More contagious Delta variant makes people sicker; oral drug shows promise in treating COVID-19 pneumonia

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a summary of some recent studies on COVID-19. They include research that warrants further study to corroborate the findings and that have yet to be certified by peer review.

Delta variant makes people sicker

The Delta variant of the coronavirus is known to be more easily transmissible than earlier versions, and now a large UK study suggests it also makes people sicker. Researchers analyzed data on 43,338 patients infected with either the Alpha or the Delta variant. Overall, roughly three quarters were unvaccinated, and half were under age 31. After accounting for patients’ underlying risk factors, researchers found that unvaccinated patients were 132% more likely to be hospitalized if they were infected with Delta than with Alpha. Vaccinated patients may also be more likely to require hospitalization with a Delta infection, but data for those patients was less clear, according to a report published on Friday in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The results “suggest that outbreaks of the Delta variant in unvaccinated populations might lead to a greater burden on healthcare services than the Alpha variant,” the researchers concluded.

Oral drug shows promise against COVID-19 pneumonia

Severely ill patients with COVID-19 pneumonia who received the experimental oral drug opaganib developed by RedHill Biopharma required less extra oxygen and were able to leave the hospital sooner than patients receiving a placebo in a small randomized trial, researchers reported on Sunday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. Within 14 days after enrolling in the study, 50.0% of patients taking opaganib no longer needed oxygen, compared to 22.2% of patients in the placebo group. In addition, 86.4% of opaganib-treated patients had been discharged, versus 55.6% in the placebo group. On Thursday, RedHill announced that opaganib strongly inhibits the Delta variant of the coronavirus in test tube experiments. The drug is believed to exert its antiviral effect by inhibiting sphingosine kinase-2 (SK2), a key enzyme in cells that may be recruited by the virus to support its replication, the company said. Based on the initial 42-patient trial conducted last year, RedHill Biopharma launched a much larger randomized trial in patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 pneumonia. The last of the 475 patients in that late-stage study has now completed treatment and some of the data should be available soon, the company said last week.

Seizure in children may signal COVID-19

Seizures may be the only symptom of COVID-19 in some children, a new report cautions. Children tend to get sick from COVID-19 far less often than adults, and their symptoms are usually not severe, mainly consisting of fever and mild respiratory issues, although more have become ill with emergence of the Delta variant. Among 175 children who came to an Israeli emergency room and were diagnosed with COVID-19, 11 were brought to the hospital because of seizures, researchers reported on Saturday in the medical journal Seizure. Only seven had previously been diagnosed with a neurological disorder, and only six had fever. All 11 made full recoveries. While seizures have not been a frequently reported problem in adults with COVID-19, they “may be the main manifestation of acute COVID-19 in children,” even without fever and without a history of epilepsy, the study authors said. In some hospitals, they point out, only children with flu-like symptoms or close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient get tested for the coronavirus. Medical personnel should be aware that children with seizures should be tested, too, they said.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. coronavirus hospitalizations hit eight-month high over 100,000

By Anurag Maan

(Reuters) -The number of coronavirus patients in U.S. hospitals has breached 100,000, the highest level in eight months, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, as a resurgence of COVID-19 spurred by the highly contagious Delta variant strains the nation’s health care system.

A total of 101,433 COVID patients were hospitalized, according to data published on Friday morning.

U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled in the past month. Over the past week, more than 500 people with COVID were admitted to hospitals each hour on average, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The United States reached its all-time peak for hospitalizations on Jan. 14 when there were over 142,000 coronavirus-infected patients in hospital beds, according to HHS.

As the vaccination campaign expanded in early 2021, hospitalizations fell and hit a 2021 low of 16,000 on in late June.

However, COVID-19 admissions rose suddenly in July as the Delta variant became the dominant strain. The U.S. South is the epicenter of the latest outbreak but hospitalizations are rising nationwide.

Florida has the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalized patients, followed by Texas and California, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 95% of intensive care beds are currently occupied in Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

The Delta variant, which is rapidly spreading among mostly the unvaccinated U.S. population, has also sent a record number of children to hospital. There are currently over 2,000 confirmed and suspected pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to HHS.

Three states – California, Florida and Texas – amount to about 32% of the total confirmed and suspected pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States.

Children currently make up about 2.3% of the nation’s COVID-19 hospitalizations. Kids under 12 are not eligible to receive the vaccine.

The country is hoping for vaccine authorization for younger children by autumn with the Pfizer Inc vaccine.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said this week that the nation could get COVID-19 under control by early next year if vaccinations ramp up.

The United States has given at least one dose of vaccine to about 61% of its population, according to the CDC.

The United States, which leads the world in the most deaths and cases, has reported 38.5 million infections and over 634,000 deaths since the pandemic began last year, according to a Reuters tally.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry)

Blast outside Kabul airport kills at least 13, including children, Taliban official says

(Reuters) – A suspected suicide bomb exploded outside Kabul airport on Thursday, killing at least 13 people including children, a Taliban official said, after the United States and allies urged Afghans to leave the area because of a threat by Islamic State.

The official said many Taliban guards were wounded.

A U.S. official said U.S. service members were among the wounded, adding he was citing an initial report and cautioning that it could change. He said there were casualties but did not know how many or of what nationality.

Thousands of people have been gathering outside the airport in recent days. Western troops are racing to evacuate foreigners and Afghans who helped Western countries during the 20-year war against the Taliban, and to get out themselves by an Aug. 31 deadline.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said there had been an explosion and it was unclear if there were any casualties. A Western diplomat in Kabul earlier said areas outside the airport gates were “incredibly crowded” again despite the warnings of a potential attack.

There were few details yet of the attack, but Western countries have been warning of a potential attack by Islamic State militants.

The Taliban, whose fighters are guarding the perimeter outside the airport, are enemies of the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region.

“Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group,” said a Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and before the reports of the explosion.

U.S. President Joe Biden has been briefed on the explosion, according to a White House official. Biden was in a meeting with security officials about the situation in Afghanistan when the explosion was first reported, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The concerns about an attack came against a chaotic backdrop in Kabul, where the massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been under way since the day before the Taliban captured the city on Aug. 15, capping a lightning advance across the country as U.S. and allied troops withdrew.

CANADIAN HALT

Canadian forces halted their evacuations of around 3,700 Canadian and Afghan citizens on Thursday, saying they had stayed as long as they could before the deadline lapses. U.S. and allied troops also have to plan the logistics of their own withdrawal.

“We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone,” the acting chief of Canada’s defense staff, General Wayne Eyre, told reporters.

Biden ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, despite European allies saying they needed more time.

In an alert on Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul advised citizens to avoid travelling to the airport and said those already at the gates should leave immediately, citing unspecified “security threats”.

British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said intelligence about a possible suicide bomb attack by IS militants had become “much firmer”.

“The threat is credible, it is imminent, it is lethal. We wouldn’t be saying this if we weren’t genuinely concerned about offering Islamic State a target that is just unimaginable,” Heappey told BBC radio.

Australia also issued a warning for people to stay away from the airport while Belgium ended its evacuation operations because of the danger of an attack. The Netherlands said it expected to carry out its last evacuation flight on Thursday.

ISIS-K

Fighters claiming allegiance to ISIS-K first began appearing in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 2014 but the ultra-radical Sunni movement soon expanded from the area near the border with Pakistan where it first appeared.

Daesh, as it is widely known in Afghanistan, established a reputation for extreme brutality as it fought the Taliban both for ideological reasons and for control of local smuggling and narcotics routes, according to Western intelligence services.

It also claimed a series of suicide attacks in cities like Kabul, where as well as government and civilian institutions, it particularly attacked targets associated with the Shi’ite religious minority.

The U.S. military has said it would prioritize evacuating its troops, numbering about 5,200, in the two days before the deadline to leave..

Since the day before the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out about 95,700 people, including 13,400 on Wednesday, the White House said on Thursday.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at least 4,500 American citizens and their families had been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August.

The Taliban have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume.

The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions and the curtailment of basic freedoms. Women were barred from school or work. The group was overthrown two decades ago by U.S.-led forces for hosting the al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The Taliban have said they will respect human rights and will not allow terrorists to operate from the country.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore and Frances Kerry)

New studies on vaccine efficacy against Delta, kids’ noses have more immunity

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – Here is a summary of some recent studies on COVID-19. They include research that warrants further study to corroborate the findings and that have yet to be certified by peer review.

Vaccines’ efficacy against infection weakens

The COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States are still highly effective at preventing hospitalization but their effectiveness against new infections has decreased as the Delta variant spread, according to new studies published on Wednesday in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. None of the studies could tell whether the breakthrough infections were due to waning immunity, reduced protection against the Delta variant, or a combination of factors. Still, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Wednesday that COVID-19 booster shots would be made available to all Americans beginning in September. The new studies found:

– Vaccine effectiveness against any SARS-CoV-2 infection – mild or severe – dropped to 53.1% in late June to early August, from 74.7% before Delta became predominant, according to a study of U.S. long-term care facilities.

– Vaccine efficacy for preventing new infections dropped from 91.7% to 79.8% between early May and late July, though efficacy at preventing hospitalization remained above 90%, according to a study by New York State health officials.

– Protection from hospitalization lasts at least six months, according to a study in 18 U.S. states. It found that 24 weeks after full vaccination with an mRNA vaccine, efficacy was 84%, and it was 90% among adults without immunocompromising conditions.

Children’s noses are “pre-activated” to fight the virus

Children’s noses may be better than adults’ at defending against infection because of “pre-activated” immunity against the coronavirus, a new study suggests. Researchers analyzed nasal swabs from 45 infected patients, including 24 children, and from 42 healthy individuals, including 18 children. In nasal-lining cells and immune cells from the children’s swab samples, they saw higher levels of genetic material that can sense the presence of the virus and trigger the immune system to defend against it. Higher amounts of these sensors result in stronger early immune responses in children than in adults, according to a report published on Wednesday in Nature Biotechnology. The nasal samples from the children were also more likely than adult samples to contain immune cells known as T cells that play roles in fighting infection and in developing long-lasting immunity, the researchers found. Ultimately, the authors concluded, the effects may lead to a reduction in the ability of the virus to reproduce and help children to clear it from the body faster. “In fact,” they added, “several studies already showed that children are much quicker in eliminating SARS-CoV-2 compared to adults, consistent with the concept that they shut down viral replication earlier.”

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

Kids with COVID-19 often have no symptoms; smoking linked to vaccine response

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – Here is a summary of some recent studies on COVID-19. They include research that warrants further study to corroborate the findings and that have yet to be certified by peer review.

Asymptomatic COVID-19 very common

Roughly one-third of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms, according to a review of data from more than 350 studies published through April 2021. Asymptomatic infections were more common in children than in the elderly or in people without preexisting medical conditions, said Pratha Sah of Yale School of Public Health, who led the analysis published on Tuesday in PNAS. Her team estimates that 46.7% of infected children have no symptoms, she said. “This is especially concerning because settings with close, extensive contact among large groups of younger individuals are particularly susceptible to super spreader events of COVID-19, which may go undetected” if school authorities only watch for symptoms. Senior author Alison Galvani, also of the Yale School of Public Health, noted that asymptomatic individuals can still pass the virus to others, which makes mask wearing important as schools reopen.

Weight-loss surgery tied to better COVID-19 outcomes

Surgery for obesity may have a protective effect against poor outcomes from COVID-19, data from one New York City hospital suggest. Doctors there studied 620 patients with COVID-19, including 130 who had previously undergone so-called bariatric operations to treat their obesity, and a control group of 496 patients with obesity of similar age and gender who were eligible for these surgeries but had not undergone them. Compared to the control group, the patients who had undergone the bariatric procedures – gastric bypass, gastric banding, or sleeve gastrectomy – were less likely to be hospitalized, less likely to need a mechanical ventilator for breathing, and less likely to die in the hospital, even though many of them were still obese. They were also released from hospital faster, and those who were admitted to the ICU spent fewer days there, according to a report published on Sunday in Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases. “Patients with obesity have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 with a higher risk of severe disease and death,” the authors pointed out. They added that while the study cannot prove that bariatric surgery caused better outcomes, the results suggest it might be “a protective factor against severe COVID-19 … in the high-risk population with obesity.”

Smoking may impair mRNA vaccine response

Current smokers may be at risk for lower immune responses to some COVID-19 vaccines, Japanese researchers say, though more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn. In a preliminary study of 378 healthcare workers, ages 32 to 54, the researchers analyzed levels of protective antibodies induced by the mRNA vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, using blood samples obtained roughly three months after the second dose. As has been found in previous studies, older participants had lower antibody levels. After taking age into account, the only risk factors for lower antibody levels were male sex and smoking – and the gender difference might be because smoking rates were twice as high in men as in women, the researchers speculate. In a paper posted on Saturday on medRxiv ahead of peer review, they report that antibody levels were higher in former smokers than in current smokers, which “suggests smoking cessation will reduce the risk of a lower antibody titer.”

Microscopic lung damage may continue in ‘long COVID’

The persistent breathing issues that plague some COVID-19 survivors, known as “long COVID,” may be due to microscopic processes that continue to damage lungs even after the acute infection is over, new research suggests. The researchers studied blood and airway cells from 38 patients who still had breathing problems at least three months after they were discharged from hospital. Compared to healthy volunteers, the airways of these COVID-19 survivors had higher numbers of immune cells that defend against viruses but can also cause damage. They also had higher levels of proteins that are present when cell death and tissue repair are happening. The findings, which still need confirmation in larger studies, suggest some patients have ongoing disturbances in their immune cells and damage to cells that line the airways, even several months after their initial infection and discharge from hospital, said James Harker of Imperial College London, coauthor of a report published on medRxiv ahead of peer review. “In a small group of patients, we were able to show that the abnormalities may in fact resolve with more time,” Harker said.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

U.S. COVID-19 cases hit six-month high, Florida grapples with surge

By Roshan Abraham and Maria Caspani

(Reuters) -The United States hit a six-month high for new COVID cases with over 100,000 infections reported on Wednesday, according to a Reuters tally, as the Delta variant ravages areas where people did not get vaccinated.

The country is reporting over 94,819 cases on a seven-day average, a five-fold increase in less than a month, Reuters data through Wednesday showed. The seven-day average provides the most accurate picture of how fast cases are rising since some states only report infections once a week or only on weekdays.

Seven U.S. states with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates – Florida, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi – account for half of the country’s new cases and hospitalizations in the last week, White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters on Thursday.

In the coming weeks, cases could double to 200,000 per day due to the highly contagious Delta variant, said top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci on Wednesday.

“If another one comes along that has an equally high capability of transmitting but also is much more severe, then we could really be in trouble,” Fauci said in an interview with McClatchy. “People who are not getting vaccinated mistakenly think it’s only about them. But it isn’t. It’s about everybody else, also.”

To combat the Delta surge, the United States plans to give booster shots to Americans with compromised immune systems, top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday.

The United States is joining Germany, France and Israel in giving booster shots, ignoring a plea by the World Health Organization to hold off until more people around the world can get their first shot.

FLORIDA SURGE

Southern states, which have some of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates, are reporting the most COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Florida, Texas and Louisiana were reporting the highest total number of new cases in the region over the last week, according to a Reuters analysis.

Florida, which has emerged as the nationwide hotbed of new infections, set yet another grim hospitalization record on Thursday with 12,373 confirmed COVID-19 patients in its hospitals, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

More children are hospitalized with the virus in Florida than in any other U.S. state, HHS data shows.

“23% of new COVID hospitalizations in the U.S are in Florida, and their hospitals are being overwhelmed again,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday. Psaki urged the state’s governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, to “join us in this fight” after DeSantis accused Biden of singling out his state.

Louisiana and Arkansas are also grappling with record or near-record numbers of coronavirus patients occupying beds, according to a Reuters tally.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday urged Republican leaders in Florida and Texas – home to roughly a third of all new U.S. COVID-19 cases – to follow public health guidelines on the pandemic or “get out of the way.”

To try to halt the spread of the virus, New York City will require proof of vaccination at restaurants, gyms and other businesses.

Some private companies are also mandating vaccines for employees and customers.

As Delta spreads, some companies are delaying plans for workers to return to the office. Amazon.com, which had originally set Sept. 7 as the comeback date, on Thursday said it would not expect U.S. corporate employees to return to the office until next year, according to an internal note seen by Reuters.

(Reporting by Roshan Abraham in Bengaluru and Maria Caspani in New York; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Susan Heavey, Carl O’Donnell and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Colombian children learn to identify landmines buried during country’s civil war

(Reuters) – A non-profit organization is teaching children in rural Colombia how to identify landmines placed near their communities by armed guerrilla groups during the country’s long civil war.

Since 2013, the HALO Trust Foundation has created programs to deactivate anti-personnel mines in the regions of Antioquia, Meta, Tolima, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, NariƱo and Putumayo. So far, they have been able to declare 900 free of mines. They also teach children and their communities about the risks of the mines, how to spot them, and what to do if they find one.

“Younger people do not know how to correctly identify explosive artefacts. This has always been and still is a concern,” said community leader Juliana Arango.

According to the HALO Trust Foundation, since 1990 around 12,000 people have been injured or died in Colombia because of undetonated explosives.

“We try to… create safe surroundings for the communities, to reduce the problem of the anti-personnel mines and also reduce the accidents they cause,” said Juan Jose Granada, who works for HALO Trust.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by Diane Craft)

At least 18 people killed in lightning strikes in India

(Reuters) – At least 18 people, including seven children, were killed and 16 others injured by lightning strikes in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan late on Sunday, local officials said.

Eleven of those killed were tourists visiting the Amer fort on the outskirts of the state capital Jaipur, after lightning struck a watchtower near the site.

“As it started raining visitors took cover at a watchtower near the fort. Lightning struck the watchtower killing 11 people on the spot and injuring others,” Jairam, a local police officer who identified himself by only one name, told Reuters on Monday.

Most of those dead were local tourists, he said.

Seven children were killed by lightning strikes in two other incidents in the state on Sunday night, Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said on Twitter.

There were also reports of casualties from lightning strikes in the neighboring states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, but the number of those affected was not immediately known.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed in a tweet his condolences to the families of the deceased.

Lightning and thunderstorms are common in the rainy season in India, which runs from June to September.

(Reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Biden in Florida to comfort families as search at collapse site paused over safety concerns

By Katanga Johnson and Steve Holland

SURFSIDE, Fla. (Reuters) – President Joe Biden visited Florida on Thursday to comfort the families of those killed and missing in last week’s condominium collapse, as the search-and-rescue operation was temporarily suspended due to concerns about the stability of the remaining structure.

Biden, whose personal experience with tragedy has marked his political career, was set to reprise the role of “consoler-in-chief” a week after the 12-story building partially caved in as residents slept.

The confirmed death toll remained at 18, after the discovery of six more bodies in the ruins of the Champlain Towers South condo, including two children, aged 4 and 10. Another 145 people are missing and feared trapped in the rubble, with hopes of finding any survivors dimming with each passing day.

After arriving in Miami, Biden attended a briefing with local officials, including Governor Ron DeSantis, who is widely seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024.

Biden told them he would deliver “whatever you need” and said he expected the federal government would cover the full costs for the county and state.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “This is life or death.”

Workers at the site were instructed to stop just after 2 a.m. on Thursday, when movement in the debris raised concerns that the part of the building still standing could collapse, officials said.

“The search-and-rescue operation will continue as soon as it is safe to do so,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at a news briefing. Officials said they were unsure when that would happen.

Authorities said they have not given up on locating survivors. But nobody has been pulled alive from the wreckage since the early hours of the disaster in the oceanfront town of Surfside, adjacent to Miami Beach.

Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Alan Cominsky said rescuers did hear signs of life during their initial efforts last week.

“They were searching for a female voice, is what we heard for several hours,” he said. “Eventually, we didn’t hear her voice anymore.”

Officials are also keeping a watchful eye on Tropical Storm Elsa, which formed over the Atlantic and could reach south Florida by Monday, potentially hampering search operations.

SEARCH-AND-RESCUE

Among those traveling with Biden on Thursday were U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes the collapse site; Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell; and Liz Sherwood-Randall, White House homeland security adviser.

Biden had delayed his visit to Florida to avoid interrupting rescue efforts.

FEMA has dispatched five urban search-and-rescue teams – each comprised of 80 members – to assist in sifting through the rubble, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.

DeSantis said workers have removed some 1,400 tons of material from the collapse site.

Thursday’s trip is Biden’s second visit to the scene of a disaster since he became president in January.

In February, he traveled to Texas after a winter storm left millions without power or clean water for days and killed several people.

After his briefing, the president planned to thank first responders and rescue crews before meeting with victims’ families. He is scheduled to deliver remarks shortly before 4 p.m. in Miami.

Biden’s ability to connect his own hardships with the grief and anguish of others has become a defining feature of his public life, having endured the deaths of his first wife, a daughter and a son.

Investigators have not determined what caused nearly half of the 40-year-old condo complex to crumble in one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history.

But a 2018 report prepared by engineering firm Morabito Consultants ahead of a building safety recertification process found structural deficiencies in the 136-unit complex that are now the focus of inquiries.

The Washington Post reported late on Wednesday that the majority of the board of the Surfside condominium, including its president, resigned in 2019, partly in frustration over what was seen as the sluggish response to the report.

(Reporting By Katanga Johnson in Surfside and Steve Holland in Bal Harbor; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Francisco Alvarado, Brendan O’Brien, Peter Szekely, Kanishka Singh and Trevor Hunnicutt; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Giles Elgood, Steve Orlofsky and Sonya Hepinstall)

Vaccines effective vs variants despite diminished antibodies; kids may be as contagious as adults

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Vaccines protect against variants despite diminished antibodies

The one-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine and the two-dose vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech appear to protect against worrisome coronavirus variants despite diminished levels of antibodies that can neutralize the newer versions of the virus, two studies in the journal Nature suggest. The authors of both studies said other immune responses may be compensating. In one study, published on Wednesday, researchers experimented with blood from people who had received the J&J vaccine two months earlier. Compared to their levels of neutralizing antibodies against the virus that was circulating early in the pandemic, levels of neutralizing antibodies against variants first identified in the UK, South Africa, Brazil and California were about three-fold lower. However, the researchers observed other “robust” immune activity and cells whose responses against the variants were undiminished. In clinical trials, the researchers noted, the J&J vaccine protected against symptomatic COVID-19 in South Africa and in Brazil, where most cases were caused by the variants. Its effectiveness in these regions raises the possibility that these other immune responses may be contributing to protection, coauthor Dr. Dan Barouch of Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said in a statement. In a separate study using blood from recipients of the Pfizer/BioNTech shots, levels of antibodies that could neutralize concerning variants first identified in India and Nigeria were lower compared to an earlier version of the virus, researchers reported on Thursday. Still, they reported “robust neutralization” of all tested variants. Neutralizing antibodies, the researchers said, do not reflect all potentially protective vaccine responses.

Children with COVID-19 may be as contagious as adults

In a community-based study of COVID-19 patients who were not hospitalized, U.S. researchers found that children and adults with symptoms had similar viral loads, which suggests children can be just as contagious as grownups. “There has been a lot of debate around school openings and about whether children could transmit the virus and we thought this study could help answer some of these questions,” said Dr. Helen Chu of the University of Washington, who coauthored a report published on Friday in JAMA Pediatrics. Her team looked at 123 children and 432 adults with COVID-19 and found that nearly all of the adults had symptoms, compared to about two-thirds of the children. “Overall, people with symptoms had higher virus levels than people without symptoms,” Chu said. “However, when you looked within these groups – those with symptoms or those without – viral load was the same whether you were a child or an adult.” She noted that swab tests were only done once, so researchers cannot be sure they took place when patients’ viral loads were highest. But overall, she said, children in the community with SARS-CoV-2 infection can have virus levels similar to adults and can transmit it to others.

Oral booster vaccine shows promise in animal tests

An experimental “booster” vaccine against COVID-19 that is taken by mouth has yielded promising early results in studies in rats, Israeli researchers said. The oral vaccine, MigVax-101, targets multiple sites on the coronavirus. Along with the spike protein on the surface of the virus, which is the target of currently available vaccines, the oral vaccine also targets two sites on the virus shell, which encapsulates its genetic material. In laboratory experiments, rats that had received two doses of vaccines that targeted the spike protein were given the oral booster. “These rats developed a much higher level of antibodies for neutralizing the disease than did control group rats that received a placebo or a third injection of the (original) vaccine,” said David Zigdon of MIGAL Galilee Research Institute Ltd, who coauthored a report posted on Wednesday on bioRxiv ahead of peer review. If it is proven safe for humans, an oral vaccine might trigger strong immune responses in the mucosal surfaces of the mouth and upper respiratory tract, which would in turn help block viral entry, the researchers speculated. An oral vaccine could be particularly useful in developing countries because it would avoid the need for distribution of needles and could be self-administered.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid and Christine Soares; Editing by Bill Berkrot)