Covid relief stalemate could drag on for weeks

An impasse over the next round of covid aid looks likely to drag on after Democrats and Republicans described themselves as hopelessly far apart on a deal to combat raging economic and health-care crises. An agreement on legislation, let alone passage of a bill, looks weeks away. The Senate wrapped up its session Thursday afternoon and will not return this month unless negotiators strike an agreement.

The House had already left Washington for all of August pending a deal on pandemic relief. Leaders in Washington followed a familiar script Thursday. They indicated the sides have made no progress toward an agreement. They do not know when meaningful negotiations will restart. They called the opposing party unreasonable as millions of Americans wonder whether they can afford food or housing in the coming days and weeks.

Negotiators’ path to resolving vast differences of opinion over the best tools to stabilize a country ravaged by the pandemic looks murkier than ever. As the stalemate drags on, an ineffectual response from Congress risks hampering efforts to contain the world’s worst virus outbreak and blowing up positive steps toward an improved economy. The parties’ 2020 political conventions will consume their attention over the next two weeks.

If they return next month without an agreement, lawmakers will have to consider covid aid while trying to avoid a government shutdown by September 30.

It is unclear now when Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will sit down with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to resume discussions. Pelosi and Mnuchin last made contact by phone on Wednesday, when Mnuchin once again said the White House would not double the GOP’s roughly $1 trillion aid offer. On Thursday, Pelosi said she does not have a timeline for when the sides will talk again.

The talk can not wait until September 30, people will die. A fifth covid relief package has gone nowhere in 2½ weeks as financial lifelines continue to fall by the wayside. First, a moratorium on evictions from federally backed housing expired in late July. Then, enhanced federal unemployment insurance of $600 per week lapsed at the end of July. Over the weekend, the window to apply for Paycheck Protection Program small business loans closed.

The job market has showed signs of improving despite sustained American failure to contain the virus. But even after three straight months of torrid job growth, the United States unemployment rate of 10.2% in July stood slightly higher than at any point during the Great Recession. Financial markets have mostly shrugged off the the debacle in Washington, as the S&P 500 hovered just below its all-time high on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow said Democrats have asked for “too much money”.

Kudlow said Democratic-backed “voting rights” measures designed to make it safer for Americans to cast ballots during the pandemic are part of “liberal, left wish lists” the president would reject. So far, it is a stalemate. After talks collapsed, Trump took executive action over the weekend that aims to extend extra jobless benefits at a level of at least $300 per week, promote eviction protections, sustain existing student loan relief, and create a payroll tax holiday.

The orders could fall apart in court because Congress controls federal funding. In any case, governors have warned it could take outdated state unemployment systems weeks to adjust to the new rules and pay out benefits. It leaves an elusive deal in Congress as the most effective way to offer relief. But Pelosi, equipped with a visual aid highlighting key differences between the Democratic and GOP offers, said Thursday that the sides are “miles apart in values”.

They have failed to bridge a gap on unemployment insurance as Democrats push to extend the $600 per week payment. Democrats want more than $900 billion for state and municipal aid, a figure the Trump administration has called unrealistic. Pelosi said Democrats have pushed for more than $60 billion in food assistance, while a Senate GOP bill released late last month called for only $250,000.

A House bill passed in May included $100 billion in assistance for rent and mortgage payments, while the Senate plan did not include any additional funds.

Pelosi also increased her request for school funding to $300 billion on Thursday, a jump from the $100 billion the House approved in May. Republicans have called for $105 billion for schools, with much of the money tied to physical reopening. Comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday showed just how intractable the issues may prove.

McConnell described the request for more state and local aid as a “slush fund”. McConnell batted away Pelosi’s request for the GOP to increase the price tag on its proposal by $1 trillion, which is apparently the one thing that could bring Democrats back to the table. McConnell calls it throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Covid has claimed 8 more lives in Oregon, raising the state’s death toll to 383, including Deschutes County’s 11th death – the 8th among residents of Mt. Bachelor Memory Care in Bend.

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) also reported 294 new confirmed and presumptive cases of covid as of 12:01 a.m. Thursday, bringing the state total to 22,300 cases and 444,963 negative test results. The new cases are in Baker (3), Benton (5), Clackamas (14), Columbia (1), Crook (1), Deschutes (4), Hood River (2), Jackson (16), Jefferson (13), Josephine (2), Klamath (2), Lane (7), Lincoln (7), Linn (4), Malheur (12), Marion (35), Morrow (6), Multnomah (84), Polk (6), Tillamook (1), Umatilla (20), Union (2), Wasco (2), Washington (36), and Yamhill (9). Deschutes County has now had 11 covid deaths, 621 cases, and 19,876 negative test results.

Crook County has had 1 death, 51 cases, and 1,857 negative test results.

Jefferson County has had 4 deaths, 392 cases, and 3,671 negative test results. OHA reported an 85-year-old Deschutes County resident tested positive on July 12 and died last Sunday at his residence. The man had underlying conditions. He was the 8th resident to die in hospice care at Mt. Bachelor Memory Care in Bend, where an outbreak in recent weeks has led to 66 confirmed covid cases.

As of Thursday, 43 residents and 23 staff have tested positive for the virus. The majority of staff who tested positive did become symptomatic. Two weeks with no new positive cases will be needed to declare the outbreak over. Frontier Management, which manages the facility, is saddened to confirm the passing of one of its residents over the weekend. This resident was on hospice prior to the pandemic and did test positive for covid.

Frontier Management continues to implement practices set forth by the CDC, as it has since the beginning of this unprecedented global event. A large majority of cases remain asymptomatic, or have passed the crucial 20- and 30-day mark. St. Charles Health System reported 10 covid patients as of 7:30 a.m. Thursday, 2 of whom were in the ICU on ventilators.

Oregon’s 376th covid death is an 83-year-old woman in Malheur County who tested positive on August 5 and died August 10 in her residence; she had underlying conditions.

Oregon’s 377th covid death is a 75-year-old man in Multnomah County who tested positive on July 16 and died on August 8, at Kaiser Westside Medical Center; he had underlying conditions. Oregon’s 378th covid death is an 80-year-old woman in Clackamas County who tested positive on August 2 and died on August 9; more information about presence of underlying conditions and location of death is being confirmed. Oregon’s 379th covid death is an 81-year-old man in Clackamas County who tested positive on August 5 and died on August 11 at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center; he had underlying conditions.

Oregon’s 380th covid death is an 85-year-old man in Deschutes County who tested positive on July 12 and died on August 9 in his residence; he had underlying conditions. Oregon’s 381st covid death is a 55-year-old man in Columbia County who tested positive on August 7 and died on August 9 at Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center; presence of underlying conditions is being confirmed. Oregon’s 382nd covid death is a 78-year-old woman in Multnomah County who tested positive on August 6 and died on August 7 at Providence Portland Medical Center; she had underlying conditions.

Oregon’s 383rd covid death is an 84-year-old man in Multnomah County who tested positive on July 30 and died on August 9 at Providence Portland Medical Center; he had underlying conditions. With a covid vaccine still months off, companies are rushing to test what may be the next best thing: drugs that deliver antibodies to fight the virus right away, without having to train the immune system to make them. Antibodies are proteins the body makes when an infection occurs; they attach to a virus and help it be eliminated.

Vaccines work by tricking the body into thinking there is an infection so it makes antibodies and remembers how to do that if the real bug turns up.

But it can take a month or two after vaccination or infection for the most effective antibodies to form. The experimental drugs shortcut that process by giving concentrated versions of specific ones that worked best against the covid virus in lab and animal tests. A vaccine takes time to work, to force the development of antibodies. But when you give an antibody, you get immediate protection.

If researchers can generate them in large concentrations, in big vats in an antibody factory, they can kind of bypass the immune system. These drugs, given through an IV, are believed to last for a month or more. They could give quick, temporary immunity to people at high risk of infection, such as health workers and housemates of someone with covid. If they proved effective and if a vaccine does not materialize or protect as hoped, the drugs might eventually be considered for wider use, perhaps for teachers or other groups.

They are also being tested as treatments, to help the immune system and prevent severe symptoms or death. The hope there is to target people who are in the first week of their illness and can be treated with the antibody and prevent them from getting sick. Having such a tool would be a really momentous thing in the fight against covid. Vaccines are seen as a key to controlling the virus, which has been confirmed to have infected more than 20 million people worldwide and killed more than 738,000.

Several companies are racing to develop vaccines, but the results of the large final tests needed to evaluate them are months away.

Russia approved a vaccine that has not undergone such a test, sparking international concern that it was cutting corners. The antibody drugs are very promising and, in contrast, could be available fairly soon. Key studies are underway and some answers should come by early fall. One company, Eli Lilly, has already started manufacturing its antibody drug, betting that studies now underway will give positive results.

Lilly’s goal is to get something out as soon as possible and to have hundreds of thousands of doses ready by fall. Another company that developed an antibody drug cocktail against Ebola — Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. — now is testing one for covid. The success with Regeneron’s Ebola program gives it some confidence that it can potentially do this again.

Regeneron’s drug uses two antibodies to enhance chances the drug will work even if the virus evolves to evade action by one. Lilly is testing two different, single-antibody drugs — one with the Canadian company AbCellera and another with a Chinese company, Junshi Biosciences. In July, Junshi said no safety concerns emerged in 40 healthy people who tried it and that larger studies were getting underway.

Others working on antibody drugs include Amgen and Adaptive Biotechnologies.

The Singapore biotech company Tychan Pte Ltd. also is testing an antibody drug and has similar products in development for Zika virus and yellow fever. United States top infectious diseases expert, Doctor Anthony Fauci is cautiously optimistic about the drugs. Fauci is heartened by the Ebola experience where the drugs proved effective. The antibodies may not reach all of the places in the body where they need to act, such as deep in the lungs.

All the antibody drugs must make their way through the bloodstream to wherever they are needed. The virus might mutate to avoid the antibody — the reason Regeneron is testing a two-antibody combo that binds to the virus in different places to help prevent its escape. Lilly stuck with one antibody because manufacturing capacity would essentially be cut in half to make two, and you will have less doses available.

If a single antibody works, Lilly can treat twice as many people. The antibodies might not last long enough. If the antibodies fade within a month, it is still okay for treatment since covid usually resolves in that time. But for prevention, it may not be practical to give infusions more often than every month or two. A San Francisco company, Vir Biotechnology Inc., says it has engineered antibodies to last longer than they usually do to avoid this problem.

GlaxoSmithKline has invested $250 million in Vir to test them.

Giving a higher dose also may help if half of antibodies disappear after a month. If you give twice as much, you will have two months’ protection. Antibodies may do the opposite of what is hoped and actually enhance the virus’s ability to get into cells or stimulate the immune system in a way that makes people sicker. It is a theoretical concern that has not been seen in testing so far, but large, definitive experiments are needed to prove safety.

As best as researchers can tell, the antibodies are helpful. Stockholm and London both had the same covid infection rates earlier in the summer, casting yet more doubt on the herd immunity theory. Unlike most European countries, Sweden did not implement strict lockdown measures in response to the outbreak of covid. Instead, Sweden allowed shops, bars, and restaurants to remain largely open and students to attend school.

The United Kingdom like most other countries imposed a nationwide lockdown, with Boris Johnson’s government closing offices, schools, the hospitality industry, and restricting social contact between individuals. Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is widely credited as the architect of the country’s contentious response to the pandemic, justified Sweden’s response by saying countries that imposed strict lockdowns would most likely suffer large second waves later in the year, whereas Sweden’s would be smaller. In April, Tegnell predicted that by May 40% of people in the Sweden’s capital Stockholm would have developed covid antibodies.

However, a study carried out by University College London academics and published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, estimated that the level of infection in Stockholm in April was actually around 17%, the same level as in London.

The study poses a further challenge to herd immunity — the theory that a population will become immune to the covid virus when at least 60% of people catch it. Sweden opted against strict lockdown measures partly in the belief that this level of infection was achievable in the foreseeable future. Natural herd immunity, generated by letting covid sweep through a population, may have been an appealing notion to some because of the lack of a lockdown or curbs on people’s freedoms, but it was nothing more than an idea which lacked supporting data.

The Swedish experience of attempting to achieve this, compared to other Nordic countries responses, resulted in much higher numbers of infections and deaths per capita, in addition to a prolonged outbreak. These findings should prove a salutary warning, that appealing concepts and theories require supporting data when people’s lives are at stake and should not be used to fit pre-conceived narratives. 5,770 people in Sweden have died after testing positive for covid as of Wednesday morning, giving it one of Europe’s highest death tolls per capita.

The figure is far higher than in neighboring countries with similar political systems and social customs. Its per-capita death figure is more than five times Denmark’s, more than 11 times Norway’s, and almost 10 times Finland’s. There is currently insufficient evidence that covid antibodies provide immunity to the virus. People who catch a virus usually develop antibodies, which can be measured by tests.

It is not clear, however, whether having antibodies offers total — or even partial — immunity to covid, or how long such an effect may last.

A study by Kings College London published last month found that while 60% of people with the covid virus had “potent” antibodies, just 17% had the same level of potency three months later. The potency of the antibodies fell by as much as 23 times over the three months and in some cases antibodies were undetectable at the end of that period of time. The findings put another nail in the coffin of the dangerous concept of herd immunity.

Prime Minister Johnson’s United Kingdom government has denied initially trying to pursue a strategy of herd immunity before it was warned that it would lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. An Italian health minister in June said Johnson revealed his plan to pursue herd immunity in a phone call with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on March 13, a little more than a week before the United Kingdom entered a countrywide lockdown. On the same day, Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser to the United Kingdom government, believed the United Kingdom would be able to achieve herd immunity.

Despite strict lockdown in the United Kingdom, and the more measured Swedish response, both countries have high seven-day averaged Sars-CoV-2 death rates when compared to other Scandinavian and European countries. Synthetic antibodies that researchers believe neutralize the covid virus have been created at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and could be available for use in nose sprays or inhalers within a few months if clinical trials go well. The researchers hope the development will be a game changer in the worldwide effort to halt the pandemic.

The tiny, engineered protein molecules, developed in two UCSF laboratories by a team of 60 scientists, including doctoral and graduate students, are modeled after super-strength antibodies found in llamas and camels.

Dubbed AeroNabs, the synthetic antibodies bind to and inactivate the infamous spike proteins that the covid virus uses to penetrate and commandeer human cells. It is like a mousetrap. It binds to the spike protein so tightly that it basically never lets go.

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