Health Highlights: April 7, 2021

Health Highlights: April 7, 2021

'Possible Link' Between AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine and Rare Blood Clots: EU Agency

There's a "possible link" between the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and rare blood clots, but the benefits of the vaccine still outweigh the risks, the European Union drug regulator says.

Some countries have placed new age restrictions on use of the vaccine in people 18 and older, but the European Medicines Agency decided not to, the Associated Press reported.

Agency experts reviewed several dozen cases, mainly from Europe and the United Kingdom, and determined that such clots are "very rare" side effects of the vaccine that occur mainly in women younger than 60 within two weeks of getting the shot.

No specific risk factors could be pinpointed, the AP reported.

"The reported cases of unusual blood clotting following vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine should be listed as possible side effects of the vaccine," according to Emer Cooke, the agency's executive director, who added that the "risk of mortality from COVID is much greater than the risk of mortality from these side effects."

Oral COVID-19 Vaccine Being Tested

California researchers are testing whether an oral vaccine offers similar or better protection than current COVID-19 shots.

The capsule-delivered vaccine under development at the Chan Soon-Shiong Research Institute in El Segundo is being tested in healthy volunteers, CBS News reported.

Existing vaccines promote production of antibodies to the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but ImmunityBio's T cell oral vaccine targets the globe in the middle of the virus, a part that's less prone to mutation, according to scientists.

"And the value of doing so is that we generate killer T cells,"ImmunityBio founder and Executive Chairman Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong told CBS News.

The ImmunityBio researchers believe they may be able to create long-term protection by generating both antibodies and killer T cells.

"To have a vaccine that's room temperature that could be a pill is life-changing," Dr. Tara Seery, a trial physician, told CBS News.

Double Mutant Coronavirus Variant Detected in U.S. for First Time

A "double mutant" variant of the coronavirus has been detected in San Francisco, making it the first time the variant has been spotted in the United States.

The variant has two mutations that help the virus attach to cells and has been driving a surge of COVID-19 cases in India. One of the mutations in the new strain is similar to that found on both the variants first detected in Brazil and South Africa. The second mutation had been found in a variant in California. That mutation is believed to be more transmissible than the original strain of COVID-19, but it is not yet known if it is more resistant to vaccines.

The San Francisco case involved a patient from the Stanford Health Care Clinic and likely occurred in Santa Clara County, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, according to US News & World Report.

Initial study results have suggested that COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in the United States are effective against variants, and Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told the Chronicle that he's "optimistic" that the vaccines would work against the double mutant variant.

It is less clear whether the new variant might hamper the effectiveness of COVID-19 antibody treatments, he added.

"This Indian variant contains two mutations in the same virus for the first time, previously seen on separate variants," Chin-Hong said. "Since we know that the domain affected is the part that the virus uses to enter the body, and that the California variant is already potentially more resistant to some vaccine antibodies, it seems to reason that there is a chance that the Indian variant may do that, too."

Arkansas Bans Gender Confirming Treatments and Surgery for Transgender Youth

Arkansas on Tuesday became the first state to ban gender-confirming treatments and surgery for transgender youth, but opponents say they'll take legal action to halt the ban before it's scheduled to take effect in late July.

Under the ban, doctors can't provide gender-confirming hormone treatment, puberty blockers or surgery to anyone younger than age 18, and can't refer them to other health providers for the treatment, the Associated Press reported.

The ban became law after the Republican-controlled House and Senate voted to override Gov. Asa Hutchinson's veto of the bill, which is opposed by several medical and child welfare groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Critics say the ban will harm a community already at risk for depression and suicide, while the measure's sponsor, Republican Rep. Robin Lundstrum, claims the procedures are experimental and compared the ban to other restrictions the state places on minors, the AP reported.

The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the groups planning to challenge the ban.

"This is a sad day for Arkansas, but this fight is not over — and we're in it for the long haul," Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas' executive director, said in a statement, the AP reported.

COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program Announced by White House

A funeral assistance program that will provide up to $9,000 to cover the burial costs of every American who died of COVID-19 will be launched next week by the Biden administration.

The program, the largest of its type ever offered by the U.S. government, is open to families regardless of their income if they can provide documentation and haven't already received similar benefits through another program, the Washington Post reported.

As of April 12, people will be able to call a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) toll-free hotline -- 1-844-684-6333 -- to get information and apply for the program.

"Although we cannot change what has happened, we affirm our commitment to help with funeral and burial expenses that many families did not anticipate," acting FEMA administrator Bob Fenton said in a statement, the Post reported.

The number of people who will be eligible is not known and neither is the program's cost, but it's expected to be at least several billion dollars, according to the Post.

"It's a well-intended program that will benefit many," said Bryant Hightower, a Georgia funeral director who is a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.

But Hightower also said he thought it would be a difficult program to administer. For instance, when someone submits a funeral bill that is stamped "paid," he isn't sure how FEMA officials would know whether burial insurance had been used to pay for it.

Hightower added that when he and other funeral directors first heard about a possible funeral assistance program, he was told that the maximum benefit would be about $7,000. "We thought it might end up being half of that," he said. "Quite frankly, we were really surprised when they came out with $9,000."

The bulk of those eligible have already paid the expenses and must produce receipts and other documentation of what was paid for caskets or urns, burial plots, headstones, funerals, and other costs detailed by FEMA.

There is also a possible glitch in deciding who qualifies for the assistance: In the early weeks of the pandemic, many victims, especially those in nursing homes, were suspected of dying of COVID-19, but testing was limited. So, many death certificates did not mention COVID-19.

Now, to be reimbursed, those families may need to seek out doctors or coroners to amend death certificates.

"This is going to cause some issues," Hightower said. "It is really going to fall to the doctors and their comfort levels with amending the death certificates."

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