Today’s Headlines: February 16, 2022

Editors: Divya Hosangadi, MSPH; Natasha Kaushal, MSPH; Marc Trotochaud, MSPH; Prarthana Vasudevan, MS, MSPH; and, Rachel Vahey, MHS

COVID-19
Clinical Practice
Hospitalizations of Children and Adolescents with Laboratory-Confirmed COVID-19 — COVID-NET, 14 States, July 2021–January 2022 (MMWR) Coinciding with increased circulation of the Omicron variant, COVID-19–associated hospitalization rates among children and adolescents aged 0–17 years increased rapidly in late December 2021, especially among children aged 0–4 years who are not yet eligible for vaccination. Throughout the periods of Delta and Omicron predominance, hospitalization rates remained lower among fully vaccinated adolescents aged 12–17 years than among unvaccinated adolescents. Strategies to prevent COVID-19 among children and adolescents, including vaccination of eligible persons, are critical.
Effectiveness of Maternal Vaccination with mRNA COVID-19 Vaccine During Pregnancy Against COVID-19–Associated Hospitalization in Infants Aged <6 Months — 17 States, July 2021–January 2022 (MMWR) COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy is recommended to prevent severe illness and death in pregnant women. Infants are at risk for COVID-19–associated complications, including respiratory failure and other life-threatening complications. Effectiveness of maternal completion of a 2-dose primary mRNA COVID-19 vaccination series during pregnancy against COVID-19 hospitalization among infants aged <6 months was 61% (95% CI = 31% to 78%). Effectiveness of completion of the primary COVID-19 vaccine series early and later in pregnancy was 32% (95% CI = –43% to 68%) and 80% (95% CI = 55% to 91%), respectively. Completion of a 2-dose mRNA COVID-19 vaccination series during pregnancy might help prevent COVID-19 hospitalization among infants aged <6 months.  
The Effectiveness of Vaccination Against Long COVID: A Rapid Evidence Briefing (UK Health Security Agency) Six of the 8 studies assessing the effectiveness of vaccination before COVID-19 infection suggested that vaccinated cases (1 or 2 doses) were less likely to develop symptoms of long COVID following infection, in the short term (4 weeks after infection), medium term (12 to 20 weeks after infection) and long term (6 months after infection). As all 8 studies included only participants who had COVID-19, the effect of vaccination on reduced incidence of COVID-19 is not accounted for. This means these studies do not give a total population estimate for the effectiveness of vaccines to prevent long COVID, but rather underestimate it.

Public & Global Health
U.S. ‘Excess Deaths’ During Pandemic Surpassed 1 Million, With Covid Killing Most but Other Diseases Adding to the Toll, CDC Says (The Washington Post) The United States has recorded more than 1 million “excess deaths” since the start of the pandemic, government mortality statistics show, a toll that exceeds the officially documented lethality of the coronavirus and captures the broad consequences of the health crisis that has entered its third year. The excess-deaths figure surpassed the milestone last week, reaching 1,023,916, according to Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The center updates its estimate weekly.
Hong Kong Can’t Live With the Virus. It Can’t Stop It, Either. (New York Times) As Hong Kong sinks under its worst wave yet of the coronavirus, overwhelmed hospitals have left patients waiting on sidewalks. People have stood in testing lines that wind across parks and soccer fields. Cases are still growing exponentially, as officials opt for targeted lockdowns rather than a citywide one. Researchers have warned that by summer the latest wave could kill nearly 1,000 people — more than four times the number that have died of Covid in Hong Kong over the past two years. The city’s flailing response has exposed a crucial weakness in its ability to handle the coronavirus.

Science & Technology
WHO Prequalifies Roche’s Tocilizumab As Its First Monoclonal Antibody Treatment for COVID-19 (Homeland Preparedness News) While monoclonal antibodies have made headway in some countries more than others, the World Health Organization (WHO), for the first time last week, offered prequalification to Roche’s tocilizumab treatment, smoothing the path to more widespread approval. Prequalification guarantees that the treatment was pre-assessed for quality, safety, and efficacy by global experts, allowing many low and middle-income countries greater peace of mind when considering approval and purchase. The designation is used for medicines, vaccines, diagnostics, and other critical health products, and some organizations will only purchase health items that have earned prequalification. Tocilizumab, specifically, works by blocking the Interleukin-6 receptor within SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. That receptor is often found in high levels among critically ill COVID-19 patients, creating an inflammatory response. More traditionally, it has also been used as an arthritis treatment.
Coronaviruses are ‘Clever’: Evolutionary Scenarios for the Future of SARS-CoV-2(STAT News) In the ongoing struggle of SARS-CoV-2’s genes versus our wits, the virus that causes Covid-19 relentlessly probes human defenses with new genetic gambits. New variants of this coronavirus with increasing transmissibility have sprung up every few months, a scenario that is likely to continue.

Biological Agents & Infectious Diseases
H5N6 Avian Flu Infects 2 More People in China (Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection) We are closely monitoring two human cases of avian influenza A(H5N6) in the Mainland, and again urged the public to maintain strict personal, food and environmental hygiene both locally and during travel.  The first case involves a 50-year-old man living in Baise City in Guangxi, who had exposure to live poultry. He developed symptoms on January 12, and was admitted for treatment on January 13. The patient is in critical condition. The second case involves a 35-year-old man living in Zhenjiang City in Jiangsu Province, who had visited live poultry market before onset. He developed symptoms on January 15, and was admitted for treatment on January 19. The patient is in critical condition.

Domestic Preparedness & Response
Biden HHS Estimates $30B Needed in New Covid Aid (Politico) The Biden health department needs at least $30 billion to keep its wide-ranging Covid-19 response work going, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told congressional appropriators in charge of crafting a supplemental pandemic funding package on Tuesday. The request comes amid Biden officials’ warnings that the administration is running low on money for its domestic Covid-19 response, following three months spent battling the Omicron variant that drove cases and hospitalizations to record levels. Other agencies are expected to make additional funding asks beyond the $30 billion. While the administration anticipates it has enough vaccines and therapeutics to ride out the surge, three people with knowledge of the matter said the government doesn’t currently have enough money to respond if another dangerous variant emerges.

Government Affairs & National Security
Senate Confirms Califf as FDA Chief in Tight Vote (New York Times) The Senate on Tuesday narrowly confirmed Dr. Robert Califf as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, a key federal agency that has been without a permanent chief for more than a yearlong stretch of the coronavirus pandemic.The vote was 50-to-46, with six Republicans crossing the aisle to support him while five senators who caucus with Democrats opposed him. One senator voted present. Dr. Califf, who is 70, is expected to be sworn in this week. He faces a looming flurry of decisions — including intense scrutiny of a coronavirus vaccine for children under 5 and reviews of e-cigarette applications like Juul’s bid to stay on the market.

Global Health Security
Why This USAID Official is Optimistic the U.S. Can Get the World Vaccinated(NPR) Just over 61% of the world’s population has gotten one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. That number plummets to about 10% in low-income countries. That disparity has led to criticism of the world vaccination effort as inadequate and not responsive to the needs of lower-resource nations. Jeremy Konyndyk, executive director of the COVID task force for the U.S. Agency for International Development, has an optimistic perspective. He talks to NPR about his perception of the campaign to bring vaccines to countries that are currently lagging behind.

Medicine & Public Health
A Woman Is Cured of H.I.V. Using a Novel Treatment(New York Times) A woman of mixed race appears to be the third person ever to be cured of H.I.V., using a new transplant method involving umbilical cord blood that opens up the possibility of curing more people of diverse racial backgrounds than was previously possible, scientists announced on Tuesday. Cord blood is more widely available than the adult stem cells used in the bone marrow transplants that cured the previous two patients, and it does not need to be matched as closely to the recipient. Most donors in registries are of Caucasian origin, so allowing for only a partial match has the potential to cure dozens of Americans who have both H.I.V. and cancer each year, scientists said. 

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