In this week’s roundup, we look at the impact of new COVID-19 variants on existing vaccines for the disease; South Africa made the difficult decision to stop using its most readily available vaccine after it showed limited effectiveness against the variant most common there.
This is an important reminder that getting the first vaccines approved was a critical milestone but that we are still far from being out of this pandemic. The landscape for vaccines and treatments continues to evolve.
Other recent news includes updates on drug pricing reforms under the Biden administration, a look at the impact of the Human Genome Project over the past 20 years, capturing heart and respiratory rates in a selfie, and the promise of 3D-printed hearts.
Each week, we highlight five things you need to know about in the life sciences industry. Here’s the latest.
The B.1.351 variant of COVID-19, which has become prevalent in South Africa, is proving more difficult to contain using the current crop of vaccines. South Africa has stopped distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine – which is cheaper and more readily available than other vaccines – after a small study showed that it “‘provides minimal protection’ against mild disease caused by the new coronavirus variant,” according to the Stat article linked above.
Further research is needed, but the company is already in the process of adapting its vaccine to improve its efficacy against this variant.
In his first weeks in office, President Biden has already issued 29 executive orders covering a range of issues such as COVID-19 testing, immigration, the Census, domestic manufacturing and climate change. Largely absent from this activity so far are orders directly targeting drug pricing reform, which – along with the expansion of the Affordable Care Act – was a frequent topic on the campaign trail.
The reality is that with a slim majority in the House of Representatives and a divided Senate, the president may take a much more metered approach in terms of drug pricing, potentially looking to support efforts of Congress more than rely on executive orders, which are more readily scrutinized and more easily overturned.
This Forbes article highlights what we might see from Biden’s first year in office. It notes that while executive orders calling for direct price controls “are unlikely to come from the current administration,” we can expect continued pressure on pricing, rebates and payments to intermediaries in the drug supply chain.
The Human Genome Project (HGP) published its first draft papers 20 years ago and it is hard to overstate the impact this work has had on biology and life sciences. It is easy to forget that prior to the start of the HGP, there were debates on whether the project was worth doing at all. This article in Nature looks back and quantifies the impact the project has had to date and the importance of the foundation it laid for modern genetics.
Typically, the Apple Watch and other fitness trackers use an optic red or green light that requires close contact to skin in order to measure health vitals. Google, however, will soon use just the phone’s camera to record these same measurements, as this TechCrunch piece explains. For respiratory rate, the technology will rely on a technique known as “optical flow,” which monitors movements in the person’s chest as they breathe. For heart rate, the rear-facing camera will measure subtle color changes in the person’s fingertip. Google’s data indicates respiratory rate accuracy to within 1 breath per minute and heart rate monitoring to “within a 2% margin of error, on average, across people with a range of different skin types.”
A team of researchers recently repurposed a low-cost 3D printer to turn an MRI scan of a human heart into a 3D, flesh-like, full-size model. This project involved using materials in the model heart that, compared to plastic, are much more similar to the elasticity of real tissue, per this article in Wired. This would allow surgeons to practice suturing, which was previously impossible with impenetrable plastic models. The team also 3D-printed a separate section of a coronary artery that successfully held fake blood. This could be a key step toward doctors being able to suture arteries with blood still flowing. The team also “hopes to eventually ‘cellularize’ the printed heart,” according to Wired, meaning they would “add human heart muscle cells to the structure, to make it beat like the real thing.”