Slow down with the vaccine optimism. We have a long way to go.

Why we haven't hit a 'eureka' moment, how Moderna's vaccine works, why we haven't seen proof and which other companies are working on vaccines.

May 19, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Headlines about the pharmaceutical company Moderna getting “promising” early results on an experimental vaccine called mRNA-1273 sparked both a stock market surge and fresh optimism that we are closer to a COVID-19 vaccine.

Hold your horses, friends.

Why is there optimism?

The optimism is based on vaccines given to 45 participants back in March. The participants each got two doses but were given different levels of dosages.

Not all of the patient tests have been reported yet, but of those that have been, all showed a level response called “binding antibodies,” which means they developed some level of physical response to the virus. Binding antibodies do not prevent infections.

The good news lies in the fact that eight of the subjects showed “neutralizing antibodies,” which could offer a level of immunity. Neutralizing antibodies not only to bind to a virus, they bind in a manner that blocks infection.

Keep in mind that just eight of the 45 test subjects showed this level of response. That does not mean the vaccine does or does not work. It means that Moderna was able to produce a vaccine that elicited a human response that was similar to the response from people who got sick from COVID-19 and recovered and, in some cases, the response that the researchers produced was even greater than what some recovered patients produced.

That greater response is what researchers need to be more confident that they have produced some level of immunity, and not just a treatment.

Why isn’t this a ‘eureka’ moment?

Keep in mind that no mRNA vaccine has been approved for use on humans. And as National Geographic pointed out, Moderna’s news is encouraging, but there is this:

But while public officials and news reports were quick to cite this as a record-breaking development, the biotechnology underlying this drug has existed for nearly 30 years, and it has never yielded a working vaccine for any human disease.

In fact, experience shows that some vaccine trials move along with some promise only to eventually show they actually enhance the disease.

How does it work?

The National Institutes of Health said, “The investigational vaccine, mRNA-1273, directs the body’s cells to express a virus protein that it is hoped will elicit a robust immune response. The mRNA-1273 vaccine has shown promise in animal models, and this is the first trial to examine it in humans.”

So, where is the proof?

Moderna has not published the results of its trial, but it has turned them over to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which does not comment on trials in progress.

The next round of tests will involve 600 people. The phase two trial will determine if the results from the tiny trial can be replicated and if there are any adverse effects. Then a phase three round of tests will determine if the drug actually works as intended.

If all goes as planned, phase three could begin in the summer of this year.

How many others are working on vaccines?

NIH said Moderna got a headstart on this project because of its work developing vaccines for the MERS and SARS viruses, which are also coronaviruses. Scientists were able to adapt to the COVID-19 virus using techniques similar to what they used for the previous epidemics.

Kaiser Health News pointed out the vaccine development business is fraught with perils:

“Because vaccines are largely unattractive financially, we’ve dismantled a lot of capabilities to develop them,” said (Michael Kinch, head of the Centers for Research Innovation in Biotechnology at Washington University in St. Louis). “If you look at the net number of vaccine-preventable infections, it actually hasn’t changed in about 20 years.”

Recent vaccine successes include treatments against human papillomavirus and Ebola and a new vaccine for shingles. But today only four companies make vaccines for the U.S. market, said (Dr. Paul Offit, co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine). That’s down from 27 in the 1950s and 18 in 1980, he said.

“Vaccines are something you give once or a few times in a lifetime,” he said. “They are never going to be blockbusters.”

Drug companies invested in potential vaccines against Ebola, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), Zika and other infections in recent years only to lose money when concerns over the diseases faded.

Moderna stock has been riding a wave recently as journalists have reported the positive news from the earliest phases of COVID-19 trials.

After the stock market closed Monday, Modera announced that it plans to sell $1.25 billion in new stock shares to fund and distribute mRNA-1273 if it makes it through the next two drug trials, which as I have explained is a big “if.” The drug company saw its stock go up 20% in one day based on the very limited trials, for which, I will repeat, the results have not yet been published.

Drug companies are touting their vaccine research as a way to overcome their dismal public standing because of scandals involving pharmaceutical pricing and overmarketing of opioids.

Kaiser Health News reported:

Their star turn comes after what critics say have been decades of underinvestment in vaccines and medicines for the most common viral diseases in favor of more lucrative drugs that are less important to public health. The industry is talking about serving the public good while setting itself up for profits, downplaying the government’s role as a research partner and exaggerating prospects for victory, they say.

Vending machines are finding COVID-19 opportunities

At the Las Vegas airport, you can stop by a vending machine and buy personal protective equipment.

(Screenshot, Facebook)

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported:

Prices vary from $4.25 to $6.50 for various hand sanitizer options, while reusable cloth masks for both adults and children are $14.50, a three-pack of disposable masks runs $7.50, and a KN95 disposable mask is $8.25.

Several international vending companies are turning snack machines into COVID-19 service machines — offering gloves, masks and other protective stuff instead of chips and candy. They anticipate a robust demand in train and subway stations.

Vending machine companies are finding all sorts of ways to cash in on the social distancing trends that urge us to buy stuff without coming into contact with other people.

We now have protective glove vending machines. Vendors are marketing temperature-check kiosks. Fox10 Phoenix reported on a pharmacy vending machine that dispenses medications through telemedicine.

VendingTimes, a website that tracks the vending industry, said one of the big trends is “contactless” machines that allow you to select an item by just pointing to a button, not touching it.

In the last year, I have become fascinated by the so-called “honor markets” that a number of media organizations — including Spectrum stations, Voice of America and Weather.com — have installed. I loved being able to zip into those markets between classes and grab an item, scan it and pay online. These honor markets are now becoming much more widespread. And it turns out that so far, the markets are experiencing very little loss, from about 5% to as low as 2% is common.

It will be interesting to see how honest people are when they are hungry and strapped for money.

What can U.S. universities learn from Canada?

While most U.S. universities head toward the fall semester determined to have some version of in-person classes, prominent Canadian universities are unlike the many U.S. schools waiting until the last hour to make decisions about whether to take classes online.

McGill University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa all announced they will be offering classes online this fall. Other big Canadian universities are telling me that they will announce similar plans soon. All are leaning toward all-virtual or a mixture of virtual and minimum in-person teaching.

“In Montreal, students at McGill will see classes delivered largely through remote platforms, while the French-language Universite de Montreal said only a few courses or parts of courses will take place on campus,” CTV reported. “Concordia said it is still finalizing its plans for the fall.”

Academia.ca is keeping a running list of Canadian schools’ plans. You can’t help but be struck by how differently those schools are thinking about the fall semester compared to the small number of U.S. universities and colleges that are planning to take classes virtual in the fall.

There could be a lot of reasons Canadians are out front on this. For one thing, their funding model is different, far more reliant on provincial budgets than on tuition. Depending on the province you’re in, the average tuition for Canadian students ranges from $6,653 (Ontario) to $2,172 (Newfoundland and Labrador).

The connection between college athletics and fall semester COVID-19 decisions

One of the 10,000 worries that school administrators have about whether to go virtual this fall is what happens to the school’s direct and indirect income from college athletics.

Connecting this story pitch with the one above it, Canadian schools rely less on mega college sports events that pump billions into U.S. schools and the surrounding economies. The average Canadian sports scholarship is comparatively small at $1,060. In the U.S., it can go upwards of $50,000 a year.

The Chronicle of Higher Education said there is a direct link between school athletics and alumni giving.

A canceled football season probably won’t directly affect enrollment, but it could have an impact on alumni giving.

However, athletic events such as homecoming can play a role in enticing alumni to give back to alma mater by making them feel connected to the campus, said Steven Rackley, a professor in Rice University’s department of sport management.

A canceled football season will give institutions fewer opportunities to host events that encourage giving, but institutional giving will go on regardless. “It’s not the case that if we don’t have football there won’t be any fundraising done at the university,” said Trevon Logan, an economics professor at Ohio State University.

Make no mistake that schools consider the loss of revenue — in addition to student and staff safety and quality of learning — when they make decisions about whether to welcome students back in the fall.

In cities like Madison, Wisconsin; Athens, Georgia; and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the whole town’s economy turns on blowout attendance for rival home games.

The Chronicle of Higher Education documented:

In Clemson, South Carolina, local businesses depend on the thousands of fans who fill the stands at Clemson University’s fall football games.”

On the weekend of a Tigers football game, the nearly 950 hotel rooms in Clemson are always filled to capacity. Multiplied out across the town’s economy, a football game brings an estimated $2 million to $2.5 million into the town of Clemson alone, said Susan Cohen, president of the Clemson Area Chamber of Commerce.

At the University of Alabama’s flagship campus, a football weekend can bring in more than $20 million to the Tuscaloosa area. A championship or rivalry game might draw $25 million, said Jim Page, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama.

What does a contortionist/acrobat/stilt walker do when COVID-19 closes the show?

I suppose a contortionist could transform into a politician, but what do you do if you have, until now, made your living as a stilt walker or a trapeze flier? That is what was going through my mind when I read this New York Times piece on Cirque du Soleil performers who have no place to perform.

And there are big questions about if the performances will ever come back.

What other jobs could you think of close to you that are similar? I started thinking about jobs that require a physical presence that the pandemic is disrupting in huge ways.

Orchestra musicians.

Newspaper delivery drivers, especially those who only deliver a physical paper a few days a week now.

What does a comedian do when there are no comedy club gigs?

Delta Air Lines said it will have twice as many jet pilots than it will need later this year.

The way we live now

Here in Florida, where I live, gyms have just reopened. I was struck by this image from the fitness club Pure Fitness, which installed walls between each machine at its clubs in Japan. Think of all of the political and sports blathering nonsense these walls may allow us to avoid.

(Screenshot, Instagram)

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.