Unlikely that a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready in October, but not impossible, Fauci says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top U.S. infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci said on Thursday it is unlikely a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready by the end of October, but that it is not impossible.

“I think most of the people feel it’s going to be November, December,” Fauci said in a CNN interview when asked about the possibility of an earlier release, adding a clinical trial could prompt drug developers to decide a vaccine works sooner. “It is conceivable that you can have it by October, though I don’t think that that’s likely.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Scientists see downsides to top COVID-19 vaccines from Russia, China

By Allison Martell and Julie Steenhuysen

TORONTO/CHICAGO (Reuters) – High-profile COVID-19 vaccines developed in Russia and China share a potential shortcoming: They are based on a common cold virus that many people have been exposed to, potentially limiting their effectiveness, some experts say.

CanSino Biologics’ vaccine, approved for military use in China, is a modified form of adenovirus  type 5, or Ad5. The company is in talks to get emergency approval in several countries before completing large-scale trials, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.

A vaccine developed by Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute, approved in Russia earlier this month despite limited testing, is based on Ad5 and a second less common adenovirus.

“The Ad5 concerns me just because a lot of people have immunity,” said Anna Durbin, a vaccine researcher at Johns Hopkins University. “I’m not sure what their strategy is … maybe it won’t have 70% efficacy. It might have 40% efficacy, and that’s better than nothing, until something else comes along.”

Vaccines are seen as essential to ending the pandemic that has claimed over 845,000 lives worldwide. Gamaleya has said its two-virus approach will address Ad5 immunity issues.

Both developers have years of experience and approved Ebola vaccines based on Ad5. Neither CanSino nor Gamaleya responded to requests for comment.

Researchers have experimented with Ad5-based vaccines against a variety of infections for decades, but none are widely used. They employ harmless viruses as “vectors” to ferry genes from the target virus – in this case the novel coronavirus – into human cells, prompting an immune response to fight the actual virus.

But many people already have antibodies against Ad5, which could cause the immune system to attack the vector instead of responding to the coronavirus, making these vaccines less effective.

Several researchers have chosen alternative adenoviruses or delivery mechanisms. Oxford University and AstraZeneca based their COVID-19 vaccine on a chimpanzee adenovirus, avoiding the Ad5 issue. Johnson & Johnson’s candidate uses Ad26, a comparatively rare strain.

Dr. Zhou Xing, from Canada’s McMaster University, worked with CanSino on its first Ad5-based vaccine, for tuberculosis, in 2011. His team is developing an inhaled Ad5 COVID-19 vaccine, theorizing it could circumvent pre-existing immunity issues.

“The Oxford vaccine candidate has quite an advantage” over the injected CanSino vaccine, he said.

Xing also worries that high doses of the Ad5 vector in the CanSino vaccine could induce fever, fueling vaccine skepticism.

“I think they will get good immunity in people that don’t have antibodies to the vaccine, but a lot of people do,” said Dr. Hildegund Ertl, director of the Wistar Institute Vaccine Center in Philadelphia.

In China and the United States, about 40% of people have high levels of antibodies from prior Ad5 exposure. In Africa, it could be as high as 80%, experts said.

HIV RISK

Some scientists also worry an Ad5-based vaccine could increase chances of contracting HIV.

In a 2004 trial of a Merck & Co Ad5-based HIV vaccine, people with pre-existing immunity became more, not less, susceptible to the virus that causes AIDS.

Researchers, including top U.S. infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, in a 2015 paper, said the side effect was likely unique to HIV vaccines. But they cautioned that HIV incidence should be monitored during and after trials of all Ad5-based vaccines in at-risk populations.

“I would be worried about the use of those vaccines in any country or any population that was at risk of HIV, and I put our country as one of them,” said Dr. Larry Corey, co-leader of the U.S. Coronavirus Vaccine Prevention Network, who was a lead researcher on the Merck trial.

Gamaleya’s vaccine will be administered in two doses: The first based on Ad26, similar to J&J’s candidate, and the second on Ad5.

Alexander Gintsburg, Gamaleya’s director, has said the two-vector approach addresses the immunity issue. Ertl said it might work well enough in individuals who have been exposed to one of the two adenoviruses.

Many experts expressed skepticism about the Russian vaccine after the government declared its intention to give it to high-risk groups in October without data from large pivotal trials.

“Demonstrating safety and efficacy of a vaccine is very important,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, a Harvard vaccine researcher who helped design J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine. Often, he noted, large-scale trials “do not give the result that is expected or required.”

(Additional reporting by Christine Soares in New York, Kate Kelland in London, Polina Ivanova in Moscow and Roxanne Liu in Beijing; Editing by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)

FDA’s emergency approval of blood plasma as COVID-19 treatment on hold: NYT

(Reuters) – The emergency approval of blood plasma as a potential COVID-19 treatment by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has now been put on hold, the New York Times reported on Wednesday, citing two senior administration officials.

A group of top federal health officials including Anthony Fauci have argued that the emerging data on the treatment was too weak, the report said, adding that an emergency approval could still be granted in the near future.

The authorization is on hold for now as more data is reviewed, the NYT reported, citing Clifford Lane, the clinical director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institute of Health.

The FDA and NIH did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

People who survive an infectious disease like COVID-19 are left with blood plasma containing antibodies, or proteins the body’s immune system created, to fight off a virus. This can be transfused into newly infected patients to try to aid recovery.

An FDA emergency-use authorization could allow faster access to a therapy for the pandemic.

(Reporting by Trisha Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

Government health experts warn U.S. cities of ‘trouble ahead’

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House health experts are warning of an uptick in the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 in U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago and Washington, urging local leaders to maintain health safety measures to avoid a surge.

“This is a predictor of trouble ahead,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Thursday.

Fauci was asked on CNN about comments made by his White House coronavirus task force colleague, Dr. Deborah Birx, identifying new areas of concern in major cities, even as authorities see encouraging signs across the South.

Baltimore and Atlanta remain at a “very high level,” as well as Kansas City, Portland, Omaha and California’s Central Valley, Birx told state and local officials in a telephone call Wednesday. A recording of the call was obtained by the journalism nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

White House data shows small increases in the percentage of positive COVID-10 tests in Chicago, Boston and Detroit and those places need to “get on top of it”, Birx said.

Even in cities and states where most people are doing things right, Fauci said, a segment of people not wearing masks or following social distancing remains vulnerable to infection and can keep the virus smoldering in U.S. communities.

“Unless everybody pulls together, and gets the level way down over baseline, we’re going to continue to see these kind of increases that Dr. Birx was talking about in several of those cities,” Fauci said.

White House coronavirus experts have in recent days sent regular warnings to cities and states not to relax anti-coronavirus measures too much before the virus is under sufficient control.

On average, 1,000 people are dying each day nationwide from COVID-19. The U.S. death toll is now over 157,000, with 4.8 million known cases.

President Donald Trump, in contrast, has played down the staying power of the virus, saying on Wednesday “it will go away like things go away” as he urged U.S. schools to reopen on time for face-to-face lessons.

Trump also said children are “almost immune” from COVID-19, prompting Facebook Inc on Wednesday to take down a post by the Republican president containing a Fox News video clip in which he made the statement. Facebook said it violated its rules against sharing misinformation about the virus.

Chicago’s mayor said on Wednesday that school would be online-only in September, after the teachers’ union and many parents in the city objected to a plan to allow students the option of attending class twice a week in pods of 15.

Chicago is the third-largest school district in the United States behind New York and Los Angeles, with 350,000 students.

Los Angeles has already announced that students will be kept home, while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he expects to have children attend classes part of the time.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Fauci doesn’t think U.S. will have to go back into “shutdown mode”

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Top U.S. infectious disease official Anthony Fauci said on Wednesday that he doesn’t think the United States will have to go back into “shutdown mode” in order to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“We can do much better without locking down,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at an event hosted by Harvard University. He said Americans should wear masks, keep physically distanced, shut down bars, wash their hands and favor outdoor activities over indoor ones in order to help stop transmission of the virus.

(Reporting by Michael Erman; editing by Diane Craft)

Proportion of youth with COVID-19 triples in five months: WHO

By Ankur Banerjee and Stephanie Nebehay

(Reuters) – Young people who are hitting nightclubs and beaches are leading a rise in fresh coronavirus cases across the world, with the proportion of those aged 15 to 24 who are infected rising three-fold in about five months, the World Health Organization said.

An analysis by the WHO of 6 million infections between Feb. 24 and July 12 found that the share of people aged 15-24 years rose to 15% from 4.5%.

Apart from the United States which leads a global tally with 4.8 million total cases, European countries including Spain, Germany and France, and Asian countries such as Japan, have said that many of the newly infected are young people.

“Younger people tend to be less vigilant about masking and social distancing,” Neysa Ernst, nurse manager at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s biocontainment unit in Baltimore, Maryland told Reuters in an email.

“Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19,” she said, adding young people are more likely to go to work in the community, to a beach or the pub, or to buy groceries.

The surge in new cases, a so-called second wave of infections, has prompted some countries to impose new curbs on travel even as companies race to find a vaccine for the fast-spreading virus that has claimed more than 680,000 lives and upended economies.

Even countries such as Vietnam, widely praised for its mitigation efforts since the coronavirus appeared in late January, are battling new clusters of infection.

Among those aged 5-14 years, about 4.6% were infected, up from 0.8%, between Feb. 24 and July 12, the WHO said, at a time when testing has risen and public health experts are concerned that reopening of schools may lead to a surge in cases.

Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. expert on infectious diseases, urged young people last month to continue to socially distance, wear masks and avoid crowds, and cautioned that asymptomatic people could spread the virus, too.

Indeed, health experts in several countries have urged similar measures as they report that infected youth show few symptoms.

“We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: young people are not invincible,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing in Geneva last week.

“Young people can be infected; young people can die; and young people can transmit the virus to others.”

Last month, Tokyo officials said they would conduct coronavirus testing in the city’s nightlife districts, and instructed nightclubs to provide customers with enough space with good ventilation and to ask them to avoid speaking loudly.

In France last month, authorities shut down a bar where people breached hygiene rules and caused an outbreak.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Sayantani Ghosh and Bernadette Baum)

COVID-19 outbreak in hard-hit U.S. states may be peaking, Fauci says

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A coronavirus surge in Florida, California and a handful of other hard-hit states could be peaking while other parts of the country may be on the cusp of growing outbreaks, the top U.S. infectious diseases official said on Tuesday.

A spike in cases in Florida, along with Texas, Arizona and California this month has overwhelmed hospitals, forced a U-turn on steps to reopen economies and stoked fears that U.S. efforts to control the outbreak are sputtering.

“They may be cresting and coming back down,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program regarding the state of the outbreak in several Sunbelt states.

Fauci said there was a “very early indication” that the percentage of coronavirus tests that were positive was starting to rise in other states, such as Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.

“That’s a surefire sign that you’ve got to be careful.”

He urged the states with rising positivity rates to act quickly now to prevent a surge and other states to reopen carefully following guidelines established by U.S. officials and health experts.

Fauci has become a lightning rod for some supporters of President Donald Trump who accuse the 79-year-old health official of exaggerating the extent and severity of the U.S. outbreak and playing down possible treatments.

Trump, who is seeking a second term in the White House in the Nov. 3 election, retweeted a post accusing Fauci and Democrats of suppressing the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus. The post included a link to a video of a group discounting the need for face masks.

A Twitter spokesman confirmed that tweets with the video were in violation of the company’s COVID-19 misinformation policy, and the tweets shared by Trump were deleted.

In his interview with ABC, Fauci defended his work to protect Americans’ health.

“I have not been misleading the American public under any circumstances,” he said.

RISING TOLL

The number of people in the United States who have died of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, rose to 148,446 on Monday, with more than 4.3 million confirmed cases, according to the latest Reuters tally.

Florida had 191 coronavirus deaths in the last 24 hours, the highest single-day increase since the start of the epidemic, its state health department reported on Tuesday.

Texas became the fourth state with more than 400,000 total cases, joining California, Florida and New York in the grim club. But in a glimmer of hope, Texas’ current hospitalizations due to COVID-19 fell on Monday, according to its state health department.

The rise in deaths and infections has dampened early hopes that the country was past the worst of the economic fallout in March and April when lockdowns brought business activity to a near standstill and put millions out of work.

The U.S. Congress on Tuesday was locked in difficult talks over another coronavirus aid package to help American families and businesses recover from the crisis.

In late March, as the economy was beginning to crater, Congress passed a $2.3 trillion stimulus package that included enhanced unemployment benefits to blunt the pain of lockdowns that were being adopted to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Senate Republicans announced on Monday a $1 trillion coronavirus aid package hammered out with the White House, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell touted as a “tailored and targeted” plan to reopen schools and businesses, while protecting companies from lawsuits.

But the proposal sparked immediate opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats decried it as too limited compared with their $3 trillion proposal that passed the House of Representatives in May. Some Republicans called that one too expensive.

The Republican proposal would give many Americans direct payments of $1,200 each, provide billions in loans to small businesses and help schools reopen. But it would slash the current expanded unemployment benefit from $600 per week in addition to state unemployment to $200 per week. The enhanced unemployment benefit expires on Friday.

The supplemental benefit has been a financial lifeline for laid-off workers and a key support for consumer spending.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Daniel Trotta, Patricia Zengerle and Lisa Shumaker; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Howard Goller)

U.S. state, local leaders should be as forceful as possible on masks, Fauci says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci on Friday said state and local leaders should be as forceful as possible on wearing masks to prevent spreading the deadly coronavirus, as the state of Georgia and its major cities tussle over masks.

“I would urge the leaders -the local political leaders in states and cities and towns – to be as forceful as possible in getting your citizenry to wear masks,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with the Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Nonetheless, Fauci said he was cautiously optimistic that the country is on the road to getting the pandemic under control, noting that a promising candidate for a vaccine will go into an “advanced phase three trial by the end of this month.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Makini Brice; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Fauci bullish on prospects for U.S. vaccine, not worried about China winning race

By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – The leading U.S. expert on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, predicted on Wednesday the country will meet its goal of a coronavirus vaccine by year’s end and was unmoved by the prospect that China would get there first.

While there are no guarantees, “I feel good about the projected timetable,” Fauci told Reuters in an interview.

His comments follow promising early stage data for the Moderna Inc’s coronavirus vaccine, released on Tuesday, that was developed with scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Fauci directs.

Many experts see a safe and effective vaccine as the only way out of the pandemic that has infected millions and killed more than 575,000 people worldwide.

Fauci said Moderna’s results were especially promising because the vaccine appeared to offer the type of protection seen in a natural infection.

In vaccine development, “one of the things that you hope for is that your vaccine induces a response that’s comparable to a natural infection, because theoretically, the best vaccine you could possibly ever get is a natural infection.”

Moderna’s candidate, which is set to enter the last stage of testing on July 27, is just one of more than a hundred vaccines in development globally, but only one of a few contenders that have earned millions of dollars in backing from Operation Warp Speed, the White House program that aims to deliver more than 300 million doses of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine by January.

Fauci, who has become a popular and trusted figure during the coronavirus outbreak, came under criticism from President Donald Trump and some of his Republican allies as Fauci cautioned against reopening the U.S. economy too soon.

Asked how he copes with the attacks on his character and allegiance to the president, Fauci told Reuters, “I don’t let it bother me. What we’re doing with vaccines, what we’re doing with therapeutics, what we’re doing with clinical trials is the real substance,” Fauci said.

VACCINE RACE

As U.S. states have begun to reopen businesses and coronavirus infections have soared, some White House officials have pointed fingers at China, where the virus first emerged late last year.

Fauci was unmoved by the prospect that China could cross the finish line first. Although he said he hopes China succeeds, he does not think they will win the vaccine race, at least not by much.

“I think everybody’s sort of on the same track.” If they do get there, he said, “They’re not going to get it particularly sooner than we get it. That’s for sure.”

Ultimately, he hopes multiple successful candidates prevail. “I don’t worry about anybody getting there first.”

Even if a vaccine succeeds in provoking an immune response, Fauci said it is still not clear how long that protection will last.

“These are questions that don’t have answers right now, because we’re only six months into the outbreak.” He said it may take a year before that immunity question is answered.

A recent Reuters poll found that a quarter of Americans are hesitant about taking a vaccine, voicing concern that the record pace of development could compromise safety. Fauci said he is aware of such concerns.

“It’s understandable, but unjustified,” he said. “We’re not compromising safety; we’re not compromising scientific integrity.”

Fauci said the normal development process of waiting for a vaccine to be proven effective before manufacturing begins wastes precious time.

“If the vaccine doesn’t work, the only thing you’ve lost is money.”

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

‘A recipe for disaster,’ U.S. health official says of Americans ignoring coronavirus advice

By Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON Reuters) – A spike in U.S. coronavirus infections is fueled in large part by people ignoring public health guidelines to keep their distance and wear masks, the government’s top infectious disease official said.

A daily surge in confirmed cases has been most pronounced in southern and western states that did not follow health officials’ recommendations to wait for a steady decline in infections for two weeks before reopening their economies.

“That’s a recipe for disaster,” Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN in an interview broadcast on Monday.

“Now we’re seeing the consequences of community spread, which is even more difficult to contain than spread in a well-known physical location like a prison or nursing home or meatpacking place,” Fauci told the cable channel in the interview, which was recorded on Friday.

More than 2.5 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the United States and more than 125,000 have died of COVID-19, the respiratory illness it causes, according to a Reuters tally. The U.S. tally is the highest in the world while the global death toll in the pandemic surpassed half a million people on Sunday.

California ordered some bars to close on Sunday, the first major rollback of efforts to reopen the economy in the most populous U.S. state, following Texas and Florida ordering the closure of all their bars on Friday. Arizona and Georgia are among 15 states that had record increases in cases last week.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday pressed Americans to adopt face masks during a trip to Texas and wore one himself, a sharp turnaround for the administration. Republican President Donald Trump has refused to cover his face in public.

Pence and other top health officials were expected to visit Arizona and Florida later this week.

In places where cases are soaring, U.S. health officials are also considering “completely blanketing these communities with tests,” Fauci said, to try to get a better sense of an outbreak.

They would either test groups, or “pools,” of people or have community groups do contact tracing in person rather than by phone. Contact tracing involves identifying people who are infected and monitoring people who may have been exposed and asking them to voluntarily go into quarantine.

Fauci said that he was optimistic that a vaccine could be available by year’s end but that it was unclear how effective it would prove to be, adding that no vaccine would be 100% effective and citing challenges to achieve so-called herd immunity.

The top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, on Monday stressed individual actions to stop the spread of the virus, deflecting criticism from Democrats and some health experts that Trump botched the prevention effort.

“You can’t say the federal government should do everything, and then say the federal government can’t tell the states what to do,” McCarthy told CNBC. “The governors have a big responsibility here but every American has a responsibility. They should wear a mask.”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Howard Goller)