Three items of pandemic news you may have missed recently: Canada is struggling; J&J is ordered to take over Emergent’s factory; and the mRNA vaccines appear safe and effective in pregnant women. Plus news briefs and a frippery.
mRNA shots safe and protective for mom, baby
In the largest study to date of vaccine safety and immunogenicity in pregnant and lactating women, researchers studied 131 women ages 16-45 (64% pregnant, 24% lactating, and 12% neither). All received two shots of either Moderna’s or Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine. Blood samples were taken at first and second shot and again after 6 weeks. Antibody levels were found to be similar in all groups, as were (minor) side effects. Those women who had experienced Covid-19 while pregnant showed higher antibody levels — the shots acted as a boost.
And antibodies were found in both umbilical cord blood and breast milk. So the babies had been receiving some level of protection, passed on by the mothers, both in utero and after birth.
J&J takes over Emergent’s factory
Last time we talked about the major snafu at Emergent’s plant in Baltimore, contracted to help produce both AstraZeneca’s and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines. The mistake cost up to 15 million doses of J&J.
Now the Biden administration has relieved Emergent of any role for the Baltimore plant. AstraZeneca is searching for another manufacturing partner, and J&J is taking over the production lines in that plant.
The Department of Health and Human Services directed J&J to install a new management team and take over all aspects of manufacturing. With AstraZeneca’s operation moving out, J&J will have more space and capacity to devote to making their authorized vaccine.
See the figure depicting virus makers’ manufacturing agreements — I update it frequently.
Canada is struggling
In British Columbia, the B.1.1.7 (UK) variant is the most widespread form of SARS-CoV-2 in circulation, but authorities are keeping a close eye on the rapidly growing P.1 variant (out of Brazil). It is said to be 2.5 times more infectious than the ancestral strain. P.1’s spread is especially strong in young people, aged 20 to 39. This variant showed up suddenly in British Columbia on March 9, when researchers detected a cluster of 13 cases. Since then, two outbreaks at ski resorts appear to have been fueled by P.1.
The Globe and Mail mentions a new rapid testing strategy in use in the province, which can identify within a day which variant caused a positive PCR test result. Technical details are not spelled out for this approach; it sounds like it merits wider use.
- New vaccines will be needed soon, experts say — The Guardian interviewed a number of epidemiologists and came up with a consensus that humankind will need to tweak its vaccines to handle the variants. Most experts gave it a year, and some said new formulations will be needed as soon as 9 months out.
- Repurposing old drugs to fight Covid — The non-profit digital magazine Undark has a look at the promise, and difficulties, of testing approved drugs for effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2. On the surface the idea seems like a no-brainer: if cheap, off-the-shelf drugs could be found to help with prophylaxis or therapy, they could be pressed into service far quicker and more cheaply than new vaccines could be developed. One problem is that drug companies have no financial incentive to make this happen. And funding sources in the federal government have historically been uninterested in paying for the expensive clinical trials that would be required to repurpose existing drugs.
- Linking AstraZeneca vaccine to thrombosis — An official for the European Medicines Agency has stated that the AZ vaccine is associated with blood clots, but that the exact mechanism is unknown. Whether the level of thrombosis caused by the vaccine exceeds the background level in the population is also not known. The EMA still maintains that the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits far outweigh its risks.
Frippery: Piano Ten Thousand Leaves
For today’s frippery, please meet Hitoshi Yasui, who is known as “Chair House” — we are not told why. He is past the halfway point in a project to create 4,536 piano works and post them online. He has been at it for seven years, composing and posting one piece per day, and expects to be done in 2026. That very particular number he is aiming for is the count of poems in a beloved 8th-century anthology of Japanese poetry called the Man’yō-shū, or “The Ten Thousand Leaves.”
The piano pieces are posted on Soundcloud. Each is two or three minutes long and bears an evocative title such as “By The Immense Vista Of Thought Presented To Our Consideration” and “Consecrate Himself To Undisturbed Adoration Of The Beautiful” — possibly these are the titles of poems from the ancient anthology. The pieces are gentle and contemplative. I looked but could not find an RSS feed for the project.