February 16, 2022

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

Let’s take good news where we can find it, even if it is only the third time a person is known to have been “cured” of HIV. The New York Times reports the announcement that came at the International Antiviral Society conference going on this week in Denver.

Antiviral drugs now control HIV for the 38 million people living with the virus. But a cure, until now, has been more hope than reality.

This new case is noteworthy not just because it is a possible new cure, but because the patient is a mixed-race woman. Here is what we know based on the researcher’s report:

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 typically used in bone marrow transplants, and 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.

The woman, who also had leukemia, received cord blood to treat her cancer. It came from a partially matched donor, instead of the typical practice of finding a bone marrow donor of similar race and ethnicity to the patient’s. She also received blood from a close relative to give her body temporary immune defenses while the transplant took.

It would be a mistake to overstate the importance of a third “cure” but we get closer to a conclusive treatment each time researchers find a way to combat the virus. The first “cured” HIV patient was, for years, referred to as “The Berlin Patient,” later known by his real name, Timothy Ray Brown. He was infected with HIV but then “cured” and declared virus free for a dozen years before dying of cancer. Brown, and then a second patient, were treated with a bone marrow transplant carefully procured from a person who carried a genetic mutation (called CCR5 Delta 32 on the CD4 cells) that is thought to block HIV. Brown wrote his own story in this paper:

CCR5 is a protein on the surface of the CD4 cell that acts as doorway for the HIV virus to enter into the cell. Take away this entryway and CD4 cells will not be infected, and the person will not get HIV. Dr. Gero Huetter’s team found a donor with this mutation on the 61st attempt.

Brown wrote that three months after the bone marrow transplant, there was no indication of HIV in his body.

There are several promising — or at least encouraging — drug trials underway to find multiple avenues toward HIV cures. One of the leading candidates is from Moderna, the company that developed one of the COVID-19 vaccines. In the last few weeks, Moderna began testing its new mRNA HIV vaccine.

WebMD says:

The first vaccinations were given at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC, the company said in a news release. Phase I trials will also be run at the Hope Clinic of Emory Vaccine Center in Atlanta, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

As we have learned from COVID-19, one of the challenges presented by HIV is that, like SARS-CoV-2, the virus has the ability to morph and change, which makes it a moving target.

CDC: getting vaccinated during pregnancy provides infant protection

A health worker administers the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a pregnant woman in Montevideo, Uruguay, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says new data adds more evidence that vaccinated pregnant women pass enough COVID-19 protection to their babies that it significantly reduces the threat of serious COVID-19 infection in newborns. The study ran from July 1, 2021, through Jan. 17, 2022, among 483 eligible infants in 20 pediatric hospitals in 17 states, so the timing falls during the rise of the omicron variant.

Dr. Dana Meaney-Delman, chief of the CDC’s infant outcomes monitoring research and prevention branch, released details of a new study. “Most concerning, (researchers) found that among babies with Covid-19, who were admitted to the ICU, the sickest babies, 88% were born to mothers who were not vaccinated before or during pregnancy, and the one baby who died in the study was born to a mother who was not vaccinated,” Meaney-Delman said.

The study focused on mothers who got two doses of the COVID-19 vaccines from Modern and Pfizer/BioNTech. Keep in mind, serious COVID-19 infection rates for newborns are already low, but the babies born to vaccinated mothers had a 60% reduced risk of being hospitalized with COVID-19 during the baby’s first six months. 

The CDC issued this alert:


Gov’t won’t say how much those ‘free’ COVID-19 tests cost

We all know that when President Joe Biden promised free COVID-19 tests that they were not really “free” in that somehow, someway, we all would pay for them. But even as the tests land in mailboxes, the government will not say how much it is paying for them.

There is no doubt this should be public information. As Kaiser Health News points out:

U.S. contracts valued at $10,000 or more are required to be routinely posted to sam.gov or the Federal Procurement Data System, known as fpds.gov. But none of the three new rapid-test contracts — awarded to iHealth Labs of California, Roche Diagnostics Corp. of Indiana, and Abbott Rapid Dx North America of Florida — could be found in the online databases.

About a month ago, we learned that three companies got $2 billion worth of contracts to produce and deliver 380 million rapid tests by mid-March. An announcement said that the government would pay iHealth Labs $1.275 billion, Roche Diagnostics $340 million and Abbott Rapid Dx North America $306 million. But the announcement did not say how many tests each purchase would buy.

So we do not know how much taxpayers are paying per test.

The cost — and, more importantly, the rate per test — would help demonstrate who is getting the best deal for protection in these covid times: the consumer or the corporation.

The reluctance to share pricing details flies against basic notions of cost control and accountability — and that’s just quoting from a long-held position by the Justice Department.

“The prices in government contracts should not be secret,” according to its website.

“Government contracts are ‘public contracts,’ and the taxpayers have a right to know — with very few exceptions —what the government has agreed to buy and at what prices.”

Kaiser’s Christine Spolar explains the runaround that the feds have used to keep from providing what should be fairly simple answers about how much taxpayers paid for the “free” tests.

Encouraging new data about long-COVID among children

Now that we have a couple of years’ worth of data to rely on, it appears that so-called long-COVID in children — meaning severe symptoms that last a long time — are extremely rare. Stat walks us through the concerns and emerging answers that should ease parents’ concerns:

At the beginning of the pandemic, worries about long Covid in kids were not unreasonable. Initial reports suggested that some children with Covid-19 had symptoms like fatigue, cough, or problems sleeping that lasted for more than a few weeks. These wide-ranging symptoms, collectively termed long Covid, were reported as occurring in anywhere from 0% to 80% of children, and they could last for days or weeks.

But now we have new data:

These studies indicate that long Covid in children is rare and, when it does occur, is short-lived. In one study, 97% of children ages 5 to 11 with Covid-19 recovered completely within four weeks. In the small group that had bothersome symptoms after four weeks (usually loss of smell or fatigue), most had fully recovered by eight weeks.

In two other studies that included scientific controls, the rates of long Covid symptoms were nearly the same in children who had tested positive for Covid-19 compared to those who didn’t. In other words, other factors were to blame in many or most of these cases.

Symptoms have lasted longer in a very small number of children. And these studies should not be used to minimize the importance of vaccinating children.

NOAA predicts 1-foot sea level rise within 30 years

Flood waters cover the street, sidewalks and lawns of a neighborhood in Ocean City, N.J. on Oct. 30, 2020. The city is dealing with the costs of rising sea levels, both in monetary terms and in the disruption that recurring flooding brings. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Let’s say you bought a lovely coastal condo this year and got a 30-year mortgage. Before that mortgage is paid off, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, sea levels will have risen so much that there will be widespread flooding.

The NOAA report says:

The Sea Level Rise Technical Report provides the most up-to-date sea level rise projections for all U.S. states and territories by decade for the next 100 years and beyond.

The report updates the federal government’s 2017 sea level rise projections, and provides additional information on tide, wind, and storm-driven extreme water levels affecting current and future coastal flood risk. A suite of federal tools are using this data, including the NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer, which are critical to the Administration’s commitment to tackle the climate crisis by making actionable climate data accessible to those who need it.

Sea level along the U.S. coastline is projected to rise, on average, 10 – 12 inches (0.25 – 0.30 meters) in the next 30 years (2020 – 2050), which will be as much as the rise measured over the last 100 years (1920 – 2020). Sea level rise will vary regionally along U.S. coasts because of changes in both land and ocean height.

Sea level rise will create a profound shift in coastal flooding over the next 30 years by causing tide and storm surge heights to increase and reach further inland. By 2050, “moderate” (typically damaging) flooding is expected to occur, on average, more than 10 times as often as it does today, and can be intensified by local factors.

“Major” (often destructive) flooding is expected to occur five times as often in 2050 (0.2 events/year) as it does today (0.04 events/year).

You can get very local sea-level rise data from NOAA by going here. The website has data from 850 coastal communities and 37 states.


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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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