U.S. FDA releases guidance for COVID-19 vaccine approval

(Reuters) – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday released guidance on its conditions for approving a vaccine for the coronavirus, saying a vaccine has to prevent or decrease disease severity in at least 50% of people who are vaccinated.

More than 100 vaccines are being tested worldwide against the virus, which has claimed over 126,100 lives in the country, according to a Reuters tally.

The Trump administration in May announced a program called “Operation Warp Speed” to speed up the development of COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines, as the country has none approved for the respiratory illness.

“While the FDA is committed to expediting this work, we will not cut corners in our decisions,” the agency said in a statement on Tuesday.

Vaccine developers have also been asked to provide data to support use of their vaccines during pregnancy and to show safety and effectiveness in children, the agency said.

Experts have suggested that it could take a minimum of 12 to 18 months to guarantee a vaccine through clinical trials.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli)

Vaccine makers face biggest medical manufacturing challenge in history

By Julie Steenhuysen and Kate Kelland

CHICAGO/LONDON (Reuters) – Developing a COVID-19 vaccine in record time will be tough. Producing enough to end the pandemic will be the biggest medical manufacturing feat in history.

That work is underway.

From deploying experts amid global travel restrictions to managing extreme storage conditions, and even inventing new kinds of vials and syringes for billions of doses, the path is strewn with formidable hurdles, according to Reuters interviews with more than a dozen vaccine developers and their backers.

Any hitch in an untested supply chain – which could stretch from Pune in India to England’s Oxford and Baltimore in the United States – could torpedo or delay the complex process.

Col. Nelson Michael, director of the U.S. Army’s Center for Infectious Disease Research who is working on the government’s “Warp Speed” project to deliver a vaccine at scale by January, said companies usually have years to figure this stuff out.

“Now, they have weeks.”

Much of the world’s attention is focused on the scientific race to develop a vaccine. But behind the scenes, experts are facing a stark reality: we may simply not have enough capacity to make, package and distribute billions of doses all at once.

Companies and governments are racing to scale-up machinery to address a critical shortage in automated filling and finishing capacity – the final step in the manufacturing process of putting the vaccine into vials or syringes, sealing them and packaging them up for shipping.

“This is the biggest logistical challenge the world has ever faced,” said Toby Peters, an engineering and technology expert at Britain’s Birmingham University. “We could be looking at vaccinating 60% of the population.”

Several developers, including frontrunner Moderna, are experimenting with new ways to mitigate the extreme cold storage demands of their vaccines, which at present need to be kept at minus 80 degrees Celsius (-112 Fahrenheit).

SiO2 Materials Science is working on producing vials that won’t shatter at super-cold temperatures.

Travel restrictions, meanwhile, are posing more prosaic problems; Johnson & Johnson, which plans to start clinical trials this summer, has struggled to send its vaccine experts to oversee the launch of production sites, for example.

‘NEVER IN HISTORY’

By setting up massive clinical trials involving 10,000 to 30,000 volunteers per vaccine, scientists hope to get an answer on whether a vaccine works as early as this October. But even if they succeed, manufacturing in bulk, getting regulators to sign off and packaging billions of doses is a monumental challenge.

Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI vaccines alliance, said in reality, the world is unlikely to go straight from having zero vaccines to having enough doses for everyone.

“It’s likely to be a tailored approach to start with,” he said in an interview. “We’re looking to have something like one to two billion doses of vaccine in the first year, spread out over the world population.”

J&J has partnered with the U.S. government on a $1 billion investment to speed development and production of its vaccine, even before it’s proven to work. It has contracted Emergent Biosolutions and Catalent to manufacture in bulk in the United States. Catalent will also do some fill-and-finish work.

“Never in history has so much vaccine been developed at the same time – so that capacity doesn’t exist,” said Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer, who sees filling capacity as the main limiting factor.

Emergent’s manufacturing plant in Bayview, Maryland, can accommodate four vaccines in parallel using different manufacturing platforms and equipment.

Funded by the government in 2012, the plant includes single-use disposable bioreactor equipment featuring plastic bags rather than stainless steel fermentation equipment, which makes it easier to switch from one vaccine to another.

This month, the company received an additional $628 million to make those four suites available to support any candidate the government selects, CEO Bob Kramer told Reuters.

BLOW-FILL-SEAL-REPEAT

As well as working with J&J, New Jersey-based Catalent signed a deal with British drugmaker AstraZeneca last week to provide vial-filling and packaging services at its plant in Anagni, Italy. It aims to handle hundreds of millions of doses, starting as early as August 2020 and possibly running through until March 2022.

It has ordered high-speed vial-filling equipment to boost output at its Indiana plant, where it is also hiring an additional 300 workers.

Michael Riley, Catalent’s North American president for biologics, told Reuters his biggest challenge was trying to compress work that normally takes years into months.

Adding to the challenge is that glass vials are in short supply.

To save glass, companies plan to use larger vials of five to 20 doses – but this raises new problems, such as potential waste, if not all the doses are used before the vaccine spoils.

“The downside is that after a healthcare practitioner opens a vial, they need to then vaccinate 20 people in a short, 24-hour time,” said Prashant Yadav, a global healthcare supply-chain expert at the Center for Global Development in Washington.

As part of the same drive, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense have awarded ApiJect Systems up to $138 million to upgrade its facilities to be able to make up to 100 million plastic pre-filled syringes by the end of this year, and as many as 600 million in 2021.

The company plans to use a technology called Blow-Fill-Seal, where syringes are blown out of plastic, filled with vaccine and sealed in seconds. This will need Food and Drug Administration approval, CEO Jay Walker told Reuters.

BREAKING COLD CHAIN

SiO2 Materials Science is, meanwhile, ramping up capacity of plastic vials with a glass lining, which are more stable at ultra-low temperatures.

“You can bring us down to minus 196 Celsius, which none of the vaccines need,” Chief Business Officer Lawrence Ganti said. “You can throw it against the wall and it doesn’t break. Our founder has done that. He’s thrown frozen vials at me.”

The company expects to boost production from the current 5-10 million vials a year to 120 million within three-and-a-half months, he told Reuters.

Once packaged, many vaccines need to be kept cold – and some leading contenders made from genetic material such as messenger RNA need to be kept very cold – presenting another challenge that may limit access.

“People who work with mRNA store it at minus 80 degrees centigrade, which is not something you’re gonna find in most pharmacies or doctor’s offices,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine.

Peters of Birmingham university has been gathering data from poorer regions of Africa and Asia, and said breaks in the temperature-controlled supply chain – “cold chain” – are already frequent.

In some places, it is common to lose 25% or more of vaccines because of broken cold chains, he told Reuters.

“So if you’re looking to manufacture four billion, and you reckon you’re going to lose 25%, then you have to manufacture five billion,” he said. “It’s all the elements to move it from the point of manufacture to the point of aggregation, right down to the health centres and then out to the community.”

QUARANTINE QUAGMIRE

Companies developing mRNA vaccines, including Moderna and Translate Bio, which is partnering with Sanofi, are working to make candidates stable at higher temperatures.

Ron Renaud, CEO of Translate Bio, said he was confident this would happen “within a short amount of time”.

Colleen Hussey, a Moderna spokeswoman, said: “We are getting more confident that we could run our supply chain at -20C, which is an easier storage condition than deep freezing,” she said.

Moderna plans to add a small period of time in which the vaccine can be stored at normal fridge temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius in doctors’ offices or clinics.

“We will know more in the next 2-3 months,” she said.

The pandemic is also presenting obstacles of a less technical nature.

Catalent, which has some 30 plants globally, has had to write special permission slips in eight languages explaining that their workers are considered essential.

J&J is having trouble getting experienced personnel to far-flung labs to oversee the transfer of technology to contract manufacturers because they’re subject to 14-day quarantines.

“It is absolutely a factor,” said Stoffels. “If you have to send your people to the middle of India to get to filling capacity, that’s not easy at the moment.”

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Josephine Mason; Editing by Pravin Char)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now 6-11-20

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Farm work is a risky business

From apple packing houses in Washington state to farmworkers in Florida and a California county known as “the world’s salad bowl,” outbreaks of the novel coronavirus are emerging at U.S. fruit and vegetable farms and packing plants.

Working side-by-side and back-to-back, factory employees face the same conditions that contributed to outbreaks at U.S. meatpacking plants.

By late May, there were more than 600 cases of COVID-19 among agricultural workers in Yakima County, Washington. Of those, 62% were workers in the apple industry and other packing operations or warehouses.

The health department in Monterrey County, California, reported 247 agricultural workers had tested positive for coronavirus as of June 5, 39% of county’s total cases.

Tracking down the duds in testing free-for-all

The market for COVID-19 antibody tests has ballooned in a matter of months as hundreds of products flood the world for people who want to find out whether they’ve already had the virus. The problem is, some of them don’t work properly.

As a result, European authorities aim to tighten regulation of the new sector, to weed out tests that give consistently inaccurate results and crack down on companies that make false claims.

Why do some people get sicker than others?

Diabetes, high body temperature, low oxygen saturation and pre-existing cardiac injury are some risk factors for severe COVID-19, South Korean doctors have found in a paper published by the Journal of Korean Medical Science on June 2.

The team of doctors observed 110 coronavirus patients at a hospital in Daegu, the epicenter of South Korea’s outbreak, from Feb. 19 to April 15, of whom 23 developed severe COVID-19. The patients with at least three of the four prognostic conditions developed severe conditions, said Ahn June-hong, professor of internal medicine.

Hopes for antibody cocktail

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals said it has begun human testing of its experimental antibody cocktail as a treatment for COVID-19.

The trial has an “adaptive” design and could quickly move from dozens of patients to eventually include thousands, Chief Scientific Officer George Yancopoulos told Reuters.

The dual antibody, called REGN-COV2, is being compared to a placebo treatment in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and in COVID-19 patients who have symptoms but are not sick enough to be hospitalized.

Regeneron said its treatment could be useful even if a COVID-19 vaccine is developed since the elderly and people with compromised immune systems often do not respond well to vaccines.

Love in the time of COVID

Those looking for love during the COVID-19 pandemic have had to adapt to lockdown dating, but innovations such as video “pre-dates” may end up outliving the coronavirus.

In England, from Saturday, single adult households will be allowed to form a “support bubble” with one other household and stay the night, which some newspapers took as an end to what they had dubbed a sex ban. But some of the coronavirus customs that have taken root look set to persist.

Dating app Bumble is launching a feature where users can badge themselves about how they want to date, be it virtually or socially distanced with a mask.

 

(Compiled by Linda Noakes)

J&J to begin human trials of COVID-19 vaccine in second half of July

(Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson said on Wednesday it would start human trials of its potential COVID-19 vaccine in the second half of July, two months earlier than planned, as drugmakers race to develop a shot for the deadly respiratory disease.

The company has already signed deals with the U.S. government to create enough manufacturing capacity to produce more than 1 billion doses of its vaccine through 2021.

There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus that has killed more than 400,000 people globally.

J&J’s study will test the vaccine against a placebo and assess the shot’s safety and immune response in 1,045 healthy people aged 18 to 55 years, as well as those 65 years and older. The trial will take place in the United States and Belgium.

U.S. biotech Moderna Inc is at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine development and has started testing its candidate in a mid-stage trial that will enroll 600 patients. The company expects to begin late-stage trials in July.

AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline are all at various stages of development of their vaccine candidates.

There are currently about 10 coronavirus vaccines being tested in humans and experts have predicted that a safe and effective vaccine could take 12 to 18 months from the start of development.

(Reporting by Saumya Sibi Joseph in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Scientists hunt pandemic hotspots

The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic may be waning. For vaccine developers, that could be a problem.

Scientists in Europe and the United States say the relative success of draconian lockdown and social distancing policies means virus transmission rates may be at such low levels in some places that there is not enough disease circulating to truly test potential vaccines.

They may need to look further afield, to pandemic hotspots in Africa and Latin America, to get convincing results.

Rich world lockdowns hit remittances

Carlos Sosa, a Salvadoran waiter in New York, used to send up to $500 a month back home to his mother to help pay for her medical bills and food. After the coronavirus hit and he lost his job in early March, Sosa has burnt through his savings and the wire transfers have stopped.

Lockdowns imposed by wealthy nations and the jolt those restrictions have delivered to their economies are severing a vital lifeline for many often vulnerable people around the world: the billions of dollars in remittances sent home by relatives working abroad.

Emirates sees four years to full resumption

Emirates’ outgoing president, Tim Clark, said it could take the Dubai-based airline up to four years to resume flying to its entire network. Emirates, which flew to 157 destinations in 83 countries before the pandemic, grounded passenger flights in March and has since operated few, limited services.

“I think probably by the year 2022/23, 2023/24 we will see things coming back to some degree of normality,” Clark said in a webcast interview with aviation consultant John Strickland.

Future of tourism

Sri Lanka plans a limited reopening of its tourism sector on Aug. 1, according to the head of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. Small groups of tourists will be allowed to enter with a certificate from their governments or a reputable agency stating they were free of COVID-19.

They would be tested on arrival in Sri Lanka, would have to stay in approved five-star hotels with strict safety measures, and would be allowed to visit sites including national parks and beaches.

(Compiled by Karishma Singh and Nick Tattersall; Edited by Nick Macfie)

U.S. secures 300 million doses of potential AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

By Aakash B, Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton

BENGALURU/LONDON (Reuters) – The United States has secured almost a third of the first 1 billion doses planned for AstraZeneca’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine by pledging up to $1.2 billion, as world powers scramble for medicines to get their economies back to work.

While not yet proven to be effective against the coronavirus, vaccines are seen by world leaders as the only real way to restart their stalled economies, and even to get an edge over global competitors.

After President Donald Trump demanded a vaccine, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agreed to provide up to $1.2 billion to accelerate British drugmaker AstraZeneca’s vaccine development and secure 300 million doses for the United States.

“This contract with AstraZeneca is a major milestone in Operation Warp Speed’s work toward a safe, effective, widely available vaccine by 2021,” U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar said. The first doses could be available in the United States as early as October, according to a statement from HHS.

The vaccine, previously known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 and now as AZD1222, was developed by the University of Oxford and licensed to AstraZeneca. Immunity to the new coronavirus is uncertain and so the use of vaccines is unclear.

The U.S. deal allows a late-stage, or Phase III, clinical trial of the vaccine with 30,000 people in the United States.

Cambridge, England-based AstraZeneca said it had concluded agreements for at least 400 million doses of the vaccine and secured manufacturing capacity for 1 billion doses, with first deliveries due to begin in September.

Now the most valuable company on Britain’s blue-chip FTSE 100 Index, AstraZeneca has already agreed to deliver 100 million doses to people in Britain, with 30 million as soon as September. Ministers have promised Britain will get first access to the vaccine.

VACCINE SCRAMBLE

With leaders across the world surveying some of the worst economic destruction since at least World War Two and the deaths of more than 327,000 people, many are scrambling for a vaccine.

The U.S. government has struck deals to support vaccine development with Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Moderna and Sanofi, sparking fears the richest countries will be able to protect their citizens first.

Sanofi’s chief angered the French government earlier this month when he said vaccine doses produced in the United States could go to U.S. patients first, given the country had supported the research financially.

“We have a lot of things happening on the vaccine front or the therapeutic front,” Trump told reporters at the White House when asked about the AstraZeneca announcement. “You’re going to have a lot of big announcements over the next week or two” on therapeutics.

Trump, during a Thursday visit to a Ford Motor Co plant in Michigan, said the U.S. military is “in gear so we can give out 150 to 250 million shots quickly.”

AstraZeneca said it was in talks with governments and partners around the world – such as the Serum Institute of India – to increase access and production and is speaking to various organizations on fair allocation and distribution.

“We would like to thank the U.S. and UK governments for their substantial support to accelerate the development and production of the vaccine,” AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said.

The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest maker of vaccines by volume, has dedicated one of its facilities with a capacity to produce up to 400 million doses annually to producing the Oxford vaccine.

“We are scaling up on a conservative basis of about 4 to 5 million doses a month to begin with,” Chief Executive Adar Poonawalla told Reuters, adding the company was in discussions with AstraZeneca.

COVID-19 PROTECTION?

A Phase I/II clinical trial of AZD1222 began last month to assess safety, immunogenicity and efficacy in over 1,000 healthy volunteers aged 18 to 55 across several trial centers in southern England. Data from the trial is expected shortly.

There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19.

Governments, drugmakers and researchers are working on around 100 programs. Experts are predicting a safe, effective means of preventing the disease could take 12 to 18 months to develop.

Only a handful of the vaccines in development have advanced to human trials, an indicator of safety and efficacy, and the stage at which most fail.

“AstraZeneca recognizes that the vaccine may not work but is committed to progressing the clinical program with speed and scaling up manufacturing at risk,” it said.

Other drugmakers including Pfizer Inc, J&J and Sanofi are in various stages of vaccine development.

U.S.-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals said Wednesday its experimental vaccine produced protective antibodies and immune system responses in mice and guinea pigs.

And Moderna this week released positive data for its potential vaccine, which it said produced protective antibodies in a small group of healthy volunteers.

(Reporting by Aakash Jagadeesh Babu in Bengaluru, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Zeba Siddiqui in New Delhi; writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Alexander Smith, Jan Harvey, Mark Potter, Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)

Take Five: Coronavirus vaccine race is on

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has put his faith in anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to ward off COVID-19, but governments and investors are focusing on a vaccine. Without one, it’s unlikely economic activity can resume fully.

So the race is on, and the rewards are rich: AstraZeneca has vaulted into the position of the most valuable British company after receiving a U.S. pledge for up to $1.2 billion for its experimental vaccine.

Pharma/biotech shares have outperformed broader equities since Feb 19. Investors twitchy for vaccine news sent the share price of biotech company Moderna 20% higher when it said its vaccine trials showed promise. Rivals Novavax and Inovio also rose when they secured vaccine development funding.

The United States has vaccine development deals with Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi, too. But many others, big and small, are in the race: Imperial College, Gilead Sciences, Roche, China’s CanSino Biologics and India’s Glenmark to name just a few.

THE RUBICON

European clashes over how to handle the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis raised fears for the bloc’s future, but a Franco-German proposal aimed at helping the worst-hit states represents a pivotal moment. The markets want to see the details, however. All eyes will be on the European Commission, which on Wednesday presents its pandemic recovery plan.

The task is to ensure weaker states such as Italy can access funding without adding to their debt burden. But EU states remain divided over whether recovery funds should be funneled through loans or transfers. If those opposed to big-spending manage to water down the plan, the euro and southern European bonds will take a knock.

The change in Germany’s previously hardline stance was momentous. Now it’s the turn of others such as Austria and the Netherlands to decide whether they are ready to cross the Rubicon.

TRYING TIMES

Beijing’s control has long been a sore point for some Hong Kongers. Its latest proposal for a tougher national security regime for the city will almost certainly lead to further violent confrontations on the streets and open a new venue for Sino-U.S. tension.

Only this time it may be worse, which is why the Hang Seng index was hit harder on Friday than even the worst days in the March selldown. China has replaced the leadership in its Hong Kong Liaison office and, foreign envoys reckon, quietly doubled the number of staff there.

The United States has already warned of a tough response. Investors will look there, and to the situation on the ground for cues. As for markets, Hong Kong’s property index posted its worst drop in 11.5 years on Friday. European luxury shares and banks such as HSBC also took a hammering on Friday, meaning ripples could spread.

CLOUD STOCKS FLOAT HIGHER

Coronavirus is a double-edged sword for cloud-computing firms. It has supercharged demand for data center services to support video-streaming and other remote services but is also forcing corporates to slash budgets amid a deep recession.

Cloud computing players take the spotlight on Wall Street in the coming days as they report quarterly results and guide investors on the outlook. Autodesk and Workday report on Wednesday. Salesforce.com  – viewed as the gold standard – follows on Thursday, along with systems software seller VMWare.

The First Trust Cloud Computing index ETF  has gained over 10% in 2020, although some big-name cloud-computing stocks have yet to fully recover from their March lows.

DOOM AND GLOOM

Armed with less fiscal firepower and weaker healthcare systems than richer peers, emerging economies have been less able to counter coronavirus-induced drops in consumption, foreign investment and exports, or alleviate the effects of job losses.

That strain shows up in economic data, not least the 6.8% Q1 contraction in China’s economy, the biggest in decades. Soon four other emerging market heavyweights – Turkey, Mexico, Brazil and India – will tell us how their growth fared in the January-April quarter.

Expect gloomy readings. India, not long ago, the fastest-growing big economy, is expected to have expanded 2% in Q1; Turkey’s economy is seen contracting this year for the first time in over a decade. For Brazil and Mexico Goldman Sachs predicts full-year contractions of 7.4% and 8.5% respectively.

(Reporting by Sujata Rao, Dhara Ranasinghe and Tom Arnold in London, Tom Westbrook in Singapore and Lewis Krauskopf in New York; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now 5-21-20

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

“A long way to go”

The World Health Organization is starting to raise the alarm bell about the rising number of new coronavirus cases in poor countries, even as many rich nations emerge from lockdowns.

The global health body said on Wednesday 106,000 new cases had been recorded in the previous 24 hours, the most in a single day since the outbreak began.

“We still have a long way to go in this pandemic,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Global coronavirus cases have surpassed 5 million, with Latin America overtaking the United States and Europe in the past week to report the largest portion of new daily cases.

Vaccine: high hopes and a reality-check

The United States said it will pump up to $1.2 billion into developing AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine and confirmed that it would order 300 million doses.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said he hoped the first doses of the vaccine, which is being developed with the University of Oxford, would be available by October.

AstraZeneca meanwhile stressed it was still awaiting results from an early-stage trial to know if the vaccine worked at all.

China fur and traditional medicine trade to continue?

China’s parliament is preparing new laws to ban the trade and consumption of wildlife, following on from a temporary move in January after exotic animals traded in a Wuhan market were identified as the most likely source of COVID-19.

However, local action plans published this week suggest the country’s fur trade and lucrative traditional medicine sectors will continue as usual.

That means practices that lead to cross-species virus transmission could continue, said Peter Li, China policy specialist with Humane Society International, an animal rights group. China’s annual national session of parliament, delayed from March, starts on Friday.

Sports and sleepwear over suits and ties

The new bestsellers at Marks & Spencer are sportswear, sleepwear and bras, while sales of suits and ties are down to “a dribble”, as the lockdown transforms shoppers’ priorities, Britain’s biggest clothing retailer said on Wednesday.

What customers are buying is “completely different from what it would have been a year ago,” M&S chairman Archie Norman told reporters, after the 136-year-old group published annual results and its response to the pandemic.

Along with surging sales of jogging pants, hoodies and leggings, an emphasis on home comforts and family needs has boosted bedding sales by 150%.

(Compiled by Karishma Singh and Mark John; editing by Nick Macfie)

New coronavirus adapts to populations; vaccine works in monkeys

By Nancy Lapid

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The following is a brief roundup 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.

New coronavirus is adapting to different populations

A genetic analysis of samples from more than 7,500 people infected with COVID-19 suggests that as the new coronavirus spreads quickly around the world, it is adapting to its human hosts, researchers reported on Tuesday in the medical journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution. They found almost 200 recurrent genetic mutations of the new coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – that show how it may be evolving as it spreads in people.

“All viruses naturally mutate,” Francois Balloux of University College London, who co-led the research, told Reuters. “Mutations in themselves are not a bad thing and there is nothing to suggest SARS-CoV-2 is mutating faster or slower than expected. So far, we cannot say whether SARS-CoV-2 is becoming more or less lethal and contagious.”

Experimental vaccine protects macaques from SARS-CoV-2 infection

In macaque monkeys, an experimental vaccine for the novel coronavirus safely induced antibodies that blocked several different SARS-CoV-2 strains, Chinese researchers reported on Wednesday in the journal Science. The researchers say tests of their vaccine candidate, “PiCoVacc,” in humans will likely begin later this year.

The true prevalence of problems with smell and taste among patients infected with the novel coronavirus may be higher than doctors realize, according to researchers who reviewed 10 studies published earlier this year. Among a total of more than 1,600 infected patients in North America, Asia and Europe, nearly 53% had diminished or loss of sense of smell, and nearly 44% had problems with taste. In the subset of studies that used particularly reliable tests to evaluate patients’ ability to smell and taste, rates of dysfunction were even higher, suggesting “that the true prevalence of dysfunction in COVID-19 patients may remain underestimated,” the research team wrote on Tuesday in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Increased awareness “may encourage earlier diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19, as well as heighten vigilance for viral spread.”

Researchers list ways to ease the stress of frontline caregivers

There are many well-documented methods hospitals could use to help ease frontline caregivers’ emotional stress, according to researchers who reviewed dozens of studies of healthcare staff working during outbreaks of emerging viruses. Broadly, they say, interventions fall into the categories of clear communication, access to adequate personal protection, adequate rest, and practical and psychological support.

Among their specific recommendations are changes to practice, such as screening stations to funnel infected patients to specific areas, redesigning procedures that pose high risks for the spread of infection, and reducing the density of patients on wards. They wrote on Tuesday in The BMJ that interventions shown to be helpful in the earlier studies “were similar despite the wide range of settings and types of outbreaks … and thus could be applicable to the current COVID-19 outbreak.” (https://bit.ly/2SHJxmj)

(Reporting by Kate Kelland and Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Most Americans to avoid sports, other live events before coronavirus vaccine: Reuters/Ipsos

By Rory Carroll

Fewer than half of Americans plan to go to sports events, concerts, movies and amusement parks when they reopen to the public until there is a proven coronavirus vaccine, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Tuesday.

That includes those who have attended such events in the past, an ominous sign for the sports and entertainment industries hoping to return to the spotlight after being shut down by the pandemic.

Only about four in 10 who follow sports avidly and go to arts and entertainment venues and amusement parks said they would do so again if they reopened before a vaccine was available, the poll found.

Another four in 10 said they were willing to wait, even if it takes more than a year to develop a vaccine.

The rest said they either “don’t know” what to do or may never attend those events again.

“Just because people say we can go back, until people feel fully safe … they aren’t going to go back,” said Victor Matheson, a specialist in sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

“We go to games for entertainment and you’re not going to be very entertained if you’re not worrying about who the next player to bat is and instead worrying about that person who just coughed two rows down.”

The United States leads the world with almost 1 million coronavirus infections and more than 56,000 deaths as of late Monday.

While as many as 100 potential vaccines are in development around the world, scientists are projecting that bringing one to market could take 18 months.

SPORTS SIDELINED

Only 17% of American adults said they would attend professional sporting events when they reopen to the public, while 26% said they would rather wait until there is a vaccine.

Among those who have attended a professional sporting event in the past year, 42% said they would return whenever it reopens to the public and 39% said they would rather wait for a vaccine, even if that means waiting more than a year.

Cincinnati resident Angie Hopkins, who has gone to pro games in the past, said she would not attend them again before there is a vaccine, out of concern for her health and that of her son.

“The risk of being with all those people, crammed in together, I think that would be unsettling,” she said.

“I have fibromyalgia, which could make me at risk for more serious complications. And my son has asthma, so I wouldn’t want to expose him either.”

About 59% of sports fans agreed that before a vaccine is available, professional sports leagues that have seen their seasons upended – like Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League – should hold games with no in-person fans, while 33% disagreed.

That could spell trouble for tennis’ U.S. Open, which is scheduled to kick off in hard-hit New York City on Aug. 24. Organizers have said it was highly unlikely that they would hold the largest and loudest Grand Slam tournament without fans.

It is also unclear whether the NFL will delay the scheduled Sept. 10 start of its 101st season. Commissioner Roger Goodell said last week he believed the season could begin on time, but did not specify whether the league would consider doing so without fans.

TROUBLE FOR TINSELTOWN?

The poll showed that only 27% of those questioned would go to a movie theater, concert or live theater performance when venues reopen, underscoring the hurdles faced by the entertainment industry as it tries to get back on its feet.

Thirty-two percent said they would wait for a vaccine before going back to the movies, theater or concerts.

In all, 55% of Americans said those events should not resume before a vaccine is available.

Movie buff and music fan Ana Morales of Bristow, Virginia, said she did not plan to visit a theater where she has a membership or attend a summer country music series until there is a vaccine.

“It would be a bit reckless for us to go,” she said, adding that she would be afraid of spreading the disease to her in-laws, who are over 60 years old.

She said that even if theaters implemented social-distancing rules, she would worry that shared surfaces like seats had not been cleaned thoroughly.

Hollywood has been tentatively hoping movie theaters could reopen partially by late July and recoup some losses from the normally lucrative summer season.

While dozens of summer movie releases have already been moved to the autumn or into 2021, Walt Disney Co’s “Mulan” and Warner Bros. “Wonder Woman 1984” are scheduled for release in July and August respectively.

Most musicians, including Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and the Rolling Stones have canceled or postponed their 2020 tour dates.

The annual Coachella music festival in Southern California, which usually draws about 90,000 people, shifted its April dates to October in the hope the worst of the coronavirus pandemic would be over by then.

Enthusiasm for amusement and theme parks was even bleaker. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they should not reopen until a vaccine is available. Only 20% said they would visit a theme park when they reopen.

Universal Studios has extended its closures in California and Florida until at least May 31, while Disneyland and Walt Disney World are closed indefinitely.

Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger said earlier in April that temperature checks for visitors were one of the measures under consideration for any eventual reopening.

Broadway theaters were forced to shut down in mid-March and extended the closure to June 7, with several producers saying their plays would not return at all.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll surveyed 4,429 American adults from April 15 to 21, asking about their previous attendance at sports events and live concerts and their interest in attending if they reopened before a coronavirus vaccine is available. The poll questions noted a vaccine might not be available for more than a year.