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Morning Rounds Elizabeth Cooney

Pushing back, AstraZeneca says new analysis confirms efficacy of its Covid-19 vaccine

Rejecting sharp criticism from U.S. government scientists, AstraZeneca said last night that its Covid-19 vaccine was 76% effective at reducing the risk of symptomatic Covid-19, and 100% effective against severe disease, in a new analysis of its large U.S.-based clinical trial. Those estimates were just a few percentage points lower than much more sparse results the company released Monday from an earlier analysis of the study, despite dramatic statements from government scientists that AstraZeneca’s initial release may have used “outdated information” that could have been overly favorable. AstraZeneca said Monday that the vaccine was 79% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19 based on 141 cases of Covid-19 that occurred in the 32,000-patient study, which was conducted with the NIH. STAT’s Matthew Herper has more.

Biden administration adds $10 billion to vaccine effort 

The next phase of the federal government's Covid-19 immunization campaign involves a $3 billion effort to promote vaccine confidence, $6 billion to expand vaccine access for community health center workers and patients, and a new partnership with dialysis clinics to provide vaccines directly, the Biden administration announced this morning. The vaccine-confidence funds will be distributed to state and local governments with an eye toward regions hit hard by the pandemic, including some communities of color and rural areas. The Biden administration has long promised an ambitious vaccine-uptake campaign, and the announcement comes as vaccine supply is expected to ramp up in April, meaning governments could potentially struggle to find enough takers. 

Microrobots fight brain tumors in mice

Microrobots. Magnets. Microbes. Scientists have marshaled all three to breach the blood-brain barrier — in mice — and deliver drugs to brain tumors. That means inducing neutrophils — blood cells that slip through the blood-brain barrier undetected by the immune system — to engulf magnetic nanogel particles coated with pieces of E. coli membrane, transforming them into magnetic microswimmers. These biohybrid “neutrobots,” loaded with the cancer drug paclitaxel, kept mice with cancer alive longer than those that were untreated. While microrobots have long been eyed for their clinical potential, the blood-brain barrier has been insurmountable. Of course, more work must be done before human patients can benefit. In this video explainer, STAT’s Theresa Gaffney shows how it works in mice.

Inside STAT: It’s not just big vaccine makers that are getting rich from Covid-19 vaccines

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Pfizer and Moderna aren’t the only vaccine money-makers. Much of the revenue and profits from Covid-19 vaccines are flowing behind the scenes, going to the contract manufacturers and clinical-trial organizers that turn the shots from lab-bench theory to mass-produced reality. Both Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca publicly committed to not profiting off their products during the pandemic; Pfizer and Moderna made no such pledge. But contractors hired to test and produce these vaccines have enjoyed a share of the profits without the same level of public scrutiny. "Support companies are making out like Cisco at the dawn of the internet. The real money is in services rather than in making the vaccine," biopharma consultant Chris Stanley told STAT’s Olivia Goldhill for her STAT+ story.

The pandemic next time: Congress is working to prepare 

Congress, in a rare show of bipartisanship, is gearing up to try to prevent the next pandemic. Already, two powerful senators have publicly pledged to work together on legislation that will “make sure nothing like [Covid-19] ever happens again,” as the influential Democratic Sen. Patty Murray put it. Murray and her Republican counterpart atop the Senate’s health panel, Sen. Richard Burr, will work, too, to diagnose the problems and important lessons to be learned from Covid-19. The lawmakers’ public commitment is the clearest indication yet that the coronavirus pandemic may, as public health advocates hope, snap lawmakers out of a longstanding pattern of funding public health programs in a panic, then letting dollars lag over time. STAT’s Rachel Cohrs has more.

Immune cells persist in some melanoma survivors’ skin for up to nine years

Cancer immunotherapy can be remarkably effective at unleashing the body’s own immune system to attack tumors — but it works for fewer than half of patients. Scientists studying long-term melanoma survivors discovered that even after nine years, certain immune cells linked to anti-tumor activity persist in their skin and blood. These resident memory T cells showed up in skin affected by melanoma, but also in skin where patients developed vitiligo, an autoimmune condition that makes the skin lose pigment — a known side effect of immunotherapy. These cells are also found in tumors before treatment, so the scientists next want to learn how immunotherapy or vitiligo affect such preexisting immune cells, and whether they might predict who will have a durable response to immunotherapy.

Covid-19 cases in the U.S.

Cases yesterday: 86,903
Deaths yesterday: 1,454

In this week's episode of STAT’s “First Opinion Podcast,” First Opinion editor Pat Skerrett talks with Kara Zivin, a physician, research scientist, and professor of psychiatry and of obstetrics and gynecology who wrote about her own struggles during pregnancy in light of Meghan Markle’s. Listen here.

What to read around the web today

  • With Amazon and Ro on its heels, Uber expands its prescription delivery business. STAT+
  • How do plague stories end? The New Yorker
  • Rachel Levine, Biden’s pick for health post, is first openly transgender official to be confirmed by Senate. New York Times
  • Universities launch opioid litigation archive to ‘ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.’ STAT
  • Oligonucleotides and their discontents. Science

Thanks for reading! More tomorrow,

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