Listen

Richard Harris

Government officials are trying to figure out how to make better use of drugs that can keep people with COVID-19 out of the hospital. That's an urgent but daunting challenge in Michigan, where hospitals are struggling to keep up with a surge in new cases.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Researchers are reporting some progress in their search for drugs that tamp down the overwhelming immune reaction that can kill a patient with COVID-19.

These reactions are triggered by coronavirus infections and can veer out of control in some people. It's this reaction, rather than the virus itself, that is the real peril for people seriously ill with COVID-19.

A medical team in New York City says it has performed the first complete surgical transplant of a windpipe.

The trachea is basically a tube that transports air to and from the lungs, so you might think it would be easy to transplant. But not so. In fact, trachea transplants have been one of the last big challenges in this area of medicine.

A 56-year-old woman from the Bronx, New York, named Sonia Sein is the recipient. She ended up in the hospital six years ago after a particularly nasty asthma attack. To help her breathe, she says, doctors inserted a tube down her throat.

Doctors treating COVID-19 patients early in the pandemic often reached for antibiotics. But those drugs were not helpful in most cases, and overuse of antibiotics is a serious concern.

More than half a million Americans have received an experimental treatment for COVID-19 called convalescent plasma. But a year into the pandemic, it's not clear who, if anyone, benefits from it.

That uncertainty highlights the challenges scientists have faced in their attempts to evaluate COVID-19 drugs.

On paper, treatment with convalescent plasma makes good sense. The idea is to take blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 and infuse it into patients with active infections. The antibodies in the donated plasma, in theory, would help fight the virus.

Public health officials say it's important to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible to reduce the risk posed by new coronavirus variants. One strategy to stretch existing supplies – albeit with huge logistical challenges — would be to give just one dose of the vaccine to people who have recovered from COVID-19.

About half a dozen small studies, all consistent with one another but as yet unpublished, suggest this strategy could work.

Though attention has understandably been on COVID-19 over the last year, nearly as many people in the hospital have died with a different condition: sepsis. A study now casts doubt on a once-promising treatment for this disease.

In 2017, scientists thought they had found a remarkable advance. A researcher in Norfolk, Va., reported that a treatment involving intravenous vitamin C, thiamine, and steroids sharply reduced the risk of death in his sepsis patients.

Tens of thousands of people who volunteered to be in studies of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are still participating in follow-up research. But some key questions won't be easily answered, because many people who had been in the placebo group have now opted to take the vaccine.

Even so, there's valuable information to be had in the planned two-year follow-up studies. And that motivated Karen Mott, a 56-year-old job counselor who stuck with the continuing study.

Loading...

What will it take to finally halt the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S.? To answer that question we've created a simulation of a mock disease we're calling SIMVID-19.

Mutations in the new coronavirus could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines against it. But vaccines themselves can also drive viral mutations, depending on exactly how the shots are deployed and how effective they are.

So far, vaccines still appear to work against the new strains – though scientists are warily watching a variant that first appeared in South Africa since it seems to reduce vaccine effectiveness. And evolution isn't standing still, so scientists realize they may need to update vaccines to keep them working reliably.

Drugs to treat COVID-19 are being fast-tracked for development, but the pace can't match the astonishing speed that gave birth to the vaccines.

But one year into the pandemic, there has been strong progress toward effective drug treatments, and the groundwork has been laid for drugs to kill the virus and arrest disease.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, three big questions loom. First, can someone who has been vaccinated still spread the disease? Second, will the vaccine remain effective as the virus itself evolves? And third, how long will the vaccine's protection last?

Answers to these questions lie in our immune systems. And the answers aren't straightforward because our immune systems are both remarkably adept and remarkably challenging to predict.

Monoclonal antibody drugs are supposed to help people with mild to moderate COVID-19 avoid the hospital, but it can be a challenge to find out where the treatment is offered. NPR has heard from people across the country who have been frustrated by this.

They include Shirley Wagoner, an 80-year-old who still hits the ski slopes and helps run the family plumbing business in Spokane Valley, Wash.

First, her sons fell ill and were diagnosed with COVID-19. Then on the Monday after Christmas she came down with the symptoms of a bad cold, including a sore throat and laryngitis.

Many doses of the monoclonal antibody drugs that treat mild to moderate COVID-19 are sitting unused around the country. There are logistical problems with providing these drugs and skepticism over whether they work. But two major health systems have had good success in deploying these medications, and they're reporting hopeful results.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Federal officials are disappointed to find that the monoclonal antibody drugs they've shipped across the country aren't being used rapidly.

These drugs are designed to prevent people recently diagnosed with COVID-19 from ending up in the hospital. But hospitals are finding it cumbersome to use these medicines, which must be given by IV infusion. And some patients and doctors are lukewarm about drugs that have an uncertain benefit.

The common fingertip devices that measures oxygen in the blood can sometimes give misleading readings in people with dark skin, according to a report Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine.

These devices, called pulse oximeters, are increasingly finding their way into people's homes, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, this is not just a concern for medical personnel using professional-grade devices.

The biotech company Moderna released new data Monday morning that strengthens the case for its COVID-19 vaccine. It concludes the vaccine is 94% effective — and strongly protects against serious illness. Based on these latest findings, the company plans to submit an application for emergency use authorization to the Food and Drug Administration today.

Eli Lilly has struck a deal with the federal government to provide 300,000 doses of a drug that's designed to keep people infected with COVID-19 out of the hospital. The cost per dose: $1,250.

The federal government plans to distribute the 300,000 doses at no cost, but that doesn't mean treatment will be free.

The Food and Drug Administration is evaluating two potential drugs that could help keep people healthy after they've been infected with the coronavirus.

So far, there's no clear system to make sure they would be allocated fairly or how to pay for these expensive drugs over the long haul.

"Demand is going to far outstrip supply here," says Rena Conti at Boston University's Questrom School of Business.

Pfizer, the apparent front-runner in developing a COVID-19 vaccine for the United States, says its results won't be ready until mid-November at the earliest. That dims any lingering expectation that there could be a vaccine by Election Day, as President Trump has asserted.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

If you think all the coronavirus news is bad, consider the uplifting story of Don Ramsayer.

The 59-year-old man from Cumming, Ga., is living evidence that doctors in intensive care units quickly figured out how to help more patients survive.

In early August, Ramsayer was helping his son pack up the car for his freshman year at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. Ramsayer had been having night sweats and wasn't feeling that well, but he tried to play it down.

If the coronavirus vaccines currently being tested don't pan out, don't expect new drugs to fill the gap any time soon.

Many drugs are in the works, and those that succeed could play a role in reducing symptoms and sometimes saving lives. But, given the way drugs are developed, it's unlikely that any single medicine will be anywhere as potent against the coronavirus as a successful vaccine.

Three new studies strongly support using inexpensive and widely available drugs to treat people who are seriously ill with COVID-19. The drugs are steroids, and the research published Wednesday confirms they are proving to be the most effective treatment found to date.

Updated Thursday at 4:55 p.m. ET

The Trump administration has stirred confusion and concern by rewriting its guidelines for coronavirus testing. Public health experts fear the revised guidelines will lead to less testing – something the president has repeatedly asked for — but the administration denies that.

Updated 4:35 p.m. ET

The Food and Drug Administration's chief has undercut the agency's assertion that it is basing its decisions on science, not politics.

At a White House event Sunday with President Trump, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn used a deeply misleading statistic to claim that a treatment the agency had just authorized for treating the coronavirus would save 35 lives out of every 100 people who get the treatment.

If you're bitten or scratched by an animal with rabies, your doctor can give you a shot to prevent the virus from taking hold in you and causing an infection. The same concept is now being put to the test for the coronavirus.

So many people are counting on a vaccine to help end the coronavirus pandemic that any hint of bad news gets a lot of attention. That's proving to be the case for a series of studies examining how long antibodies persist in people who have been infected with the coronavirus.

Pages