I know — we’re all tired of the pandemic and we’re all hoping it’d be over by now. But unfortunately, the virus doesn’t really care about media fatigue or how tired we all are of this pandemic.
While substantial progress has been made on the vaccination front, new variants continue to emerge, and researchers warn that the pandemic is still not done yet. Now, a new Omicron variant (BA.2) is surging in several parts of the world, including the US, UK, and Hong Kong.
Researchers warned us from the beginning that until we reach herd immunity at a global level, new variants will continue to emerge and we’d still be stuck in a pandemic — and this is exactly what we’re seeing now. After the more contagious Delta variant came in and swooped over the Alpha and Beta variants, Omicron made it all look like a joke.
The contagiousness math adds up very quickly.
Alpha was 50% more contagious than the original Wuhan strain. Delta is 40-60% more contagious than Alpha. Omicron is 105% more contagious than Delta. Now, the BA.2 Omicron variant appears to be 30% more contagious than the original Omicron, and we’re seeing the number of cases spike accordingly.
The emergence of the new subvariant coincides with a wave of lifting restrictions. Countries (especially those with a relatively high level of vaccination) were quick to relax restrictions and ease the political, social, and economic pressure they were causing — but this has come at a cost.
In the UK, the BA.2 variant has become dominant, and while at some point it seemed that the Omicron wave would simply burn out in the country, we’re seeing a new surge in cases and hospitalizations are starting to follow.
What we know about BA.2 Omicron so far
While it clearly appears to be more transmissible (and will likely become dominant across the world), we still don’t know how severe this subvariant is. Lab experiments from Japan suggest that it may have Delta-like characteristics and may cause more severe illness.
“More importantly, the viral RNA load in the lung periphery and histopathological disorders of BA.2 were more severe than those of BA.1 and even B.1.1. Together with a higher effective reproduction number and pronounced immune resistance of BA.2, it is evident that the spread of BA.2 can be a serious issue for global health in the near future,” a study not yet peer-reviewed concludes.
However, a separate study from South Africa found that a similar proportion of individuals with BA.1 and BA.2 infections required hospitalization, and data from Denmark suggests similar hospitalization rates for BA.1 and BA.2.
As is always the case with new variants and subvariants, it’s hard to tell exactly how things stand in the beginning. It’s also curious that while it seems to be taking over in several parts of Asia and Europe, BA.2 transmission in the US seems relatively low.
Importantly, while Omicron BA.2 shows some ability to evade vaccine immunity, it seems that boosters still provide excellent immunity. Overall, BA.2 shows the already well-known Omicron ability to evade some of the protection offered by two shots — but three shots offer over 90% protection against hospitalization.
Long-term, it seems that booster-provided protection wanes in time, and the rate of booster shot delivery has also slowed down, presumably as people’s interest in the pandemic also wanes. But variants don’t care how much attention you’re paying.
Did we rip the bandaid too soon?
Another reason why BA.2 is spreading so quickly is that many countries have relaxed restrictions — or removed them altogether. Some researchers believe this was done too quickly.
In addition to extra transmissibility, the BA.2 subvariant also appears to be capable of escaping some of the treatments we have for COVID-19. While the original Omicron was capable of evading two of the four monoclonal antibody drugs used in infections in high-risk individuals, a study from New York University suggests that BA.2 can bypass a third drug, sotrovimab.
Researchers also caution that even mild cases can cause lasting brain damage (and potentially other problems as well). A study from Oxford found that the virus produces changes in the brain and may shrink grey matter.
Ultimately, the vast majority of people with booster shots should be able to evade the worst of the virus effects — but they can still be in for an unpleasant ride.
Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new COVID-19 test that has the speed of over-the-counter antigen tests and the accuracy of medical-grade PCR tests.
Dubbed the ‘Harmony’ test, this diagnostic tool looks for the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in test samples. However, unlike PCR tests, which can take several hours to produce a result, the Harmony kit can provide a diagnosis in under 20 minutes with high accuracy.
The test was designed to be low-cost and straightforward to use, according to the authors, in a bid to help everyone, from doctors to the public, to better detect and track coronavirus infections.
“We designed the test to be low-cost and simple enough that it could be used anywhere,” said Barry Lutz, a UW associate professor of bioengineering, an investigator with the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, and senior author of the paper. “We hope that the low cost will make high-performance testing more accessible locally and around the world.”
The Harmony test uses a “PCR-like” approach to detecting the virus — samples are obtained using a nasal swab and processed with ready-to-use reagents using a series of simple steps. The kit is meant to be used with a low-cost detector that can be operated using a smartphone, which provides the results. Each detector can handle up to four samples at a time.
The team explains that one of their main reasons for designing this test kit was the need for affordable and easy-to-use COVID-19 tests that provide reliable accuracy. Many at-home antigen kits available today test for pieces of the virus, not traces of its genetic material, and are only about 80-85% accurate and may be less accurate with the Omicron strain. PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests are much better — providing around 95% accuracy — but are slow and cannot be carried out at home, as they require specialized devices and training to process. The Harmony kit is meant to combine the strengths of both of these types of tests.
Preliminary results show that Harmony is 97% accurate for nasal swabs. The test detects three different regions of the virus’ genome to help keep it effective against new strains: if a new variant of the virus develops many mutations in one region, the test can still detect the other two. The Harmony kit can detect the Omicron strain.
The step that makes PCR tests so time- and technology-intensive is a series of a few dozen heating and cooling cycles. Temperatures need to be very accurately controlled during these cycles to maintain the integrity of the sample. The Harmony test uses a similar method, known as RT-LAMP (reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification), with the key difference being that this doesn’t require the same temperature cycling.
“This test operates at a constant temperature, so it eliminates the time to heat and cool and gives results in about 30 minutes,” said Lutz.
Together with two of his colleagues, Lutz set up a new company for the UW — Anavasi Diagnostics — which will take the Harmony kit from an experimental device to a commercially-available product. The team believes that the kit will first be available for clinics and other medical institutions, then in settings where monitoring for infections is required, such as workplaces or schools. After these needs are met, they will adapt the test for home use.
“For a long time, the options have been either a PCR test that is expensive and typically takes a day or more to get a result, or a rapid antigen test that gives fast results and is low cost, but typically has lower accuracy than a lab PCR test,” said Lutz. “From the first day, we designed our test to be manufacturable at low cost and high volume, while delivering fast results with PCR-like performance.”
“We plan to make our test accessible and affordable throughout the world,” he adds.
The paper “Harmony COVID-19: A ready-to-use kit, low-cost detector, and smartphone app for point-of-care SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection” has been published in the journal Science Advances.
The pandemic is “nowhere near over,” cautions the Director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Ghebreyesus.
Ghebreyesus’ statement, issued Monday at the World Health Summit in Berlin, comes against a backdrop of countries reporting record numbers of new infections, especially in the 24 hours leading to the statement. This dramatic increase in cases is largely fueled by the more infectious Omicron strain and is already pushing governments to take more action against the virus.
Still here, going nowhere
“The pandemic will end when the world chooses to end it. It is in our hands, we have all the tools we need: effective public health tools and effective medical tools,” he added.
Several countries around the world are looking at staggering rates of daily new coronavirus cases. In the United States, the number of new cases has once again reached 1 million per day on January 18, after slightly dipping below that over the last week.
Europe is not faring very well either. Germany has blazed past 100,000 new cases per day, and reports from France show that it has passed 460,000. In the rest of the world, Brazil has shattered its previous record of new cases, reaching over 135,000 new cases.
The Omicron strain is considered to drive a large percentage of these cases. Due to its infectiousness, the WHO estimates that it will infect half of all Europeans by March. That is an understandably chilling prospect for lawmakers, who fear that high infection rates will translate into a much higher number of people seeking medical help; hospitals are already struggling to handle COVID-19 patients, and a sizable increase in demand could swamp healthcare services on a wide scale.
Governments around the world are already ramping up efforts against the virus by instituting new containment measures and speeding the rollout of vaccine boosters.
“Omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading,” Ghebreyesus added on Tuesday.
Omicron is currently responsible for over 70% of new cases, at least in Europe — but likely elsewhere as well.
These developments come just a few days after the two-year anniversary of the first known death caused by COVID-19, on January 11, 2020. Since then, the virus has claimed over 5.5 million lives according to official records, but likely more.
In light of these developments, the World Tourism Organization cautioned businesses and lawmakers in Europe not to expect foreign arrivals to return to their normal volume until 2024 at the earliest. Tourism and travel inside the EU remain affected as well, due to both disruptions in air travel and local containment measures.
Other areas of the world have also tightened restrictions for international and local travel in a bid to control the spread of the virus. One exception seems to be China, which marginally relaxed some internal travel restrictions in preparation for the Lunar New Year holiday later this month.
The number of hospitalizations for health disorders has doubled across the US during the pandemic (between January 2018 and December 2020), according to new research. The largest part of this increase was represented by cases of anorexia or bulimia.
Despite this, other common behavioral health conditions such as depression, alcohol use, or opioid use disorder, haven’t registered any meaningful changes during this time.
“This pandemic era is going to have some long-term impacts on the course of disease and the course of weight over the lifespan,” says Kelly Alison, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania, co-author of the paper. “What that does for eating disorders? We just don’t know.”
Although the team can’t yet tell what the cause of this increase is, they believe that we’re looking at the combined effect of several factors ranging from the toll the pandemic has taken on our mental health, an outsized focus on weight gain in parallel with constantly viewing ourselves on video calls, and even symptoms of COVID-19 itself. There is also very little data on how this trend will affect public health in the long run.
The study included data from over 3.2 million individuals across the U.S., with a mean age of 37.7 years old. According to the findings, the number of inpatient care cases for eating disorders remained pretty stable over time, at approximately 0.3 cases per 100,000 people per month, until May 2020. At that date, the number of cases doubled, to 0.6 per 100,000. This increase was registered across anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other and unspecified eating disorders.
The average length of inpatient stays for such cases has also increased. This was on average 9 days and 8 days between June to December of 2018 and 2019, respectively, going up to 12 days between June and December of 2020. A similar increase was not seen for the 3 behavioral health conditions used as controls over the same timeframe.
As far as outpatient care cases for eating disorders have increased from around 25 per 100,000 people per month to 29 per 100,000. The age range of inpatient patients ranged from 12 to 20 pre-pandemic, rising to 18 to 28 after its onset.
The average length of inpatient stays for such cases has also increased. This was on average 9 days and 8 days between June to December of 2018 and 2019, respectively, going up to 12 days between June and December of 2020. A similar increase was not seen for the 3 behavioral health conditions used as controls over the same timeframe.
Stress caused by the pandemic and the changes it caused in our lives could be one of the drivers of this increase, the team reports. Additionally, the shift towards video calls for conferences at work gives us ample opportunity to look at ourselves, which can create a further drive towards the development of eating disorders.
“During the pandemic, having a lack of routine and structure primed us in terms of our behaviors around food,” says Ariana Chao, Ph.D., from Penn’s School of Nursing.
Social media reflects this increase in self-scrutiny and concerns regarding weight, the authors report. As far as eating disorders are concerned, discussions about weight can be “very triggering”, Allison explains, so social media can create a lot of stress in patients at risk. Different people handle this stress differently, the team adds, with some binge eating, while others didn’t eat enough.
For now, it’s not clear whether the rising trend in eating disorder cases will continue after the pandemic. The present study is based on data up to December 2020, so it’s missing the latest part of the picture. The team is now hard at work analyzing data recorded well into 2021 to see how these trends are evolving.
“We really need more research,” says Chao. “Adversity can be a long-term predictor of developing eating disorders. Even the transition back to ‘normal’ can exacerbate eating disorders. Everything is changing so rapidly. Then again, people are also resilient. It’s hard to say what the long-term implications will be.”
The paper “Trends in US Patients Receiving Care for Eating Disorders and Other Common Behavioral Health Conditions Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic” has been published in the journal JAMA Network Open Psychiatry.
Germany’s capital city is issuing a new set of restrictions in a bid to contain a resurgence in coronavirus cases.
Starting next Monday, unvaccinated citizens in Berlin will have to contend with a new set of restrictions. Due to a growing number of coronavirus cases in the city, they will be denied access to indoor dining areas, bars, gyms, and hairdressers.
Although the decision is bound to be unpopular among the public, officials explain that they are the best preventive measure at their disposal in order to avoid another full-blown epidemic. Fully-vaccinated individuals, and those who can show proof of recovery from COVID-19, will be able to enter leisure facilities and a list of other selected venues—a system known as “2G” in Germany.
The decision to reinstate access restrictions for the unvaccinated is a response to “the rising number of coronavirus cases and the increasing pressure on intensive care units”, the Berlin senate said in a press release on Wednesday evening. Under Germany’s political organization system, Berlin is a ‘city-state’ — a state that consists of only one city.
These new restrictions were imposed by the local government, not the Federal government, and as such will only affect Berlin.
Under the new restrictions, theaters, museums, and outdoor events with more than 2,000 visitors will be off-limits to unvaccinated adults. Minors and those who have medical exemptions from receiving a vaccine will only need to show a negative test result.
Companies operating in Berlin have also been encouraged to transition as many employees as possible to work-from-home schemes, and limit office attendance to 50% of staff.
These measures are among the most — if not the most — restrictive yet in the whole of Germany. However, other areas and states might follow suit sooner rather than later; the country has been experiencing a rapid increase in new daily coronavirus infections over the last week. The states of Saxony, Bavaria, and Baden-Wuerttemberg are also in the process of increasing restrictions to deal with their own coronavirus flare-ups.
Germany’s adult vaccination rate sits at around 67%. Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, who still retains her office until the new government is set up, warned that this percentage is “not high enough to prevent a rapid spreading of the virus”.
So far, she seems to have been right. Some hospitals in Germany have started postponing non-urgent surgeries to make resources and personnel available to deal with the increase in coronavirus cases.
The pandemic and lockdowns during these last two years have caused major changes in all of our lives. But not all of the consequences have been negative. According to new research, experiencing solitude has been one of the surprising net sources of wellbeing during this time.
Solitude is often looked down upon as just another word for ‘loneliness’. However, having time for ourselves, by ourselves, is a very important element in our personal development and wellbeing. Although thrust upon us in an unfortunate set of circumstances, experiencing the pandemic and associated lockdowns has, nevertheless, given many people around the world the context they needed to experience solitude.
Although not all descriptions of solitude that made part of this study were positive, they outweighed the ones that were negative, the authors explain. Overall, the findings suggest that people of all ages can recognize solitude as something that can benefit our well-being.
Time for ourselves
“We often stigmatise solitude and confuse it with loneliness. But when we do that, we lose the benefit of understanding and then pursuing the benefits of time we spend alone,” explains Dr. Netta Weinstein, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Reading and lead author of the paper, for ZME Science .
“If we can focus on the positives, we can think about how to try out more of those kinds of experiences and activities that make our time alone peaceful, rewarding, and less lonely.”
The study used data submitted by more than 2000 participants, ranging from teenagers to adults. These participants were recruited as part of three representative samples of the UK population and were selected on the basis of age, gender, and geographic location. The participants included 1,001 adolescents aged 13-16, 523 adults aged 25-51, and 511 older adults aged 59-85.
The study looked at the benefits of solitude in several aspects. For example, one benefit of solitude is that it frees us from concerns regarding “social niceties”. Another would be that it gives us an opportunity to act autonomously, and yet another that it allows us to develop our personalities and abilities.
All in all, adolescents reported little interest in the autonomy aspect of solitude but were excited about the opportunity to increase their competence and grow as individuals. Out of all groups, they also expressed feeling the least disruption caused by solitude. The adults were most invested in the self-growth and competence aspects of solitude and reported focusing on acquiring new or developing existing skills to feel more effective. Unlike the adolescent group, they were very keen to develop and benefit from their autonomy during the lockdowns. Older adults were less interested in the competence aspect of solitude than those in the ‘adults’ group, much less keen on self-growth, but put a high price on the autonomy they experienced due to solitude during this time.
While adolescents overall were the least likely to experience disruptions in their lives caused by solitude, and the most likely to experience feelings of interpersonal connection during this time, adults were the most likely to report disruptions in their well-being during the lockdowns. The paper reports that “working-age adults recorded the most negative experiences” during this time out of all three groups.
However, the authors caution that the data was collected during the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, and as such, these results may not be generalizable over the whole pandemic. That being said, they’re still a reliable indicator of the potential benefits of solitude.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say there are benefits of the pandemic or its lockdowns” Dr. Weinstein explained for ZME Science. “However, what we see is that while lockdowns were understandably difficult for some, others appreciated the opportunity to slow down. They embraced the chance to spend time on simple at-home activities such as baking or crafting, and appreciated getting to know their local green spaces.”
I asked her why adults, in particular, have reported the most negative experiences related to the solitude of the pandemic. Dr. Weinstein believes this comes down to the pressures and stresses the restrictions placed on their day-to-day lives — disruptions in careers, uncertainty regarding the future, and increased responsibilities for children who spent more time at home — coloring their perception of this solitude. Furthermore, this demographic was the most likely to have their usual opportunities for alone-time, a crucial element of well-being, disrupted. For example, they lost those small moments they could take for themselves during their commute or breaks at work, which takes a toll over a longer period of time.
“These stressors may have interrupted their positive solitude time. On the other hand, even working-age adults reported many positive experiences during their time alone,” she adds.
As a last thought, Dr. Weinstein cautions that our experience during the pandemic is not a perfect representation of solitude in general. This particular opportunity for solitude came bundled up with a lot of stress for all of us, a lot of uncertainty, and accompanied by a lot of worrisome news and events. With that in mind, we shouldn’t judge the experience of solitude too harshly based on these past months.
“Solitude is a space where we can pursue our interests, get to know ourselves, and be free of immediate social pressures or demands. It’s much harder to appreciate these things when we are forced into solitude, rather than when we choose it. However, to the extent that we can find value in solitude it can be rejuvenating and rewarding,” Dr Weinstein concluded for ZME Science.
The paper “What Time Alone Offers: Narratives of Solitude From Adolescence to Older Adulthood” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Young adults around the world are experiencing grief and loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new research reveals, despite few having directly experienced the death of someone close.
A new study focusing on college students’ experiences with the pandemic points to a growing burden of grief and loss. The results highlight that young adults today are struggling with “losses in life, not of life”. These ‘shadow losses’ are not discussed and remain unknown and unaddressed by officials and healthcare providers. However, they could mark the current generations of young adults for a very long time to come.
Shadow losses are grief-inducing experiences that do not involve death. Losing touch with your family and friends, missing important social events or opportunities, are all examples of shadow losses.
A gentle sorrow
The authors hope that such results will help officials and healthcare providers better help young adults to adjust to their experiences during the pandemic, and the ones that will come after. These results were collected as part of class assignments asking students to reflect on the earliest and most significant losses they experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We wanted the students to emphasize what they’re feeling and how they’re coping,” said Raven Weaver, assistant professor in Washington State University’s Department of Human Development, and first author of the study. “We as a society don’t often talk about this, but there is progress in normalizing conversations around death, loss, and grief.”
“The idea of self-disenfranchisement was very common,” “They would say things like ‘It was a loss, but not a death, so it shouldn’t be a big deal.’ There’s a sense that we shouldn’t grieve smaller losses. But we need to acknowledge that talking about smaller losses is a healthy response and can benefit our mental health.”
Several participants mentioned feeling grief following the death of someone close to them, but most responses fell into the scope of ‘shadow losses’. This is a term coined by thanatologist Cole Imperi that refers to the grief caused by the loss of important experiences or opportunities. The results, as Weaver explains, also show that students tended to minimize the importance of these shadow losses to their mental health, despite the impact these had on their overall wellbeing.
The responses were collected from the stories 86 students submitted as part of the courses Weaver and her co-authors teach at the Washington State University and the University of Wisconsin. These courses — one, for example, is the HD 360: Death and Dying course — traditionally have a similar project dealing with death-related grief, but the authors wanted to capture a clearer snapshot of other kinds of loss that people experienced during the pandemic.
One of the major themes that emerged, they report, is that the students encountered huge challenges in communicating with loved ones in a “normal” way, and this had a profound effect on their well-being. Another large impact was caused by the loss of social interactions and of opportunities in education.
“It was difficult reading students’ experiences of not being able to say goodbye in person, of visiting a nursing home and talking through a window, or only talking via technology,” Weaver said. “But talking about these experiences helps people. That’s what we’re working toward.”
Grief, the paper explains, is a natural response caused both by tangible and intangible losses (the loss of a loved one vs. losses in social activity or security, for example). The authors cite previous research stating that for every death caused by the pandemic, an estimated nine people grieved. Their goal was to attempt to quantify the effects of intangible losses during this time, especially as “young adults reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms compared to pre-pandemic levels”.
All in all, the paper concludes that young adults experienced “substantive loss” during the pandemic, including missing out on important events that constitute developmental milestones, loss of contact with their friends and family, and the loss of opportunities regarding education and career development.
These factors should be taken into account by officials and healthcare providers, the paper adds, as they have a sizeable effect on the development and well-being of entire generations caught by the pandemic during a critical time in their lives.
The paper “Young adults’ experiences with loss and grief during COVID-19” has been published in the journal Death Studies.
The world is failing to learn the lessons of the pandemic and is still doing too little to address the issues it has caused, warns an independent watchdog set up by the World Health Organization and the World Bank.
A new report by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) explains in no uncertain terms that the global response to the pandemic has been very underwhelming, and is still plagued by issues. Instead of learning from such a traumatic event, we are leaving those that most need help behind, the report concludes.
The pandemic has exposed a world that is “unequal, divided, and unaccountable”, it concludes.
Leaves much to be desired
“If the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was defined by a collective failure to take preparedness seriously and act rapidly on the basis of science, the second has been marked by profound inequalities and a failure of leaders to understand our interconnectedness and act accordingly,” the report said.
“The health emergency ecosystem reflects this broken world. It is not fit for purpose and needs major reform.”
The report cites WHO estimates which place the overall death toll of the pandemic (both direct and indirect) at 17 million people. While that number in itself is frightening, the authors also point to a sharp — and growing — divide in the vaccination rates between wealthier and poorer areas of the globe.
Despite more than six billion vaccine doses being administered globally to date, only 1.4 percent of people in poor countries have been fully vaccinated, explained World Trade Organization chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala earlier this month.
The report comes in the wake of the 2020 GPMB report which was already pointing out how ill-prepared the world was for a global pandemic, despite numerous warnings from researchers and healthcare professionals that such an event was unavoidable.
“Scientific advancement during COVID-19, particularly the speed of vaccine development, gives us just cause for pride,” reads the report’s foreword, written by GPMB co-chair Elhadj As Sy.
“However, we must feel deep shame over multiple tragedies–vaccine hoarding, the devastating oxygen shortages in low-income countries, the generation of children deprived of education, the shattering of fragile economies and health systems. While this disaster should have brought us together, instead we are divided, fragmented, and living in worlds apart.”
The sheer loss of life caused by the pandemic is “neither normal nor acceptable,” he adds.
Against this backdrop, there’s little evidence that we’re actually learning from the pandemic. Deaths from COVID-19 are still mounting, while vaccination efforts are stalling in many areas of the globe. Areas of the world with the resources and infrastructure needed to distribute large quantities of vaccines are starting to ease into the illusion that the pandemic is over. On the other hand, poorer and less fortunate areas are seeing their national health system buckle and break under the strain of extra patients who need intensive care, while their own vaccination drives are progressing painfully slowly — due to a lack of resources, adequate infrastructure, or lack of trained personnel.
But in our interconnected world, there’s no feasible solution for beating this pandemic alone. The growing number of cases is a very real threat even for countries that have achieved high vaccination rates within their own borders. In a globalized society, there is no such thing as closing off your gates and weathering the storm outside.
The solution, GPMB proposes, is “a new global social contract to prevent and mitigate health emergencies”. They sum this contract up around six key points:
Strengthen global governance; adopt an international agreement on health emergency preparedness and response, and convene a Summit of Heads of State and Government, together with other stakeholders, on health emergency preparedness and response.
Build a strong WHO with greater resources, authority, and accountability.
Create an agile health emergency system that can deliver on equity through better information sharing and an end-to-end mechanism for research, development and equitable access to common goods.
Establish a collective financing mechanism for preparedness to ensure more sustainable, predictable, flexible, and scalable financing.
Empower communities and ensure engagement of civil society and the private sector.
Strengthen independent monitoring and mutual accountability.
It’s easy to read such material and feel defensive, even insulted. Haven’t we all suffered our share during this pandemic? Haven’t we all done our best to come through it? What more do these ‘organizations’ want from us, and what do they even know about us? And that’s certainly an understandable reaction.
But we have to look beyond that. Organizations such as the GPMB exist because they serve a role we as individuals, communities, governments, and countries cannot do on our own. Their job is to tell us when we all, as a species, are not acting in our own interest — and to hold us accountable. The hard truth is that our natural inclination during times of crisis is to hunker down and wait it out. But working together is the fastest and most efficient way of dealing with threats, including pandemics. We may not like the idea that our choices here can influence someone’s chances of survival half the world away, but they do. And while there’s precious little we as individuals can do, we can do our own little part, and we can hold those in charge accountable for doing their own, much larger part; both at home, and abroad.
As many of us are nearing the one-year mark following our immunization, questions still remain regarding the long-term efficacy of our current vaccines. New research, however, is looking into it.
A team of researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) has been analyzing the long-term immunization efficacy of the three vaccines approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in December 2020. These are BNT162b2 (BioNTech, Pfizer), mRNA-1273 (Moderna), Ad26.COV2.S (Johnson & Johnson).
They evaluated the immune response produced by these vaccines at two to four weeks after complete immunization (i.e. after receiving the full number of shots) to that at eight months after vaccination.
Declining but not determined
“The mRNA vaccines were characterized by high peak antibody responses that declined sharply by month six and declined further by month eight,” said corresponding author Dan H. Barouch, MD, Ph.D., director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at BIDMC, who helped develop the Ad26 platform in collaboration with Johnson & Johnson.
“The single-shot Ad26 vaccine induced lower initial antibody responses, but these responses were generally stable over time with minimal to no evidence of decline.”
Understanding the long-term efficacy of these vaccines is critical for our efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we didn’t have such information on hand up to now. Simply put, while the vaccines were tested to ensure safety and efficacy, the global context meant that their development process was greatly accelerated. We simply didn’t have the opportunity to obtain data pertaining to their long-term efficacy.
In a bid to help patch up this hole in our understanding, the team at BIDMC monitored the immunization levels of 61 participants over an eight-month period after they received their vaccines. The team measured the levels of antibodies, T cells, and other immune markers in the blood of these participants at two to four weeks after they received their shot (which is the point of peak immunity) and monitored them over an eight-month follow-up period.
Out of the 61 total participants involved, 31 received the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine, 22 received the Moderna one, with the final 8 receiving the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine.
All in all, the team explains that the Moderna vaccine produced more powerful and longer-lasting immunization effects than the BioNTech / Pfizer variant. That being said, all three variants produced effective immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 and had broad cross-reactivity to its strains.
However: the authors report that both mRNA-based vaccines (BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna) produced sizable initial immune responses, but these got progressively weaker over time. At around the 6-month mark, immune markers in patients who received either of these two had already declined sharply compared to the 2-to-4 week mark. The same markers would decline even further at the eight-month mark.
The single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, meanwhile, produced a weaker initial effect but was much more consistent over the study period.
Although these results might not sound very exciting or promising, they do not mean that the vaccines leave us vulnerable over time. For starters, there are still a lot of unknowns regarding exactly what immune responses in our bodies are needed to protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Furthermore, what the team tracked here are physical markers of immunity. But the antibodies themselves, for example, are the ‘soldiers’ that our body uses to protect itself against viruses. Their presence in the bloodstream is akin to our body being on alert. But even if they are not physically there, our bodies have already been primed regarding the structure of the virus, how to identify it, and which antibodies are needed to defeat it. Against this backdrop, an immune response against the pathogen can be mounted very quickly in case of infection.
“Even though neutralizing antibody levels decline, stable T cell responses and non-neutralizing antibody functions at 8 months may explain how the vaccines continue to provide robust protection against severe COVID-19,” said lead author Ai-ris Y. Collier, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at BIDMC.
“Getting vaccinated (even during pregnancy) is still the best tool we have to end the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The paper “Differential Kinetics of Immune Responses Elicited by Covid-19 Vaccines” has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
It’s no secret that the pandemic has taken a huge toll on many people’s mental health, especially during the first wave of lockdowns when fear and anxiety were at their peak. And although crisis communication is paramount in order to dispel some uncertainties and keep people informed about potential dangers, the endless stream of newsfeeds related to COVID-19 and death rates have had the unintended consequence of making things only worse, from a mental health perspective.
There’s a lot to be said about how poorly the pandemic has been covered by mainstream media and how stupidly harmful conspiracies like QAnon and misleading ‘China virus’ narratives have been allowed to run rampant on social media. Let’s just say that history won’t be too kind when looking back at this tumultuous period. But at least we had some good memes to keep us sane.
A new study published today in the journal Psychology of Popular Media found that not all media formats have contributed to a worsening of mental health. Funny memes helped people feel calmer and better equipped to cope with the stress of the pandemic, according to researchers led by Jessica Gall Myrick, a professor at Pennsylvania State University.
“As the pandemic kept dragging on, I noticed old, but popular, memes being repurposed on social media to make commentary about life during COVID-19. Eventually it became more and more interesting to me how people were using social media, and memes in particular, as a way to think about the pandemic and cope with the stress of life during this time,” Myrick told ZME Science.
“We found that viewing just three memes can help people cope with the stress of living during a global pandemic.”
In a survey of nearly 750 people in December 2020, the researchers sought to determine how different types of memes and varying degrees of cuteness affected the mood and overall mental health of the participants.
Hundreds of popular memes that went viral on sites like “IMGflip” and “IMgur” were selected for this purpose and classified by factors such as whether the meme featured a human or animal, whether the human or creature was young or adult, and whether the caption was related to COVID-19 or not. Each participant had to rate the humor and cuteness of each meme. Those memes that were viewed as equally funny and cute were selected for the next leg of the study.
The researchers then went into the trenches and altered some of the memes from the shortlist, essentially making their own memes. For each meme, the researchers thus had a COVID-related and non-COVID-related caption in order to compare their effects. For instance, a meme might feature an angry-looking cat with a caption that said “New study confirms: Cats can’t spread COVID-19 but would if given option.” The non-COVID-related version of the meme showed the same cat image but with the caption, “New study confirms: Cats can’t sabotage your car but would if given option.”
“The biggest challenge was finding as many really funny or cute memes as we could to make sure we had a good pool of popular memes. My two co-authors and I are from three generations (I am a millennial, our second author Robin is a Gen X’er, and our third author Nick is in Gen Z), so what some of us thought was funny, there was always at least one other person who did not think it was so funny. It was a long process to find memes that were equally appealing to people across generations, but we were the perfect research team to tackle that challenge!” Myrick said.
“I had never really written memes myself before, just shared ones that other people made that I thought were funny or cute. For this study, we took real memes that we found online and just tweaked them slightly to help make sure that the differences between memes that different participants saw in our study were limited to the type of caption and type of image used. We did a separate study asking participants to look at more than a hundred memes prior to selecting the pool of memes for this study so we could ensure that the memes that were either about COVID-19 or not about COVID-19 would be judged as equally, realistic, funny, and cute. We also had someone who does write memes regularly review all of our memes before we tested to help ensure the slight edits we made for our study still kept the memes realistic,” she added.
In the last stage of the study, the participants were randomly assigned to view three kinds of memes based on their subject (animal or human), cuteness level (adult or baby), and caption (COVID or non-COVID-related). An equal number of participants were exposed to plain text without images to act as a control.
Based on the participants’ self-reported levels of stress and nervousness over the past month, the researchers found that the volunteers who viewed memes had high levels of positive emotions compared with those exposed to other types of media. Perhaps counter-intuitively, people who viewed memes with captions related to COVID-19 were more likely to report lower levels of stress surrounding the pandemic than people who viewed memes with no relation to COVID-19.
“We also found that the topic of the memes could affect how well they helped people cope with the stress of living through the pandemic. If people saw a set of memes with captions that were specifically about COVID-19, then they rated themselves as less stressed about COVID-19 than did people who saw memes that were not about COVID-19,” Myrick said.
What’s more, people exposed to COVID-related memes were also more likely to process the context of the content they viewed and felt more confident in their ability to cope with pandemic stress than those who viewed non-COVID-related captions. An exception was found to be cute memes — those that feature human or animal memes — which had no effect on how people thought about the pandemic regardless of whether or not they contained captions about COVID-19.
These findings suggest that using memes when communicating about stressful public events may help people feel less overwhelmed by negative news.
“Engaging memes can offer useful perspective, comfort, and validation for one’s own experience, all of which can be psychologically beneficial,” Myrick concluded.
“This study just exposed participants to three memes and asked them about their thoughts and feelings immediately afterward. It would be great to have the funding to do a longer-term study that better reflects our real digital lives where we see memes every day and test how this cumulative exposure to different types of memes can affect our stress levels and ability to cope with serious life events.”
After going through the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, everybody is keen on predicting and avoiding the next big viral threat. New research at the University of Glasgow in the UK is harnessing the power of AI towards that goal.
Machine learning, an approach to data analysis whose goal is to teach machines how to automate certain tasks, could help predict the next zoonosis — a virus that jumps from an animal species to humans. Such pathogens are the most significant drivers of epidemics and pandemics and have been so throughout human history. The coronavirus was, very likely, also a zoonosis, one which jumped to humans from bats.
Manually sifting through all known animal viruses in an attempt to predict zoonosis is a monumental task. We estimate that there are around 1.67 million animal viruses out there, and although just a few should be able to infect humans, the work volume required for this task makes it simply not feasible in practical terms; especially as such predictions require specialized skills and laboratories.
This is where, a new study hopes, machines will come to the rescue.
Let the computer crunch it
“Our findings show that the zoonotic potential of viruses can be inferred to a surprisingly large extent from their genome sequence,” the study reads. “By highlighting viruses with the greatest potential to become zoonotic, genome-based ranking allows further ecological and virological characterization to be targeted more effectively.”
Predicting that a virus is likely to become a threat is not the same thing as actually preventing it from doing so, but it does go a long, long way in helping us prepare. That preparation would, in turn, lead to many lives saved, and much suffering avoided. It would also allow us to better monitor the behavior of particular threats, and focus preventative efforts more effectively.
In order to develop this AI, the team used the genetic sequences — full genomes — of roughly 860 virus species belonging to 36 families. The algorithm was trained to look for patterns in these (human-infecting) viral genomes alongside species-level records of human infection rates. Based on these datasets, viruses were assigned a probability of being able to infect human hosts. Its estimations were then compared to our best models of predicting a virus’ zoonotic potential. The authors used this step to both validate the estimations as much as possible, and to analyze patterns in these estimations across viral families.
“Although our primary interest was in zoonotic transmission, we trained models to predict the ability to infect humans in general, reasoning that patterns found in viruses predominantly maintained by human-to-human transmission may contain genomic signals that also apply to zoonotic viruses.”
Overall, the team reports, there are genetic features that seem to predispose viruses to infecting humans. These are largely independent of their taxonomy (evolutionary relationships to other viral species). Based on the AI’s estimations, they then developed machine learning models tailored specifically to look for these features across known viral genomes. We would still have to test any viral strain flagged by such a system in the lab in order to confirm that it can infect human cells, the author explain, before major resources are devoted to researching them and how to best counter them
This being said, a virus’ ability to infect human cells, by itself, is only one factor of its overall zoonotic potential. How virulent/infectious it is in humans, how easily it transmits between different hosts, and other environmental factors (such as a period of economic downturn or starvation, for example) have a sizable part to play in the formation of pandemics.
“These findings add a crucial piece to the already surprising amount of information that we can extract from the genetic sequence of viruses using AI techniques,” says study co-author Simon Babayan, from the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the University of Glasgow.
“A genomic sequence is typically the first, and often only, information we have on newly-discovered viruses, and the more information we can extract from it, the sooner we might identify the virus’ origins and the zoonotic risk it may pose. As more viruses are characterized, the more effective our machine learning models will become at identifying the rare viruses that ought to be closely monitored and prioritized for preemptive vaccine development.”
The paper “Identifying and prioritizing potential human-infecting viruses from their genome sequences” has been published in the journal PLOS Biology.
This weekend, a large black truck was spotted driving around Charlotte, North Carolina, sporting an unusual ad. “Don’t get vaccinated,” the ad said. The catch was, the ad was for a funeral home.
Now, a local medical center says they’re already seeing extra demand for vaccination.
It’s not uncommon for an ad to go viral and have an impact in society, but funeral homes don’t exactly come to mind when you think “viral advertising”. In this case, a local advertising company called Boone Oakley created the simple but compelling message, encouraging people to get vaccinated.
The website of the funeral home led to StarMed — a local care center and family medicine practice. According to StarMed, the ad seemed to have worked: they’ve seen a 22% increase in COVID-19 vaccination appointments registered at StarMed compared to the previous week. StarMed has been testing and vaccinating tens of thousands of members of the local community, often opting funny or snarky comments on their social media channels.
The idea behind the ad was pretty simple: there are plenty of campaigns aimed at encouraging people to get vaccinated, but they’re all kind of similar and “vanilla” — Boone Oakley wanted something different, something that stands out; and they seem to have done it.
Around 75% of eligible Americans (aged 12 and above) have gotten at least their first shot, and the CDC reported about 54% of the total population is fully vaccinated. However, in order to be truly rid of this pandemic, a much higher percentage is needed.
In the US, like in many other countries around the world, antivaxx resistance has slowed down the vaccination campaign, with officials fearing that disinformation and conspiracy theories will delay the end of the pandemic and prolong the suffering.
StarMed, like many medical centers across the US, is already starting to offer boosters to some patients. However, with vaccination rate starting to plateau, it remains to be seen whether the booster campaign will be successful. Maybe creative campaigns like this one can play a positive role — we can only hope so.
In a matter of weeks, the pandemic caused about one-third of US workers to shift to remove work, and nearly every American that could work from home did so. This raised massive challenges for most organizations and workers, who saw their routines drastically changed and had to quickly adapt to frequent calls and online hangouts.
But in a recent study released by Microsoft, the shift may lead us to work more hours than before.
For Microsoft, the shift came with significant consequences, according to a new study. Researchers found that the length of the workweek increased by 10% after the shift to remote work — and that’s just the start of it. Communication and collaboration were severely affected, with time spent with cross-group connections declining by 25% of the pre-pandemic level.
“Not only did information workers have to adapt to this new way of working, they had to do so in the face of a global pandemic,” a blog post by Microsoft reads. “Although it was clear that work patterns had changed during the pandemic, our research team wanted to understand what effects working remotely would have on work patterns.”
A deep look into Microsoft
For the study, the researchers looked at individual-level data describing the communication practices of 61,182 US Microsoft employees from December 2019 to June 2020. This allowed to compare the before and after Microsoft’s shift to remote work. The sample covered all employees except those who hold senior leadership roles.
The researchers looked at the remote status of each employee before the pandemic and the share of their colleagues who were already remote workers. They also considered their managerial status and their role at Microsoft, a weekly summary of the amount of time spent in meetings, and a monthly summary of their collaboration network.
There were employees at Microsoft who already worked from home before the pandemic, as well as many others who started doing so for the first time. For the study, the researchers assumed that any change in their behavior wasn’t just because of working remotely but also due to other factors mainly related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The increase in the length of the average workweek was one of the main findings. Still, this wasn’t necessarily due to employees working more hours but instead of them being less productive and requiring more time to complete their work, Microsoft claims. Even so, employees may be enjoying a time benefit, as they don’t have to spend any time commuting (and the commute is often more than 10% of the work time).
The workweek was calculated by adding up the time between a person’s first sent email or message or call and the last one. This methodology could mean, the researchers added, that the longer workweek was due to the same amount of time being divided “across a greater share of the calendar day due to breaks or interruptions for non-work activities.”
The study also found that formal business groups and informal communities became “less interconnected and more siloed”. The company’s organizational structure became less dynamic, with employees adding fewer new collaborators and shedding fewer existing ones. While unscheduled calls increased, total meetings decreased by 5% of their pre-pandemic level.
“This suggests that the increase in meetings many experienced during the pandemic was not due to remote work, but due to the pandemic and related factors. Remote work also increased asynchronous communication, like email,” Microsoft’s blog post reads. “The shift to less ‘rich’ communication media may have made it more difficult for workers to convey and process complex information.”
Looking ahead, the researchers said companies will have to take proactive measures to avoid productivity and innovation being further impacted. This should include implementing a hybrid work in which certain employees come to the office on some days. Companies shouldn’t decide to implement permanent remote work based on short-term data, they added.
The picture of how remote work is affecting society is only now starting to become a bit clearer — but there’s still much to be learned. With or without the pandemic, it seems unlikely that everyone will just return to the office like before. Whatever happens, some people will be working remotely, and we need to understand what this means for them and for society as a whole.
The coronavirus pandemic has left its mark on birth rates across the USA and Europe, a new paper reports. While this isn’t surprising, from a historical standpoint, it helps further illustrate just how significant its impact was on our lives.
Epidemics and disease are not modern inventions. They’ve been with us even before history started. And, whenever communities were strongly affected by epidemics, they made fewer babies. COVID-19 was in no way an exception to this rule, according to new research. The findings are based on data from high-income countries, namely the USA and EU states, which are the best-insulated from the effect of diseases. This only helps to reinforce the idea that societies, as a whole, tend to react to the spread of disease by taking their focus off of taking each other’s clothes off.
At the same time, different countries have seen different levels of reductions in their birth rates, underscoring the importance of policy and economic factors in making people feel safe during dramatic events such as an epidemic.
Not really in the mood
“There was a lot of variation across countries in the decline,” explains Seth Sanders, the Ronald Ehrenberg Professor of Economics at the The New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University. ” We don’t address why, but we think a lot of it has to do with the degree of economic disruption, coupled with the degree of social support in the absence of employment.”
Epidemics and pandemics have, obviously, left huge marks on the human population throughout history. For starters, they tend to increase mortality quite significantly for short periods of time. But their effect also spreads to birthrates.
We’re in a much better shape to fight against disease today than ever before, but the team at Cornell reports that pandemics still take their toll on natality, even in rich, developed societies. Overall, they add, there were quite significant differences in the magnitude of this effect across countries, however.
In the United States, birth rates declined by 7.1% overall compared to pre-pandemic years. In Europe, the figures were more varied. Italy, Spain, and Portugal saw quite significant declines of -9.1%, -8.4%, and -6.6% respectively. A few countries — Denmark, Finland, Germany, and The Netherlands — saw no significant decline compared to pre-pandemic years.
Naturally, the issue of natality is not a straightforward matter. Couples take into account a lot of factors when making the decision whether to conceive or not — you could say they take everything into account. The USA is a more homogenous place, from an economic and cultural standpoint than the states which comprise the EU. This, alongside the structure of available census data, is likely why the team chose to treat them as a whole. States in the European Union retain a higher degree of sovereignty than the states that make up the USA, there are more marked differences in their economies and policies, so an event such as a pandemic is bound to impact each in different ways. Data availability is also a factor and, overall, census data in EU states is structured more along the lines of individual countries than the whole block.
Now, back to the issue at hand. In order to reach these conclusions, the authors pooled monthly live birth statistics from January 2016 to March 2021 to establish a baseline, pre-pandemic natality value for different areas. These would correspond to conceptions between April 2015 to June 2020 (in general, as not all pregnancies are delivered fully to term). These baselines were then confirmed with live birth counts for 2020 and 2021. Since this dataset was provisional and continuously updated over the course of the research, it was also corroborated with midyear population estimates from the United Nations (UN) Population Division’s World Population Prospects.
Several EU countries, namely Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Croatia, and Romania, were excluded from the study for data quality concerns.
On one hand, the results showcase that societies are still highly sensitive to events such as pandemics, and this effect can be seen in people’s willingness to procreate. On the other hand, we’ve never had more accurate population data than we do today, so observing the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on birth rates today can teach us about the dynamics of how pandemics affected populations in the past. As for the trends observed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors point to the fact that policy and economic factors definitely play a part in how societies react to events such as pandemics
“When compared to the large fall in southern Europe, the relative stability of [crude birth rates] in northern Europe points to the role of policies in support of families and employment in reducing any impact on births.”
The paper “Early assessment of the relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and births in high-income countries” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists faced a deadly smallpox outbreak. Their varying responses constitute an eerily prescient object lesson for today’s world, similarly devastated by a virus and divided over vaccination three centuries later.
As a microbiologist and a Franklin scholar, we see some parallels between then and now that could help governments, journalists and the rest of us cope with the coronavirus pandemic and future threats.
What was new, at least to Boston, was a simple procedure that could protect people from the disease. It was known as “variolation” or “inoculation,” and involved deliberately exposing someone to the smallpox “matter” from a victim’s scabs or pus, injecting the material into the skin using a needle. This approach typically caused a mild disease and induced a state of “immunity” against smallpox.
Even today, the exact mechanism is poorly understood and not much research on variolation has been done. Inoculation through the skin seems to activate an immune response that leads to milder symptoms and less transmission, possibly because of the route of infection and the lower dose. Since it relies on activating the immune response with live smallpox variola virus, inoculation is different from the modern vaccination that eradicated smallpox using the much less harmful but related vaccinia virus.
Cotton Mather heard about variolation from an enslaved West African man in his household named Onesimus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Known primarily as a Congregational minister, Mather was also a scientist with a special interest in biology. He paid attention when Onesimus told him “he had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it; adding that it was often used” in West Africa, where he was from.
Inspired by this information from Onesimus, Mather teamed up with a Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to conduct a scientific study of inoculation’s effectiveness worthy of 21st-century praise. They found that of the approximately 300 people Boylston had inoculated, 2% had died, compared with almost 15% of those who contracted smallpox from nature.
The findings seemed clear: Inoculation could help in the fight against smallpox. Science won out in this clergyman’s mind. But others were not convinced.
Stirring up controversy
A local newspaper editor named James Franklin had his own affliction – namely an insatiable hunger for controversy. Franklin, who was no fan of Mather, set about attacking inoculation in his newspaper, The New-England Courant.
One article from August 1721 tried to guilt readers into resisting inoculation. If someone gets inoculated and then spreads the disease to someone else, who in turn dies of it, the article asked, “at whose hands shall their Blood be required?” The same article went on to say that “Epidemeal Distempers” such as smallpox come “as Judgments from an angry and displeased God.”
In contrast to Mather and Boylston’s research, the Courant’s articles were designed not to discover, but to sow doubt and distrust. The argument that inoculation might help to spread the disease posits something that was theoretically possible – at least if simple precautions were not taken – but it seems beside the point. If inoculation worked, wouldn’t it be worth this small risk, especially since widespread inoculations would dramatically decrease the likelihood that one person would infect another?
Franklin, the Courant’s editor, had a kid brother apprenticed to him at the time – a teenager by the name of Benjamin.
Historians don’t know which side the younger Franklin took in 1721 – or whether he took a side at all – but his subsequent approach to inoculation years later has lessons for the world’s current encounter with a deadly virus and a divided response to a vaccine.
That he was capable of overcoming this inclination shows Benjamin Franklin’s capacity for independent thought, an asset that would serve him well throughout his life as a writer, scientist and statesman. While sticking with social expectations confers certain advantages in certain settings, being able to shake off these norms when they are dangerous is also valuable. We believe the most successful people are the ones who, like Franklin, have the intellectual flexibility to choose between adherence and independence.
Perhaps the inoculation controversy of 1721 had helped him to understand an unfortunate phenomenon that continues to plague the U.S. in 2021: When people take sides, progress suffers. Tribes, whether long-standing or newly formed around an issue, can devote their energies to demonizing the other side and rallying their own. Instead of attacking the problem, they attack each other.
Franklin, in fact, became convinced that inoculation was a sound approach to preventing smallpox. Years later he intended to have his son Francis inoculated after recovering from a case of diarrhea. But before inoculation took place, the 4-year-old boy contracted smallpox and died in 1736. Citing a rumor that Francis had died because of inoculation and noting that such a rumor might deter parents from exposing their children to this procedure, Franklin made a point of setting the record straight, explaining that the child had “receiv’d the Distemper in the common Way of Infection.”
Writing his autobiography in 1771, Franklin reflected on the tragedy and used it to advocate for inoculation. He explained that he “regretted bitterly and still regret” not inoculating the boy, adding, “This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”
A scientific perspective
Upper body of man with smallpox. Credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine.
A final lesson from 1721 has to do with the importance of a truly scientific perspective, one that embraces science, facts and objectivity.
Inoculation was a relatively new procedure for Bostonians in 1721, and this lifesaving method was not without deadly risks. To address this paradox, several physicians meticulously collected data and compared the number of those who died because of natural smallpox with deaths after smallpox inoculation. Boylston essentially carried out what today’s researchers would call a clinical study on the efficacy of inoculation. Knowing he needed to demonstrate the usefulness of inoculation in a diverse population, he reported in a short book how he inoculated nearly 300 individuals and carefully noted their symptoms and conditions over days and weeks.
The recent emergency-use authorization of mRNA-based and viral-vector vaccines for COVID-19 has produced a vast array of hoaxes, false claims and conspiracy theories, especially in various social media. Like 18th-century inoculations, these vaccines represent new scientific approaches to vaccination, but ones that are based on decades of scientific research and clinical studies.
We suspect that if he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would want his example to guide modern scientists, politicians, journalists and everyone else making personal health decisions. Like Mather and Boylston, Franklin was a scientist with a respect for evidence and ultimately for truth.
When it comes to a deadly virus and a divided response to a preventive treatment, Franklin was clear what he would do. It doesn’t take a visionary like Franklin to accept the evidence of medical science today.
Not to make anyone feel uneasy after this whole pandemic thing, but a new study says there’s another viral threat looming on the horizon.
An international team of researchers is drawing attention to the fact that the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV), could mutate to become a global problem quite easily. While MERS has caused issues in the past and was highly lethal, it didn’t seem to be able to jump from one human to another, which limited its impact.
However, such an ability could be only a few mutations away for the virus. One subfamily of the virus is already able to infect humans, but luckily, it is still isolated from the main group. However, if these two were to come into contact, MERS could start the next pandemic.
Just one unlucky break
Pandemics, or the plagues of yore, usually start from zoonoses. These aren’t noses that like zoos at all. Rather, they’re pathogens that specialize in infecting animals but evolved to also infect human beings, at one point or another. Historically speaking, livestock is the main source of zoonoses, and the reason plagues used to ravage medieval Europe, where people and animals used to live in tight proximity with poor hygiene. Another element that makes zoonoses so dangerous is that, being a ‘new’ pathogen to humans, virtually nobody has any natural defenses against them.
SARS-CoV-2 was also a zoonosis, most likely originating from bats. The speed and ferocity with which the virus spread across the world, and the devastating effects it had on patients, are tragic reminders of just how dangerous such pathogens can become. But it’s not the only virus out there, not by far. Its big break, so to speak, what set it apart from other animal-borne viruses, was that it evolved the ability to infect a human cell — probably by accident.
MERS-CoV, a virus first seen in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, also has the potential to follow in its footsteps, according to a new study. During its initial outbreak, MERS killed around 40% of the patients it infected. However, it’s unlucky break was that it couldn’t pass from one person to another. Analyses at the time showed that virtually all cases of infection originated from dromedaries (camels). These animals, in turn, likely got it from bats.
Despite its lethality, the MERS outbreak remained a footnote of history, as it remained quite small in scope. Testing since then also seems to indicate that the danger is passing, as around 80% of the dromedaries tested so far — 70% of which live in Africa — have antibodies against the virus in their blood.
But, in a bid to find out why this virus didn’t infect many more people — especially curious considering how many dromedaries there are around, and how often people in Africa and Saudi Arabia interact with them — an international team of researchers took samples of the virus from multiple sites across the Middle East and Africa. Their goal was to identify and isolate individual strains (‘variants’) of the virus.
Those from Africa and the Middle East were separated into different clades, and were then compared from a genetic standpoint, and under lab conditions, using cultures of human lung cells. To their surprise, they found that African clades wouldn’t readily infect human cells. Those in the Arabian clade, however, would.
It all comes down to differences in the amino acids each clade uses in a particular protein — the S, or ‘spike’ protein. The team showed that African clade variants engineered to have the same amino acids in this protein as the Arabian clade had a much easier time infecting human cells.
One possible explanation for the difference between these two clades is that dromedary trade is “virtually one-way”, from Africa to the Middle East. In essence, this means that changes in the Arabian clade can’t percolate back into the African one, even if African clades do come into contact with Arabian ones. If the trade was to be reversed, however, or if a carrier animal makes its way back to Africa, the local population of viruses could become highly infectious to humans, sparking a new and deadly pandemic.
The paper “Phenotypic and genetic characterization of MERS coronaviruses from Africa to understand their zoonotic potential” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
As the world rebounds from the pandemic, global carbon emissions from energy are forecast to jump this year by the second-biggest annual rise in history. Despite big words and political commitments, climate action seems to be left in the background.
In its Global Energy Review, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts energy-related CO2 emissions will grow by 4.8% due to a larger demand for coal, oil and gas. This would be the largest single increase since the economic recovery from the financial crisis more than a decade ago.
Fatih Birol, the executive director of the IEA, told The Guardian: “This is shocking and very disturbing. On the one hand, governments today are saying climate change is their priority. But on the other hand, we are seeing the second biggest emissions rise in history. It is really disappointing.”
The closed factories and empty roads and airports we witnessed last year led to the biggest fall in demand for energy since World War Two. It was unsurprising: with the pandemic bringing parts of society to a halt, emissions were bound to drop. That lower demand triggered a drop on carbon emissions of drop around 7% in 2020, as carbon-intensive fuels such as oil and coal were the hardest hit by the restrictions.
Many hoped that we can use the changes in energy use seen last year and start a trend towards renewable energy sources and lower emissions – with campaigners around the world calling last year for a green recovery. This is why this latest report is so disappointing: it shows that despite promises, governments and companies keep betting on fossil fuels.
Global net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050, if the world is to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, the UN has estimated — which would allow us to escape many of the severe effects of climate change. This means that we have a few years to change course or face the dangerous effects of climate heating.
Birol said the world is “on course to repeat the same mistakes” of the past and said to be “more disappointed” than before. He compared the current rise in emissions to what happened after the 2008/2009 financial crisis, when emissions rose 6% in 2010 as countries tried to stimulate their economies by using more fossil fuel energy.
Emerging markets and developing economies now account for more than two thirds of global CO2 emissions, while emissions in advanced economies are in a slow decline, despite an anticipated 4% rebound in 2021, the EIA said. Emissions from China and India are set to steeply increase this year due to a higher demand from all fossil fuels.
In its report, the IEA anticipated a rebound on global coal use this year mainly driven by Asia, leading to an increase in global CO2 emissions of around 640 Mt CO2. This would push emissions from coal to 14.8 Gt CO2, which is 0.4% above 2019 levels and only 350 Mt CO2 short of the global high in coal-related CO2 emissions of 2014.
CO2 emissions from natural gas combustion are also expected to increase by more than 215 Mt CO2 in 2021 to reach an all-time high of 7.35 Gt CO2, 22% of global CO2 emissions. Gas use in buildings and industry accounts for much of the trend. Demand from public and commercial building is expected to recover after a drop seen last year.
Still, it’s not all bad news. Renewable energy sources are still growing, the IEA said in its report. Wind, solar and other sustainable forms grew 3% during 2020, and they are expected to grow by another 8% this year. Overall green energy sources will provide 30% of electricity generation, the highest level since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This is big news.
“What seems to be happening now is that we have a massive deployment of renewable energy, which is good for tackling climate change, but this is occurring alongside massive investments in coal and gas,” Corinne Le Quere, researcher at East Anglia University, told BBC. “Stimulus spending post-Covid-19 worldwide is still largely funding activities that lock us into high CO2 emissions for decades.”
The COVID-19 pandemic caught the world off guard, showing just how woefully unprepared we are against spillovers of zoonotic viruses. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t warned. There are over 500,000 animal viruses that have the potential to cross to humans, and for decades, scientists have been calling the alarm that human activity is increasing the risk of spillover.
“It is highly likely that future SARS or MERS-like coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China.” Sounds familiar? That’s the conclusion of a study published in early 2019 that was eerily prescient, and it’s not even the only study to come with this type of warning.
The rest, as they say, is history. The evidence so far indicates that SARS-CoV-2 is a wildlife spillover, with the virus originating in bats in China. Bats go out foraging and have numerous encounters with other animals, such as pangolins, badgers, pigs, and many others. Ultimately, the virus crossed to humans.
One good thing about this pandemic is that there is now an enormous amount of public support for measures meant to contain and avoid new outbreaks — although there’s a good chance this will decline as the imminent threat subsides. With this in mind, researchers at the University of California, Davis, have released a new web app called SpillOver, which ranks hundreds of wildlife viruses by their spillover risk.
“Our tool aims to rank the risks of spillover from newly-discovered viruses. Sadly, the risk of new diseases and another epidemic and pandemic resulting from human behaviors at high-risk transmission interfaces are high if we don’t act now. The tool allows you to create a personalized watchlist for a specific country or type of virus, etc. so that we can be prepared for the next one and help to stop it before human casualties or at least control it at the source,” Jonna Mazet, Professor of Epidemiology and Disease Ecology at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, told ZME Science.
The ranking is based on data collected from a myriad of sources, including new viruses first detected by PREDICT, a USAID project launched in 2009 designed to assess emerging pandemic threats. Hundreds of scientists and public health experts have already contributed to the database. Crowdsourcing is still available as any scientist can add data to existing viruses or assess the risk of new viruses using the ‘Rank Your Virus’ application in the tool.
Each of the 887 animal viruses compiled in SpillOver, most of which were new to science at the time of inclusion, has a risk score. Those with the highest risk are known zoonotic viruses that have already spilled over from wildlife to humans. For instance, SARS CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 ranks second, between the Lassa and Ebola viruses.
Why would the COVID-causing virus rank lower than Lassa, a virus that causes hemorrhagic fever and kills only 5,000 people a year? That’s because key information about SARS-CoV-2 is still missing, such as the number and range of its host species, which might paint a more accurate picture of the spillover risk for this species of coronavirus.
“SARS-CoV-2 was not discovered until it made people sick. That is the problem that we are trying to solve. We have all of the technology and scientific information we need to safely identify viruses and their transmission risks before they spillover, the world just needs the political will to act,” Mazet said.
Close to the top of the list, there are also newly identified viruses that have yet to spill over, but which nevertheless have a higher risk of becoming zoonotic than some known viruses. Unsurprisingly, many of them are coronaviruses, including a novel coronavirus provisionally named PREDICT_CoV-35, which ranks in the top 20.
It is in identifying such new viruses that have yet to spill over from bats or other animals to humans but have the potential to do so that the tool shines. By highlighting the riskiest viruses, experts can then perform further investigations and local authorities that can enact urgent measures meant to contain any possible viral leak to humans. It’s not too different from risk assessments used by banks and insurance companies to make informed decisions. As the ongoing pandemic has tragically shown, keeping an eye on other viruses like it could mean the difference between a normal life and a new pandemic — maybe even worse than this one.
“The biggest moments were often the most tragic ones — helping countries respond to more than 50 outbreaks of mystery diseases and terrible ones, like Ebola. Of course, the COVID19 pandemic has been the most devastating, but also illustrates the need for information on viruses in advance of spilling over, which is exactly what this tool aims to help us do: be prepared for Disease X,” Mazet said.
Using the open-source tool, anyone can compare and contrast the viruses included in the list. You can also filter the viruses based on certain attributes, such as viruses species, host species, and country of the first detection. Hundreds of scientists have already contributed to SpillOver’s database, and many more are welcome to do so. The more accurate the risk estimates for each virus, the better we can then prioritize efforts meant to contain them.
“We designed the tool to create and evolve the watchlist of newly-detected viruses that have not yet been recognized to cause disease in people but have spillover potential, just as SARS-CoV-2 did before the pandemic began. Identifying the risks associated with new viral discoveries is critical to protect us in the future. So far, we can say that the most life-saving change will come if we alter our behavior near and with wildlife and limit impacts to wildlife habitat to most quickly reduce spillover transmission risk,” Mazet concluded.
The virus that triggered the ongoing pandemic probably emerged from markets in China that sold animals both dead and alive, according to a major investigation by the World Health Organization (WHO). While revealing, the findings aren’t conclusive and the WHO said it will keep all hypotheses under consideration.
The investigation looked at different hypotheses on when and where the pandemic started, finding that the virus likely didn’t spread widely before December 2019 or escape from a laboratory. The investigation report called for further research into wildlife and domestic animal farms in China and the global wildlife trade. This is in line with previous findings, but cannot fully exclude other possibilities.
“We could show the virus was circulating in the market as early as December 2019,” Peter Ben Embarek, who co-led the investigation, told Nature. “A lot of good leads were suggested in this report, and we anticipate that many, if not all of them, will be followed through because we owe it to the world to understand what happened.”
Over 30 scientists from around the world participated in the investigation by traveling to Wuhan, where the pandemic started and collecting data. They largely focused on the COVID-19 cases that happened in December 2019 and January 2020, looking to see where exactly the pandemic was most likely to start. Two-thirds of those who had symptoms in December had been exposed to live or dead animals, they argued in the report.
The genomes of SARS-CoV-2 from some of the people in this group were sequenced, finding that eight of the earliest sequences were identical, and that infected people were linked to the Huanan market – where the COVID-19 was first detected. The researchers also found that the genomes varied from earlier cases, which suggests the virus could have been spreading under the radar — meaning the wet market may have not been the original event, but an early spreader.
The scientists found that many animals were sold at the market, from rabbits and crocodiles to poultry and salamanders. While Chinese officials argued the market didn’t sell live mammals or illegal wildlife, the report included references from unverified media reports that suggest this wasn’t the case. Nevertheless, exactly what happened at the Huanan market remains unknown.
Over 1,000 samples were collected from the market in early 2020, swabbing bins, toilets, and stalls. The ones that tested positive were mainly from stalls that sold seafood, livestock, and poultry, the report found. Researchers also traced back animals at the market back to three provinces in China where pangolins and bats carrying coronaviruses had been found.
Animal spillover is still the most likely option
In another relevant finding, the WHO report also concluded that it’s very unlikely that the novel coronavirus escaped from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a possibility that was mentioned in the past by a few researchers and promoted by the CDC ex-director. Still, most scientists have supported the hypothesis of SARS-CoV-2 having spilled over from animals into humans.
The WHO team visited the laboratory in Wuhan and were told by the scientists that none in the lab had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 – dismissing the possibility of someone there having been infected in an experiment. The researchers at the lab also said they hadn’t kept any live virus strains similar to SARS-CoV-2 and said everyone in the team had safety training.
“So what we found, I think, is pretty important evidence of a way the virus could have emerged from rural China into a big city like Wuhan and led to an outbreak,” WHO team member Peter Daszak told CNN. “And it turns out that at the end of the report, both the China team of experts and the WHO experts all felt this was the most likely pathway that the virus took.”
However, the new report is unlikely to deter supporters of the lab escape hypothesis. Even as there is no evidence to support this hypothesis (and there is evidence to support animal spillover), the fact that it was not 100% disproven will likely not settle the debate. However, WHO’s Peter Ben Embarek, who co-led the investigation notes that this investigation is far from the last: a lot of good leads were suggested in the report, and they will all be followed by more in-depth research, Embarek notes. WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who was not directly involved with the investigation, posted a statement saying:
“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he wrote. “This requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”
This suggestion of new steps is particularly important because China did not share all its existing information with the WHO.
China withheld information
While comprehensive, the report had significant limitations as China refused to provide raw data on early COVID-19 cases to the WHO team. They had requested data on 174 cases that China had identified from the early phase of the outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019, as well as other cases, but were only provided with a summary.
Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious diseases expert who is a member of the team, told Reuters gaining access to the raw data was especially important since only half of the 174 cases had exposure to the Huanan market. Dwyer said the WHO team had “arguments” with their Chinese counterparts over the significance of the data.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told Reuters that the researchers “expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” expecting that future collaborative studies can include “more timely and comprehensive data sharing.” He said the report wasn’t “extensive enough” and that further studies will be needed. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious diseases expert, noted that he’d like to read the report thoroughly to understand exactly what information China withheld. “I want to read the report first and then get a feel for what they really had access to — or did not have access to,” he told AP. Indeed, until we don’t find the exact source of the virus or have complete transparency about what happened in those early pandemic days, the matter likely won’t be definitively settled.
Although the report has not yet been made public (it will likely be made public within a week), several experts already have access to it and are reviewing it. White House press secretary Jen Psaki commented on this:
“I think he believes the American people, the global community, the medical experts, the doctors — all of the people who have been working to save lives, the families who have lost loved ones — all deserve greater transparency,” Psaki told reporters at a White House briefing.
“Seventeen experts, longstanding leaders from the field, including epidemiology, public health, clinical medicine, veterinary medicine, infectious disease, law, food security, biosafety, biosecurity — we have a lot of experts in government — will be reviewing this report intensively and quickly,” she said at a daily briefing.
Activities such as deforestation, palm oil plantations, and the conversion of grasslands into new forests are associated with outbreaks of diseases, especially those transmitted by mosquitoes and other vector animals, according to a new study. This shows the urgency of careful forest management to prevent future pandemics.
It’s no coincidence that pandemics are becoming more and more often. Pandemics tend to come from animal viruses, and the more we interact with animals (read: farm them or take over their territory), the more we increase the risk of a new virus making the jump from animals to humans.
Deforestation and forest degradation is taking place at alarming rates across the world, which contributes significantly to the ongoing loss of biodiversity. Since 1990, it is estimated that 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The current Covid-19 pandemic has called to investigate the consequences of biodiversity loss for the emergence of zoonotic diseases. Previous studies in Brazil have shown deforestation increases the risk of malaria, while researchers in south-east Asia found that forest clearing favors the mosquito Anopheles darlingi – a vector for several diseases, including malaria.
To better understand these effects, a global team of researchers decided to investigate at a global scale whether the loss and gain of forest cover can promote outbreaks of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases. They looked at global trends in forest cover and epidemics of infectious diseases so to understand their connection.
“We don’t yet know the precise ecological mechanisms at play, but we hypothesize that plantations, such as oil palm, develop at the expense of natural wooded areas, and reforestation is mainly monospecific forest made at the expense of grasslands,” lead author Serge Morand said in a statement. “These simplified habitats favor vectors of diseases.”
Morand and his team looked at the correlation between forest cover, plantations, population, and disease around the globe – using statistics from organizations such as the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and FAO. The study period went from 1990 and 2016, covering over 3,800 outbreaks of more than 100 zoonotic diseases.
Outbreaks increased over time, while plantations also expanded rapidly and forest cover declined gradually. In tropical countries where deforestation was more common, the researchers found a correlation to large outbreaks of diseases like malaria. In temperate countries with afforestation, they found a link with outbreaks of diseases like Lyme Disease.
The findings add to growing evidence that viruses are more likely to transfer to humans or animals if they live in or near ecosystems disturbed by humans, such as cleared forests. This is influenced by consumer behavior, with a quarter of global forest loss driven by the production of commodities such as beef, soy, and palm oil.
With this in mind, the researchers included in their paper a set of recommendations for policymakers.
Stopping deforestation through international agreements that govern forest management, developing more research on how ecosystems regulate diseases and making accountable corporations that profit from deforestation are good ways to start.
“We hope that these results will help policymakers recognize that forests contribute to a healthy planet and people, and that governing bodies need to avoid afforestation and agricultural conversion of grasslands,” Morand said in a statement. “We’d also like to encourage research into how healthy forests regulate diseases.”