Silver Bullet Aug 6 - Faith and vaccine hesitancy, time to mask up again, employer vaccine mandates
A weekly update on all things COVID-19. News, public health guidance, trends, breakthroughs, and thousands of scientific papers distilled down to what you need to know right now.
Research suggests faith leaders can help religious people overcome Covid vaccine objections
While political objections are strongly correlated to vaccine hesitancy and refusal, new evidence is suggesting that moral discomfort with scientific advances may be the root cause
As Covid-19 cases continue to rise across the United States, the nation’s public health officials are turning their attention to understanding the motivations of unvaccinated people, the group most likely to be hospitalized. Researchers are also trying to parse out the differences between potentially persuadable hesitaters and those who strongly refuse to get vaccinated against the new coronavirus.
Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) released a new survey breaking down vaccine hesitancy by religious affiliation. The survey expands on findings from March 2021, and it shows that vaccine hesitancy has decreased across all religious and demographic groups but with some groups having very different opinions on average from others. Jewish Americans, white Catholics, and white mainline Protestants ranked high for vaccine acceptance while white evangelical Protestants and Hispanic Protestants had the lowest rates.
In an interview, Natalie Jackson, director of research at PRRI, said that the June survey in general showed the same associations as the previous one, but with a few differences.
“White evangelical Protestants and Hispanic Protestants are still lagging behind — although both made significant gains in vaccine acceptance — but white evangelicals are still more likely to be refusers than Hispanic Protestants. For white evangelical Protestants, it does seem that the same forces are in play, including politics, news, and their own leaders, as we’ve all seen media stories highlighting prominent evangelicals opposing the vaccines.”
While religious beliefs of some groups have some correlation with vaccine skepticism, it’s important to note that many more fundamentalist-leaning Christians do seem to broadly accept how science can be used to understand the world. According to John H. Evans, a sociologist at the University of California–San Diego who specializes in bioethics, it’s a myth that religious people, particularly conservative Protestants, entirely reject the scientific method. Read more at Flux…
CDC updates mask guidance in response to Delta surge
Previously, the CDC had said that people who are fully vaccinated need not wear a mask, as they were unlikely to become infected, and, in the rare event of infection, were unlikely to transmit the virus. New data, however, prompted the CDC to change its recommendations. In CDC documents shared by the Washington Post, the agency says that preliminary data (not published or peer reviewed) from an outbreak in Massachusetts showed no difference in cycle threshold values between vaccinated and unvaccinated cases, meaning that the vaccinated breakthrough cases had similar amounts of virus in their samples as unvaccinated cases. The document includes a slide mapping the Delta variant on a graph with other viruses, showing it as more transmissible than MERS and SARS, Ebola, the common cold, seasonal flu, Spanish flu, and smallpox, and on par with chicken pox. (It is, however, less deadly than everything except seasonal flu, the common cold, and chicken pox.) The CDC concludes, “given higher transmissibility and current vaccine coverage, universal masking is essential to reduce transmission of the Delta variant.”
Justice Department says employers can mandate vaccinations
A cavalcade of major national employers have recently announced new Covid vaccine requirements for employees. Those include Walmart, The Walt Disney Company, Google, Facebook, Tyson Foods, and Uber. As well, major hospital systems, like Kaiser Permanente, Spectrum Health, and Ascension, more than 500 universities, including the University of Michigan and the University of California system, and many state governments, such as North Carolina, New York, and California, are requiring vaccinations. Overall, up to 7 million workers are now required to show proof of vaccination, according to The New York Times. Many workers have protested that these mandates violate the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because the vaccines are only approved for emergency use. The Justice Department addressed that objection in a legal opinion, stating that the law only requires that individuals be informed of their “option to accept or refuse administration” of an emergency use vaccine or drug, but does not prohibit employers from requiring it as a condition of employment.
Delta viral loads up to 1000 times higher
A study published as a preprint on MedRxiv finds that the viral load for the initial positive tests for infection with the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is 1260 times higher compared with the original strain of the virus. The PCR cycle threshold value for Delta was 24 compared with 34 for the earlier strain. For PCR tests, the lower the number for cycle threshold value, the greater the amount of viral genetic material in the sample. There was also a shorter time from exposure to first positive test: 4 days compared to 6. This points to a faster replication rate for the virus, a reduced incubation period, and potentially much greater viral shedding from an infected person. The study was carried out in 62 individuals and their close contacts who were infected in a Delta outbreak in Guangzhou between May 21 and June 18.
FDA aims for Labor Day approval of Pfizer shot
The FDA hopes to give full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by Labor Day, The New York Times reports. The vaccine is currently being distributed under an Emergency Use Authorization. That means that the preliminary safety and efficacy results were strong enough and the need great enough to justify widespread use before complete results and analysis from Phase 3 trials were available. The companies submitted their application for approval, with full clinical trial results, in May, and the agency granted priority review with January 2022 as a target date for a decision. The FDA said it is taking an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to reviewing the application. It is widely believed that full FDA approval will ease some concerns contributing to vaccine hesitancy.
‘Vaccine passports’ coming to NYC
New York city will be the first US city to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination to patronize restaurants and gyms. The policy will be enforced beginning Sept. 13. Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “This is a miraculous place literally full of wonders. If you’re vaccinated, all that’s going to open up to you. But if you’re unvaccinated, unfortunately you will not be able to participate in many things.” (Via NYT)
CDC: JnJ vaccine benefits outweigh risks
The CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices said that the benefits of the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine outweigh the risks, after determining a slight increased risk of Guillain-Barré Syndrome in people who have received the shot. There have been 8.1 cases of GBS for every million doses administered, compared to a background rate of 1.6 cases per million in the general population. They said the shot generates a strong immune response with antibodies that last at least eight months. Most cases of GBS following vaccination have been among men, with an average age of 57, and an average onset 14 days after vaccination. It is estimated that for every million doses of vaccine given to people over 50, about 20,500 hospitalizations and 2500 deaths are prevented.
Long Covid is a disability under the ADA
The Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance explicitly defining long Covid as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities ACT (ADA), because it limits one or more major life activities, and because it is a “physical or mental impairment.” People who are disabled by long Covid are entitled to the same protections from discrimination as any other person with a disability under the ADA. Businesses or governments are obligated to accommodate limitations related to long Covid. Those accommodations may include things like allowing additional time for a student to take a test, or providing assistance to a customer who needs to sit down.
The nose knows
One of the puzzling aspects of COVID-19 is that it often causes only mild disease, while some people are inexplicably stricken with a more severe illness. A new study in Cell points the the nose as a pivotal player in the outcome of the infection. In the study, swabs from 58 patients during the early stages of COVID-19. In those with mild and moderate illness, the cells lining the inside of the nasal passages expressed high levels of anti-viral genes and those with severe illness had much weaker expression of anti-viral genes in the nose. That may have theoretically given the virus more of a foothold to wreak havoc in the lungs and other parts of the body.
Other science news
DeepMind AI solves structures of 350,000 proteins
DeepMind Technologies, the artificial intelligence subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. (the parent company of Google), said it calculated the three-dimensional structure of 350,000 proteins and will release them free to the public. The group of proteins include most of the proteins in the human body. Protein structures are important for understanding their function and role in the body. The linear amino acid sequences for proteins are readily available using simple laboratory methods. However, three-dimensional structures are highly complex. Scientists have historically used labor intensive methods like X-ray crystallography and computer modeling using protein folding algorithms, but those methods are slow, and solving a single protein structure could be the work of many years. Now, using an artificial intelligence tool called AlphaFold, DeepMind has unlocked thousands of protein structures at once, potentially opening the floodgates for major breakthroughs in biology and medicine. DeepMind says it has plans to release structures for 100 million more proteins in the next few months—or nearly all proteins known to science.