Health Highlights: Feb. 2, 2021

Russian COVID-19 Vaccine Safe and Effective: Study

Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine appears safe and effective, according to early results of a late-stage study.

The trial of the vaccine, called Sputnik V, involved about 20,000 people in Russia last fall. It found that the vaccine is about 91% effective and also appears to prevent severe COVID-19 illness, the Associated Press reported.

The findings by Russian researchers were published online Tuesday in The Lancet journal.

The Sputnik V vaccine was approved by the Russian government last August and is increasingly being bought by nations desperate to stem the pandemic, the AP reported.

Some scientists had expressed concerns about “unseemly haste, corner cutting and an absence of transparency” in the vaccine’s development, but the “outcome reported here is clear,” British scientists Ian Jones and Polly Roy wrote in a commentary accompanying the study.

“Another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of COVID-19,” they noted, the AP reported.

Lack of Staff, PPE Hinder Nursing Homes’ Fight Against Coronavirus: Report

Staff shortages and a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) are among the reasons why U.S. nursing homes have been so severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

In a new report, the group said that about one-fifth of nursing homes — more than 3,000 — didn’t have enough doctors, nursing aides and other health care staff during December, CBS News reported.

Many nursing home workers contracted COVID-19, forcing them to take time off. Remaining staff members had to fill the gaps and interact with more residents at once, leading to more outbreaks, the report said.

Nursing home residents represent about 1% of the U.S. population, but have accounted for 2% of all COVID-19 infections, and 25% of deaths from the virus, CBS News reported.

“Not only are the shortages a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say, but in a circular nightmare, the staff shortages also fueled more COVID outbreaks in nursing homes among residents and staff,” according to the report.

Although worker turnover in the nursing home industry has always been high, the pandemic has worsened the problem. Some clinical care staffers, overwhelmed by the stress and fear of catching COVID-19, have left the field altogether, CBS News reported.

At the same time, other nursing home professionals, many of them women with young children, had to quit their jobs to help their kids with remote schooling, and other workers found themselves taking time off to care for loved ones at home who had contracted the virus, according to the report.

In a separate report, the group said insufficient supplies of PPE have been another problem for nursing homes during the pandemic, with 8% not having enough surgical-grade N95 masks in December, CBS News reported. PPE supply levels improved during the fall, but worsened again in December as demand spiked, in part because health care workers administering coronavirus vaccines are required to wear masks and other protective gear.

“This is indefensible. Nursing home workers desperately need these supplies to take care of themselves, their patients and the broader community,” US PIRG staffer Teresa Murray said in a statement.

Moderna Wants to Increase Number of Doses in COVID-19 Vaccine Vials

A decision on whether to allow Moderna to increase the number of doses in its vials of COVID-19 vaccine is expected from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration within a few weeks.

Moderna’s vaccine is one of two approved coronavirus vaccines in the United States, and boosting the number of doses in its vials could increase vaccination rates across the nation, The New York Times reported.

The company would like to bump the number of doses in its vials from 10 to as many as 15. The current dose limit is slowing Moderna’s output of the vaccine, company spokesman Ray Jordan said in a statement.

While it’s discussed the proposed change with the FDA, Moderna hasn’t yet provided the agency with manufacturing data to support it, people familiar with the discussions said, the Times reported.

The FDA may be open to the idea of permitting more doses in each vial, but may not be willing to approve a 50% increase, the newspaper said.

There are potential downsides to putting more vaccine in each vial: The industry standard has long been 10 doses per vial, and federal regulators may be concerned that the extra punctures by needles of the rubber covering of the vial and the time required to extract more doses could raise the risk of contaminating the vaccine.

And at some point, too much liquid can cause a vial to break. Moderna has tested what happens when it adds additional doses, and determined that the limit is 15 doses, according to people familiar with the company’s operations who were not authorized to speak publicly, the Times reported.

Putting more vaccine into each vial could also lead to more wasted doses if a health care professional runs out of people to get shots and has to throw out the rest of the vial. But in the midst of a pandemic, experts said, that may well be a risk that federal health officials would be willing to take, the Times reported.