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

Photo: Christopher Furlong/ (Getty Images)

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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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.

The Murky Connection Between the Coronavirus and Climate Change

Illustration for article titled The Murky Connection Between the Coronavirus and Climate Change

Image: Silvia Izquierdo (AP)

Climate change is basically messing up everything in our lives. It’s tempting to find a way to pin the coronavirus pandemic on it, and a new study released today does just that, claiming that climate change “may have driven the emergence” of coronavirus. But it may be more complicated than it seems at first blush.

Scientists have known for a while that changes in habitat, including those precipitated by climate change, can cause humans to come into closer contact with wild animals that may be carrying dangerous viruses. The new study, released on Friday in Science of the Total Environment, takes a much more specific look at how climate change may have shifted the makeup of bat habitats. Changing ecosystems along the China-Laos border, the study says, increased the number of bat species living there, and upped the chances of a disease being passed on to humans.

“Understanding how the global distribution of bat species has shifted as a result of climate change may be an important step in reconstructing the origin of the covid-19 outbreak,” lead author Robert Beyer, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s zoology department, said in a press release.

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Some wild animals are common transmitters of diseases that can be harmful to humans, like coronaviruses, ebola, and rabies. Bats in particular seem to be a warning sign for humans when it comes to viruses: The world’s bats carry around 3,000 different kinds of coronavirus, and research has shown that there’s a positive correlation between the number of types bat species that live in a particular area and bat-to-human disease transmission. This likely isn’t a special evil superpower unique to bats: Researchers have established that the more species an animal group has, the more different viruses they can host. Bats just happen to have a lot of different species.

Climate change has shifted ecosystems around the world as rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns create different assemblages of plants and animals. What was a lush tropical forest in the 1800s now may be filled with very different types of flora and fauna. That’s the case, the study says, in forests in southern China and along the border with Myanmar and Laos.

The researchers created a map of what the world’s vegetation may have looked like 100 years ago using temperature, precipitation, and cloud cover records, and filled in this map with the habitat needs of different bat species. They then compared this information to current vegetation and data on bat populations to conclude that the changes in habitat may have prompted around 40 different species to migrate to the area along the China-Laos border.

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Each bat carries, on average, 2.7 different different types of coronavirus, the study says. The study goes on to posit that when those 40 species migrated beyond their original habitat over the past 100 years, they toted along with them around 100 different versions of coronaviruses, upping the chance of cross-species infection.

In concept, this theory is an alluring one. It’s clear the climate crisis is having a massive impact on the natural and built worlds. And it feels like a pretty straightforward explanation of how our warming planet may have shifted a deadly virus closer to human contact. But just because it feels straightforward may not make it correct.

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“It is undeniable that global change including climatic change, land use change, and demographic change will affect emerging pathogen risk,” Rachel Baker, a research scholar at Princeton University’s Environmental Institute who wasn’t involved with the study, said in an email.However, finding a causal relationship between these changes and the emergence of a specific pathogen, such as SARS-CoV-2, is tricky thing to do.”

She noted that while climate change can make weather events like hurricanes or wildfires more common or extreme, it’s not the only thing causing them. So it is with the virus. Attributing it to climate changeis much harder to do with viral emergence, as you have to account more many more factors.”

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Baker pointed out that the study is also not clear on how exactly how more bat species in an area actually impacts bat-to-human disease transmission. The methodology did not use any specific on-the-ground observations on bat populations, just habitat and species range data. That means it lacks a key piece of the scientific puzzle that is needed to support its strong assertions.

“While climate change is one piece of the puzzle, there have been many changes to human society over the past 100 years that have likely elevated the risk from emerging pathogens,” Baker said.

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Scientists Now Worried the UK Coronavirus Variant Is Deadlier

Illustration for article titled Scientists Now Worried the UK Coronavirus Variant Is Deadlier

Photo: Jeff J Mitchell (Getty Images)

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made an unsettling announcement on Friday about B 1.1.7, the variant of the coronavirus first found in the UK last fall that’s become widespread in the country and elsewhere. According to data newly analyzed by UK scientists, B 1.1.7 is not only more transmissible than earlier strains, but it may also be more likely to cause death. Though these conclusions are still preliminary, they do appear to be worth taking seriously.

The announcement was based on data assessed by the UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, or NERVTAG, an independent group of scientists that has helped shape the country’s pandemic response. Last December, their work studying B 1.1.7 solidified the consensus that the variant was more transmissible than previously circulating strains. Initially, their analysis found no evidence that B 1.1.7 was causing more severe illness or death in the population than before. But that’s no longer the case.

According to their new paper released Friday, there are now several independent analyses of the case data collected in recent weeks pointing to the same trend—an uptick in people dying from B 1.1.7 compared to people infected with other strains of the virus. Though the exact numbers differ between groups, they suggest that B 1.1.7 is about 30% more likely to cause death than previous strains. Note that, while a 30% increase sounds huge, the overall mortality rate would still be somewhere around 1%.

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“This is of course quite concerning, given the speed at which this variant has overtaken circulating strains across different regions and our inability to control general transmission in many parts of the world,” Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada who wasn’t involved in the new research, told Gizmodo in an email.

As the authors of the new paper emphasize, there are limitations to their findings. The data that UK scientists are using to study the coronavirus only covers a small portion of total cases and deaths in the country on any given day. Some sources of data, like the outcomes of hospitalized patients, also take more time to collect than others. This may explain why hospitalization data specifically doesn’t seem to show that B.1.1.7 is deadlier—the data might not be up to date enough to find that pattern yet. It’s also possible that B.1.1.7 is putting more people in the hospital but not necessarily changing a hospitalized patient’s odds of survival.

One possible factor that could indirectly explain why B.1.1.7 seems deadlier—hospitals being overwhelmed with more cases caused by a more transmissible variant—doesn’t appear to be playing a major role, however. One analysis, by The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, accounted for “hospital pressure covariates” like the number of available hospital beds for patients on a ventilator but found no substantial change in their conclusions. The increase in death rates was consistent across different age groups, too, further suggesting a real higher risk of mortality from B.1.1.7 alone.

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Several countries are now worried about the emergence of B.1.1.7 and other, similar variants. Should B.1.1.7 take hold outside the UK, as some experts have warned, it would certainly threaten to unravel the recent decline in cases and hospitalizations seen recently in some countries.

“My immediate thoughts, of course, went to the toll of this disease on our long-term care facility residents in Canada and what this variant could mean for an already precarious situation,” Kindrachuk said. Canada, like the U.S., is newly experiencing a decline in cases and hospitalizations. But outbreaks of variants similar to B 1.1.7 have already been found in local nursing homes.

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More work has to be done to confirm these findings. But no matter the conclusions, it remains absolutely pivotal to do what we can to reduce the spread of the pandemic as quickly as possible—including wearing masks, avoiding indoor socializing when possible, and getting vaccinated when you become eligible.

Twitter CEO on Banning Trump: Online Speech Can Cause Harm Offline

White supremacist Donald J. Trump speaks to the media before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on January 12, 2021.

White supremacist Donald J. Trump speaks to the media before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on January 12, 2021.
Image: Mandel Ngan (Getty Images)

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally gave this thoughts on Wednesday about the decision to ban President Donald Trump from the platform, explaining that the move wasn’t easy and that he takes no pride in banning anyone. But Dorsey acknowledged there can be real harm from speech that happens online and he believes permanently suspending Trump’s account was the right decision during a time of “great uncertainty” even if it sets a “dangerous” precedent.

“I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here,” Dorsey tweeted Wednesday night in the first of a 12-tweet thread. “After a clear warning we’d take this action, we made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter. Was this correct?”

“I believe this was the right decision for Twitter,” Dorsey continued. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.”

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Trump still has the ability to post on the @POTUS account, as he did on Wednesday, releasing a video where he denounced violence in a general sense but still failed to concede that he lost the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden. The president’s personal account was banned last week after he incited an insurrectionist mob to descend on the Capitol, killing five people.

Dorsey went on to say he believes every ban is somehow a failure of Twitter rather than an individual user. How so? The Twitter co-founder explained that he wants to “promote healthy conversation” and when that doesn’t happen he seems to take it personally.

“That said, having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications. While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us,” wrote Dorsey.

Dorsey has previously received criticism for allowing extremist voices on his platform and Twitter’s rules have changed dramatically during the course of the Trump presidency. In 2016, when Trump was still running for office, the only things that might get you banned were targeted harassment, like when far-right troll Milo Yiannopolous was banned in July 2016 for unleashing a racist online mob on comedian Leslie Jones.

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Today, Twitter officially bans things like Holocaust denial and direct calls for violence, but there are still plenty of neo-Nazis on the platform. The social media company has resisted calls for it to ban white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis.

“Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation,” Dorsey continued about the ban on Trump’s account. “They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”

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That last part about a “dangerous” precedent has been seized upon by libertarians like journalist Glenn Greenwald, who believes so-called censorship by Big Tech is a larger threat to the world than a mob of violent fascists trying to take over the U.S. government.

Ultimately, Dorsey pointed out that if people don’t like Twitter’s rules, they’re free to go elsewhere.

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“The check and accountability on this power has always been the fact that a service like Twitter is one small part of the larger public conversation happening across the internet. If folks do not agree with our rules and enforcement, they can simply go to another internet service,” Dorsey wrote.

The Twitter co-founder then seemed to address the controversy over Parler, which has been booted from the Apple App Store, Google’s Android platform, and Amazon’s AWS hosting services for not moderating extremist content well enough. Parler has sued Amazon in federal court over the matter.

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“This concept was challenged last week when a number of foundational internet tool providers also decided not to host what they found dangerous. I do not believe this was coordinated. More likely: companies came to their own conclusions or were emboldened by the actions of others,” wrote Dorsey.

Dorsey even went on to suggest that the move by large tech companies to push out Parler would be bad, at least in the long term.

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“This moment in time might call for this dynamic, but over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet. A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same,” explained Dorsey.

“Yes, we all need to look critically at inconsistencies of our policy and enforcement. Yes, we need to look at how our service might incentivize distraction and harm. Yes, we need more transparency in our moderation operations. All this can’t erode a free and open global internet.”

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Dorsey, who’s reportedly worth roughly $13 billion, then took a weird turn in his thread, perhaps only as an extremely wealthy person can.

“The reason I have so much passion for #Bitcoin is largely because of the model it demonstrates: a foundational internet technology that is not controlled or influenced by any single individual or entity. This is what the internet wants to be, and over time, more of it will be,” Dorsey wrote.

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“We are trying to do our part by funding an initiative around an open decentralized standard for social media. Our goal is to be a client of that standard for the public conversation layer of the internet. We call it @bluesky,” Dorsey wrote, plugging an initiative he’s had in the works since late 2019.

“This will take time to build. We are in the process of interviewing and hiring folks, looking at both starting a standard from scratch or contributing to something that already exists. No matter the ultimate direction, we will do this work completely through public transparency.”

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Dorsey finished his thread by recognizing that it’s a difficult time in the world right now, something we can assume is at least partially a reference to the covid-19 pandemic that has killed at least 1.97 million people across the globe and sickened over 92.3 million, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker.

“It’s important that we acknowledge this is a time of great uncertainty and struggle for so many around the world. Our goal in this moment is to disarm as much as we can, and ensure we are all building towards a greater common understanding, and a more peaceful existence on earth,” wrote Dorsey.

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“I believe the internet and global public conversation is our best and most relevant method of achieving this. I also recognize it does not feel that way today. Everything we learn in this moment will better our effort, and push us to be what we are: one humanity working together.”

Two Worrying Coronavirus Variants Local to U.S. Flagged by Researchers in Ohio

Illustration for article titled Two Worrying Coronavirus Variants Local to U.S. Flagged by Researchers in Ohio

Photo: Quinn Rooney (Getty Images)

Researchers in Ohio say they’ve discovered two new variants of the coronavirus local to the U.S. that may be of concern. One variant appears to contain a mutation found in other troubling variants, while the other has started to spread fast in Columbus, Ohio over the last month and carries its own unique mix of mutations. The scientists believe that the Columbus variant is likely more contagious than past existing strains, though they caution little is still known about it.

The variants were found by researchers at The Ohio State University. Since March 2020, OSU’s Wexner Medical Center has been mapping the genome of coronavirus strains collected from covid-19 patients in the area. Viruses often mutate, and usually, these mutations do not change how disease-causing viruses spread or infect their human hosts. But the researchers say they’ve come across two variants that could be trouble.

One variant, so far only found in a single patient, carries a key mutation that is also found in the B.1.1.7 variant, first spotted in the UK last September. B.1.1.7 has rapidly spread throughout the UK since December and is strongly believed to be more transmissible than earlier variants. The researchers believe that the mutation independently showed up in the U.S. variant, from strains of the virus circulating in the area already. Because the variant has only been seen in a single case, it’s not known if and how common it is in the general population.

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The second variant may be even more worrying. From late December to January, OSU researchers have seen it pop up more often in their sampling from patients in Columbus, Ohio, to the point where it’s now the dominant variant detected in new cases. That suggests that it’s outcompeting other local strains. This Columbus variant is also unique to the U.S., the researchers say, and carries a combination of three mutations on its spike protein not previously documented before. These mutations are likely making the variant more contagious, they suspect.

The OSU team cautions that much is unknown about either variant. And though they plan to publish their preliminary findings in the preprint website BioRxiv soon, their data for now has not been seen and evaluated by outside scientists. Even if these findings are as real as they appear, it will take time to understand the potential added risks the new variants could pose.

“It’s important that we don’t overreact to this new variant until we obtain additional data,” said Peter Mohler, a co-author of the upcoming paper and chief scientific officer at the Wexner Medical Center, in a statement released by OSU. “We need to understand the impact of mutations on transmission of the virus, the prevalence of the strain in the population and whether it has a more significant impact on human health.”

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As with other variants seen recently, the OSU researchers do not suspect right now that these Ohio variants would greatly impact the effectiveness of existing vaccines and treatments in development. So far, no variants have been found more likely to cause serious illness or death, though their added transmissibility will likely lead to more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in areas where they become established.

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If nothing else, though, these latest discoveries highlight the danger of a widely spreading pandemic. The more cases of covid-19 there are in an area, the more likely that concerning mutations could emerge and quickly spread in turn. With the country still experiencing incredibly high levels of new cases, the possibility that things could get even worse than they are now is still very real.

Disneyland Will Become a Covid-19 Vaccination Site

People visiting Downtown Disney District in Anaheim, California in November 2020, as part of Disney’s phased re-opening of the retail area.

People visiting Downtown Disney District in Anaheim, California in November 2020, as part of Disney’s phased re-opening of the retail area.
Photo: Frederic J. Brown (Getty Images)

After spending months of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in the spotlight for trying to repeatedly re-open the gates to the Magic Kingdom, Disneyland is finally letting Californians in…but not to take a ride on Haunted Mansion or sip on a green milk at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Orange County officials have confirmed that the Anaheim theme park will become one of the county’s first Point-Of-Dispensing (POD) sites for distribution of covid-19 vaccinations. Unlike its sister resort in Orlando, Florida, Disney World, California’s Disneyland has been closed since March due to coronavirus lockdown orders (outside of a limited re-opening of the Downtown Disney retail area adjacent to the parks, which has been open to guests since July). Disney World controversially re-opened in July and is currently host to both guests and a state-run covid-19 testing facility.

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Disneyland will be one of five “Super POD” sites in Orange County, supposedly with the capacity to distribute thousands of vaccine doses to people daily, and is expected to begin operating later this week.

“Disneyland Resort is proud to help support Orange County and the City of Anaheim with the use of our property, and we are grateful for all of their efforts to combat COVID-19,” Dr. Pamela Hymel, the Chief Medical Officer for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, told ABC7 news. “After a year in which so many in our community have faced unprecedented hardship and uncertainty, there is now reason for optimism with the administration of a vaccine.”

It’s been a strange journey to get to Disneyland’s quasi-re-opening here (no, they’re probably not gonna let you get on Space Mountain after your jab, sadly). The famous theme park has been at the forefront of pushes in California to re-open, citing the economic damage the ongoing pandemic has caused the region, as well as the relative success of Disney World’s controlled re-opening in Florida, as incentives for the Happiest Place On Earth to start serving guests again. But state health officials have remained steadfast on strict guidelines for theme parks, Disneyland or otherwise, to open in even a severely reduced capacity—guidelines that have yet to be put into practice, given Orange County’s current covid case numbers.

Even if the park can’t open to guests yet, helping to distribute vaccinations against the coronavirus is infinitely more useful than access to Splash Mountain and churros is right now.

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Biden Admin’s Vaccine Plan: Release All Stored Doses

A nurse shows off a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech covid-19 vaccine outside of the Chatham County Health Department on Dec. 15, 2020 in Savannah, Ga.

A nurse shows off a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech covid-19 vaccine outside of the Chatham County Health Department on Dec. 15, 2020 in Savannah, Ga.
Photo: Sean Rayford (Getty Images)

On Friday, the incoming Biden administration detailed a new plan to make as many vaccine doses available as possible to the public. They plan to release all doses held in storage, breaking from the current strategy of stockpiling some of the available supply to ensure that people can get their second doses. Though the plan does have support from public health experts, more will need to be done to improve the lackluster rollout of vaccines so far.

CNN was the first to report on the change in vaccine strategy. According to Biden transition spokesperson TJ Ducklo, President-elect Biden will support the release of all vaccine doses on hand to states and local jurisdictions for further distribution. Currently, the government withholds 50% of the total supply, allocating them three weeks later to make sure that people can have access to a second dose, typically taken a month after the first dose.

“The President-elect believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible,” Ducklo told CNN. “He will share additional details next week on how his Administration will begin releasing available doses when he assumes office on Jan. 20.”

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Currently, approximately 6.25 million Americans have received their first dose of a covid-19 vaccine—far below the projected 40 million doses that were supposed to be available by the end of 2020. The slow rollout has led many experts to call for dramatic measures in shoring up vaccine distribution or supply.

Some proposals have included cutting the amount per dose in half, delaying the second dose by months, or only providing one dose at all to people. Early this week, however, the Food and Drug Administration shot down any changes to the dosing or scheduling of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, the two vaccines in the U.S. currently authorized for emergency use—at least not without further evidence of their safety.

This new plan isn’t meant to intentionally delay people from getting their second dose—ideally, that shouldn’t happen at all. And there is some evidence that it could improve the current vaccination situation. On Tuesday this week, scientists published research in the Annals of Internal Medicine to model the effects of a very similar strategy. Their plan called for 10% of the national vaccine supply to be withheld during the first three weeks for second doses, then 90% for the next three weeks after that, and finally 50% for as long as needed.

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Compared to the current “fixed” strategy, the authors estimated that the new plan would prevent 23-29% more cases of covid-19 during that time, while more 2 million more people would receive their second dose, simply because they had the chance to get their first shot. This conclusion was based on the assumption that a steady supply of 6 million new doses would be produced in the country every week. But under less generous assumptions, like the vaccine supply dropping to 3 million new doses a week midway through, the benefits were still in favor of the flexible plan, if lessened. The only scenario where the current plan was still better, they concluded, would be where the vaccine supply plummeted and the first dose alone provided low immunity to volunteers.

“We do have to accept a small risk if the vaccine supply is disrupted. But if it isn’t massively disrupted, we can get more people vaccinated initially while still ensuring they get their second dose,” study co-author Joshua Salomon, a health policy researcher and professor of medicine at Stanford University, told Gizmodo over the phone.

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Salomon said that his team wasn’t contacted by the Biden administration about their research. But he enthusiastically endorses their plan.

“We’re glad to have seen this happen—it’s exactly what we were advocating for,” he added.

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So far at least, there haven’t been concerns about shortages in the vaccine production supply. By that same token, though, the available supply hasn’t been the biggest roadblock facing many states. According to a vaccine tracker created by Bloomberg, only three states have provided more than 50% of their currently available doses—with North Dakota at the top having allocated 62% percent. States with large populations such as California have allocated only a quarter of their doses so far, while New York has allocated 37% of its doses.

Though providing more doses up front could very well speed up distribution of the vaccine to the public, it’s not the only solution needed. Experts and lawmakers have argued that more money and more manpower is needed locally to effectively provide the doses on hand to more people. Still others have called for more concise guidelines in the prioritization of these doses, such as a simple age criteria at first.

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“This isn’t sufficient on its own. We have to address the distribution bottlenecks we’re seeing on the local level too,” Salomon said. “But it’s an important piece of the puzzle. And whether it’s on the national or local level, if there are vaccines getting left in the freezer, then that’s something we have to fix as much as possible.”

The Biden administration has elsewhere indicated that it will be aggressive in trying to correct the dismal vaccine rollout, including using federal power to ramp up vaccine manufacturing. This new plan might be the first of many.

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Early Evidence Suggests Pfizer Vaccine Works Against New Coronavirus Variant

A UK nurse holds up a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

A UK nurse holds up a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine
Photo: Frank Augstein (Getty Images)

Scientists are hard at work testing out whether mutations found in new variants of the coronavirus could bypass the immunity offered by currently developed vaccines. The first results from this work are encouraging: They suggest that the Pfizer vaccine is still effective against one important mutation found in these variants. However, more research is still needed before we should be completely reassured.

The preliminary results were released this week on the preprint website bioRXiv by a team of scientists from Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch. They collected blood samples from people who had been fully vaccinated and tested them against strains of the virus carrying the N501Y mutation, which has been seen in variants first found in the UK and South Africa and is thought to be one important reason why these strains are more transmissible. Scientists have worried that the mutation could change the structure of the virus enough to allow it to “escape” detection from the immune system of survivors or vaccinated people.

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In the tests, the blood of these patients still proved capable of neutralizing the N501Y strain of the virus, performing just as well as against other variants. That indicates that this one mutation alone won’t protect the virus from our existing weapons. The team has also tested other mutations seen in the UK or South Africa variants and found similar results.

“So we’ve now tested 16 different mutations, and none of them have really had any significant impact. That’s the good news,” study author and Pfizer scientist Philip Dormitzer told Reuters Friday. “That doesn’t mean that the 17th won’t.”

Indeed, there hasn’t been research done yet on another troubling mutation seen in the South African variant, called E484K. And while it may be hard for any single mutation to affect vaccine efficacy, experts have warned that multiple mutations in a variant could collectively change it enough to avoid vaccine-provided antibodies, at least partially weakening a vaccine’s effectiveness. In other words, these findings are hopeful, but there’s still a lot of double-checking to be done.

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Dormitzer and his team—and no doubt other scientists—will continue to test the vaccine against new mutations and variants, with data from this research said to be available in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the real world could provide some useful information in the near future. So far, around 17 million people globally have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine (most require two doses), including 6.25 million Americans. In the midst of a still-raging pandemic, more cases of these variants are being reported around the world. If our vaccines aren’t working as effectively as they’re expected to because of these new versions of the virus, we’ll know soon enough.

Good News: Natural Immunity to the Coronavirus May Last Years, Study Suggests

Illustration for article titled Good News: Natural Immunity to the Coronavirus May Last Years, Study Suggests

Photo: David Silverman (Getty Images)

New research released Wednesday should provide comfort to covid-19 survivors worried about losing their natural immunity to the coronavirus anytime soon. The findings suggest that in most people, a robust immune response to the virus lasts for at least eight months—and there are good signs that it could even last years.

There have been concerns about waning immunity since nearly the start of the pandemic. Related coronaviruses that cause the common cold are known to often reinfect people, and scattered reports of reinfections from covid-19 emerged in 2020. Some studies had also suggested that antibody levels to the virus can drop off significantly within three months.

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On the flip side, immunity is a complicated mess. Antibodies are not the only source of immunity we get against germs like the coronavirus. And, so far at least, confirmed accounts of reinfection still appear rare. This new study, published in Science, seems to provide the most up-to-date look at how our immune responses to the virus change over time—and the verdict is largely positive.

Scientists studied the blood of 180 volunteers who had confirmed covid-19, including from samples taken over six months post-infection. Levels of antibodies to the virus took a small dip following infection but remained stable after that for up to eight months in most people. T cells specific to the virus also declined a bit after three months but again remained at steady levels afterward. Meanwhile, memory B cells, which help the immune system wake up in response to a familiar threat and create more antibodies when needed, were actually more abundant at the six-month mark than at one month. That’s especially encouraging, because these B cells are crucial to longer-term immunity, the kind that lasts for years.

The findings don’t directly show that our immunity to covid-19 will absolutely last for eight months and longer. Scientists are still trying to figure out how these immune responses in the body translate to protection in the real world. But all told, 95% of people in the study had some level of immune memory in their antibodies, B cells, and T cells to the virus five to eight months after their symptoms first began. That indicates, the authors wrote, that “durable immunity against secondary covid-19 disease is a possibility in most individuals.”

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Antibodies do tend to be the most important part of immunity in preventing reinfection from germs. This and other research has shown that our antibody levels to the coronavirus can vary substantially from person to person. So that might explain why a few people have gotten reinfected in so short a time, with some cases appearing only three months later. But as experts have noted, the other remaining aspects of our immunity should usually protect people from more severe illness if they are infected a second time.

All that said, the current pandemic situation is still very bad, with daily cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the U.S. at record-high levels. It will take more time to figure out other important questions, like how long vaccine-provided immunity will last. But in a sea of bad news, at least there’s some hope to grasp onto.

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