Category Archives: New Mutated Viral Strains

Another New COVID Strain Is in the US; Will Present Vaccines Work with these New Strains, Pandemic Strategies Including New Migrants and What Happened to Merck’s Vaccine?

This has been an interesting few week and almost led me to close my office and retire. We had a patient come in the office and complete the questionnaire and “by-pass” our screening procedures, lying to us about his exposure to the COVID-19 virus. He just visited his brother the two days before the days office visit and lied to us, saying that he had no recent exposure, etc. However, a week later he called our office to allow notification that his COVID test was positive.

The thing that angered me and my staff more was that the patient waited a number of days to notify, besides lying to us about his exposure. This led us to close the office, cancel all patients until we could have a complete cleaning of the office and all get COVID tested.

Luckily, we all tested negative and all my staff and I had at least had our first vaccine doses. If we had tested positive, we would have to notify all the patients that were seen in the office between his visit and the day that we closed the office.

What an irresponsible set of actions and my fear is that this goes on in many situations because many of our patients, etc. are selfish and irresponsible and don’t care about anyone else except themselves…and they think the virus is all a lie, util one of their family members or close friends dies. How totally stupid and disgusting!! 

John Johnson wrote that the virus continues to mutate quickly. Anyone tracking the news is familiar with the new UK strain that is moving around the globe and threatens to become the dominant strain in the US soon. Now, health authorities in California have identified yet another strain that has popped up in about a dozen counties, reports the Los Angeles Times. Coverage on that and more:

  • California strain: The variant has been linked to large outbreaks in Santa Clara County and smaller outbreaks elsewhere. It’s still too early to say whether the new strain is more contagious or more lethal than the first forms of COVID that emerged, but studies on that are being prioritized. Bottom line: “This virus continues to mutate and adapt, and we cannot let down our guard,” says Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County health officer.
  • A lament: In a New York Times op-ed, Ezra Klein runs through the coming COVID changes under the Biden administration. They include plans to get vaccinations organized on a mass scale, along with expanded testing and contract tracing. It’s all pretty basic stuff, he writes, which has him astonished that the Trump administration hasn’t done these things yet. “That it is possible for Joe Biden and his team to release a plan this straightforward is the most damning indictment of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response imaginable.”
  • Hopeful trend: US deaths are about to pass 400,000, but one medical expert spies a positive trend in the new data as well. “Over the last four days for the first time in months, we’ve seen a steady decline … a thousand per day fewer hospitalizations in the United States,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner of George Washington University tells CNN. “We’ve seen the same trend in new cases.” The next two months will likely be brutal, he adds, “but there is a ray of sunshine” as vaccinations continue.
  • Hopeful, II: In “The Morning” newsletter at the Times, David Leonhardt is tired of the “they’re only 95% effective” drumbeat, and he’s not alone. “It’s driving me a little bit crazy,” Dr. Ashish Jha of the Brown School of Public Health tells Leonhardt. Dr. Aaron Richterman of the University of Pennsylvania adds, “We’re underselling the vaccine.” As Leonhardt explains and doctors emphasize, the vaccine will save your life, even if you’re in that other 5%. To wit, of 32,000 people who got the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in trials, only one person suffered a severe COVID case.

Migrant caravan demands Biden administration ‘honors its commitments’

Now, a real challenge for the new Biden administration. Adam Shaw noted that a migrant caravan moving from Honduras toward the U.S. border is calling on the incoming Biden administration to honor what it says are “commitments” to the migrants moving north, amid fears of a surge at the border when President-elect Joe Biden enters office.

More than 1,000 Honduran migrants moved into Guatemala on Friday without registering, The Associated Press reported. That is part of a larger caravan that left a Honduran city earlier in the day.

The outlet reported that they are hoping for a warmer reception when they reach the U.S. border, and a statement issued by migrant rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, on behalf of the caravan, said it expects the Biden administration to take action.

“We recognize the importance of the incoming Government of the United States having shown a strong commitment to migrants and asylum seekers, which presents an opportunity for the governments of Mexico and Central America to develop policies and a migration management that respect and promote the human rights of the population in mobility,” the statement said. ” We will advocate that the Biden government honors its commitments.” 

Biden has promised to reverse many of Trump’s policies on border security and immigration. He has promised to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which keeps migrants in Mexico as they await their hearings. The Trump administration has said the program has helped end the pull factors that bring migrants north, but critics say it is cruel and puts migrants at risk. 

Biden has also promised a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally and a moratorium on deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The migrants’ group also pointed to promises to end the asylum cooperative agreements the administration made with Northern Triangle countries.

“A new United States Government is an opportunity to work with the Mexican Government to develop a cooperation plan with Central America to address the causes of migration, together with civil society organizations, as well as an opportunity to increase regional cooperation regarding the persons in need of protection, and to dismantle illegal and inhuman programs such as Remain in Mexico, the United States’ Asylum Cooperation Agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as the Title 42 expulsions by the United States authorities,” it said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) order that allows the U.S. to quickly remove migrants on public health grounds.

Biden officials, however, have been keen to send the message to migrants that it will not mean open borders overnight.

“Processing capacity at the border is not like a light that you can just switch on and off,” incoming Biden domestic policy adviser Susan Rice told Spanish wire service EFE. “Migrants and asylum seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on Day 1. It will not.” 

“Our priority is to reopen asylum processing at the border consistent with the capacity to do so safely and to protect public health, especially in the context of COVID-19,” she said. “This effort will begin immediately but it will take months to develop the capacity that we will need to reopen fully.”

It is unclear how far the migrants will get, and Guatemalan and Mexican governments have indicated they intend to turn them back. But the caravan comes amid fears that the new outlook on immigration and asylum from the Biden administration will fuel a surge at the border.

Acting Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Mark Morgan said on “America’s News HQ” on Saturday that the caravan could include more than 5,000 migrants and blamed the tone from the incoming administration.

“We’re looking at two groups that are well over five thousand. And one of those groups have already gotten through the Guatemala border. And they’re on their way to El Rancho, which is about the located centrally in Guatemala,” he said. “It’s coming. It’s already started, just as we promised and anticipated it would with this rhetoric from the new administration on the border.”

President Trump warned this week that ending his policies and increasing incentives would lead to “a tidal wave of illegal immigration, a wave like you’ve never seen before” and that there were already signs of increased flows.

“They’re coming because they think that it’s a gravy train at the end,” he said. “It’s going to be a gravy train. Change the name from the caravans, which I think we came up with, to the gravy train because that’s what they’re looking for — looking for the gravy.”

Biden transition official tells migrant caravans: ‘Now is not the time’ to come to US

Yael Halon reported further on the migration noting that a migrant caravan moving from Honduras toward the U.S. border called on the incoming Biden administration to honor their “commitments” to the migrants moving north, citing the incoming administration’s vow to ease Trump’s restrictions on asylum.

But on Sunday, an unnamed Biden transition official said that migrants hoping to claim asylum in the U.S. during the first few weeks of the new administration “need to understand they’re not going to be able to come into the United States immediately,” NBC News reports. 

More than 1,000 Honduran migrants moved into Guatemala on Friday without registering as part of a larger caravan that left a Honduran city earlier in the day.

The Associated Press reported that they are hoping for a warmer reception when they reach the U.S. border, and a statement issued by migrant rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, on behalf of the caravan, said it expects the Biden administration to take action.

The Biden transition official, however, warned migrants against coming to the U.S. during the early days of the new administration, telling NBC that while “there’s help on the way,” now “is not the time to make the journey.” 

“The situation at the border isn’t going to be transformed overnight,” the official told the outlet.

“We have to provide a message that health and hope is on the way, but coming right now does not make sense for their own safety…while we put into place processes that they may be able to access in the future,” the official said.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to reverse many of Trump’s policies on border security and immigration. He has promised to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which keeps migrants in Mexico as they await their political asylum hearings. The Trump administration has said the program has helped end the pull factors that bring migrants north, but critics say it is cruel and puts them at risk. 

Biden has also promised a pathway to legal permanent residency for those in the country illegally and a moratorium on deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The migrants’ group also pointed to promises to end the asylum cooperative agreements the administration made with Northern Triangle countries.

President Trump warned last week that ending his policies and increasing incentives would lead to “a tidal wave of illegal immigration, a wave like you’ve never seen before,” claiming that there were already signs of increased flows.

AMA President: Biden Team Must Create National Pandemic Strategy

Ken Terry stated that now that the campaign is over, that the incoming Biden administration must formulate an effective national strategy for the COVID-19 pandemic, said Susan R. Bailey, MD, president of the American Medical Association (AMA), in a speech delivered today at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Bailey noted that America’s fight against the pandemic is in a critical phase, as evidenced by the escalation in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in recent weeks. Emergency departments and ICUs are overwhelmed; many frontline clinicians are burned out; and the state- and local-level mechanisms for vaccine distribution have been slow and inconsistent, she said.

“The most important lesson for this moment, and for the year ahead, is that leaving state and local officials to shoulder this burden alone without adequate support from the federal government is not going to work,” Bailey emphasized.

She called on the Biden administration, which takes over next week, to “provide states and local jurisdictions with additional resources, guidance, and support to enable rapid distribution and administration of vaccines.”

In addition, she said, the incoming administration needs to develop a more robust, national strategy for continued COVID-19 testing and PPE production “by tapping into the full powers of the Defense Production Act.”

Biden Vaccine Distribution Policy

In a question-and-answer period following her speech, however, Bailey said she opposed the president-elect’s decision to release nearly all available vaccine supplies immediately, rather than hold back some doses for the second shots that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require. On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced that it plans to do the same thing.

“We’re a little bit concerned about the announcement that [the Department of Health & Human Services] will not hold back vaccine doses to make sure that everyone who’s gotten their first dose will have a second dose in reserve,” Bailey said. “We don’t have adequate data to tell us that one dose is sufficient — we don’t think it is — and how long you can wait for the second dose without losing the benefits of the first dose.”

She added that it’s not recommended that people mix the two vaccines in the first and second doses. “Since the Pfizer vaccine has such rigid storage requirements, I want to make sure there’s plenty of vaccine for frontline healthcare workers who got the Pfizer vaccine because it was the first one to come out in December. I want to make sure they get their second dose on time and [do] not have to wait.”

Bailey said she hoped there will be plenty of vaccine supply. But she suggested that state and local health authorities be in communication with the federal government about whether there will be enough vaccine to guarantee people can get both doses.

Bolstering Public Health

In her speech, Bailey outlined five areas in which steps should be taken to improve the health system so that it isn’t overwhelmed the next time the US has a public health crisis:

  • Restore trust in science and science-based decision making. Make sure that scientific institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are “free from political pressure, and that their actions are guided by the best available scientific evidence.”
  • Ensure that the health system provides all Americans with affordable access to comprehensive healthcare. Bailey wasn’t talking about Medicare for All; she suggested that perhaps there be a second enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance exchanges.
  • Work to remove healthcare inequities that have hurt communities of color, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. She referred to a recent AMA policy statement that recognized racism as a public health threat.
  • Improve public health domestically and globally. Among other things, she noted, the public health infrastructure needs to be revitalized after “decades of disinvestment and neglect,” which has contributed to the slow vaccine rollout.
  • Recognize the global health community and restore America’s leadership in global efforts to combat disease, which are critical to preventing future threats. She praised Biden for his promise that the US will rejoin the World Health Organization.

At several points in her presentation, Bailey rejected political interference with science and healthcare. Among other things, she said public health could be improved by protecting the doctor-patient relationship from political interference.

Answering a question about how to separate politics from the pandemic, she replied, “The key is in sticking to the science and listening to our public health authorities. They all have to deliver the same message. Also, leaders at all levels, including in our communities, our schools, churches and college campuses, should wear masks and socially distance. This isn’t about anything other than the desire to get out of the pandemic and get our country on the right track again. Masks shouldn’t be political. Going back to school shouldn’t be political. Taking a certain medication or not shouldn’t be political. We need to stick to the science and listen to our public health authorities. That’s the quickest way out.”

Asked when she thought that life might get back to normal again in the US, Bailey said a lot depends on the extent of vaccine uptake and how much self-discipline people exhibit in following public health advice. “I think we’re looking at the end of this year. I’m hopeful that by fall, things will have opened up quite a bit as the Venn diagrams of those who’ve gotten vaccines grow larger.”

Merck Ends Development of Two Potential COVID-19 Vaccines

Tom Murphy, AP Health Writer, pointed out that the drug maker, Merck, said Monday that it will focus instead on studying two possible treatments for the virus that also have yet to be approved by regulators. The company said its potential vaccines were well tolerated by patients, but they generated an inferior immune system response compared with other vaccines.

Merck was developing one of the potential vaccines with France’s Pasteur Institute based on an existing measles vaccine. The French institute said it will keep working on two other vaccine projects using different methods.

Merck entered the race to fight COVID-19 later than other top drug makers.

It said last fall that it had started early-stage research in volunteers on potential vaccines that require only one dose. Vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna were already in late-stage research at that point.

The Food and Drug Administration allowed emergency use of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines late last year. Each requires two shots.

Five potential vaccines have reached late-stage testing in the United States, the final phase before a drug maker seeks approval from regulators. Results from a single-dose candidate developed by Johnson & Johnson are expected soon.

Since vaccinations began in December, nearly 22 million doses have been delivered to people nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 6% of the population has received at least one dose.

A total of 3.2 million people, or 1% of the population, have received both doses required for those vaccines.

More than 419,000 people in the United States and 2 million globally have died due to the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The government is paying Merck & Co. about $356 million to fast-track production of one of its potential treatments under Operation Warp Speed, a push to develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The money will allow the Kenilworth, New Jersey, company to deliver up to 100,000 doses by June 30, if the FDA clears the treatment for emergency use.

The treatment, known as MK-7110, has the potential to minimize the damaging effects of an overactive immune response to COVID-19. This immune response can complicate the life-saving efforts of doctors and nurses.

Merck said early results from a late-stage study of that drug showed a more than 50% reduction in the risk of death or respiratory failure in patients hospitalized with moderate or severe COVID-19. The company expects full results from that study in the first quarter.

Merck’s other potential treatment is an oral antiviral drug.

Merck said it will focus COVID-19 research and manufacturing efforts on two investigational medicines: MK-7110 and MK-4482, which it now calls molnupiravir. Molnupiravir, which is being developed in collaboration with Ridgeback Bio, is an oral antiviral being studied in both hospital and outpatient settings. If these oral antiviral drugs are effective this will be a real advancement in the treatment of COVID-19. Merck said a phase 2/3 trial of the drug is set to finish in May, but initial efficacy results are due in the first quarter and will be made public if clinically meaningful. 

Merck said results from a phase 3 study of MK-7110, an immune modulator being studied as a treatment for patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19, are expected in the first quarter. In December, the company announced a deal to supply MK-7110 to the U.S. government for up to about $356 million. (Reporting by Deena Beasley Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

Moderna Study: Vaccine Effective vs COVID Variants

With the weekly announcement of new mutant strains of the COVID virus we are all wondering whether the vaccine that are being administered will be effective against the new strains. Carolyn Crist noted that as mutated strains of the coronavirus represent new threats in the pandemic, vaccine makers are racing to respond.

Moderna, whose two-dose vaccine has been authorized for use in the U.S. since Dec. 18, said Monday that it is now investigating whether a third dose of the vaccine will work to prevent the spread of a variant first seen in South Africa, while it also tests a new vaccine formula for the same purpose.

“Out of an abundance of caution and leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are advancing an emerging variant booster candidate against the variant first identified in the Republic of South Africa into the clinic to determine if it will be more effective … against this and potentially future variants,” Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said in a statement.

Moderna on Monday also said its COVID-19 vaccine could protect against the U.K. strain but that it is less effective against the strain identified in South Africa.

Pfizer and BioNTech, whose vaccine were also authorized in December, announced last week that their COVID-19 vaccine creates antibodies that could protect vaccine recipients from the coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

“This is not a problem yet,” Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told CNBC.

“Prepare for it. Sequence these viruses,” he said. “Get ready just in case a variant emerges, which is resistant.”

There were at least 195 confirmed cases of patients infected with the U.K. variant in the U.S. as of Friday, according to the CDC. No cases from the South African variant have been confirmed in the U.S. To try and prevent the variant from entering the country, President Joe Biden plans to ban travel from South Africa, except for American citizens and permanent residents.

The U.S. has reported more than 25 million total COVID-19 cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, marking another major milestone during the pandemic.

That means about 1 in 13 people in the U.S. have contracted the virus, or about 7.6% of the population.

“Twenty-five million cases is an incredible scale of tragedy,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The New York Times. She called the pandemic one of the worst public health crises in history.

After the first U.S. case was reported in January 2020, it took more than 9 months to reach 10 million cases in early November. Numbers rose during the holidays, and 10 million more cases were reported by the end of the year. Following a major surge throughout January, with a peak of more than 300,000 daily cases on some days, the U.S. reached 25 million in about 3 weeks.

Hospitalizations also peaked in early January, with more than 132,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the country, according to the COVID Tracking Project. On Sunday, about 111,000 patients were hospitalized, which is the lowest since mid-December.

The U.S. has also reported nearly 420,000 deaths. As recently as last week, more than 4,400 deaths were reported in a single day, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Deaths are beginning to drop but still remain above 3,000 daily deaths.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation released a new projection last week that said new cases would decline steadily in coming weeks. New COVID-19 cases have fallen about 21% in the last 2 weeks, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

“We’ve been saying since summer that we thought we’d see a peak in January, and I think that, at the national level, we’re around the peak,” Christopher J.L. Murray, MD, director of the institute, told the newspaper.

At the same time, public health officials are concerned that new coronavirus variants could lead to an increase again. Murray said the variants could “totally change the story.” If the more transmissible strains spread quickly, cases and deaths will surge once more.

“We’re definitely on a downward slope, but I’m worried that the new variants will throw us a curveball in late February or March,” Rivers told the newspaper.

So, next, when we get vaccinated do we need to wear masks and continue social distancing?

We will explore that set of questions next.