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Health Highlights: March 17, 2021

COVID-19 Antibodies Found in 1 in 5 U.S. Blood Donations

COVID-19 antibodies were found in the blood of about 1 in 5 donations from unvaccinated donors in the first week of March, American Red Cross data shows.

The organization tested more than 3.3 million donations from unvaccinated people in 44 states between mid-June 2020 and early March 2021. Across the entire period, about 7.5% of all of those donations had COVID-19 antibodies, meaning it's likely those donors were infected with the coronavirus at some point, CNN reported.

But the percentage of donations with coronavirus antibodies has risen steadily over time, the Red Cross noted. Rates of positive tests for COVID-19 antibodies in blood donations rose from about 1.5% in the first week of July to nearly 4% in the first week of October; then rose again to 12% by the first week of January and to nearly 21% by the first week of March.

A "positive antibody test result does not confirm infection or immunity," but may indicate a person was exposed to the coronavirus, "regardless of whether an individual developed symptoms," according to the American Red Cross, CNN reported.

"Blood donors are not a random sample of the general population, but they're interesting," said Dr. William Schaffner, a longtime adviser to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccines.

    Schaffner said two key points stand out.

    "The first is that a substantial portion of the U.S. population has experienced COVID, at least the blood donor population, knowingly or unknowingly. The other is that a huge proportion of the U.S. population has not -- it's the 80%," he said. "So we can't rely just on the strategy of letting herd immunity occur naturally. We've got to vaccinate in order to get up to 80% of the population to be immune."

      Herd immunity is the point at which enough people are protected against a disease that it cannot spread through the population.

      There have been about 29.5 million reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, representing about 9% of the population. But experts estimate the actual number of cases is much higher, which tracks with the Red Cross findings.

      The CDC estimates there may have been more than 83 million cases by the end of December, meaning more than a quarter of the population would have been infected at the end of 2020.

      'Real Water' Alkaline Water May be Linked to Hepatitis Outbreak: FDA

      Real Water brand alkaline water may be the cause of five cases of acute non-viral hepatitis (resulting in acute liver failure) in infants and children that occurred in November 2020 in the Southern Nevada Health District, and should not be consumed, served, sold or used for cooking, health officials say.

      All five patients were hospitalized but have since recovered. Five other people -- two adults and three children -- had other hepatitis symptoms, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

      The investigation is ongoing, but current evidence indicates that Real Water brand alkaline water may be the cause of the illnesses, the agency said.

      Symptoms of all types of hepatitis, including non-viral hepatitis, are similar and can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, gray-colored bowel movements, joint pain, yellow eyes, and jaundice. People with these symptoms should contact their doctor immediately, the FDA advised.

      The FDA added that it is in the beginning stages of this investigation, and there may be more products connected to this outbreak. FDA has also initiated an investigation at the firm.

      Two Coronavirus Strains First Found in California Classified as 'Variants of Concern' by CDC

      Two coronavirus strains first detected in California have been classified as "variants of concern" by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

      The agency said the variants may be about 20% more transmissible and also that some COVID-19 treatments may be less effective against them, CNN reported.

      However, the CDC didn't say that vaccines would be completely ineffective against the two strains.

      Currently, no coronavirus variants have been classified as a "variant of high consequence," the highest threat level. That category would include variants shown to significantly reduce vaccine effectiveness, CNN said.

      Still, health officials are concerned that some antibody treatments may not work as well against the variants, which are officially called B.1.427 and B.1.429. Scientists have been monitoring the strains closely in California over the past few months.The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently halted shipments of one COVID-19 antibody treatment to California, Nevada and Arizona, where the variants are circulating widely, CNN reported.

        Officials said that a COVID-19 therapy made by Eli Lilly, a combination of the drugs bamlanivimab and etesevimab, can still be ordered, and a different antibody treatment made by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals was also not affected by the HHS action.

        Both of those therapies combine two different lab-made antibodies. That's thought to make them more resilient to emerging strains of the coronavirus, CNN reported. If a mutation allows the virus to evade one antibody, it may still be susceptible to the other.