COVID variant surging in SC see more
When associate professor Julie Hirschhorn, Ph.D., saw the latest results of the Medical University of South Carolina’s sequencing run for COVID variants, she was struck by the absolute dominance of the Delta variant.
“Literally 100%,” the director of MUSC’s Molecular Pathology Lab said. “It kind of boggles my mind. We’re waiting to see what's going to come next. The possibility is that we have hit a branching point where from now on, anything that we see is going to be an offspring of Delta.”
Delta is already a prolific parent variant, spawning a growing number of “sublineages,” or variants with slightly different mutations. Hirschhorn’s colleague, Bailey Glen, Ph.D., is tracking their progress.“They went from there being no Delta sublineages to three to 12. Now we're up to 33, I think,” he said.
“I have never seen that many new lineages pop up quickly,” Hirschhorn said.
What does all of that mean for the public? First of all, the threat to unvaccinated people is clear.“We want them to know that Delta's still very much out there and still very transmissible,” Hirschhorn said.
Second, Glen said, Delta’s mutations serve as a reminder of how important it is to slow the virus’ spread. “The more it spreads the more chance there is for it to mutate, and clearly it can change pretty dramatically and how effectively. We've definitely seen that already. What’s the ceiling on this? How bad can it get? I don't know, but there's no reason to think it can't get worse.”
As for why Delta has been able to vanquish the variant competition so completely, Hirschhorn pointed to its characteristics. “It has mutations in the spike protein that help it get into cells easier. And then some of the other mutations assist in making more copies of the virus itself. So it gets in better and it makes more copies of itself,” she said.
“If you think about virus transmissibility, when we had the original version of the virus, every infected person would infect on average one or two people. And then with the Alpha variant we first saw in the U.K., every person infected would transmit it, on average, to four people. And then with Delta, it transmits on average to seven or eight people.”
Part of the problem may be that Delta causes people to carry higher viral loads, Hirschhorn said. “And so if somebody coughs or you're sitting in a room together and no one's masked, it's going take a shorter period of time to transmit to you.”
The good news is that for now, indications are that the current COVID surge in South Carolina may be easing. In the Charleston Tri-county area, case numbers are still high, but down from the surge’s peak of a couple of weeks ago.
But that doesn’t mean the virus is going away. “One of the things that I do get concerned about when coming off of a curve like this is where we end up, as far as a steady state,” Hirschhorn said, referring to the level where case numbers settle.
“So before Delta hit, we had gotten down to only 1% — it was so low. It's the lowest I'd seen it. My biggest concern is that steady state level of COVID might get stuck at like 5% or 7% or even 10% positivity. And that really doesn't bode well for the next mutated version, because the next wave could result in even higher positivity rates. And if the next variant strain transmits faster, we would start out in a rough spot.”
Her lab is working with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to get that message out. “It has been a really positive experience so far. I've had multiple people from DHEC reach out and say, ‘Thank you for sharing your data. This is great. We're so excited.’ I hope that our contribution will help the DHEC website give a clear picture of what's going on,” Hirschhorn said.
She also hopes people use the information to make good decisions. “I guess that's part of this thought process — how do we keep each other safe while still trying to have a life? My best advice is to be kind and think about others. There are ways to get together safely, such as being outside. There are ways to see each other and keep in touch and try to keep that human connection.”
Top executives opine on what's next for SC as Covid surges see more
After attending a Chamber of Commerce breakfast where a hospital CEO ticked off statistics about the number of unvaccinated patients suffering from Covid – many in their 20s and 30s – Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO Lou Kennedy decided something had to be done.
So she mandated vaccination at her company and today, everyone at the West Columbia business, which manufactures generic respiratory products, has had the shot, she said. And she lost just 30 out of 2,000 employees over the decision.
“It was the right thing to do, and I encourage my fellow business leaders to follow suit,” Kennedy said. “Somebody had to be the first to do it, and why not make it us.”
In addition, Kennedy said, the company spent $2.5 million last year on people being out of work and overtime to cover them – money that could have been spent on innovation, such as the mask the company introduced for patients getting nebulizer treatments that protects the health care provider from respiratory droplets.
Kennedy spoke at an online event hosted by SC BIO, the Palmetto State’s life sciences group, to discuss what comes next in the pandemic.
South Carolina is still lagging in vaccinations, said SC BIO interim CEO Erin Ford, with Covid deaths on the rise.
By Sept. 7, just 49 percent of residents had been fully vaccinated, and 58 percent had had at least one shot, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Meanwhile, nearly 780,000 cases had been confirmed by that date and 11,050 South Carolinians had died, DHEC reports.
But the number of vaccinations is slowly rising, Ford said, offering some hope that things will turn around.
The full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine pushed some people to get vaccinated in recent weeks, said Phyllis Arthur, vice president of infectious diseases and diagnostic policy at BIO Global, the world’s largest advocacy association representing member companies, state biotechnology groups, academic and research institutions.
But many are rolling up their sleeves after seeing how the Delta variant left loved ones sick and dying, she said.
“Delta is nearly twice as contagious as the previous variants,” she said. “And … (it) moved so quickly and spread so fast we saw a giant spike in cases and deaths. When immunization numbers go up, we will see cases come down.”
The speakers agreed that the greatest obstacle to making progress in the fight against the virus is the politicization of the pandemic and misinformation.
“There’s no R or D in the word science. It has nothing to do with your favorite politician,” said Kennedy. “This is science.”
Arthur said people should beware of misinformation and trust the scientists who’ve done the work on the virus.
“One of the things I ask people to do is look at the source of what you’re reading and hearing,” she said. “Look at the data yourself. It’s all publicly available and it’s very transparent.
And Dr. Matthew Cannon, dean of the Carolinas Campus of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, agreed.
“(It’s) being politicized, in my opinion, and I just hope people would look at it objectively, not through partisanship,” he said. “This is a public health crisis.”
Cannon said that as of Sept. 7, one Upstate hospital had 278 Covid patients and all but 25 were unvaccinated. Another had 566 Covid patients and all but 41 were unvaccinated. The average age of the vaccinated patients was 75 to 78, he said, and they were immunocompromised. The average age of the unvaccinated patients was 50, he said.
Though breakthrough cases occasionally occur among the vaccinated, Arthur said they typically are milder and of shorter duration.
She said she expects FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children younger than 12 in the next month or so and the Moderna vaccine in the next few months.
Kennedy said her antibody level dropped from 6,900 to 3,800 in recent weeks and is watching to see when the booster is approved.
There are still two steps to go before a booster is approved for the general population, but that it could come in a matter of weeks, Arthur said.
And Cannon said the college is working on research to determine when boosters should be given, noting the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been around for years.
Arthur added that the mRNA technology will be able to be used for many vaccines and even disease treatments.
“You can speed the next product, and that can allow us to have many more innovations from the treatment perspective and the vaccine perspective,” she said. “It’s the same for monoclonal antibodies. And that will ripple through the industry for years to come.”
Cannon said he’s proud of the health care workers who are surrounded by contagious Covid patients putting them and their families at risk, but continue to step up every day for the greater good of the community.
Nonetheless, he said, he worries about the stress they endure, seeing so much loss and knowing it could be prevented.
Meanwhile, he said, although medical residents got the experience of learning how to work in the midst of a pandemic - something their predecessors never had - they are missing out on some hands-on training because hospitals are canceling elective procedures.
Kennedy said the employees who refused vaccination weren’t willing to listen to the science. And while she got lots of phone calls asking whether there were protests in the street about her mandate, it all went smoothly.
“There were a couple people grumbling in the plant,” she said, “but it amounted to much ado about nothing.”
All the speakers encouraged everyone to be vaccinated and wear masks.
“It will prevent you from giving the virus to someone else,” said Cannon, “or from them giving it to you.”
“We’re in this together,” said Arthur, “and we can get out of it together.”
Nephron prepping to fill COVID vaccines in state see more
LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC (WSPA) — With a potential COVID-19 vaccine looming, one South Carolina company said they’ll be able to fill vaccines next year.
According to Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO and Founder Lou Kennedy, the company is in the midst of a $215 million expansion. They are adding new office and new warehouse space. The investment will also create more than 380 jobs the company said.
The expansion also includes vaccine production space. Kennedy said once completed, they’ll be able to fill COVID-19 vaccines at their facility.
“We’re actively looking for the right partner that will produce and we’ll fill the vaccine. We’re speaking with people throughout the federal government and Department of Defense to find the right partner,” Kennedy said.
Tuesday, the company held a beam raising ceremony to celebrate their expansion. Kennedy said she expects to have the vaccine production space completed by March 2021.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the FDA has not approved a COVID-19 vaccine for distribution. However, preliminary reports on vaccines from Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. show their vaccines have at least a 90% effectiveness rate.
Kennedy said they are anticipating a medical grade glass shortage because of the high demand for the vaccine. She said they have the ability to work around that. “Our option will be to put the vaccine in plastic. We have the technology and the capability.”
Under the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (SCDHEC) statewide vaccine plan, front line medical personnel and nursing home residents will be some of the first South Carolinians to get doses of an approved vaccine. They anticipate vaccine supply will be limited to start off, but Kennedy hopes they can help alleviate that.
She said, “We’re right in tandem with the research work and the clinical trials that are going on. We’re trying to time that perfectly for the vaccine filling side of it.”
Dr. David Cole chronicled many MUSC achievements during the 2020 fiscal year see more
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Aug. 14, 2020) – Recently, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and Medical University Hospital Authority (MUHA) Board of Trustees held their regularly scheduled combined committee sessions and board meeting. With its fiscal year-end closing on June 30, MUSC administrators focused on the multilayered impacts of the novel coronavirus on the operations of all three missions of the institution – education, research and patient care – along with MUSC’s leadership role across the community and state during this pandemic. To support established social distancing guidelines in the COVID-19 era, the MUSC trustees and administrators met via teleconference.
“The ripple effects of the pandemic continue to reach every area of our institution,” said MUSC President David J. Cole, M.D., FACS. “We are committed to battling this virus at every turn and continue to find innovative ways to deliver safe, top-quality education and patient care in the face of this challenge. In addition, we are engaged in ongoing research projects, many which, in collaboration with national networks, are designed to help define how to best treat and mitigate the impact of this virus.”
“Throughout the pandemic, MUSC Health has been recognized and called upon as an essential health care resource, having performed nearly 138,000 diagnostic screening tests, primarily through mobile testing sites in communities across the state,” said Patrick J. Cawley, M.D., CEO of MUSC Health and vice president for Health Affairs, University. “In partnership with the state legislature, MUSC set up mobile screening and collection sites in rural and underserved areas in an intentional bid to reach those who are most vulnerable and too often underserved when it comes to health care. Reliable diagnostic and antibody testing remain key elements of managing this unprecedented statewide health challenge.”
Despite the hurdles posed by COVID-19, Cole chronicled many MUSC achievements during the 2020 fiscal year, including:
- The MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital and Pearl Tourville Women’s Pavilion opened in February.
- MUSC became the only institution in the country to house both a Digestive Disease Research Core Center and a Center for Biomedical Research Excellence in Digestive and Liver Disease.
- MUSC Health West Ashley Medical Pavilion opened as scheduled in December and served 10,418 patients in the first month, with 214 operative procedures.
- The South Carolina Clinical & Translational Research Institute, one of about 60 Clinical and Translational Science Award hubs nationwide, was awarded a $24M five-year renewal.
- Safely held a series of virtual graduation celebrations, including a drive-through diploma pick-up event for its 660 graduates.
- Transitioned more than 3,000 students to online education in response to the novel coronavirus within 24 hours’ notice.
- MUSC was first in the nation to combine drive-through testing with a virtual screening platform for potential COVID-19 patients.
- MUSC and Clemson collaborated to launch the Healthy Me – Healthy SC program to increase health access and fight health disparities statewide. The program began expanding in early 2020 after successful pilots in Anderson, Barnwell and Williamsburg counties.
- MUSC, Clemson and Siemens Healthineers co-hosted a summit in Columbia about artificial intelligence (AI) to bring together faculty, clinicians and engineers. They shared information about current work, new opportunities and discussed the future of AI in health care. The pilot effort funded three joint AI projects with Clemson.
- U.S. News & World Report named MUSC the state’s best hospital for the fifth consecutive year.
- The inaugural 2019 Lowvelo Bike Ride for Cancer Research engaged more than 709 cyclists and 300 volunteers, raising some $650,000 to support MUSC Hollings Cancer Center.
- The U.S. Patent Office granted the MUSC Foundation for Research Development 18 patents.
- MUSC received $25 million from the General Assembly to partner with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the South Carolina Hospital Association to develop and deploy a statewide testing plan. The focus of the plan is on rural and underserved areas of the state. More than 200 testing events/sites have been implemented.
- MUSC Health continues to support the reopening plan and testing strategy for the University of SC, College of Charleston, The Citadel and Clemson University.
The 16-member MUSC/MUHA board voted unanimously to elect James Lemon, DMD, as chairman and Charles W. Schulze, CPA, as vice chairman. Each will serve a two-year term. Lemon is an oral and maxillofacial surgeon by training. A native of Barnwell, he has lived in Columbia for more than three decades. Elected to the MUSC board in 2014, he serves as the medical professional representative from the 2nd Congressional District. Schulze, a Greenwood native, began his first term as an MUSC trustee in 2002 as the lay representative from the 3rd Congressional District. A retired shareholder of a regional accounting and consulting firm, Schulze currently practices and is an expert in financial forensics.
In other business, the board voted to approve:
- The fiscal year 2021 budgets for MUSC (University), the MUSC Health system and MUSC Physicians.
- Moving the spring commencement and graduation date from its originally scheduled date of May 22 to May 15, 2021.
- A seven-year lease to provide new clinical care space for the MUSC Neuro Rehabilitation Institute in Charleston.
- A supplemental HVAC system for the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center Compounding Pharmacy.
- A lease renewal to provide 140 parking spaces at the intersection of Line Street and Hagood Avenue.
The MUSC/MUHA Board of Trustees serves as separate bodies to govern the university and hospital, normally holding two days of committee and board meetings six times a year. For more information about the MUSC Board of Trustees, visit http://academicdepartments.musc.edu/leadership/board/index.html.
About The Medical University of South Carolina
Founded in 1824 in Charleston, MUSC is the oldest medical school in the South as well as the state’s only integrated academic health sciences center with a unique charge to serve the state through education, research and patient care. Each year, MUSC educates and trains more than 3,000 students and nearly 800 residents in six colleges: Dental Medicine, Graduate Studies, Health Professions, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy. The state’s leader in obtaining biomedical research funds, in fiscal year 2019, MUSC set a new high, bringing in more than $284 million. For information on academic programs, visit musc.edu.
As the clinical health system of the Medical University of South Carolina, MUSC Health is dedicated to delivering the highest quality patient care available, while training generations of competent, compassionate health care providers to serve the people of South Carolina and beyond. Comprising some 1,600 beds, more than 100 outreach sites, the MUSC College of Medicine, the physicians’ practice plan, and nearly 275 telehealth locations, MUSC Health owns and operates eight hospitals situated in Charleston, Chester, Florence, Lancaster and Marion counties. In 2020, for the sixth consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report named MUSC Health the No. 1 hospital in South Carolina. To learn more about clinical patient services, visit muschealth.org.
MUSC and its affiliates have collective annual budgets of $3.2 billion. The more than 17,000 MUSC team members include world-class faculty, physicians, specialty providers and scientists who deliver groundbreaking education, research, technology and patient care.