New Science Emerges as Coronavirus Cases Surge, Schools Make Plans for Fall
Amidst a nationwide surge in COVID-19, scientists are learning more about the activity of the virus and investing in new treatment options. Nevertheless, much uncertainty remains, with limitations on drug supply and questions about the financial resources required to head safely into fall.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, states across the nation report a continued surge in new cases. California alone saw a recent two-week infection rate increase of 43% with ICU admissions up 37%. Meanwhile, new science is painting a better picture of the virus and honing in on treatment while schools grapple with how to safely educate students in the fall.
Recent Discoveries Provide Better Understanding of COVID-19
In Spain, one of the hardest-hit European countries, new data suggests that only 5% of the country’s residents have developed antibodies through exposure to the virus, leaving 95% of the population susceptible to illness. Similar studies in China and the United States also show that the vast majority of individuals remain vulnerable. By some estimates, a 60% exposure rate is necessary to develop herd immunity, but according to Isabella Eckerle, head of the Geneva Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases, and Benjamin Meyer, a virologist at the University of Geneva, “In light of these findings, any proposed approach to achieve herd immunity through natural infection is not only highly unethical, but also unachievable.”
In addition, researchers have learned more about the behavior of the virus itself. A study out of UC San Francisco has determined that cells infected with COVID-19 grow arms, called filopodia, that reach into neighboring cells to infect them with the virus. While other viruses also replicate using filopodia, COVID-19 appears unusual in that it grows these tentacles so rapidly.
Moreover, a mutated form of the virus, known as G614, appears to spread more rapidly than the earlier D614 variety, being three to nine times more infectious. It is now the dominant viral strain. Fortunately, while more infectious, this mutation does not appear to cause more severe illness. Theoretical biologist Bette Korber of Los Alamos National Laboratory indicates, “We interpret [the more rapid spread of G614] to mean that the virus is likely to be more infectious. Interestingly, we did not find evidence of G614 impact on disease severity.”
Similarly, Lawrence Young, a professor of medical oncology at the UK’s University of Warwick, has said, “The current work suggests that while the G614 variant may be more infectious, it is not more pathogenic. There is a hope that as SARS-CoV-2 infection spreads, the virus might become less pathogenic.”
Drug Remdesivir Shows Promise, Pricing and Supply an Issue
Gilead Sciences has developed a new antiviral drug, called Remdesivir, which is the first to show effectiveness against COVID-19 in a large clinical trial, reducing patients’ recovery time by an average of four days. The drug works by disrupting the virus’s ability to replicate within the patient’s cells.
Since its approval for emergency use in May, the U.S. Government has been distributing Remdesivir donated by Gilead. This month, though, Gilead will begin charging for the drug, which will cost U.S. hospitals an average of $3120 per patient. However, Gilead estimates a savings of $12,000 per patient in reduced hospitalization time. While some politicians have criticized the price of the drug, Steven D. Pearson, President of the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, said in a written statement, “Gilead made a responsible pricing decision based on the evidence we have today. If further data do not show a clear mortality benefit for remdesivir, then the price of the drug should be dramatically reduced.”
With the donated supply of Remdesivir now used up, the Trump administration has made a deal with Gilead to procure the first 500,000 doses, which amounts to all of July’s production and 90% of August and September’s. According to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “President Trump has struck an amazing deal to ensure Americans have access to the first authorised therapeutic for Covid-19. To the extent possible, we want to ensure that any American patient who needs Remdesivir can get it.”
Schools Make Plans for Fall
As summer moves along and cases spike, educators are contending with the very real challenges that back-to-school will bring. In the Ivy League, Harvard has announced that the majority of classes will be taught online, with no reduction in tuition, and up to 40% of students may be allowed to live on campus. Similarly, Princeton plans to offer mostly online instruction, but is offering a 10% tuition reduction and considering a plan to allow 50% of students back for a semester at a time during the coming school year.
Other colleges and universities are likewise making plans, in many cases investing large sums of money to create a safe learning environment. Already facing budget crunches due to lower anticipated enrollment, these institutions are spending millions on everything from plexiglass barriers to face masks and other protective gear. The University of Southern Florida recently placed an order for 1,200 hand sanitizing stations, while Purdue University has budgeted $50 million dollars for safety gear and has begun a fundraising campaign to assist with the effort. Fortunately, supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are rising to meet the demand with new manufacturers and suppliers such as Blueflame Medical entering the fray.
Adding to budget concerns, schools must take on significant added cost to hire new, hourly employees to wipe down doorknobs and other surfaces throughout the day and to take the temperatures of all students and faculty entering buildings on campus, With the viability of sports, another significant source of revenue for universities in question, much uncertainty looms on the horizon this coming fall.
Evidence of Progress and a Hopeful Outlook
Even as cases spike, however, good news remains. With a better understanding of coronavirus and the development of promising treatments, plans to resume schooling reflect a certain optimism in our ability to manage this deadly pandemic and get on with life.