Thursday, May 6, 2021

Waiving Vaccine Patents Way Too Late

    The Biden administration has surprisingly stated that they will advocate for a COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver. Given the “extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic” the administration plans to advocate for waiving vaccine patent protections. This comes at a time when case numbers are falling in the US but rapidly increasing in other countries like India. The proposal to waive patent protections was drafted by India and South Africa and was backed by many congressional Democrats. According to the US trade representative Katherine Tai, “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines.” Apparently, this news meant that shares for Pfizer and Moderna are plummeting in an all too predictable fashion. 

This news is both surprising and unsurprising to me. Surprising because I wouldn’t expect the US, a country run on a fundamentally capitalist system, to ever support something like this. This country was built upon privatization and profit-driven systems, often without care or concern for the ethics of money making. Vaccine distribution thus far has just been another example of this- even though the vaccines have been developed at a speed unknown to mankind and the power of science could not be more evident at a time when humanity needs it most, the distribution of the vaccine has been so limited because of the inefficiency and cruelty that a capitalist system brings. I’m unsurprised, however, because this backing of the waiving of vaccine patents should have been done long ago. This action to waive intellectual property rights could greatly bolster production and distribution of vaccines, especially to areas where vaccination rates are really low like countries that are poor and under-resourced. If this had been done before vaccines had even come out, perhaps the US could have been vaccinated much faster, and perhaps other countries around the world would have experienced a much more equitable distribution of vaccine supplies. 

-Komal Kumar, 5/03/21

COVID-19 and Future Heart Health Findings

    I’ve been wondering a lot these days about the long-term effects of COVID-19, especially if you are a young person with a resolved COVID-19 infection. Could you experience effects of having had the illness in the future, even if you’re fine now? A study was published recently in the Experimental Physiology Journal that talks about this, where researchers found that healthy young adults who had COVID-19 infections may have long-term effects on their heart health and blood vessels. 

While COVID-19 infections are caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and this is primarily a respiratory illness, previous research has shown that the virus can have impacts on arteries throughout the body, such as the carotid artery. Similar to other viral/bacterial illnesses like rheumatic fever, pneumonia, lupus, and more, SARS-CoV-2 has been shown in this study to induce arterial stiffness even after symptoms of the infection resolve. The researchers found this by testing young adults a few weeks after they were infected with SARS-CoV-2- they used an ultrasound on their carotid arteries and took recordings of it for several heartbeats to find that those who had the virus had stiffer carotid and aortic arteries than those that had not been infected (control group was healthy young adults prior to the pandemic). The authors concluded that “These results provide further evidence of cardiovascular impairments among young adults recovering from SARS-CoV-2 infection, which should be considered for cardiovascular complications associated with SARS-CoV-2.”

While the study had many limitations, it does suggest that there is a potential long-term impact of COVID-19 on healthy, young adults. I think many of my peers have been nonchalant about getting the virus, with their primary and only concern being infecting their families without any regard to their own health. This study scared me to read- I wish more young people knew that this virus isn’t just deadly and detrimental to older or immunocompromised individuals. We don’t know nearly enough about the virus to rule out the possibility that it could be harming everyone that is infected in ways that haven’t yet revealed themselves. The long-term impacts of COVID-19 are truly going to be a test of time, we can only hope the effects will be minimal and try to protect ourselves for the sake of ourselves while also protecting others. The link to the study can be found here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33904234/

-Komal Kumar, 4/30/21

CA Opens Up June 15th

    I was in an Uber recently and having a nice chat with my driver, when he mentioned very excitedly that the state was opening up on June 15th. This surprised me, as I hadn’t yet heard of this, so I asked him what he meant by “opening up.” He said “California is lifting all restrictions in June, which means I’ll have so many more customers!” Turns out this is true. According to the office of governor Gavin Newsom, the state has administered more than 20 million doses of the vaccine, which was apparently a major milestone. The governor has decided that if come June 15th the vaccine supply is sufficient for Californians who are 16 and older and wish to be vaccinated and if COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates remain low, then California will fully open up its economy. This means that all businesses will be allowed to reopen, large gatherings will be allowed to occur, and everyday activities will be allowed once again, given that masking and preventive public health measures and contact tracing/testing/vaccination is still occurring. In all honesty, this doesn’t sound a whole lot different than what is already happening given that so many dining spots and things are open, but I assume this means things like bars, clubs, theaters, gyms, and more will be fully allowed to open up, which is great news. 

However, I have mixed feelings about this reopening and wonder if anyone else is feeling the same. My life has achieved a newfound sense of peace during the pandemic, a sense of reflection and personal solitude that I have come to enjoy that would have been impossible to achieve in my life before the pandemic. While I am happy that we will see case numbers decrease and finally we can enjoy our social and normal lives once again, it saddens me that this period of peace and relaxation and solitude may be coming to an end. I wonder if I will still be able to maintain my reflective self when things open up. I surely feel a lot of pressure to go back outside and be social and extroverted once again, and I’m wondering if anyone else feels this way. We talked about this in our Humans and Viruses class in terms of the long term effects of COVID-19 on our culture and society, but will we ever go back to “normal?” What even does normal mean now?

-Komal Kumar, 4/28/21

Vaccine Trials in Children- Thoughts from Parents?

    I woke up to the news that very young children are now being invited to participate in COVID-19 vaccine trials. Given that kids interact with other another and with their families, including grandparents, a lot, they are good targets for vaccines given their ability to spread the virus. Similar to the way the vaccines are currently scheduled, for Pfizer’s trial, all the kids will get their second dose 21 days after the first, and for Moderna, all kids will get it 28 days later. I read multiple articles all over the internet about Dr. Zinaida Good, a research fellow at the Stanford cancer center, who has signed both of her young children (7 months old and 3 years old) up to receive the vaccine as a part of Stanford Hospital’s Pfizer trial. Apparently, neither child felt severe side effects besides sore arms and fatigue, which the rest of us have also experienced with our vaccines. Another doctor, Dr. Angelica Lacour, also enrolled her 3-year-old daughter in the vaccine trial, stating that the reason she did so was for the safety of all children who are not currently eligible for vaccine based protection, not just her own children. 

In thinking about this news, I wondered if I as a parent would enroll my children in a vaccine trial. At this stage in my life, and especially as a product of having been in the Humans and Viruses classes, I understand how important it is to combat viruses that kill millions of people each year. Especially in a situation like this where we are embroiled in a pandemic that has taken so many lives, I think it’s important to be brave and sign up for vaccine trials if you have the ability in order to save potentially generations of humanity. With that being said, perhaps my perspective would change if I actually had kids and actually were presented with the opportunity to enroll my children in a vaccine trial. Then, I think my brain might be telling me one thing and my heart might be telling me something else. I am curious to know if there are any parents reading this blog post (including Dr. Siegel!), would you sign your children up for a vaccine trial during a pandemic? Why or why not? It’s impossible for me to know as a 23 year old without children, as I can only really think in the abstract…

-Komal Kumar, 4/27/21

India's SARS-CoV-2 Variant

    I wanted to write another post about India’s COVID-19 surge, but more specifically about the variant that is causing the surge to occur. The variant that is currently dominating the country is the B.1.617 version of COVID-19, which has multiple sequence changes from the older SARS-CoV-2 virus. This variant was first identified in Maharashtra (a state in India) back in October of 2020. Two of the main mutations are in the spike proteins of the virus, at the locations E484Q and L452R, however, there are a total of 13-17 mutations from the original virus. 

The mutations are interesting to look into- while there are about 13-17 mutations estimated in total, there are three main mutations in the spike proteins that are of the most interest. One of them is E484Q, which allows the virus to bind more tightly to the human ACE2 receptor. One of them is L452R, which confers a weaker recognition capability of the host immune system and similar to the E484Q mutation, allows for a stronger binding to the ACE2 receptor. Finally, the P681R mutation that may boost cell-level infectivity of the virus by allowing for easier conversion of the S precursor protein to the active S1/S2 configuration. However, all of these mutations are still under review and being actively researched, but these are the preliminary findings I was able to locate. 

At this point, the variant is being found in many countries outside of India- the U.K., the U.S., and more- in fact, 18 countries in total and on every continent besides Africa. I wonder what this means in terms of our journey to eradicate COVID-19. Luckily, cases in the U.S. have fallen as a result of widespread vaccination, but given that the vaccines may not be effective at protecting against the Indian variant, will we experience yet another surge in COVID cases as variants begin to circulate the globe? Can new vaccines or boosters be developed that protect against variant forms of COVID-19? Perhaps our fight against COVID-19 is not close to over, perhaps it’s far from over…

-Komal Kumar, 4/25/21

Kumbh Mela & India's COVID Crisis

    Looking at the COVID-19 surge in India has been scary, and I (as have many others) have been wondering about the factors that are playing into this surge. One factor that may have played a large role in the spread of COVID is a festival that I just learned about today known as the Kumbh Mela (“koombh mayla”). It happens once every 12 years, and consists mainly of a pilgrimage where some of the world’s most devout Hindus travel to the River Ganges in the months of January through April in order to bathe in the holy waters for religious reasons. The festival typically occurs in a city called Haridwar, and it is estimated that this year over 9 million people have travelled to Haridwar to complete the Kumbh Mela since January. Most of these 9 million people (around 6 million of them) have actually come this month in April, which coincides almost perfectly with when the surge of COVID-19 cases in India began. As a Hindu myself, I was surprised to learn about this festival since I had no idea that it existed. Better yet, I was surprised that over 9 million people could be travelling to one location during a global pandemic. 

Apparently, the main priestly body behind the Kumbh Mela (called Ganga Sabha) has been encouraging people not to go on the pilgrimage this year. Pradeep Jha, the head of the organization, told his followers that they should not gather for the Kumbh Mela this year and should instead celebrate in a measured and safe manner until COVID-19 comes to an end. This did not stop people from going, however, since the state government of the region did not put any sort of cap on gatherings or put a ban on the Kumbh Mela from happening. I find this to be pretty sad, especially seeing that one of the local religious chiefs stated “Death is certain one day for everyone, but we must follow our traditions.” The things people will do for the sake of religion or tradition, no matter how harmful, will always baffle me. 

-Komal Kumar, 4/22/21

Johnson & Johnson Rollout Halt

    I remember having a small argument with my mother (an internal medicine doc) a week ago when I signed up for my vaccine appointment. Since Stanford only had me schedule one appointment, my mom thought this meant that I was getting the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. She told me, “whatever you do, don’t get that one- please try to ask for a different vaccine if possible or back out and sign up for a different appointment later.” I told my mom at the time that this was ridiculous, that beggars can’t be choosers, that who was to say that the second time around I wouldn’t get Johnson & Johnson as well. Her concerns primarily surrounded efficacy at the time.  

Ironically, I learned today that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout has been paused due to concerns that the vaccine may be causing a rare blood-clotting disorder. This clotting happened in six recipients of the vaccine, who all developed the clotting within a few weeks of receiving the vaccination. However, something about this number should strike you- out of the seven million people in the US that have received this vaccine so far, only 6 people in total have developed this clotting disorder. The risk of getting a blood clot from birth control pills is so much higher- around 6 women in every 10,000 taking oral birth control pills will develop a blood clot! I find this to be funny because half of the women I know are on oral birth control, including myself, and such a huge alarm is being raised at the prospect of 6 women out of 7 million people getting blood clots from the vaccine. The decision to pause J&J rollout concerns me, given that so many people are already vaccine hesitant and refuse to take the vaccine because of concerns that vaccines cause diseases or uncurable side effects. This blood clotting issue is so rare, and the response to pause the vaccine I fear will only further fuel vaccine hesitancy among people that are already skeptical of vaccines, prompting even fewer Americans to get vaccinated than we are already seeing. 

Apparently, the next step is for the FDA and CDC to “jointly examine possible links between the vaccine and the disorder and determine whether the F.D.A. should continue to allow emergency use of the vaccine for all adults or modify the authorization, possibly by limiting the vaccine to certain population groups. An emergency meeting of the C.D.C.’s outside vaccine advisory committee has been scheduled for Wednesday.” A link to the article I read is here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/13/us/politics/johnson-johnson-vaccine-blood-clots-fda-cdc.html

-Komal Kumar, 4/13/21