First COVID-19 vaccine tested in US poised for final testing

Agencies
July 15, 2020

The first COVID-19 vaccine tested in the US revved up people's immune systems just the way scientists had hoped, researchers reported Tuesday -- as the shots are poised to begin key final testing.

No matter how you slice this, this is good news, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government's top infectious disease expert, told The Associated Press.

The experimental vaccine, developed by Fauci's colleagues at the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., will start its most important step around July 27: A 30,000-person study to prove if the shots really are strong enough to protect against the coronavirus.

But Tuesday, researchers reported anxiously awaited findings from the first 45 volunteers who rolled up their sleeves back in March. Sure enough, the vaccine provided a hoped-for immune boost.

Those early volunteers developed what are called neutralizing antibodies in their bloodstream -- molecules key to blocking infection -- at levels comparable to those found in people who survived COVID-19, the research team reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

This is an essential building block that is needed to move forward with the trials that could actually determine whether the vaccine does protect against infection, said Dr. Lisa Jackson of the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle, who led the study.

There's no guarantee but the government hopes to have results around the end of the year -- record-setting speed for developing a vaccine.

The vaccine requires two doses, a month apart.

There were no serious side effects. But more than half the study participants reported flu-like reactions to the shots that aren't uncommon with other vaccines -- fatigue, headache, chills, fever and pain at the injection site. For three participants given the highest dose, those reactions were more severe; that dose isn't being pursued.

Some of those reactions are similar to coronavirus symptoms but they're temporary, lasting about a day and occur right after vaccination, researchers noted.

Small price to pay for protection against COVID, said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, a vaccine expert who wasn't involved with the study.

He called the early results a good first step, and is optimistic that final testing could deliver answers about whether it's really safe and effective by the beginning of next year.

It would be wonderful. But that assumes everything's working right on schedule, Schaffner cautioned.

Moderna's share price jumped nearly 15 percent in trading after US markets closed. Shares of the company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have nearly quadrupled this year.

Tuesday's results only included younger adults. The first-step testing later was expanded to include dozens of older adults, the age group most at risk from COVID-19.

Those results aren't public yet but regulators are evaluating them. Fauci said final testing will include older adults, as well as people with chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus and Black and Latino populations likewise affected.

Nearly two dozen possible COVID-19 vaccines are in various stages of testing around the world. Candidates from China and Britain's Oxford University also are entering final testing stages.

The 30,000-person study will mark the world's largest study of a potential COVID-19 vaccine so far. And the NIH-developed shot isn't the only one set for such massive U.S. testing, crucial to spot rare side effects. The government plans similar large studies of the Oxford candidate and another by Johnson & Johnson; separately, Pfizer Inc. is planning its own huge study.

Already, people can start signing up to volunteer for the different studies.

People think this is a race for one winner. Me, I'm cheering every one of them on, said Fauci, who directs NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

We need multiple vaccines. We need vaccines for the world, not only for our own country. Around the world, governments are investing in stockpiles of hundreds of millions of doses of the different candidates, in hopes of speedily starting inoculations if any are proven to work.

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Agencies
September 29,2020

New Delhi, Sept 29: ICMR scientists have flagged presence of another Chinese virus called 'Cat Que Virus', which has a "potential" to cause disease in India, even as it grapples with the Covidpandemic. CQV can cause febrile illnesses, meningitis and paediatric encephalitis in humans.

According to the seven researchers at the Indian Council of Medical Research's National Institute of Virology in Pune, the presence of Cat Que Virus in Culex mosquitoes and pigs has been reported in China and Vietnam. They added that due to the spread of similar species of the Culex mosquitoes in India, there is a need to understand the replication kinetics of this virus.

The researchers said that the presence in Culex mosquitoes in China and pigs in Vietnam suggested susceptibility of Asian countries to CQV.

The scientists discovered antibodies for the tropical virus in two out of the 883 human serum samples tested across states. It indicates that these two people were infected with the virus at some point of time. It was not found in any of the human at the time of study.

"Anti-CQV IgG antibody positivity in human serum samples tested and the replication capability of CQV in mosquitoes indicated a possible disease causing potential of CQV in Indian scenario. Screening of more human and swine serum samples using these assays is required as a proactive measure for understanding prevalence of this neglected tropical virus,a the research published in Indian Journal of Medical Research in June stated.

In Indian context, "data showed that mosquitoes such as Ae. aegypti, Cx. quinquefasciatus and Cx. Tritaeniorhynchus were susceptible to CQV. Thus, mosquitoes were found to be a potential vector for CQV transmission to mammalian hosts", a scientist stated.

According to the apex research body, domestic pigs are the primary mammalian host of CQV and antibodies against the virus have been reported in swine reared locally in China, indicating that CQV has formed a natural cycle in local areas.

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Agencies
September 25,2020

A standard test that assesses blood cells can identify which patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 could face a high risk of becoming critical and die, say researchers.

"We wanted to help find ways to identify high-risk COVID patients as early and as easily as possible -- who are likely to become severely ill and which hospitalized patients are likely to get worse quickly," said study researcher John M Higgins from the Massachusetts General Hospital in the US.

Higgins noted that early reports from China indicated that the body's inflammatory response was extremely intense in some patients and very mild in others.

His own group's previous work revealed that certain changes in the numbers and types of blood cells during inflammation are associated with poor health outcomes in patients with diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

"We quickly re-focused our computational infrastructure towards the analysis of the Covid-19 patient cohort that was growing rapidly in the Boston area last spring," explained study first author Brody Foy from the Harvard Medical School.

Their analysis, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, included all adults diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 infection and admitted to one of four hospitals in the Boston area between March 4 and April 28, 2020.

Before looking for complicated changes in circulating blood cells in the 1,641 patients included in the study, the scientists first searched for patterns using currently available blood tests that are routinely performed.

"We were surprised to find that one standard test that quantifies the variation in size of red blood cells -- called red cell distribution width, or RDW -- was highly correlated with patient mortality," the researchers wrote.

The correlation persisted when controlling for other identified risk factors like patient age, some other lab tests, and some pre-existing illnesses," they added.

Patients who had RDW values above the normal range when they were admitted to the hospital had a 2.7-times higher risk of dying, with a mortality rate of 31 per cent compared with 11 per cent in patients with normal RDW values.

Also, a subsequent increase in RDW after admission was associated with an even higher risk of dying, indicating that RDW could be tracked during hospitalization to help determine whether patients are responding to treatment or getting worse.

The investigators are currently seeking to uncover the mechanisms that cause RDW elevations in severe COVID-19 cases.

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Agencies
September 22,2020

Scientists have developed a new tool that mimics how the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19 enters and infects cells, an advance that could potentially speed up the search for treatments against the deadly disease.

The novel tool, described in the journal ACS Nano, is a fluorescent nanoparticle probe with the spike protein that is present on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which it uses to bind to human cells and enter them.

According to the researchers, including those from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) in the US, the probe could be used in tests to rapidly gauge the ability of therapeutics to block the actual virus from infecting human cells.

"Our goal is to create a screening system to find compounds that block SARS-CoV-2 from binding to cells and infecting them," explained Kirill Gorshkov, a co-author of the study from the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in the US.

Since using the actual virus in such screening studies would be difficult and require special facilities, the scientists said they used nanoparticles to mimic the viral function of binding to and invading the host human cell.

"We at NRL are experts in nanoparticles, and the NCATS researchers are experts in drug screening using cellular systems. So, it was the perfect match," explained Eunkeu Oh, another co-author of the study from NRL.

To create the probe, the scientists built an ultrasmall fluorescent particle called a quantum dot, fashioned from cadmium and selenium.

According to the researchers, these particles are at around 10 nanometers in size, which makes them 3,000 times smaller than the width of a single human hair.

They studded the quantum dots' surfaces with a section of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein which binds to ACE2 -- a human cell surface protein.

The study noted that the first step in the pathway to novel coronavirus infection is the union of the spike protein with ACE2.

The scientists could track the dots' behaviour under a microscope based on their fluorescent glow.

"Because they're such bright fluorescent objects, the quantum dots give us a powerful system to track viral attachment and effects on the cell in real time," Gorshkov said.

The researchers observed how the nanoparticle probes attach to ACE2 in a lung cell line commonly used in coronavirus assays.

According to the scientists, the probes were not toxic to the test cells at the concentrations and exposure times used in the study.

While the quantum dots followed the SARS-CoV-2 pathway into cells, they said the probes also mimicked the virus in the presence of antibodies, which are proteins made by the immune system that can specifically neutralise invading foreign agents like viruses.

The study noted that the antibodies were potent inhibitors of the quantum dot probes as well, preventing them from binding to ACE2 and entering human cells.

Based on the observation, the researchers said the quantum dot probes could help rapidly test the ability of potential therapeutic agents to block the virus from entering and infecting cells.

They said assays using the probes could also determine the concentrations at which potential treatments may safely and effectively block infection.

"Using the quantum dots, we could create tests to use in drug screening and drug repurposing, using libraries of compounds that have activity but that also are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration," Gorshkov said.

"Such assays could rapidly identify promising, safe treatments for COVID-19," he added.

The scientists believe the probe's flexible design can allow researchers to swap in spikes that bind to other receptors as well since ACE2 may not be the only protein SARS-CoV-2 targets.

According to the researchers, the probe could also be used to test how mutations in the spike change the way the virus behaves by adding mutated spikes to the quantum dots.

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