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The first U.S. coronavirus vaccine trials have begun

March 17, 2020, 9:36 PM UTC

Happy Tuesday, readers.

As states and the federal government take more aggressive measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak, Boston-based Moderna is advancing in the race to create a vaccine against the pathogen.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that Moderna’s experimental mRNA-1273, which was developed in collaboration with the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has entered phase one clinical trials at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) in Seattle.

Government officials had telegraphed the launch of these studies, the first coronavirus vaccine trials in the U.S., on Monday. 45 healthy adult volunteers aged 18 to 45 will be enrolled in the trial over the next six weeks, according to the NIH.

Phase one trials are, as you might suspect, the earliest stage of the clinical process. They’re meant to prove that a treatment will actually be safe for a human before it advances to later-stage studies to establish efficacy in a wider population.

“The study is evaluating different doses of the experimental vaccine for safety and its ability to induce an immune response in participants,” wrote the NIH in a statement.

Moderna’s rise in this moment is striking given that some in the biotech community have been reluctant to embrace the technology platform at the firm’s heart. So-called “mRNA” tech, which uses messenger RNA to tell cells to express a certain protein that then leads to an immune response, theoretically helps build up immunity to a virus. But given how early such technologies are in the development process, there’s been skepticism in some corners of the biotech world about its promise.

The question is, can Moderna turn that narrative around?

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com
@the_sy_guy

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DIGITAL HEALTH

The IT strains of coronavirus. Have you had internet frustrations while working from home? I know I have. But it's still been possible, even with intermittent online breakages, to manage the situation. Not all businesses are so lucky, as my colleague Kate Jacobson notes. "Those struggling the most with remote issues right now are small businesses who can’t afford a strong IT support staff to implement these systems, and local and state governments with outdated equipment," she writes. (Fortune)

Trump administration ramps up telemedicine push. The Trump administration is expanding access to telemedicine services in a bid to keep elderly patients who are most at risk of contracting and falling seriously ill from coronavirus from visiting the hospital. “Medicare patients can now visit any doctor by phone or videoconference at no additional cost, including with commonly used services like FaceTime and Skype,” said President Donald Trump during a press briefing on Tuesday. The relative lack of Medicare coverage for telehealth has been a major barrier to seniors accessing such services—a reality that's been criticized given the challenges the population may have traveling to a hospital. (STAT News)

INDICATIONS

Sanofi, Regeneron want to teach an old drug new tricks. Speaking of coronavirus treatments, Sanofi and partner Regeneron want to repurpose their arthritis medicine Kevzara to try and tackle the virus. The companies say that patients with severe forms of COVID-19 had positive reactions to the drug, and that they would commence a mid-to-late stage clinical trial for those who had been hospitalized with the respiratory condition. (FiercePharma)

THE BIG PICTURE

The ventilatory supply chain problem. My colleague Naomi Xu Elegant has a detailed report on the ventilator shortage plaguing the U.S. and other nations as they grapple with the coronavirus. These ventilators are an absolutely critical part of treatment for the sickest patients in the ICU (after all, it is a respiratory disease). "ICU ventilators are bulky and expensive, so hospitals usually don't have a surplus," Naomi writes—and they don't come cheap, either. Check out her full explainer here. (Fortune)

Kaiser Permanente pledges $1 million to tackle COVID-19 among the homeless. This current pandemic will clearly affect the disadvantaged, the sick, the elderly, and the poor to a disproportionate degree. For the nation's homeless, it will be a catastrophe. Not only will there be fewer people outside to offer donations or supplies—but these are people who will constantly be exposed to the elements and have the least access to the health care system. Nonprofit health system Kaiser Permanente is trying to tackle that disparity with a $1 million partnership with the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. "Given the elevated risk faced by people living on the streets or in shelters at this time, we are making it a priority to support outreach, prevention, and treatment for this community," said Kaiser chief health officer Bechara Choucair in a statement.

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