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China says Mars probe stable; no word on reusable spacecraft - ABC News
BEIJING -- China's Mars probe Tianwen-1, which blasted into space in July, is now more than 15 million kilometers (9 million miles) from Earth en route to the red planet, the National Space Administration said Saturday. The administration said that Tianwen-1 was in stable condition, having completed its first mid-course orbital correction early last month. It will be about 195 million kilometers (118 million miles) from Earth when it arrives at Mars around February, having traveled 470 million kilometers (292 million miles) in all to get there. The administration, however, has yet to release information about a mysterious reusable experimental spacecraft that returned to Earth a week ago after a two-day flight. The spacecraft consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover, and marks China's most ambitious Mars mission yet as it seeks to join the United States in successfully landing a spacecraft on the planet. It was blasted into space aboard a Long March-5 on July 23 during a month when the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. also took advantage of a shortened distance between the planets to launch similar missions. China said the reusable spacecraft returned to its designated landing site last Sunday, calling the flight a breakthrough that will eventually provide convenient round-trip transport to space at a low cost. No other details on the mission or the configuration of the spacecraft have been released. That is also seen as an attempt to put China on the leading edge of space flight. The U.S. has for years been operating the secretive X-37B space plane that remains in orbit for months. Chinas military-backed space program has developed rapidly since it became just the third country after Russia and the U.S. to put a man in space in 2003. Last year, China's Change-4 became the first spacecraft from any country to land on the far side of the moon.
COVID-19 vaccine candidates show promising early results, but finish line still far ahead - ABC News
A flurry of research, newly released by multiple manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccine candidates, provides reassuring glimmers of hope that scientists are on track to develop an effective and safe vaccine at record speed. On Monday, three research groups separately released early positive results demonstrating that their respective COVID-19 experimental vaccines induced a multipronged immune response that may be important for long-term protection against infection. Those groups included the University of Oxford and its partner AstraZeneca, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech and the Chinese vaccine company CanSino Biologics. Last week, Moderna also released promising early data. Experts caution that these early studies, though promising, will need to be confirmed with larger Phase 3 trials, involving tens of thousands of people, to determine if any vaccine could be truly effective. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are at least 23 COVID-19 vaccine candidates that have progressed to various stages of human studies. So far, several of these candidates have showed promising preliminary data from their early clinical trials, either in peer-reviewed journals, directly online to preprint servers or in press releases. On Monday, new data by Oxford-AstraZeneca, published in the journal The Lancet, suggested that the vaccine is relatively safe and induces an immune response to fight the novel coronavirus. All 1,077 volunteers who received the vaccine in the Phase 1/2 trial developed neutralizing antibodies against COVID-19. These specific antibodies are infection-fighting proteins produced by the body that may prevent the virus from infecting healthy cells. The vaccine also elicited a T-cell response to the virus: another method of defense used by the immune system to bolster protection and attack cells already infected by the virus. Professor Adrian Hill, director of Oxford's Jenner Institute, called the latest data very "encouraging" in an interview with ABC News, adding that experts are "seeing both arms of the immune systems stimulated very strongly by the vaccine." Meanwhile, BioNTech and Pfizer also released results of a Phase 1/2 trial Monday. That study included 60 participants and showed that the vaccine induced both neutralizing antibody and T-cell responses. The results were published in a preprint server, meaning they have not yet undergone the normal scientific review process. A subject receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine by Moderna for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, March 16, 2020. A subject receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine by Moderna for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, March 16, 2020. Ted S. Warren/AP, FILE Also on Monday, CanSino Biologics released data in the Lancet that showed similar results. And last week, the U.S.-based company Moderna released data in the New England Journal of Medicine that also demonstrated this two-pronged effect of neutralizing antibodies and T-cell response. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told ABC News that many of the vaccines with recently-published data look promising. "Their Phase 1 data looks really good," Collins said, referring to Oxford's vaccine. "I wouldn't say it looks distinctly better than what you see for the Moderna trial or the Pfizer trial. They all look good, which is really encouraging to see." Collectively, these early studies indicate that all four vaccine candidates might confer immunity through multiple pathways to fight COVID-19, although experts caution that more research is still needed. Dr. Paul Goepfert, director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at UAB, said that "distinguishing one vaccine candidate from another is very difficult at this point. They all induce about the same amount of responses. They all induce neutralizing antibody response, which is sort of the gold standard of protection for a lot of vaccines." According to Goepfert, antibodies protect against infection, while T-cells -- especially a specific subtype known as killer T-cells -- attack previously-infected cells and are very good at preventing disease. "So ideally, you want everything. The more the merrier," said Goepfert, "The more types of immune responses you can induce with the vaccine, and the higher amount, we think that's the best thing you can have." But he warned that this is not always the case. Some effective and already widely-used vaccines, like the Hepatitis B vaccine, do not induce any killer T-cell response but are still highly effective. Although the results reported this week are promising, it's still too early to predict which one of the vaccines will be the most effective. Early Phase 1 and Phase 2 studies mainly examine vaccine safety, tolerability and immune response, but Phase 3 trials will provide answers to these much-anticipated questions about efficacy. Even Hill admitted that the Oxford team still doesn't have the data to determine how well their vaccine will actually work. "The truth is that we don't know when we'll have a final result or how well the vaccine works," Hill said. "It's likely to be months. We were aiming for September, October... I still think that's a realistic aspiration but we can't be certain." When it comes to large Phase 3 studies, Oxford is slightly ahead of the pack, having already enrolled over 10,000 people in Brazil, South America, the U.K. and, soon, in the U.S. "We're aiming to vaccinate, in total, around about 50,000 people over the coming months, so that's promising, but you know it's not really a race against other vaccines, it's a race against time," Hill added. "But at the moment we're probably ahead in terms of Phase 3 trials and hoping to get a result certainly this year." Among European and North American vaccine efforts, Moderna is following right behind, scheduled to begin its Phase 3 trials next week. Similarly, Pfizer-BioNTech is on track to launch its Phase 2/3 trial later this month. Among Chinese companies, two have already begun Phase 3 trials: Sinovac and Sinopharm. According to CanSino Biologics' executive director, Qiu Dongxu, the company is expected to begin Phase 3 trials "soon," but a clear start date is yet to be publicly released. Biopharmaceutical companies across the world have now pivoted their efforts to primarily support the development of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Progress has been made at record speeds, and during an unprecedented time, the U.S. government is taking unprecedented measures, ramping up the development of some of these vaccines before even confirming their efficacy. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease doctor, "If everything works out the way we hope and we don't get any unpredictable potholes and bumps in the road, we should know, as we get into the mid to late fall, early winter, probably late fall, whether we have candidates that really are safe and effective." Many scientists and researchers have been working nonstop for the past six months to find a vaccine against COVID-19. "We feel that there's urgency and pressure really every day," Hill said. "People are working day and night and we're not going to stop until we get an answer." Eden David, who studied neuroscience at Columbia University and is matriculating to Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai later this year, is a member of the ABC News Medical Unit. Sabina Bera, M.D., M.S., a psychiatrist in New York, and Shantum Misra, M.D., a senior resident in internal medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, are contributors to the ABC News Medical Unit.
COVID-19 survivor urges: 'To all of you: Continue to fight' - ABC News
ALKEN, Belgium -- Sucking in the little oxygen her lungs could still process, Diane Wanten wouldn't back down in her fight against a disease that is killing tens of thousands a week around the globe. Too much was still waiting for her. It kept turning in my head: I need to survive this. I still want to go back home, she said, remembering the dark days in a Belgian intensive care unit a few weeks back. Before I slipped into the night, I automatically stayed awake a little longer to make sure I was still alive. And I was hoping that I would, please, wake up in the morning. Stuck behind a claustrophobic shield that covered her whole head, she would sometimes awaken from a slumber in a half-panic wondering whether she had left enough pills in the box for her husband back home who is stricken with Parkinsons and early dementia. She eventually beat COVID-19 after three weeks of hospitalization, including 16 days in the ICU. She has been reunited with husband, Francesco, and is recovering in her sons home. There is no embrace yet, since the 61-year-old Wanten is largely quarantined in her room and keeping at arms length from her husband, who doesn't quite fathom what is happening. The eye contact alone, though, is worth it. In a raspy voice and still struggling to breathe 100% normally, Wanten has one abiding lesson for all those who are seeking to come back from the debilitating disease that has already killed at least 200,000 people worldwide and infected millions of others. To all of you: continue to fight. Its worth it, she said. Early on, it is tough. But when I look at the result, Im telling everyone: Go for it. For almost all those fighting her fight around the world, theres family waiting, friends waiting, loved ones waiting. Before the coronavirus put her close to death's door, Wanten already knew how hard life could be. She had sold shoes, cleaned offices, married a young coal miner whose father had come down from Italys La Spezia region in Europes great post-war immigration movement. Mine closures in eastern Belgium were tough enough, but her husband developed Parkinsons disease at age 38 and, over a year ago, early dementia. She herself battled through cancer five years ago. She went through a lot, said her son Frederico Taramaschi. Still, the coronavirus caught her unawares. She had already braved a fever and cough with pain relief medication and a syrup when it all suddenly came back a week later. Limburg province is the epicenter of the coronavirus in Belgium and she was right smack in the middle. She went for a checkup on April 3, and by the time she got to Jessa hospital in the city of Hasselt, I couldn't tell the doctor anything because I couldnt breathe. The doctor only had one option, she said. Straight to the emergency ward. The stress at Jessa, one of Belgium's main hospitals about 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Brussels, was intense. Within 24 hours, cases would shoot up from 257 to 343 cases in Limburg province. Dazed with medicine and fearful of death during the first few days, thoughts did drift often to her husband. I didnt realize all the things that were happening but it shot through my head: How would he be? He always said: The day youre no longer there, I want to be gone, too. I said to myself: I got to pull through because I really dont want both of us to die. By that time Frederico and his wife, Tania, were already taking care of her husband, a natural extension of a family bond. There were fears Francesco would have it too, but, Frederico said, I didnt think twice. My parents have always taken super good care of me. Unlike the families of 200,000-plus victims, this one can rejoice. But the way back is still long. Leaving the ICU for a regular room was a victory, but then physio had to start. I was dizzy, couldn't find my balance and my breath was fading, she said. At first, just standing up was an effort, proof what the virus had done to her lungs. Words were staggered with gasps. Medical staff know the challenges all too well. They need a few months of rehabilitation because they are very weak. Their muscles are gone. And thats more than the other diseases, said Dr. Luc Jamaer of Jessa hospital. Slowly her vigor and vim came back and last week, she was allowed to step out of her wheelchair and into the car of her son for further recovery and physio at her home. The time has even come to look at the future and what the virus has taught her. Generations differ. I have learned that I have to take care of things better. His medication was always placed in two boxes. If they would have been finished, she said, her voice trailing off. Now I know I have to write it all down. For Frederico the latest family mishap reinforced his belief in carpe diem. You have to make the most of every day because, who knows what tomorrow brings. Wanten will seize her day soon enough too. The day she will be allowed to touch and embrace her dearest again will be on the eve of Belgian Mothers Day. It will be the greatest Mothers Day that I ever had or that I will ever have. Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak
Popular heartburn medicine being studied as treatment for coronavirus - ABC News
Over the past few weeks researchers have been discreetly studying a new potential treatment for COVID-19 -- and it might not be what you expect. The treatment in question is called famotidine, and it's the active ingredient in Pepcid, an over-the-counter medication commonly used to alleviate heartburn. Since March 13, researchers at Northwell Health, a network of hospitals in New York, have been enrolling patients hospitalized with COVID-19 into their study of famotidine, which is being delivered through an IV in megadoses nine times greater than the typical over-the-counter dose. The drug is being given in combination with the much-touted antimalarial hydroxychloroquine. Researchers said some data on safety will be available "in a few weeks," but did not say when data will be available showing whether the drug combination is effective. Dr. Kevin Tracey, CEO and president of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research at Northwell Health, says the study was being conducted under the radar to avoid media attention as well as a potential depletion of national supply, limiting Northwell's access to the drug. More than 180 patients have enrolled in the Northwell study so far. They've been given either a two-drug combination of hydroxychloroquine and famotidine, or hydroxychloroquine alone. According to Tracey, hydroxychloroquine was added into the mix because of the drug's promise back in mid-March -- before data emerged about its potential risks. Tracey said the idea to try famotidine came from a friend and colleague, Dr. Michael Callahan, who had recently visited China and was working with Chinese physicians on a still-unpublished study reportedly showing that the drug benefited patients with COVID-19. The merit of trying famotidine was supported by additional research, part of a private-public partnership with the federal government, that used the genetic makeup of the virus to pinpoint potentially promising drugs, Tracey said. The hope is that famotidine will act as a decoy for the virus, so that while the virus is preoccupied with famotidine, it is unable to reproduce itself and spread throughout the body. Dr. Stuart Ray, professor of medicine in infectious diseases and vice chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics at Johns Hopkins, said he was surprised to hear that researchers at Northwell are studying famotidine in people with COVID-19, and that he is skeptical about preliminary data from China because it has not been vetted in the typical review process. However, he said he is glad there is some scientific rationale behind the drug. He adds that despite the megadoses, the drug is likely to be safe. "I think this sort of off-label repurposing is sensible with drugs for which we have a long safety record," said Ray. "And we really need a win." As of Sunday, the study was not yet listed in the national online database of clinical studies maintained by the National Institutes of Health for the benefit of both the public and health care professionals. Dr. Carlos Del Rio, chair of the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health, is suspicious of this delay in posting details about the trial, noting that researchers should publicly announce their intention to run a study like this before they start enrolling patients. "Science has to be open, not secretive," he said. "We want transparency in clinical trials." Del Rio added that when it comes to the promise of famotidine, "we have to remain skeptical." "In the early years of HIV, we tried a lot of stuff and we thought, 'Oh this is going to work' and nothing worked," he said. "When you have a disease for which there is no treatment, all sorts of different things are tried and everyone is excited about them." Tracey, meanwhile, cautioned people to steer clear of trying out unproven treatments themselves. "What we want everybody to do is send us our best wishes that if it works, we can find out quickly," he said. Heather J. Kagan, M.D., is an internal medicine resident at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit. Sony Salzman is the unit's coordinating producer. What to know about the coronavirus:
Fears of 'Wild West' as COVID-19 blood tests hit the market - ABC News
WASHINGTON -- Blood tests for the coronavirus could play a key role in deciding whether millions of Americans can safely return to work and school. But public health officials warn that the current Wild West of unregulated tests is creating confusion that could ultimately slow the path to recovery. More than 70 companies have signed up to sell so-called antibody tests in recent weeks, according to U.S. regulators. Governments around the world hope that the rapid tests, which typically use a finger-prick of blood on a test strip, could soon ease public restrictions by identifying people who have previously had the virus and have developed some immunity to it. But key questions remain: How accurate are the tests, how much protection is needed and how long will that protection last. The blood tests are different from the nasal swab-based tests currently used to diagnose active COVID-19 infections. Instead, the tests look for blood proteins called antibodies, which the body produces days or weeks after fighting an infection. The same approach is used for HIV, hepatitis, Lyme disease, lupus and many other diseases. Because of the relative simplicity of the technology, the Food and Drug Administration decided to waive initial review of the tests as part of its emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak. Right now, the tests are most useful for researchers studying how the virus has spread through the U.S. population. The government said Friday it has started testing 10,000 volunteers. The White House has not outlined a broader plan for testing and how the results might be used. With almost no FDA oversight of the tests, Right now its a wild west show out there," said Eric Blank of the Association for Public Health Laboratories. It really has created a mess thats going to take a while to clean up." "In the meantime, youve got a lot of companies marketing a lot of stuff and nobody has any idea of how good it is, he said. Members of Blank's group, which represents state and local lab officials, have urged the FDA to revisit its lax approach toward the tests. That approach essentially allows companies to launch as long as they notify the agency and include disclaimers. Companies are supposed to state that their tests have not been FDA-approved and cannot rule out whether someone is currently infected. Last week, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement that the agency will take appropriate action against companies making false claims or selling inaccurate tests. During an interview Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, Hahn expressed concern that tests being sold may not be as accurate as we'd like them to be. What we dont want are wildly inaccurate tests, he said. Thats going to be much worse, having wildly inaccurate tests than having no test. Dr. Allison Rakeman of New York Citys Public Health Laboratory says some local hospitals are assuming the tests, which are listed on FDAs website, have been vetted, when they have not. The danger of faulty testing, Rakeman says, is that people will mistakenly conclude that they are immune or are no longer spreading the virus. Then somebody goes home and kisses their 90-year-old grandmother, said Rakeman. You dont want to give someone a false sense of security. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. For many infections, antibody levels above a certain threshold indicate that the persons immune system has successfully fought off the virus and is likely protected from reinfection. For COVID-19, its not yet clear what level of antibodies render patients immune or how long immunity might last. Adding to the confusion is the fact that both legitimate companies and fraudulent operators appear to be selling the kits. Distinguishing between the two can be a challenge. Officials in Laredo, Texas, reported this month that some 2,500 antibody tests set for use at a local drive-thru testing site were likely frauds. City officials had ordered what they were told were FDA-approved COVID-19 rapid tests, from a local clinic. But when they checked the test's accuracy, it fell well below the range promised, the city said in a statement. Examples of U.S. companies skirting the rules appear online and in emails sent to hospitals. Promotional emails sent to hospitals and reviewed by The Associated Press failed to include required disclaimers. Some kits sold on websites promote themselves as FDA-approved for home testing. The agency has not yet approved any COVID-19 home test. The blood tests have to processed by a lab. If you see them on the internet, do not buy them until we can give you a test thats reliable for all Americans, said Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, at a recent briefing. 20/20 BioResponse is one of dozens of U.S. companies selling the tests to hospitals, clinics and doctors offices. The Rockville, Maryland-based company imports the tests from a Chinese manufacturer but CEO Jonathan Cohen says his company independently confirmed its performance in 60 U.S. patients. He estimates the company has shipped 10,000 tests and has had to limit orders due to demand. He said antibody tests are not a panacea but theyre not garbage either." Cohen called them a tool in the toolbox that will have some value along with other tests. The companys test is registered on the FDA website and includes all the required disclaimers. To date, the FDA has only authorized one COVID-19 antibody test from North Carolina diagnostics company Cellex. The agency used its emergency powers, meaning a formal review is still needed. The White House has also tried to temper expectations for the tests, while still promising that millions will soon be available. Dr. Brett Giroir, the federal health official overseeing U.S. testing, told reporters a week ago that the FDA and other agencies are working to confirm the accuracy of the antibody tests. Were going to be very careful to make sure that when we tell you youre likely immune from the disease ... the test really said that, Giroir said. Follow Matthew Perrone on Twitter: www.twitter.com/APFDAwriter The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.