Coronavirus Files: Midterms to influence pandemic policies; evictions proceed apace



By Amber Dance

Votes will determine COVID actions, investigations

A Republican-controlled Congress could have big consequences for America’s ongoing battle against COVID, with GOP leaders eager to dismantle the last of the protective policies, end the national emergency and usher in a wave of investigations into the federal funding of both the relief effort and pre-pandemic virology research.

“The pandemic has played much less of a role in midterm politics than it did in the 2020 elections,” writes James Dinneen at New Scientist. “Still, the outcome of the election will decide who is in power during the third winter of COVID-19.”

At Axios, Andrew Solender and Victoria Knight lay out the Republican agenda, which includes passing a resolution to end the federal public health emergency; blocking a new, permanent workplace standard to protect health care workers from the coronavirus; and recouping pandemic aid monies that states didn’t spend.

“During the pandemic, the Biden administration took unprecedented authority — and now it doesn’t want to give any of it back,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Education and Labor Committee. “I will do everything I can to loosen President Biden’s grip on powers that do not belong to him.”

The prospect of additional funds to battle the pandemic also remains dim. “The President wants another $47 billion in COVID funding that stands no chance of passage if he cannot get it pushed through before this Congressional term ends,” writes Poynter’s Al Tompkins in his Morning Meeting newsletter.

Republicans are also eager to continue investigations of COVID-19’s origins and any possible link to laboratory research in China. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky), who just won his third term, told supporters “the COVID cover-up will end,” reports Sarah Rumpf at Fox News. He said he will subpoena “every last document of Dr. [Anthony] Fauci” to investigate the use of NIH funds to support virus research in China.

Evictions pile up as pandemic-era protections end

This winter could see a surge in evictions as the last of emergency federal rental assistance runs out, writes Shannon Pettypiece at NBC News.

While the federal moratorium on evictions ended in August 2021, $46.5 billion in rental assistance funds kept eviction rates low. But now that funding has dwindled to less than $7 billion, Pettypiece reports.

Evictions were at above-average rates in half of U.S. counties in August and September, according to the aid group Legal Services Corp.

And nearly 7.8 million Americans said they were behind on rent in early October, according to the Census Bureau.

“Now that rental assistance is over, and now that local moratoriums are over, we’re playing catch-up to what the pandemic did, and my biggest fear is the cliff that we’ve been anticipating is here,” said Tim Thomas, research director for the Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley. “We’re probably about to see the worst.”

Overcrowding is also an ongoing problem that puts people at risk for COVID infection. In Los Angeles, the nation’s worst county for overcrowding, “COVID-19 advanced without mercy: orphaning children, killing breadwinners and shattering families,” according to a sweeping Los Angeles Times investigation by Brittny Mejia, Liam Dillon, Gabrielle Lamarr Lemee, and Sandhya Kambhampati. Neighborhood by neighborhood, areas with the most overcrowding — typically lower-income communities of color — saw the highest COVID death rates during the pandemic.

Paxlovid may reduce long COVID risk

Taking Paxlovid in the early days of a COVID infection reduced the risk of long-term symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog and muscle pain by about one-quarter, according to a study of more than 50,000 patients in the Veterans Affairs system.

The research, posted online as a preprint, is based on medical records of vets who tested positive for the coronavirus in the spring of 2022: 9,217 who took Paxlovid and 47,123 who didn’t. The study group had an average age of 65 and was mostly white males.

Dr. Bob Wachter of UCSF told Bloomberg’s Jason Gale the findings are “convincing,” but cautioned that there’s currently no evidence that people under 50 who take Paxlovid benefit. (The FDA has authorized Paxlovid for teens and adults who are at risk of severe COVID.)

Paxlovid may reduce risk of long COVID because severe, acute infection is associated with a higher risk of long-term symptoms, UCSF’s Dr. Michael Peluso, who was not involved in the study, told Pam Belluck at The New York Times. Limiting the severity of the initial infection, Peluso reasoned, would decrease the likelihood of long COVID.

Scientists also suspect that a “reservoir” of lingering viral particles in the body might contribute to long COVID. To that end, researchers at Duke University are planning a study to determine if Paxlovid treatment, after the acute infection has passed, can reduce long-term symptoms.

COVID-flu and next-gen vaccines being tested

Protection against both COVID and influenza could come in a single needle stick as early as next fall.

Vaccine formulas currently being tested by both Pfizer and Moderna include mRNA targeting two coronavirus variants and four types of influenza.

If successful, these would be the first flu vaccines based on mRNA, which would be cheaper to make than current formulas — most of which rely on virus grown in eggs — and possibly more effective in elderly individuals, Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women’s Hospital told Adrianna Rodriguez at USA Today.

The mRNA-based vaccines can cause side effects including injection site pain, fatigue and headaches, and Kuritzkes notes that the new vaccines would have to prove safe in the current studies. “We don’t want people getting much worse reactions in terms of fever, chills and muscle aches as a consequence of getting a combination vaccine.”

The mRNA coronavirus vaccines have also dwindled in efficacy over time, as the virus evolves and as immunity wanes in the months following a shot. Scientists are working on a range of new COVID vaccines, which might provide longer-lasting immunity against many versions of the coronavirus, reports Bob Holmes at Knowable Magazine.

Options undergoing study or testing include vaccines that would be swallowed or inhaled; ones that could produce immunity against a broad range of variants; and auto-boosting versions that include an encapsulated booster dose that would be released after a certain period of time.

ICYMI: COVID origins article stirs controversy

Senate report released in October breathed new life into the lab-leak controversy, concluding that “the COVID-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.”

As Jeff Kao of ProPublica and Katherine Eban of Vanity Fair report, that conclusion was in great part based on the work of a single State Department translator, Toy Reid, who claimed special skill in deciphering the “secret language” of Mandarin Chinese “party speak.” Reid concluded that documents in that vernacular, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology archives, provide evidence of a biosecurity breach in November 2019, weeks before the first official COVID cases.

The article received swift backlash from journalists, China experts, and Mandarin speakers unimpressed with Reid’s translation, reports Max Tani at Semafor.

“You got the tense wrong,” tweeted Beijing-based science writer Jane Qiu.

ProPublica has since approached at least two additional Chinese translators for assistance, Tani reports.

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times called the expose “a train wreck,” and criticized the article for relying on “a report by a rump group of Republican congressional staff members.”

“The boring truth is that we’ll almost certainly never really know what happened, because the Chinese government isn’t going to let western intelligence agencies rummage around their virus labs,” writes Matthew Yglesias at The Guardian. “They wouldn’t allow that if they were covering up a lab leak, but they wouldn’t allow it if they weren’t covering up a lab leak either.”

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