Pfizer or Moderna?
With COVID-19 vaccinations open to L.A. County residents 16 and over, people booking appointments often want one or the other.
To respond to the demand, the state's appointment booking site, My Turn, will soon begin listing which vaccine a clinic plans to administer. And many sites already list the information. One reason is that only Pfizer is approved for 16 and 17 years olds.
California Department of Public Health spokesperson Darrel Ng said "the best vaccine is the first one that's available."
For months, volunteers helping L.A. residents book appointments noticed partiality to the Johnson & Johnson shot, which only requires one dose.
But this week, L.A. stopped administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported six cases of blood clots among those who received it. It's unclear when L.A. sites will resume administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Even now, with one fewer choice on the table, vaccine preference hasn't disappeared.
Liz Schwandt, who runs the volunteer program Get Out the Shot, offered a few tips to see what's available:
- Start with L.A. County's appointment site VaccinateLACounty.com and click on "How to Make an Appointment" highlighted in blue on the left-hand column.
- Below the first heading, click option 2: Look for an appointment.
- Scroll down past the first list of clinics and hospitals and pharmacies. You can try these links — if you'd rather visit a CVS, for example — but not every website will display vaccine type and you may have to call. CVS and other pharmacies usually release new slots early each morning.
- Look for the dark blue heading titled "Clinics and Hospitals Serving Community Members."
- Check the upper righthand corner of each listed vaccination site for the type of vaccine offered. Most will direct you to My Turn to book the appointment.
Schwandt said to consider calling the vaccination site prior to your appointment to make sure the vaccine you want is offered there — especially if you're 16 or adamant about getting a certain shot.
She said smaller clinics and pop-up sites tend to be more reliable when it comes to administering the exact vaccine listed on these websites. And it can be easier to get on the phone with someone there. Mega pods and larger hospitals may have access to both vaccines and could switch things up on you last minute.
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New Study Finds That UCLA and Other Top Research Universities Have Done Little To Make New Drugs Accessible
Despite gobbling up taxpayer dollars, UCLA and other top U.S. research universities are not doing enough to make drugs and medical devices financially accessible to people in low-income countries, a new report found.
Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student-run nonprofit focused on making costly medicines cheaper worldwide, used public data and a survey to rank 60 universities on their dedication to improve health disparities in low-income countries.
UCLA and 16 other top public universities that develop drug treatments got a D-minus rating for centering much of their research around private companies and failing to prioritize global health. The report also found the university failed to fund many projects that would help treat neglected diseases most common in low-income countries.
Avani Reddy, a neuroscience student at UCLA and one a member of UAEM, said the group compiled the report to ensure that her school and other universities were developing drugs at "sustainable prices and not obnoxious prices."
Georgetown and Harvard ranked highest with a B- while other UC system schools, including San Francisco and Davis, also got Ds, while Irvine got a F.
UCLA declined to respond to questions about the study, but said the university did not participate. UAEM ranked universities that did not respond lower than those that did.
"It should be that that research is accessible to people," said Devika Shenoy, a UCLA student and UAEM member studying human biology and society.
The 20-year-old student organization was born out of an effort by Yale University students to make an HIV/AIDS drug developed at the school and distributed by Bristol-Myers Squibb cheaper for low-income countries by allowing for the production of generics.
UCLA received $840 million in federal dollars for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, much of which went towards the medical and life sciences schools.
UAEM wants major federally funded research universities to focus on the issues big pharma companies find less profitable, like when Johns Hopkins surrendered a tuberculosis drug to a United Nations-supported organization to distribute the drug royalty-free. These schools, UAEM argues, should serve a larger public good in part because the public is paying for the research.
"Universities hold influence to leverage their significant contribution in biomedical research to advance global access to essential medicines and health technologies," the UAEM report said, pointing to the fact that one-third of new medicines originate in universities, according to a 2010 report.
UCLA has come under fire for drug access before. In 2016, the school sold a drug it developed to treat prostate cancer to Royalty Pharma. When a generic drug company in India tried to reproduce it, the school filed a patent claim, sparking protests. Ultimately, UCLA prevailed. But the incident highlights the pressure public-funded research universities are under to make their discoveries available and the competing demand from a market that relies on them.
Low and middle-income countries "may not have access to those resources to invest in R&D the way that schools like UCLA can in order to ensure that global public health needs are really being prioritized," Shenoy said.
COVID has brought these issues to the forefront. Oxford University originally developed its COVID-19 vaccine with the promise it would be open source so it could be distributed in low-income countries at a low cost or for free. Instead, it became the AstraZenca vaccine after the Gates Foundation brokered a deal between the two parties.
Meanwhile, only 0.1% of COVID-19 vaccines have made it to low-income countries. In 2020, organizations like Amnesty International warned that many in low-income countries would not have access to patented vaccines owned by wealthier countries. Vaccines specifically made with cheaper and accessible materials have just begun clinical trials, and pharma giant Pfizer will start testing a freeze-dried vaccine that can withstand higher temperatures this month.
Universities play a sizable role in the pharmaceutical pipeline, especially in preclinical development, according to Bill Bolding, a senior analyst at Provident Healthcare Partners. Venture firms and pharma companies rarely start investing in bioscience companies until there is proof of concept, much of which is created in university labs.
"Usually what you're seeing in the preclinical level is you're seeing like some kind of chemical reaction or proof of some kind of technology, in vitro," Bolding said.
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Several Southern California schools and universities will be testing every student and employee returning to the classroom for COVID-19 and other viruses in an attempt to thwart an outbreak.
The effort is being led by SwabSeq, the UCLA-based sequencing platform that released an FDA-approved COVID-19 test last fall. Its goal is to avoid the mad scramble schools and public health officials went through at the beginning of the pandemic trying to find and isolate cases with very little infrastructure.
The plans come as the Biden administration pumps $10 billion into testing in preparation for a mass reopening of schools.
It's a stark shift in the way school officials handle viral illness — simply sending people home for a few days until they get better. But experts say as the country tries to rein in the coronavirus health officials will need to quickly distinguish between the deadly disease and other viral infections.
"We think that'll be really useful moving forward because we'll want to know, with flu season, what are people infected with? Is it the flu or is it COVID?" said Dr. Eleazar Eskin, the UCLA chair of the Department of Computational Medicine and one of the scientists behind SwabSeq.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to soon release updated guidance on testing to identify and track asymptomatic transmission of COVID.
SwabSeq's technology, which can process samples and return results within 24 hours, can be repurposed for viruses beyond the novel coronavirus, and by fall will be able to test teachers and students for all kinds of respiratory viruses, like the common flu.
Other COVID test manufactures are expected to come online soon as the Food and Drug Administration makes it easier for developers to seek emergency authorization on over-the-counter and at home COVID tests.
But Eskin said what distinguishes SwabSeq is its ability to test multiple respiratory viruses at a cost of $10 per test.
The platform has partnered with the University of California, Santa Barbara, Pepperdine and Caltech, along with some schools, to test people on a weekly or biweekly basis. It has begun sending tubes and funnels for saliva tests to the schools.
Already, it has processed nearly 100,000 coronavirus tests and is working with the California Department of Public Health to sequence positive samples for variants. Most of those are on UCLA's own campus.
"We're just thinking of, 'what do we wish we had in place in March of 2020 that could've made the outcome different with COVID-19?'" Eskin said. "And we want this project to basically put that technology infrastructure in place so that that doesn't happen again."
SwabSeq is leveraging two decades of genomic sequencing technology to test for coronavirus variants and other respiratory viruses, like the ever-changing flu that prompts a yearly vaccine. Researchers will sequence these genomes to map out what strains are whipping through the community by fall.
Mapping the genome sequence of virus variants early is the first step towards understanding how deadly or transmissive certain variants are, and seeing how effective vaccines will be in containing them.
"What those sequences do is they allow us to monitor those changes and see: how has it affected the behavior of the virus? Does it make it easier to spread? Does it make it more deadly?" said Dr. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiology professor at UCLA. "And where we really care about the changes is, do they affect the response of the immune system or the efficacy of the vaccine?"
Indeed, the World Health Organization said there were 13 different strains of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China even before cases popped up across the globe. And new strains that have emerged from Brazil and the U.K. have the ability to spread faster and evade vaccines.
The flu season at its peak killed 80,000 Americans in 2018, but was especially mild last year thanks to masks, hand washing and social distancing.
SwabSeq offers a COVID-19 test billed as the sweet spot between rapid antigen tests (which have high inaccuracy rates), and the more reliable polymerase chain reaction tests, which often take longer. Antigen tests look for proteins while the PCR tests for molecules but often need to extract RNA.
SwabSeq analyzes saliva samples without having to extract RNA, which allows the company to give accurate results quicker in a matter of 24 hours.
The test costs $20 right now, but Eskin says, with scale, SwabSeq could get it down to $10, making it useful and accessible for schools, especially as children are hotbeds for viruses and other bugs that spread around the classroom. Its COVID-19 test has already been administered to nearly 100,000.
"What we want to eventually do is set it up so the SwabSeq lab will be able to identify all the samples we get, we'll figure out what virus they're infected with and then also sequence the virus," Eskin said. "Kind of what we wish we had in place a year ago, because then we would have had a much clearer idea of what we're dealing with."