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Covid-19 Live Updates: White House Embraces ‘Herd Immunity’ Declaration

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The White House has embraced a declaration by a group of scientists arguing that authorities should allow the coronavirus to spread among young healthy people while protecting the elderly and the vulnerable — an approach that would rely on arriving at “herd immunity” through infections rather than a vaccine.

Many experts say “herd immunity” — the point at which a disease stops spreading because nearly everyone in a population has contracted it — is still very far off. Leading experts have concluded, using different scientific methods, that about 85 to 90 percent of the American population is still susceptible to the coronavirus.

On a call convened Monday by the White House, two senior administration officials, both speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to give their names, cited an October 4 petition entitled The Great Barrington Declaration, which argues against lockdowns and calls for a reopening of businesses and schools.

“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” the declaration states, adding, “The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.”

The declaration has more than 9,000 signatories from all over the world, its website says, though most of the names are not public. The document grew out of a meeting hosted by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian-leaning research organization.

Its lead authors include Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at Stanford University, academic home of Dr. Scott Atlas, President Trump’s science adviser. Dr. Atlas has also espoused herd immunity.

The declaration’s architects include Sunetra Gupta and Gabriela Gomes, two scientists who have proposed that societies may achieve herd immunity when 10 to 20 percent of their populations have been infected with the virus, a position most epidemiologists disagree with.

Last month, at the request of The New York Times, three epidemiological teams calculated the percentage of the country that is infected. What they found runs strongly counter to the theory being promoted in influential circles that the United States has either already achieved herd immunity or is close to doing so, and that the pandemic is all but over. That conclusion would imply that businesses, schools and restaurants could safely reopen, and that masks and other distancing measures could be abandoned.

“The idea that herd immunity will happen at 10 or 20 percent is just nonsense,” said Dr. Christopher J.L. Murray, director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which produced the epidemic model frequently cited during White House news briefings as the epidemic hit hard in the spring.

The move comes amid a coronavirus outbreak at the White House that has now grown to more than 20 people, as evidence mounts that the administration did little to prevent or contain the virus’s spread.

On Tuesday night, officials with the Department of Labor said that the wife of the secretary, Eugene Scalia, tested positive for the coronavirus earlier in the day. Trish Scalia, who was said to be experiencing “mild symptoms,” and her husband were at a Rose Garden event honoring Judge Amy Coney Barrett that is being eyed as the source of several infections in people connected to the White House. The secretary tested negative, officials said, but he will work from home “for the time being.”

Sixteen states each added more new cases in the seven-day period ending Monday than they had in any other weeklong stretch of the pandemic. North Dakota and South Dakota are reporting more new cases per person than any state has previously. And in Wisconsin, home to 10 of the country’s 20 metro areas with the highest rates of recent cases, crews are preparing a field hospital at the state fairgrounds.

“While we are hopeful we can flatten the curve enough to never have to use the facility, Wisconsinites across our state are struggling and they are rightfully scared of this virus,” Gov. Tony Evers wrote to legislative leaders this week in a letter seeking support for his mask order and limits on public gatherings.

About 50,000 new cases are being reported each day on average in the United States for the week ending Monday. That is still far less than in late July, when the country averaged more than 66,000 daily cases.

But the country’s trajectory is worrisome — and worsening. Many experts fear what could happen as cold weather encroaches on more of the country and drives people indoors, where the virus can spread more easily.

Hospital beds are filling with virus patients, especially in the Northern Plains states, according to data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project. Their data shows that 36,034 people are hospitalized right now with Covid-19, a higher number than at any time since Aug. 29. Testing remains insufficient in much of the country. And new cases are trending upward in 36 states, including much of the Northeast, which is starting to backslide after months of progress, and in Illinois, which surpassed 9,000 total deaths this month.

“After 9 months of battling this virus and hearing the updates each day, many of us forget that the hospitalizations and deaths are more than just numbers,” Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said Tuesday. “They are our family, friends, and loved ones who have been directly impacted by Covid-19, which continues to spread.”

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A government-sponsored clinical trial testing an antibody treatment made by the drug company Eli Lilly has been paused because of a “potential safety concern,” according to emails that government officials sent on Tuesday to researchers at testing sites, and confirmed by the company.

The news comes just a day after Johnson & Johnson announced the pause of its coronavirus vaccine trial because of a sick volunteer, and a month after AstraZeneca’s vaccine trial was halted over concerns about two participants who had fallen ill after getting the company’s vaccine.

The Eli Lilly trial was designed to test the benefits of the therapy on hundreds of people hospitalized with Covid-19, compared with a placebo. All of the study participants also received another experimental drug, remdesivir, which has become commonly used to treat patients with Covid-19. It is unclear how many volunteers were sick, and what the details of their illnesses were.

In large clinical trials, pauses are not unusual, and illnesses in volunteers are not necessarily the result of the experimental drug or vaccine. Such halts are meant to allow an independent board of scientific experts to review the data and determine whether the event may have been related to the treatment or occurred by chance.

Enrollment for the Eli Lilly trial, which was sponsored by several branches of the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs, among other organizations, had been continuing. But on Tuesday, multiple officials sent emails to researchers telling them to stop adding volunteers to the study out of an “abundance of caution.”

In a statement sent over email, Molly McCully, a spokeswoman for Eli Lilly, confirmed the pause. “Safety is of the utmost importance to Lilly,” she said. “Lilly is supportive of the decision by the independent D.S.M.B. to cautiously ensure the safety of the patients participating in this study” she added, referring to the independent panel of experts, or the data and safety monitoring board.

The N.I.H. and the V.A. did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Eli Lilly is one of several companies pursuing experimental treatments for Covid-19 that use monoclonal antibodies — mass-produced mimics of immune molecules the human body produces in reaction to the virus.

Eli Lilly’s product is similar to a treatment designed by the drug company Regeneron, which developed an antibody therapy given to President Trump after he tested positive for the coronavirus this month. Mr. Trump has promoted such treatments, without evidence, as a “cure” for his condition, and has suggested that their approval and widespread distribution could be imminent.

The week after the president was treated, both companies applied for emergency clearance for their products from the Food and Drug Administration. (Eli Lilly has applied for authorization of its drug for mild or moderate cases of Covid-19, not for use in hospitalized patients like those enrolled in the halted trial.)

Antibodies can block the coronavirus from infecting cells, and preliminary data from Eli Lilly and Regeneron have hinted they may be able to tamp down the amount of virus in infected people and reduce their symptoms. Eli Lilly also hopes to collect data to figure out whether antibodies can protect certain people from developing Covid-19 after encountering the virus.

Still, if monoclonal antibodies end up being linked to an unexpected side effect — which has not yet been conclusively shown — it will be crucial to figure out how and why these immune molecules are sickening people, said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale.

In a statement, an N.I.H. spokeswoman said the trial, which had enrolled 326 Covid-19 patients, was paused when the independent safety board found that after five days of treatment, the group of patients who had received the antibodies showed a different “clinical status” than the group who had received a saline placebo — a difference that crossed a predetermined threshold for safety.

The N.I.H. statement did not specify the nature of the participants’ conditions. But the so-called stopping rules for the trial lay out the conditions for “futility” — the idea that a treatment has a very low chance of working, based on the data so far. A trial could also be halted if there is evidence that patients in one group are faring much worse than those in the other.

The news of the trial’s pause prompted a small decline in Eli Lilly’s stock on Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday, Johnson & Johnson paused the large late-stage clinical trial of its coronavirus vaccine because of an “unexplained illness” in one of the volunteers.

The company did not say whether the sick participant had received the experimental vaccine or a placebo. The pause was first reported by the health news website Stat. On Tuesday morning, shares of Johnson & Johnson fell about 2 percent on the S&P 500.

Credit…Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch, via Associated Press

Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia was discussed as a possible target by members of an anti-government group charged last week with plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, the F.B.I. said on Tuesday.

During a hearing in Grand Rapids, Mich., Special Agent Richard J. Trask II of the F.B.I. said that Mr. Northam and other officials were targeted because of their aggressive lockdown orders to restrict the spread of the coronavirus.

Last week, 13 men accused of involvement in the alleged plot were charged with a variety of state and federal crimes including terrorism, conspiracy and weapons possession.

During Tuesday’s hearing, the authorities revealed that the suspects also spoke about “taking” the Virginia governor “based” on coronavirus lockdown orders that restricted businesses.

The F.B.I. alerted members of Mr. Northam’s security team throughout their investigation, Alena Yarmosky, Mr. Northam’s press secretary, said in a statement. The governor was not informed, “per security protocols,” Ms. Yarmosky said, but added that “at no time was the governor or his family in imminent danger.”

Mr. Northam, a Democrat, issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 30, instructing residents to leave their homes only for work, medical appointments, family care, shopping for essentials and “outdoor activity with strict social distancing requirements.”

In April, President Trump had openly encouraged right-wing protests of social distancing restrictions in Virginia, Michigan and other states with stay-at-home orders, a day after his administration had announced guidelines for governors to set their own timetables for reopening. “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment,” the president wrote on Twitter at the time. “It is under siege!”

In Prague on Sunday. The Czech Republic and neighboring Slovakia have registered big increases in coronavirus infections.
Credit…Petr David Josek/Associated Press

Countries across Europe are desperately trying to hold at bay a fast-growing wave of new virus cases, employing targeted closures and travel restrictions to avoid the large-scale lockdowns that crippled economies in the spring.

The European Union on Tuesday adopted new guidelines aimed at coordinating members’ varying travel measures. The bloc will now use a single map with a color-coded system to denote the scale of outbreaks: green at the low end of risk, orange in the middle and red at the high end.

Other measures include unifying how quarantines and testing are done to smooth travel between E.U. countries, and ensuring ample warning when national travel advisories are about to change to ensure that travelers aren’t left stranded.

But the measures are not mandatory, and individual member states said they wanted to reserve the right to take unilateral action, including stepping up restrictions or changing the risk category for regions based on their own assessments.

The action came amid a flood of announcements of tightened policies and pointed warnings from national leaders. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Tuesday voiced concern about the rise in cases “in almost every part of Europe,” Reuters reported.

Officials in the Netherlands announced a four-week partial lockdown on Tuesday. Bars, pubs and restaurants will close, but takeout will be allowed and hotels can stay open. The government is planning to make face masks mandatory in public places, including high schools and shops. Group sports for adults will also be prohibited, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.

The Czech Republic, which has reported more cases per capita in the last seven days than most other European countries, announced that it will close schools on Wednesday. Dozens had already been forced to suspend classes after teachers and students fell ill.

The country is also closing theaters, cinemas and zoos. Restaurants and bars will be restricted to takeout orders starting Wednesday, and will have to close at 8 p.m.

The health minister, Roman Prymula, said the new rules should reverse the rise in two to three weeks.

Neighboring Slovakia, which has seen a smaller increase in new cases, announced the closure of high schools on Monday. Most universities had already moved online.

Slovakia is also considering limiting travel to the Czech Republic, which would be an extraordinary development for the two countries, which until 1993 formed one nation, Czechoslovakia.

And in Poland, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was in quarantine after being exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus. His office said he had not been experiencing any symptoms, and he urged Poles to act responsibly in a video message posted on Facebook on Tuesday.

The virus has also surged again in the countries that were hit hardest in the first wave. Italy announced on Tuesday that it would prohibit parties and recommended that indoor gatherings be limited to six people.

The decree, signed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, represents a second crackdown in less than a week as the second wave, which seemed to have hit Italy less violently than other European countries, is now gaining strength.

News Source : NY Times

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