person in white gloves with blue textile on lap

The Race to Deploy a Covid-19 Vaccine Heats Up

The race for a Covid-19 vaccine accelerated this week, with reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had urged states to have vaccine distribution facilities ready by Nov. 1

In a letter sent to state governors last week, and first reported by McClatchy on Wednesday, CDC director Robert Redfield asked officials for “assistance in expediting applications for these distribution facilities,” including “waiving requirements that would prevent these facilities from becoming fully operational by November 1, 2020.”

The letter drew new attention to the possible timelines for a Covid-19 vaccine — even as it raised concerns that the federal government will rush out a vaccine before it is adequately tested.

Experts say that rapidly manufacturing and distributing Covid-19 vaccines, whenever one or more are approved for use, will be a herculean task. In early August, the federal government contracted McKesson, a major drug distributor, to be “a centralized distributor” for the eventual vaccine. The overall effort, McClatchy reports, will require infrastructure to ship vaccines around the country, facilities to store the vaccines — which sometimes require subzero temperatures — and extensive coordination with the country’s overextended, chronically underfunded local health departments.

It remains unclear when a vaccine will be ready. With the Tuesday launch of a phase 3 U.S. trial for the drugmaker AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate, there are now three potential Covid-19 vaccines receiving large-scale, late-stage tests in the U.S. It generally take months for such trials to yield clear data about whether a vaccine is effective, and whether it poses risks that did not surface in earlier trials. The Food and Drug Administration has said that, to gain full approval, researchers should have a year’s worth of data on a vaccine’s effects. That timeline would push the public debut of a Covid vaccine well into 2021.

As the country has struggled to control the virus, with an estimated 186,800 U.S. deaths, widespread unemployment, an emerging eviction crisis, and mounting food insecurity, there is pressure for quicker turnaround. Experts have said that, with proper oversight and promising data, it could be reasonable to begin distributing a vaccine this fall.

The CDC letter, though — which seems to suggest the possibility of a vaccine distribution in early November, days before the 2020 elections — has also reignited concerns that the administration of President Donald J. Trump will pressure scientific agencies to approve an experimental vaccine too soon. (A similar scenario, analysts argue, has already played out in Russia.)

Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the most prominent scientist leading the U.S. Covid-19 response, told CNN this week that it was possible, though unlikely, that a vaccine really would win approval in October. “And I would assume, and I’m pretty sure,” he said, “it’s going to be the case that a vaccine would not be approved for the American public unless it was indeed both safe and effective.”

Also in the News:

• An analysis of seven different clinical trials published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that simple, inexpensive steroids are one of the most effective treatments currently available for people with severe Covid-19 infections. The review, conducted by the World Health Organization, concluded that the use of steroids overall reduced patient mortality in critically ill coronavirus patients by as much as one-third. The WHO followed up the report by issuing a recommendation that corticosteroids be considered a front-line approach to medical care of the gravest Covid-19 cases. “Clearly, now, steroids are the standard of care,” Howard C. Bauchner, JAMA’s editor in chief, told The New York Times on Wednesday. Others called for further research to understand which compounds are most effective. On the physician-written website Brief19, a reviewer noted that, so far, dexamethasone seemed to be the standout. Steroids are well known for controlling inflammation by tamping down the immune system, and experts say that appears to be why they help with Covid-19, in which an hyper-aggressive immune response sometimes adds to the infection’s harms. But the suppression of the immune system can generate its own problems, which is why the WHO is, for now, proposing that the best use of the drugs is in the most critically ill patients. (STAT)

• A 12.7-millisecond signal from the far reaches of the cosmos has the astronomy world abuzz. Detected in May of last year and reported this week by researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and its European counterpart Virgo, the signal heralded the collision of two black holes, one of dozens of celestial mergers the observatories have detected since LIGO’s landmark discovery of gravitational waves five years ago. But this latest pair of black holes stand out for their heft: Together, they held the mass of more than 150 suns. Even after some of that mass burned off during the collision, what was left was a hulking black hole of 142 solar masses — a body so large that some physicists had wagered it couldn’t exist outside of the special cases of “supermassive” black holes at the centers of galaxies. Those supermassive holes typically weigh 100,000 solar masses or more; the new detection could hold clues to how they come to be. (Scientific American)

• Malaria kills some 400,000 people annually — most of them children in the developing world, according to the World Health Organization. So it was not surprising when, two years ago, the WHO added the insecticide clothianidin to a list of chemicals approved for the control of mosquitoes, the primary vector for spreading the disease. While clothianidin is a neonicotinoid — a controversial class of chemicals that have been partially banned in many countries — it was added to WHO’s list, according to Science, because mosquitoes had developed resistance to a cheaper, more commonly used group of compounds called pyrethroids. And that’s where the story twists: Researchers at Cameroon’s Center for Research in Infectious Diseases have now shown that some mosquitoes already have resistance to clothianidin, too — a finding that lands just as several African nations prepare to deploy the new insecticide in homes. Although the results of the research have not yet been peer reviewed, some scientists suggested that global health officials should have done more research before approving the chemical. The WHO, meanwhile, says that clothianidin may still play a vital role in malaria reduction because mosquito resistance to the chemical, at least for now, remains lower than for other chemicals. Manufacturers are also busy working on new formulations to limit resistance, although these remain untested. The scientist who led the recent study, meanwhile, made a more sobering suggestion: “WHO would never have recommended this insecticide,” he told Science, “if such data were available.” (Science)

• A new engineering report, set to be filed in federal court this week, suggests that privately-built portions of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico are already bound to fail. The report, which backs reporting done in July by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, found that a 3-mile stretch of fence built along the Rio Grande is vulnerable to toppling due to erosion. While Tommy Fisher, head of the construction firm responsible for building it, has described the fence as the “Lamborghini” of border walls, Alex Mayer, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso, likened it more to a “$500 used car,” noting that the company seems to be “cutting corners everywhere.” Fisher put $40 million of his own funds into the project, while another $1.5 million came from We Build the Wall, a nonprofit whose executive board members include former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon. (Bannon and three other people connected to the organization are accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for the border wall.) In July, Hurricane Hanna brought heavy rains to the area where Fisher’s border wall sits, though it has not yet experienced flooding of the Rio Grande. When it does, one expert said, the fence will fail. A second engineering report found that while the fence may be stable for now, it will face a host of problems going forward. While Fisher has not yet commented publicly on the reports, he asserts his company has fixed all issues with erosion. (ProPublica)

• And finally: The DNA of a group of wild dogs living in the highlands of western New Guinea has been found to be similar to the “New Guinea singing dog,” a breed once feared extinct in the wild, according to research published in the journal PNAS on Monday. The endangered singing dogs are known for having distinct harmonic howl. A population of roughly 200 singing dogs currently live at zoos and conservation centers; until 2016, none had been in their natural habitat for almost half a century. The captive dogs, which are descended from just eight dogs captured in the 1970s, are severely inbred. The wild dogs analyzed in the new PNAS study, however, appear to be the genetic predecessors of the population of captive singing dogs. (CNN)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Ashley Smart, and Tom Zeller Jr. 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.