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UAB expert updates BCA members on cornavirus pandemic

Brandon Moseley

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Dr. Selwyn Vickers, the senior vice president for Medicine and dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical School.

The Business Council of Alabama was briefed Thursday on the latest coronavirus pandemic news by Dr. Selwyn Vickers, the senior vice president for medicine and dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical School.

“This virus really started from what we understand by our best estimates in 2019, probably December maybe a little earlier in some instances,” Vickers said. “This started in the Hubei Province in China, Wuhan where an individual a young man, 29 or 30, was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia and they could not identify the source of this infection.”

“This was a virus of unknown origin,” Vickers said. “The meat market there had a tremendous risk with a lot of live and sacrificed animals with a lot of exotic animals present.”

“This began to spread,” Vickers continued. “An American citizen flying back from Wuhan. He landed in Seattle and was found to have a dry fever and cough. The first death was probably February 6.”

Vickers said that by early March, it was clearly a pandemic. “In China initially, then Italy was the focus where there was tremendous lethality and eventually America with New York as the initial hotspot focus with a lot of cases in that city,” he said. Vickers said that globally there are now 21 million cases of coronavirus.

“21 million: that is a very big number,” Vickers said. “While America is a large country, we are only 5 percent of the world’s population” and “nearly 20 percent of the world’s deaths and that is obviously very discouraging.”

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Vickers said that that is very challenging in the context of how we see each other performing and “how we see ourselves as a country.”

“There are over 700,000 deaths,” Vickers said. “We are 170,000 of those.”

“All of those things tell us that we still have a significant amount of challenges in our country fighting the virus,” Vickers told the business leaders. “We all have a lot of frustration with not having an effective therapy for this.”

“We have had coronaviruses in our bodies for a long time,” Vickers said. There are a lot of viruses out there including SARS, MERS, but “not one that has been as transmissible as this one with no known therapy initially when this started.”

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Vickers said that two years ago, UAB received a $21 million NIH grant to develop therapies for viruses. It was the lead institution along with Oregon and Vanderbilt in developing therapeutics. One of the areas in that was developing therapeutics for coronaviruses.

“At that time I was like, who cares, but now that is terribly important,” he said. Vickers said that that research has led to the development of Remdesivir, an investigational treatment, and the first antiviral to have demonstrated patient improvement in clinical trials for COVID-19. Remdesivir “was developed at UAB with Giliad in association with North Carolina and Vanderbilt and in conjunction with SRI (Southern Research Institute) and Dr. Rich Whitley,” Vickers said.

Vickers said that UAB has played a role in trials for numerous therapeutics to treat COVID-19, including hydroxychloroquine, which according to the data “is not effective in most studies.”

Vickers said that they have also evaluated dexamethasone. It has been around a long time and is used to fight inflammation. “It’s cheap and effective in helping someone survive a severe course of the virus in the ICU. Vicker said that COVID-19 “primarily attacks the small vessels in your body.”

Most of the time people get sick with it and get over it, but “about 20 percent get severe illness.”

“Every part of the body has small vessels: the brain, the heart, the lungs,” Vickers said. For someone suffering from “diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease the virus can be really challenging.”

“In almost every part of the country, African-Americans who live with chronic disease have a two times risk of deaths,” Vickers told BCA members. In Alabama, African-Americans are about “27 percent of our population; but about 45 percent of our deaths are African-American.”

“We don’t have a magic bullet,” Vickers said. “Right now we are seeing a decrease in our number of cases.” Vickers said that he would associate that “with wearing a mask.”

“You don’t have the option to work here if you have not had a measles vaccine, if you don’t take a mumps vaccine, a rubella vaccine, a polio vaccine you can’t work here in a public health world,” Vickers said. “This issue does fit into that category.”

“Fundamentally, the mask is a tool for you to protect others,” Vickers explained. Wearing a mask prevents you from spreading the virus to others, but it does not protect you from them if they are not wearing masks. It is for “the greater good.”

“Businesses very much have the right to say you have to wear a mask if you want use to serve you,” Vickers said. While some people have argued that mask mandates violate their rights “no state or city has been sued successfully.”

“For some people, if you have a chronic illness and you walk into a room are wearing a mask and nobody else is, you are protecting them, but you are not protected,” Vickers said. “You might want to walk out because they are not protecting you.”

Vickers said that there is great data from Seattle where two people showed up and 60 people got infected and four died.

If you test positive for the coronavirus, “The Department of Public Health will call you and ask who you have been in contact within the last 14 days,” Vickers said. Nearly 50 percent of the time, you can’t identify the people you have been in contact with.

“There will be a rollout on the 17th of a new contact tracing tool for either an Android or an I-Phone,” Vickers said. The app will record everyone that you come into contact with and whenever there is a positive case. When there is a positive diagnosis the individuals you have been in contact with within six feet and more than 15 minutes will all be notified.

“It only tells this individual the date, not the person, the place or the time they were exposed,” Vickers said. Alabama will be one of three states with an app like this, but “it is probably going to be adopted by several states.”

Vickers said that Google and Apple saw the need for this and they are encrypting the data so the data can not be accessed and it won’t be shared with even the government.

“UAB built that out with the Alabama Department of Health along with a small computer company in Birmingham, Mob Industries,” Vickers said.

Vickers has also been involved with research on a COVID-19 vaccine with AstraZeneca.

Vickers said that UAB and its partner St. Vincent’s have been doing trials on the two leading vaccines to make sure that the vaccine is safe.

“The early data shows that it is effective at producing antibodies,” Vickers said. “There are ongoing efforts to look at antiviral drugs.”

Vickers thought that vaccine could be available by the fall. To begin with, “it won’t be available to everyone. It will start with healthcare workers and spread out from there.”

Vickers said that UAB healthcare experts have been in high demand by the media. They have been on Fox News and CNN. “These experts 80 percent we have brought in from outside of Alabama. We are really in the business of talent acquisition.” Vickers said that coronavirus testing “will be with us for a while.”

“We want to ongoingly expand our ability to test,” Vickers stated. Right now, our test uses a nasal swab but there is a new saliva test that is simpler and easier to collect.

Vickers said that soon there will be point-of-care testing, where the test can be given in your doctor’s office and the results achieved just 15 minutes later.

Vickers said that the virus has made it “clear that our public health investments were not what it needs to be. Managing citizens around health is not just treating their illness.”

Vickers said that some people still lack healthcare. With infectious disease, “If we can’t protect those people nobody is protected.”

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Vaccines should protect against mutated strains of coronavirus

Public health experts say it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Multiple vaccines for COVID-19 are in clinical trials, and one has already applied for emergency use authorization, but how good will those vaccines be against a mutating coronavirus? A UAB doctor says they’ll do just fine. 

Dr. Rachael Lee, UAB’s hospital epidemiologist, told reporters earlier this week that there have been small genetic mutations in COVID-19. What researchers are seeing in the virus here is slightly different than what’s seen in the virus in China, she said. 

“But luckily the way that these vaccines have been created, specifically the mRNA vaccines, is an area that is the same for all of these viruses,” Lee said, referring to the new type of vaccine known as mRNA, which uses genetic material, rather than a weakened or inactive germ, to trigger an immune response. 

The U.S. Food And Drug Administration is to review the drug company Pfizer’s vaccine on Dec. 10. Pfizer’s vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, as is a vaccine produced by the drug maker Moderna, which is expected to also soon apply for emergency use approval. 

“I think that is incredibly good news, that even though we may see some slight mutations,  we should have a vaccine that should cover all of those different mutations,” Lee said. 

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found in a recent study, published in the journal Science, that COVID-19 has mutated in ways that make it spread much more easily, but the mutation may also make it more susceptible to vaccines. 

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In a separate study, researchers with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation found that while most vaccines were modeled after an earlier strain of COVID-19, they found no evidence that the vaccines wouldn’t provide the same immunity response for the new, more dominant strain. 

“This brings the world one step closer to a safe and effective vaccine to protect people and save lives,” said CSIRO chief executive Dr. Larry Marshall, according to Science Daily

While it may not be long before vaccines begin to be shipped to states, public health experts warn it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public. Scarce supplies at first will be allocated for those at greatest risk, including health care workers who are regularly exposed to coronavirus patients, and the elderly and ill. 

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking to APR last week, urged the public to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing for many more months, as the department works to make the vaccines more widely available.

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“Just because the first shots are rolling out doesn’t mean it’s time to stop doing everything we’ve been trying to get people to do for months. It’s not going to be widely available for a little while,” Harris said.

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UAB cancels third game

The only remaining game on UAB’s schedule is a game at Rice on Dec. 12.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The UAB Department of Athletics on Thursday announced that it is canceling its final home game of the season. UAB was scheduled to play Southern Mississippi on Friday at Legion Field, but the game was canceled due to continuing problems with COVID-19.

UAB has said that it will “continue to work with Conference USA on the remaining regular-season schedule.”

The only remaining game on UAB’s schedule is a game at Rice on Dec. 12.

UAB currently has a record of just four wins and three losses.

A win at Rice would guarantee the Blazers a winning season, but in this COVID altered season, a four and three or four and four record is probably good enough to be bowl eligible.

Southern Miss has had a dreadful season. They are two and seven and have two remaining games, against UTEP and Florida Atlantic. Both of those games were postponed from earlier in the season.

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Unless the season is extended a week to the 19th, there is no way for UAB and Southern Miss to make up the canceled game.

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Today is Thanksgiving

Today is a national and state holiday. Schools, banks, government offices and many private businesses are closed.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Four hundred years ago, on Nov. 11, 1620, after 66 days at sea, a group of English settlers landed near what is today Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Onboard the Mayflower were 102 men, women, and children, including one baby born during the Atlantic crossing, who made up the Pilgrims.

The Mayflower, captained by Christopher Jones, had been bound for the mouth of the Hudson River. The ship took a northerly course to avoid pirates, but the decision to avoid the then widely traveled sea lanes to the New World took the ship into bad weather, which had blown the Mayflower miles off course and left the ship damaged. Off Cape Cod, the adult males in the group made the fateful decision to build an entire colony where none had existed prior. They wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact.

“In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.”

After a few weeks off Cape Cod, they sailed up the coast until they reached Plymouth. There they found a Wampanoag Indian village that had been abandoned due to some sort of plague. During the Winter of 1620-1621 they lived aboard the Mayflower and would row to shore each day to build houses. Finally, they had built enough houses to actually move to the colony, but the cold, damp conditions aboard the ship had been costly.

Some 28 men, 13 women (one of them in child birth), and 8 children died in that winter. Governor John Carver would die in April. His widow, Kathrine White Carver, would follow a few weeks later. There is some recent archaeological evidence suggesting that some of the dead were butchered and eaten by the survivors.

The Mayflower and her crew left for England on April 5, 1621, never to return.

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About 40 of the Pilgrims were religious Separatists, members of a Puritan sect that had split from the Church of England, in defiance of English law. In 1609, they immigrated to Holland to practice their religion but ran into problems there too. Others in the group had remained part of the Church of England but were sympathetic to their Separatist friends. They did not call themselves Pilgrims, that term was adopted at the bicentennial for the Mayflower voyage. The members of core Separatist sect referred to themselves as “Saints” and people not in their sect as “Strangers.”

In March 1621, an English speaking Native American, named Samoset, visited the Plymouth colony and asked for beer. He spent the night talking with the settlers and later introduced them to Squanto, who spoke even better English. Squanto introduced them to the chief of the Wampanoag, Massasoit.

Squanto moved in with the Pilgrims, serving as their advisor and translator. The friendly Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims how to hunt and grow crops. The two groups began trading furs with each other.

William Bradford, a Separatist who helped draft the Mayflower Compact, became the longtime Plymouth Governor. He was also the writer of the first history of the Plymouth Colony and the Mayflower. Bradford’s more notable descendants include author, dictionary writer and scholar Noah Webster; TV chef Julia Child; and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

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In the fall of 1621, 399 years ago, the Pilgrims invited their Wampanoag Indian friends to a feast celebrating their first harvest and a year in the New World with a three-day festival. This has become known as the first Thanksgiving.

Today is a national and state holiday. Schools, banks, government offices and many private businesses are closed.

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Civil rights leader Bruce Boynton dies at 83

The Dallas County Courthouse Annex will be renamed in honor of Boynton and fellow Civil Rights Movement leader J.L. Chestnut.

Brandon Moseley

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Selma attorney and Civil Rights Movement leader Bruce Carver Boynton

Selma attorney and Civil Rights Movement leader Bruce Carver Boynton died from cancer in a Montgomery hospital on Monday. He was 83. The Dallas County Courthouse Annex will be renamed in honor of Boynton and fellow Civil Rights Movement leader J.L. Chestnut.

“We’ve lost a giant of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Alabama. “Son of Amelia Boynton Robinson, Bruce Boynton was a Selma native whose refusal to leave a “whites-only” section of a bus station restaurant led to the landmark SCOTUS decision in Boynton v. Virginia overturning racial segregation in public transportation, sparking the Freedom Rides and end of Jim Crow. Let us be inspired by his commitment to keep striving and working toward a more perfect union.”

Boynton attended Howard University Law School in Washington D.C. He was arrested in Richmond, Virginia, in his senior year of law school for refusing to leave a “whites-only” section of a bus station restaurant. That arrest and conviction would be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where Boynton and civil rights advocates prevailed in the landmark case 1060 Boynton vs. Virginia.

Boynton’s case was handled by famed civil rights era attorney Thurgood Marshal, who would go on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1960 7-to-2 decision ruled that federal prohibitions barring segregation on interstate buses also applied to bus stations and other interstate travel facilities.

The decision inspired the “Freedom Rides” movement. Some Freedom Riders were attacked when they came to Alabama.

While Boynton received a high score on the Alabama Bar exam, the Alabama Bar prevented him from working in the state for years due to that 1958 trespassing conviction. Undeterred, Boynton worked in Tennessee during the years, bringing school desegregation lawsuits.

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Sherrilyn Ifill with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said on social media: “NAACP LDF represented Bruce Boynton, who was an unplanned Freedom Rider (he simply wanted to buy a sandwich in a Va bus station stop & when denied was willing to sue & his case went to the SCOTUS) and later Bruce’s mother Amelia Boynton (in Selma after Bloody Sunday).”

His mother, Amelia Boynton, was an early organizer of the voting rights movement. During the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March in 1965, she was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She later co-founded the National Voting Rights Museum and annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma. His father S.W. Boynton was also active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Bruce Boynton worked for several years at a Washington D.C. law firm but spent most of his long, illustrious legal career in Selma, Alabama, with a focus on civil rights cases. He was the first Black special prosecutor in Alabama history and at one point he represented Stokely Carmichael.

This year has seen the passing of a number of prominent Civil Rights Movement leaders, including Troy native Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

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