials by Moderna.

#aids, #bangladesh, #biotech, #health, #hiv, #india, #malaysia, #medical-research, #medicine, #moderna, #singapore, #tc, #vaccination, #vaccine, #vaccines, #virus

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Device that combines air circulation with UV-C light deployed in first U.S. homes to help decrease COVID-19 transmission risk

Now that we know the virus that causes COVID-19 can be transmitted via aerosol (tiny particles in the air that can hang around for a long time), researchers and engineers globally have turned their attention to helping promote air circulation where risk exposure is high, and also to kill any active viral particles that might be in the air. One such effort is the Nanowave Air, a device created by Pittsburgh-based Dynamics, Inc. (via NEXT Pittsburgh) which uses UV-C light in a safe and contained way to inactivate the virus in enclosed spaces.

The Nanowave Air operates on basically the same principal as any air purifier you might have in your home, using a fan to take in air and then passing it through a filter before putting it back out into the room. The difference is that the filter in this case is actually exposure to ultraviolet light – and specifically UV-C light, the type that has been proven to be effective in killing the SARS-CoV-2 virus that leads to COVID-19.

UV-C light differs from the more common UV-A light that we’re all generally exposed to in significant quantities from sunlight, and direct exposure to UV-C is harmful to humans. It has been used in indoor viral surface sterilization in the past, but typically the rooms where it’s used can’t be occupied at the time, and obviously it’s not effective once it’s no longer in use and people are allowed back in.

The Nanowave Air was created by the Carnegie Mellon spinout Dynamics when its CEO realized that the technology they were working on around UV-C light sources already for large-scale industrial applications could be adapted to address the COVID-19 crisis. That led to the portable design of the Air, which is roughly the size of a hobbyist telescope, and which works by containing the UV-C light within, and funneling air through it at high speeds using fans in order to be able to neutralize any active virus present while also allowing people to still continue to occupy the spaces where it’s in operation.

Nanowave Air is now shipping, with a $3,450 retail price. It’s intended for use in spaces like primary care facilities, dental offices, and other shared locations where people have to occupy the same space despite current guidance around social distancing and especially indoor exposure. The company, which has tested its technology at a number of labs across the U.S. including the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research, also announced that it’s now being used in some homes with a COVID-19-positive individual, in order to reduce the exposure potential for other members of the household who haven’t yet contracted the illness.

This week saw the announcement of positive news for two of the larger efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, but even if those end up providing long-term protection and ramp distribution quickly, the effort to contain COVID-19 globally will still include a lot of necessary preventative steps to avoid contraction among the unvaccinated populace. Managing airborne presence of the virus is sure to be a key ingredient, and solutions like the Nanowave Air could help to spur those efforts.

#air-purifier, #articles, #carnegie-mellon, #ceo, #health, #occupational-safety-and-health, #pittsburgh, #tc, #ultraviolet, #united-states, #vaccine, #virus

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New Oxford machine learning-based COVID-19 test can provide results in under 5 minutes

Oxford scientists working out of the school’s Department of Physics have developed a new type of COVID-19 test that can detect SARS-CoV-2 with a high degree of accuracy, directly in samples taken from patients, using a machine learning-based approach that could help sidestep test supply limitations, and that also offers advantages when it comes to detecting actual virus particles, instead of antibodies or other signs of the presence of the virus which don’t necessarily correlate to an active, transmissible case.

The test created by the Oxford researchers also offer significant advantages in terms of speed, providing results in under five minutes, without any sample preparation required. That means it could be among the technologies that unlock mass testing – a crucial need not only for getting a handle on the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also on helping us deal with potential future global viral outbreaks, too. Oxford’s method is actually well-designed for that, too, since it can potentially be configured relatively easily to detect a number of viral threats.

The technology that makes this possible works by labelling any virus particles found in a sample collected by a patient using short, fluorescent DNA strands that act as markers. A microscope images the sample and the labelled viruses present, and then machine learning software takes over using algorithmic analysis developed by the team to automatically identify the virus, using differences that each one produces in terms of its fluorescent light emitted owing to their different physical surface makeup, size and individual chemical composition.

This technology, including the sample collection equipment, the microscopic imager and the flourescence insertion tools, as well as the compute capabilities, can be miniaturized to the point where it’s possible to be used just about anywhere, according to the researchers – including “businesses, music venues, airports,” and more. The focus now is to create a spinout company for the purposes of commercializing the device in a format that integrates all the components together.

The researchers anticipate being able to form the company, and start product development by early next year, with the potentially of having a device approved for use and ready for distribution around six months after that. It’s a tight timeline for development of a new diagnostic device, but timelines have changed already amply in the face of this pandemic, and will continue to do so as we’re unlikely to see if fade away anytime in the near future.

#articles, #biotech, #health, #influenza, #machine-learning, #medicine, #occupational-safety-and-health, #oxford, #science, #tc, #virus

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New Zealand baffled by new COVID-19 cases, eyes frozen-food packaging

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 13: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks with media at a COVID-19 briefing on August 13, 2020. COVID-19 restrictions have been reintroduced across New Zealand after four new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in Auckland. Auckland has been placed in Level 3 lockdown for three days from Wednesday, August 12, with all residents to work from home unless they are essential workers and all schools and childcare centers are closed. The rest of New Zealand has returned to Level 2 restrictions. The new cases are all in the same family, with health authorities working to trace the source of the infection.

Enlarge / WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – AUGUST 13: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks with media at a COVID-19 briefing on August 13, 2020. COVID-19 restrictions have been reintroduced across New Zealand after four new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in Auckland. Auckland has been placed in Level 3 lockdown for three days from Wednesday, August 12, with all residents to work from home unless they are essential workers and all schools and childcare centers are closed. The rest of New Zealand has returned to Level 2 restrictions. The new cases are all in the same family, with health authorities working to trace the source of the infection. (credit: Getty | Mark Tantrum)

New Zealand officials are scrambling to halt a growing cluster of COVID-19 cases that has baffled health investigators trying to understand how the pandemic coronavirus regained a foothold on the island nation.

Officials on Tuesday announced four cases in one family in Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand. Before that, the country had gone 102 days without any local transmission. Throughout the pandemic, New Zealand has been among the most successful countries in the world at responding to and holding back the pandemic coronavirus, relying on swift and thorough testing and tracing as well as rigorous social distancing and lockdown orders.

But the new cluster has stumped investigators, who are now exploring all the possible ways the coronavirus may have slipped back in—including that it arrived on the packaging of frozen-food shipments and infected a worker unpacking them.

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NASA’s JPL open-sources an anti-face-touching wearable to help reduce the spread of COVID-19

There are some wearables out there in the world that are making claims around COVID-19 and their ability to detect it, prevent it, certify that you don’t have it and more. But a new wearable device from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory might actually be able to do the most to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — and it’s not really all that technically advanced or complicated.

JPL’s PULSE wearable uses 3D-printed parts and readily available, affordable electronic components to do just one thing: remind a person not to touch their face. JPL’s designers claim that it’s simple enough that the gadget “can easily be reproduced by anyone regardless of their level of expertise,” and to encourage more people and companies to actually do that, the lab has made available a full list of parts, 3D modeling files and full instructions for its assembly via an open-source license.

The PULSE is essentially a pendant, worn around the neck between six inches and one foot from the head. It can detect when a person’s hand is approaching their face using an IR-based proximity sensor. A vibration motor then shakes out an alert, and the response becomes stronger as your hand gets closer to your face.

The hardware itself is simple — but that’s the point. It’s designed to run on readily available 3V coin batteries, and if you have a 3D printer at hand for the case and access to Amazon, you can probably put one together yourself at home in no time.

The goal of PULSE obviously isn’t to single-handedly eliminate COVID-19 — contact transmission from contaminated hands to a person’s mouth, nose or eyes is just one vector, and it seems likely that respiratory droplets that result in airborne transmission is at least as effective at passing the virus around. But just like regular mask-wearing can dramatically reduce transmission risk, minimizing how often you touch your face can have a big combined effect with other measures taken to reduce the spread.

Other health wearables might actually be able to tell you when you have COVID-19 before you show significant symptoms or have a positive test result — but work still needs to be done to understand how well those work, and how they could be used to limit exposure. JPL’s PULSE has the advantage of being effective now in terms of building positive habits that we know will limit the spread of COVID-19, as well as other viral infections.

#aerospace, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health, #jpl, #nasa, #tc, #virus, #wearables

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After months of silence, CDC holds press briefing, issues new COVID advice

Huge facade for CDC headquarters against a beautiful sky.

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

As states reopen and people begin to ease back into public life, so too is the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it seems.

Today, Friday, June 12, the CDC held its first COVID-19 press conference in just over three months. Though the pandemic has ravaged much of the US in that period, the last time the country’s leading public health agency held a briefing on the crisis was March 9.

In today’s briefing, CDC Director Robert Redfield and CDC Deputy Director of Infectious Diseases Jay Butler introduced two new sets of suggestions for how members of the public can stay safe from the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, as restrictions ease.  One set of recommendations relates to prevention measures for people considering resuming normal activities, like going to the post office or a restaurant. The other is a set of “considerations” for events and mass gatherings.

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Most COVID cases don’t spread virus—it’s the superspreaders we need to stop

Crowds of people walk along the Ocean City Boardwalk during Memorial Day weekend on Sunday, May 24, 2020.

Enlarge / Crowds of people walk along the Ocean City Boardwalk during Memorial Day weekend on Sunday, May 24, 2020. (credit: Getty | Caroline Brehman)

Much about how the new coronavirus spreads from one victim to the next remains a maddening mystery. But amid all the frantic efforts to understand transmission, there is one finding that appears consistent: that it is inconsistent.

Some people—most, even—don’t spread the virus to anyone in the course of their infection. Others infect dozens at a time.

It’s a phenomenon that looked, at first, like anomalous anecdotes—a large outbreak from a Washington choir practice, a South Korean megachurch, a wedding in Jordan—but it has become a fixed feature of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. And researchers have started to settle on numbers for it.

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2 million cases and counting: US COVID-19 outbreak charges on amid reopening

A nurse on infection control accompanies a patient being transferred from the ICU COVID unit to the acute care COVID unit at Harborview Medical Center on May 7, 2020 in Seattle, Washington.

Enlarge / A nurse on infection control accompanies a patient being transferred from the ICU COVID unit to the acute care COVID unit at Harborview Medical Center on May 7, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (credit: Getty | Karen Ducey)

Cases of COVID-19 in the US have now exceeded 2 million, according to multiple tracking efforts. Deaths from the new coronavirus pandemic stand at 112,000 nationwide.

Both figures are expected to be underestimates, given difficulties and inconsistencies in identifying and logging all the infections and deaths. Still, with the official figures, the US now claims more than 25 percent of all COVID-19 cases globally despite having less than 5 percent of the global population.

Some states are seeing sustained declines of new cases, but others are seeing increases—leading to a high plateau for the US overall. “We’re identifying between 20,000 and 25,000 new cases a day, and about 800 to 1,000 people a day are dying of this virus” nationwide, Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told NPR.

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WHO butchers asymptomatic COVID comments. Here’s what they meant

A women speaks into a microphone in front of a World Health Organization logo.

Enlarge / WHO Technical Lead and epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove attending a virtual news briefing on COVID-19 from the WHO headquarters in Geneva on April 6, 2020. (credit: Getty | AFP)

An expert with the World Health Organization on Monday made brief comments about asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 that sparked a firestorm of confusion, backlash, and criticism.

Some public health experts were quick to lash out at the organization for poor messaging. Others tried to clarify what the WHO expert might have been trying to say. And still others quickly impeached evidence-based strategies to combat the pandemic virus.

On Tuesday, the WHO responded with a live Q&A on social media to address confusion and lingering questions about transmission. In it, the WHO expert who made the confusing comments on Monday tried to clarify the issue and add context and caveats. But the response may still leave some confused and frustrated.

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New Ebola outbreak flares up as measles, COVID-19 rage in DRC

Health workers operate within an Ebola safety zone in the Health Center in Iyonda, near Mbandaka, on June 1, 2018.

Enlarge / Health workers operate within an Ebola safety zone in the Health Center in Iyonda, near Mbandaka, on June 1, 2018. (credit: Getty | JUNIOR D. KANNAH )

A new outbreak of Ebola has ignited in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is still trying to stamp out an Ebola outbreak from 2018—and is now also battling a massive measles outbreak and COVID-19.

The new Ebola outbreak is in the western city of Mbandaka, the capital of the Équateur Province. The city—situated at the junction of the Congo and Ruki Rivers—is a major trade and travel hub and home to more than 1 million people.

On Monday, June 1, 2020, officials confirmed an outbreak with six cases so far (three confirmed, three probable). Four of the cases have died, and two are being treated. The World Health Organization reported that officials expect to find more cases as outbreak responses ramp up.

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CDC says its testing fail didn’t hurt US response. Experts disagree

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), attends an event about coronavirus vaccine development in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 15, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), attends an event about coronavirus vaccine development in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Drew Angerer)

The botched rollout of COVID-19 testing did not cripple the country’s early response to the pandemic, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claimed Friday.

CDC Director Robert Redfield cited a new analysis published by the agency Friday. The analysis suggests the new coronavirus began spreading in the country in late January or early February—but only at low levels. The study appears in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

With the new data, Redfield argued that the level of spread was so low in those early days that additional testing would not have made a difference in detecting the spread of the pandemic virus. If the CDC had initially produced and scaled up a functional test for COVID-19—which it infamously failed to do—“it really would be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Redfield said, according to NPR.

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Washington’s COVID-19 outbreak may have begun a month later than we thought

People in protective gear load a stretcher-bound patient into an ambulance.

Enlarge / KIRKLAND, Wash.: A patient is shielded as they are put into an ambulance outside the Life Care Center of Kirkland on March 7, 2020. Several residents have died from COVID-19, and others have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. (credit: Getty | Karen Ducey)

When cases of COVID-19 began popping up in Washington state in late February, researchers were quick to dive into the genetics of the viruses infecting residents. Based on what they knew at the time, they hypothesized that those cases in late February were genetically linked to the very first case found in the state—one in a person who arrived in Washington on January 15 after traveling from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began. The case was also the first infection identified in the whole of the United States.

If correct, the genetic hypothesis linking the late February cases to that very first case meant that early efforts to contain the pandemic coronavirus—isolating the initial patient, tracing contacts, etc.—had failed spectacularly. It also meant that the virus, SARS-CoV-2, had been cryptically circulating in the state for six weeks. And that would mean that, in addition to those early cases, there were potentially hundreds or thousands of others out there, undetected and possibly spreading the infection further.

The hypothesis played into state officials’ decision to issue some of the country’s earliest social-distancing measures. But now that we know far more about the genetics of circulating SARS-CoV-2 viruses, that hypothesis appears to be wrong.

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Wuhan swabs 9 million people, tests 6.5 million for COVID-19 in 10 days

WUHAN, May 15, 2020 - Residents take nucleic acid tests at a testing post set up at a primary school in Dongxihu District in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, May 15, 2020. Wuhan will arrange nucleic acid tests for all residents who have not been tested before, in order to better know the number of asymptomatic cases of the novel coronavirus.

Enlarge / WUHAN, May 15, 2020 – Residents take nucleic acid tests at a testing post set up at a primary school in Dongxihu District in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, May 15, 2020. Wuhan will arrange nucleic acid tests for all residents who have not been tested before, in order to better know the number of asymptomatic cases of the novel coronavirus. (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency )

When Chinese officials in the city of Wuhan discovered a cluster of just six COVID-19 cases around two weeks ago—the first cases there in more than a month—they quickly set an ambitious plan to test the entire city of roughly 11 million and crush a potential second wave of infection. And they initially planned to try to do it in just 10 days.

Ten days out, they nearly met that goal. Wuhan Municipal Health Commission swabbed more than 9 million residents and tested more than 6.5 million of those swabs for coronavirus genetic material between May 15 and May 24, according to state media.

Laboratories in the city went from conducting 46,000 tests a day to as many as 1.47 million in the screening sprint, according to The New York Times. The Times notes that in the US, New York tested 1.7 million people since March 4, a nearly three-month time frame, according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project.

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Maryland reopens—and quickly sees its largest COVID-19 spike

Larry Hogan, governor of Maryland, wears a protective mask while talking to Ivanka Trump, senior adviser to US President Donald Trump, during a tour of the distribution center of Coastal Sunbelt Produce in Laurel, Maryland, US, on Friday, May 15, 2020.

Enlarge / Larry Hogan, governor of Maryland, wears a protective mask while talking to Ivanka Trump, senior adviser to US President Donald Trump, during a tour of the distribution center of Coastal Sunbelt Produce in Laurel, Maryland, US, on Friday, May 15, 2020. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Maryland reported its highest number of new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday—just four days after the state began easing public health restrictions aimed at thwarting the spread of disease.

Though state officials note that an increase in testing and a backlog of test results may partly explain the spike, the case counts overall suggest that disease transmission has not declined in the lead-up to re-opening—and transmission could very easily increase as residents begin venturing into public spaces more frequently.

Maryland’s outcome may hold lessons for other states attempting their own reopening. As of today, May 20, all 50 states have begun easing restrictions at some level, according to The Washington Post.

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GreenLight Biosciences raises $17m to ramp mRNA production for COVID-19 vaccine candidate trials

One of the approaches therapeutics companies are taking to developing vaccines for COVID-19 relies on what’s called an mRNA (messenger RNA, which essentially provides cells with protein production instructions) vaccine, a relatively novel method that hasn’t yet resulted in a vaccine approved for human use (though approved mRNA vaccines do exist for veterinary treatment). Making mRNA is a fairly specialized affair, and one biotech startup that focuses on its production has raised $17 million in special purpose funding to ramp up its manufacturing capacity.

Boston-based GreenLight Biosciences raided the additional funding from a combination of new and existing investors, including Flu Lab, Xeraya Capital, and Board Capital, and will use the new funds to both expand its mRNA production capacity in order to support the creation of “billions of doses” of potential COVID-19 vaccines for use in trials and eventual deployment, should any candidates prove effective.

Meanwhile, GreenLight is also developing several different versions of its own mRNA-based vaccine candidates to potentially prevent individuals from contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to the COVID-19 infection. Some of the funding will also go towards its work in this area.

Various companies have spun up mRNA vaccine candidate development, and some have already entered into clinical trials, in response to the current global COVID-19 pandemic. These mRNA vaccines essentially work by providing a set of specific instructions to a person’s cells to produce proteins that are capable of blocking a virus, preventing it from getting a foothold in the body. It’s a different approach from traditional vaccine development, which involves using either deactivated, or small doses of activated actual virus to trigger an immune response in individuals.

mRNA vaccines have that advantage of being relatively safe because they contain no actual virus, with shorter pre-clinical development times as well, meaning the whole cycle from development to testing and deployment is shortened. That’s made them a popular area of focus and investment specifically to handle outbreaks and pandemics, but as mentioned, thus far none has been fully developed and approved for human treatemen.

This investment is a bet that mRNA vaccines not only prove effective in humans, but that they become a valuable and ongoing resource in curbing not only this pandemic, but other viral threats, including the existing standard influenza and others.

#biotech, #boston, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #drugs, #flu-lab, #health, #infection, #manufacturing, #recent-funding, #science, #startups, #tc, #vaccination, #vaccine, #vaccines, #virus

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The Ars COVID-19 vaccine primer: 100-plus in the works, 8 in clinical trials

HUBEI, CHINA - APRIL 15: (CHINA MAINLAND OUT)220 volunteers from Wuhan are vaccinated with the novel coronavirus vaccine, which is in a human clinical trial.

Enlarge / HUBEI, CHINA – APRIL 15: (CHINA MAINLAND OUT)220 volunteers from Wuhan are vaccinated with the novel coronavirus vaccine, which is in a human clinical trial. (credit: Getty | TPG)

The clearest way out of the COVID-19 crisis is to develop a safe, effective vaccine—and scientists have wasted no time in getting started.

They have at least 102 vaccine candidates in development worldwide. Eight of those have already entered early clinical trials in people. At least two have protected a small number of monkeys from infection with the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19.

Some optimistic vaccine developers say that, if all goes perfectly, we could see large-scale production and limited deployment of vaccines as early as this fall. If true, it would be an extraordinary achievement. Less than four months ago, SARS-CoV-2 was an unnamed, never-before-seen virus that abruptly emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Researchers there quickly identified it and, by late January, had deciphered and shared its genetic code, allowing researchers around the world to get to work on defeating it. By late February, researchers on multiple continents were working up clinical trials for vaccine candidates. By mid-March, two of them began, and volunteers began receiving the first jabs of candidate vaccines against COVID-19.

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Mammoth Biosciences receives first peer-reviewed validation of CRISPR-based COVID-19 test

SF-based CRISPR diagnostics startup Mammoth Biosciences has published the first peer-reviewed study that shows validation of using its testing method to detect the presence of COVID-19 in patients. The study, published in Nature, shows performance on par with existing PCR-based molecular tests, the one ones currently authorized for use by the FDA to test for the novel coronavirus.

Mammoth’s DETECTR platform is designed to have advantages over traditional testing methods in a few different ways, including in its reconfigurability to address new viruses, since it uses CRISPR to target specific genetic sequences, and activate a “cleavage” that effectively acts as a signal for the diagnostic equipment to pick up. Basically, in the same way CRISPR allows scientists to target a specific string of DNA for removal or alteration, with scalpel-like precision, Mammoth’s diagnostic allows for programmable, targeted matching with a reference string, leading to confirmation that viral RNA is present in the patient.

The test that Mammoth is developing showed validated use in under two weeks, the researchers claim, since their platform is designed from the ground up for rapid reconfigurability to address new viral threats. The test can deliver results in under 45 minutes, and the results delivery is via what’s called a ‘lateral flow strip,’ which is essentially the same kind of read-out you see with at-home pregnancy tests, making them relatively easy to interpret. DETECTR also doesn’t require a lab setting to delver results, and instead can be conducted with portable heat blocks, combined with commonly available standard reagents.

In the study, which included samples from 36 patients with confirmed COVID-19 infections, and 42 patients who had other types of viral respiratory infections, the tests showed 95% positive diagnostic accuracy, and 100% negative efficacy. Samples used were taken from respiratory swabs.

This doesn’t mean this test can roll out to actual sites for use, but it’s a good validation of Mammoth’s model and test design, and could eventually lead to actual deployment of its test in a clinical setting, providing other, larger-scale studies back up the data.

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Potential new treatment for COVID-19 uncovered by BenevolentAI enters trials

BenevolentAI, a startup which has raised $292 million to apply AI to create drugs faster, today says it has uncovered an already approved drug as a potential treatment for COVID-19, after it applied its AI platform and team to the problem. The revelation, which has now appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals and has already entered clinical trials with a major pharmaceutical company, could offer a glimmer of hope to a world locked-down by the pandemic.

In February, BenevolentAI set up a specialist scientific team and launched an investigation using its drug discovery platform.

Baroness Joanna Shields, CEO of BenevolentAI, explained: “In response to the COVID-19 global health emergency, we turned our AI drug discovery and development platform toward understanding the body’s response to this novel infectious disease.”

Key to their approach was that “rather than focusing solely on drugs that could affect the virus directly, we explored ways to inhibit the cellular processes that the virus uses to infect human cells,” she said.

The idea was to identify approved drugs that could potentially stop the progression of COVID-19, inhibit the “cytokine storm” and reduce the inflammatory damage associated with this disease.

Diseases such as covid-19 and influenza can be fatal due to an overreaction of the body’s immune system called a cytokine storm.

Cytokines are small proteins released by many different cells in the body, including those of the immune system where they coordinate the body’s response against infection and trigger inflammation.

The body’s response to infection goes into overdrive when SARS-CoV-2 – the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic – enters the lungs, triggering an immune response, and attracting immune cells to the region to attack the virus. This resulting in localized inflammation. Some people experience worse symptoms than others at this point. But in some people, excessive or uncontrolled levels of cytokines are released which then activate more immune cells, resulting in ‘hyperinflammation’ which can seriously harm or even kill the person.

BenevolentAI’s team fed everything they knew about COVID-19, and the drugs that could inhibit the cellular processes that the virus uses, into their platform.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Peter Richardson, BenevolentAI’s VP of Pharmacology, explained how the discovery came about.

“Using the BenevolentAI Knowledge Graph there were two processes. One was finding the connections, and the regulators,” he said.

“It’s incredibly, incredibly difficult to hold in your head what’s irrelevant, all the time, without having the Knowledge Graph to show you the basic points. It’s really good at showing the basic interactions that are so important in understanding a biological process. Cellular tracking is an amazingly complicated thing to process.”

But, he said, the BenevolentAI platform handled the information with aplomb: “This took an hour for the platform to process.”

The next process was for the human team to find possible drugs to inhibit regulators. These were then fed into the Knowledge Graph. Richardson said this “took roughly half an hour to process.”

The result was that they identified baricitinib as a potential drug with both anti-viral and anti-cytokine properties, with 90 minutes of computing time, inside three days of additional human work.

Benevolent’s research findings were published in The Lancet in early February and again twice in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal. These proposed baricitinib as a potential treatment with both anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties for COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital prior to the development of critical lung damage.

By March, investigator-led studies began recruiting and treating infected patients with baricitinib. Today, Eli Lilly and the US National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) have announced that the drug will now begin it’s first large randomized trial in COVID-19 patients.

Baricitinib, sold as a prescription drug called Olumiant, is an already approved drug developed by Eli Lilly and Incyte for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

The randomized trial announced by Eli Lilly with NIAID will investigate the efficacy and safety of baricitinib as a potential treatment for patients with serious COVID-19 infections.

The study will begin in the US in late April with planned expansion to additional sites in Europe and Asia, with the results being expected within the next two months. This new trial joins a Canadian government randomised trial already underway assessing baricitinib as a potential treatment.

Commenting, Shields said: “We are pleased that Eli Lilly is progressing baricitinib to clinical testing for COVID-19 patients. While we wait for a vaccine to be developed, there is an immediate need for medicines that can prevent life-threatening respiratory and other serious complications of COVID-19 infections.”

Daniel Skovronsky, M.D., Ph.D., Lilly’s chief scientific officer and president of Lilly Research Laboratories said: “Lilly is moving at top speed and using all available resources to help fight this pandemic. Developing potential therapeutic medicines for COVID-19 is part of our vital and humanitarian mission.”

Professor Justin Stebbing from Imperial College, London, who has been collaborating on this work between Eli Lilly and BenevolentAI, also commented, saying: “There are no specific therapeutic agents for any coronavirus infections – we rely on quarantine, isolation and public health policies to prevent disease spread, and on supportive care measures for those who become ill. What we lack is a specific agent to treat the infected and, optimally, decrease viral shedding and subsequent transmission. The results of such trials will be central to clinical care as the outbreak continues and we anticipate that this treatment will improve mortality and reduce the pressure on hospitals and ICU’s worldwide. This research is notable for its incredible speed from computer to bench and bedside within a few months.”

Commenting, Richardson added: “If you turned the BenevolentAI 250-person team and turned all of them into 65-year old ex-pharmacology teachers, it would have taken probably a year to come up with this treatment. Instead, it took my three colleagues working so two hours a day, and myself working full time, three days to come up with this. We’ve gone from computer to bedside, as it were, in two months.”

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Pandemic declared as COVID-19 blazes across globe

Geneva: WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced on March 11, 2020 that the new coronavirus outbreak can now be characterized as a pandemic.

Enlarge / Geneva: WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced on March 11, 2020 that the new coronavirus outbreak can now be characterized as a pandemic. (credit: Getty | FABRICE COFFRINI)

COVID-19 is a pandemic, the World Health Organization declared in a press briefing Wednesday.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cited not just the leaping numbers of cases, deaths, and countries affected in making the determination but also the slow responses of many countries and governments.

“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” WHO Director-General, who goes by Dr. Tedros, said.

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