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Aug. 25, 2020, 1:57 p.m. EDT

Coronavirus update: U.S. death toll tops 177,000 as FDA head acknowledges he misspoke on convalescent plasma

‘What I should have said better is that the data show a relative risk reduction not an absolute risk reduction,’ FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn tweets

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By Ciara Linnane, MarketWatch


Getty Images
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn speaks in March as President Donald Trump looks on.

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus illness COVID-19 climbed above 177,000 on Tuesday, as experts continued to question claims made about the use of convalescent plasma as a treatment for hospitalized COVID-19 patients and a leading government official conceded he misspoke at a Sunday press briefing.

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn acknowledged in a tweet posted late Monday that his comment that a study had shown plasma achieving a 35% improvement in survival was inaccurate. Hahn made the comment, accompanied by President Donald Trump, while announcing an emergency-use authorization for convalescent plasma.

”What that means is — and if the data continue to pan out — 100 people who are sick with COVID-19, 35 would have been saved because of the administration of plasma,” Hahn said at the White House news conference, where Trump described plasma as a “breakthrough.”

Scientists and experts, including the World Health Organization, said Monday that was not correct and noted further clinical research was needed. The FDA commissioner confused absolute risk and relative risk, according to Peter Lurie, a former top FDA official who is president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Washington Post reported.

“I have been criticized for remarks I made Sunday night about the benefits of convalescent plasma. The criticism is entirely justified,” Hahn wrote. “What I should have said better is that the data show a relative risk reduction not an absolute risk reduction.”

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the WHO, told reporters at a Monday briefing that, while there are many clinical trials seeking to evaluate the use of blood plasma from patients of the deadly illness who have recovered, only a few have reported results, and those results “are not conclusive.”

Others were concerned that the FDA is becoming politicized, with the EUA announcement coming on the eve of the Republican National Convention and a day after Trump accused government scientists of slowing research until after the November election.

In other news:

• A day after Hong Kong researchers confirmed a case of a patient who had been reinfected with COVID-19, two European patients were reported to have suffered the same fate, the Guardian reported, citing regional public broadcasters in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Dutch broadcaster NOS cited virologist Marion Koopmans as describing the Dutch patient as an older person with a weakened immune system, the paper said. The Belgian patient had mild symptoms, according to virologist Marc Van Ranst.

“That someone would pop up with a reinfection, it doesn’t make me nervous,” said Koopmans. “We have to see whether it happens often.”

• Residents of Gaza are in lockdown after the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed, raising fears given the densely populated nature of its refugee camps and limited medical facilities, the Guardian reported.

Until now, the region has been protected from the virus by its restricted borders. About 2 million people live in Gaza. A Palestinian Authority spokesman said four cases were confirmed in a single family in a refugee camp.

• South Korea is closing schools and resuming remote learning for students in the capital Seoul, after counting 280 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, a 12th straight day of more than 100 infections, the New York Times reported. South Korea had won praise for its early handling of the pandemic and success in containing it, but Seoul has been hit by a fresh set of infections, some tracked to schools and others to a church.

• Concerns about a fresh cluster of cases in early hot spot Spain have led Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to deploy about 2,000 troops to track outbreaks, the Wall Street Journal reported. Infections have started to climb again in many European countries, but Spain’s resurgence has it leading the pack, accounting for about a third of the Continent’s new daily cases. The news is a cautionary tale coming after hard-won progress in reducing the spread, including one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. In early June, new infections had fallen to fewer than 300 a day from a peak in March of nearly 8,000 a day.

• U.S. universities are proving a hotbed for infections and colleges are cracking down on students who fail to socially distance and wear face masks, according to media reports. Ohio State University told 228 students to leave campus pending disciplinary investigations, according to school spokesman Ben Johnson. That was before the resumption of classes.

See now: These schools have the largest endowments in the country — yet they’re still raising tuition during the COVID pandemic

At least 531 University of Alabama students, faculty and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 19, the school said Monday.

Syracuse University, meanwhile, published a letter on Aug. 1, slamming students for a gathering that is now being investigated: “A large group of first-year students selfishly jeopardized the very thing that so many of you claim to want from Syracuse University — that is, a chance at a residential college experience. I say this because the students who gathered on the Quad last night may have done damage enough to shut down campus, including residence halls and in-person learning, before the academic semester even begins.”

Latest tallies

There are now 23.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, and at least 814,52 people have died. At least 15.4 million are confirmed to have tested positive and recovered.

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