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Health

Vermont relaxes COVID-19 restrictions after crossing major vaccine milestone

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(New York) -- Vermont crossed a major vaccine milestone Monday as more than 80% of the state's eligible population has at least one shot, according to state health department data.

As of Monday afternoon, over 444,000 Vermont residents over the age of 12 have received at least one vaccine dose, the Vermont Department of Health said. Vermont is the first state to cross this threshold, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gov. Phil Scott celebrated the occasion by bringing the Green Mountain State one step closer to its pre-pandemic life. He signed an order that removed the mandate for masks, social distancing and capacity limits for indoor places.

"Our work continues, but Vermonters can be proud of what they've done," Scott tweeted.

Vermont businesses can still issue COVID-19 related restrictions without any penalty from the state if they wish to do so, according to the governor's order.

More than 390,000 residents, roughly 70% of the population, are fully vaccinated, according to the Vermont Health Department.

As of Monday, the national average for vaccinations among Americans 12 and up is 61.4% with at least one dose and 51.1% with both doses, according to the CDC. Seven other states have over 70% of their population above the age of 12 with at least one dose, according to the CDC.

Health experts and the governor credited the high vaccination numbers for greatly reducing the number of Vermont coronavirus cases.

Vermont opened up vaccinations to all eligible residents in April. The seven-day average of new cases has dropped from a peak of 213 at the end of March to just eight on June 13, state data showed.

Scott encouraged all eligible residents to get their shots if they haven't already.

Vermont is following in line with the rest of the nation with declining vaccine demand. The seven-day average of new daily doses administered in the state has shrunk from 8,933 on May 26 to 3,187 on June 14, state data showed.

Three Vermont counties -- Essex, Orleans and Caledonia -- are the only ones where the rates of eligible residents with one shot are below 70%, according to the state data. Essex County is the lowest with 57% as of Monday.

Anyone who needs help scheduling a free vaccine appointment can log onto vaccines.gov.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Novavax COVID-19 vaccine: How it works and other things you should know

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Maryland-based biotech company Novavax said Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine was shown to be highly effective in clinical trials, which puts it on track to become the fourth vaccine available in the United States.

Given the abundance of vaccines in the U.S., Novavax's vaccine may be available first in low- and middle-income countries through COVAX, the global vaccine sharing alliance. "At least in the foreseeable future, we’re going to have a bigger impact" outside the United States, Stanley Erck, president and CEO of Novavax, told the Wall Street Journal.

To date, Novavax has pledged 1.1 billion doses of its vaccine to COVAX.

While the vaccine still needs to be greenlighted by U.S. regulators, Novavax is on track to manufacture 100 million doses per month by the end of the third quarter and 150 million doses per month by the end of the fourth quarter. The company said it intends to apply for emergency use authorization from the Food & Drug Administration by this fall and plans to share more details from its Phase 3 trials as that data becomes available.

Here's what we know about Novavax so far.

How does the Novavax vaccine work?
Novavax's COVID-19 vaccine is a two-shot formula that can be stored at refrigerator temperatures and utilizes different technology than the United States' three existing vaccines.

Pfizer and Moderna use mRNA technology that teaches cells to make a protein that prompts an immune response. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a viral vector, or a modified version of a different virus, to prompt cells to produce the protein that triggers an immune response.

In contrast, Novavax is a protein subunit vaccine, meaning it uses a fragment of a harmless protein of the virus that's grown in a cell culture and stimulates an immune response.

How does Novavax compare to the other vaccines available in the US?
The Novavax vaccine was shown to be 90.4% effective overall, with 100% efficacy against moderate and severe cases of COVID-19, according to the company.

That puts Novavax on par with the two-shot Pfizer (95%) and Moderna (94%) vaccines and more effective than the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was 66% effective in clinical trials.

Does the Novavax vaccine work against variants?
Yes. The Novavax vaccine was 93.2% effective against circulating "variants of concern" and "variants of interest," according to the company.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines "variants of concern" as variants showing evidence of being more transmissible, causing more severe disease or causing significant reduction in antibody neutralization, which may make vaccines or treatments less effective. "Variants of interest" is a lower classification. It refers to variants that may have the potential to affect transmission, diagnostics or the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments, according to the CDC's definition.

How do Novavax's side effects compare to other vaccines?
Novavax's side effects are relatively mild and similar to commonly reported side effects for Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

The most common side effects reported in Novavax's trials were injection site pain and tenderness lasting less than three days, as well as fatigue, headache and muscle pain lasting less than two days.

ABC News' Morgan Winsor contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Nature-based or lab leak? Unraveling the debate over the origins of COVID-19

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(NEW YORK) -- An accidental lab leak, or the dark side of mother nature?

That fundamental question -- about the origins of a COVID-19 pandemic that has taken nearly 4 million lives -- has sparked a political firestorm in the U.S. and threatened the already fraught ties between Washington and Beijing.

So far, multiple investigations have yielded few definitive conclusions. And as infection rates and deaths tail off in many developed countries, the Chinese government's perceived lack of cooperation into those investigations has prompted some of the world's leading virologists to reconsider the possibility that this pandemic could have been caused by a lab accident.

In the early days of the pandemic, experts largely felt that the most likely explanation was that the virus jumped directly from animals to humans -- like all other pandemics and epidemics have in the past. Attention turned to a closely quartered wet-market in the central Chinese hub of Wuhan, freshly scrutinized for the exotic wild fare, which offered ample opportunity for an intermediary host. But while environmental samples from the market came back positive for the virus, animal samples that were tested ultimately did not.

Conservative political leaders in the U.S. have long seized on an alternative explanation for the virus' spread, some insinuating that the virus could have been engineered as a weapon at a famous coronavirus research center in Wuhan.

With no proof available, accomplished scientists and public health officials stand on both sides of the debate. But all parties agree on the stakes: Uncovering the truth could help prevent the next global pandemic.

Now, at the behest of President Joe Biden, the U.S. intelligence community is scrambling to deliver answers, prompted by the depth of the potential evidence still untapped -- and despite concerns that the answers may never be found.

Tune into Nightline on Monday, June 14, for an ABC News investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus.

Key clues, a decade in the making

To understand more about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, experts look back nearly a decade -- to an abandoned copper mine in southwestern China. In 2012, a team of miners cleaning out bat excrement fell ill with respiratory illnesses. Three ultimately died.

Researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology flocked to the site, where they "sampled the viruses that were found in those bat droppings in those caves, and brought them back to their lab," explained David Feith, a former State Department official who helped investigate the origins of COVID-19.

One of the viruses that researchers retrieved from the mines and brought back to their lab in Wuhan is about 96% similar almost identical to SARS-COV-2 -- a point that advocates of the lab-leak theory have highlighted as crucial evidence.

Virologists say that 96% similar virus is a cousin -- not a twin -- of SARS-CoV-2. But its existence reveals that scientists at Wuhan Institute of Virology could have been within striking distance of discovering the virus that ultimately caused the pandemic.

"Of all the places in the world where there could be a natural outbreak from transmission, from an intermediary host in the wild, what are the chances that that would ... happen in Wuhan, the town with the only level-4 virology institute in all of China?" said Jamie Metzl, an adviser to the World Health Organization and former national security official in the Clinton administration.

The Chinese government and leaders at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have vehemently denied that the virus came from their lab.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded to the rekindled interest in investigating the lab-leak theory in late May, accusing the Biden administration of playing politics and shirking its own responsibility, and saying Biden's order showed that the U.S. "does not care about facts and truth, nor is it interested in serious scientific origin tracing."

Metzl and other lab-leak theory advocates have pushed for further investigation, and the need to determine whether Wuhan scientists working on the coronaviruses may have inadvertently contracted the disease and spread it to the community.

The possibility of such a leak was a distinct possibility, even to Shi Zhengli, a lead researcher in the Wuhan facility who is colloquially known as "Bat Woman" because of her decades-long research of coronaviruses. Shi told Scientific American last year that when the COVID19 virus first emerged in Wuhan, she remembered wondering, "Could they have come from our lab?"

After testing the novel coronavirus' viral genomes, Shi said her team determined that they did not match any samples from the lab, and dismissed the premise.

"That really took a load off my mind," Shi told Scientific American. "I had not slept a wink for days."

Scientific consensus or dangerous groupthink?

Despite some fringe skepticism -- often emanating from voices with a long record of criticizing China -- the idea that COVID-19 jumped from animal to human somewhere in nature became the overwhelming consensus. Political voices in favor of the lab-leak theory, particularly from President Donald Trump, served to polarize the issue further and largely pushed the scientific community away from a willingness to consider the lab-leak theory.

Early in the pandemic, the then-president and his allies sought to shift blame for the poor U.S. response toward China -- seeking to re-brand the coronavirus as the "China Virus" or the "Kung Flu." With Trump weaponizing accusations of a lab leak, even some within his administration recognized it could undermine solid evidence supporting that theory.

"There was so little space, even for Democrats, even for progressives, to ask the questions," said Metzl.

In February 2020, a group of 27 prominent scientists penned a forceful letter in The Lancet condemning any "conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin."

Several leading virologists argued that if the disease had been explicitly engineered in a lab, there would be evidence of that in its genomic sequence. But because there is no such evidence, "the weight of probability would very, very, very strongly indicate that this was a natural event," said Dennis Carroll, chairman of the Global Virome Project and a signatory of The Lancet letter.

A World Health Organization-led team that visited Wuhan in January of this year released their long-awaited findings in March, echoing a similar stance: A lab leak was "extremely unlikely," the report said, and determined that animal-to-human transmission through an intermediary host remained a more plausible explanation. But ultimately, the team ruled nothing out.

"Most likely the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is going to be linked to this large wildlife trade," said Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University. "And we know that there are many farms and other sources of these animals that are trapped in the wild and brought to big cities like Wuhan and then distributed to other places."

In fact, newly published data shows just how often wildlife is bought and sold in China, with researchers recently documenting the trafficking of 38 wildlife species and more than 40,000 individual animals in Wuhan's markets from May 2017 to November 2019.

But as Garry readily concedes, scientists haven't yet found that animal host -- a gap in the narrative that has emboldened some lab-leak theorists. Researchers still have yet to identify an animal source, which Garry said "could take years."

Further complicating matters: The director of the Chinese CDC has also said that samples taken from animals at the wet-market tested negative for the virus, meaning finding the natural host could prove more elusive than initially expected.

The void of definitive evidence has prompted calls among some, including former high-ranking members of the Trump administration, to question the virus' natural origins -- and to continue investigating.

"Everybody got into this groupthink," said Metzl, "and that was the story."

New evidence supporting lab-leak theory?

Among the circumstantial evidence that could support the lab-leak theory, some researchers have pointed to the fact that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has in the past conducted a controversial type of scientific research called gain-of-function.

"They were doing what some people have called gain-of-function research -- seeing how the world's scariest viruses might infect human cells," Metzl said.

Gain-of-function research is a technique used by scientists to enhance aspects of an organism. It is common in some fields as a means to study genetic variations and better understand biological entities -- but its use in certain settings to enhance the lethality or transmissibility of a virus has become controversial.

"The idea was, 'Let's understand these viruses so we know what we're facing,'" Metzl said. "The counterargument was, we're playing with fire. If it turns out that COVID-19 stems from an accidental lab incident from the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan CDC, it will turn out that that fear was certainly well-founded."

The fear that researchers' work within the lab could be tied to the pandemic was bolstered in April 2020 when the Washington Post reported that U.S. embassy officials who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in recent years sent two cables back to Washington about "inadequate safety at the lab" tied to its gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses.

Then, in January 2021, a State Department report revealed that several Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers fell ill in the fall of 2019 with "symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses" -- though it's not clear if they had COVID-19, the flu, or possibly another illness. ABC News confirmed from a separate U.S. intelligence report that three researchers sought hospital treatment in November of 2019.

Shi Zhengli insists that she tested all her workers for COVID-19 antibodies, and all tests came back negative.

David Asher, a former U.S. official who led the State Department's probe into the coronavirus' origins, said China's refusal to allow access to American investigators suggests it had something to hide.

"We're talking lights out. There was no cooperation and there still is no cooperation," Asher said. "So the cover-up could be worse than the crime if the crime wasn't really suspiciously horrible."

ABC News also reported in June 2020 that satellite images showed dramatic spikes in auto traffic around major hospitals in Wuhan in the fall of 2019, suggesting the novel coronavirus may have been present before the outbreak was first reported to the world.

Meanwhile, ABC News reached out to all 27 of the scientists who penned the February 2020 letter "denouncing conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin." Of the 12 who replied, one now believes a lab leak is more likely and five more said a lab leak should not be ignored as a possibility. Four others stood by their stance in the letter, and another called for a complete and thorough investigation.

Dr. Charles Calisher, a Colorado State University virologist and the lone signatory to completely change his position, told ABC News that he now believes that "there is too much coincidence" to ignore the lab-leak theory and that "it is more likely that it came out of that lab."

In addition to the circumstantial evidence pointing to a possible lab leak, allegations that the Chinese government has not been transparent has weighed on the minds of those seeking to examine all possible explanations.

Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who traveled with the WHO to Wuhan for their investigation, said the Chinese government cooperated to an extent, but said "it was not so easy" to gather information.

"Was everything you would wish to see on the table? No," she said.

For U.S. government investigators, "interest spiked considerably in March of 2020 because we were dealing with the very concerning problems of the Chinese government's cover-up of what was happening in Wuhan," said Feith, the former State Department official under President Trump.

"We were concerned that they were not accepting U.S. offers of help that would have involved U.S. scientists and other international scientists getting in on the ground to be able to learn things," Feith said. "We were concerned that the information that the Chinese authorities were giving to the outside world through the press and through the World Health Organization was unreliable-- and might have been deliberately misleading."

After the WHO released its March report casting doubt on the lab-leak theory, the organization's chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said gaps in their probe merited further investigation, and that the team had "expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data."

"I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough," Ghebreyesus said. "Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions."

"As I have said," he added, "all hypotheses remain on the table."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Novavax announces its COVID-19 vaccine is over 90% effective against symptomatic disease

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(LONDON) -- American biotechnology company Novavax announced Monday that its experimental COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective against symptomatic disease in late-stage clinical trials.

Results from the Phase 3 trial, which enrolled nearly 30,000 participants across 119 sites in the United States and Mexico, show Novavax's recombinant protein-based vaccine, called NVX-CoV2373, provided 100% protection against moderate and severe cases of COVID-19, with an overall efficacy of 90.4%, according to a company press release.

"Today, Novavax is one step closer to addressing the critical and persistent global public health need for additional COVID-19 vaccines," Stanley Erck, president and CEO of Novavax, said in a statement Monday. "These clinical results reinforce that NVX-CoV2373 is extremely effective and offers complete protection against both moderate and severe COVID-19 infection."

Researchers observed a total of 77 cases of COVID-19 in the randomized, placebo-controlled, observer-blinded study. There were 63 cases in the placebo group and 14 in the vaccine group. Ten were moderate and four were severe, all in the placebo group. All cases in the vaccine group were mild, Novavax said.

Sequence data are available for 54 of the 77 cases, showing 35 were coronavirus strains classified as "variants of concern" by the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while nine were "variants of interest" and 10 were other variants not considered "of concern" or "of interest" by the CDC. Novavax's two-shot vaccine demonstrated 93.2% efficacy against the variants of concern and the variants of interest, which collectively made up 82% of the sequenced cases. Thirty-eight of those cases were in the placebo group and five were in the vaccine group, according to the press release.

The vaccine, which can be stored at refrigerator temperatures, also demonstrated 91% efficacy among high-risk populations, including people over the age of 65 as well as those under 65 with certain comorbidities or who have frequent exposure to COVID-19. Sixty-two of those COVID-19 cases were in the placebo group and 13 were in the vaccine group, Novavax said.

Preliminary safety data from the study show the vaccine was generally well-tolerated, with serious and severe adverse events low in number and balanced between the vaccine and placebo groups. No single adverse event occurred in more than 1% of the vaccine group. The most common symptoms in the days after the first and second dose were injection site pain and tenderness, fatigue, headache and muscle pain, according to the press release.

"These data show consistent, high levels of efficacy and reaffirm the ability of the vaccine to prevent COVID-19 amid ongoing genetic evolution of the virus," Dr. Gregory Glenn, president of research and development at Novavax, said in a statement Monday.

Novavax said it expects to share further details of the Phase 3 trial results as additional data become available. Further analyses of the trial are ongoing and will be submitted to peer-review journals for publication. Meanwhile, the placebo-controlled portion of the study continues in the 12 to 17 age group, which recently completed enrollment with 2,248 participants, according to the press release.

Novavax has not yet requested authorization for NVX-CoV2373 from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Maryland-based company said it intends to file for regulatory authorization in the third quarter of 2021. Upon regulatory approvals, the company remains on track to reach manufacturing capacity of 100 million doses per month by the end of the third quarter and 150 million doses per month by the fourth quarter, according to the press release.

"Novavax continues to work with a sense of urgency to complete our regulatory submissions and deliver this vaccine, built on a well understood and proven platform, to a world that is still in great need of vaccines," Erck said.

Last year, as part of the U.S. effort to develop, manufacture and deliver COVID-19 vaccines, the federal government awarded $1.6 billion to Novavax to complete late-stage clinical development.

"Our vaccine will be a critical part of the solution to COVID-19," Glenn said, "and we are grateful to the study participants and trial staff who made this study possible, as well as our supporters, including the U.S. government."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


What to know about the Delta COVID-19 variant first detected in India

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(NEW YORK) -- The Delta variant, which was first detected in India and which now makes up 6% of sequenced COVID-19 cases in the United States, has prompted recent calls from President Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci for more Americans to get vaccinated.

While prevalence of the variant, also known as B.1.617.2, is still low in the U.S., its prevalence has doubled since last week, rising from 3% to 6%, according to a report from HHS.

In India, where the virus exploded in April and May and sparked a public health crisis, as well as in the United Kingdom, the Delta variant is now the dominant strain. "We cannot let that happen in the United States," Fauci said during a Tuesday news briefing.

"Get vaccinated," he added. "Particularly if you’ve had your first dose, make sure you get that second dose. And for those who have been not vaccinated yet, please get vaccinated."

As of Thursday, 52% of Americans had received at least one dose of the vaccine and 43% were fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While experts agree that vaccination is the best defense against all circulating versions of the virus, there are still many unanswered questions about the Delta variant. Here's what we know so far:

Is the Delta variant more transmissible than the original version of the virus?

Most likely, but some virologists say we need more information to be sure.

The World Health Organization classifies the Delta variant as a "variant of concern," meaning it may be associated with increased transmissibility.

Health officials in the U.K. went further, issuing a risk assessment in early June, indicating that they believe the Delta variant is more easily spread from person to person than the Alpha variant, which was first detected in the U.K. and spread rapidly there until the Delta variant took over. According to the assessment, "it is highly likely that Delta is significantly more transmissible than Alpha."

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, doubled down on that message during an interview with ABC News' David Muir on Wednesday, calling the Delta variant "the most contagious variant we've seen so far."

Vincent Racaniello, a microbiology and immunology professor at Columbia University, argued that we should interpret the infectiousness of the Delta variant cautiously. The variant's rapid rise also has to do with human behavior and relaxed restrictions and shouldn't be strictly attributed to the virus being more transmissible.

"Preliminary results say you do see this increased transmissibility, but we still need to collect more information," said Nevan Krogan, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco. Most of the data we have on the Delta variant is in India, Krogan explained, which isn't tracking variants as closely as the U.K. There should be more data available now that the Delta variant is dominant in there.

"We need more data, and not just tracking and epidemiology data, but we also need molecular data," Krogan said. "The more we understand about this virus and how it mutates, the better off we're going to be in the future."

Krogan and his team are working to make that a reality. On Monday, the team posted their research online about the Alpha variant. Their research, which has not yet been published in a scientific journal, suggests that once the Alpha variant gets inside a cell, it suppresses the immune response compared to other variants. That could explain why the Alpha variant spreads so rapidly. Now Krogan's team is doing tests on the Delta variant to see if it has similar immune response suppression.

"We're actually running those experiments as we speak," he said. "We're going all in on all these variants."

Are vaccines effective against the Delta variant?

Yes and for those who got the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, it's important to complete the two-shot regimen.

A study the British government conducted in April and May, which analyzed more than 12,000 sequenced COVID cases, found Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines to be highly effective against the Delta variant, although efficacy was lower for the Delta variant than for the Alpha variant of the virus. According to the study, Pfizer vaccine was 88% effective against symptomatic disease two weeks after the second dose and the AstraZeneca vaccine was 60% effective two weeks after the second dose. Since the research was conducted in the U.K., the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine wasn't included.

"For those properly vaccinated, it looks like there isn't an issue," Krogan said.

But for people who only received one dose of the vaccine, "effectiveness was notably lower," the study authors note. Both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were about 33% effective against the Delta variant after one dose.

"There’s poor protection after a single dose," Fauci said on Tuesday, and stressed the important of getting the second shot for the two-dose vaccines.

As for the mechanism driving double-dose protection, Racaniello thinks the world has focused too much attention on spike protein mutations and antibody response, and not enough on T-cells, another part of the immune system which also defends the body against infection. "I don't care if you've got Alpha, Beta, Gamma or Delta, those T-cells are still going to be able to prevent serious disease and those T-cells are made by vaccination," he said.

Vaccination is also the key to stopping the virus from circulating and more variants from popping up, according to experts. The longer it takes to get the country and the world vaccinated the more chances the virus has to mutate.

"We're going to be dealing with these other variants in the future that the vaccines may or may not be able to control," Krogan warned. In his view, it's not time to be complacent. "We've got to get everybody vaccinated, but we need to understand how these viruses are mutating and overcoming our defense mechanisms," he said. "The virus has always been a couple of steps ahead of us. We've got to get a step ahead of it."

ABC News' Ivan Pereira, Brian Hartman Eric Strauss, Sony Salzman, Arielle, Mitropoulos, John Brownstein and Nadine Shubailat contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Sharp uptick seen in suspected suicide attempts among teenage girls: CDC

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(WASHINGTON) -- After an initial drop in suicide-related emergency department visits at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reporting that suspected teenage suicide attempts rose in 2021, with the increase driven by a dramatic uptick among teenage girls.

The CDC said in a report released Friday that there was a 51% rise in suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12 to 17 from Feb. 21 to March 20, 2021, compared to the same time period in 2019 -- prior to the pandemic.

Among boys, there was a 4% rise in suspected suicide attempts over the same period when comparing this year to 2019. The authors noted that this does not mean there was necessarily an uptick in suicide deaths.

Although Friday's CDC report did not speculate on why this might be the case, experts interviewed by ABC News said it could be due to gender differences in psychiatric manifestations, development and socialized behaviors.

Psychiatrists say it's not clear yet why the pandemic seems to have hit women's mental health harder, but it could be a combination of factors.

"Adolescent females have been spending more time at home due to physical distancing and remote schooling allowing them to express mental health distress and talk more about suicidal thoughts and behaviors than ever before," said Dr. Christine Yu Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "[This has prompted] adult figures in their lives to take them to the [emergency department]."

Those going through puberty, a crucial time in youth, may be particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.

"Before puberty, the rate of depression and anxiety is the same for males and females, but after puberty it increases for females," said Dr. Yalda Safai, a psychiatrist in New York City and contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit. "All the risk factors for depression have been exaggerated by the pandemic."

Further research is needed to understand racial and ethnic trends in this patient population. Race and ethnicity data was not available when the study was conducted, according to the CDC.

"Certain communities and populations (i.e., American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, Latinx, LGBTQ) have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and may be experiencing different suicide-related trends than the general population," said Moutier. "We need more data to identify and examine trends among these specific populations."

Friday's CDC report catalogued a significant increase in emergency department visits among teenage girls, though some of that could be explained by the fact girls are more likely to disclose suicidal thoughts and seek medical care.

"Females are more likely to self-report self-harm or suicide attempts than are males, which may lead to a reporting bias, and a disproportionate number of females coming to the ED for these events," said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and adviser to Brightline, a behavioral health platform for youth.

Meanwhile, Chaudhary said, the CDC study included a broad range of self-harm and suicide-related issues that tend to yield emergency department visits -- not all of which are immediately life-threatening or true suicide attempts.

Regardless, psychiatrists agree that teens need more support. Care for at-risk teens should not be limited to the emergency room, Moutier said. Suicide attempts drop 30% when patients get the treatment they need, and health care providers check in on them periodically in the months after being discharged, according to research published in JAMA Psychiatry.

"It is critical to strengthen care transitions so once an individual leaves the ED they don't fall through the cracks," said Moutier.

The CDC is urging parents and families to watch out for the signs of suicide risk, limit access to harmful substances and firearms at home, and enroll youth in programs that increase social connections and teach coping skills.

"Youth across the world have been struggling with their mental health for a long time, with rates of anxiety and depression climbing at a faster pace since the onset of the pandemic," Chaudhary said.

As social connectedness is a key protective factor against suicide, it is important, now more than ever, to reach out to those who may be struggling.

"A simple phone call or text message letting them know you care may be just what they need," said Moutier.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 [TALK] for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also reach the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or the Crisis Text Line by texting "START" to 741741.

Natalie S. Rosen, M.D., is an internal medicine resident physician at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit. Sony Salzman is the coordinating producer of the Medical Unit.

Dr. Divya Chhabra, a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit, contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


These cities have reached Biden's 70% vaccination goal -- and beyond

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(WASHINGTON) -- Seattle has become the first U.S. city to fully vaccinate 70% of eligible residents.

In May, President Joe Biden set a goal for 70% of U.S. adults to receive at lease one dose of the vaccine by July 4 in the sprint to end the coronavirus crisis.

Mayor Jenny A. Durkan announced Wednesday that Seattle went a step further and became the first “major American city” to hit that percent with fully vaccinated residents, also adding that 78% of Seattle's population aged 12 and older have received their first dose of the shot.

"It would not have been possible without our residents’ commitment to protecting themselves, their loved ones, and our entire community," she said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Denver has crossed the milestone of administering at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to 70% of its population.

Denver passed the 70% threshold Wednesday morning, and a total of 61.2% of eligible residents aged 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment. Mayor Michael B. Hancock said in a statement that thanks to the vaccination rate, "We've been able to responsibly reopen our city."

El Paso, Texas has also passed the milestone, with 72% of the county's eligible population aged 12 and up receiving at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the state's vaccine dashboard.

Some of the nation's largest cities, including San Francisco, San Jose and Boston, are also racing toward the threshold.

San Francisco is one of the cities with the most robust vaccination efforts, with 69% of the population 12 and older fully vaccinated and 79% with at least one dose, according to the city's COVID-19 tracker.

Other cities have also surpassed -- or are nearing -- Biden's 70% mark.

In Santa Clara County, California, which includes the city of San Jose, 68% of residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated, and 79% of residents are partially vaccinated, per county data. San Diego County has partially vaccinated 75% of its population aged 12 and up, and in Los Angeles County 64.9% of residents are partially vaccinated.

In Boston, 62.1% of the population 12 and older is partially vaccinated. In Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes Portland, 69.7% of the population 16 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, per county data.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Thursday the nation's capital is nearing the goal of having 70% of adults vaccinated -- with 68.3% of residents 18 and older inoculated -- as D.C. is set to fully reopen with no restrictions Friday, according to its vaccine tracker.

So far, 13 states have reached 70% of adult residents receiving at least one dose. They are: Pennsylvania, Vermont, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Washington, Maryland and California.

When it comes to states, Vermont is leading the nation in getting shots into the arms of its residents, with 54% of the state fully vaccinated, followed by Massachusetts at 53.18%, Connecticut at 51.06% and Maine at 49.83%. Rhode Island and New Hampshire follow behind, according to data from John Hopkins. That data reports Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi ranking the lowest among all states in percentage of fully vaccinated residents.

Nationally, 42.5% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, and 51.8% has received at least one dose, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


With return to in-person learning, thousands of students still 'missing' from schools

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(NEW YORK) -- Making sense of COVID guidance for children as summer starts
What to know about the latest vaccine trials and how the pandemic has affected kids’ mental health.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the nation last spring, millions of children across the country were forced to leave their classrooms and turn to remote learning. However, the shift resulted in the "disappearance" of thousands of students, who never logged on or re-appeared when classrooms reopened in the fall.

In March, ABC News reported on the troubling number of students "missing" from public school systems around the country, leaving educational experts and school officials deeply concerned about the trend and its potential long-term ramifications.

According to recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services, 51% of U.S. school districts are back to offering full-time in-person instruction, while 42% are offering hybrid in-person learning. Only 7% of districts are still operating fully remotely, a notable shift from January when over 30% of districts were still fully remote.

In the final weeks of the academic year, ABC News reached out a second time to education departments in all 50 states, to get an update on the status of student attendance.

Many state officials said they still do not have updated data on chronic absenteeism, while others said they will not know fall enrollment numbers until they are reported by the districts later in the year.

But still other officials say there are still hundreds, and in some districts, thousands, of students unaccounted for.

“We still have a sizable group of students that we just haven't been able to make contact with,” said Corey Harris, chief of schools at Boston Public Schools, who estimates the number to be in the range of 1,200-1,300, out of approximately 51,000 students. Most challenging, he said, is when the district is forced to dis-enroll students -- those who have not logged on for a certain number of days and for whom all means of contacting the family have been exhausted.

School districts are now doubling down on their efforts to track down students, many of whom come from disadvantaged populations, including going door-to-door to knock and providing incentives such as food pantries to try to entice them. They are also investing in services and programs to meet their needs as they attempt to make up for lost time.

Impacting those most vulnerable

The pandemic has laid bare the many inadequacies and challenges, inherent in the public education system, that are heightened for students of color, English language learners, children with disabilities and students from low-income communities, according to Denise Forte, Interim CEO of the Education Trust, a national nonprofit that works to address the inequities in education.

“It's those same communities who have been under-resourced, and felt the brunt of history. Those who suffered more during the pandemic, were also those who had been impacted by all the systemic barriers that have prevented them from succeeding in the past,” Forte told ABC News. “Some young people who had to leave school because their parents were out of work, and they had to go find some part time work to support them, or they weren't able to fully participate in their own studies because they're supporting their younger siblings.”

According to Sara Sneed, President and CEO of the NEA Foundation, prior to the pandemic, chronic absence, defined as 10 or more days absent from school, particularly affected children from these vulnerable populations, and it only worsened during the pandemic.

Working to re-engage

Many states reported to ABC News that their school districts have been working hard to engage with students, and track down any that may not be engaging with school.

In California, the state superintendent has created a family engagement unit in its education department, to create strategies to reconnect with students. Although the total number of unaccounted students in California is unknown, statewide enrollment numbers dropped more than 160,000 students, this year, a 2.6% decline.

With a chronic absence rate of 20% this year, compared to approximately 10%-12% in years prior, Connecticut has launched an engagement and attendance program to reach K-12 students struggling with absenteeism. One initiative seeks to have personnel touching base with families and students through home visits, in the hope of encouraging them to return to school, and to help them with placements in summer camps and learning programs.

Similarly, in Mississippi, school attendance officers have worked with districts throughout the school year to ensure that all school-age children, who were not re-enrolled in local public schools, were registered in a learning environment, such as charter or private schools. By February, officers had track down all but 1,156 students, a number similar to previous years.

In Boston, teams have been knocking on doors to try to track down students, and through various engagement strategies include food pantry pop-ups, and resource initiatives, some students have begun to return to classroom.

And in Arizona, about 38,500 fewer students are enrolled in public schools this year, with about 40% of that decline among preschool and kindergarten students, opting to postpone enrollment. Others may have become disengaged with their public schools.

“We were really brought to our knees by this pandemic in the first 90 days, and that translated into some really hard hits. The first 40 days of school, we took a gut wrenching 2,800 in student loss. That was about 6% of our student body... that's a lot,” Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo told ABC News.

While some Tucson district families opted for other learning options such as charter and private schools, and others left the state altogether because of economic migration, the whereabouts of a "most troubling" third group of several hundred students -- who were not logging on or enrolled in any other school -- is still unknown by school officials.

“The academic losses are starting to mount every day that goes by where kids are not in school or getting any kind of instruction,” Trujillo added.

Since the district returned to school buildings in March, 800 “missing” students have returned, mainly families that were waiting for in-person learning, but several hundred students remain unaccounted, said Trujillo.

‘We haven't given up on them… that's going to be a major initiative of our team this summer and early fall, to track them down. Each case is individual, each case requires a little bit of investigative work. That's going to be very arduous and tedious work, but we don't want to lose any kid. We want to know that they're okay.”

These students will be tracked down with the help of 15 to 20 newly hired dropout prevention specialists, who will try to contact them all.

“Our goal is to make contact with every single young person, make sure they're safe, and offer them an opportunity to come home. Or, if Tucson Unified is no longer an option for them, help them continue their education and an option that works for them,” Trujillo said.

Addressing the gap

School districts are now working to readjust their curriculums in an order to address learning loss experienced during the pandemic.

Classrooms, in 2021-2022, are going to look tremendously different, says Forte, with some kids not at grade level, others with months' worth of unfinished learning, while a few may have actually thrived, and are above grade level.

Hence the need for “intentional and evidence-based strategies,” she said, such as intensive tutoring, with students working in small groups with one teacher, offering them instruction that's aligned with their curriculum, as well as the social/emotional support they may also need.

In Tucson, in addition to the regular curriculum, students entering first grade, for instance, will revisit key concepts and skills that may have been lost in kindergarten. And rigorous, five days a week, summer school will be critical to give students a head start for fall. Some 10,000 students have already enrolled.

Finding these students will be critical, officials agreed.

“School is the great equalizer in American society. Bad things happen when you don't graduate from high school, worse things happen when you don't even start high school,” Trujillo said. “These young lives matter, and we want them back in the only place that they need to be right now, and that’s school.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Raven-Symone talks losing 30 pounds in three months: 'It's really complete body health'

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Raven-Symoné is feeling better than ever after losing 30 pounds in just three months and she opened up about her journey in an exclusive interview with Good Morning America Friday.

"I'm not over here trying to be a little twig," the That's So Raven alum told GMA. "I'm not trying to be, like, 'Oh my God, look at me.' I have a goal in mind and it's not just weight loss, it's really complete body health."

The 35-year-old explained she's "low carb as much as I can be" and she does "very minimal exercise." One of her tricks is being "an avid faster," adding that she will make sure she has "a minimum of 14-hour fast" between dinner and breakfast.

Symoné also goes on longer fasts, a method she has carefully educated herself on, and she gets through them by drinking lots of water and electrolytes as well as having some bone broth if things get difficult.

"I don't try to speak for anybody else," she said, noting that this is her formula and what works for her.

Symoné has been in the spotlight since the age of 3, starring on The Cosby Show, being a Disney Channel teen sensation, and then co-hosting The View for three seasons as an adult. With that fame came stress and emotional eating.

The actress recalled a time in 2011 when she was had lost 70 pounds but felt that she couldn't celebrate her achievement.

"The way people were treating me while I was bigger was emotionally damaging," she said. "So when I lost weight ... and I remember the moment I went on the red carpet and in my head I was cussing everyone out. I'm like, 'Wow, now you want to look at me because I'm skinny, thanks.'"

Symoné said losing weight this time isn't about fitting into smaller-sized jeans -- it's about being healthy now to ensure a healthier future for herself and her life with wife Miranda Pearman-Maday.

"Every time I lost weight in the past, it was about size," she said. "I've been a part of the Hollywood industry machine and I didn't understand why every time I dieted I would gain weight later."

The Raven's Home star said she didn't want to develop heart disease or type 2 diabetes as a result of her weight, adding, "I want to make sure that my body is healthy and prepared to deal with old age, ultimately, and I have to start now."

"I believe that anyone can do it and I believe when you understand why, you have great willpower," she continued. "I feel like this is something that will sustain my life for a lot longer."

Symoné's wife, whom she married last summer, is there to support her along the way -- and the two are embarking on a new journey together: Letting fans into their lives with their new YouTube channel, titled 8PM.

"You're going to see exercise and movement, you're going to see cooking and you're going to see celebrity guest friends," Pearman-Maday teased of what kind of content everyone can expect.

Symoné chimed in, "You're going to be seeing what a life with a lesbian, multiracial couple looks like -- and it looks normal, you guys. It looks pretty normal."

These days, the three-time Daytime Emmy Award nominee is also putting her talents to use behind the camera, having directed a powerful episode of Disney Channel's Sydney to the Max that explores the social impact of microaggressions.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Cutting-edge test detects early tumor recurrence in some cancers

Kubra Cavus/iStock

(NEW YORK) -- A new blood test seeks to change the game in cancer management.

Signatera, a "tumor-informed" blood test developed by Natera, can detect circulating tumor DNA in the bloodstream for certain types of cancers.

"What makes the tumor DNA different is that it has certain mutations that actually lead to the uncontrolled cell growth that became the cancer," Solomon Moshkevich, the general manager of oncology at Natera, told ABC News' Good Morning America. "And by virtue of analyzing a sample of the tumor, from the patient, we actually know what the mutations are in that cancer and we know exactly what we're looking for when we go analyzing the blood sample."

The blood test works by looking at over 20,000 genes from the patient's tumor and comparing it to normal genes. Once a unique fingerprint of that tumor is identified, a personalized blood test is created that is unique to that person's cancer.

Signatera, which works best for solid cancers such as lung, colon, bladder and breast cancer, has proven to detect disease recurrence of some cancers at the microscopic level as much as two years earlier than a scan, according to the company.

"Having that inside information, that huge heads up, can be the difference between life and death," said Dr. Kristi Funk, a breast cancer surgeon and the medical director for Pink Lotus, a leader in breast health and cancer care.

Funk said her patients have been using the test for the past six months, including Mariel Leibowitz, who was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at 32 and underwent a double mastectomy in 2019.

"I'm actually able now to take a test and see if there are active tumor cells in my body," said Leibowitz. "And then, you know, if it did come back, there's maybe something I can do to get ahead of it."

The positive attitude Leibowitz has toward taking a Signatera test is something Funk sees in many of her patients.

"I've seen it dramatically impact the emotional response that patients have to their own cancer journey," she said. "It's so empowering to get a negative test. But if you get a positive one, and you know that you can intervene at the earliest possible moment in time to eradicate a potential stage for recurrence, that's also empowering. So I'm so excited to add this to the armamentarium of what we have to defeat cancer."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


The COVID-19 virus can cause diabetes, new studies find

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(NEW YORK) -- There is troubling news for those infected with the COVID-19 virus. New studies have found that the virus may cause diabetes in addition to pneumonia and other health problems.

Most people will recover from COVID without longer-term problems, but doctors have noticed that some patients go on to develop diabetes.

Now, new research is finding that the virus may infect and destroy certain cells that are crucial for keeping diabetes at bay. Armed with this new knowledge, scientists are now racing to understand how to best prevent this from happening in patients with COVID-19.

Diabetes already contributes to 10-15% of deaths in the United States. In 2017, nearly 34.2 million people, or 10.5% of the U.S. population, had diabetes. Per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes every year. Of those with diabetes, nearly 1.6 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that attacks pancreatic beta cells to reduce insulin production.

“There is a difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes,” said Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News' chief medical correspondent and a board-certified OBGYN, who was not involved in the studies. “[In] type 1 diabetes, the body does not make enough insulin. In type 2, there is enough insulin but it is not working properly.”

As insulin causes cells to take up sugar in the blood, a decrease in insulin production or a resistance to insulin causes high levels of sugars or glucose in the blood. This high level of glucose, termed hyperglycemia, is the hallmark of diabetes.

“Earlier lab studies had suggested that [the COVID-19 virus] can infect human beta cells,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said in a recent blog post. “They also showed that the dangerous virus can replicate in these insulin-producing beta cells to make more copies of itself and spread to other cells.”

New research from Stanford University School of Medicine and Weill Cornell Medicine confirmed the association between COVID-19 and diabetes. By analyzing autopsy samples from people who died of COVID-19, both studies illustrated the virus’ ability to infect pancreatic beta cells, decrease insulin secretion and effectively yield type 1 diabetes.

“The virus actually destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin,” said Ashton. “[This] decreases insulin levels and then leads directly to high sugar and type 1 diabetes.”

Experts say these particular cells may be especially vulnerable to being attacked by the virus as they contain certain receptors known to bind to COVID-19.

Once invaded, these cells were transformed into different types of cells with a lower expression of insulin. According to experts, this shows that SARS-CoV-2 could change the fate of a cell.

Encouragingly, one study showed that specific drugs might be able to reverse this fate. Those findings will need to be confirmed in larger, more rigorous studies, researchers say.

Unfortunately, the virus might damage the pancreas and cause diabetes in ways that aren’t as easily reversed with medication. Due to the destruction of pancreatic cells, patients could potentially become dependent on diabetes medications, such as insulin, long after they finish their battle with COVID-19.

“More study is needed to understand how SARS-CoV-2 reaches the pancreas and what role the immune system might play in the resulting damage,” said Collins.

Both works highlight the possibility of COVID-19-induced diabetes and stress the need for awareness in those infected with the virus.

“The key is if you are diagnosed with COVID-19 and have any classic signs or symptoms of type 1 diabetes, get tested for diabetes,” said Ashton.

Anyone who has recovered from COVID-19 should be on the lookout for symptoms of diabetes, Ashton added.

“We’re talking about extreme thirst and increase in urination, unintentional, significant weight loss, or fatigue, just to name a few,” she said.

Added Collins: “This work provides yet another reminder of the importance of protecting yourself, your family members, and your community from COVID-19 by getting vaccinated if you haven’t already -- and encouraging your loved ones to do the same.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Cicada cookbook draws attention to food insecurity

Michael Dobuski/ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Just within the past week, Brood X cicadas have delayed a White House press flight, been blamed for a car crash in Ohio and shown up on weather radar over Maryland. And the noisy insects’ next trip could be to a dinner table near you.

Prior to the last Brood X emergence in 2004, University of Maryland graduate student Dr. Jenna Jadin wrote a cookbook full of recipes that use cicadas, called Cicada-licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicadas.

“I thought it was a great way to make these cicadas, which people seem to be afraid of, less scary,” says Jadin. “Because when you can pluck something off the ground and eat it, it’s a little bit less terrifying.”

The cookbook, which is available online, includes a variety of recipes ranging from Cicada Dumplings, to “El Chirper” Tacos, to “Chocolate Chip Trillers.” 

“The ones I’ve eaten the most are the pecan tartlets, or I’ve even made them into full pecan pies,” Jadin tells ABC Audio. 

She adds that the insects work better in dishes with more flavorful ingredients because the bugs taste bitter on their own.

“They’re pretty tannic, because they’ve been living underground and drinking sap from plants and trees for years, so they are quite bitter,” she says.

Periodical cicadas spend 13 to 17 years maturing underground, surviving only on nutrients from the surrounding soil and trees. Once the ground reaches the right temperature in their final year, the baby cicadas, or “nymphs,” dig themselves out of the dirt, shed their skin and set about their next task.

“Once they come out as adults, they have one basic job and that’s to mate,” says George Washington University biology professor Dr. John Lill. 

Brood X is the biggest group of periodical cicadas, which is why they are so prominent this year. 

But the cookbook is intended to go beyond tacos and pecan pies. Dr. Jadin is a science program manager for the United Nations, where she focuses on issues of food insecurity, specifically “insects, in general, as a food source.”

She says a big part of stamping out hunger could come from resisting the urge to stamp out bugs. 

“Overall they are a much more sustainable way of feeding the planet - whether that be in western societies, developing countries, or wherever,” she notes.

Relatively speaking, insects can convert food into protein more efficiently than other animals. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates crickets can produce the same amount of protein as cattle with just a sixth of the feed.

“You’re putting a lot fewer resources into getting much more protein. You’re also putting less water in, you’re generally putting in less energy,” says Jadin.

When it comes to cicadas, Jadin advises against simply grabbing a handful off the ground for a snack.

“Really, when we talk about eating insects, it’s about ones that are farmed sustainably, that are easy to replicate,” she says. “I wouldn’t necessarily encourage going out to eat a ton of a wild insect because we’re threatening their populations.”

And even if one is inclined to get cooking with some cicadas, Jadin warns that some of her recipes haven’t stood the test of time. 

“Some of them I would definitely rewrite now. Cicada rhubarb pie -- don’t do that one,” says Jadin.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


We know vaccines work against COVID variants. Now scientists are understanding why.

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(NEW YORK) -- Since the emergence of new COVID-19 variants, experts have worried that the virus may have developed mutations allowing it to outmaneuver existing vaccines.

Early laboratory studies proved worrisome, showing vaccines seemed to produce far fewer virus-fighting antibodies against some of the newer variants. But real-world experience didn't match those concerns -- people seemed to develop good protection, even when exposed to new variants.

Now, after months of research, vaccine experts across the globe are learning that vaccines still mostly work -- even when those antibodies fail to show up in great numbers -- thanks to other crucial parts of the body's immune system.

"One of the reasons why the vaccines are holding up against variants is they do raise a broad array of immune responses," said Dr. Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "We speculate that multiple immune parameters may contribute to the protection observed by this vaccine against variants."

In a recent study, Barouch and some colleagues showed that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine prompted all different parts of the immune system to react. Crucially, the study helped reinforce the importance of so-called "killer" T-cells in defending against viral variants, including the worrisome "Beta" variant first identified in South America.

"Killer T-cells are important because they can actually identify an infected cell and get rid of it, and so they're very good at mopping up infection," said Dr. Paul Goepfert, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an expert in vaccine design.

The body's ability to harness multiple parts of the immune system following immunization against the original strain of COVID-19 is still leading to robust protection against multiple variants.

Back in December, when news first emerged about a worrying variant in the U.K., now called the Alpha variant, some vaccine experts worried the new version of the virus might undercut vaccines.

The news was even more troubling as currently available vaccines had only just been authorized. In the weeks that followed, the world learned of the Beta variant from South Africa and the Gamma variant from Brazil.

Vaccine companies started gearing up to test new booster shots that specifically targeted these variants, but in the real world, vaccines still appeared to offer relatively good protection to people living in countries where new variants were widespread.

Barouch's new research offers some clues as to why.

The human immune system is made up of multiple components that help fight viral infections by making antibodies, a protein created to neutralize foreign objects, and also seeking out infections, destroying them and remembering them so it can fight better and faster the next time.

Like prior studies, this study showed that the variants have mutations that are not well recognized by the antibodies generated following vaccination or infection. In fact, antibody levels from the J&J vaccine were 5.0-fold lower against the COVID-19 Beta variant first identified in South Africa, and 3.3-fold lower against the Gamma variant first identified in Brazil, which is similar to what is seen in other vaccines.

But antibodies don't tell the whole story.

"We are not relying necessarily on the amount of antibody in our blood at the time that we're exposed to something to protect us," said Dr. Anna Durbin, an infectious disease physician and professor of global disease epidemiology and control at Johns Hopkins. "We have a memory immune response so that when we see that pathogen again, our body produces more antibody, produces T cells in response to that. It really gears up to control that infection."

So even with fewer antibodies produced, other parts of the immune system are ready to recognize and fight the infection, she added. And even if a vaccinated person gets re-infected, the severity of the illness is likely to be blunted.

"The J&J vaccine is inducing really good Killer T-cell responses, and so even though they may become infected, these Killer T cell responses can help get rid of that infection very, very quickly," Goepfert said.

Real-world data cited by Durbin shows that vaccination provides "… really excellent protection against severe hospitalized COVID caused by the variants, and I think that's probably due to the memory immune response that we have, and the T-cell response that we have, that's able to clear that virus if we are infected."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Merck signs $1.2 billion deal with US government for experimental COVID treatment

Merck & Co,Inc./AFP via Getty Images,

(NEW YORK) -- The United States government has agreed to purchase $1.2 billion worth of an experimental COVID-19 treatment from Merck if the drug is approved by regulators, the pharmaceutical company announced Wednesday. This purchase would provide enough medication to fully treat 1.7 million people with the new drug.

Molnupiravir, which is currently in Phase 3 clinical trials, is being tested on study participants who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, aren't hospitalized and have one or more risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity or old age, associated with worse outcomes from the disease.

If the 1,850-patient global study shows promising results, meaning it reduces participants' risk of hospitalization or death, Merck plans to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization in the second half of 2021. The company expects to have enough of the drug available by the end of the year to fully treat 10 million people.

"In addition to this agreement with the U.S. government, we are actively engaged in numerous efforts to make molnupiravir available globally to fulfill Merck’s commitment to widespread access," Rob Davis, Merck's president, said in a statement.

How the drug works:

Molnupiravir is an oral antiviral treatment taken early in the course of COVID-19 infection, which some researchers have compared to how Tamiflu is used to treat influenza. Molnupiravir is meant for mild-to-moderate COVID and needs to be given within five days of developing symptoms.

Later this year, Merck also plans to study whether molnupiravir can be used to prevent COVID-19.

The drug works by introducing errors into the virus' RNA, which stops it from replicating in the body. Clinical trial data so far suggest that molnupiravir may reduce replication of the SAR-CoV-2 virus. Previous studies have demonstrated that molnupiravir can inhibit virus reproduction for influenza, Ebola and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, but the FDA has not approved it as treatment for any of these diseases.

In January, Merck announced that it was giving up on its two COVID-19 vaccine candidates, which the company said generated a less robust immune response than rival vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna. Instead, the company said it would focus on developing treatments, one of which was molnupiravir. In April, Merck ended its trial of molnupiravir as a treatment for hospitalized patients, when the drug did not prove effective for those with advanced disease.

ABC News' Eric Strauss contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


This teacher on TikTok is teaching parents the ABCs of childcare

Charles Lewis

(NEW YORK) -- During the coronavirus pandemic, TikTok became a platform of learning for many stuck indoors. Some learned how to cook, knit and even remodel their living rooms thanks to experts who shared their knowledge with others on the app.

And for children struggling at home during the pandemic, the social video app became a source in helping them learn how to read or solve math problems and more.

But what about parents who struggled to be a parent during the pandemic? Well, there’s a TikTok video for that too.

As parents took on the roles of teachers and tutors too, some were looking for guidance. And thanks to Charles Lewis, help was never far away.

When the pandemic hit, Lewis -- who goes by “Mr. Chazz” on TikTok -- an education specialist from Virginia, began creating videos to help parents and teachers.

“I saw how much, especially in the beginning, how much parents were really struggling with this new challenge that they were facing,” he told ABC News' Good Morning America. “I was listening and I was like, I totally have a lot of knowledge and wisdom and experience that I can share.”

As an education specialist, Lewis works with directors and teachers having a hard time in the classroom.

“Whenever there was a challenge or something, they would call me to kind of assess the situation and help the child and the teacher be successful in that environment,” he said.

He’s helping parents tackle sensitive subjects like parental punishments and breaking the cycle of some parenting techniques.

Here’s some of his advice when it comes to parenting:

Stop saying ‘don’t’ and say ‘do’

While parents may have a tendency to say “no” or “stop,” Lewis urges not to use those terms for everything.

One example he shared was if your child is coloring on the walls and you tell them to stop. While they can’t express it, Lewis says that a child has a need to color on the walls.

“That is a need. They have it in their bodies and you’re just telling them, ‘no,’ ‘stop,’ ‘don’t,’ then it’s going to be really stressful for you,” said Lewis. “It’s going to be really stressful for the child.”

Instead of saying “don’t” or “stop,” Lewis said to understand why your child needs to color on the walls and what their behavior is that they’re trying to communicate.

“Let’s observe their underlying needs and learn skills and start from there,” he added.

Don’t ignore their needs

Instead of saying something along the lines of “don’t color on the walls,” Lewis said to tell your child what to do that meets your need of them not coloring on the walls anymore, which will also not ignore their needs of coloring on the walls.

“This is, let’s find another way to meet that need that’s more appropriate for the situation, right?” said Lewis.

In this situation, you can get them some crayons and a piece of paper or paper propped up on an easel to color on instead.

Don’t be a perfectionist, be an ‘improve-inist’

While parenting is not always easy and takes practice, Lewis says it’s counterproductive in this process to be a perfectionist.

“Don’t focus on being perfect every day and comparing yourself to other people or parents or even your child,” said Lewis. “The goal isn’t to be perfect every day. The goal is to improve a little every day.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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