Antibody drug neutralizes virus variants in lab study; COVID-19 antibodies detectable 12 months after infection

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.

Experimental antibody drug neutralizes COVID-19 variants

An experimental monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 being developed by Eli Lilly and Co and AbCellera Biologics Inc can “potently” neutralize numerous coronavirus variants, including those first identified in the UK, Brazil, South Africa, California and New York, scientists have found in test tube experiments. The antibody – known as LY-CoV1404 or LY3853113 – works by attaching itself to a place on the virus that has shown few signs of mutating, which means the drug is likely to retain its effectiveness over time, the researchers said in a report posted on Friday on bioRxiv ahead of peer review. “New variant-resistant treatments such as LY-CoV1404 are desperately needed, given that some of the existing therapeutic antibodies are less effective or ineffective against certain variants and the impact of variants on vaccine efficacy is still poorly understood,” the research team wrote. An AbCellera spokesperson said the company plans to release information about tests of the drug in humans on Tuesday.

COVID-19 antibodies still detectable at 12 months

Some COVID-19 survivors infected early in the pandemic still have detectable antibodies against the virus a year later, according to a new study. U.S. doctors collected blood samples from 250 patients, including 58 who had been hospitalized for COVID-19 and 192 who had not required hospitalization. Six-to-10 months after diagnosis, all of the former inpatients and 95% of the outpatients still had neutralizing antibodies, according to a report posted on Sunday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. In the small subset of those followed for a full year, 8-of-8 people who had been hospitalized still had antibodies, as did 9-of-11 former outpatients. Antibody levels at the time of follow-up were correlated with age and with COVID-19 severity. Older age was linked with higher neutralizing antibody levels, whereas levels were “lower and more variable” in participants under age 65 who experienced less severe COVID-19 and did not require hospitalization, the researchers reported. They said vaccination of COVID-19 survivors “would be prudent” because vaccine-induced protection against the virus will likely be more long-lived than antibodies induced by mild COVID-19.

No link seen between COVID-19 and aspirin or ibuprofen

A large new study found no indication that use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen increases people’s vulnerability to infection by the new coronavirus. Because early reports had suggested such a link, researchers used the COVID Symptom Study smartphone app to query more than 2.7 million individuals in the United States, the UK and Sweden about their use of aspirin and other NSAIDs, as well as about virus symptoms, COVID-19 testing, and healthcare seeking behavior. Close to 9,000 participants reported a positive COVID-19 test during the study, according to a report posted on Sunday on medRxiv in advance of peer review. After accounting for individuals’ lifestyle factors, other illnesses, and symptoms, regular use of NSAIDs was not associated with a higher risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus. “There have been lingering concerns” that commonly used NSAIDs “could increase the risk of COVID infection or worsen the disease course among those who acquire the infection,” said coauthor Dr. Andrew Chan of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Our study shows that there is no such an association and initial concerns were probably due to the fact that individuals with other risk factors for COVID or symptoms of COVID were more likely to take NSAIDs, rather than a cause and effect relationship,” he said.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Vaccine protects COVID-19 survivors against variants; virus’ spike protein damages blood vessels

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.

Vaccine protects COVID-19 survivors against variants

In COVID-19 survivors, the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine protects not only against the original virus strain but also against worrisome variants, two studies show. UK researchers analyzed immune responses after a single dose of the vaccine in 51 people, including 25 people previously infected with an early version of the novel coronavirus. Survivors showed enhanced antibody responses against the newer, more infectious variants first seen in the UK and South Africa, whereas people who had not previously been infected did not produce antibodies that could neutralize the variants, according to a report on Friday in Science. Separately, U.S researchers studied 30 people after two doses of the vaccine. Immune responses were 3.4 times better at neutralizing the coronavirus in the 10 COVID-19 survivors than in the 20 who were not previously infected, they reported on medRxiv on Thursday ahead of peer review. The difference was even greater when looking at neutralization of new variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil, said coauthor Fikadu Tafesse of Oregon Health & Science University. “For example, the South African variant, which is the best at evading neutralizing antibodies, was 6.5 times better blocked,” or neutralized, in blood samples from people who were vaccinated after infection, he said. “Our findings give people another reason to go out and get vaccinated even if they have already had COVID-19.”

COVID-19 spike protein damages blood vessels

The “spike” proteins that the coronavirus uses to help it break into cells inflicts other damage as well, according to a new study that shines a spotlight on the many ways COVID-19 attacks organs other than the lungs. The spike proteins themselves cause direct damage to the cells that line the blood vessels, scientists found in test tube experiments using an engineered version of the spike and artery-lining cells obtained from mice. After attaching itself to the ACE2 protein on healthy cells, the spike disrupts signaling from ACE2 to the mitochondria – the cell’s energy-generating structures – causing the mitochondria to become damaged, researchers reported on Friday in Circulation Research. COVID-19 is really a disease of the blood vessels, coauthor Uri Manor of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California said in a statement. The new findings could help explain the blood clots associated with COVID-19. They could also explain “why some people have strokes, and why some people have issues in other parts of the body,” Manor said. “The commonality between them is that they all have vascular underpinnings.”

Cancer screenings in U.S. plummeted during pandemic

Nearly 10 million screenings for three common cancers were missed in the U.S. because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study suggests. Researchers who compared monthly spring and summer screening rates in 2020 to rates in 2018 and 2019 found a 90.8% decline in breast cancer screening, a 79.3% decline in colorectal cancer screening and a 63.4% decline in prostate cancer screening just in the month of April 2020, researchers reported on Thursday in JAMA Oncology. “There was a deficit of 9.4 million in screening for the three major cancers across the United States that was most likely related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said coauthor Dr. Ronald Chen of the University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City. “This is a deficit we have to make up for in 2021.” One bit of good news from the study: telehealth visits seemed to be associated with getting cancer screenings back on track. Healthcare teams that could reach patients through telehealth “were able to come up with a plan for screening,” Chen said. “This emphasizes the importance of telehealth and the importance of continuing it after the pandemic is over.”

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid and Linda Carroll; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Ontario ‘pulling the emergency brake’ with third COVID-19 lockdown as cases rise, ICU beds fill

By Allison Martell and Moira Warburton

TORONTO (Reuters) – The Canadian province of Ontario will enter a limited lockdown for 28 days on Saturday, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise and more dangerous virus variants take hold, the premier said on Thursday.

The lockdown for Canada’s most populous province will fall short of enacting a stay-at-home order, which new government modeling released earlier on Thursday suggested would be necessary to avoid a doubling to some 6,000 new COVID-19 cases per day by late April.

Ontario’s third lockdown since the pandemic began will shutter all indoor and outdoor dining, although retailers will remain open with capacity limits, Premier Doug Ford said, calling the measures “pulling the emergency brake” on the entire province.

“We’re now fighting a new enemy,” Ford said. “The new variants are far more dangerous than before. They spread faster and they do more harm than the virus we were fighting last year… That means we need to take action now.”

Schools would remain open, Ontario’s education minister said on Twitter.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB) panned the lockdown measures, calling it “unconscionable” for the government to “continue to rely almost exclusively on blanket lockdowns” for controlling cases. It said the new measures were making small businesses “a scapegoat for the Ontario government’s lack of planning or foresight.”

Earlier on Thursday, new modeling released by an expert panel advising the provincial government predicted that new cases of COVID-19 would double unless the government imposes a stay at home order.

The report suggested a two- or four-week stay at home order imposed on April 5 could reverse the rise in new infections.

The new model came as more than 150 critical care doctors published a letter urging Ontario to act to halt a wave of infections there.

“We are seeing younger patients on ventilators – many are parents of school-aged children,” the letter said. “We are seeing entire families end up in our ICUs. We are caring for people who have contracted COVID-19 at work, or who have followed all the rules and only gone out for groceries.”

As new, more contagious and deadly coronavirus variants spread across the province, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units has reached 464, higher than at the peak of the last wave, said Ontario Chief Medical Officer David Williams at a media briefing.

Data confirms that current seriously ill patients are younger with 46% of ICU admissions between March 15 and March 21 under age 60, up from 30% during a December surge, according to the expert panel.

And vaccination rates are lower in neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19. In areas with the highest incidence of infection, about 8% of residents have received the vaccine, compared with 13% in areas with the lowest incidence.

Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief medical officer, said he was particularly concerned about the potential for COVID-19 to spread as people gather for Easter this weekend.

“We have seen in the past a spike in cases following a long weekend,” he told a briefing in Ottawa on Thursday. “We’re very worried and really I would implore all Canadians … to stay home.”

(Reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto and Moira Warburton in Vancouver; additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Franklin Paul and Bill Berkrot)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases fall 12% last week, vaccinations top 2 million a day

(Reuters) – The United States reported a 12% decline in new cases of COVID-19 last week, while vaccinations accelerated to a record 2.2 million shots per day, according to a Reuters analysis of state, county and CDC data.

New infections have dropped for eight weeks in a row, averaging 60,000 new cases per day for the week ended March 7. Deaths linked to COVID-19 fell 18% last week to 11,800, the lowest since late November and averaging 1,686 per day.

Despite the positive trends, health officials have warned that the country could see a resurgence in cases as more infectious variants of the virus have been found in nearly every state.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, has urged the nation to keep most pandemic restrictions in place until new cases fall to under 10,000 per day.

Thirteen out of 50 states reported more new infections last week compared with the previous seven days, down from 29 states in the prior week, according to the Reuters analysis. New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island had the highest rates of new infections per 100,000 residents.

As of Sunday, 18% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a vaccine and 9% has received two doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The country administered an average of 2.2 million shots per day last week, up from 1.6 million shots in the prior week.

The average number of COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals fell 16% to 44,000 last week, the lowest since late October, according to a Reuters tally.

Cumulatively, over 525,000 people have died from the virus in the United States, or one in every 621 residents.

(Graphic by Chris Canipe, writing by Lisa Shumaker, editing by Tiffany Wu)

Fully vaccinated people can gather unmasked with others indoors: U.S. CDC says

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Individuals fully inoculated against COVID-19 can meet in small groups with other vaccinated people without wearing masks, but should keep wearing them outside the home, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Monday.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing that the agency’s new guidance for fully vaccinated individuals stipulated that they can also visit with unvaccinated, low-risk people from one other household without masks.

The CDC advised fully vaccinated people that they should continue with many precautions such as avoiding medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings, wearing masks when visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple households or wearing masks when with people who are at risk for severe COVID-19.

“It’s important to realize … that still over 90 percent of the population is not yet vaccinated, and that is our responsibility to make sure, in the context of 60,000 new cases a day, that we protect those who remain unvaccinated and vulnerable,” Walensky said.

The public health guidelines address how vaccinated people can safely resume some more normal activities and contacts with those outside their households while the coronavirus is still widely circulating.

The recommendations come as about 30 million people, or 9.2% of the U.S. population, have been fully inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer Inc/ BioNTech SE, Moderna Inc and Johnson & Johnson, according to CDC data.

Nearly 18% of the U.S. population, or 58.9 million adults had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines prevent people from becoming ill but not necessarily from being infected. Data on whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus to unprotected people is sparse.

The CDC previously recommended that people should wear masks at all times when unable to remain at least six feet (1.83 m) apart from others, or at all times indoors other than in their own homes.

The CDC last month advised that individuals who had been vaccinated within three months could skip the standard 14-day quarantine after exposure to someone with COVID-19, as long as they remain asymptomatic.

Some cities and states have begun lifting pandemic restrictions in recent weeks against the advice of public health experts, who say the measures should remain until many more people get vaccinated with case numbers still high and more contagious virus variants becoming prevalent in much of the country.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengalaru and Jeff Mason and Lisa Lambert in Washington D.C.; writing by Caroline Humer; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

India says virus variants not behind upsurge in cases

By Krishna N. Das and Neha Arora

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India said on Tuesday mutated versions of coronavirus were not responsible for an upsurge in cases in two states, a potential relief for a country where mask-wearing and social distancing have largely disappeared.

Maharashtra in the west and Kerala in the south account for 75% of India’s current active cases of about 147,000, and both states have seen a sudden rise in new infections in recent days, fueling calls for a faster roll-out of vaccines.

India has reported more than 11 million cases – the most in the world after the United States – and about 156,000 deaths. Actual infections have inched closer to 300 million in the country of 1.35 billion, according to a random study of antibodies done by the government.

A top government health official confirmed the long-time presence of two mutants – N440K and E484Q – in those two states as well as elsewhere in the country and abroad. Authorities have also found the UK variant in 187 people in India, the South African one in six and one case of the Brazilian mutation.

“There is no reason today for us to believe, on the basis of scientific information, that these are responsible for the upsurge of the outbreak,” Vinod Kumar Paul, who heads a government committee on vaccines, told a news conference.

Though cases have come down sharply since a September peak, Paul said India was still vulnerable, especially given that even previously badly affected cities like Pune in Maharashtra were getting hit again. He urged people to wear masks and avoid social events – guidelines openly flouted by both federal and state ministers.

The northern state of Punjab, which has also seen a rise in cases, said indoor gatherings would be restricted to 100 and outdoor to 200 from March 1. District heads have also been permitted to decide on night curfews in hotspots, and testing will be increased, the state’s chief minister said.

Punjab is one of the worst performing states in vaccinating their healthcare workers, according to the federal government.

The government on Tuesday asked five states, including Maharashtra and Punjab, to expedite vaccination of their healthcare and frontline workers in light of the surge in cases, according to letters shared by the health ministry.

India has given nearly 12 million doses to its health and frontline workers since beginning the campaign in mid-January, a pace that will have to be increased sharply to meet the target of reaching 300 million people by August.

Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said India would very soon start immunizing people over 50 and those with medical conditions, with greater involvement from private hospitals. Government hospitals are now running around 80% of vaccination sites.

The government has recently come under pressure to expand coverage at home given the world’s largest vaccine maker has exported COVID-19 shots to more than two dozen countries.

India is using a vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech and the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research, and another licensed from AstraZeneca and Oxford University. Other vaccines are in the queue, including Russia’s Sputnik V and products from Cadila Healthcare and Novavax.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das and Neha Arora; Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean, Philippa Fletcher and Giles Elgood)