“You First”: Who Will Be Front in Line to Get a COVID Vaccine?
There is a huge amount riding on the discovery of a vaccine effective against the Covid-19 virus.
Making 660 million of anything without a glitch is—to put it mildly—a tall order in a nation that remains short on masks, gowns, and diagnostic tests despite months of trying to meet demand.
The world is waiting for a vaccine that can liberate everyone from the constraints on liberty required by existing efforts to fight the virus with public health measures such as masks, isolation, and quarantining. President Trump, for the most part, has rejected tough public health measures. Instead he has staked his political future and those of the governors and Congressional Republicans who have followed his lead on delivering a vaccine before Election Day as the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic in the USA. Many scientific experts have been sounding encouraging notes about having a vaccine by the end of this year or early next, as have many CEOs among the more than 160 companies chasing various strategies to identify a safe and effective vaccine.
But the reality is that no matter how fast a vaccine appears, those who might benefit will face a significant period of time before they could receive one. This is due to a variety of realities. Any vaccine faces various regulatory hurdles to insure safety and efficacy. This means completing large-scale studies in tens of thousands of subjects hoping for enough cases of blunted natural infection versus a large placebo control group to determine that a vaccine works. And that takes time--plus adding in delays in manufacturing and delivery, which will create logjams for most prospective recipients.
Shipping is not going to be easy with cold chain storage requirements from -20 to -70 degrees Celsius, from factory to a doctor's office, depending on the vaccine. In addition, many of the vaccines under development require two doses--that is 660 million shots to cover just those in the United States. Making 660 million of anything without a glitch is—to put it mildly—a tall order in a nation that remains short on masks, gowns, and diagnostic tests, despite months of trying to meet demand.
There are three scenarios under which a vaccine can appear but without being in any way available to all Americans.
The first is a vaccine under development in the USA or with some USA financing begins to show promise before a full clinical trial is completed. Current vaccine trials are supervised by Data Safety and Monitoring Boards and those committees could tell a CEO eager to be first to market that their vaccine is looking good at the study's half-way point.
The CEO and vaccine manufacturing company's board then let the White House know that a magic bullet which can ensure the President's reelection is in hand. The President, as he has done many times with other COVID treatments, most recently convalescent plasma, intervenes with the FDA and demands approval using an Emergency Use Authorization, or invoking the Federal Right to Try law he and Mike Pence are constantly touting. FDA Commissioner Steve Hahn folds and an extremely limited supply of vaccine, maybe only 100,000 doses, is available just before Election Day.
The second scenario is that another nation discovers a vaccine that looks safe and effective and the USA is able to buy some supply of it. But again, we are likely, initially, to get an extremely limited amount.
Lastly, the vaccine is approved in a standard manner. A full randomized trial is done, the endpoints are met, and no serious adverse events are identified. It is a USA-funded vaccine so most of it is coming here first. Still the vials and needles and plugs need to be quality-controlled and shipped and stored at the right temperatures. Information sheets and consent forms need to be readied, offered, and signed. Odds are you won't see any of this vaccine until late next year. So, who is going to get the first shots?
Some people under all of these scenarios are going to say, "Count me out." They don't trust vaccines or they don't trust the government to provide a safe one. Others may say, "The first one out of the box may be OK, but I am going to wait for the 'best' one before I take one." Even if those numbers are large, it is still certain that there will be more takers than can be vaccinated.
If you look at the discussion of vaccine rationing, almost everybody — including government officials, FDA officials, advisory panelists and ethicists — says the first group that should get vaccinated are at-risk healthcare workers. They say it, although they're not always clear about why.
One reason is that you need to give it to health care workers first because they will keep the healthcare system going. Another is that you need to give it to them first because they face more risk and they should get rewarded for having done and continuing to do that -- their bravery ought to be rewarded and their risk reduced.
A subset of hospitals and institutions in high risk areas will [go first] and that will be it for a significant period of time.
Both of these arguments for health care worker priority are not completely convincing. Food and power and vaccine manufacturing are arguably as important as health care, but workers in those areas don't get priority attention in most guidelines. And many Americans face risks from COVID comparable to health care workers, especially those who are not on the front lines in ERs and ICUs. Prisoners, military personnel who work on warships, the elderly, nursing home residents, and poor minorities are disproportionately affected by COVID. However, none of them are going first, nor is it clear how to weigh their claims in competing against one another for a scarce vaccine.
But, there's something else that's interesting in deciding who goes first. When people all agree, as they almost always do, that it's health care workers who must go first, a huge problem remains. What is the definition of who's a healthcare worker? You could easily get millions and millions of people designated as healthcare workers who would have a claim to go first.
We normally think that health care worker means doctors and nurses. But, if we go beyond those who work in ERs and ICUs, the number is big. And we must, because no ER or ICU can run without huge numbers of supporting individuals.
If you don't vaccinate lab technicians, people who clean the rooms, make food, transport patients, provide security, do the laundry, run the IT, students, volunteers and so on, you're not going to have a functioning hospital. If you don't include those working in nursing homes, home care and hospices along with those making and supplying vital equipment and bringing in patients via ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks, you don't have a functioning ICU, much less a health care system.
The total number involved could easily exceed tens of millions depending on how broadly the definition is set.
So, what is likely to happen is that health care workers will not go first. A subset of hospitals and institutions in high risk areas will and that will be it for a significant period of time. Health care institutions in hot spots, plus the supporting services they need will go first and then vaccine availability will slowly expand to other health care institutions and the essential workers needed to keep them functioning. Then consideration will also be given to how best to control the spread of the virus in selecting hot spots versus saving prisoners or the poor. And you can be sure, whatever the guidelines are, that the military and security folks will demand their share.
For many, many months if not a year or more, most people will not have to face a choice about vaccinating. The supply just won't be there for the general public. It is a small sample of high-risk health care workers including vaccine manufacturing employees and shippers, plus essential workers to keep hospitals and nursing homes going, who will be first in line. Odds are you and your family will still be wearing masks and social distancing well into next year.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”