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Alabama scientists are trying to help find treatments for COVID-19

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Department of Commerce announced Tuesday that a number of Alabama firms, research institutions and scientists have been mobilized in the international effort to fight the novel coronavirus, which has killed over ten thousand people this year.

Huntsville’s Diatherix announced that it has developed a highly sensitive and specific assay, or test, for the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that causes the COVID-19 respiratory infection.

Diatherix is located on the Huntsville campus of the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology. Its lab is prepared to evaluate respiratory specimens collected by healthcare providers for COVID-19.

As of press time, 250,614 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 across the globe since if first appeared in Wuhan City, China in November and it has killed 10,254 persons. Here in this country, 14,336 people have already tested positive for this illness and 217 have died since January, 187 just in the last ten days.

Birmingham-based Southern Research has announced a partnership with Tonix Pharmaceuticals Holding Group, a New York-based biopharmaceutical company, to test a potential COVID-19 vaccine. If trials are successful, it could be available as early as late this year. Their plan is to develop and test a potential horsepox vaccine that expresses protein from the SARS-CoV-2 strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. There is currently no vaccine available to protect against the disease.

“We look forward to this collaboration to advance a potential COVID-19 vaccine,” said Scott Goebel, a senior scientist in Southern Research’s Drug Development division and principal investigator of the project.

Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are desperately working on developing an effective treatment against the disease, that could potentially kill millions of people according to two separate recently released computer models.

UAB is home to the Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center, or AD3C, which focuses on developing treatments for four different virus families, including coronaviruses.

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AD3C research has produced an investigational drug, remdesivir, that is now being used to treat a few select patients in China and the U.S. who have contracted COVID-19.

“This is a prime example of how the research we are conducting at UAB plays a critical role in treating patients on a global scale and our contribution of substantial scientific advances,” said Dr. Richard Whitley, distinguished professor at UAB and principal investigator on the research project.

Southern Research is also a partner in the AD3C.

Birmingham-based BioGX Inc., a molecular diagnostics company based at the Innovation Depot technology incubator, is also involved in the effort against COVID-19. They have joined BD, a global medical technology company, to ask the FDA to authorize new diagnostics tests that would increase the potential capacity to screen for COVID-19 by thousands of tests per day.

BioGX developed an assay to detect the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19 for BD automated molecular diagnostic platform, which can analyze samples in two to three hours.

“The foundation of BioGX firmly stands on its team’s ability to step up and address such unmet needs with speed. Authorization to use our test would increase access across the U.S. to an automated, highly reliable SARS-CoV-2 test,” said Dr. Shazi Iqbal, chief executive officer of BioGX.

“Alabama’s scientists have long conducted world-class research in infectious disease protection and treatment, so it’s no surprise that they are deeply involved in the fight against COVID-19 disease,” said Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield. “The talents and capabilities of these Alabama researchers will benefit the overall global effort during this public health emergency.”

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Time is of the essence in the global quest for remedies. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world collaborate within Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville and Southern Research in Birmingham. I have spoken with many Alabamians employed in the field of biotechnology and confident that researchers are working around the clock to explore possible solutions to combat the unprecedented COVID-19 (coronavirus).”

 

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Birmingham’s mask ordinance to expire Friday

Eddie Burkhalter

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Birmingham’s ordinance requiring citizens to wear masks while in public is set to expire Friday. 

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin in a statement Tuesday cautioned the public against letting their guard down, however, and said despite the expiration of the ordinance, the public should continue to wear masks while out to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

“The City of Birmingham implemented the mandatory face covering ordinance as an additional level of protection as the state began the phased re-opening process. I want to thank the people of Birmingham for following the law. The ordinance raised the level of awareness to the importance of wearing a face covering when in public and within six feet of other people,” Woodfin said in the statement. “While the ordinance is set to expire on Friday, we must not let our guard down. Public health leaders say covering your nose and mouth is a critical tool to help reduce the spread of coronavirus. I urge everyone to keep social distancing, wear face coverings in public, and do what you can to limit the spread.” 

City employees and guests to city facilities will still be required to wear face coverings after the ordinance expires Friday, according to Woodfin’s statement.

The Birmingham City Council, with one dissenting vote, approved the ordinance on April 28  requiring the wearing of masks while in public, which went into effect May 1. Failure to comply with the ordinance could result in a fine of up to $500 and/or 30 days in city jail. Failure to comply with the ordinance could result in a fine of up to $500 and/or 30 days in city jail. 

The ordinance had been set to expire May 15, but City Council members later agreed to extend the measure until May 29. 

The Birmingham City Council’s decision to require the wearing of masks came after Gov. Kay Ivey replaced her “stay-at-home” order with a less restrictive “safer-at-home” order, which allowed some businesses to reopen with social-distancing restrictions.

The number of new confirmed cases of coronavirus across Alabama last week was higher than during any other week since the pandemic began and increase faster than in 46 other states and the District of Columbia, according to an APR analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that, because of the virus’s approximately two-week incubation period when a person could have coronavirus but show no symptoms, people should practice social distancing by keeping 6 feet from others and wear face masks while in public.

Doing so not only helps protect the wearer of the mask, but also all those around them. 

“It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus,” the CDC’s website states.  “CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.”

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | With COVID-19 policy, don’t blame your umbrella. The rain got you wet

Monica S. Aswani, DrPH, and Ellen Eaton, M.D.

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Monica S. Aswani, DrPH, is an assistant professor of health services administration and Ellen Eaton, M.D., is an assistant professor of infectious diseases.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this perspective are those of the authors.


As states re-open for business, many governors cite the devastating impact of physical distancing policies on local and state economies. Concerns have reached a fever pitch. Many Americans believe the risk of restrictive policies limiting business and social events outweighs the benefit of containing the spread of COVID-19.

But the proposed solution to bolster the economy — re-opening businesses, restaurants and even athletic events — does not address the source of the problem.

A closer look at the origins of our economic distress reminds us that it is COVID-19, not shelter-in-place policy, that is the real culprit. And until we have real solutions to this devastating illness, the threat of economic fallout persists.

Hastily transitioning from stay-at-home to safer-at-home policy is akin to throwing away your umbrella because you are not getting wet.

The novelty of this virus means there are limited strategies to prevent or treat it. Since humans have no immunity to it, and to date, there are no approved vaccines and only limited treatments, we need to leverage the one major tool at our disposal currently: public health practices including physical distancing, hand-washing and masks.

As early hot spots like New York experienced alarming death tolls, states in the Midwest and South benefited from their lessons learned.

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Indeed, following aggressive mandates around physical distancing, the number of cases and hospitalizations observed across the U.S. were initially lower than projected. Similarly, the use of masks has been associated with a reduction in cases globally.

As the death toll surpasses 100,000, the U.S. is reeling from COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. In addition, the U.S. has turned its attention to “hot spots” in Southern states that have an older, sicker and poorer population. And to date, minority and impoverished patients bear the brunt of COVID-19 in the South.

Following the first COVID-19 case in Alabama on March 13, the state has experienced 14,730 confirmed cases, 1,629 hospitalizations and 562 deaths, according to health department data as of Monday afternoon.

Rural areas face an impossible task as many lack a robust health care infrastructure to contend with outbreaks, especially in the wake of recent hospital closures. And severe weather events like tornadoes threaten to divert scarce resources to competing emergencies.

Because public health interventions are the only effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19, all but essential businesses were shuttered in many states. State governments are struggling to process the revenue shortfalls and record surge in unemployment claims that have resulted.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, allocated $150 billion to state governments, with a minimum of $1.25 billion per state. Because the funds were distributed according to population size, 21 states with smaller populations received the minimum of $1.25 billion.

Although states with larger populations, such as Alabama and Louisiana, received higher appropriations in absolute terms, they received less in relative terms given their COVID-19 related medical and financial strain: the CARES Act appropriations do not align resources with state need.

As unemployment trust funds rapidly deplete, these states have a perverse incentive to reopen the economy.

Unemployment claimants who do not return to work due to COVID-19 fears, per the Alabama Department of Labor, can be disqualified from benefits, perpetuating the myth of welfare fraud to vilify those in need.

The United States Department of Labor also emphasized that unemployment fraud is a “top priority” in guidance to states recently.

Prematurely opening the economy before a sustained decline in transmission is likely to refuel the pandemic and, therefore, prolong the recession. Moreover, it compromises the health of those who rely most heavily on public benefits to safely stay home and flatten the curve.

Some would counter this is precisely why we should reopen — for the most vulnerable, who were disproportionately impacted by stay-at-home orders.

The sad reality, however, is that long-standing barriers for vulnerable workers in access to health care, paid sick leave and social mobility pre-date this crisis and persist. And we know that many vulnerable Americans work on the frontlines of foodservice and health care support where the risk from COVID-19 is heightened.

A return to the status quo without addressing this systemic disadvantage will only perpetuate, rather than improve, these unjust social and economic conditions.

COVID-19 has exposed vulnerabilities in our state and nation, and re-opening businesses will not provide a simple solution to our complex economic problems.

No one would toss out their umbrella after several sunny days so why should America abandon public health measures now? After all, rain is unpredictable and inevitable just like the current COVID-19 crisis.

The threat of COVID-19 resurgence will persist until we have effective preventive and treatment options for this novel infectious disease.

So let’s not blame or, worse, discard the umbrella. Instead, peek out cautiously, survey the sky and start planning now to protect the vulnerable, who will be the first to get wet.

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Health

New COVID cases in Alabama increasing faster than 46 other states

Chip Brownlee

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Alabama reported more cases of COVID-19 last week than any other week since the pandemic began, and the increase in new cases reported last week compared to the previous week was higher than 46 other states and the District of Columbia.

An analysis of data collected by The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the pandemic, shows that only West Virginia, Maine and South Carolina reported a larger increase in new cases last week compared to the new cases they reported in the previous week.

According to The COVID Tracking Project’s data, Alabama recorded 2,556 new cases during the week ending Sunday, May 24, compared to 1,994 new cases during the previous week ending Sunday, May 17.  That’s an increase of 28 percent.

The Alabama Department of Public Health’s daily case totals show an increase of 17 percent last week over the previous week, which is still higher than 38 other states, according to the analysis performed on The COVID Tracking Project’s data.

COVID Tracking Project has a standardized method of capturing each state’s new cases from health departments, making it possible to compare the trajectories of each state. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia saw new cases decline last week, while 25 states saw new cases increase last week compared to the previous week.

Compared to other states, testing showed no similar increase. The number of new tests reported in Alabama last week only grew 2 percent compared to the previous week, according to the COVID Tracking Project’s data. That’s lower than 31 other states.

APR‘s data showed an increase of 13 percent over the previous week, but that is still a smaller increase than 25 other states. Both our data and an analysis of The COVIDTracking Project’s data show the percent of total tests that are positive rose last week compared to the previous week.

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The Alabama Department of Public Health does not provide historical data for how many tests were performed on each day. Both APR and the COVID Tracking Project calculate test increases by tracking the change to the cumulative total of tests performed.

Several other Southern states also saw rising cases and no similar increase to tests performed. In Mississippi, new cases rose by 9 percent last week compared to the previous week while tests per week fell by 21 percent. In Tennessee, new cases rose 15 percent while tests per week declined 8 percent.

Georgia saw new cases rise 21 percent, but tests also rose by 22 percent. Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina also reported both rising cases and more tests compared to the previous week.

Cases have been rising in Alabama since the beginning of the month. Testing has also increased, and public health officials, including State Health Officer Dr. Harris, have said they are not sure if the increase in cases is directly attributable to more tests or more disease.

Some areas of the state, like Madison County and Lee County, have seen little or no rise in new cases, while others, like Montgomery County and Tuscaloosa County, are experiencing worsening outbreaks.

Gov. Kay Ivey lifted the state’s stay-at-home order on April 30 and has since relaxed restrictions twice more, saying the economics of the pandemic must be addressed. The state reported an unemployment rate of 12.9 percent last week, higher than during any point during the Great Recession.

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Economy

Talladega will hold GEICO 500 on June 21 without fans in the stands

Brandon Moseley

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The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has announced that the GEICO 500, MoneyLion 300 and General Tire 200 automobile races have all been rescheduled for the weekend of June 20 to 21.

They will be raced without fans in attendance.

“We are excited that NASCAR has announced the rescheduling of our April race weekend to June 20-21,” said Talladega Superspeedway President Brian Crichton. “While we will have cars on track, in the interest of the health and safety of all involved, including fans, NASCAR will be running our three races – the GEICO 500, MoneyLion 300 and General Tire 200 – without fans in attendance in accordance with the State of Alabama, CDC and public health agency standards and protocols.”

The Cup Series GEICO 500 will be held on Sunday, June at 2:00 pm CST.

The Xfinity series MoneyLion 300 will be held on Saturday, June 20 at 4:30 pm CST.

The ARCA series General Tire 200 will be held on Saturday, June 20, 2020 at 1:00 pm CST.

“NASCAR, like Talladega Superspeedway, prides itself in being fan-friendly, and the fans drive everything we do,” Crichton said. “The decision to race without fans is focused on the long-term health of you and our sport. NASCAR has a great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition, and after thorough collaboration with public officials, medical experts and state and federal officials, NASCAR has implemented a comprehensive plan to ensure the health and safety of the competitors and surrounding communities.”

“For our June 20-21 events, we hope you will enjoy watching and listening to the 3- and 4-wide racing at the sport’s Biggest and Most Competitive track via our broadcast partners FOX, FS1 and MRN Radio,” Crichton concluded. “We will persevere through this together.”

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Ticketholders may elect to receive a credit for the full amount paid plus an additional 20 percent of total amount paid to apply towards a future event, including, but not limited to, grandstand seating, infield, camping, fan hospitality, and Talladega Garage Experience. The 120 percemt event credit can be used in a single transaction during the remainder of the 2020 season and entire 2021 season for a NASCAR sanctioned event at any NASCAR-owned track, subject to availability. Elections for an event credit or refund must be submitted by June 14, 2020.
Ticketholders may apply here:
https://www.talladegasuperspeedway.com/Vanity-Pages/2020/Assistance.aspx

Motorsports are the only major pro sports league that has resumed play after the coronavirus global pandemic struck in mid-March. The NBA is considering a proposal to playout the remainder of their season and playoffs sequestered at the Wide World of Sports complex at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida with no fans present. The NHL is in the process of considering a similar proposal to finish this year’s hockey season. Major League Baseball has not played a single game of their season yet. MLB owners have made a proposal that the league play an 80 game season without fans present. The idea is meeting with skepticism from MLB players due to a controversial proposal capping players salaries for this season in a 50:50 revenue sharing agreement. The proposal that would dramatically reduce MLB players’ salaries for this season. Horse racing and mixed martial arts have held some sporting events in recent weeks.

NASCAR has already held two races at Darlington and one at Charlotte after resuming racing on May 17. Kevin Harvik won the Real Heroes 400 driving a Ford and Denny Hamlin won the Toyota 500 driving a Toyota in the first two Cup Series races since NASCAR resumed racing after a ten week hiatus. NASCAR intends to run a 36 race season this year.

Motorsports are the only major professional sports league played at a major league level in the state of Alabama. In addition to the Talladega Superspeedway, the state is also home to the Barber Motorsports Parks near Leeds. The Barber facility hosts both professional motorcycle racing and the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, a NTT Indycar series event. That event was cancelled due to efforts to shut down the economy to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has already killed 98,705 Americans through Sunday morning.

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