Infectious Disease Specialist Asks If Chinese Labs Did “Gain of Function” Research on Covid-19

(p. D7) For decades, Dr. Daniel R. Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University, has crisscrossed the globe to study epidemics and their origins. His attention now is on the Covid-19 pandemic, which first came to public notice late last year in Wuhan, China. Its exact beginnings are sufficiently clouded that the World Health Organization has begun a wide inquiry into its roots. The advance team is to leave for China this weekend, and Dr. Lucey has publicly encouraged the health agency to address what he considers eight top questions.

“It’s not a legitimate investigation if the team doesn’t ask them,” Dr. Lucey said in a recent interview. He cited public reports and scientific articles as starting points for his queries, adding that Beijing “has never come out and answered these questions.”

Clear answers, Dr. Lucey said, would cast light on how the deadly pathogen spread so rapidly and, perhaps, how exactly the outbreak began. China has not been forthcoming with information, . . .

. . .

The sixth and seventh questions go to whether the deadly pathogen leapt to humans from a laboratory. Although some intelligence analysts and scientists have entertained that scenario, no direct evidence has come to light suggesting that the coronavirus escaped from one of Wuhan’s labs.

Even so, given the wet market’s downgrading in the investigation, “It is important to address questions about any potential laboratory source of the virus, whether in Wuhan or elsewhere,” Dr. Lucey wrote in his blog post.

To that end, he urges the W.H.O. investigators to look for any signs of “gain of function” research — the deliberate enhancement of pathogens to make them more dangerous. The technique is highly contentious. Critics question its merits and warn that it could lead to catastrophic lab leaks. Proponents see it as a legitimate way to learn how viruses and other infectious organisms might evolve to infect and kill people, and thus help in devising new protections and precautions.

Debate over its wisdom erupted in 2011 after researchers announced success in making the highly lethal H5N1 strain of avian flu easily transmissible through the air between ferrets, at least in the laboratory.

In his blog, Dr. Lucey asks “what, if any,” gain-of-function studies were done on coronaviruses in Wuhan, elsewhere in China, or in collaboration with foreign laboratories.

“If done well scientifically, then this investigation should allay persistent concerns about the origin of this virus,” he wrote. “It could also help set an improved standard for investigating and stopping the awful viruses, and other pathogens, in the decades ahead.”

Finally, Dr. Lucey asks the W.H.O. team to learn more about China’s main influenza research lab, a high-security facility in Harbin, the capital of China’s northernmost province. In May [2020], he notes, a Chinese paper in the journal Science reported that two virus samples from Wuhan were studied there in great detail early this year, including in a variety of animals. It reported that cats and ferrets were highly susceptible to the pathogen; dogs were only mildly susceptible; and pigs, chickens and ducks were not susceptible at all.

For the full story, see:

William J. Broad. “Disease Detective Puts Forth Pointed Questions.” The New York Times (Tuesday, July 14, 2020): D7.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 8, 2020, and has the title “8 Questions From a Disease Detective on the Pandemic’s Origins.”)

The blog posting in which Dr. Lucey asked his eight key questions, is:

Lucey, Daniel R. “Covid-19: Covid: Eight Questions for the Who Team Going to China Next Week to Investigate Pandemic Origins.” Science Speaks: Global ID News blog, posted June 30, 2020.

China Allows Some Volunteers to Receive Covid-19 Vaccines After Only Phase 2 Trials

(p. B1) The offer to employees at the state-owned oil giant was compelling: Be among the first in China to take a coronavirus vaccine.

The employees at PetroChina could use one of two vaccines “for emergency use” to protect themselves when working overseas as part of China’s ambitious infrastructure program, according to a copy of the notice, which was reviewed by The New York Times.

. . .

(p. B6) Such “emergency use” is rare, and the taking of unapproved vaccines is typically reserved for health care professionals. Although the government has stressed that taking the vaccine is voluntary, the state-owned workers and soldiers could feel pressure to participate.

. . .

Along with the testing at the oil company, Sinopharm, which has completed Phase 2 trials for two products, has injected the vaccine into its chairman and other senior officials, according to the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, or SASAC, the government agency managing all employees at state-backed companies. The Chinese government has allowed the CanSino-military vaccine to be given to its armed forces, a first for the military of any country.

. . .

“If you are a regulatory body, if you play by the rules, if you are hard-nosed about it, you say this is very wrong,” said Ray Yip, the former head of the Gates Foundation in China.

Dr. Yip added that it would be useful for company executives to know that they had given the dose to “a couple of thousand people, but no one has dropped dead, so that’s pretty good.”

Dr. Yip said the people taking the vaccines should read up on reports of the safety data and make an informed decision. He said he would be willing to take it.

“If you offer that to me saying it’s safe and there’s an 85 percent chance that it works, would I take it today?” he said. “You know what, I probably will. Because then I don’t have to worry.”

In a post on its official WeChat account, a government agency reported that the “vaccine pretest” on Sinopharm employees showed that antibody levels were high enough in subjects to combat the coronavirus, indicating that it was safe and effective.

. . .

In June [2020], Sinopharm began the third phase of clinical trials in Beijing, Wuhan and Abu Dhabi, becoming the first company to enter the final regulatory stage. China’s Sinovac Biotech is teaming up with Instituto Butantan in Brazil, which has the world’s second-highest case count after the United States.

. . .

Dimas Tadeu Covas, the director of Butantan, said that he was impressed with Sinovac’s preliminary results and that the vaccine “has the greatest potential for success.” He cited results from Sinovac’s Phase 1 trials that showed no adverse effects and Phase 2 trials that showed 90 percent protection against Sars-Cov2.

“I know vaccines, and I am betting a lot on this one,” Dr. Covas said.

For the full story, see:

Sui-Lee Wee and Mariana Simões. “China Skirts Convention For Vaccines.” The New York Times (Friday, July 17, 2020): B1 & B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 17, 2020, and has the title “In Coronavirus Vaccine Race, China Strays From the Official Paths.”)

Blacks in Detroit Have Public Transit to Die For

(p. A1) DETROIT — Paris Banks sprayed the seat with Lysol before sliding into the last row on the right. Rochell Brown put out her cigarette, tucked herself behind the steering wheel and slapped the doors shut.

It was 8:37 a.m., and the No. 17 bus began chugging westward across Detroit.

. . .

This hardscrabble city, where nearly 80 percent of residents are black, has become a national hot spot with more than 7,000 infections and more than 400 deaths. One reason for the rapid spread, experts say, is that the city has a large working-class population that does not have the luxury of living in isolation. Their jobs cannot be performed from a laptop in a living room. They do not have vehicles to safely get them to the grocery store.

(p. A12) And so they end up on a bus. Just like the No. 17 — a reluctant yet essential gathering place, and also a potential accelerant for a pandemic that has engulfed Detroit.

For the full story, see:

John Eligon. “No Choice but Shoulder to Shoulder on the Bus.” The New York Times (Thursday, April 16, 2020): A1 & A12-A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 16, 2020, and has the title “Rolling Through the Pandemic.”)

“Quite Good” Moderna Vaccine Starts Phase 3 Trial on July 27, 2020

(p. A6) New details about the first human study of Moderna Inc.’s experimental coronavirus vaccine emerged Tuesday, which researchers said reinforced their decision to take the shot into a large, decisive clinical trial scheduled to start in late July [2020].

The new results, published online by the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that the vaccine induced the desired immune response for all 45 people evaluated—a larger group than in the preliminary data Moderna released in May—and was generally safe and well-tolerated.

“This is really quite good news,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview Tuesday. NIAID co-developed the Moderna vaccine and led the study.

“The gold standard of protection against a viral infection is neutralizing antibodies,” he added. “And the data from the study, small numbers as it may be, are pretty clear that this vaccine is capable of inducing quite good [levels] of neutralizing antibodies.”

Researchers said they found no serious safety risks, though some participants had injection-site pain and symptoms such as fatigue, headache and chills.

Dr. Fauci said it is possible that the coming large study would yield an answer by year-end about whether the vaccine induced immune responses sufficient to protect people safely from Covid-19. A positive answer would clear the way for wider use and potentially help curb the deadly pandemic.

The new “Cove” study, scheduled to start July 27, will aim to enroll about 30,000 adults at nearly 90 different U.S. locations.

For the full story, see:

Loftus, Peter. “Data Show Vaccine Is Ready for Big Trial.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 15, 2020): A6.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 14, 2020, and has the title “Moderna’s Covid-19 Vaccine Moves to Bigger Study.”)

Citron Research Alleged That DNA Vaccine Firm Inovio Is “the COVID-19 Version of Theranos”

(p. A10) Not long after researchers completed their work with mice, guinea pigs, ferrets and monkeys, Human Subject 8, an art director for a software company in Missouri, received an injection. Four days later, her sister, a schoolteacher, became Subject 14.

Together, the sisters make up about 5 percent of the first ever clinical trial of a DNA vaccine for the novel coronavirus. How they respond to it will help determine the future of the vaccine. If it proves safe in this trial and effective in future trials, it could become not only one of the first coronavirus vaccines, but also the first DNA vaccine ever approved for commercial use against a human disease.

. . .

In many of these studies, the vaccine recipe isn’t the only thing on trial. Gene-based vaccines — and at least 20 coronavirus vaccines in development fall into this category — have yet to make it to market. Should one end up in doctors’ offices amid the rush to shield billions from Covid-19, it would represent a new chapter for vaccine development.

And though vaccine research has never moved this quickly — potentially meaning enhanced risks for volunteers — it has never been easier to recruit subjects, according to Dr. John E. Ervin, who is overseeing the DNA vaccine trial at the Center for Pharmaceutical Research in Kansas City, Mo., in which the sisters are involved. For the Phase 1 trial of the vaccine, which was developed by Inovio Pharmaceuticals, 90 people applied for the 20 slots in Kansas City.

“We probably could charge people to let them in and still fill it up,” he said. (In fact, the participants were paid per visit.)

. . .

Inovio researchers engineered the vaccine in just three hours, according to Kate Broderick, the company’s senior vice president for research and development. Or, rather, their computer algorithm did: On Jan. 10 [2020], when Chinese researchers released the genetic code of the novel coronavirus, the team ran the sequence through its software, which popped out a formula.

This timeline struck some in the financial sector as too good to be true. Citron Research, which advises investors on companies to bet on, called Inovio “the Covid-19 version of Theranos,” referring to the blood-testing device company that imploded as its supposedly revolutionary product was revealed to be a hoax.

“Much like Theranos, Inovio claims to have a ‘secret sauce’ that, miraculously, no pharma giant has been able to figure out,” Citron Research wrote. “This is the same ‘secret sauce’ that supposedly developed a vaccine for Covid-19 in just three hours.”

For the full story, see:

Heather Murphy. “Fight Against Coronavirus Could Produce a First: A DNA Vaccine.” The New York Times (Friday, June 19, 2020): A10.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 22 [sic], 2020, and has the title “Guaranteed Ingredient in Any Coronavirus Vaccine? Thousands of Volunteers.”)

Covid-19 More Severe If You Inherited a Neanderthal Gene on Chromosome 3

(p. A6) A stretch of DNA linked to Covid-19 was passed down from Neanderthals 60,000 years ago, according to a new study.

Scientists don’t yet know why this particular segment increases the risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. But the new findings, which were posted online on Friday [July 3, 2020] and have not yet been published in a scientific journal, show how some clues to modern health stem from ancient history.

. . .

Last month, researchers compared people in Italy and Spain who became very sick with Covid-19 to those who had only mild infections. They found two places in the genome associated with a greater risk. One is on Chromosome 9 and includes ABO, a gene that determines blood type. The other is the Neanderthal segment on Chromosome 3.

But these genetic findings are being rapidly updated as more people infected with the coronavirus are studied. Just last week, an international group of scientists called the Covid-19 Host Genetics Initiative released a new set of data downplaying the risk of blood type. “The jury is still out on ABO,” said Mark Daly, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School who is a member of the initiative.

The new data showed an even stronger link between the disease and the Chromosome 3 segment. People who carry two copies of the variant are three times more likely to suffer from severe illness than people who do not.

. . .

(p. A7) Tony Capra, a geneticist at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the study, thought it was plausible that the Neanderthal chunk of DNA originally provided a benefit — perhaps even against other viruses. “But that was 40,000 years ago, and here we are now,” he said.

It’s possible that an immune response that worked against ancient viruses has ended up overreacting against the new coronavirus. People who develop severe cases of Covid-19 typically do so because their immune systems launch uncontrolled attacks that end up scarring their lungs and causing inflammation.

Dr. Paabo said the DNA segment may account in part for why people of Bangladeshi descent are dying at a high rate of Covid-19 in the United Kingdom.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. “String of Neanderthal Genes May Increase Risk of Severe Illness.” The New York Times (Monday, July 6, 2020, 2020): A6-A7.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated July 8, 2020, and has the title “DNA Inherited From Neanderthals May Increase Risk of Covid-19.”)

The unpublished paper, mentioned above, is:

Zeberg, Hugo, and Svante Pääbo. “The Major Genetic Risk Factor for Severe Covid-19 Is Inherited from Neandertals.” bioRxiv (posted July 3, 2020).

More Blacks Die of Covid-19 Partly Due to Greater Use of Public Transit

(p. A7) African-Americans may be dying at higher rates than white people from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in part because of black people’s heavier reliance on public transportation for commuting, two new studies by economists suggest.

One of the studies, by University of Virginia economist John McLaren, found that the racial discrepancy remained even after controlling for income or insurance rates. Instead, Mr. McLaren found the gap was due in part to the fact that black workers are more likely to get to work via public transit, including subways and buses.

About 10.4% of black commuters take public transit, versus 3.4% of white commuters, according to the Census. After controlling for the use of public transit, Mr. McLaren finds the racial disparity in Covid-19 deaths is less pronounced.

. . .

The other study, by Christopher Knittel and Bora Ozaltun, both of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that a 10% increase in the share of a county’s residents who use public transit versus those who telecommute raised Covid-19 death rates by 1.21 per 1,000 people when looking at counties around the U.S.—or by 0.48 per 1,000 people when focusing only on counties within individual states. In their analysis, the researchers controlled for race, income, age, climate and other characteristics.

For the full story, see:

David Harrison. “Virus Deaths Linked to Transit.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, June 29, 2020): A7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 28, 2020, and has the title “Public Transit Use Is Associated With Higher Coronavirus Death Rates, Researchers Find.”)

The first academic study mentioned above, is:

McLaren, John. “Racial Disparity in Covid-19 Deaths: Seeking Economic Roots with Census Data.” National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper #27407, June 2020.

The second academic study mentioned above, is:

Knittel, Christopher R., and Bora Ozaltun. “What Does and Does Not Correlate with Covid-19 Death Rates.” National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper #27391, June 2020.