Child’s COVID Struggle Didn’t Spark Vax Rush; No End to COVID; Verily’s Profit Push

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Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.

MIS-C Case Fails to Spur Vaccination in Local Community

In January, before COVID-19 vaccines were widely available, a then 13-year-old Allie Henderson of Terry, Mississippi was hospitalized with a near-fatal case of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). Her community prayed for her recovery, and cheered and welcomed her home after 10 days, Kaiser Health News reported. However, months out from the teen’s harrowing ordeal, the local vaccination rate where she lives is just 45%.

Even some of Allie’s closest family and friends remain unvaccinated, KHN reported.

“Everybody in Allie’s world knew about this — softball, school, church — it was on our doorstep,” LeAnn Henderson, Allie’s mother, told KHN. “People had known adults who had gotten sick and been in the hospital, but not sick like Allie. I think it was like, ‘Wow, this is real and this happened to her.’ They know how strong and athletic [she is]. She’s a power hitter.”

Allie and her immediate family received COVID vaccines when they became available, KHN reported. But other family members cited concerns about the safety of the vaccines (though they have been shown to be safe and effective), and conflicting information about the vaccines on the news and on Facebook as reasons why they and others in the community haven’t been vaccinated. One family member told KHN that she doesn’t bring up the vaccine at her work in a hair salon because she views it as akin to speaking about politics on the job.

Allie, who struggled with regaining her strength and other difficulties including seizures following her illness, told KHN, “I want people to get vaccinated because I know what it feels like.”

Clear-Cut Turning Point on COVID May Be Out of Reach

As the American public continues to wonder when and how there will be a return to normalcy, public health officials say there won’t be a “quick and clear turning point” in the pandemic, Politico reported.

“It seems the narrow window to wipe the coronavirus completely off the face of the globe has slipped through our unvaccinated fingers,” the article states. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. is now in a worst-case scenario. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, told Politico that the country is now facing a manageable middle.

“It is really important that we convey that success does not equal no cases,” Murthy told Politico. “Success looks like very few people in the hospital and very few dying.”

Politico reported that epidemiologists expect the coronavirus to be endemic, but that the projection doesn’t translate to a perpetual pandemic.

“Over time, human immunity will keep growing through vaccination and natural infection; that’s already started,” the article states. “Scientists will develop new treatments. Eventually, COVID can become one of many diseases that circulate, that sometimes even kill, without bringing the world to a deadly standstill.”

Now, and until that point, the challenge is to find out how to co-exist with the coronavirus as safely as possible, Politico reported.

“People are still in denial,” Celine Gounder, MD, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at NYU and Bellevue Hospital, who advised the Biden transition team, told Politico. “The sooner people accept the changes in the way we live … the sooner we can get to the new normal.”

Verily Makes Push to Turn Ideas Into Profits

For Google life sciences offshoot Verily, it’s a “make-or break moment,” STAT reported. The company is seeking to rapidly accelerate its strategy “to take its most promising products and turn them into tools that not only transform medicine, but also drive profit,” the publication reported.

“Since its founding seven years ago, the company has functioned essentially as a think tank with an array of disparate initiatives,” STAT wrote. “Now, its new C-suite will be put to the test as it tries to turn Verily into a sustainable business capable of delivering on its core promises.”

Areas of focus will include Onduo, a virtual care offering for people with type 2 diabetes, as well as products to speed drug discovery and recruit diverse participants for clinical trials, STAT reported. But the road to potential breakthroughs hasn’t been easy.

Since its start in 2015 as “a moonshot factory for the life sciences,” Verily “has been plagued by big ambitions and false starts,” STAT reported. One former employee told the publication that the company has struggled with the concept of “who was able to get things done.” Others told STAT that, with a plethora of different initiatives in the works, it was hard to make progress on any one thing.

“Verily needs to bring to some market a big breakthrough, rather than appearing to be a dabbler or a think tank or research organization in so many things,” Erik Gordon, PhD, a business and law professor at the University of Michigan, told STAT. “But they haven’t announced anything that would make a doc say, ‘Whoa, this changes everything.'”

However, despite challenges, Verily has attracted $2.5 billion in venture capital and filled its leadership team with the likes of former FDA commissioner Robert Califf, MD, former Tesla chief financial officer Deepak Ahuja, and Vivian Lee, MD, who previously served as CEO of the University of Utah’s healthcare system, STAT reported. Additional high-profile recruits have been part of its recent push.

“Now’s the moment to take the company forward,” Jess Mega, MD, a founder of Verily and its chief medical and scientific officer, told STAT. “We’re now at a stage where we can really scale and commercialize these tools in an end-to-end way.”

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    Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.

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