Georgia out of its mind —

Promising vaccine trials, questionable research ethics, and clearly bad policy.

John Timmer

Two women in matching face masks.

Enlarge / BFFs.

During the pandemic, Ars has done its best to keep you on top of the most important news. But there are definitely gaps in our coverage: small updates to stories we’ve covered, or news that we’ve decided wasn’t worth the time to report deeply. Focusing on breaking news also limits our opportunity to provide bigger-picture perspective. To make up for this, we’re going to try doing a series of Monday updates to help keep you informed.

You can read Ars’ comprehensive coronavirus FAQ, or browse all of our coronavirus coverage.

Current counts: 4.8 million confirmed cases globally (up 1.3 million over last week); 1.5 million of those in the United States (up 350,000 over last week). 320,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 (up 70,000 over last week); 90,000 deaths in the US (up 10,000 over last week).

Updates:

Over a month has passed since President Donald Trump announced that he was halting funding for the World Health Organization, a group that has played a leading role in coordinating the international response to the pandemic. Trump’s claim was that it helped China cover up the initial spread of SARS-CoV-2, but over the weekend, reports started circulating that the administration was considering restoring some funding to the organization. The restored funds would represent a small fraction of the US’ former budget, and details are still being negotiated.

Last month, we also looked at a draft study that had suggested SARS-CoV-2 had generated an enormous number of asymptomatic infections. Unfortunately, that suggestion was based on some highly questionable methodology and statistics and had come in for harsh criticism from the research community. Last week, BuzzFeed obtained an internal Stanford complaint that alleges both research improprieties by the people doing the study and a possible conflict of interest related to the source of funding for the work.

Research news:

Early on in the pandemic’s spread through the United States, there were reports of a single choir practice in which a single infected individual spread the virus to many of their fellow singers. Now, the CDC has looked into the details of that event, and they are impressive. Of the 60 other people present, 52 appeared to develop SARS-CoV-2 infections (32 of those confirmed by testing). The CDC concludes that while “superspreader” events like this are rare, they provide yet another reason why social distancing is critical.

The global pharma and biotech industries are rushing the development of so many potential vaccines that it’s difficult to track all of the efforts that are staring trials. But there was some good news announced this morning by a company called Moderna, which is attempting to develop a vaccine that uses RNA to induce a person’s own cells to produce proteins normally made by the virus. In a small safety trial involving 15 people, the vaccine produced an antibody response in every participant (although low doses required a booster). Many of those tested appear to have antibodies that bind to the virus in a way that blocks it from infecting new cells.

The company expects to start a Phase 3 trial, with far more participants, in July.

And earlier today, a paper came out that suggests we may be having a role in the changes that are popping up in the coronavirus genome as it continues to spread through the global population. Our cells have enzymes that chemically modify RNA bases, in part to defend against viruses such as this. And these “RNA-editing” enzymes appear to be making changes in the genome itself. The consequences of these changes aren’t yet clear.

Policy

Georgia is one of the states pushing hardest to limit the social-distancing measures that most other states have used to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Unfortunately, some problems have turned up in the data the Peach State was using to justify its decision. It turns out the state’s Department of Public Health had arranged the graph of confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections in order of descending cases—and not by the actual date the data was from. The latter is essential for tracking trends in infection. According to the article, this is the latest of a number of comically inept data presentation choices by the department.

But it’s not just the US where the politically powerful are acting a bit indifferent to evidence. The president of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, has been promoting a herbal remedy called Covid-Organics. There is absolutely no evidence that it would work and no plausible mechanism for it to act, but Rajoelina is quoted as saying, “It works really well.” He also implied that much of the skepticism is due to its origin in Africa. Meanwhile, reports are emerging of unchecked outbreaks within some areas of Africa.

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