WEDNESDAY, Sept. 2, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- In a finding that should encourage scientists who are racing to develop coronavirus vaccines, a new study out of Iceland suggests that immunity to the disease may not be as fleeting as first thought.
Among 30,000 Icelandic residents who were tested for antibodies to COVID-19, researchers discovered the antibodies stayed in people's systems for at least four months, the study found.
Of those who tested positive for the coronavirus, 487 had received multiple antibody tests. In the first two months after a patient was diagnosed, the antibodies that can confer immunity rose significantly. For the next two months, antibody levels remained stable, according to the study published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In a commentary that accompanied the study, scientists from Harvard University and the U.S. National Institutes of Health noted that while the Icelandic research focused on a largely homogeneous population, "this study provides hope that host immunity to this unpredictable and highly contagious virus may not be fleeting and may be similar to that elicited by most other viral infections."
Earlier research on coronavirus antibodies had indicated that immunity might be short-lived, leaving people vulnerable to reinfection. But the Icelandic study offers hope that a vaccine that triggers a strong immune response will have a longer-lasting effect than some had believed.
Interestingly, the Icelandic researchers also found that women, nonsmokers and older patients had higher levels of antibodies, as did those who had suffered more severe infections, the newspaper said.
Also on Tuesday, the Trump administration announced it will not join a global effort to develop, manufacture and equitably distribute a coronavirus vaccine, in part because the World Health Organization is involved.
More than 170 countries are discussing participating in the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) Facility, which aims to speed vaccine development, secure doses for all countries and distribute them to the most high-risk segment of each population, the Washington Post reported.
The plan, which is co-led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the vaccine alliance known as Gavi, is backed by traditional U.S. allies, including Japan, Germany and the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, the Post reported.
In recent months, President Donald Trump has criticized the WHO over what he described as its "China-centric" response to the pandemic.
USDA extends flexible school meals program
In some good news on Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would extend its flexible free school meals program through the fall, to help keep millions of kids fed as the coronavirus pandemic continues to hold the country in its grip.
The program, which allowed parents and caregivers to collect free meals for their kids at any school this summer, was set to expire at the start of September but pressure had been mounting on the agency to continue the program, the Post reported.
In mid-August, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that extending the full scope of the free meals for kids program beyond August would go "beyond what [the] USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded."
However, Perdue said in a statement released Monday that his agency was "extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially." The statement said the millions of families that rely on the program would be able to do so until as late as the end of the year.
"This extension of summer program authority will employ summer program sponsors to ensure meals are reaching all children whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually -- so they are fed and ready to learn, even in new and ever-changing learning environments," Perdue added.
School nutrition experts applauded the move.
Speaking in the USDA news release, Reggie Ross, president of the School Nutrition Association, said his group "greatly appreciates USDA addressing the critical challenges shared by our members serving students on the frontlines these first weeks of school."
"Today's announcement brings a huge relief to our school meal program and the community we serve," Lindsay Aguilar, director of Food Services for Tucson Unified School District in Arizona, added in the statement. "Many of our families who might not qualify for free meals are still going through a tough time and are worried about how to keep food on the table. Now their children will have one less thing to worry about as they adjust to evolving in-school and remote learning scenarios."
New report shows COVID-19 spreading fastest among kids, teens
Even as schools reopen, a new report shows COVID-19 is now spreading at a faster rate in children and teenagers than among the general public.
The troubling data, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, comes as schools and universities around the country are reopening for fall classes.
Since the start of the summer, every state in the country has witnessed an increase in the number of young people who have tested positive for coronavirus. In late May, about 5 percent of the nation's cases were recorded in minors, the New York Times reported. By Aug. 20, that number had risen to more than 9 percent.
Young children seem to catch and transmit the virus less often than adults, but Dr. Sean O'Leary, vice chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases, told the Times that community spread in many parts of the United States this summer has corresponded with more infections among children.
After reports of outbreaks at summer camps, it is clear that the virus can spread among children under certain circumstances, Dr. William Raszka Jr., a pediatric infectious disease expert at the University of Vermont's College of Medicine, told the Times. He worries about opening schools in places where infection rates are high.
"One of the challenges is that you just can't separate schools from the community," Raszka said. "When there's a really high prevalence rate in the community and you open schools, there's going to be a lot of transmission in schools."
Debunking the theory that more testing is the only reason why more kids are now being diagnosed with COVID-19, O'Leary told the Times there is evidence that minors are truly being infected at a higher rate now than earlier in the year because hospitalizations and deaths among children have increased as well.
"Anyone who has been on the front lines of this pandemic in a children's hospital can tell you we've taken care of lots of kids that are very sick," O'Leary told the Times. "Yes, it's less severe in children than adults, but it's not completely benign."
Cases keep mounting
By Wednesday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 6 million as the death toll passed 184,500, according to a Times tally.
According to the same tally, the top five states in coronavirus cases as of Wednesday were: California with over 716,600; Texas with more than 645,000; Florida with over 631,000; New York with more than 440,000; and Georgia with over 256,000.
Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.
India has now surpassed Mexico in the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus. The nation of 1.3 billion people now has the world's third-highest death toll at more than 66,000, according to a Johns Hopkins tally. It is behind only Brazil and the United States. With India's new infections exceeding 75,000 for the past five days, the virus appears to be tightening its grip on that country, the Times said. As of Wednesday, more than 3.7 million coronavirus cases have been reported in that country.
Brazil is also a hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic, with over 3.9 million confirmed infections by Wednesday, according to the Hopkins tally. It has the second-highest number of cases, behind only the United States.
Cases are also spiking in Russia: On Wednesday, the country's coronavirus case count passed 1 million, the Times reported. Cases continue to rise by about 5,000 per day despite an official declaration in early August that the country had a vaccine.
The death toll in Russia is officially now 17,365. When President Vladimir Putin announced the vaccine, health officials said mass vaccination would start in October. But the country's health ministry has pushed back that timeline to November or December.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 25.7 million on Wednesday, with over 857,000 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.