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Michele Cohen Marill

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60 Voices: 2021 graduates of all ages on what they think of Atlanta—and their hopes for the future

Izzy Washington
Izzy Washington

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Izzy Washington | 5, kindergartener at Fernbank Elementary School

I like to go to Lullwater Preserve, the [Atlanta] Botanical Garden, the [Georgia] Aquarium, Fernbank Museum [of Natural History]. I saw lots of dinosaurs in the Fernbank Museum. And lots of dinosaur bones and stuff. On the entrance, they have a hawk, a stuffed hawk. I thought it was pretty cool. Atlanta’s a fun place to be. There’s lots of cool things around here. I know lots of people are nice.

I have a neighbor around me who is also my friend that we play outside with. We play tag and stuff, and we ride our bikes. I have a two-wheel bike now, and I can ride it without training wheels. I did it yesterday. It was kind of scary and kind of fun. When I get big, the trees will be a little bit taller, and there might be more flowers blooming. And when I get to be big, I’m going to be a veterinarian in the Bronx Zoo. Because I want to be able to take care of zoo animals, and I like New York. I was born in New York City, but now, I live in Atlanta.

Camille Gipson
Camille Gipson

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Camille Gipson | 14, eighth-grader at the Marist School

I just think the people are really nice. I could talk to someone almost anywhere in the city, and we could have a five-minute conversation about whatever. I love that. Whenever I’m at a restaurant or somebody else is waiting in line behind me, I will talk to them. I love to go to Little Five Points and go to all the vintage shops around there, like Psycho Sisters, Clothing Warehouse, Rag-O-Rama. I love to shop. I buy a lot of old jeans with patches and leather jackets. They have tons of leather jackets; it’s awesome. [My favorite Atlanta memory is] running in the sprinklers at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. My mom would always take me to do that when I was little. Also going to the Fox Theatre for a show. And whenever we’re in downtown Atlanta doing anything, we always have to go get a Frosted Orange. I think I’d want to travel around and experience different places, but I think I would eventually come back to Atlanta.

Terell Wright
Terell Wright

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Terell Wright | 18, senior at Walnut Grove High School, Loganville

Being the birthplace of the civil rights movement with Dr. King, John Lewis, and all these other monumental figures in African American history, in American history—I think that just speaks volumes about the type of people who are in Atlanta, who want change, who want things to be better, and who accomplish it in a way that will convince the rest of the world to be on our side. It really goes to show how one city can change the world so much for the better. Doing reporting throughout the city [as a contributor for VOX ATL, a publication by and for Atlanta teens], I get to see how much influence the civil rights movement and the rich African American culture has had on the city of Atlanta. As an African American, that’s something to be truly proud of. This is a city that was a catalyst for change. I think [the Ahmaud Arbery killing] woke a lot of people up in Atlanta. I have so many friends who are like, That kind of stuff still happens? Yes, it still happens. Atlanta has to set the example for the state of Georgia and for the South for how a community should be in the 21st century. It is a city of progress, a city of opportunity for rich, poor, white, Black—it is the best of what the South can be. I think that will bring us in the right direction for years to come.

Laura Zhang | 21, senior, industrial engineering major, Georgia Tech

One of my favorite memories of Atlanta is around food. I’m a big foodie, so a lot of my memories center around food. I remember going with friends to Fox Brothers [Bar-B-Q on DeKalb Avenue] and just having an amazing time. Immediately [after], we went to Butter & Cream on the BeltLine, which is an amazing ice cream spot. Love Butter & Cream. We basically went food-hopping across the classic spots. Then, we went to the Waffle House in Tech Square to finish off our night. It was just a really good bonding moment for us. What better way to showcase the beauty of the city than showcasing some of the awesome food we have?

I think income inequality has always been a pretty big issue for Atlanta. With Covid now, it’s kind of been exacerbated. You notice that especially when walking or driving through different parts of Atlanta. In one moment, you might be traveling through a nice neighborhood, with a lot of new developments and things like that, and the next minute, you’re traveling through a more underdeveloped, more impoverished region of the city. It’s a problem that the city hasn’t really managed to solve right yet. I have faith that, when a lot of companies come to Atlanta, hopefully, there will be better opportunities for advancement and for better income equality in the future.

Darin Willis | 40, RN candidate at Gwinnett Technical College

There’s so much opportunity here. It feels like a different world almost because it’s very large, especially if you’re from a small town. [In 2017,] I came from [Cleveland, Tennessee], a town that wasn’t very culturally diverse. I really do love the cultural diversity here. It’s definitely a melting pot. If you like different types of food, you can find anything you want. Or different types of events, music venues, you name it. People just seem to come here from all over. That leads to more opportunities. Right now, they’re looking for more nurses, especially with Covid and everything that’s going on. It’s definitely a great time to get into the medical field.

Our recent election—that’s something I’ll never forget. The whole country was looking at us. It just really demonstrated the importance of everyone getting out and voting. One person’s vote technically made a huge difference. That was something I never saw before, how it affected the whole state. I would see everyone on my Facebook page with an “I voted” Georgia sticker. No one was talking about how they voted, just about “I voted” and how important that was. It made me feel more a part of Georgia. I realized how important even my voice was and everyone’s voice was.

Chris EdwardsChris Edwards | 43, MBA graduate at Clayton State University, and assistant plant manager, Hanson Aggregates, Lithonia

It is a great city, with so many great things and so many great opportunities, but it is kind of depressing when you drive through the city and see people living under bridges or tents. That would be the number one thing I’d like to see corrected. My heart goes out [to them]. When I was in Georgia Tech in ’96 [and playing football], we were kind of insulated on campus. When I went to Georgia State [to finish my bachelor’s degree from 2016 to 2019], that’s when it really hit me, with the Georgia State campus being right downtown, just walking through the parks down there seeing how many people were out there just lying on the ground, sleeping during the day.

My wife and some of her friends put bags together with blankets and sleeping bags and toiletries. Sometimes, when I went to campus, she would give me some and I would give them out downtown. We would try to do our part. You have to try to be the change you want to see.

One of the best moments was when I gave a bag out one day before I went to class. When I left class that night, I saw the person sleeping in the sleeping bag I gave them. That was a cool experience to see something actually being used. Even if they were still outside, to at least give them some kind of hope that people care about them. We’ve got so many great things going on in the city. I would say that [homelessness] is one of the real black marks that we have. It’s going to take a lot of work, but that’s something that really needs to be done. They still are citizens of Atlanta. The city should do everything they can to take care of them.

Who we are, at the end of the day, will prevail over anything else. I think we have deep-rooted convictions of who we are as Atlantans, how we treat people.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

Trying to get a Covid-19 vaccine in Georgia? Follow these tips.

How to get Covid-19 vaccine Atlanta Georgia
A woman receives a Covid-19 vaccine at the FEMA site at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Photograph courtesy of Mercedes-Benz Stadium

It’s open season for Covid-19 vaccination in Georgia. As of today (March 25), the state’s 8 million adults are all eligible (plus a few hundred thousand 16- and 17-year-olds), and only about 1 million of them are already fully vaccinated. That’s a lot of competition for vaccine appointments.

Think of this as a rush for tickets to the hottest concert of the year—with new concert dates appearing and new tickets being dumped at regular intervals. There’s a confusing array of places to get the vaccine, from your doctor’s office to a mass vaccination site at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, from your local grocery store to a big-box store. Each one has varying capacity.

It sounds daunting, but remember—you’ve already survived the other myriad challenges of the past year. This is your shot at a post-pandemic life. Here’s how to get it.

What’s the best website for getting a vaccine appointment?
Unfortunately, there’s not a single website that will check every vaccination site. It’s a fragmented system. On the bright side, if you can’t find an appointment at one outlet, you can try several others.

Are there any tricks to navigating the sign-up?
Two Facebook groups use crowd-sourcing to help people get appointments: Georgia Vaccine Hunters and GA COVID VAX APPT HELP. Your best bet is to be online when new appointments are released. For Walmart, Sam’s Club and Kroger, that is likely to be at midnight, according to the crowd-sourced advice. Publix releases appointments at 7 a.m. on Thursdays. Walgreens and CVS update at midnight or 6 or 7 a.m. Only fill out the necessary information on the online forms. You can provide your insurance info later (or you can still get the vaccine free of charge if you don’t have insurance). It may sound counter-intuitive, but some people have reported success by calling the Georgia DPH scheduling line at 888-457-0186.

All the sites say there are no appointments for the next month. Help!
Keep trying. Many sites only schedule vaccinations within the next week, and new appointments open as vaccine supply expands. Check if your doctor is giving the vaccine. This vaccine finder includes independent pharmacies, which may not be getting the same online traffic as the major retailers. Pharmacies and mass vaccinations sites outside the metro area may have available appointments. And even though everyone is currently eligible, you can still call pharmacies toward the end of the day (typically 4 or 5 p.m.) to see if they have excess doses from no-shows. You’ll need to get there quickly to snag one.

What if I want a specific vaccine (Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson & Johnson)?
This “vaccine spotter” site includes information about which vaccine is available at different locations, and it allows you to filter your search based on the vaccine type. That said, vaccine supplies are shifting and pharmacies may receive a new type. You can check with the individual pharmacy, or search one of the crowd-sourcing sites for information about where people are receiving your vaccine of choice. Remember: the Pfizer vaccine is the only one approved for those aged 16 and older; the other two are for those 18 and older.

How can I get an appointment for a second dose?
Many vaccination sites book a second appointment for the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines at the time of the first dose or they promise to send a reminder email. (J&J is one shot only.) If you need to schedule your second dose on your own, check out this link for second dose appointments at mass vaccination sites. Some retail pharmacies, such as CVS, provide online scheduling for a second-dose only. Don’t stress if you don’t get your second dose exactly 21 days after the first Pfizer or 28 days after Moderna; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that you can safely get the second dose up to 42 days after the first.

Can I get my kids vaccinated?
Only 16- and 17-year-olds can currently get a Covid vaccine, and they are only eligible for the Pfizer shot. Vaccines are being tested in younger teenagers and children (Moderna and Pfizer are studying children as young as 6 months old), but it will take months before there’s enough data to enable approval of a vaccine for children.

For many Atlantans, the hunt is on for a Covid vaccine appointment

Georgia covid-19 vaccine huntersIn the emotional roller-coaster of the pandemic, which brought fear, loneliness, heartbreak, and heroism, there’s a new feeling to contend with: vaccine envy. The vaccine is our ticket out of the pandemic life and into a better one, but just try getting one.

The math is daunting. About 2 million Georgians have gotten at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Five million Georgians are eligible—about two-thirds of all adults. That’s a lot of people hunting for an appointment when at most about 70,000 vaccines have been administered in a single day.

And what about the young, healthy people who aren’t yet eligible—but really want one? Governor Brian Kemp has vowed to open vaccinations to all Georgians in April—and some reports say he could make that announcement as soon as tomorrow—but until then, people who are anxious for a vaccine have been scrambling to find an excess dose that would otherwise be thrown away.

In the exurbs and beyond, vaccine appointments are going unfilled, leaving an opportunity for Atlantans who are able to travel with an option to snare one or to get unclaimed doses. As of March 7, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported that 3,870 doses had been tossed. About 1,700 of those were discarded because of concerns about possible contamination or damaged vials, but most of the rest were “not needed after prepared.”

Ashley Chen, a 42-year-old lawyer who lives in Duluth and works in technology sales, saw a news story about NOLA Vaccine Hunters, a Facebook group that formed in early January to help people get surplus shots. He thought, why not have that in Georgia? Chen and his wife, Alicia, a 46-year-old project management consultant, launched Georgia Vaccine Hunters on Facebook on February 1. It has more than 8,000 members and is growing rapidly.

The sheer number of posts—more than 1,300 in the past month—can be overwhelming. But that’s the idea behind crowdsourcing. “If we pool our collective knowledge and experience, then there’s more of a chance for all of us to get what we want,” Chen says. (A similar but unrelated resource is available on Twitter at @WhereVaccineAtlanta.)

Snagging an extra dose brings the jubilant feeling of winning the lottery, but the hunt can become all-consuming. At first, Rachel Winn, 31, was content to wait her turn as her husband, a physician, and her parents got vaccinated. Then while scrolling around Instagram, she learned about the “waste” doses that would otherwise be discarded. It was a morally sound way to be protected, support vaccination, and yet not take anything away from someone who needs it more.

Winn joined the Georgia Vaccine Hunters group, and soon she was scrolling through posts. She recalls one woman posted at 11 a.m. that she had called a Walmart in Lovejoy to get on a “waste” list and at 3 p.m. received a call to come in for a shot.

“I got excited and thought that could be me,” says Winn, a social media consultant and mom of two young children. “I got put on three or four waste lists. I kept my phone on loud. All day I was waiting for a call, and it never happened.”

Finally, Winn decided to stop the hunt and wait for the next expansion of eligibility. “I was in a better headspace mentally when I was just waiting for my time to come, rather than spending my free time calling these places and getting my hopes up,” says Winn, co-founder of a company, The Radiate Co., that is selling “I Got My Covid-19 Vaccine” buttons and stickers. (She still hopes to be able to wear one soon.)

A stay-at-home mom with 5-year-old twins has made it her mission to help eligible people on the Georgia Vaccine Hunters site find appointments. It isn’t easy. “There are just so many things to overcome. It starts to feel disheartening,” says the group member, who asked not to be identified. She created a Google doc that shows which vaccination sites refresh their appointment scheduling at midnight or at 6 or 7 a.m.

The scheduling itself is fragmented. Each retail pharmacy (Kroger, Publix, Ingles, CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Sam’s Club, U-Save-It) has its own site for signing up, or you can scan major retail locations and link to their websites through vaccinefinder.org. Vaccinespotter.org also says it continually scans pharmacy sites and updates information about availability.

The Georgia Department of Public Health has a list that includes independent pharmacies and clinics and a site for scheduling appointments through county health departments. The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency operates nine mass vaccination sites around the state, including one at the Delta Airline Museum in Hapeville, with its own sign-up link. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also recently opened a mass vaccination site at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

That may sound confusing enough, but snafus can add a layer of stress—like the day Fulton County accidentally double-booked some appointments, leading to long waits and rescheduled vaccines.

After going through the anxiety of booking a vaccine appointment for her mother, who was over 65 and being treated for breast cancer, Noel Schenck and a couple of her friends formed the GA VAX COVID APPT HELP Facebook group. It now has 17,000 members and 96 volunteers, including 35 people who just help eligible people book appointments. They even respond to an email address for people who can’t navigate online forms and social media.

Eight people, including four administrators, moderate the site around the clock and assign posts to topics, such as by type of vaccine or location. The group is filled with posts of people looking for a specific vaccine (Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson & Johnson) or struggling to make a second appointment.

One bit of advice from Schenck: Just provide the minimally necessary information on the website forms. For example, don’t spend time hunting for the spelling of your doctor’s name. “We literally put in Smith or Hall. That information is not pertinent,” says Schenck, 40, a real estate agent from Roswell. “We tell everybody to select ‘no insurance.’ By the time you type in your group number and member number, your appointment can be gone.” You can still present your insurance card and other information at the appointment, she says.

In online posts, group members share their experiences and tips about which site still has appointments available. A heart-filled thank you drew 92 likes. “I’m brought to tears almost every day by stories, anecdotes, just what the shot means to people and the anxiety not getting it has caused them,” says Schenck.

That is the best part of this vaccination journey as it plays out on social media: Collective anxiety ends in shared joy.

Want a faster track to a Covid-19 vaccine? Another trial is about to begin in Atlanta.

Novavax covid-19 vaccine trials atlanta
A nurse in the Covid unit at a Florida hospital prepares to inoculate a frontline caregiver with the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. Phase 3 trials for another version, from Novavax, will start in Atlanta after Christmas.

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As confirmed Covid-19 cases surged toward the half-million mark in Georgia, the first 5,850 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in Savannah on December 14 like a beachhead in the battle against disease. Within days, more healthcare workers and long-term care residents in Atlanta will roll up their sleeves and get some protection. It’s the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

While that’s great news, the rest of us are in for a wait. Even with the emergency authorization of a second vaccine from the pharmaceutical company Moderna, it will take months before the average Atlantan has easy access to a Covid-19 vaccine. But there is a way to get a shot at a new vaccine before almost anyone else—all in the name of science.

Next week, Emory University and Morehouse School of Medicine are expected to begin enrolling participants in a Phase 3 trial of a vaccine produced by Maryland-based Novavax. Since it’s a study, there’s a caveat: Not everyone will get the actual vaccine. But the odds are pretty good. Instead of a one-to-one match between people who got vaccine and those who got a placebo, or saline shot, in previous vaccine trials, the Novavax ratio will be two-to-one. Participants have a 67% chance of getting the vaccine.

“Being in the vaccine trial might be a faster way to actually get a real vaccine,” says Lilly Immergluck, a pediatrician and infectious disease expert who is principal investigator for the trial site at Morehouse School of Medicine, where she is also a professor.

Having different versions of a vaccine has been the plan all along. Even with their ambitious efforts, Pfizer and Moderna likely won’t produce enough to vaccinate the entire country in the next six months or so. Under Operation Warp Speed, the US government funded 200 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, or enough for 100 million people to receive the two-dose regimen. The program purchased 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which also requires two-doses, so that covers another 50 million people. There are about 330 million people in the US.

“We need these other products to ensure we have an adequate supply for whoever wants them over the long-term,” as well as for global supply, says Colleen Kelley, an infectious disease physician and principal investigator at Emory’s Ponce De Leon Center/Grady Clinic study site.

Here is some information to help you decide if joining the vaccine trial is right for you:

Who is eligible to sign up? The Novavax trial is open to adults 18 and older who are “at substantial risk of exposure and infection with SARS-CoV-2,” the virus that causes Covid-19. That includes people who are unable to work from home. Novavax also seeks to include people of color, older adults, and people with stable chronic medical conditions—populations that have had higher rates of Covid-19 infection or more severe disease and are most likely to benefit from the vaccine. People who are not eligible include those who are immunosuppressed or take medicines that lower their immune function; women who are pregnant (or may become pregnant) or breastfeeding; and people who have medical conditions that aren’t well-controlled. Nationwide, 30,000 people will enroll at 115 sites.

What’s in the vaccine? Novavax uses advanced technology to produce nanoparticles of the protein found in the outer spike of the coronavirus, turning moth cells into a manufacturing site for the very tiny particles. Still, this vaccine is similar to other products on the market (such as the hepatitis B vaccine) that use virus proteins to stimulate the body’s immune defenses. (Pfizer and Moderna use a synthetic messenger RNA that causes the body’s own cells to create the protein.) Novavax adds an adjuvant, or a chemical that enhances the immune effects.

Is it safe? Early tests showed that the vaccine produced a strong immune response without causing serious side effects. People who have allergies to any of the vaccine components or who have a history of severe allergic reactions after vaccination should not take the vaccine.

What are the requirements? The study lasts two years, and Novavax expects participants to return at intervals to get the second dose and to have blood drawn to test for immune response. Participants receive a kit to take saliva samples for testing if they develop symptoms of Covid. The investigators realize that it’s a bit complicated to run a clinical trial while an authorized vaccine is publicly available. “There’s a provision in the Novavax protocol that says any participant can leave the trial if they choose, if an effective, [authorized] vaccine becomes available to them,” says Kelley, who is an associate professor of medicine at Emory. Participants will not know if they got the placebo or vaccine, unless the trial ends early because of clear evidence of effectiveness. Those who got the placebo might then be offered the vaccine, although all of the participants will still be asked to continue returning for the two-year period of study assessments.

How do I sign up? The main portal for registering is through the Covid-19 Prevention Network. Morehouse also has a toll-free number (888-788-0644) to provide information about clinical trials or other Covid concerns. “We want to be a trusted source of information if people have questions about Covid,” says Immergluck. Morehouse also has a mobile research unit that will make enrollment and participation easier in rural areas or communities in which people are less likely to access clinical trials, she says.

How easily can COVID-19 spread in a classroom?

On the first day of the second week of school in Cherokee County, a teacher looked out at her class and noticed that one boy wasn’t taking notes. As she walked over to see if he needed help, he clutched his head. He told her he had a throbbing headache.

Headache is a common symptom of Covid-19, so she quickly sent him to the school nurse. A few minutes later, he was back in the classroom. He didn’t have a fever, the nurse said, and the boy didn’t want to call his mother to take him home. (Just 43 percent of diagnosed COVID-19 patients report having a fever, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

The boy stayed in the classroom. He didn’t wear a mask. Mask-wearing is encouraged but not required for students in Cherokee County, where several high schools have been temporarily shut down and more than 2,000 students have been quarantined. The teacher, who wore a mask, could only keep her distance and hope for the best.

School nurses follow their professional judgment, according to Barbara Jacoby, chief communications officer for the Cherokee County School District, who responded by email. “Our school nurses, who all are RNs or LPNs, are assessing student symptoms and making the determination on whether to send students home. They are medical professionals and very familiar with the symptoms of COVID-19,” she said.

But the incident reveals new tension in a usually festive rite of passage. This year, “back to school” brings more apprehension than excitement. “Every day, kids are either missing from class or they’re coming up to me and other teachers saying they don’t feel good,” said the Cherokee County teacher, who asked not to be identified.

Cherokee schools opened on August 3, putting them at the vanguard of in-person education in the era of COVID-19. (About a quarter of Cherokee students chose to enroll in virtual learning.) “We are continuously reviewing our protocols to determine additional improvements,” Jacoby said, noting that teachers have been provided face shields in addition to masks, if they want them. In an act of transparency, the district posts weekly COVID case counts per school, and it has trained teams of custodians in each school on how to properly disinfect surfaces.

As that county’s experience already demonstrates, schools will have to open “with a tremendous amount of precautions,” says Marybeth Sexton, a former high school biology teacher who is now an infectious disease physician and assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine. “The school day won’t look like it normally does if it’s done safely.”

Administrators, teachers, parents, and students all agree there is no perfect solution, but how can they measure the risk of returning to school? The coronavirus spreads through droplets and possibly smaller aerosols when people talk, sing, cough, or sneeze, and one published report found it spread from recirculating air in a restaurant.  But how do those dangers apply in a classroom?

From a risk perspective, a school classroom is essentially a type of public gathering. Joshua Weitz, a professor of biological sciences at Georgia Tech, created an interactive online tool to help people gauge the risk of gatherings of different sizes, based on the most recent COVID stats by county. It takes into account an inherent undercount in the official state and county data. CDC conducted serology studies across the country—looking for antibodies that show whether someone has been infected with COVID—and estimated that the number of actual cases is about 10 times greater than the number reported. Weitz factors that into his risk assessment. (A user can lower the multiple to five if the county has a robust testing program. A high positivity rate may indicate that more testing needs to be done.)

In a group of 25—about the size of an average class—the model indicates there’s a 67 percent chance in Cherokee County that at least one person has COVID-19, according to the most recent data. (The odds drop to 42 percent in the more optimistic scenario of five actual cases per reported case.)

Without frequent, widespread, rapid testing, no one knows who that one person is. In schools, hundreds of different interactions take place—on buses, in hallways, in locker rooms, in cafeterias.

Refreshing the indoor air can dilute the virus. But even before the pandemic, studies found schools often have inadequate ventilation; a 2013 study of California elementary schools linked classrooms with poor ventilation to an increase in absence due to illness. In June 2020, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, an organization that focuses on improving student health and learning through better school buildings, issued a report recommending improved ventilation rates and filtration as a way to improve indoor air quality and reduce the risk of spread of the virus. Some Georgia schools report that they are making changes to their HVAC. For example, Cherokee County is upgrading the air filters in its HVAC system to MERV-13, which are more efficient at filtering particles, says Jacoby, the school system spokesperson.

Opening a window—or, better yet, taking the class outside—makes the environment safer, but transmission from close contact can still occur, Sexton says. Weitz, who is founding director of Georgia Tech’s doctoral program in quantitative biosciences, says, “It’s unfathomable to me that they haven’t imposed mask mandates from the very beginning.”

Masks aren’t perfect, but by blocking the spread of droplets, they may reduce the viral load that individuals are exposed to, says Richard Rothenberg, an epidemiologist and Regent’s Professor of public health at Georgia State University. “Viral load is related to severity of illness,” he says.

As Cherokee County School Superintendent Brian Hightower stated when the system closed Etowah High School just eight days after opening: “As your Superintendent, I wear a mask whenever I cannot social distance. We know all parents do not believe the scientific research that indicates masks are beneficial, but I believe it and see masks as an important measure to help us keep schools open.”

Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trials start at Emory, giving Atlantans a potential shot at immunity

COVID-19 phase 3 vaccine trials AtlantaNews about the pandemic has been relentlessly bad, but there’s reason for hope. Last week, scientists reported that the first COVID-19 vaccine trial in humans showed an immune response similar to the one found in people who recovered from COVID-19 infection—an important first hurdle in the race for a vaccine. Now, a new phase begins, and Atlantans can volunteer for the study that will ultimately show whether or not this vaccine will help combat the pandemic.

Forty-five healthy adults took that first shot (and a second one a month later), helping researchers figure out which of three dosing levels triggers neutralizing antibodies (proteins produced by the immune system that help fight off infection) with the least side effects. The vaccine was developed by Massachusetts-based biotech company Moderna Therapeutics and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Creating a vaccine usually takes years—or even a decade or longer—but this timeline is historically fast. In the spring, the first trial, known as Phase 1, expanded to include older adults, and Phase 2 enrolled 600 people, split between those 18 to 55 years old and older adults. Results of those studies haven’t yet been reported.

Emory University, one of only two sites for early tests of the Moderna vaccine, is now looking for adults of all ages to enroll in Phase 3—the last stage required before a vaccine can receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some 30,000 people around the country will join the study, which can be accessed through the COVID-19 Prevention Network. Think you want to be one of them? Here is some information that may help you decide. 

Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine?
No. It doesn’t contain the virus—not even an inactivated form of it. This is a new type of vaccine that uses synthetic genetic material (called messenger RNA) that encodes for the protein in the outer spikes of the coronavirus. The body’s cells make copies of the coronavirus protein, triggering the immune system to mobilize to fight off the intruder. The Phase 1 study showed that everyone who received two doses of the vaccine developed neutralizing antibodies, or antibodies that block infection. The vaccine also produced a T-cell response, immune cells that help coordinate the attack on a pathogen and that hunt and destroy cells infected with the virus.

So, if I join the vaccine trial, will I be protected against COVID-19 infection?
Not necessarily. Half of the people in the trial will receive a placebo (a saline injection)—and when you get the shots, you won’t know whether they are the real thing. “There is a very high likelihood that participants will learn if they have received placebo, but this could be after the study is completed,” Evan Anderson, an infectious disease doctor and principal investigator of the Moderna trial at Emory, told Atlanta via email. “If this vaccine or another vaccine is licensed because it is safe and effective before this study finishes, placebo recipients may be able to receive actual vaccine, but we have not been given a guarantee of this yet from the sponsor [Moderna].”

Even if you get the vaccine—and produce an immune response—it’s not yet clear how protective that will be against SARS-CoV-2 infection (the virus that causes COVID-19) or how long any protection will last. That’s what researchers hope to learn from the Phase 3 trial.

What if I get COVID-19 despite getting the vaccine?
A vaccine that provides even limited protection would be a win—if not for you, for the country and the world. The FDA has said it would consider a vaccine for approval if it reduces infection or severe disease by at least 50 percent. Vaccine expert Paul Offit says a “reasonable goal” would be to create a vaccine that is 70 percent effective in preventing moderate or severe disease. “If we can do that, it’ll keep people out of the hospital and it’ll keep people from dying,” says Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who is not involved in the trial.

What side effects does the vaccine cause?
Not surprisingly, almost everyone reported pain at the injection site. Most of the 600 participants had flu-like symptoms (headache, chills, fatigue, achiness) after the second dose—mild for most people who got the lowest dose of 50 micrograms and more often moderate in those with the highest dose of 250 micrograms. (Phase 3 contains the middle dose, 100 micrograms, which had more mild reactions than with the highest dose.)

One participant developed hives after receiving a low dose and dropped out of the study, since that could be a sign of an allergic reaction. One person developed a 103-degree fever the day after getting a second high-dose vaccination, along with fatigue, achiness, severe chills, and headache, and later vomited and fainted after becoming lightheaded. The 29-year-old man from Seattle, who told his story to the medical news site STAT, said he felt better within a day and had no more ill effects. Two other people had effects that were considered severe, such as chills, fatigue, or redness at the injection site, but they resolved without any safety concerns, according to the report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

All in all, Phase 1 didn’t reveal any red flags. The large Phase 3 study would be more likely to unearth any rare serious side effects. Offit notes that a safety monitoring board will continuously review data and has the power the pause or stop a study, if necessary.

Can anyone sign up for the vaccine trial?
The trial is open to adults 18 and older, but there are a few exclusions. You can’t participate if you have an immune deficiency, if you’ve ever had SARS-CoV-2 infection (even if you never had symptoms of COVID-19), if you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to a vaccine, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Researchers are interested in how well the vaccine protects people who are vulnerable to COVID-19, so you can enroll if you have a medical condition (such as diabetes or hypertension) as long as it has been stable for at least three months. You can complete a registration form with the COVID-19 Prevention Network or you can contact one of the three Emory-related sites: Emory Children’s Center at Emory University; Hope Clinic in Decatur; or the Infectious Disease Program at the Ponce de Leon Center.

“There will also be hundreds of sites across the U.S.,” says Nadine Rouphael, interim director of the Hope Clinic and principal investigator for Emory’s Vaccine Treatment Evaluation Unit. “There will be opportunities for participants here within Atlanta, but we’re also trying to engage the community at large within the state, particularly communities that have been hit the hardest with COVID [such as] the African American community and Latinx community.”

What should I expect if I join the study?
You will receive a lengthy document explaining the potential risks of the vaccine trial, and you’ll have a chance to ask questions before you sign the informed consent. You need to agree that, in addition to getting the two shots, you will come for scheduled appointments to check for symptoms and have your blood drawn for testing. The study period may last up to two years.

Sean Doyle, an MD/PhD student at Emory, was one of the first to get a COVID-19 vaccine in the Moderna trial. It happened to be the same dose chosen for the Phase 3 vaccine. The experience was “uneventful,” he says. His arm was a little tender around the injection site, and he felt a little more tired than usual a few hours after getting the vaccine. That’s it. His advice? “I would encourage folks to participate in this trial knowing it would contribute to the development of COVID-19 vaccines in general, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be immune after getting the vaccine,” he says. You will still need to wear a mask, stay six feet from other people, and wash your hands frequently, he says.

When news about Phase 1 emerged, thousands of people called Emory asking if they could be among the first to get an experimental COVID-19 vaccine. Phase 3 is likely to be similarly popular. But if you don’t make it into the Moderna trial, you may get another chance. According to the World Health Organization, 24 COVID-19 vaccines are currently in human trials and 142 are in development.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that the Phase 3 trials would begin at Emory on July 27. They will begin in early August.

COVID-19 strikes deep in Georgia’s Latinx communities

COVID-19 strikes deep in Georgia’s Latinx communities
An Emory COVID-19 testing site in Hall County, where many poultry plant workers contracted COVID-19

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

In her years of helping migrant families in Gainesville, the “Poultry Capital of the World,” Vanesa Sarazua has seen plenty of hardship—families huddled together in a small house, children without enough food—but nothing compares with the dire circumstances she is encountering in the wake of a surging pandemic. The state’s vulnerable populations are hit hard by the pandemic, and some of the highest rates of infection are occurring in Latinx communities.

Sarazua recalls how the coronavirus took hold in one Gainesville family, sickening the mother and each of four children one by one, over a period of two months. The youngest, a 7-year-old boy, developed multi-system inflammatory syndrome, a rare childhood disorder triggered by the coronavirus that causes persistent fever and damage to the heart and other organs. Nationally, Latinx children make up almost one-third of cases—more than any other race or ethnicity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Working through the nonprofit organization she founded in 2017, Hispanic Alliance Georgia, Sarazua gave the family rent assistance and food, as well as money for gas and parking so the mother could afford to travel back and forth to the hospital in Atlanta where the boy received treatment for two weeks. (He recovered.)

Another family hadn’t eaten for two days and had no electricity, Sarazua discovered. The grandmother, matriarch of the family, had been sick and unable to work. Her daughter had a toddler and was pregnant. Hispanic Alliance Georgia helped pay her rent and utilities and delivered an emergency food box, a project launched to help home-bound families as cases spiked in Hall County in April. A monthly drive-thru food distribution began in May, and it continues to attract hundreds of people.

“Our focus was on providing food and any relief we could for those families that were affected by COVID and didn’t have any other relief,” she says. “Families would call us and say, ‘We haven’t been working for a month.’” Immigrant families don’t qualify for federal stimulus funds or assistance if any family member lacks legal status.

Since COVID-19 emerged in Georgia in March, it has spread rapidly among those considered essential workers, including people who process chicken, work in restaurant kitchens, build homes, or provide other services. In Echols County, on the Georgia-Florida border, seasonal migrant workers travel in crowded buses, live in shared housing, and pick fruits and vegetables side by side. It has the state’s highest rate of COVID-19 infection, with more than 4,700 infections per 100,000. (The county population is only 4,000, but because of outbreaks among migrant farm workers, it has more than 185 COVID-19 cases.)

Gwinnett County, the second most populous and most ethnically diverse county in the state, leads the state with more than 10,000 reported COVID-19 cases. While every part of the county has been affected, cases have been concentrated in the most densely populated areas, including Latinx communities in Norcross and Lilburn, where multiple families or generations of a single family live together, says Audrey Arona, CEO and district health director for Gwinnett, Newton, and Rockdale County Health Departments.

A graph of Gwinnett’s COVID-19 spread roughly mirrors the statewide trends, with a plateau in April, a dip in early May and a sharp rise in June. Contact tracing by the health department hasn’t detected superspreading events, such as a church gathering or funeral or celebration, says Arona. Transmission patterns also haven’t been linked to particular workplaces. “It’s more related to where people live in the county as opposed to where they work,” Arona says.

Overall, Latinx people make up 9 percent of the state’s population but one-third of its COVID-19 cases, according to Georgia Department of Public Health data for which ethnicity was reported. “When you look at Georgia and the epidemic overall, COVID-19 is taking advantage of multi-generational health disparities and health inequities,” says Jodie Guest, vice chair of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. Black Georgians are also at disproportionately high risk of contracting COVID-19 and having more severe disease.

Guest created “pop-up” testing sites in the parking lot of a poultry plant in Hall County, offering tests to family members of poultry workers to support the state’s testing efforts. “When we take the testing to communities at risk, we reduce a barrier to testing and we get much higher rates of testing, which is what we want,” Guest says. “We also want to make sure our testing sites feel very safe.” The rate of positive tests at the Emory sites has ranged from 16 to 28 percent, she says; overall in Georgia, about 9 percent of COVID-19 tests are positive.

Supported by a $7.8 million grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the Emory COVID-19 Response Collaborative is partnering with the Georgia Department of Public Health on testing, contact tracing, a statewide prevalence survey, and other public health efforts.

Community testing began in earnest in Hall County in late March and early April. Internist Antonio Rios recalls an early testing event sponsored by the Good News Clinic, a free health clinic, and the Northeast Georgia Health System. About half of the 350 people tested positive—whether they had symptoms or not. That astonishing tally was followed by an even larger event. Of 1,000 people tested, about a third were positive for COVID-19. The poultry industry was a common link.

Still, Georgia’s poultry industry has been able to avoid the shutdowns that affected meatpacking plants around the country. On July 7, the CDC released a report on the impact of COVID-19 on meat and poultry plant workers. Through May 31, 509 of 16,500 workers in 14 Georgia poultry plants tested positive for COVID-19—or 3.1 percent. One died. In comparison, 24.5 percent of workers in South Dakota beef and pork plants tested positive. Iowa did not update its figures, but by the end of April, 18 percent of its meat and poultry workers had tested positive, according to the CDC.

For reasons that aren’t fully understood, Latinx workers are more likely to become sick, the CDC said. They represent 56 percent of the cases among meat and poultry plants in which race and ethnicity were known, even though they make up just 30 percent of the workers.

Poultry plants began checking employees for symptoms early on in the pandemic, and as the public health advice became clearer, the companies stepped up their prevention efforts, says Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. By the time the CDC came out with guidelines for meat and poultry processing facilities on April 26—and as cases were spiking in Hall County and elsewhere—preventive measures were already in place. Today, the plants follow sanitation protocols, require employees to wear masks, and place plastic sheeting or plexiglass barriers between work stations, he says.

Yet that doesn’t help much if employees carpool to work and gather together after their shifts, especially if they lack personal protective equipment. The Georgia Poultry Federation and Georgia Emergency Management Agency distributed 150,000 masks to the community. A local task force spearheaded an awareness campaign, and many Hall County businesses now have stickers on their windows that say “No Mascara! No Servicio! No mask! No Service!”

“The community has been very responsive to the direction that is being given to them in terms of wearing masks,” says Rios, who is chief physician executive at the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.

Rios answers questions in live events on Facebook, sponsored by the Hispanic Alliance Georgia. COVID-19 has laid bare the deeper health issues facing vulnerable communities—untreated and undertreated hypertension, diabetes, and other ailments that make them more susceptible.

“I really, really hope at the end of COVID-19, whenever that may be, that a positive outcome will be that we have a national conversation about the health inequities, racism, and disparities we’ve got in our country,” says Guest. “That conversation must be broad. It has to include everyone who lives in the United States who suffers these inequities.”

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but society does

Coronavirus impacting black communities Atlanta Georgia
A coronavirus testing site in New York City. COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color across the United States.

Photogarph by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Atlantans are feeling the impact of COVID-19 unequally—and not just because low-paid service workers have returned to their jobs in newly opened restaurants, hair salons, and spas. Even in March, when the coronavirus first spread stealthily before bursting into outbreaks across metro Atlanta, people of color were more likely to end up in the hospital with severe symptoms. That racial disparity has also been found in other states.

When epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) looked at 305 cases from March at seven metro Atlanta hospitals and one in Albany, they found that 83 percent of the COVID-19 patients were black. As of 12:25 p.m. Monday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported 29,177 COVID cases; half were among black Georgians. (Racial demographics aren’t available for about one-quarter of the state’s cases.)

Both COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations outstrip the area’s demographics; about 32 percent of the metro population is black. “All the statistics point to the fact that we’re more likely to be affected than the general population,” says Shelby Wilkes, an ophthalmologist and president of the Georgia State Medical Association, an organization of black physicians.

The question, of course, is why? The study didn’t explore that, but the authors suggest that “social and economic factors (including occupational exposures)” may play a role. CDC is continuing to analyze the racial disparities, the study’s senior author Brendan Jackson told Atlanta. “Health differences between racial and ethnic groups are often due to economic and social conditions that are more common among some racial and ethnic groups,” Jackson, a CDC medical epidemiologist, said by email. He cited “living conditions, work circumstances, underlying health conditions, and less access to care.”

Social and health disparities have long shaped life in Atlanta, which has the worst income inequality in the country. COVID-19 has simply laid bare the consequences, in a life-and-death context.

“If there was ever a time to make some changes, now would be the time to do it,” says Wilkes, who argues that the state needs to ramp up testing, make masks more accessible, and promote social distancing, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Interestingly, black patients who were hospitalized with COVID-19 were not more likely to have some high-risk medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, or lung disorders, according to the CDC study. Overall, they had a higher average body-mass index, but they weren’t more likely to have severe obesity, which has been associated with more severe COVID-19 illness.

Health disparities still may have influenced the COVID-19 patterns, particularly if the diseases were not well-controlled because of inadequate healthcare, says Robert Mayberry, professor and epidemiologist at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “We don’t have the detailed information about those underlying conditions that I think would be critically important to know,” he says.

The CDC study is just a snapshot—a “convenience sample” of cases at selected hospitals that was not designed to be representative of COVID-19 cases overall. But the 305 cases made up a large portion of the total; as of March 30, the state reported 771 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Mayberry cautions that demographic data shouldn’t be used to paint COVID-19 as a disease of people of color. The virus doesn’t discriminate—we are all equally susceptible. Race is likely just a clue to other differences and inequities, such as income and job status. “When we ask race and ethnicity, we should also ask more specific questions, such as where do you live? Where do you work? How frequently do you come into contact with others?” he says.

There is one encouraging finding in the otherwise troubling report. While black patients were more likely to end up in the hospital with severe COVID-19 symptoms, they recovered at the same rate as other patients. In other words, the disparity stopped at the hospital door. That provides a valuable lesson for our healthcare system in general. “If African Americans are treated according to need, then we should see fewer health inequities and health disparities,” says Mayberry.

Emory University helps test the nation’s first potential COVID-19 vaccine and possible treatments

Emory University coronavirus vaccine
Dr. Evan Anderson, Emory’s principal investigator for this study

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Evan Anderson, an infectious-disease doctor, heads to his post on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle just as the 7:30 a.m. bell tolls on the clock tower at Emory University, honoring the healthcare workers risking their lives in the hospital. There’s an urgency in the staccato repetition of those chimes, a reminder of the imperative facing Anderson and his colleagues.

In mid-March, Emory’s Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, under Anderson’s leadership, joined the nation’s first clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine. Emory is also testing drugs that could slow or halt the devastating assault of the virus in the lungs.

Normally, developing a new vaccine takes about a decade. But with the economy crippled and deaths mounting, the race is on to find an effective vaccine in little more than a year. Anderson immersed himself in that research while helping care for the sickest patients in the hospital. “It is a unique and unusual circumstance,” says Anderson. “But it helps to see firsthand the importance of this vaccine.”

On a normal spring day, Anderson would have been in his office or lab testing vaccines against other threats, such as respiratory syncytial virus, which often causes mild cold symptoms but can be deadly to very young infants and older adults. Or evaluating whether a compound added to the influenza vaccine could boost the body’s immune response. He set aside those studies as this new project emerged with an ultrafast timeline. “We had to drop a number of other things to get the study enrolling within two weeks,” he says.

The first phase of a drug trial involves just a few dozen people, but they need to be healthy and reliable. With two clinical vaccine research sites—the Emory Children’s Center Vaccine Research Clinic at the main campus, and the Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center just north of Decatur—the university has a track record of enrolling participants who stick with the protocol. (Infectious-disease doctor Nadine Rouphael, lead investigator for this trial at the Hope Clinic, is a co–principal investigator for Emory’s overall vaccine program, along with Anderson and Carlos del Rio, a global health expert at Emory.)

Sean Doyle, an MD/PhD student at Emory, opened an email from the vaccine center on Saturday afternoon, March 21. It was short and to the point. Would he be willing to be part of a COVID-19 vaccine trial? “I was 100 percent on board,” says Doyle, 31, who had received an experimental Ebola vaccine a few years before. “I didn’t even have to think about it.”

Two days later, he came for his screening, and received his first dose of the mRNA-1273 vaccine on Friday, March 27—less than a week after the initial email. Doyle was one of the first 17 Atlantans in this Phase One study, which checks for safety and signs of immune response. Another 28 people received the same vaccine at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, the lead institution for the trial. The first vaccine dose was administered there on March 16, just over two months after Chinese scientists shared the genetic sequence of the coronavirus.

Anderson met with Doyle to discuss how the vaccine works, its potential risks, and the requirements of the trial. He checked on him after a nurse injected the vaccine in his right upper arm. “It was a little bit tender for maybe a day. After that, it was like nothing had been injected there,” says Doyle. All participants receive a second dose a month after the first.

By mid-April, the vaccine trial had been safe enough to enable its expansion to a vulnerable group: older adults. Researchers added 30 people between the ages of 56 and 70 and 30 people 71 and older, split among sites at Emory, in Seattle, and at a National Institutes of Health center in Bethesda, Maryland.

The coronavirus has a crown of protein spikes, which the virus uses to gain entry to human cells. It then hijacks the human DNA to make copies of itself. The mRNA-1273 vaccine, developed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Moderna Therapeutics, a Massachusetts-based biotech company, contains a synthetic version of the virus’s messenger RNA—a strand of genetic code that instructs the body’s cells to make a section of the spike protein. “The hope is that this will prime the body’s immune system to make antibodies and maybe other infection-fighting cells, which can prevent infection of the real COVID-19,” Anderson says.

As much as Anderson wants mRNA-1273 to work, he knows most vaccine candidates don’t ultimately succeed. Two months after the first doses were given, the researchers will decide whether to advance to a Phase Two trial, which enrolls as many as a few hundred people and looks for an immune response and evidence that the vaccine spurs a protective effect. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but we’re trying to be prepared to move forward with other vaccines,” he says. There are more than 70 other candidates, including one the University of Oxford developed for other uses that might stop COVID-19 and could be available this fall.

Some patients Anderson sees are eligible for experimental treatments. About 100 Emory patients have been part of a study of remdesivir, an antiviral developed to treat Ebola. On April 29, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced preliminary results of this randomized, controlled U.S. trial involving 1,063 patients that showed the drug led to quicker recovery. In response, the FDA was expected to authorize its emergency use for COVID-19. Clinical trials are also beginning on EIDD-2801, a different type of therapy developed by an innovative drug-development group at Emory.

Meanwhile, Emory doctors and nurses rely on basic medical techniques they have used in treating other infectious diseases. Their work is shaped by the intense experience of treating Americans with Ebola in 2014; all four patients recovered, and no Emory healthcare workers became ill. Infectious-disease doctor Aneesh Mehta was on call for the biocontainment unit when the first Ebola patient arrived. Inspired by the teamwork underlying the effective care, he later helped found a national consortium to assist hospitals in preparing for future outbreaks.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, but we’re trying to be prepared to move forward with other vaccines.”

Those plans unfolded this spring. The first week of March, he was doing rounds at the hospital when he received a call from the emergency department about a young patient with cough, fever, and body aches who had recently traveled to an area with a COVID-19 outbreak. The patient wasn’t terribly ill and recovered at home, but the wave was coming.

Even amid these difficult days, Mehta finds reasons for hope. “We have definitely had a lot of successes,” says Mehta, who is Emory’s lead researcher for remdesivir. “It heartens the team to get those patients back to their families. We hope to continue to do that until this outbreak is finished.”

This article appears in our June 2020 issue.

Georgia State University uncovers a promising treatment for COVID-19

Mukesh Kumar Georgia State coronavirus
Mukesh Kumar

Photograph courtesy of Georgia State University

The fastest way to find a new drug for COVID-19 is to try an old one. With that maxim in mind, Georgia State University virologist Mukesh Kumar ramped up a testing protocol in February just after reports emerged of the first U.S. cases of COVID-19, and on April 15, he released his findings about a promising candidate called auranofin.

Auranofin is a compound that contains gold and has been used since 1985 to treat rheumatoid arthritis (although it has been largely replaced by newer drugs). In tests in his high-level biosafety lab, Kumar and his colleagues found auranofin reduced the amount of coronavirus in infected cells by 95 percent just 48 hours after they were treated with one dose.

The drug also dramatically lowered the release of cytokines, proteins that send signals to the body’s immune system, summoning a response to an infection. When cytokines become overactive, COVID-19 patients sometimes suffer from severe lung damage caused by a “cytokine storm.”

The quest to tamp down that inflammation drove interest in hydroxychloroquine, a potential COVID-19 drug touted by President Donald Trump and others that also has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation and joint damage.

Hussin Rothan Georgia State coronavirus
Hussin Rothan, a post-doctoral researcher at GSU and co-author of the study, works in the lab.

Photograph courtesy of Georgia State University

“We were looking for drugs with a similar property, but derived from natural components so they are not as toxic,” says Kumar, who released his paper as a pre-print, which means it has not yet been vetted by other scientists. He has submitted the paper to the journal Virology.

Kumar plans to begin animal studies to see what dose of auranofin would be most effective and whether it needs to be given early in the disease or if it could work even after the infection is more advanced. He is still looking for other COVID-19 prospects, as well. “I’m sure there must be more drugs that could be effective,” he says. “We just have to test them.”

Because auranofin is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, physicians could use it immediately to treat COVID-19. But Kumar cautions it should only be taken under a physician’s supervision. Auranofin can cause digestive problems, rash, kidney problems, and other rare but serious side effects. (Gold powder is not the same as auranofin.)

Ultimately, drugs may be used in combination to combat COVID-19, he says. “We have to have to have some kind of therapy to completely stop it,” he says. “We will need either effective drugs or an effective vaccine.”

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