Covid-19 Survivors Have a Low Risk of Reinfection, Study Suggests

Illustration for article titled Covid-19 Survivors Have a Low Risk of Reinfection, Study Suggests

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New government-funded research this week should offer some comfort to people who have survived covid-19. It suggests they have a low risk of reinfection from the coronavirus, at least around three months later.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute teamed up with commercial testing labs and two healthcare data collection companies for this study, published Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

They analyzed de-identified data from more than 3 million Americans who had gotten a commercial antibody test for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes covid-19, sometime between January to August 2020. Antibody tests, while not perfect, indicate whether someone has had a prior recent infection. These people were divided into those who had antibodies and those who didn’t, based on testing. Then the researchers looked at how many people in both groups later got a PCR test for covid-19, which is meant to diagnose an active infection.

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About 10% of people in each group went on to get a PCR test. More people with antibodies tested positive for the virus within the first 30 days after their antibody test than those without antibodies. But that’s not surprising, since detectable traces of the virus can remain in the body for months, even after symptoms have passed and the person is no longer infectious. So it’s likely these positive PCR results were usually picking up the first infection. When the researchers looked specifically at the positive test rate after the first month and especially more than 90 days later—enough time for a positive PCR test to likely indicate a true reinfection—the results were encouragingly different.

After three months or longer, only 0.3% of people with an earlier positive antibody test tested positive for the coronavirus again, compared to 3% of those with a negative antibody test. In other words, having a past infection was linked to a much lower risk of infection three or more months later.

“People who have recovered from covid-19 should be reassured that being antibody-positive is associated with some protection against a new infection,” study author Douglas Lowy, the principal deputy director of the NCI, said in an email.

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The findings do come with their limitations, though. For one, they can’t tell us exactly how much protection a past infection will provide against reinfection, or how long it’s expected to last (though other research has suggested that it may be years). Another factor this study can’t account for is the recent emergence of coronavirus variants. Some—like the one first identified in South Africa last year—are thought to raise the risk of reinfection, since they may be able to partly evade the immune response created by an earlier infection or vaccination.

Still, there’s no research showing that any currently spreading variants can completely evade someone’s natural or vaccine-provided immunity. Our immune system has plenty of weapons against a familiar germ, and it’s likely that most reinfections will turn out to be milder than the first time.

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Even before these new variants were around, though, there had been documented cases of reinfection, including cases where symptoms were worse the second go-around. And the new study’s findings still suggest that reinfection does happen, if rarely. So no one should assume they’re impervious to covid-19 just because they survived an earlier infection with no problem. Ultimately, the best way to keep everyone safe from covid-19 is to vaccinate as many people as possible, including those who have already had the viral illness, according to Lowy. It’s a remedy that involves a lot less risk than getting a natural infection.

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“People who have recovered from covid-19 should still plan to be vaccinated when they have the opportunity,” he said.

The NCI plans to continue funding research that will track the prevalence of reinfection in the general public, along with studies that will look at how our immune response to the virus may change over time and against new variants.

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A Woman’s Tragic Covid-19 Death Traced to Tainted Donated Lungs, Report Finds

Illustration for article titled A Woman's Tragic Covid-19 Death Traced to Tainted Donated Lungs, Report Finds

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Doctors say that a Michigan woman’s untimely death last fall was caused by covid-19 unknowingly spread through a double lung transplant. It’s likely the first clear case of covid-19 linked to transplantation. Another doctor contracted the viral illness through the procedure, but survived.

The woman’s tragic case was detailed in a report published earlier this month by doctors at the University of Michigan Medical School, in the American Journal of Transplantation. According to the report, the woman needed the transplant because of her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Her donor was a woman who had recently died of severe brain injury from a car accident. Standard screening, including a nasal and throat swab test for the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) on the donor and recipient, turned up nothing unusual and the procedure appeared to go off without a hitch.

Three days following the transplant, however, the recipient spiked a fever and began to have trouble breathing. A nasal swab test initially showed no traces of the coronavirus, but she obviously had pneumonia and a later direct test of her lungs came back positive for the virus. Over the next two months, the woman’s condition only worsened, and she developed septic shock. Though she was treated with antivirals, convalescent plasma, and ECMO (a last resort medical device that takes over for the heart and lungs), the woman succumbed to her illness 61 days after her transplant.

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The donor had no history indicating recent exposure to the coronavirus or symptoms of covid-19 prior to her death, along with a negative nasal swab test. But doctors had held onto a fluid sample collected from her lungs and when they tested it after the recipient became sick, it came back positive. Genetic sequencing of the virus found in both the donor and recipient showed they were nearly identical, effectively proving the recipient’s infection came from the tainted lungs. A third person—one of the woman’s surgeons who handled the lungs—became sick and tested positive for the virus soon after the procedure, and this infection was also traced back to the donated lungs. The surgeon recovered, however, and no other member of the transplant team was affected.

There have been other suspected cases of covid-19 spread through transplantation, but this is thought to be the first known case to demonstrate transmission by using genetic sequencing. Despite the tragedy of this death, however, it’s likely still an incredibly rare risk. This same month, scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked into eight suspected cases of covid-19 linked to organ donation documented between March to May 2020. They ultimately concluded that the most likely source of transmission in these cases “was community or healthcare exposure, not the organ donor.”

Rare as it might be, the Michigan doctors do think more can be done to ensure the safety of organ recipients and their doctors during this time, particularly when lungs are being transplanted.

“Transplant centers and organ procurement organizations should perform SARS‐CoV‐2 testing of lower respiratory tract specimens from potential lung donors, and consider enhanced personal protective equipment for health care workers involved in lung procurement and transplantation,” they wrote.

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Survivors of Severe Covid-19 Should Get Their Eyes Checked, Study Suggests

Illustration for article titled Survivors of Severe Covid-19 Should Get Their Eyes Checked, Study Suggests

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Doctors are warning that covid-19 may be capable of causing lingering eye problems. A new study suggests that some people who survive a severe infection can develop growths in the back of their eyes that could lead to vision loss. It is not yet clear how covid-19 might cause these growths, or if people with milder covid-19 are also at risk of this complication.

Researchers at the French Society of Neuroradiology looked at medical records from certain patients with severe covid-19. These patients had all gotten a brain MRI at some point during their illness, which allowed the researchers to look for potential abnormalities in and around the eye.

In total, they looked at data from 129 patients across 16 hospitals who were infected during the first wave of the pandemic in France, between March and May 2020. Nine of these patients (7%) had evidence of nodules around the back of the eyeball, with most having growths on both eyes. Eight patients had also been in the intensive care unit.

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There have been occasional reports of people with covid-19 with abnormal test results or health issues related to the eye, such as conjunctivitis (pink eye). But the authors say theirs is the first study to try estimating how commonly this might be happening through MRI data. The findings should be enough to convince doctors to look for potential eye problems in patients with severe illness, they add, especially since they could be hard to spot at first.

“Severe eye problems might largely go unnoticed as these patients are often treated in intensive care units for much more severe, life-threatening conditions,” they wrote in their paper, published Tuesday in the journal Radiology. “Our data support the need for a screening and follow-up of these patients to provide appropriate treatment and improve the management of potentially severe ophthalmological manifestations.”

The results do have their limitations. They can’t conclusively show that having covid-19 led to these eye growths, nor can they explain how it might have happened if the disease was responsible. One theory voiced by the authors is that the infection reached the eyes and directly damaged the retina. Another is that inflammation indirectly caused by infection is the main culprit. It’s even possible that the practice of laying patients on their stomachs (the prone position)—a common intervention that’s been shown to help patients breathe more easily—could have contributed to faulty drainage of veins connected to the eye. Pre-existing circulation problems, common in patients with diabetes, might also be a factor.

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The researchers are already working on future studies to better understand these potential complications. This includes proactively studying severe covid-19 patients from more recent waves of the pandemic, which would confirm whether these growths and other eye problems are really the result of the illness and not an earlier, hidden issue. Survivors with these growths are also being tracked to see if they’re at increased risk for long-term vision problems. And the researchers are pursuing a similar study, focusing on patients with mild to moderate covid-19.

“We have launched a prospective study with dedicated high-resolution MR images for exploring the eye and orbit in patients with light to moderate COVID,” said lead author Augustin Lecler, a radiologist and associate professor at the University of Paris, in a statement released by the Radiological Society of North America, which publishes Radiology. “Therefore, we will be able to know whether our findings were specific to severe COVID patients or not.”

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Repurposed Arthritis Drug Lifesaving for Severe Covid-19, UK Trial Finds

Illustration for article titled Repurposed Arthritis Drug Lifesaving for Severe Covid-19, UK Trial Finds

Photo: David Goldman (AP)

Lifesaving treatments for people with severe covid-19 are still in short supply, but new results from a large ongoing trial in the UK have found that an existing arthritis drug called tocilizumab can noticeably lower hospitalized patients’ risk of dying, especially when combined with steroid treatment.

The RECOVERY trial—led by researchers at the University of Oxford in the UK—has been testing out potential candidates for severe covid-19 treatment since March 2020, with more than 36,000 participants enrolled to date. Their findings were some of the first to demonstrate that the steroid dexamethasone provided a modest but real lifesaving benefit for hospital patients in need of oxygen support. The study has also helped rule out once promising treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and the HIV cocktail lopinavir-ritonavir.

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The tocilizumab arm of RECOVERY involved 2,022 patients randomized to receive the drug in addition to standard care, who were then compared to a similar-sized group of patients only given standard care. Soon into this trial, which started in April 2020, steroids became a standard treatment; as of a result, 82% of patients also received steroid drugs as well.

According to the results, released Thursday as a preprint on MedRxiv, tocilizumab had a modest but clinically significant effect on lowering mortality. In the treatment group, 29% of patients died within 28 days, compared to 33% of patients in the control group. People on tocilizumab were also more likely to be discharged from the hospital within 28 days (54% vs. 47%). In real-world terms, the drug would be expected to save one of every 25 patients who took it.

Though some earlier research had found little to no benefit from using tocilizumab, the RECOVERY trial is by far the largest single study to date to test its effectiveness, the authors noted. When combined with steroid treatment, they estimated these drugs can reduce the risk of mortality by one-third for patients on supportive oxygen and by one-half for people on ventilators.

“Previous trials of tocilizumab had shown mixed results, and it was unclear which patients might benefit from the treatment. We now know that the benefits of tocilizumab extend to all COVID patients with low oxygen levels and significant inflammation. The double impact of dexamethasone plus tocilizumab is impressive and very welcome,” said Peter Horby, a researcher in emerging infectious diseases at Oxford and co-lead investigator for RECOVERY, in a statement released by the university.

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Tocilizumab is a lab-made monoclonal antibody, designed to tamp down an overactive immune system—a common feature of severe covid-19. Unlike dexamethasone, which also suppresses the immune system, tocilizumab is still patented by the pharmaceutical company Roche and is much more expensive per dose. So that may affect how much access countries or patients will have to the drug.

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Still, given the ongoing need for reliable options, tocilizumab seems poised to be part of the toolkit for doctors treating these critical cases. And there may yet be more treatments down the line. Another antibody-based arthritis drug called sarilumab has shown similar lifesaving promise, while the FDA earlier this week authorized the emergency use of an antibody cocktail developed by Eli Lilly for people at high risk of severe disease and hospitalization. In the U.S., there are still over 70,000 patients currently hospitalized with covid-19.

The RECOVERY researchers are still testing out several other drugs, including aspirin and two antibody-based drugs. They also plan to submit their preliminary findings on tocilizumab to a peer-reviewed journal.

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Apple Watch Can Detect Covid-19 a Week Early, Study Finds

Illustration for article titled Apple Watch Can Detect Covid-19 a Week Early, Study Finds

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

In the early days of the pandemic, dozens of researchers launched studies trying to see whether wearables of all sorts could potentially identify covid-19 before symptoms began. In one such study, researchers from Mount Sinai discovered that the Apple Watch was capable of detecting the onset of covid-19 up to seven days before current testing methods.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, studied the impact of covid-19 on several hundred healthcare workers at Mount Sinai Health System between April and September of last year. All participants wore an Apple Watch and answered daily surveys about symptoms via an app. The researchers then observed changes in the participants’ heart rate variability (HRV), which measures the changes in heartbeat and is an indicator of your autonomic nervous system.

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The interesting takeaway from this particular study is that firstly, subtle changes in a person’s HRV helped researchers identify and predict whether that person might be infected with or have symptoms of covid-19 a week before they were ever tested via a nasal swab. That’s big, as covid-19 can be contagious before any symptoms manifest. A week’s heads up is so far among the longest lead times we’ve seen reported. Another tidbit was that HRV patterns returned to normal 7-14 days after diagnosis, to the point where they weren’t statistically different from uninfected participants.

“This technology allows us not only to track and predict health outcomes, but also to intervene in a timely and remote manner, which is essential during a pandemic that requires people to stay apart,” said study co-author Zahi Fayad, PhD, said in a press release.

This is in line with the idea that wearables might be a useful tool in triaging testing, as well as potentially identifying illnesses in pre-symptomatic stages. Several other researchers have also identified HRV as a potential metric for detecting infections, while others have also pointed to respiratory rate and body temperature as potential signifiers as well. And while studies are currently being conducted with the Apple Watch, Fitbits, and Garmin devices, among others, the wearable that’s gotten the most press with regard to covid-19 remains the Oura Ring. The Oura Ring was the wearable of choice for the NBA in its reopening efforts, and some promising preliminary research found it could detect covid-19 up to three days before symptoms appeared with 90% accuracy. That said, it bears reminding that whatever headlines you read, none of the aforementioned wearables are capable of officially diagnosing covid-19. Also, just because this study focused on the Apple Watch, it doesn’t necessarily mean other wearables wouldn’t be capable of the same thing.

It’s also been about a year since many of these studies launched, and we’ll likely see some more findings released in the coming weeks and months. However, whatever findings do come to light, it’s possible that consumers won’t see “early illness detection” features on their personal wearables during this pandemic. That would require some degree of FDA clearance, which is typically a slow process. Even so, it’s also possible that these findings will help doctors better manage future flu outbreaks or even remotely monitor patients.

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CDC Releases New Advice and Data on Double-Masking

Illustration for article titled CDC Releases New Advice and Data on Double-Masking

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released new guidance about the best ways to use masks to help prevent transmission of covid-19. One key recommendation highlights the added benefits of using a more snugly fitting mask or pairing a cloth mask with a surgical mask. Experimental data collected by the agency suggests that either option should greatly reduce the risk of transmission between people.

Rochelle Walensky, the newly appointed CDC director, discussed the new recommendations during a White House coronavirus briefing on Wednesday. Walensky first reiterated the current consensus that properly worn masks can help limit the spread of the coronavirus. Some masks are better at protecting the wearer from infection (N95 and KN95 masks in particular), but they all limit the outward transmission of potentially infectious droplets and aerosols to others. New research from the CDC, however, looked at the relative effectiveness of different methods using cloth and surgical masks and how it could be improved.

In the study, even cloth masks were more effective than no masks at limiting the spread of aerosol and droplet particles the size of those emitted by people with covid-19. But surgical masks that were more snugly fit or that had a cloth mask worn on top of them were the most effective at protecting the user and others. In an experiment that simulated being exposed to an infectious person breathing nearby, having both parties wear better-fitted or double-layered masks reduced the level of exposure by more than 95 percent, Walensky said, compared to no mask at all.

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“I want to be clear that these new scientific data released today do not change the specific recommendations about who should wear a mask or when they should wear one, but they do provide new information on why wearing a well-fitting mask is so important to protect you and others,” she added.

The CDC has now updated its website on improving the effectiveness of masks based on this new data. To make surgical masks better-fitting, for instance, the CDC recommends first knotting the strands of the ear loops and tucking in the outer layer of the mask fabric (there’s a helpful guide and visual provided by the CDC if that description isn’t clear enough). There are also other products, such as mask fitters and braces or masks with nose bridges, that will make a mask tighter. However it’s done, you can tell a mask is snug enough if you can feel warm air come through the front of the mask and the mask moves with every breath you take.

As for double-masking, the CDC recommends either wearing a cloth mask with multiple layers or wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask. However, it doesn’t recommend wearing two surgical masks at once, or combining an KN95 mask with any other mask (to be fair, these masks are already very good at protection when worn correctly).

In addition to wearing masks in public, people should obviously still practice physical distancing whenever possible, avoid crowded indoor spaces, and wash their hands regularly.

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WHO Scientists Say Wuhan Lab Leak ‘Extremely Unlikely’ to Have Caused Covid-19 Pandemic

The P4 laboratory (center) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on May 13, 2020.

The P4 laboratory (center) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on May 13, 2020.
Photo: Hector Retamal / AFP (Getty Images)

Scientists assembled by the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the covid-19 pandemic have announced their early findings. They concluded that the first known cases traced to a seafood market in Wuhan, China in December 2019 likely don’t represent the original source of the outbreak. At the same time, they considered the possibility of a lab accident causing the pandemic “extremely unlikely,” and speculated that the virus wasn’t circulating locally in people for very long before the first cases were discovered.

The international team of scientists began their investigation in mid-January 2021, traveling to various areas of China, including the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan where the first cases of a then-mysterious pneumonia were reported in late December 2019. The investigation was a joint mission with local scientists from China, as part of an agreement made with the Chinese government in order to gain entry into the country. At a press conference held in Wuhan on Tuesday, the scientists laid out what they had found out so far.

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The team’s conclusions are not final, and there will no doubt continue to be criticism of China’s handling of the pandemic, especially early on. Activists and local journalists have accused the Chinese government of silencing scientists and members of the public who tried to warn of the threat of covid-19 when it was first discovered. And it took close to a month before the country would acknowledge that the virus was indeed capable of spreading from person to person.

Even recently, the AP reported in December, China has tried to limit efforts by scientists to investigate the origins of the pandemic, while some officials have promoted unfounded theories about the virus having originated elsewhere in the world. That said, the AP has also reported that WHO scientists were granted as much access as they asked for during this investigation.

Among other things, the team said they found numerous bits of evidence suggesting that the Huanan cases weren’t the first cases of covid-19 in humans. One key finding, according to Liang Wannian—China’s lead scientist on the mission—was signs of diversity in samples of the coronavirus (formally called SARS-CoV-2) taken from these cases. That likely means the Huanan cluster wasn’t the original transmission event.

The team also looked at hospital surveillance data from Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei and determined that there weren’t unusual spikes in flu-like illness earlier than December 2019. This suggests, Wannian said, that “there was no substantial unrecognized circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan during the latter part of 2019.” It’s worth noting that this finding is at odds with other evidence in China and in other countries suggesting that the virus may have been making people sick in November 2019 or earlier.

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Another part of the investigation involved visiting the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been singled out by some as the possible source of a lab accident that somehow released the coronavirus into the community (some have even argued that the virus was deliberately created and dispersed). No definitive evidence for this theory has emerged to date, while other studies have found no indication that the coronavirus was artificially made in the lab. The WHO team concluded that the lab leak theory was improbable enough to effectively close the book on it.

“The findings suggest that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population,” said Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the WHO mission as well as an infectious disease and food safety expert, at the press conference.

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The most likely possibility for the pandemic’s origin, Embarek said, is that the coronavirus leaped from bats to an intermediate host (possibly pangolins) and then to humans. Yet another possibility still being explored is that the virus could have been introduced to people through via frozen food products, since other evidence has suggested that it can survive in these conditions for a short time. However, the researchers did not go into detail as to how that pathway may have played out. And the WHO scientists still aren’t ruling out the possibility that bats alone transmitted the virus to humans.

A Nasal Spray for the Common Cold Is Closer to Reality

Illustration for article titled A Nasal Spray for the Common Cold Is Closer to Reality

Photo: Getty Images (Getty Images)

A bonafide treatment for the common cold has eluded scientists for decades. But recent animal research from a team in Australia suggests that their experimental drug—delivered via nasal spray—could help the immune system fend off all sorts of respiratory infections. The treatment is now set to be tested out in a clinical trial of people in a matter of weeks.

The treatment is called INNA-X and is being developed by Ena Respiratory, a biotech company in Australia. The therapy is intended to buff up the immune system through activating a class of proteins called Toll-like receptors (TLRs). TLRs play a key role in the innate immune system, which is the first line of defense against foreign pathogens. This innate immune response not only attacks germs but also rallies the rest of the immune system into action.

“We have discovered that INNA-X primes the innate immune system in the airways so that when a virus enters your body (nose or throat) and initiates infection, your immune system is able to respond much more quickly and control the virus in the crucial first days after exposure to the virus,” Nathan Bartlett, a virologist at the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute who is working with Ena to study the drug, told Gizmodo in an email.

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Though the development of INNA-X began before the pandemic, the treatment should ideally offer broad protection against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes covid-19, as well as the many viruses that cause the common cold, such as rhinoviruses. In two recent animal studies published last month, that seems to be the case.

One study conducted in ferrets—animals that are very vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2—found the drug could reduce replication of the coronavirus by up to 96% when compared to natural infection. Another study in mice found that INNA-X could boost the innate immune response against rhinovirus, leading to lower viral loads and lessened inflammation caused by viral infection. That study found that the drug could still affect airway cells taken from people with asthma, a condition known to dampen people’s natural immune response to respiratory viruses.

Successful studies in animals or human cells don’t always translate to a successful drug in people, of course. And even if INNA-X is successful, it wont be the perfect common cold cure we’re all hoping for. The immune-boosting effect of the drug is thought to last for about a week, so one dose wouldn’t protect people through the full cold and flu season (that said, other preclinical research has suggested it can be safely taken repeatedly). But it might still be a useful treatment for people at high risk of exposure or if taken soon after a confirmed exposure. In the context of covid-19 or future pandemics caused by similar viruses, the company hopes it could be used as a prophylactic to bridge the gap before an effective vaccine is available.

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The next step of Ena’s research will test out a candidate for human use called INNA-05. This small Phase I clinical trial will only examine the safety of the treatment in healthy volunteers recruited in Australia, not its effectiveness. But the company has said that the drug could be available for use in as soon as 18 months if it continues to show promise in human trials.

China Deploys Anal Swabs for Covid-19 Testing, Says It’s More Accurate

Medical workers are seen at a Covid-19 coronavirus testing site in Beijing on January 23, 2021.

Medical workers are seen at a Covid-19 coronavirus testing site in Beijing on January 23, 2021.
Photo: Noel Celis (Getty Images)

Health authorities in China have deployed anal swab tests to detect covid-19 in the lead up to the Lunar New Year celebrations, according to the Chinese state media outlet the Global Times, a technique that some claim might be more accurate than traditional nasal swabs, throat swabs, and antibody tests. But not everyone is convinced anal swabs are necessarily better.

The Global Times cites Li Tongzeng at Beijing You’an Hospital, a proponent of anal swabs who claims that “the coronavirus survives longer in the anus or excrement than those taken from upper body tracts,” noting the anal swabs are only being taken in a relatively limited capacity.

But the method might be a little more common than Li is letting on. Anal swabs are being deployed in Beijing quarantine as well as in some school settings, according to recent reports out of Beijing’s Daxing district.

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From the South China Morning Post:

The mass testing was conducted after the capital went into partial lockdown in Daxing and Shunyi, with genetic sequencing revealing two cases of the more transmissible coronavirus variant discovered last month in Britain.

The capital has since been on high alert.

More than 1,200 people were tested at a school attended by one pupil with an asymptomatic case of the British strain. Each of the contacts at the school had nasal, saliva and anal swabs as well as serum tests – all of which were negative.

Needless to say, an anal swab isn’t as convenient as a throat swab or a nasal swab, and there are no reports of other countries that are prioritizing anal swabs for covid-19 tests. The jury is still out on whether anal swabs, which reportedly take about 10 seconds, are more useful than a regular throat swab to test for coronavirus.

ABC News in Australia reports the “invasive” new test is being used outside of Beijing in places like the city of Guangzhou, where one social media user reported her anal swab was administer on her 14th day of quarantine. She also got an oral swab, according to the news outlet. Another social media user in Beijing said the anal swab test made her feel ashamed.

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“Just endless shame. No other feelings. Good luck,” the student, reportedly from South Korea, wrote about the swab in China.

But it’s not clear how much good these tests are going to do during the covid-19 pandemic—at least according to experts in other countries who question the necessity of the practice.

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“I’m not quite sure what they’re trying to achieve here with all the anal swabs,” Dr. Sanjaya Senanayake told ABC News.

China has seen a recent resurgence of coronavirus in a handful of hotspots, a troubling development as mutant variations from the UK and South Africa have been show to be more contagious. But China is still doing much better than most countries in the world at containing the pandemic, all things considered.

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This week the world surpassed the grim milestone of 100 million cases, with over 2.15 million deaths, a likely undercount of the true death toll around the world.

The U.S. has reported 25.4 million cases and more than 425,000 deaths since the pandemic began, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker. The U.S. identified over 143,000 new cases and 3,734 deaths on Tuesday alone.

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Moderna Says Its Vaccine Should Work Against UK and South Africa Coronavirus Variants

Illustration for article titled Moderna Says Its Vaccine Should Work Against UK and South Africa Coronavirus Variants

Photo: Paul Sancye (Getty Images)

The covid-19 vaccine developed by Moderna can likely fend off worrying variants of the coronavirus first found in the UK and South Africa, the company announced Monday. Moderna’s preliminary data appears to show that its covid-19 vaccine produces a strong immune response to these variants. However, the company still intends to work on developing a booster shot for the variant found in South Africa and others if needed.

Concern grew over these genetic variants last December, after it became clear that they were spreading widely in their respective countries. Scientists now believe that B 1.1.7, the variant in the UK, and B.1.351, the variant in South Africa, are more transmissible than previously circulating strains of the coronavirus. Since then, several countries including the U.S. have reported spotting these or similar variants spreading locally.

Because these variants contain multiple important mutations that change the virus, some scientists have worried these variants could evade the immune response of people previously infected or vaccinated. Some early data suggests that could be the case: Last week, for instance, the South African government announced finding evidence that B.1.351 could dodge existing immunity in some residents infected during the country’s first wave of the pandemic.

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Vaccine-provided immunity isn’t necessarily the same as natural immunity, though. And there’s been some early evidence showing that vaccines may still work as intended against these variants. A study in early January found that the Pfizer vaccine worked effectively against virus strains made to carry a key mutation found in B.1.351 and B 1.1.7. However, Moderna’s data seems to be the first looking directly at whether the antibodies from vaccinated people (taken from blood samples) can neutralize these variants, as opposed to select mutations.

The results look mostly encouraging. According to Moderna, vaccinated people produced a similar level of neutralizing antibodies to B 1.1.7 as they did to earlier strains. With B.1.351, levels of neutralizing antibodies dropped sixfold, but the amount of neutralizing activity left was still deemed enough to ensure protection against illness.

“We are encouraged by these new data, which reinforce our confidence that the Moderna covid-19 vaccine should be protective against these newly detected variants,” said Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel in a statement released by the company.

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The findings have yet to be released to the public, though they’re expected to be posted on the preprint website bioRXiv soon. The study was carried out with the help of the U.S. federal government through the National Institutes of Health.

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One important caveat to all this is that we don’t have a clear marker of immunity to the coronavirus in humans—what scientists call “correlates of protection.” Some mix of antibodies, T cells, and B cells specific to the virus will protect people from illness, but we don’t know the exact amounts of each needed (or if these amounts differ between different groups of people). So right now, scientists are making educated guesses about what these lab results should mean for immunity, both over the short and long-term.

Though the results could signal that neither variant will greatly threaten the effectiveness of Moderna’s vaccine (or Pfizer/BioNTech’s similar mRNA vaccine), there’s still no guarantee. And the results for B.1.351 aren’t completely reassuring. That’s likely why Moderna is moving ahead with efforts to develop a vaccine adjusted to match B.1.351 specifically; it also plans to test out whether an additional booster shot of the regular vaccine will provide further protection against these and any future variants (Two doses, taken a month apart, are the standard course). Ideally, these measures won’t be needed, but the time to work on them should be now.

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Hurdles and challenges in vaccine development are more the rule than exception. Just today, the pharmaceutical company Merck announced it would largely abandon efforts on its two covid-19 vaccine candidates after early data suggested they wouldn’t be effective enough. Still other companies are facing shortages in mass production should their vaccines win approval.