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COVID-19 bill would scale up ability to spot virus mutations

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COVID-19 bill would scale up ability to spot virus mutations

WASHINGTON — US scientists would gain vastly expanded capabilities to identify potentially deadlier coronavirus mutations under legislation advancing in Congress. A House bill headed for floor debate would provide $1.75 billion for genomic sequencing.

The US now maps only the genetic makeup of a minuscule fraction of positive virus samples, a situation that some experts liken to flying blind. It means the true domestic spread of problematic mutations first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa remains a matter of guesswork.

Such ignorance could prove costly. One worry is that more transmissible forms such as the UK variant could move faster than the nation’s ability to get the vaccine into Americans’ arms.

“You’ve got a small number of academic and public health labs that have been basically doing the genomic surveillance,” said David O’Connor, an AIDS researcher at the University of Wisconsin. “But there is no national coherence to the strategy.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is trying to shepherd those efforts, aligning with the government’s own advanced detection work, but the COVID-19 legislation would take the hunt to another level.

Besides money, the House bill that cleared the Energy and Commerce Committee last week calls for the CDC to organize a national network to use the technology to track the spread of mutations and guide public health countermeasures.

In the Senate, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin has introduced legislation that would provide $2 billion. Baldwin says the US should be using gene-mapping technology to analyze at least 15% of positive virus samples. That might not sound like much, but the current rate is believed to be 0.3% to 0.5%. Analyzing 15% of positive samples would expand surveillance by at least 30 times.

“Variants represent a growing threat,” said Baldwin. “At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing our testing capacity was essential to our ability to track and slow the spread of the virus — the same is true for finding and tracking these variants.”

Genomic sequencing essentially involves mapping the DNA of an organism, the key to its unique features. It’s done by high-tech machines that can cost from several hundred thousand dollars to $1 million or more. Technicians trained to run the machines and computing capacity to support the whole process add to costs.

In the case of the UK variant first detected in England, the changes in the virus allowed it to spread more easily and are also believed to cause deadlier COVID-19 disease. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle reports that transmission of the UK variant has been confirmed in at least 10 US states. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told governors on Tuesday that it could become dominant by the end of March.

Sequencing 0.3% to 0.5% of virus samples, as the US is now doing, “just doesn’t give us the ability to detect strains as they develop and become dominant,” said Dr. Phil Febbo, chief medical officer for Illumina, a San Diego-based company that develops genomic sequencing technologies.

The Biden administration has to “set a very clear goal,” he added. “What’s the hill that we are going to charge?”

“We need that data. Otherwise, in some ways, we’re flying blind,” said Esther Krofah, who directs the FasterCures initiative of Milken Institute. “We don’t understand the prevalence of mutations that we should be worried about in the US.”

Even more worrisome than the UK variant is a strain first detected in South Africa that scientists suspect may diminish the protective effect of some of the coronavirus vaccines. That variant has also been identified in the US in a limited number of cases.

White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients has called US tracking of virus mutations “totally unacceptable,” saying the nation ranks 43rd in the world. But the Biden administration has not set a target for what level of virus gene mapping the country should be striving for.

At the University of Wisconsin, AIDS scientist O’Connor said he and his colleagues started sequencing coronavirus samples from the Madison area “because that’s where we live.”

His colleague, virology expert Thomas Friedrich, said a national effort will require more than money to purchase new genomic sequencing machines. The CDC will have to set standards for state health officials and academic research institutions to fully share the information they glean from analyzing virus samples. Currently, there’s a hodgepodge of state regulations and practices, and some of them restrict access to key details.

“We need to look at this as a Manhattan Project or an Apollo program,” said Friedrich, invoking the government-led scientific endeavors that developed the atomic bomb and landed humans on the moon.

The United Kingdom was able to identify its variant because the national health system there has a coordinated gene mapping program that aims to sequence about 10% of samples, he added. Since that happened, there’s been greater urgency about genetic sequencing on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“The utility of doing this may not have been as apparent to as many people until these variants started popping up,” Friedrich said.

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Tourism groups in Thailand petition to reopen country to international travelers

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Tourism groups in Thailand petition to reopen country to international travelers

Thailand’s tourism sector wants to reopen the country to visitors this summer. 

On Tuesday, tourism groups in Thailand launched the #OpenThailandSafely campaign, asking the country to allow travelers with proof of a COVID-19 vaccine into the country without quarantine requirements by July 1. 

“As Thailand is starting to vaccinate its most vulnerable and its healthcare workers, we believe that now is the time to announce a firm and irreversible date to reopen its borders,” a petition to the Thai government says. “This will give confidence to international travelers and encourage them to book a trip to Thailand.”

“Thai tourism operators, especially those reliant on international travel, would then be able to start business planning, accept forward bookings, start to rehire staff, and conduct training programs,” the petition adds. “Without a firm commitment to reopening made now, Thailand may lose all of 2021 as travelers will make plans for alternative destinations.”

The petition – which is seeking 100,000 signatures to be sent to the Thai Prime Minister, the Minister of Tourism and Sports and the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand – has 2,268 supporters as of Tuesday night.

According to a letter published with the campaign, Thailand tourism and related industries have been “decimated” by the closure of international travel into the country because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The financial, social, physical and psychological health of Thai people has been adversely affected,” the letter said. “The disruption of travel has not just impacted tourism, but also torn families apart and greatly reduced international trade.”

“The current situation is unsustainable,” the letter added.

Campaign organizers believe that by July 1, vaccines will be widely available “in many source markets,” according to the letter. 

Organizers also believe that if the government makes a commitment now to opening its borders for travelers by July 1, that will give people enough time to plan and book their travel, it will give tourism companies enough time to prepare to restart operations and it will give the Thai government enough time to vaccinated front line health care workers and vulnerable citizens.

“It will take Thailand at least a year, and maybe a lot longer, to return to the large numbers of international visitors that it had before the Covid-19 crisis,” the letter said.

In the letter, campaign organizers also suggested several potential “safeguards” that international travelers could be asked to follow in order to visit the country, including “showing officially recognized proof of a Covid-19 vaccination from their home country, purchasing health insurance, showing proof of a negative Covid test within 72 hours of departure, and so on,” the letter said.

“The 1 July reopening would be a strategic opportunity for Thailand to show a leadership role among Asian countries and prepare the way for a solid recovery of the Thai economy in 2022,” the letter added.

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US halts plasma study to treat mild COVID-19, citing ‘unlikely benefit’

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US halts plasma study to treat mild COVID-19, citing ‘unlikely benefit’

The National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday it stopped a clinical trial testing convalescent plasma in mild to moderate COVID-19 patients after an independent board found no difference in hospitalizations, deaths or in preventing progression to severe illness.

An independent data and safety monitoring board convened on Feb. 25 to assess trial data, and concluded that while the plasma “caused no harm, it was unlikely to benefit this group of patients,” per a news release. The board recommended to stop enrolling new patients in the study, and this was done “immediately,” according to the release.

“The recent data analysis from the study indicated no significant difference in the proportion of participants who experienced any one of these outcomes [hospitalization, additional care or death within two weeks],” reads the release. “Even if enrollment continued, this trial was highly unlikely to demonstrate that COVID-19 convalescent plasma prevents progression from mild to severe illness in at-risk emergency department non-hospitalized participants.”

The study launched in August 2020, and aimed to reach 900 patients across 47 hospital emergency departments (EDs) in the US, but only enrolled 511 patients. These patients presented to the ED with mild to moderate COVID-19 and had at least one underlying condition that would heighten the risk for a severe course of COVID-19 disease, like heart disease or obesity. The patients had symptoms for several days to a week, but weren’t sick enough to require hospitalization.

The concept behind the treatment is that antibodies in the plasma from recovered patients could be infused into ill patients in a bid to improve conditions. Plasma was also used during the 1918 influenza pandemic, the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in 2003, and the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, the NIH says.

Trial participants received one unit of plasma or a placebo, and researchers studied whether patients went on to require hospital care, sought additional care or died within 15 days of starting the trial. 

The NIH noted over 100,000 people in the US have already been treated with plasma since the beginning of the pandemic, and the American Red Cross is actively seeking plasma donations. Some doctors voiced some cautious optimism over the treatment last spring, though they had uncertainties, specifically whether patients’ improved conditions were due to plasma or another factor.

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New poll shows 50% drop in fear of dying from COVID-19

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New poll shows 50% drop in fear of dying from COVID-19

Americans are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new survey.

The national Harris Poll conducted over the weekend found a significant uptick in positive sentiment about the pandemic — and a drop in fears of the virus.

“The last year has certainly been difficult for many Americans and their families, but in the face of all the hardships and social distancing efforts, many have remained optimistic and resilient when it comes to their mental health,” John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, said in a statement.

More than half, or 52 percent, of the 2,000 adults surveyed said they are not afraid of dying as a result of catching COVID-19, the highest mark since July 2020.

For most of the year, the number of people who said they were frightened of being killed by the virus outnumbered the alternative.

More than 516,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, but both deaths and cases have recently been on the decline.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20 percent of the adult population is now vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The poll found a 15 percent increase in how many Americans approve of how the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed.

About 66 percent gave the nation’s inoculation efforts the thumbs up, compared to 51 percent just one month ago.

The findings came as President Biden on Tuesday said the US will have enough vaccines for every US adult by the end of May, two months earlier than previously anticipated.

Despite the stepped-up pace of vaccine production, the massive effort to get every American jabbed could extend well into the summer, officials said.

Biden said he hoped that the nation would be back to normal sometime before “this time next year.”

Still, when asked if they currently think there is light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic, nearly 6 in 10 respondents said yes, according to the poll.

They were also more optimistic about the effects of the pandemic, with 66 percent overall saying their mental health has been affected in a positive way.

About 30 percent of those respondents said they’ve found more things to be grateful for during the crisis; 28 percent said they’ve taken more “me time” to do things for themselves; and 25 percent said they’ve been praying more.

“While Americans remain vigilant over the pandemic,” Gerzema said, “it is an encouraging sign to see greater acceptance of the vaccine, a belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and a declining sentiment in fear of dying from the virus.”

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