, 7-November 13

Robin Lloyd

The items below are highlights from the free newsletter, “Smart, useful, science stuff about COVID-19.” To receive newsletter issues daily in your inbox, sign up here.


You probably heard about Pfizer and BioNTech’s announcement on Monday (11/9/20) that early results of their large-scale Phase 3 human study of a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 show that it has a whopping 90 percent effectiveness. The results have not yet been published or scrutinized by outside experts, but no one anticipated such a positive result and many scientists are excited (although note cautious reaction of Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, in Matthew Herper’s 11/9/20 story at STAT).


In an 11/11/20 episode of health-care policy wonk Andy Slavitt’s “In the Bubble” podcast, cardiologist Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research Translational Institute said that the Pfizer/BioNTech announcement bodes well for Moderna’s vaccine candidate, which relies in similar genetic technology. This approach involves injections of synthetic messenger-RNA (mRNA) that “cause the body to create a protein from the virus; the immune system then recognizes the virus and learns to attack,” Herper writes. With such a high level of protection, herd immunity could be achieved more quickly than previously expected, Topol said. Many reports forecast that doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine (and possibly Moderna’s too) could start to be administered to health care workers and people at very high-risk for severe COVID-19, on an emergency authorization basis, before the end of the year, Topol said. He also noted that it’s remarkable to go from sequencing a newly discovered pathogenic virus to a vaccine against it within merely the space of one year.


This Twitter thread by Dr. Bob Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco, provides some accessible details of what the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine news means and what’s next, including the fact that the group likely won’t apply for emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration until later this month, by which time more safety data is expected.


Here’s an excellent in-depth story on the sequence of recent discoveries and developments that led to genetic technology using mRNA. The story focuses on the 2010 founding of Moderna by Harvard Medical School stem cell biologist Derrick Rossi, biomedical engineer and inventor Robert Langer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, venture capitalist Noubar Afeyan, and an unnamed Harvard researcher. This technology is so new that any approval of an mRNA vaccine would be a first. By Damian Garde at STAT and Jonathan Salesman at the Boston Globe (11/10/20).


Findings published 11/5/20 in Nature on SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in children and in adults suggest that children are infectious for fewer days than adults are and that children clear the virus faster than adults do, reports Apoorva Mandavilli at The New York Times (11/5/20). Strangely, the reason seems to be that children’s immune response to the virus is more limited and weaker than adult’s response is. “A weaker immune response in children may paradoxically indicate that they vanquish the virus before it has a chance to wreak havoc on the body,” Mandavilli writes.


And here’s another intriguing insight into coronaviruses and children: Gina Kolata at The New York Times reports on a paper published 11/6/20 in Science finding that children are more likely to have antibodies to cold-causing coronaviruses than are adults, and some of these antibodies also protect against the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Children’s propensity to come down with common colds may “flood” their systems “almost continuously” with antibodies to cold-causing coronaviruses, Kolata writes, leaving their immune systems with so-called memory cells that can easily mount attacks on re-infections. Adults don’t get as many colds; and even when they do, they might lose this immune memory over time, says a Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital geneticist quoted in the story. On top of that, the new coronavirus “may interfere with the activation of the memory cells able to to the infection,” the story states (11/10/20).


Cellphone data in 10 U.S. cities this spring suggest that efforts to reduce the occupancy of indoor venues is effective at reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, according to an 11/10/20 study in Nature covered by Benedict Carey at The New York Times on the same day. “Restaurants, gyms, cafes and other crowded indoor venues accounted for some 8 in 10 new infections in the early months” of what is now a pandemic, Carey writes. Restaurants were about four times riskier places to catch the virus than were gyms and cafes, Carey reports:


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has updated its SARS-CoV-2 guidance for the public to state that wearing a face mask protects the wearer, not just other people, reports Maria Godoy at NPR (11/11/20). The change is based on recent studies, including one of 124 households in Beijing in which the risk of transmission dropped nearly 80 percent when everyone living together wore a face mask “indoors as a precaution before they knew anyone who lived there was sick,” as Godoy reported 6/21/20. In another study, infected passengers on a long airplane flight did not transmit the virus to other passengers “when mask wearing was strictly enforced,” Godoy reports.


You might enjoy, “Using your mental health benefits: A hero’s journey,” by Caitlin Kunkel and Erica Lies, for McSweeney’s.


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Author: Robin Lloyd {authorlink}
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