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One week after Pfizer and its partner BioNTech announced early results of more than 90% effectiveness in its candidate vaccine against the new coronavirus, competitor Moderna announced an even higher level of protection — 94.5% effectiveness — in early, large-scale Phase 3 study results for its coronavirus vaccine candidate. Both vaccines rely on messenger-RNA technology, a relatively new approach. Then on 11/18/20, Pfizer/BioNTech announced that the effectiveness portion of its Phase 3 study was complete, showing 95% effectiveness. See a pattern here over time? Pfizer/BioNTech is set to submit its findings to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for “emergency use authorization” within days, report Damian Garde and Matthew Herper at STAT (11/18/20). Both projects report that their vaccine protects against severe and mild cases of COVID-19.

Longtime infectious diseases reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. at The New York Times says “a little rejoicing is in order” in response to Pfizer’s initial “more than 90%” effectiveness announcement. “This is pretty great,” he adds in an interview with Adriana Balsamo at the Times (11/13/20). Yes, Pfizer did not release its data and the findings did not undergo formal scrutiny by outside experts (Moderna reportedly later released some of its data). “But I’ve read previous news releases from Big Pharma companies and compared them to the data issued later, and they’ve been honest,” McNeil is quoted as saying in the Times interview. In that piece, McNeil also criticizes the spring lockdown in the U.S., calling it “a joke" because there was no coordinated and rapid accurate testing, contact tracing and isolation of infected people. As a result of that lost opportunity, “we’re basically stuck with masks and not eating or meeting indoors until the vaccines arrive,” McNeil is quoted as saying.

A rapid SARS-CoV-2 test for home use received approval on 11/17/20 from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), reports Matthew Perrone at the Associated Press (11/18/20). It’s the first test for the virus that gives results at home (within 30 minutes of collecting a sample), Perrone reports. “The company’s test allows users to swab themselves to collect a nasal sample. The sample is then swirled in a vial of laboratory solution that plugs into a portable device. Results are displayed as lights labeled positive or negative,” Perrone writes. Initially, people will need a prescription for the test, made by California-based Lucira Health, the story states. The FDA “did not disclose the tests’s accuracy or the study results that regulators used to make the decision,” Perrone writes.

You might assume that recent negative test results for each and every person attending a holiday meal or other social gathering mean there is little risk of catching or spreading the new coronavirus. But freelance journalist Christie Aschwanden minces no words in her latest piece (11/15/20) for Wired: “As a means of eliminating risk in the midst of a pandemic, the everyone-has-gotten-tested method is utterly absurd.” In part, that’s because one could contract the virus after being tested and “the tests are not 100 percent accurate,” Aschwanden writes. An infectious disease researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, quoted in the piece advises that a better approach for those who decide it’s worth the risks to visit with people is “for everyone to go into full quarantine (that means no grocery shopping or other interactions with people) for two weeks prior to the visit, and then travel by car without coming into close contact with anyone else along the way.”

Dinner parties, sleepovers and carpools are among the small gatherings that are driving the current U.S. surge in the spread of SARS-CoV-2, researchers warn, as Karin Brulliard reports at The Washington Post (11/12/20). For months, state and local officials have put restrictions on large gatherings to curb the spread of the virus, but “now, the kitchen table is a place of risk,” the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Maine is quoted as saying in the story. People might individually take measures to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus, but pods are getting larger and more leaky, the story suggests. And “each additional contact increases a person’s risk,” Brulliard describes a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as saying.

Here’s another story reporting on the role of interferons, early signaling and marshaling molecules in the immune system, in severe or fatal cases of COVID-19. Liz Szabo at Kaiser Health News reports on a few recent studies on this topic, including one published 10/23/20 in Science finding that “autoantibodies,” antibodies that disable interferons, are more likely to be found in patients with severe COVID-19 than they are to be found in people with mild or asymptomatic cases. “Interferons are like a fire alarm and a sprinkler system all in one,” the story quotes a virologist at Columbia University’s School of Public Health as saying. And interferons are “particularly important” for protection against viruses we have never encountered before [e.g. SARS-CoV-2], an infectious diseases researcher at Rockefeller University is quoted as saying (11/13/20).

W. Wayt Gibbs’ latest podcast for Scientific American about the pandemic reports on new findings that support a “subdivision strategy” for shutdowns meant to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Two mathematical analyses by researchers at the University of Oxford and other institutions suggest that the isolation of small communities or towns (of up to 200,000 people) from neighboring communities can efficiently tamp down and maybe even extinguish the spread of the virus such that restrictions can later be lifted until the virus returns, saving Gibbs reports. This strategy “could save many, many lives over the long run,” Gibbs states.

Can you catch the new coronavirus twice or are you immune once you recover from an initial infection? There’s little consensus on this yet. Reinfections are “still rare but on the rise,” reports Jop de Vrieze for Science (11/18/20). At research journals, editors seek strong evidence for re-infection claims to rule out residual genetic material from an original infection. Most journals require that scientists provide the full sequence of the virus from each illness to make sure that the viruses are “sufficiently different,” de Vrieze writes, attributing this statement to a University of Birmingham hematologist. Many labs don’t have the time or money to get that data, the story states.

Are you interested in helping researchers develop a more stable mRNA vaccine against the new coronavirus, one that can last longer once it is removed from cold storage? Thousands of people around the world already are trying to do so by playing “Eterna,” which involves pointing and clicking to puzzle out new ways to fold simulated genetic molecules “related to a stabilized mRNA COVID-19 vaccine," write biochemist and physicists Rhiju Das of Stanford University and Pennsylvania State University law professor Martin Skladany. (Both are involved with Eterna.) Thousands more online players are needed to keep at the problem, they write. Some evidence reveals that large groups of people beat artificial intelligence hands-down at puzzling out new ways to fold molecules for a potential SARS-Cov-2 immunization, states the essay published by Knowable magazine (10/20/20).

You might enjoy, “First lines of rejected ‘Modern Love’ essays,” by Zach Zimmerman (The New Yorker, 11/23/20.