Dozens of inmates test positive for virus at San Diego federal jail, defense attorneys say

Petco Park anchors downtown San Diego.
Downtown San Diego. (K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

At least 56 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus last week at a privately run federal jail in downtown San Diego that houses mostly pretrial inmates, according to defense attorneys briefed on the matter.

The GEO Group, which contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service to operate the Western Region Detention Facility, is in the process of testing all inmates there “whether or not they are showing any symptoms,” according to Kathy Nester, executive director of Federal Defenders of San Diego.

“Today we received confirmation of a large number of positive tests arising from that ongoing testing,” Nester wrote in an email Friday.

She said 286 inmates were tested Thursday, and of those, 56 tests came back positive, 114 were negative and 116 were pending.

Another 221 tests were submitted Friday, with all of those results still pending, according to Nester.

She said information about the apparent coronavirus outbreak was provided in a Friday phone call with the Marshals Service, which gives Federal Defenders regular updates “advising us of our clients who have tested positive and when there are ongoing quarantines” at its facilities.

“We are extremely worried about the rate at which the coronavirus is spreading through our detention facilities and the impact that will have on our clients and the community at large,” Nester wrote.

A spokesperson for the GEO Group referred a request for comment to the marshals. Calls to the San Diego-area office of the marshals were not answered Friday.

According to the GEO Group, the Western Region Detention Facility can house up to 770 inmates and is accredited by two national correctional organizations.

In April, Voice of San Diego reported that inmates at the facility reported cramped conditions at the jail that did not allow for social distancing. According to the declaration cited in the report, written by Federal Defenders senior litigator Joshua Jones and signed March 31, inmates at the facility reported several other safety concerns, including a lack of hand sanitizer in housing units and a scarcity of soap.

A study published last month in the Annals of Epidemiology found that “jails are epicenters of COVID-19 transmission in the United States.”

The study’s authors wrote that jails “present an ideal setting for infections to spread” because “incarcerated individuals are at higher risk for infection due to unsanitary living conditions and inability to socially distance.” Additionally, the authors wrote that “correctional officers rarely have public health training, and correctional health systems are chronically underfunded.”

Two of the study’s authors, from Stanford University, said an outbreak inside a jail threatens the community outside because “the people who work there enter and leave every day. They can take the virus out into the community when they go home at night.”

The apparent outbreak at the Western Region Detention Facility follows an outbreak at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, another federal jail in downtown San Diego.

As of Friday, there were three confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates at

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Human Challenge Trials Will Deliberately Infect Dozens in the UK

Young, healthy people will be intentionally exposed to the virus responsible for COVID-19 in a first-of-its kind ‘human challenge trial’, the UK government and a company that runs such studies announced on 20 October. The experiment, set to begin in January in a London hospital if it receives final regulatory and ethical approval, aims to accelerate the development of vaccines that could end the pandemic.

Human challenge trials have a history of providing insight into diseases such as malaria and influenza. The UK trial will try to identify a suitable dose of the virus SARS-CoV-2 that could be used in future vaccine trials. But the prospect of deliberately infecting people—even those at low risk of severe disease—with SARS-CoV-2, a deadly pathogen that has few proven treatments, is uncharted medical and bioethical territory.

Proponents of COVID-19 challenge trials have argued that they can be run safely and ethically, and that their potential to quickly identify effective vaccines outweighs the low risks to participants. But others have raised questions about the safety and value of these studies, pointing out that large-scale efficacy trials involving tens of thousands of people are expected to deliver results on several COVID-19 vaccines soon.

“Deliberately infecting volunteers with a known human pathogen is never undertaken lightly. However, such studies are enormously informative about a disease,” said Peter Openshaw, an immunologist at Imperial College London and investigator on the study, in a press statement. “It is really vital that we move as fast as possible towards getting effective vaccines and other treatments for COVID-19, and challenge studies have the potential to accelerate and de-risk the development of novel drugs and vaccines.”

Dose testing

The planned COVID-19 challenge study will be led by a Dublin-based commercial clinical-research organization called Open Orphan and its subsidiary hVIVO, which runs challenge trials on respiratory pathogens. It will take place in the high-level isolation unit of the Royal Free Hospital in north London, says Open Orphan executive chair Cathal Friel.

The UK government’s COVID-19 Vaccine Taskforce has agreed to pay the company up to £10 million (US$13 million) to conduct the trial, with the possibility of contracting Open Orphan to run several more to test various vaccines. The UK Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which regulates clinical trials in the United Kingdom, and an ethical review committee, still need to approve the initial trial and its design, and that of future studies.

The initial trial will involve an estimated 30–50 participants, says Andrew Catchpole, a virologist and the chief scientific officer at Open Orphan who is leading the work. It is open only to healthy adults aged 18–30.

The precise design of the study has not been finalized. But it is likely that a small number of participants will receive a very low dose of a SARS-CoV-2 ‘challenge strain’ derived from a currently circulating virus and grown under stringent conditions. If none or few of the participants become infected, the researchers will seek permission from an independent safety monitoring board to expose

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