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Several virus treatments undergoing tests are nothing new

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is hoping that a sophisticated new drug treatment to prevent people from getting severely ill from COVID-19 will be available to the public by this fall.

But experts in the field say that treatments most likely to reach the market in September or October are more modest, repurposed therapeutic drugs meant to treat late-stage symptoms of the illness.

Hundreds of treatments and antivirals are undergoing U.S. clinical trials. But the potential drugs that are furthest along in the process are medications already on the market to treat other illnesses or have been under review for many years.

Many of those are anti-inflammatory and blood clot treatments that could mitigate the severity of the disease, decrease hospital stays and reduce fatalities.

The success of these more modest drugs would be less dramatic than a tailor-made treatment that could prevent the disease from progressing to a life-threatening state. But they could still alter the dynamics of an expected autumn wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, which already has taken more than 153,000 lives and continues to ripple across the country.

"If you look at the pipeline, there are more shots on goal on the treatment side — the late-stage inflammatory issues," said David Thomas, vice president of industry research at BIO, a major trade association representing biotechnology companies and institutions. "The goal would be to have more therapeutics that would decrease the severity of the late-stage disease."

The hope is that these drugs might help lower the death toll and the burden on intensive care units in hospitals.

Experts compare the impact of these drugs to that of remdesivir, the most prominent repurposed antiviral treatment currently available to coronavirus patients. The drug is produced by Gilead Sciences and was originally tested for its effectiveness against other infectious diseases, including the SARS and MERS coronaviruses.

Preliminary clinical trials on the effects of remdesivir in coronavirus patients found that the drug has reduced hospitalization times. More robust clinical trials will be necessary to determine the extent to which the drug helps patients recover.

"You have this emergent need for therapeutics, and people are taking everything they have off the shelf," said Dr. Lawrence Blatt, CEO of Aligos Therapeutics, a California-based biotechnology company working on a therapeutic candidate for COVID-19. "The net result is that most of the therapeutics that are in clinical trials right now are either not going to be effective or will have marginal benefit.

"Let's think of it like a lock and key. Each virus has its own lock. If you took your key from one door and tried to unlock another door, it wouldn't work very well. You have to make a key for that door specifically."

A specific "key" is the gold standard for a coronavirus treatment, and is the current goal of the federal government, which last month placed a $450 million bet on an experimental drug cocktail that could help infected individuals beat back the coronavirus at earlier stages of infection — or even prevent infection in the first place.

"We are investing in the candidates that are furthest along so that we could have products by early fall of 2020," a senior administration official working on Operation Warp Speed, the government program to expedite the discovery and production of a coronavirus vaccine, said in referring to therapeutics.

"While we think it is fair to say that vaccine progress is occurring at 'warp speed' pace, faster than any vaccine has been developed in history, therapeutics are even faster, and we believe we'll have new options for saving American lives as soon as the early fall," the official said in July.

The drug cocktail, produced by Regeneron, is being made from scratch to address the coronavirus using what is known as "monoclonal antibodies" — protective proteins that have been identified by lab scientists and produced on a large scale to fight off the virus.

It is unclear whether the project will succeed — Regeneron has pulled another monoclonal antibody treatment designed to treat rheumatoid arthritis from consideration as a COVID-19 treatment. If the new drug cocktail works, only 300,000 doses will be available by the end of autumn, far short of expected demand.

That would leave doctors and nurses still largely relying on the other repurposed, late-stage treatments, even if Regeneron's product ultimately proves successful.

"We know that vaccines will take a while, so there's been a lot of discussion about using different kinds of drugs — some old drugs," saidDavid Eller, the chairman, co-founder and CEO of Celltex Therapeutics, a Texas-based biotech company conducting Phase II clinical trials for a stem cell treatment of COVID-19. "The real issue is, we need something today."

Still, the less ambitious, latestage treatments that have shown promise could blunt two of the main phenomena identified, up to this point, as fatal to severely ill COVID-19 patients: hyperinflammation and blood clotting.

Police oversight board proposal faces stiff opposition from cities, law enforcement

LINCOLN — City officials and law enforcement agencies across the state united in opposition Friday to legislation that would require the creation of citizen police oversight boards.

Justin Wayne

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Police Chief Todd Schmaderer led the charge against Legislative Bill 1222, introduced by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha. The two officials argued that the proposal had major flaws and was unneeded.

“I support local control and local solutions,” Stothert said, speaking at a public hearing before the Urban Affairs Committee.

The hearing was cut short when Wayne, the committee chairman, said a committee member had just been notified about an exposure to a person with the coronavirus. Although the senator has not been tested, Wayne said he ended the hearing to reduce any risks.

Earlier, committee members heard from a procession of community members backing the bill, including many who have participated in protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. His death focused attention nationwide on issues of police misconduct and racial equity.

Kevin Abourezk of Lincoln, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was among those who argued that the proposed independent citizen groups would provide much-needed accountability for law enforcement.

He said a citizen oversight group could make officers think twice before taking risky actions, such as those that led to the 2017 death of Zachary Bear Heels in Omaha. The mentally ill man died after being hit repeatedly with a Taser, punched and held down on the ground.

Terrell McKinney of Omaha, a legislative candidate, listed several disturbing encounters that he and others have had with police. Despite those, he said, police are rarely held accountable.

“Police should be held to a higher standard, but they are not and it’s sad,” he said.

Other supporters called the bill a good “first step” in reforming police-community relations.

The advocates were followed by opponents representing the Omaha Police Officers Association, Nebraska League of Municipalities, the Police Chiefs Association of Nebraska, Lincoln, North Platte, Papillion and the cities of Sarpy County.

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Schmaderer said the proposed oversight boards would undermine his authority as chief of police and would put officers at risk. He raised concerns about the lack of confidentiality for proceedings, the quality of investigations done by an inexperienced group of people and the potential for the board to interfere with official investigations.

Sgt. Anthony Conner, president of the Omaha police union, said the bill would not give officers the same kinds of due process allowed to other public servants. He contrasted the proposed board with the Citizen Complaint Review Board, established by Stothert to handle complaints about police actions.

“The legislation seeks to solve problems that do not exist in Omaha, Nebraska, or any other municipality in Nebraska,” Conner said.

Under LB 1222, all Nebraska communities with populations over 5,000 that employ a full-time police officer would have to appoint a citizen committee to investigate complaints about police conduct and all shootings involving police.

The bill spells out the boards’ authority and how they should operate. It would require cities to provide an independent investigator for such boards. The board would, if necessary, provide recommendations to police departments and forward its findings to local prosecutors.

Wayne got approval to introduce the bill in the waning days of the legislative session, well after the normal bill introduction deadline. It addresses issues that gained prominence during the four-month pandemic-induced break in the session.

Better oversight of police actions was a common request during two days of listening sessions conducted by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in the wake of protests in Omaha and Lincoln. A Black man, James Scurlock, was shot and killed during a protest in the Old Market by a white bar owner. Wayne, a lawyer, is representing the Scurlock family.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Nebraska lawmakers pass Ernie Chambers' final bill, which requires bias training for police

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers passed what almost certainly will be the last bill of State Sen. Ernie Chambers’ legislative career Friday.

Ernie Chambers

Legislative Bill 924 would require sheriffs and other law enforcement officers to take two hours of anti-bias and implicit bias training every year. The training would be considered part of agencies’ efforts to minimize apparent or actual racial profiling.

After senators voted 49-0 to pass the bill, Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk took the opportunity to note the occasion and to congratulate Chambers on his record-setting career in the Nebraska Legislature.

Chambers then attempted to ignore what was happening as colleagues stood and applauded. The veteran Omaha senator is term limited and barred from running for reelection this year. He had been term limited out 12 years ago but returned after sitting out a term. Now 83, he could not run again until he is 87.

LB 924 took on added importance following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Floyd’s death occurred well after the Legislature was slated to end its session this year. But lawmakers took a four-month hiatus because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Earlier this spring, Chambers called the measure a “pee-wee” bill. But he said it could help prevent police killings of Black people and reduce the amount of racial profiling in traffic stops. He said the training could be incorporated into the 20 hours of annual training required for law enforcement officers to maintain certification.

Meet the Nebraska state senators