A dose of Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine during phase 1 of the clinical trial.

As Covid-19 Vaccine Race Heats Up, Other Interventions Flounder

On Wednesday, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and a German partner, BioNTech, announced that they had reached a $1.95 billion deal with the U.S. government for 50 million courses of a Covid-19 vaccine — provided that it works. The experimental vaccine, which has shown promise in early trials, could enter late-stage trials this month.

“If the ongoing studies are successful, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be ready to seek Emergency Use Authorization or some form of regulatory approval as early as October 2020,” the companies wrote in a press release. The deal is the federal government’s largest Covid-19 vaccine contract to date, and the price of $19.50 per dose (or $39 per two-dose course), was higher than some analysts expected.

The vaccine is one of more than 150 currently in development around the world, as researchers race to halt a pandemic that has killed an estimated 634,00 people, including more than 144,300 people in the U.S. On Monday, two leading vaccine candidates — one developed in China, the other by a team based at Oxford University in the U.K. — published their peer-reviewed results in The Lancet, a major medical journal. And last week, Moderna, an American company, published results from an early-stage trial suggesting that its experimental vaccine may be effective in generating an immune response against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

Experts remain divided over the implications of all these developments, with many stressing the difficulty of bringing a safe, effective vaccine to market — not to mention the ethical and logistical challenges of distributing millions of doses. The pandemic has also brought sudden, massive public attention to the messy, slow, and highly technical process of finding a vaccine that will safely coax an immune response to a specific virus. Along the way, critics have accused some research teams of downplaying potentially harmful side effects, and of rushing to announce their results in press releases before submitting their science to the rigors of peer review.

Still, many have expressed cautious optimism. “Realistically it is going to be the first part of next year before we start seeing people getting vaccinated,” World Health Organization emergencies program director Michael Ryan said during a Q&A on Wednesday. But, he said, “we’re making good progress.”

In the meantime, the U.S. has struggled to implement more low-tech practices that can mitigate the spread and impact of the pandemic. In a tweet on Monday, President Donald J. Trump shared a photo of himself wearing a protective mask and suggested doing so was patriotic — after months of declining to wear masks or promote their use. Meanwhile, coronavirus unemployment benefits are set to expire on Saturday, even as around 30 million Americans remain jobless. Amid the desperation, policymakers in Washington have struggled to come up with a new stimulus package to address the economic impact of the pandemic, with sharp divisions among Republican lawmakers. “Nobody’s stabbed anybody or anything,” Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy told The New York Times. But “I don’t think you can say there is a consensus.”

Also in the News:

• An international campaign to wipe out polio has resumed vaccinations, after suspending operations because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative paused it work in March, both to prevent additional spread of the virus and to devote resources to fighting Covid-19. In the intervening months, however, polio cases have increased in a number of countries, and epidemiological models warn that some outbreaks may be on the precipice of explosion. In response, vaccinators were mobilized in Burkina Faso in early July and Pakistan this week, specifically to tamp down the new outbreaks. (The program has yet to resume strictly preventative campaigns.) Vaccination teams will take measures against Covid-19 and work only in their own communities, Hamid Jafari, the World Health Organization’s head for polio eradication in Pakistan and Afghanistan, told Science. According to officials, the GPEI was facing challenges even before Covid-19, including resurgences of both wild polio strains and an infectious mutation of the weakened strain used in oral polio vaccines. Getting the campaign back on track “will take more time than it did in the past,” said Jafari, “and it will be more complicated.” (Science)

• The NAACP filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday, aiming to prevent funds intended to provide Covid-19 relief to schools from disproportionately benefitting private institutions. The national civil rights group accused the department’s secretary, Betsy DeVos, of illegally changing rules regarding the $13.2 billion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES). According to the lawsuit, local school districts are meant to distribute the funds based on the enrollment of students from Title I, or low-income, families. Instead, the lawsuit states, DeVos is seeking to divide the money evenly based on the number of students enrolled in schools, regardless of financial situation. “You literally accelerate robbing from the poor to benefit the rich,” Derrick Johnson, NAACP national president and CEO, told ABC News. While a statement from the Department of Education defended the policy and said “the vast majority of private schools serve a diverse student body,” students are overall more likely to come from wealthy backgrounds than those who attend public schools. (ABC News)

• The World Health Organization warned this week that it may shortly run out of money to combat an outbreak of Ebola currently spreading in a northwestern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The viral outbreak, estimated so far at about 60 cases, is the 11th Ebola outbreak in the DRC since 1976, including one in the eastern provinces that ended last month after killing more than 2,000 people over two years. The WHO budgeted $1.75 million to fight the current outbreak, but officials warn that the money is likely to run out in the next few weeks. Without additional funds for vaccinations, tests, and contact tracing, they fear the virus is poised to spread in ways that will make it difficult to control. Michael Ryan, executive director of the agency’s emergency health program, said that, while the case numbers appear low now, the remote location poses considerable logistical challenges, meaning that containing the virus is both difficult and costly. “Any one of those individual cases can result in amplification of the disease,” Ryan warned. Many health agencies are preoccupied with fighting Covid-19 — but, Ryan and some of his colleagues warned, that does not reduce the urgency of keeping other dangerous infectious contained. (Associated Press)

• Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune called this week for a reexamination of the legacy of the environmental organization’s founder, John Muir. The famed naturalist is best known for his vivid writing about wilderness, and for his advocacy for land preservation. He is now being scrutinized for his offensive language towards other races, such as calling Native Americans “dirty,” and referring to Black people as “lazy,” along with various racial slurs. Muir was also a longtime associate of Henry Fairfield Osborn, a leader of the New York Zoological Society, who helped found the American Eugenics Society. Brune called for attention to other figures as well, noting that “other early Sierra Club members and leaders — like Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan — were vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudoscientific arm, eugenics.” The organization has vowed to better respond to concerns raised by people of color on staff, to address pay inequities, and to refocus efforts toward communities experiencing what the group terms “environmental racism.” Other environmental groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, have also been forced to grapple with internal criticism from employees of color, pledging both structural and cultural reforms to confront issues of workplace inequality.  (The Washington Post)

• And finally: An ancient cache of stone tools is creating a stir in the archaeology world. A team led by Ciprian Ardelean, of the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, discovered the trove of implements — some 2,000 of them — in Chiquihuite Cave, in Mexico’s Astillero Mountains. Several of the instruments were embedded in layers of gravel dating back at least 25,000 years, at around the peak extent of the last ice age. That result contradicts mainstream archaeological models, which hold that humans first ventured into North America only about 15,000 years ago, after retreating ice sheets had carved out a migration corridor. Although the discovery is not the first to potentially undercut prevailing theories about the peopling of North America, it is drawing skepticism from many corners, with some archaeologists wondering why the Chiquihuite site doesn’t show other signs of human domestic activity, and others suggesting that what look like tools may simply be detritus created by rock falls. The conclusion that humans might have arrived as far back as 33,000 years ago “will be very hard for most archaeologists specializing in early America to accept,” anthropologist Ruth Gruhn wrote in an analysis for Nature. (Nature)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Lucas Haugen, Deborah Blum, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.