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Coronavirus Files: Trump administration bypasses CDC

Coronavirus Files: Trump administration bypasses CDC

Picture of Sofie Bates

The Center for Health Journalism has begun offering a special newsletter geared to journalists as they report on one of the biggest and most complex stories of our times. Each Monday, while the pandemic runs its course, The Coronavirus Files will provide tips and resources and highlight exemplary work to help you with your work. This week, the Center for Health Journalism’s Coronavirus Files Monday newsletter is curated and reported by science writer Sofie Bates. Have a suggestion or a request? Write us at editor@centerforhealthjournalism.org.

Trump administration bypasses CDC

The Trump administration is now requiring all COVID-19 data be sent directly to a central database at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. The order bypasses the CDC, raising concerns that researchers, policymakers and the public won’t have access to important coronavirus data, writes Sheryl Gay Stolberg for The New York Times.

Some see the move as yet another attack by the Trump administration on the CDC, an agency poorly equipped to handle political pushback. The CDC is an “apolitical island” because of its physical and cultural distance from the White House, writes Nicholas Florko for STAT. “With nearly all of its staff — including its director — based in Atlanta, the agency relies on a tiny D.C. office, currently leaderless,” writes Florko. Former employees of the CDC and its affiliates have said the agency’s culture is focused on avoiding politics, which has “left the agency unprepared for the political pressure of handling the coronavirus response, or for Trump’s onslaught of criticism and pushback,” he writes. 

Others characterize the data-reporting change as an attempt to streamline pandemic tracking efforts by taking responsibility away from an unprepared and under-performing agency. Last month, The New York Times reported that low-quality data, outdated technology, and disagreement and confusion within the CDC led the agency to make crucial mistakes early on that have the country flat-footed in the fight against the pandemic. 

Regardless of Trump’s motive for bypassing the CDC, anything related to the Trump administration and the CDC is under “eagle-eyed scrutiny” because of their history, write Dan Diamond and Adam Cancryn for POLITICO Pulse. The Trump administration has “effectively muzzled the agency for months and fought in public over its guidelines. Trump himself has attacked CDC in extraordinary ways that threaten confidence in career experts,” they write.

Promising results from Phase 1 human trial of Moderna vaccine

Biotechnology company Moderna provided some promising details on its vaccine candidate last week. The company, in partnership with the NIH, released results from their Phase 1 clinical trial to test the immune response, side effects, and dosage of their mRNA-based vaccine in 45 human volunteers. Moderna announced preliminary results back in May, but that data was based on a fraction of participants and a relatively short time frame. “[T]he vaccine worked to trigger an immune response with mild side effects — fatigue, chills, headache, muscle pain, pain at the injection site – becoming the first US vaccine candidate to publish results in a peer-reviewed medical journal,” write Jacqueline Howard and John Bonifield for CNN.

The subjects also “produced coronavirus antibodies at levels comparable to patients who had contracted and recovered from COVID-19. However, that does not necessarily mean that the vaccine can provide immunity to the disease,” writes Thomas Curwen for the Los Angeles Times. Researchers still aren’t sure whether an initial immune response will protect people from Covid-19 in the future. And a recent study conducted by U.K. researchers suggests that any antibodies rapidly decreased after COVID-19 infections, so it’s possible people could become re-infected after a few months.

This first phase of Moderna’s trial assessed the side effects and safe and effective doses for the mRNA-based vaccine. The Phase 1 trial is still ongoing as researchers monitor the long-term effects of the vaccine at different doses. Now, Moderna has just finished enrolling volunteers for the Phase 2 trial, and is set to begin a concurrent Phase 3 trial with 30,000 participants on July 27. Moderna announced in a press release last month that the company is on track to produce between 500 million and 1 billion doses starting in 2021

That puts Pfizer and BioNTech at a similar stage in the vaccine development process. The two companies also plan to begin a large-scale study by the end of July for their vaccine, which produced similar Phase 1 results according to results released on July 1. But it’s impossible to compare the vaccines directly based on lab results, write Matthew Herper and Damien Garde for STAT, given differences in measurements and timelines. “Several researchers said that seeing the results increased their hope not so much in Moderna’s vaccine, but in arriving at one or more vaccines that will help reduce the impact of the virus,” they write. 

Another vaccine front-runner was slated to release data from their Phase 1 human trials today. Developed by the University of Oxford and manufactured by AstraZeneca, the vaccine uses a common cold virus from chimpanzees, combined with genetic material from the novel coronavirus, to trigger the immune system against COVID-19. The company plans to begin a Phase 3 trial with 30,000 U.S. participants in August. 

Climate change is still a public health issue, and coronavirus is making it worse

The country is seeing spikes in both coronavirus and temperature this week. It’s a reminder that while coronavirus is monopolizing our attention, climate change is still a threat to public health. And the pandemic is making some climate-related issues, like exposure to heat, worse. “Weather like this disproportionally affects the vulnerable: people without the means to buy an air-conditioner or crank it up to full blast,” writes John Schwartz for The New York Times. Normally, communities have cooling centers where people can escape the heat. But sending people to these centers would risk COVID-19 exposure, and social distancing measures limit the number of individuals that can use them. Many other sanctuaries from the heat – libraries, public pools, and rec centers – are also closed because of the pandemic.

A pandemic within a pandemic?

As much of the world continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic, some experts are warning of other potential mega-threats on the horizon — natural disasters, resurgences of other diseases, or even a second pandemic.

Amid the pandemic, infectious diseases such as measles, tuberculosis, and HIV are being neglected. Vaccinations and prevention programs are being paused or stopped altogether. Many people are skipping routine medical appointments or postponing vaccinations for their children.

The decline in preventative care and immunizations puts the world at risk for a resurgence of these infectious diseases, writes Katherine Harmon Courage for Vox. “And that puts not only more people at risk, but also more strain on the health care system,” she writes. A bad flu season, resurgence of preventable infectious diseases, or another unknown virus could worsen already bad situation. Should we be worried about a double pandemic?

Yes, says Ed Yong in The Atlantic. Overlapping pandemics would likely exacerbate the underlying health disparities caused by systemic racism and social inequity in the U.S., he says. To prepare for future pandemics, Yong writes, the U.S. needs to start “investing in long-neglected public health systems to ensure universal access to health care, and to dismantle racist policies that have foisted the burden of disease onto marginalized communities.”

And Don’t Miss…

  • “A new understanding of herd immunity.” — The Atlantic
  • “Quarantine has changed us – and it’s not all bad.” — Vox
  • “Need some good news about Covid-19? Here are six reasons for optimism” — The Washington Post
  • “Tracing the link between your phone and the next pandemic.” — The Verge
  • “Profile of a killer: Unraveling the deadly new coronavirus” — AP

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