How will Covid-19/Coronavirus Affect my Alternative Investment Portfolio? Part 9: April 26th
Updated: 3 days ago
Bruised U.S. appears finally past peak, perhaps experiencing "The End of the Beginning"; U.S. hospitals bend but don't break; World eyes the lockdown exit door; Germany Plans to Reopen; The Herd Is the Word?; Another week, another disastrous unemployment report; Oil wipes out even further, futures plunge below $0/barrel; Small Business Emergency Loan Program gets more cash, still probably not enough; Covid-19 may NOT be a respiratory disease; Shocking 88% of Covid-19 ventilator patients die; Testing the antibody tests; 60% of Covid-19-positive sailors on U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt had NO symptoms, somehow the Navy was still surprised; Covid-19 antibody treatments may be viable early as Fall; The promise of "Far UVC Light".
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As usual, a ton of things happened this week which affect investors. Before jumping in, here's a quick summary of the series so far:
Bruised U.S. Appears Finally Past the Peak, Perhaps Experiencing "The End of the Beginning"
This week, the U.S. continued its life-or-death struggle against the virus. The country continued to be hit hard as deaths passed the gruesome 50,000 mark (54,161 as of yesterday). And for the 3rd week in a row, the disease continued to be the leading cause of death. But, there was also good news. The nation continued successfully bending down the death curve further. And the death doubling rate (the time it takes the number of deaths to double) dropped from 8 days to 2 weeks (14 days).
But that wasn't all. This week, the country also appears to have finally accomplished another crucial milestone on the road to controlling the pandemic. This week, we appear to have finally hit the peak of daily deaths and started coming down.
Note: The above is the 7 day moving average of the death rate. The University of Texas model concurred and concluded that there is a 96% probability that the initial peak was passed. The numbers are noisy and/or we could backtrack (see below on the risks of a 2nd wave). But no matter what, the drop this week was a welcome reprieve from the escalating battering of the previous 33 days. And it also marked an important and much-needed victory.
Back in November of 1942, Britain was also fighting for its life against the onslaught of the Axis powers. Like us, the British had been unprepared and surprised by the merciless speed of the enemy. And they also suffered a string of brutal defeats (from Dunkirk to Singapore). But, on November 10, 1942, they finally stopped the enemy's advances in Egypt and won their first major land battle. And Churchill famously said:
"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
This week marked that kind of victory for the U.S. Italy and Spain (who locked down ahead of us) appear to be even further over the hump. And Germany (who locked down later than them) looks more similar to us and is just getting over their peak:
Sweden, which is experimenting with a "lockdown-lite", is still trying to recover from a disheartening setback they suffered about a week and a half ago. This week, they perhaps stabilized, although their trend is also still stubbornly upward. So, these are mixed results, and it will take at least another week to see if they have managed to hit their peak or not.
The world would love to see Sweden succeed, because it would probably mean an easier exit from strict lockdowns for the rest of us. On the other hand, South Korea is an undeniable success and their mortality curve is the envy of the planet:
Besides China, South Korea is currently the only country to both successfully exit lockdown and squash Covid-19. And their strategy of aggressive use of the 3T's (Testing, Tracing and Treatment), continues to be validated by their success.
U.S. Hospitals Bend But Don't Break
It's still touch-and-go for the hospital systems in some areas of the U.S. Many have been stressed beyond their intended capacity. But unlike in Italy and some other parts of Europe, even the U.S.'s worst-hit areas like New York and New Jersey, have only bent, without completely breaking. And Italian-style hospital overload was mostly avoided through a combination of ingenious MacGyvering, technology hacks, horsetrading, last-minute logistical maneuvers and some luck (a reprieve from some of the worst case scenarios).
As a result, New York state has told the Army Corps of Engineers to hold off opening three huge, temporary field-hospitals it's built, because they aren't needed now. If there's a second wave, an official said they could be reopened within 10 to 14 days. They've also instructed the Army Corps to stop construction on a fourth facility. Virginia has paused the building of three field hospitals. And Michigan has downsized a field hospital from 1100 beds to 250. When a Michigan hospital in Detroit surged with 970 beds, only 33 patients were seen in total. The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the No. 2 Officer at the Pentagon, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, spoke about the unused facilities in a briefing on Wednesday:
"I’ve been asked, ‘Does it bother you when you look at those convention centers and you see that the beds are empty?’ For gosh sakes, no. That’s what I want to see.”
The World Eyes the Lockdown Exit Door
The lockdowns have succeeded in preventing hospital overload. But they've come at enormous economic cost. And unfortunately, the vaccine is still arguably 5 to 14 months away. Also, many of the most promising repurposed drugs have so far failed to impress (see last week's article).
So the big question is: How do the U.S. and other countries exit lockdown without triggering an economically devastating relapse of virus outbreaks? At this early stage, no one knows enough about the virus to say exactly what will and won't work. So each country is experimenting and coming up with their own answer to this. And all are closely monitoring themselves and others for what works and what doesn't.
Germany Plans to Reopen
Germany announced a plan to reopen shops and schools in the next few weeks. Small shops up to 800 square meters in size (including bookshops, bike stores and car dealerships) will be allowed to reopen on Monday. Salons will be allowed to open too, if they follow proper hygiene. Primary and secondary schools will reopen May 4th. Mask-wearing and social distancing is still encouraged in public and large cultural events including concerts and beer festivals are banned until the end of August. Other European countries are also trying their own unique exit strategies:
Note that the curve graphs above are based on the 7-day average of Covid-19 cases, rather than Covid 19 deaths (unlike the previous graphs and the focus in previous articles).
In theory, the number of confirmed cases should lead the number of deaths, which should make it a very useful advance indicator. But in practice, most experts agree that virtually every country is significantly under-testing. This puts the accuracy of these numbers into question. And since the consensus agrees that deaths are much more easy to definitively measure, this article series focuses on deaths instead of cases.
The Herd Is the Word?
Meanwhile, many poorer countries lack the economic capacity to pull off a lockdown. And even if they did, they don't have the money for adequate testing nor treatment afterwards. And some poor countries like India have famously overcrowded cities and villages. These make social distancing unrealistic. So what do they do? Unfortunately, many may be forced to go with the only "strategy" left: herd immunity. This is less a strategy, in the absence of a vaccine, and more of an acceptance of events. The concept works like this. When a disease has hit enough people in a population, it has difficulty finding new people to infect and eventually dies out on its own. Every disease is different, but the threshold for this usually ranges from 70 to 90% of the population. The downside is that even with a disease like Covid-19 that spreads fairly easily, it's believed that it would take months for it to reach the numbers that would imbue the population with herd immunity. And during that time of the virus running rampant, an almost unbelievably large number of people would be expected to die.
If this happened, it would be both socially and economically crippling. When citizens die and fall out of the workplace, and/or cause loved ones to take long leaves of absence from work, it costs the economy money. Those who die also take with them their spending, another contribution needed for economies to run well. Government agencies in the U.S. say the value of saving 1 million lives is $10 trillion, about half the country's GDP.
One strategy that might be applied here is to quarantine only the most at-risk population, and allow the younger/healthier to move freely. This assumes that when that threshold is hit, the disease is stopped. However, if a large proportion of the population is at risk (in the U.S., nearly 50% of Americans have high blood pressure, just one of the factors putting people at increased risk), it's impossible to reach the 70-90% tipping point. Now, in this, there may be a silver lining for some poorer countries. Many of them have much younger populations than Western countries like the U.S. And they are believed to have fewer of the health problems that would make them susceptible to the worst effects of Covid-19 (hospitalization and death). So, this could reduce some of the sting of what may be very bitter medicine. A team of researchers at Princeton University and the Center for Disease Dynamics, a public health advocacy group, identified India as a place where the exceptionally young population might be able to pull off this "quarantine just those at-risk" idea. A good 93% of the Indian population is below age 65. And, they estimated that in 7 months, 60% of the population could be infected, which they say might halt the disease. On the other hand, their 60% estimate is low versus the 70 to 90% estimates mentioned earlier. And some critics have argued that India's worst-in-the-world air pollution and hypertension in India could offset its benefit of youth.
Additionally, it's uncertain if, and how long, recovered people remain immune. So it's possible the effect could wear off in months, which would render the strategy useless. So far, India's government has not officially endorsed any such policy. On the other hand, the country uses overly tight testing criteria to conserve precious tests. And some critics charge that this is effectively allowing the disease to run rampant and the country is in fact unintentionally pursuing herd mentality. About a week ago, India appeared to have been peaking, but unfortunately now looks like it has accelerated again.
Another Week, Another Disastrous Unemployment Report
It feels like we're stuck in a broken record. This week's unemployment report was yet another breathtakingly bad one. About 4.4 million people were laid off in the last week, bringing the five-week total to 26.5 million. Bloomberg economists estimate this corresponds to about 20% unemployment. This is twice as bad as the worst of the Great Recession (at 10% in 2009). And it continues to approach the worst of the Great Depression (at 24.9% in 1933). And no one, no economist or list, expects the report to drop to 0 next week.
One good sign is that the trend continues to show we have passed the peak and are coming down. Since so many state unemployment websites and phone lines were overloaded over the last several weeks, it's difficult to interpret exactly what the wave of layoffs really looks like. It's possible that layoffs are continuing to occur each week (but in slightly lesser amounts). Or we may have gotten a huge number of layoffs in the first week which dropped off quickly (and the numbers we're seeing are the people who finally got through to file). Meanwhile, some people in multiple states are still having difficulty receiving aid. For example, 500,000 in New Jersey have not received promised payments. Many states like Florida, Texas and Illinois are attempting to ramp up their computer, phone and human systems to deal with the unmanageable deluge.
Oil Wipes Out Even Further, Futures Plunge Below $0/Barrel
With the global economy at a standstill, the demand for oil has collapsed. And a historic deal between OPEC, Russia and the U.S. was too little, too late. So now, American energy companies have a growing glut of oil and very little demand for it. And this week, many of them ran out of room to store it (or got dangerously close). The result was ugly and bizarre. On Monday, U.S. oil futures traders suddenly found themselves in the strange and unenviable position of not just giving their oil away for free but actually paying other people to take it off their hands. The West Texas Crude futures contract (expiring on Tuesday) dropped to an extraordinary negative number -- $-37.63 per barrel. And the May contract dropped as low as -$40.32 a barrel. This is the lowest level since records have been kept (which started in 1946 just after World War II).
The contracts recovered the next day to low, but at least positive, levels. But, in response to the underlying mayhem, crude explorers shut down 13% of the American drilling fleet versus the previous week. As of Friday, the price of oil itself recovered a bit from a low of $11.57 per barrel to $16.94. But U.S. frackers are unprofitable below a price of $40-$50 a barrel and many also have huge debt burdens. So this level is still far from sustainable for them. Additionally, the 1.7 million U.S. workers employed by the industry continue to be at risk. So on Friday, the U.S. Treasury announced it's considering creating a lending program to help support them with funds from the $2.2 trillion stimulus law. This would require Congress to give permission.
Small Business Emergency Loan Program Gets More Cash, Still Probably Not Enough
The CARES stimulus law included $342.3 billion in loans for small businesses affected by COVID-19. These convert into forgivable grants if the company uses them for payroll and rent and doesn't fire any staff. But the money ran out in less than 2 weeks. And many struggling businesses, who were already at wits' end, complained they were shut out from getting vital aid. So Congress passed a 3rd stimulus bill to add more money, and it was signed into law by the President on Friday. Out of $484 billion, $320 billion was given to the loan program, called the Paycheck Protection Program or PPP. (Also, the law set aside $75 billion for hospitals, and allocations for loans for other businesses including $60 billion for small and medium-size banks and unions, and $60 billion for the SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, etc.) However, small business advocates were highly skeptical this would do the trick. SBA statistics showed that the first round ($342.3 billion) resulted in only 1.7 million loans. That's a small fraction of the 30 million small businesses in the country. It may be very unlikely that an additional $320 billion will cover the rest. As discussed in detail in a previous article, the PPP program was already heavily criticized for favoring large businesses over small. This was unintentionally caused by bureaucratic logjams, overloaded systems, and snafus (by the SBA, the banks and the Treasury Department). This week, more criticism piled on. Lobbyists for large national restaurants had pushed through a three-word loophole in the law which allowed their clients to dip their hands into the pot of free money that was intended for smaller businesses. And sure enough, huge name-brand companies like Shake Shack, Ruth Chris, Texas Taco Cabana and Potbelly Corp rushed in to nab the limited cash in huge cash-grabs of $10 million and more (each). After public outcry, Shake Shack volunteered to return its grant (but some others haven't). SBA statistics were also released which showed that the top 4% largest companies took 40% of all the funding. This caused small business advocates to suggest that the rules be substantially revamped and that a certain amount of money be held exclusively for the smallest companies. As of the time of this writing, no such reforms had been adopted.
Covid 19 May Not Really Be A Respiratory Disease
Doctors in the field report that Covid 19 patients are displaying a lot of puzzling symptoms. These are starting to form a pattern that many believe shows we've fundamentally misunderstood the disease. The traditional narrative about how the disease works, goes like this. The virus has a unique shape that allows it to easily hook into ACE 2 receptors in the body. There are lots of these receptors in the lungs, so we assume the virus primarily attacks there. Most people who get the disease recover. But a small percentage (about 5%) get critically ill. Their immune system goes haywire and over-attacks the virus. This results in a "cytokine storm" which ends up destroying healthy lung tissue along with the virus. The patient can't take in enough oxygen and has to be put in the ICU and ultimately on a ventilator to live. (Although, as we'll see in the next story, about 88% of those ventilated don't survive). However, doctors noticed that many of the symptoms that Covid-19 positive patients are showing don't match up with the above theory. And many of these differences between theory and reality are serious, and often lethal. The explanation for the confusion probably starts with the fact that the lungs are not the only part of the body that has ACE 2 receptors. For example, the heart and blood vessels are rich with these ACE 2 receptors. And sure enough, a large number of patients suffer from severe cardiovascular problems. This includes: heart attacks, strokes, damage to the blood vessels, ischemia, pulmonary embolism, etc. For example, two Chinese studies of Wuhan patients found a startling 44% had arrhythmias and another 20% had heart damage. This has caused some scientists to hypothesize that the primary way that Covid-19 kills is actually by causing blood clots. These clots produce both the classic problems (related to the lungs and breathing) and also the cardiovascular issues (such as heart attacks and strokes). Doctors had been expecting an immense number of asthmatics and other respiratory-compromised patients to start filling the ICUs. But that has not happened. Instead, the risk factors seem to be mostly vascular: diabetes, obesity, age and hypertension. But the surprises have not ended there. The kidneys are also ACE-2 rich. And another Chinese study found that 59% of 200 Covid-19 patients in Hubei and Sichuan had protein in the urine and 40% had blood in urine samples. This strongly suggests kidney damage. Those with acute kidney injury were five times more likely to die as those without it. This matches with the experience of doctors in the U.S. in the field, who claim that a significant number of patients have kidney damage. Ventilators and some of the repurposed antiviral drugs being used in drug trials are also hard on kidneys. So patients may be taking a beating from multiple fronts. Another attack vector of the virus appears to be the brain, which also has plentiful ACE2 receptors in the neural cortex and brainstem. Doctors have seen many patients lose a sense of smell. More concerning, they have also seen loss of consciousness, brain inflammation, encephalitis, and seizures. Cytokine storms also wreak havoc on the brain, so again, patients may be fighting a war for survival against multiple enemies. The gut (which also has ACE2 receptors) also seems to be another attack vector for significant numbers of patients who suffer gastrointestinal infection and colon injury. Studies have found the virus's RNA in as much as 53% of sampled patients.
This also may indicate that the virus is easily passed on via feces (which would be an important but disturbing discovery). While a China CDC report dated February 15th found that feces did contain contagious virus and could be spread via fecal-oral route (i.e., by shaking hands with someone who had not washed after defecating), the U.S. CDC questions whether feces-carried virus is capable of contagion, finds no confirmed reports of contagion and declares it overall low risk. Quite a few patients also appear to have blood vessels that are abnormally constricted. This can cause the extremities to become swollen and require amputation. And many doctors have reported seeing patients with dangerously low blood oxygen levels that for some reason are not gasping for breath. Some hypothesize that a combination of the attacks on ACE2 receptors in the blood and the brain cause the patients to remain unaware of their need for more oxygen, even as that need is increasing. Cardiologist Harlan Krumholz of Yale University and Yale-New Haven Hospital is leading multiple efforts to gather clinical data on COVID-19. He sums it up by saying Covid-19 "can attack almost anything in the body with devastating consequences. Its ferocity is breathtaking and humbling. We’re still at the beginning. We really don’t understand who is vulnerable, why some people are affected so severely, why it comes on so rapidly … and why it is so hard to recover."
A Shocking 88% of Covid-19 Ventilator Patients Die
A sobering study of 2600 patients in New York City found that a shocking 88% of those who had to be placed on ventilators died anyway. The death rate rose to an unbelievably brutal 97% for those 65 and over.
One caveat is that the outcomes of another 3,066 patients in the study were still in question at the end so were not included. So possibly this might change the results. A small Chinese study of 56 patients also had similar results and found that 86% died. Additionally, the lucky few who do survive the ventilator may still find their lives permanently changed for the worse. First, patients have to be sedated to be able to tolerate a breathing tube in their lungs. So muscles responsible for breathing start to atrophy within hours. Additionally, sedatives are given to make it easier for the machine to work. But this immobilization causes the same issue for all the other muscles. When release from the hospital, many find they cannot walk, talk or swallow and have to learn to do these things again. Some never fully recover. The machines can also cause cognitive impairment. According to the medical director of Somerset's ICU, Michael Rodricks, "A patient who worked as an accountant may have a tough time going back to work. An elderly person who was previously independent might struggle to perform daily tasks such as driving or grocery shopping. And a runner might never be able to hit the same pace again. Your overall condition may take some time to get back to its pre-Covid, pre-ICU state — if it ever gets back to that pre-ICU state" Many ICU procedural guides initially suggested that patients be put on ventilators early in the course of the disease. But, the negative outcomes being seen are causing many doctors to question the wisdom of this.
Testing the Antibody Tests
One of the most crucial things we need to reopen our economy sooner rather than later is an accurate, mass-produced Covid 19 antibody test. These tests are different from the traditional covid-19 tests. The traditional tests can only tell if a person has the virus at the moment of testing. An antibody test tells something much more useful: if a person has ever had the disease. It lets us "see" our mostly-hidden enemy and understand key things necessary to defeating it, like its spread, infection rate, true mortality rate, etc. And, antibody tests have another huge potential benefit. If immunity to COVID-19 lasts for at least several months (as it does with other coronaviruses) then people who have recovered are immune from getting re-infected during that time. We can then give these people "immunity passports" to safely leave lockdown. Thus, people with immunity would be able to safely lead the important task of rebooting the economy. But from the beginning of the crisis, the Food and Drug Administration was strongly criticized for its slowness in authorizing tests to detect the virus. In response, it flipped to the opposite strategy and allowed 90 products on the market under "emergency authorization". Crucially, this means many of these products (including all the antibody tests) were never verified by the FDA for either accuracy or reliability. According to testing experts and later FDA warnings, some of the products were later determined to be of dubious quality and/or were marketing fraudulently. In contrast, the U.K. took a different strategy. U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said they would not roll out antibody tests until they could verify the accuracy, claiming: "No test is better than a bad test". A group of nine scientists examined this attitude by running several epidemiological models on different possible scenarios. The results have not yet been peer-reviewed. But they found that poor testing could indeed exacerbate peak infections versus doing no testing at all. On Friday, a multidisciplinary team of 50 U.S. researchers and physicians (from UCSF, UC Berkeley, Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, and Innovative Genomics Institute) announced that they were stepping in to fill this huge gap in public health. They had been working around the clock for weeks to test 14 antibody tests in record time. Since the work is both dangerous and detailed-oriented, each researcher worked in full protective gear and in a shift of no more than 3 to 5 hours. And all the shifts were staggered over 24 hours a day over the past several weeks. Again, the results have not yet been peer-reviewed. But if accurate, the results are both fascinating and sobering.
Each of the 14 antibodies tests was evaluated with the same blood samples of 80 people known to be infected by the virus, and at different stages of the disease. Unsurprisingly, they found that the accuracy of virtually all of the tests increased the longer the patient was sick. But the researchers were surprised by how long that took. None of the tests achieved more than 80% accuracy until at least 2 weeks into the disease. Disturbingly, the team found that 11 of 14 antibodies tests had a very high rate of false positives (averaging 5%). This means they would incorrectly tell 5% of people that they do have antibodies when they really don't. Since this could lead to people unnecessarily putting their health and lives at risk, many health professionals deem high false positive rates unacceptable for this sort of use. And four of the 11 tests did much worse than even this and had massive false positive rates from 11 to 16%. In happier news, three of the tests were standouts with greater than 99% specificity (meaning less than 1% false positives). These were made by Wondfo Biotech, Sure Biotech, and also an in-house ELISA test. One of them never delivered a false positive. The report also referenced the strategy of combining different types of tests to increase the accuracy further. The team also says it's not done yet. They've now acquired tests from 1100 manufacturers and are going to keep working. They're expanding the sample set to include people who were mildly ill and had no symptoms. And they will stratify the results by age and presence of chronic conditions. “This is just the beginning,” Dr. Marson said. “Our goal would be to keep going till we feel there’s adequate supply in the market.”
60% of Covid-19 Positive Sailors on U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt Had No Symptoms. Somehow The Navy Was Still Surprised.
Earlier in the month, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt suffered from a large Covid 19 outbreak and had to be put to shore. All 4,800 crewmembers were tested and the Navy found that 600 were positive for the disease. And out of that about 60% had no symptoms.
This is right in line with two previous scientific studies on asymptomatic victims, which we discussed back on in part 1. In one, 55.6% of those infected on a Japanese cruise ship carrying 4061 people had no symptoms. And in the Italian town of Vo, 3000 people were tested and 50 to 75% of those who tested positive had no symptoms. We talked, in this series, about these studies way back on March 16, as a part of a basic introduction to understanding the virus. But apparently, neither the U.S. Defense Secretary nor the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy are regular readers of this article series:
After the Roosevelt's study came out, the Defense Secretary told NBC that the results about asymptomatic carriers "revealed a new dynamic of this virus: it can be carried by normal, healthy people who have no idea whatsoever that they are carrying it." He said this "new" information was "disconcerting". The Surgeon General of the Navy claimed this study had taught them a "secret power" of the enemy virus. "We’re learning that stealth in the form of asymptomatic transmission is this adversary’s secret power." So I'd like to say to the Defense Secretary and Surgeon General of the Navy: if you'd like more up-to-date information on the virus than what you're getting, just let me know. I would be more than happy to hand-email you both a copy of this update, each and every week. ;)
Covid-19 Antibody Treatments Could be Viable as Early as Fall
As mentioned earlier, most health experts concur that a vaccine for Covid-19 is still at least 5 to 14 months away. But most economists agree that if we wait in full lockdown for the months required to attain a vaccine, there won't be much of an economy left to reopen. So, many were pinning hopes for a quick, "V-shaped" recovery on repurposed drugs. These are drugs that have already been approved for use on humans, and many of them can be manufactured in bulk. So that cuts out a huge amount of development time from the normal process. All that remains is to prove they work against the virus, and they could be ready almost immediately. And many of them looked very promising in early studies. However, each of these had only small or incomplete studies to show for themselves. And when hit with larger, scientifically sound studies, many of the former "contenders" have turned out to be mere "pretenders". For example, last week, we talked about how the malaria drug, Hydroxychloroquine, was tested in its 1st large, double-blind study. And very disappointingly, it didn't clear out the virus any better than taking nothing at all. Perhaps another repurposed drug will do better. But so far, none of them has risen to the challenge of passing muster. Fortunately, there's a third possible alternative: antibody treatments. Antibodies are the body's natural protection against invaders. They lock onto viruses and neutralize them. The problem is that this is a novel coronavirus which people's immune systems haven't seen and can't recognize. So it takes a while before the body starts to produce the desired antibodies. And by then, it's too late to stop the infection. And for some, it may be fatally too late. Antibody treatments bridge that gap by producing external antibodies that work against Covid 19. Unlike a vaccine, their protection would probably last only for weeks or a few months. But at lower doses, they can work as a prophylactic to prevent healthy people from getting the disease. So they could be given to doctors, first-line responders and public-facing business workers to protect them in their jobs. And at higher doses, they could prevent the disease from progressing in sick or severely ill patients. The time frames for antibody treatments are also more promising than for vaccines. There are many companies working on different approaches: AstraZeneca, Vir Biotechnology, Eli Lilly, AbCellera Biologics and several academic labs. Many plan to start human testing as early as this summer. And with luck, some believe they could have a manufactured product out as early as this fall. A veteran immunologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, James Crowe, says "The odds are very high this will work, especially when you have multiple programs and multiple manufacturers”. The former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, is even more optimistic. He says, "If I had to place one bet on a drug that could be available by the summer and could have activity and could have a profile that I think could change the contours of the infection, it would be the antibody approaches."
The Promise of Far UVC Light
Scientists have known for years that a certain type of ultraviolet light (called UVC) can destroy viruses quickly and easily. The wavelength of this light is very energetic and effective at destroying genetic material. Unfortunately, it's also highly dangerous to humans for the same reason. The light is highly penetrating and can cause skin cancer and cataracts. And it's intense. Exposure for even just a few seconds is the equivalent of hours of exposure to the sun (and its cancer-causing UVB light). So, UVC has been used only in human-free scenarios. Water sanitation plants use it in safe rooms to kill parasites and bacteria. Hospitals use it to sterilize tools. And more recently, some hospitals have experimented with portable UVC lights in hospital rooms in-between occupants, to kill "super germs" like MRSA that are resistant to all antibiotics. China has been pushing the use of UVC even further. It has put UVC lights into floor-cleaning robots in hospitals. UVC lights are used at banks to sanitize money. And it even uses UVC to mass-sanitize fleets of buses every night in surreal looking, ghostly, blue-lit rooms. See below:
So it's been useful, but only away from humans. More recently though, scientists have discovered a promising new type of UVC called Far UVC. Far UVC has a shorter wavelength than UVC, is easily absorbed by biological materials (such as skin and eyes), and can't penetrate beyond the outer layer. In lab experiments, this prevented it from damaging the important DNA inside. On the other hand, bacteria and viruses are tiny and so Far UVC penetrates and inactivates them successfully. A study in February by several researchers found that Far UVC could be used on mouse wounds to prevent them from being infected by the superbug MRSA. Another study by some of the same researchers found that using Far UVC light killed 95% of H1N1 flu virus in the air. Then, this Tuesday, one of the researchers (Dr. David Brenner of The Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University) announced "The research team’s experiments have shown Far-UVC effective in eradicating two types of airborne seasonal coronaviruses (the ones that cause coughs and colds). The researchers are now testing the light against the SARS-CoV-2 virus at Columbia in a biosafety laboratory, with encouraging results." If successful, Far UVC lamps could kill Covid-19 in the air before it can be spread to others. Far UVC lamps could be deployed in public places during hours of public usage, including at hospitals, doctor's office, schools and airports. And/or perhaps direct Far UVC human treatments could be next.
If tests go well, Dr. Brenner estimates that approval by the FDA and EPA and then mass production would take several months. Brenner estimates the cost between $500-$1000 per lamp, and lower if mass-produced.
Up Next: Part 10
High US Deaths Continue but also Slowly Subside after Peak;12 US States Ease Lockdowns;U.S. Force-fed Another Huge Helping of Bitter Unemployment;Many Unemployed Can't Collect Unemployment Pay; Unemployment Appears to Be Spreading to Industries Once Thought Immune; Majority of US Citizens Would do Contact Tracing to Get Out Of Lockdown;4,000 Volunteer to Put Their Lives on the Line to Give World a Shot at a Faster Vaccine;NABE Survey Suggests Quick V-shaped Recovery Is Highly Unlikely; Health Coalition Claims Vaccine Might Be Available As Soon as September; Remdesivir May Speed Up Recovery From Covid-19; Chicago Hospital Announces Effective Alternative to Deadly Ventilators Click here to continue on