Weekly Coronavirus Update: Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Happy Tuesday, everyone. Here’s the latest in Coronavirus-related research and news. This week’s update includes information on monoclonal antibodies, two vaccines, a blood test that may help identify individuals at risk of severe Covid, death risk for certain occupations, antibodies passed on through pregnancy, mental health and Covid, and as always, a world update.

1) You may remember reading about monoclonal antibodies, a treatment given soon after someone tests positive for Covid-19 to minimize the severity. While this treatment does not seem to be widely available yet globally, many people I know in Indiana received monoclonal antibody infusions after testing positive for Covid. Scientists have now developed a new monoclonal antibody that was shown to be effective at disabling the Covid-19 virus as well as other closely related Coronaviruses. Tested against the virus in mice, the antibody was shown to stop the virus from reproducing in the mice’s lungs. Additionally, the researchers tested the antibody against the SARS virus in mice, and it was also effective at stopping that virus. The researchers described their antibody as one that targets receptors they referred to as the “Achilles heel” of Coronaviruses. This is good news from a treatment perspective and the researchers also believe their antibody can help in the development of vaccines to fight emerging Coronaviruses. The study was peer-reviewed and published in the journal Science. You can read the full text here: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2021/01/22/science.abf4830

2) In other monoclonal antibody news, as I am getting ready to post this I just found two pre-print (not yet peer reviewed — important disclaimer) studies that tested current monoclonal antibodies being used in Covid patients (such as the ones from Eli Lilly and Regeneron) against new variants of the virus. Both studies found that current treatments are not effective against the South African variant. You can read a study by researchers at Columbia University, which also tested vaccines and found them to be less effective against the South African variant, here: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.01.25.428137v2
and a study by researchers in South Africa here: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.01.18.427166v1.full.pdf

3) Results of the Johnson & Johnson Phase III vaccine trial were reported by news outlets last week, although the complete trial data have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. What we know so far is that in a global trial of over 43,000 participants, the vaccine had an overall efficacy of 66%. In the United States, where the new British and South African variants of the virus are not yet widespread, it was 72% effective. The trials in South Africa, where a new variant is running rampant, showed 57% efficacy. One piece of good news with this vaccine is that it was shown to stop 85% of severe infections and was 100% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths. This vaccine uses technology similar to the AstraZeneca vaccine, as it is based on an adenovirus, described in a Bloomberg news article as a “cold germ modified to make copies of the coronavirus spike protein, which the pathogen uses to force its way into cells.” This is also the technology used in flu vaccines. Along with its ability to stop severe infections and prevent hospitalizations and deaths, another benefit to the J&J vaccine is that it requires only one dose unlike the approved vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. Additionally, it can be stored in a refrigerator for up to three months. J&J plans to apply for Emergency Use Authorization through the FDA this week. If approved, the company says it could provide 100 million doses to the US by June. You can read more about the vaccine here: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-29/j-j-single-dose-vaccine-provides-strong-shield-against-covid-19
On another vaccine-related note, one of the epidemiologists I follow put together a really handy chart comparing all of the different vaccines. If you are interested, it can be viewed here: https://yourlocalepidemiologist.com/updated-vaccine-table/

4) In other vaccine news, today the peer-reviewed Phase III trial results of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine were published in The Lancet. Over 20,000 adults were involved in the trial, with 16,501 receiving the vaccine and 5,476 receiving a placebo. Overall the vaccine showed 91.6% efficacy. Of the eldest participants (2,144 individuals aged 60 or over) the vaccine showed 91.8% efficacy. No serious adverse effects in any participants were deemed to be caused by the vaccine. The Sputnik V vaccine is similar to the vaccines from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, as it is an adenovirus-based vaccine. It requires two doses spaced 21 days apart. Researchers are now conducting trials to test a one-dose version of the Sputnik V vaccine, aptly named “Sputnik V light”. You can read the full study results here: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00234-8/fulltext

5) Mitochondrial DNA in the blood (inflammatory markers from damaged organs) can help predict which Covid patients are at high risk of severe complications and death. Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis tested the blood of 97 Covid patients. Those with high levels of mitochondrial DNA were more likely to require ICU admission, intubation, vasopressor use, or renal replacement therapy. These patients were also more likely to die. The researchers adjusted for age, sex, and comorbidities and concluded that high circulating mitochondrial DNA is an independent risk factor for these severe outcomes. This study was peer-reviewed and published in the journal JCI Insight. The researchers who conducted this study are now developing a rapid blood test that could be used to measure mitochondrial DNA levels and therefore assist healthcare professionals in determining which patients are higher risk, which could potentially help doctors to determine which patients should receive treatments that are in limited supply in many places, such as monoclonal antibodies. You can read the full text of the study here: https://insight.jci.org/articles/view/143299/pdf
and a press release about the research and the rapid https://medicine.wustl.edu/news/rapid-blood-test-identifies-covid-19-patients-at-high-risk-of-severe-disease/

6) Researchers in California studied the death risk from Covid-19 based on individuals’ occupations. They analyzed death records of Californians aged 18–65 to determine how many more deaths occurred for certain occupations during the pandemic compared to non-Covid times. Overall, adults had a 22% higher mortality rate than in previous times. Additionally, “relative excess mortality was highest in food/agriculture workers (39% increase), transportation/logistics workers (28% increase), facilities (27%) and manufacturing workers (23% increase).” Similar increases were not observed in people with occupations deemed non-essential, who could mostly work from home. The researchers also examined race, finding that Latino and Black Californians experienced 36% and 28% increases in mortality, respectively. The researchers concluded that shutdown policies do not protect essential workers and therefore these groups should be protected through workplace modifications and should be prioritized for vaccines. The study has not yet undergone peer review, but you can read the full pre-print of the paper here: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.01.21.21250266v1.full-text

7) Researchers studied 83 pregnant women who were found to have Covid-19 antibodies to determine whether they passed the antibodies on to their newborns. Of the group, 72 women (87%) were found to have transferred antibodies across the placenta. Of the 11 infants who were born without antibodies, their mothers were found to either have only one type of antibody (IgM) or their IgG antibody levels were significantly lower than the mothers whose babies were born with antibodies. Notably, 60% of the women who had antibodies were found to have had asymptomatic cases of Covid-19. The authors noted that more research is needed, but the results of this study “demonstrate the potential for maternally derived antibodies to provide neonatal protection from SARS-CoV-2 infection and will help inform both neonatal management guidance and design of vaccine trials during pregnancy.” The study was peer-reviewed and published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. You can read the full text of it here: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2775945%20/

8) Another peer-reviewed study from JAMA Psychiatry examined whether individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia spectrum, mood, or anxiety disorders were at higher risk of death from Covid-19. Using data from 7,348 adults who tested positive for Covid between March and May 2020, the researchers found that 1% of the patients had a history of a schizophrenia spectrum illness, while 7.7% had a history of mood disorder and 4.9% had a history of an anxiety disorder. After adjusting for demographic factors and medical risk factors, the researchers found that those with a schizophrenia spectrum illness were significantly more likely to die from Covid-19, whereas those with mood or anxiety disorders were not. Taking other risk factors into account, they found that schizophrenia ranked second to age in terms of how strongly it correlated to mortality. The authors noted that additional research should be conducted to determine the association between specific psychiatric disorders and Covid-19 deaths. They concluded, “targeted interventions may be needed for patients with severe mental illness to prevent worsening health disparities.” You can read the full study here: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2775179

9) Two other recently published peer-reviewed articles also relate to mental health and Covid-19. The first, published in the journal Plos One, examined psychological distress of the general population during the pandemic. The researchers analyzed 68 studies involving 288,830 individuals from 19 different countries and found that overall, 33% of the global sample reported having anxiety and 30% reported having depression. Examining demographic factors revealed that women, younger adults, those living in rural areas, and those of lower socioeconomic status were all associated with higher levels of anxiety. All of the factors except for living area were also associated with higher levels of depression. Higher Covid-19 infection risk based on the number of cases in one’s area or having pre-existing medical conditions known to increase risk of the virus were also associated with higher anxiety and depression, as was longer media exposure. The researchers stated, “One in three adults in the predominantly general population have COVID-19 related psychological distress. Concerted efforts are urgently needed for interventions in high-risk populations to reduce urban-rural, socioeconomic and gender disparities in COVID-19 related psychological distress.” The second study, published in the journal Aging & Mental Health, found that amongst 848 adults aged 18–85 in the United States, older age was associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression than those in the younger age groups. Specifically, those aged 18–49 years who believed they were at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 were significantly more likely to develop anxiety. The authors concluded, “Older age may buffer against the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health. More research is necessary to understand the potential protective nature of age during the pandemic, as well as the recovery period.” You can read the first study here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0244630
and the second study here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13607863.2020.1856778

10) Finally, your world update. The United States recorded 139,830 new cases of Covid-19 yesterday, and the number of new cases has dropped 29% over the past two weeks. Additionally, deaths are down 2%, with 2,010 deaths recorded yesterday. Hospitalizations have declined 21% over the past two weeks. Per capita, South Carolina leads the nation in the number of new daily cases, followed by Arizona, Texas, New York, and Oklahoma. The US is administering an average of 1.4 million vaccine doses each day. A total of 1.8% of the population has been fully vaccinated, while 7.8% have received at least one dose. Alaska leads the way in vaccinations with 13.2% of the state’s population receiving at least one dose of the vaccine, followed by West Virginia (10.8%), New Mexico (10.1%), Connecticut (10.0%), and North Dakota (9.4%).
— In the UK, the average number of daily new cases over the past seven days is 23,732. Over the past two weeks the number of daily new cases has decreased by 47% and the number of deaths has decreased by 2%. A total of 14.4% of the UK population has received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine. Today 100-year-old Captain Sir Tom Morgan, who raised millions of pounds for the NHS early in the pandemic by walking laps in his backyard, died of Covid-19 in the hospital.
— In terms of vaccinations, Israel leads the world in terms of the number of people per 100 who have been vaccinated at 57.6. United Arab Emirates is next at 34.8 people out of 100 receiving at least one dose. The UK is third, followed by Bahrain, the US, Italy, and Germany.
— Elsewhere, most parts of Western Australia are in a five-day lockdown after a quarantine hotel worker tested positive for the UK variant of the virus. In Japan, a state of emergency in Tokyo and nine other prefectures has been extended until at least March 7 amidst spikes in virus numbers. The Olympic Games are still set to take place in Tokyo this summer.
US numbers: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html
US vaccine information: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/covid-19-vaccine-doses.html
UK numbers: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/europe/united-kingdom-coronavirus-cases.html
UK vaccines: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/01/coronavirus-uk-covid-cases-deaths-and-vaccinations-today
Captain Sir Tom Morgan: https://news.sky.com/story/captain-sir-tom-moore-dies-aged-100-after-contracting-coronavirus-and-pneumonia-12205073
Global vaccinations: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations
Western Australia on lockdown: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jan/31/much-of-western-australia-goes-into-five-day-lockdown-after-hotel-guard-tests-positive-to-uk-covid-variant?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
Japan information: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/02/02/asia/japan-state-emergency-intl-hnk/index.html

That’s all for this week. I will be taking next week off from writing a summary, as I begin teaching intensively over a five-week period on Monday and I know that my teaching schedule in the first week will not allow me any free time to write an update. I’ll be back on Tuesday the 16th with my next update!

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