LIVE BLOG: R&D response to COVID-19 pandemic

02 Dec 2021 | Live Blog
Covid 19 blog

The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting universities and research institutes across the world. But the same institutions are also working very hard to find out how the disease can be stopped and its effects mitigated.

Follow this live blog for the latest updates on how the crisis is impacting research and innovation, and what governments, funders, companies, universities, associations and scientists are doing to stop or cope with the pandemic.

You can read the full archive of this blog here and here.

A new statistical analysis suggests that COVID-19 became more lethal in the UK in late 2020, but points to multiple factors, and not just the rise of the more infectious Alpha variant of the virus first identified in Kent, that were to blame.

Studying how the lethality of COVID-19 has changed over time in different regions could help guide efforts to address this disease. While preliminary evaluations of infection and mortality data suggest that COVID-19 may have become more lethal in the UK in late 2020, more rigorous analyses have been lacking.

To explore this further, Patrick Pietzonka and colleagues at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Cambridge University, used Bayesian inference, a technique that enabled them to draw statistically stronger conclusions about lethality from weekly data on the number of cases and the number of deaths due to COVID-19 in the UK.

Specifically, the researchers compared predictions from different mathematical simulations of COVID-19 spread and deaths, some of which incorporated increased lethality.

The analysis suggests that in late autumn of 2020 COVID-19 did indeed become more lethal in the UK, meaning that the probability that an infected person would die from the disease increased.

It was thought this increase in lethality was driven by the Alpha variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which was more infectious than previous variants.

However, the new analysis suggests that lethality increased to a greater degree than the Alpha variant would have accounted for, and that the increase in lethality began before Alpha became widespread.

These findings suggest that, while the Alpha variant contributed to increased lethality in late 2020, other factors were also in play.

Further research will be needed to identify those factors, but Pietzonka and colleagues suggest they may include both the increased strain on healthcare services and the seasonal cycle in the severity of viruses that is seen in other respiratory diseases like the common cold and flu.

Scientists in the Department of Virology at the Institut Pasteur in Paris have identified coronaviruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 from two bats sampled in Cambodia more than a decade ago.

The discovery, described in Nature Communications,  along with the recent detection of the closest ancestors of SARS-CoV-2 known to date in cave-dwelling bats in Laos, indicates that SARS-CoV-2-related viruses that cause COVID-19 have a much wider geographic distribution than previously reported, and further supports the hypothesis that the pandemic originated via spillover of a bat-borne virus.

The researchers used metagenomic sequencing to identify the nearly identical viruses in two horseshoe bats, Rhinolophus shameli, originally sampled in 2010. The findings suggest that SARS-CoV-2 related viruses are likely circulate via multiple Rhinolophus species.

The limited understanding of the geographic distribution of SARS-CoV possibly reflects a lack of sampling in southeast Asia, or at least across the Greater Mekong subregion, which encompasses Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Yunnan and Guanxi provinces of China, the researchers say.

In addition to bats, the researchers note that pangolins and certain species of cat, civet, and weasels found in this region are readily susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, and might represent intermediary hosts for transmission to humans.

These findings underscore the importance of increasing surveillance of pathogens in wildlife in southeast Asia, which hosts a high diversity of wildlife and where trade in wildlife puts humans in direct contact with wild hosts of SARS-like coronaviruses.

The European Medicines Agency has started evaluating an application for approval of the oral antiviral drug Lagevrio, developed by Merck Sharp & Dohme.  

The agency said it will assess the drug under a reduced timeline and could issue an opinion within weeks, because it has already reviewed a substantial portion of the data in a rolling review.

These data include interim results from the main study on the effects of Lagevrio in non-hospitalised, unvaccinated patients with at least one underlying condition putting them at risk of severe COVID-19. The hope is that having an oral treatment people can take at home will reduce the severity of infection and avoid the need for admission to hospital.

Lagevrio reduces the ability of SARS-CoV-2 virus to multiply in the body by introducing mutations in the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 during replication.

EMA previously issued advice to member states on use of Lagevrio in advance of formal approval on 19 November 2021.

In other COVID-19 regulatory news, EMA recommended granting an extension of indication for Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine, to include use in children aged 5 to 11. The vaccine is already approved for use in children aged 12 and above.

A team of researchers led by the University of Zurich has discovered previous antibody responses to other, harmless, coronaviruses contributes to SARS-CoV-2 immunity.

“People who have had strong immune responses to other human coronaviruses also have some protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection,” said Alexandra Trkola, head of the Institute of Medical Virology at the university.

In their study, the researchers used a specially developed assay to analyse antibody levels against four other human coronaviruses in 825 blood samples taken before SARS-CoV-2 emerged. They also examined 389 samples from donors infected with SARS-CoV-2.

Combining these analyses with computer-based models enabled the team to precisely predict how well the antibodies would bind to and neutralise invading viruses.

The researchers demonstrated that people who caught SARS-CoV-2 had lower levels of antibodies against coronaviruses that cause common colds, compared to uninfected people. In addition, people with high levels of antibodies against harmless coronaviruses were less likely to have been hospitalised after catching SARS-CoV-2.

“Our study shows that a strong antibody response to human coronaviruses increases the level of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. So someone who has gained immunity to harmless coronaviruses is therefore also better protected against severe SARS-CoV-2 infections,” says Trkola.

This type of immune response, referred to as cross-reactivity, also occurs with T cell responses, the second line of defense against infections.

“Even though the protection isn’t absolute, cross-reactive immune responses shorten the infection and reduce its severity. And this is exactly what is also achieved through vaccination, just much, much more efficiently,” said Trkola.

It is not yet known whether this cross-reactivity also works in the opposite direction and if immunity to SARS-CoV-2 achieved through vaccination also offers protection against other human coronaviruses.

New data on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine shows it has 100% efficacy against COVID-19 in adolescents aged 12 - 15, with no serious safety concerns identified, paving the way for the companies to apply for approval in this age group.

The adverse event profile was generally consistent with other clinical safety data for the vaccine, with no serious safety concerns observed in individuals with at least 6 months of safety follow-up after the second dose.

 “These additional data provide further confidence in our vaccine’s safety and effectiveness profile in adolescents. This is especially important as we see rates of COVID-19 climbing in this age group in some regions, while vaccine uptake has slowed,” said Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer.

Results from this analysis of 2,228 trial participants build upon and confirm previously released data and demonstrate strong protection against COVID-19. From the 30 confirmed symptomatic cases of COVID-19 in the trial with and without evidence of prior infection with SARS-CoV-2, 30 cases of COVID-19 were in the placebo group and 0 cases were in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine group.

The European Medicines Agency has started evaluating an application for the use of a booster dose of COVID-19 Vaccine Janssen to be given at least two months after the first dose to people aged 18 years and older.

The agency’s human medicines committee will carry out an accelerated assessment of data, including results from more than 14,000 adults who received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Janssen or placebo two months after the initial dose.

The outcome of this evaluation is expected within weeks.

A survey of 3,821 Flemish employees, representative for gender, age and education level, who were surveyed end March 2020, showed a large majority (65.9%) were satisfied with the increase in teleworking during the pandemic, according to researchers at the University of Ghent.

Almost half of the employees doing more teleworking said it is beneficial for stress (45.7%) and burnout prevention (42.7%), and on-the-job concentration (44.7%). In addition, more than half (55.7%) feel that homeworking has had a positive effect on their work-life balance.

The main problem is social isolation, with two-thirds of respondents reporting a weaker bond with their colleagues (64.0%), and more than half feeling less connected with their employer (56.0%).

“Notwithstanding the exceptional time of sudden, obligatory and high-intensity telework, Flemish employees in general mainly attribute positive characteristics to telework, such as a better work-life balance and increased concentration,” said researcher Eline Moens.

Whether telework is seen as positive or negative differs from employee to employee and from job to job.

The personal context was important as well: gender, age, whether you have children or not, turns out to be important for the evaluation of telework.

Overall, the experience of teleworking during the pandemic led to an increased desire do more teleworking in the future (62.7%).

“The question is to what extent employees will be able to force these aspirations regarding more telework in the workplace after the pandemic. In our opinion, how employers have experienced the extended telework will be decisive in this respect,” said researcher Stijn Baert

 

New data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) show that antibiotic consumption decreased by more than 18% between 2019 and 2020.

This is the largest annual decrease in the two decades of reporting via the European Surveillance of Antimicrobial Consumption Network. The decrease was observed in 26 of the 27 reporting countries of the EU and European Economic Area. The changes were largest and most consistent in the primary care sector, and are most likely a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to ECDC.

From 2016 and 2019 there was decrease in the population-weighted mean annual change in the consumption of antibacterials of 1.8%. Between 2019 and 2020, the decrease was ten times higher, at 18.3%.

One explanation for the decrease is a general drop in the number of primary care consultations during the COVID-19 pandemic, with people more cautious about seeking healthcare for mild or self-limiting infections, or due to difficulties in getting medical appointments.

Another is that the large decrease in prescribing of antibiotics commonly used to treat respiratory tract infections reflects the reported low incidence of non-COVID-19-related respiratory tract infections. This has been attributed to measures put in place as a response to the pandemic, including physical distancing, face masks and promotion of hand hygiene.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary care sector accounted for about 80% to 90% of all antibiotic prescriptions, mainly for respiratory tract infections.

ECDC said it remains to be seen if the decline in antibiotic consumption observed in 2020 will be sustained throughout 2021, and what implications the decrease may have on antimicrobial resistance in Europe overall.

The European Medicines Agency has begun the formal review of US biotech Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine, Nuvaxovid, saying the assessment will proceed under an accelerated timeline, and the outcome could be known within weeks.

The short timeframe is possible because EMA has already reviewed a substantial portion of the data on the vaccine during a rolling review, looking at preclinical data, manufacturing and data on the vaccine’s safety, immunogenicity and efficacy against COVID-19 from clinical studies.

"Novavax looks forward to providing an additional vaccine option in Europe, built on a proven, well-understood technology platform,” said Stanley Erck, CEO of Novavax.

Nuvaxovid has been evaluated in two phase III trials: a trial in the U.K. that demonstrated efficacy of 96.4% against the original virus strain, 86.3% against the Alpha variant and 89.7% efficacy overall; and a trial in the US and Mexico that demonstrated 100% protection against moderate and severe disease and 90.4% efficacy overall.

The vaccine is engineered from the genetic sequence of the first strain of SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Researchers at Sheffield University have measured the economic impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s arts, culture and heritage sector, showing that nationally output fell dramatically as COVID-19 hit in March 2020.

There was a decline of around one third between the second quarter of 2019 and the same three months in 2020, in real terms. The creative, arts and entertainment sub-sector, and the libraries, archives, museums and other cultural activities sub-sector, were the worst hit, with declines of 63% and 45% respectively.

For the sector as a whole, gross value added fell by around 20% (real change, constant prices), compared to around 10% for the UK economy overall.

The dramatic falls in output mask some significant variations between sub-sectors ranging from an estimated plus 17% to minus 70%.

Activities that grew, or were only subject to modest declines (+17% to -5% range) in output, included computer games, software, educational book publishing, TV broadcasting and libraries.

Activities very badly affected (-30% to -70% range) included cinema, performing arts, museums and historical sites.

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