- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2020

Monday was perhaps the most hopeful day yet of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., as a Massachusetts biotech company reported a promising vaccine trial, stocks rallied on the news, every state but one was reopening for business, Detroit’s Big Three automakers restarted factories, and Delta Air Lines announced it will resume flights for several major routes next month.

Moderna Inc. reported that the first coronavirus vaccine to be tested in humans appears to be safe and to stimulate an immune response. Although the study is not complete, some patients who were vaccinated developed antibodies at levels mirroring recovered COVID-19 patients.

“We’re quite pleased with the breadth of the immune response so far,” Dr. Stephen Hoge, Moderna’s president, said on “CBS This Morning.”

Major stock indexes soared on the development. The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 911 points, or 3.8%, to close at 24,597 — its best day since early April. The S&P 500, which gained 3.1%, hit a 10-week high.

At the White House, President Trump called it “a very positive day.” He said he thinks the nation has turned a corner from economic shutdowns resulting from the pandemic.

“This was a very big day therapeutically, vaccinewise and curewise,” Mr. Trump said during a meeting with restaurant executives. “It almost feels like today is the first day. Last week didn’t feel the same. Now it feels good. People are starting to go out there, opening. They get it.”

The president also made the startling disclosure that he is taking daily doses of hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for COVID-19 patients. However, the FDA has cautioned people not to use it outside of a hospital or clinical trial, and its effectiveness has not been established.

“I’ve been taking it for about a week and a half now, and I’m still here,” Mr. Trump said. “There’s a very good chance this has an impact.”

Across the nation, all states but Connecticut had loosened stay-at-home restrictions. In Florida, stores, gyms and restaurants returned to 50% capacity, and Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, gave the green light for professional sports teams to use Florida stadiums when they are ready.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said he has given up trying to push through any more statewide mandates to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus because he thinks rival Republicans would never allow any after the state Supreme Court overturned his stay-at-home order.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, continued to reopen his state. He announced that day care centers could reopen immediately and that bars and bowling alleys could start at 25% capacity on Friday. Mr. Abbott also said youth centers, including Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCAs, must open to keep children occupied as their parents return to work.

Restaurants can expand their capacity to 50% on Friday, and youth sports and camps will resume May 31.

Some major industries also began to gear up. Detroit’s Big Three automakers and their suppliers began restarting assembly lines after being shuttered for two months, a fresh sign of recovery for an industry that employs about 1 million Americans.

Fiat Chrysler reopened four vehicle assembly plants and four parts plants. GM is reopening several plants on one shift and bringing back 3,200 hourly workers who make pickup trucks at factories in Flint, Michigan, and Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Delta said it would resume flying several major routes in June, including some trans-Atlantic and Caribbean destinations.

As governors lift restrictions and more Americans return to work, the nation’s collective mood is lifting, too. Gallup reported Monday that less than half of U.S. adults, 47%, say they are worried a lot, down from 59% in late March and early April, when the pollster recorded an unprecedented increase in “self-reported worry.”

Gallup also found that boredom has dipped 5 points, to 41%, and “happiness has edged up 5 points, to 72%.” The survey was conducted from April 27 to May 10 as many states started easing stay-at-home orders and business restrictions.

One sector of the economy with plenty of worry is the restaurant business, which lost 5.5 million jobs in April, about one-fourth of all job losses nationally last month. Several industry leaders called on Mr. Trump in a White House meeting to extend the federal Paycheck Protection Program from the current eight weeks to 24 weeks to keep their employees on the payroll.

The executives weren’t asking for more money after restaurants received about $30 billion from the roughly $650 billion PPP. But they said they need a longer period to pay workers as they gradually phase back into operation under tighter restrictions on social distancing and seating capacity.

Mr. Trump supported the proposal, and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said there is bipartisan support in Congress for an extension.

The president also said restaurants should be given a shield from lawsuits by employees and patrons if they contract COVID-19 at a reopened restaurant.

“The Democrats do not want to give [a liability shield] to people. It’s crazy,” Mr. Trump said.

Marvin Irby, interim CEO of the National Restaurant Association, said the positive news about Moderna’s vaccine trial gave his industry a welcome shot in the arm.

“We desperately want to reopen,” he told the president. “Before today’s news, we did not see an end date until later this year.”

Dr. Tal Zaks, chief medical officer at Moderna, said the interim phase one results “demonstrate that vaccination … elicits an immune response of the magnitude caused by natural infection starting with a dose as low as 25 [micrograms].”

The Moderna study is being conducted in concert with the National Institutes of Health. The phase one study included 45 people ages 18-55. The study was split so that 15 participants took a low dose, 15 took a midlevel dose and 15 took a high dose.

Dr. Hoge, the company’s president, said eight subjects appeared to have reached the point where antibodies could neutralize the virus and prevent its ability to infect human cells.

“We’re quite pleased with the breadth of the immune response so far,” he said.

Dr. Hoge said Moderna’s phase one study involved a “relatively small number” of participants but that the company will be looking at 600 people as part of a phase two study that should start soon.

The company said it hopes to proceed to a phase three trial in July.

“Our goal is to have a vaccine available for broad distribution by year-end or early next year,” Dr. Hoge said.

A vaccine is considered the most critical step in reopening global economies that have been battered by the pandemic.

Since the coronavirus was discovered in China in December, it has infected more than 4.8 million people and killed over 315,000 worldwide, though the figures from China and some other countries are not considered reliable. The U.S., with a population of about 330 million, has recorded more than 1.5 million infections and over 90,000 deaths.

To get a vaccine to the masses, a company must have its effectiveness data “really pinned down” to show the shots are protective, said Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“You have to let people get exposed naturally and do the efficacy studies to see that they’re not getting infected,” he said. “That just takes time. In particular, it’s going to take an increasing amount of time now that social distancing has brought the virus to lower numbers. Of course, now that things are opening up, those studies might be able to be accelerated once they start.”

Dr. Mina said he could see a scenario in which a successful vaccine is given authorization for emergency use in some places, such as nursing homes, before it is generally available to everyone.

Dr. Moncef Slaoui recently resigned from Moderna’s board of directors so he could be the chief scientist for Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s campaign to secure a vaccine by the end of the year.

“I have very recently seen early data from a clinical trial with a coronavirus vaccine,” Dr. Slaoui said last week. “And this data made me feel even more confident that we will be able to deliver a few hundred million doses of vaccine by the end of 2020.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, said Dr. Slaoui needs to divest from any financial interests he might still have in the company.

There were also challenges Monday as states loosened more restrictions.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said the state is deploying officials to conduct compliance checks of bars and restaurants and that the businesses could lose their liquor licenses or face criminal action if they aren’t following social distancing rules.

“We saw in some places customers were not following the rules and the people running the bar were not taking responsibility. So both have to do that,” said Mr. DeWine, referring to recent images of crowded bars in the state.

Texas recorded its highest single-day increase of 1,800 cases on Saturday even as it was moving to open up again. The 29-million-population state has documented over 48,000 cases, including over 1,300 deaths, from COVID-19.

The governor said it is working to address hot spots, including a meatpacking plant in Amarillo.

“As testing increases, so will the raw number of people testing positive,” Mr. Abbott said. “What matters most is the percentage of people who test positive.”

The past month has shown a downward trajectory in infections, the governor said, although he is advising older Texans to remain cautious.

“The safest strategy for seniors is to continue to stay at home if at all possible,” he said.

Officials said the easing of rules will work only if Texans do their part by wearing masks and maintaining distance from others.

“Each Texan must do their part,” said James Huffines, chairman of the governor’s strike force to open Texas.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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