Archive: Coronavirus Update

Below is a selection of past editions of Science News Coronavirus Update. Sign up to receive this newsletter here.

Coronavirus Update: Plasma is still unproven

August 26, 2020

Coronavirus Update: A neck gaiter follow-up

August 19, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Russia’s unverified vaccine

August 12, 2020

Coronavirus Update: The race for lab-made antibodies

August 5, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Viral loads, revisited

July 29, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Promising vaccine options

July 22, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Testing delay troubles

July 17, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Seeking silent spreaders

July 14, 2020

Coronavirus Update:  The vaccine race

July 10, 2020

Coronavirus Update: How airborne is the virus?

July 7, 2020

Coronavirus Update: 6 months in. Now what?

July 3, 2020

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Just six months ago, on December 31, Chinese officials informed the World Health Organization about a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases associated with a seafood market in Wuhan. And so began a viral outbreak that would morph into a pandemic the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since the 1918 influenza scourge.

Science News reporters and editors have looked back at this extraordinary six months, from that first warning on New Year’s Eve to the coronavirus’s gallop around the globe, killing at least 500,000 people and infecting more than 10 million by June 30. Join us in reviewing what’s changed, where the response fell short, and all that science has learned — and the many questions that remain — about the novel coronavirus.

Here’s what we’ve learned in 6 months of COVID-19 — and what we still don’t know

Thanks to extraordinary efforts, scientists have learned a vast amount in a very short time about the coronavirus, overturning some early assumptions. 

In the beginning, for instance, public health officials made recommendations on how best to protect oneself based on past experiences with the pathogen’s close relatives SARS and MERS. But they didn’t know that this new virus can spread before infected people have symptoms, unlike those viruses. Erin Garcia de Jesus guides us through what we knew then and what we know now. Read more

The U.S. largely wasted time bought by COVID-19 lockdowns. Now what?

From March to May, much of the United States pressed pause in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. But the country mostly squandered the time bought by millions of Americans who stayed home, often at significant personal and financial cost. 

Despite some progress, especially in testing, most local health departments still don’t have the workforce or the infrastructure needed to contain the virus and make it possible to relax social distancing, Jonathan Lambert reports. Read more

Why COVID-19 is both startlingly unique and painfully familiar

In the six months since China reported a pneumonia of unknown cause, doctors have identified a burgeoning catalog of health harms from what’s now called COVID-19. In some ways, the disease stands apart: The range of COVID-19’s effects on the body and the difficulty in predicting how severely it will hit any one person is out of the ordinary. 
 
Some people have debilitating illness, while others barely feel sick, if at all. For some, it’s mostly a respiratory illness, while others have neurological symptoms, such as loss of smell. Severely ill patients may develop life-threatening blood clots, adding vascular symptoms to the list. 
 
But some of the patterns associated with COVID-19, such as its disproportionate burden on Black, Latino and Native American people, aren’t new. Aimee Cunningham explores how COVID-19 compares to other viral infections and the harms they inflict. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the pandemic on our coronavirus collection page.

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The latest science

Step it up

Not feeling like you’re getting your 10,000 steps a day lately? You’re not alone. The pandemic has slashed daily step counts of people around the world, smartphone data collected from more than 455,000 users in 187 countries indicate. 

Researchers cataloged daily step counts recorded from the app Argus from January 19 to June 1. In the 10 days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11, worldwide average daily step counts decreased 5.5 percent, or about 287 steps per person. By 30 days into the pandemic, worldwide average step counts were down 27.3 percent, or 1,432 steps, researchers report June 29 in the Annals of Internal Medicine

Exercise decreased more in some places than others: In Italy, where lockdown orders were issued March 9, step counts were cut nearly in half at the lowest point, while Sweden, which has largely remained open, had a maximum decline of 6.9 percent.

Social distancing measures have not only decreased some people’s walking and exercise, but have also cut counts by reducing steps taken while commuting to work as well as shopping and other leisure activities, the researchers write. Step counts began to recover in some places in late April, perhaps as a result of easing social distancing measures.

Exercise decreased more in some places than others: In Italy, where lockdown orders were issued March 9, step counts were cut nearly in half at the lowest point, while Sweden, which has largely remained open, had a maximum decline of 6.9 percent.

Social distancing measures have not only decreased some people’s walking and exercise, but have also cut counts by reducing steps taken while commuting to work as well as shopping and other leisure activities, the researchers write. Step counts began to recover in some places in late April, perhaps as a result of easing social distancing measures.

Quote of the week

“I think there was a lot of wishful thinking around the country. ‘Yay! Summer. We’re over this.’ And we are not even beginning to be over this.”

—Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discussing a surge in coronavirus cases in many places across the United States in a Q&A with JAMA

What we’re reading

  • The drugmaker Gilead Pharmaceuticals has set the price of remdesivir to treat a patient with COVID-19 at $3,120, the Washington Post reports. Remdesivir is one of only two drugs with clinical trial evidence to suggest that it is effective against the coronavirus. In a clinical trial, the drug shortened hospital stays by about four days, on average.

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Coronavirus Update: Yes, masks work

June 30, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Spring breakers’ impact

June 26, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Tracking virus mutations

June 23, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Close to home

June 19, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Sleeping and eating

June 16, 2020

Coronavirus Update: The body’s first responders

June 12, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Lockdowns saved millions

June 9, 2020

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The latest science

How kids may transmit the coronavirus

Children may spread the virus through saliva and poop, a new study suggests.
 
Researchers in South Korea took samples from 12 children with mild or asymptomatic coronavirus infections. The virus showed up in nasal swabs of all; a smaller number also had the virus in other body secretions, including urine, blood, saliva and feces. All but one child had evidence of the virus’s genetic material in feces, and eight of 11 children tested had viral RNA in their saliva, researchers report June 4 in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Children who had no symptoms had less viral RNA in nasal swabs than children who were ill. That might mean that kids who are asymptomatic carriers of the virus are less likely to pass it to others.

The amount of viral RNA found in nasal swabs and saliva declined over time, but remained consistently high in feces for more than three weeks. This suggests that feces might be useful for determining who has an active coronavirus infection

Even if RNA from the virus is present, that doesn’t mean it’s infectious. Researchers in this study were just looking for genetic fragments of the virus. More research is needed to determine whether feces and saliva contain infectious viruses. 

No patient zero

There was no single “patient zero” who gave rise to all coronavirus cases in the United States. Instead, the virus made its way into the country through multiple routes, with many different chains of transmission happening at the same time, multiple studies show.

Analysis of the genetic instructions, or genomes, of 331 coronaviruses isolated from people in the Boston area suggests at least 30 separate introductions of the virus in that city, researchers report June 4 in preliminary study posted on virological.org. Europe, New York and Washington state were among the places seeding virus transmission in Boston. One of those introductions happened at an international conference held in Boston in late February. Attendees unknowingly took the virus home with them and spread it to Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and other states, as well as to Australia and Slovakia. 

Meanwhile, researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine tested nasal swabs from 35 people and found nine different lineages of the virus, distinguished by mutations the virus has picked up as it replicates. Those nine lineages relate to nine local chains of virus transmission in the Baltimore area, the researchers report in a preliminary study posted June 3 at bioRxiv.org. The study didn’t address where those viruses originated.

In Northern California, the coronavirus snuck in to spread through communities at least seven different times, researchers report June 8 in Science. Those conclusions come from swabs collected from 54 COVID-19 patients. Several lineages of those California viruses are related to one discovered in Washington. Variations of the Washington lineage appeared in cases associated with two voyages of the Grand Princess cruise ship, which then spread to people in Northern California. 

That Washington lineage was initially thought to have been introduced to the state directly from China. But recent studies have suggested it may have spread to Washington from British Columbia or Connecticut.These findings indicate that social distancing, contact tracing and travel restrictions are all needed to limit spread of the virus, the authors write.

From Science News

Lockdowns may have averted 531 million coronavirus infections

Shutdowns implemented to reduce transmission of the coronavirus were extremely effective at controlling its rapid spread and saved millions of lives, two new studies suggest. 

Stay-at-home orders and other measures prevented or delayed an estimated 531 million coronavirus infections across six countries — China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, France and the United States, one study finds. An estimated 60 million infections were avoided in the United States alone, the researchers say.

A second study estimates that the shutdowns saved about 3.1 million lives across 11 European countries, Erin Garcia de Jesus reports. Read more

5 reasons you might be seeing more wildlife during the COVID-19 pandemic

Coyotes sauntering down the streets of San Francisco. Neighborhoods flooded with birdsong. Snakes slithering onto trails and sidewalks. And of course, the rats. Rats everywhere. Somehow, as COVID-19 forced us into our homes, it also managed to bring nature a little bit closer. Sometimes — as in the case of rats — a little too close.

Here are five reasons that people might be running into more wildlife than before, Bethany Brookshire reports. One biggie: We’re finally paying attention. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the pandemic on our coronavirus collection page.

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Quote of the week

"More than six months into this pandemic, this is not the time for any country to take its foot off the pedal." 

 Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization

More than 136,000 COVID-19 cases were reported to WHO on June 7, the most in a single day so far, Ghebreyesus said yesterday. Europe’s numbers are improving, he noted, but globally the situation is worsening. Almost 75 percent of the cases reported June 7 come from 10 countries, mostly in the Americas and South Asia. 

In all, roughly 7 million cases of COVID-19 have now been reported to WHO, and about 400,000 deaths.

Number to know

39 percent

That’s the percentage of adults who reported using chemicals or disinfectants unsafely while trying to prevent coronavirus infections, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

These unsafe practices include using bleach on food, applying household cleaning products to bare skin as well as inhaling or consuming disinfectants, the CDC reports June 5. 

The survey, which queried more than 500 U.S. adults in May, also found that people had little knowledge of how to prepare cleaning and disinfecting solutions properly. “Mixing of bleach solutions with vinegar or ammonia, as well as application of heat, can generate chlorine and chloramine gases that might result in severe lung tissue damage when inhaled,” the agency cautions.  

What we’re reading

  • The coronavirus has taken a much greater toll on black Americans compared with white. An analysis from the Washington Post finds that “Americans living in counties with above-average black populations are three times as likely to die of the coronavirus as those in above-average white counties.

    As the virus first swept through the country, cities squandered opportunities to protect some of their most vulnerable residents, the newspaper reports.
  • The New York Times surveyed more than 500 epidemiologists about when they might  do activities like get a haircut, work in a shared office, or hug or shake hands with a friend again. 

    Most said that they might be willing to see a doctor for a non-urgent appointment soon, but don’t expect to eat at a dine-in restaurant until next year. See more of what the experts said here.

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Coronavirus Update: Hydroxychloroquine’s saga

June 5, 2020

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The latest science

Kids’ immune system clues 

Children’s immune systems don’t appear to show the same signs of inflammation that have indicated a worsening case of COVID-19 in adults, a new study shows.

Researchers looked at the medical records of 157 children with COVID-19 who were admitted to Wuhan Children’s Hospital from the end of January to mid-April. Most were mildly or moderately sick, while a few were severely or critically ill. 

In adults with COVID-19, the amounts of two types of immune cells, called lymphocytes and neutrophils, are associated with disease severity. Around 70 percent of adults who end up very sick with COVID-19 have decreased levels of lymphocytes and increased amounts of neutrophils, a cell involved in an excessive inflammatory response called a cytokine storm.

But measurements of these immune cells in the children revealed that, overall, lymphocytes were increased and neutrophils were low, the researchers report June 3 in JAMA Network Open. Children with moderate disease had even lower amounts of neutrophils than those with mild disease. 

The study occurred before reports of multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which is an excessive immune response that has occurred in a relatively small number of children weeks after a COVID-19 infection. So the study didn’t answer what is happening with those kids’ immune responses.

Protein bad actors

Examining proteins in blood plasma can indicate the severity of COVID-19 in adults. 

Levels of 27 proteins in blood plasma changed with increasing severity of the disease, researchers report June 1 in Cell Systems. Some of the proteins work with a protein called IL-6 to stimulate inflammation. Too much of those inflammation-causing proteins can help trigger a cytokine storm that damages tissues and organs in people with severe cases of COVID-19. IL-6 and its cronies have been singled out before as bad actors in the disease.

But the study also found that other proteins were linked to disease severity. They include proteins involved in building cells’ interior scaffolding, ones involved in blood coagulation and others involved in an immune system process called complement.

Identification of these proteins might help doctors decide how best to treat patients and may suggest future targets for drugs to ease severity of the disease.

More bat coronaviruses

Researchers have identified a slew of new coronaviruses from bats in China, including some that are relatives of the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the team did not identify the origin of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the findings suggest that coronaviruses are often transmitted among bats of different species, the researchers report in a preliminary study posted May 31 at bioRxiv.org. 

Horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus species) — the likely origin of the virus that sparked the 2002–2003 SARS outbreak — were often involved when coronaviruses switched to another bat species, hinting that horseshoe bats may play an important role as coronaviruses evolve to infect new hosts.

No North American bats are known to be infected with the coronavirus. But that could change. Scientists who work with bats should take precautions to reduce the risk that an infected person might transmit the virus to bats in the United States, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey say in a June 2 report. Experts are concerned that exposing North American bats to the coronavirus could cause bats to die or become a viral reservoir that could reinfect people in the future.

From Science News

Taking hydroxychloroquine may not prevent COVID-19 after exposure

The hydroxychloroquine saga continues. The first results from a clinical trial testing the drug as a prophylactic suggest that it is no better than a sugar pill at keeping health care workers and others exposed to COVID-19 from getting sick. Meanwhile, a study that led to the World Health Organization calling a temporary halt to a clinical trial testing the drug has been retracted. That study, published May 22 in the Lancet, had suggested the antimalarial drug carries a higher risk of death for people with serious cases of COVID-19. 

But editors of the Lancet issued an expression of concern June 3 that the study might be based on faulty data provided by a company founded by coauthor Sapan Desai. That company, Surgisphere Corporation based in Chicago, refused to turn its proprietary database over to reviewers so they could check its accuracy, so the other authors of the study retracted the paper June 4. The WHO also announced June 3 that testing of hydroxychloroquine will resume after a safety review found no reason to halt the trial, Tina Hesman Saey reports. Read more

What parents need to know about kids in the summer of COVID-19

Scientists don’t have a full understanding of how COVID-19 may affect children, in part because they don’t have a lot of data from places well suited to provide it, such as schools and day cares. That can leave parents frustrated at what seems like a startling lack of information in trying to figure out if it’s safe to let children play with friends or attend summer camps. 

But some research provides a preliminary snapshot of what the illness means for kids and what we know so far about their role in the pandemic, Aimee Cunningham reports. 

Among the takeaways:
  • Children are getting sick less often than adults.
  • It’s still unclear how much kids contribute to spread. Read more
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Reader questions, answered

China recently reported that the coronavirus was found in semen. Does this indicate that embryos could be created that are infected or that have the virus as part of their DNA or RNA? — Anonymous 

Researchers reported they’d detected the coronavirus’s genetic material in semen, but the team did not determine whether the virus was infectious. There’s no evidence that the virus can infect sperm or eggs, or that semen can transmit the virus to another person. 

That being said, it’s possible that an embryo might end up with some virus bits embedded in its genetic material if a virus’s RNA or DNA somehow makes it into sperm or an egg. That’s how human DNA has become riddled with remnants of viral infections from the past. Some of these viral fossils are from ancient relatives of viruses like HIV, dengue and Ebola. Researchers can use the “fossils” to understand how long humans and our ancestors have been infected with certain types of viruses. 

Having these virus bits in DNA doesn’t mean a person is infected. Many viral remnants don’t seem to have an effect, though some animals have appeared to co-opt fragments for certain functions. Humans and other mammals evolved a placenta thanks to an ancient retrovirus — the family of viruses that HIV belongs to — that became incorporated into DNA millions of years ago. Though the insertion of the virus’s genetic material into host DNA happened by random chance, it now has a key role in pregnancy.

Not all viruses can infiltrate sperm or eggs, however, and the ones that can, rarely do. There are no known viral fragments related to coronaviruses in human DNA.

What we’re reading

  • Thousands of people continue to gather across the nation to protest the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police. In this opinion article from STAT, a black public health expert grapples with the necessity of protesting racism that contributes to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on black individuals, at the same time that protests will exacerbate that impact by spreading the virus further.
  • Science takes a deep dive into the saga of Surgisphere Corporation, the obscure data analytics company that provided the data behind the now-retracted study in the Lancet that linked taking hydroxychloroquine with higher risk of death. Other COVID-19 studies using the company’s data are now under review.
  • New York and New Jersey have experienced more deaths than normal over the last few months, and while COVID-19 is mostly to blame, more people have died than usual from other conditions too, such as heart disease, perhaps because they aren’t seeking treatment amid the pandemic. See how the data stack up in this visualization from the New York Times.

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Coronavirus Update: A grim underestimate

June 2, 2020

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The latest science

Hydroxychloroquine sales spiked

Antimalarial drugs flew off pharmacy shelves this spring, new research shows. 

That timing coincided with the release March 17 of a small study suggesting that hydroxychloroquine in combination with the antibiotic azithromycin might fight COVID-19. Two days later, President Donald Trump touted the drug in a news conference. By the end of March, drug shortages for people who take the medication to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis had been reported.  

In this study, researchers tracked prescriptions filled at more than 58,000 chain, independent and mail-order pharmacies in the United States from February 16 to April 25, and compared them with the same period last year. Sales of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine skyrocketed, with 483,425 more prescriptions filled than in the same 10-week period in 2019, researchers report May 28 in JAMA.

Demand peaked the week of March 15. Pharmacists filled 45,858 prescriptions for 28 or fewer pills that week, compared with 2,208 in 2019 — a 1,977 percent increase. Prescriptions for 28 to 60 pills and for more than 60 pills were both up about 180 percent that week. 

Studies have since suggested that hydroxychloroquine has no benefit for treating people seriously ill with COVID-19, and may cause harm, including heart rhythm problems. On April 24, the Food and Drug Administration warned people against taking it to treat COVID-19 outside of a hospital or a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are testing whether the drug can prevent infection with the coronavirus, or head off serious illness. 

The mystery of how the virus infects cells deepens

The coronavirus hijacks a cellular protein called ACE2 to break into and infect host cells. But it’s unclear whether the presence of ACE2 on a cell — as well as an enzyme that cuts other proteins known as TMPRSS2 — is enough for the virus to get in. Now, a study published May 26 in Cell suggests that the two proteins by themselves aren’t the only culprits.

By examining autopsied lungs and other respiratory cells from donors, researchers found that the coronavirus infects some cells that display ACE2 on their surface, including ones that line the surface of the nose. But the virus can’t infect others — such as a type of cell that lubricates the lining of small airways in the lung — despite the presence of ACE2 and TMPRSS2 on those cells. The finding hints that other variables may affect whether a cell is vulnerable to infection, the team says. 

Knowing which cells are susceptible could help researchers understand variations in disease severity and how the virus is transmitted among people. 

No testing shortcuts

Widespread testing is needed to track the spread of COVID-19, but testing can be expensive and time-consuming. Many health facilities, especially in more rural areas, may not have the resources to perform enough tests. 

As a shortcut, some scientists have proposed pooling samples from dozens of people together and running them in a single test. If a pooled sample is negative, many people could be cleared of infection with a single test. If positive, lab technicians would then test each individual sample in a pool to find the infected.

But this method could lead to many false negatives if positive cases have a low viral load, which can happen if someone has a mild infection or is tested in a later stage of the infection, a study posted May 26 at medRxiv.org finds. 

Researchers in China tested the sensitivity of pooling methods by mixing viral RNA extracted from positive throat swab samples with RNA from negative samples. One positive sample from an individual with a high viral load could still be detected by PCR testing when diluted with 99 negative samples. But a low viral load couldn’t be reliably detected when mixed with just four negative samples.

That new finding casts doubt on the technique’s utility for streamlining COVID-19 testing, the researchers say.

From Science News

Is the coronavirus mutating? Yes. But here’s why you don’t need to panic

Over the last few months, several research groups have claimed to identify new strains of the coronavirus. That sounds scary. But not only is it sometimes difficult to determine whether a change to the virus’s genetic blueprint amounts to a “new strain,” none of the reported changes to the virus have been shown to make it more dangerous. 

Erin Garcia de Jesus reports on what it means to find mutations in the coronavirus, and what evidence is needed to actually raise a red flag. Read more

How coronavirus stress may scramble our brains

The pandemic — and its social and economic upheavals — has left people around the world feeling like they can’t string two thoughts together. Stress has really done a number on us. 

That’s no surprise to scientists who study stress. Our brains are not built to do complex thinking, planning and remembering in times of massive tumult, Laura Sanders reports. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the pandemic on our coronavirus collection page.

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Numbers to know

1 percent

That’s the percentage of the children who visited a Seattle hospital in April who had been infected with the coronavirus. The finding comes from the first large-scale survey of antibodies in children, scientists say, and suggests that “only a small fraction of children” in the city had been infected as of April. One thing to note: Social distancing measures were implemented early in Washington, which has helped curb the virus’ spread.

Researchers analyzed blood samples of over 1,000 kids admitted to Seattle Children’s Hospital in March and April. Because that’s not a random sample, the researchers caution that the results may not be generalizable to kids overall in Seattle. 

Most children don’t appear to get as sick as adults, and therefore won’t be tested as often, so similar antibody studies from around the country will be crucial to figuring out kids’ role in the pandemic.

Nearly 26,000

As of May 24, nearly 26,000 deaths attributed to the coronavirus have occurred in U.S. nursing homes, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced June 1. 

While sobering, that number is still likely an underestimate: Only about 80 percent of the 15,400 nursing homes that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding had reported data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The facilities also reported over 60,000 confirmed coronavirus infections.

Meanwhile, the Miami Herald reported that the number of COVID-19 related deaths in Florida’s long-term care facilities tripled in May, increasing from a little over 400 deaths on May 1 to nearly 1,200 by May 29. 

What we’re reading

  • The widespread demonstrations and protests occurring in many U.S. cities will “almost certainly set off new chains of infection for the novel coronavirus,” with a spike coming in less than two weeks, the Atlantic reports.
  • Minks on a mink farm are the only animals known to have passed the coronavirus to people, though a handful of other animals and pets have contracted the virus apparently from humans. For now, the risk of catching the virus from an animal is low, but some researchers are worried that may change people begin to move about again, Nature reports.
  • MIT Technology Review reports on how artificial intelligence could help researchers quickly determine if a new COVID-19 finding is supported by the scientific literature or not.

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Coronavirus Update: What does recovery mean?

May 29, 2020

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The latest science

Antibodies found in spit

Researchers may be able to use saliva to detect antibodies in people who have recovered from COVID-19.

Current tests to detect coronavirus antibodies — immune proteins that the body makes to help fight infection — rely on blood samples taken from a finger prick or a blood draw. But these antibodies are also found at detectable levels in the crevices between gums and teeth in a substance in spit that resembles blood serum, researchers report May 26 at medRxiv.org.

The team took blood serum samples from 28 people who had tested positive for the virus and had those people brush their gums with a saliva collection device. The scientists then tested both the blood serum and saliva for antibodies that recognize the virus. The results suggest a potential alternative to blood tests that is less invasive and could make collecting samples easier to do at home.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized an at-home coronavirus saliva test for emergency use, which allows people to collect their own saliva and send it in for testing. This can be used to detect active infections in lieu of nose and throat swabs. 

Double whammy

A genetic variant that raises one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease may also make people more susceptible to COVID-19. 

People who have two copies of a version of the APOE gene called APOE4 are 14 times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as people with two copies of the APOE3 version of the gene. A new study of more than 600 people in England diagnosed with COVID-19 from March 16 to April 26 found that people with two APOE4 genes also were more than twice as likely to test positive for the coronavirus, researchers report May 26 in the the Journals of Gerontology: Series A

Two previous studies showed that people with dementia were more likely to have severe cases or to die of COVID-19. This new study found that even people with no signs of dementia or other diseases associated with APOE4 were more susceptible to COVID-19 than people with the APOE3 version. 

APOE is involved in handling cholesterol in the body and also plays a role in some immune system functions. Exactly how APOE4 may make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus isn’t understood yet.

Here come the mouse models

To test potential therapies and vaccines against the coronavirus, researchers around the world are developing mice that can serve as possible stand-ins for people. Several studies are now finding that mouse models that carry the human form of a protein that the virus uses to break into cells may be a useful tool.

One such study used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to insert that human protein, called ACE2, into mice. The coronavirus doesn’t bind to mouse ACE2. When infected with the coronavirus, none of the mice with human ACE2 died, but both young and old animals developed pneumonia, researchers report May 26 in Cell Host and Microbe. The team exposed the mice to the virus either through the nose or the gastrointestinal tract. No matter which transmission route, the animals got pneumonia.

Another study, posted May 27 at bioRxiv.org, also found that the virus can replicate in mice that have the human form of ACE2. Those animals also developed pneumonia, and none died. The mice developed immune responses that are similar to those seen in lung autopsies from people who had died of COVID-19.

From Science News

Infecting people with COVID-19 could speed vaccine trials. Is it worth it?

Human challenge trials, where researchers infect volunteers with a pathogen such as the coronavirus to test the effectiveness of an experimental vaccine, could bring about a quicker end to the pandemic. But the risks and benefits of such trials are far from clear, Jonathan Lambert reports.  Read more

You can find all of our stories about the pandemic on our coronavirus collection page.

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Reader questions, answered

What does a "recovery” from COVID-19 look like? Anecdotally, ongoing health problems, such as continued breathing and taste and smell difficulties, seem pretty common.  — Anonymous reader

Scientists are still figuring out what that recovery looks like. Often, recovery means a person no longer experiences symptoms and feels “back to normal.” But some people who’ve gotten better still report a lingering cough, shortness of breath or fatigue. How long such symptoms last remains to be seen, since the disease has been around for only about six months.

So far, the clearest potentially long-term complication for some people is lung damage, including lesions that can develop into scars. That can diminish lung capacity and cause other lasting respiratory problems. Whether the damage can heal remains unclear, though people with damage from the coronavirus that causes SARS saw little improvement after more than a decade, according to a small study published February 14 in Bone Research.

But the new coronavirus can infect more than just lung tissue. Loss of a sense of smell has emerged as a clear, though usually temporary, sign of the disease. Blood clots and strokes are being reported, even among young patients, along with heart damage. Purplish lesions can appear on toes. Patients with severe disease can even experience confusion and other neurological symptoms. Non-COVID viral infections can cause a wide range of symptoms too. At this point, there’s too little data to know whether these varied manifestations of COVID-19 will cause long-lasting problems.

Number to know

29

That’s the number of antibody tests to detect previous exposure to the coronavirus that the FDA says can no longer be distributed. Problems with the tests’ accuracy or a company’s failure to file proper paperwork led to the removal, the agency says. There are still a dozen antibody tests allowed under the FDA’s emergency use authorization provisions. 

Tip of the week

NASA and several other countries’ space agencies are hosting a virtual hackathon using Earth observation data to come up with solutions related to the pandemic. The hackathon will focus on several themes, including using space-based data to learn about the virus’ spread. 

Join scientists, coders, storytellers and others from around the world on May 30 and 31 for the Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge.

What we’re reading

  • Some experts think that at least 60 percent of the world’s population will need to be infected by the coronavirus before herd immunity is reached and the virus no longer spreads widely. This series of graphics from the New York Times shows that we’re a long way from reaching that goal.
  • With most of the world still lacking immunity to the coronavirus, there seems almost no chance that the virus will peter out with 2020. Could building an antiviral infrastructure using germ-killing coatings and materials help protect us in a COVID-19 world? Wired reports on three ways that scientists think it could be done. 

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Coronavirus Update: Coping with the stress

May 27, 2020

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The latest science

Teasing out kids’ role in the pandemic

Children may not be a major source of coronavirus infections within families, a small study suggests.

Other preliminary evidence has also found few instances of the virus’ spread from kids to adults at home. Such spread often occurs with other viral respiratory infections, such as influenza, and has been a concern as officials consider how to reopen day care, camps and schools. 

In the new study, researchers identified the household contacts of 39 children under 16 who tested positive for the coronavirus in Switzerland from March 10 to April 10. Kids rarely were the first to show signs of the illness in their family, the team found. Children displayed symptoms of COVID-19 before other household members in only three of the 39 homes, or 8 percent. 

In contrast, in 31 homes, at least one adult family member was confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19 before the child, the scientists report May 26 in Pediatrics. In the other five homes, children and adults developed symptoms at the same time. The study strongly suggests that most kids were infected by parents, the researchers say, but given reports of asymptomatic spread, the only way to be sure would be to test families daily for the virus until each member becomes positive, which the study didn’t do. 

Wastewater signals

Monitoring sewage for the coronavirus’s genetic material could give public health experts up to a week of warning before COVID-19 cases peak in an area.

Scientists have found the coronavirus’s RNA in stool from some COVID-19 patients. Though it remains unclear whether the virus can be transmitted through feces, researchers have detected coronavirus RNA in raw wastewater. 

In Connecticut, the amount of genetic material in sewage peaked a week before the number of cases in one region did, researchers report in a preliminary study posted May 22 at medRxiv.org. Hospitalizations related to COVID-19 hit their highest point three days after the RNA did.

Public health experts already use wastewater to track pathogens like poliovirus and E. coli bacteria. The new finding shows that sewage could provide an early warning system for officials to use for monitoring coronavirus outbreaks. Along with widespread diagnostic testing and contact tracing, samples from wastewater treatment plants could help experts flag when to implement control measures to curb the virus’ spread, the researchers say. 

COVID’s ‘soft landfall’ in Africa

Over 100,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Africa, touching every country on the continent and killing at least 3,100 people, the World Health Organization announced May 22. 

But Africa has so far largely escaped the experience of other regions, both in terms of number of cases and deaths. With over 5 million confirmed cases around the globe, Africa’s share represents about 2 percent, while it accounts for roughly 17 percent of the world’s population. 

While lower testing rates and reporting could contribute to this difference, officials say Africa’s younger demographics may also be playing a role: Over 60 percent of the continent’s population is under 25. Older people remain the hardest hit by the virus. 

“For now, COVID-19 has made a soft landfall in Africa,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Africa regional director said in a news release. “But we must not be lulled into complacency as our health systems are fragile and are less able to cope with a sudden increase in cases.”

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From Science News

Is the coronavirus mutating? Yes. But here’s why you don’t need to panic

Over the last few months, a few research groups have claimed to identify new strains of the coronavirus. That sounds scary. But not only is it sometimes difficult to determine whether a change to the virus’s genetic blueprint amounts to a “new strain,” none of the reported changes to the virus have been shown to make it more dangerous. 

Erin Garcia de Jesus reports on what it means to find mutations in the coronavirus, and what evidence is needed to actually raise a red flag. Read more

Politics aside, hydroxychloroquine could (maybe) help fight COVID-19

Studies of hydroxychloroquine’s use in treating very sick patients have shown mixed results and, in some cases, have led to dangerous side effects. But in lab experiments, the drug, which is used for malaria, lupus and other diseases, has been shown to prevent the virus from getting into cells or decrease it from replicating once there.

So researchers are busy testing hydroxychloroquine and a related drug called chloroquine to see if they can either prevent infection or keep illness from worsening. Nearly 200 clinical trials are under way or planned around the world to test the drugs, either alone or in combination with other medications. Tina Hesman Saey reports on what scientists know about the drugs and their potential. Read more

Update: The World Health Organization announced May 25 that it is temporarily halting testing of hydroxychloroquine in one part of a clinical trial after a study in the Lancet showed greater numbers of deaths among COVID-19 patients being treated with hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine compared with people not taking the drugs. The testing may resume after a safety review.
 

How coronavirus stress may scramble our brains

The pandemic — and its social and economic upheavals — has left people around the world feeling like they can’t string two thoughts together. Stress has really done a number on us. 

That’s no surprise to scientists who study stress. Our brains are not built to do complex thinking, planning and remembering in times of massive tumult, Laura Sanders reports. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the pandemic on our coronavirus collection page.

How to cope with pandemic stress 

Stress can cause real problems, scrambling our thinking, our emotions and our health. But pay attention to that “can.” The negative effects of stress aren’t inevitable, some researchers say. 

Even extreme stress caused by an ongoing global pandemic can spark positive or even transformational experiences, says Alia Crum, a psychologist at Stanford University. Changing our beliefs about stress may help usher in these positives. One small example: Students who were told that stress responses can help us cope with intense demands performed better on math tests. 

These mind-set adjustments may shore us up under the crushing stress of a pandemic. Crum and her colleagues have used findings from their research to develop an online toolkit called “Rethinking Stress.” The three main steps: 
  1. Acknowledge stress. 
    Instead of ignoring stressful times or dwelling on them, notice and label the stressful situation.
     
  2. Recognize that we stress about things that we value.
    We worry about things that are important to us. Those concerns can be illuminating, helping to point out what matters most.
     
  3. Channel the stress response into a purposeful action.
    In the case of a looming job interview, stress might prod us to prepare more thoroughly. But sometimes the action isn’t obvious. Simply knowing that mind-sets exist, and that they can be changed, can be powerful. 

What we’re reading

  • The Navajo Nation has the highest infection rate of any place in the United States, and young Navajos have mobilized to help save as many of their loved ones and elders as they can, STAT reports.  
 

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Coronavirus Update: Don’t count on sunlight

May 22, 2020

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The next newsletter will arrive in your inboxes on Wednesday, instead of Tuesday, due to the holiday weekend.

The latest science

Virus mutations don’t explain disease severity

Differences among patients, not the genetic makeup of the coronavirus, determines how severe a case of COVID-19 will be, a new study finds. 

Factors such as a person’s age and white blood cell counts are associated with disease severity, an analysis of 326 COVID-19 patients from Shanghai shows. Older people and people with low levels of certain immune cells known as T cells and high levels of an immune chemical called IL-6 tended to be sicker. But the version of the coronavirus that people were infected with made no difference in how sick they got, the team reports May 20 in Nature

In the new study, the team identified two major versions of the coronavirus, called clade I and clade II, among 94 viral genomes from the Shanghai patients and 221 genomes in the GISAID coronavirus database. GISAID is a repository that maintains hundreds of viral genomes — the complete set of genetic instructions of a virus — compiled by researchers from many different countries. Those genomes are used in monitoring how the virus is evolving and tracing its path around the world. 

Two mutations distinguish clade I from clade II. Other researchers had previously found the same genetic changes, and speculated that one version may be more virulent or transmit better among people. But the new data show no difference in contagiousness or disease severity between people infected with either clade. 

Fecal transmission?

Some people with COVID-19 have infectious coronavirus in their feces, a new study finds. The virus’s genetic material has been detected in some infected people’s stool. But it’s been unclear whether that material was inactive virus fragments or viruses that can infect cells.
 
While the new result suggests that the virus could be spread through feces, researchers still don’t know if it actually occurs and, if so, how often.

Of 28 people hospitalized with COVID-19, 12 had stool that tested positive for the coronavirus’s genetic material. Researchers then attempted to isolate infectious virus from samples from three people by adding the stool to monkey cells grown in the lab. Feces from two of the three patients had infectious virus, the team reports May 18 in Emerging Infectious Diseases. It’s unknown if people with milder symptoms also have infectious viruses in their stool.

During the 2002–2003 SARS outbreak, there were some reports of cases linked to faulty sewage pipes and aerosolized viruses from flush toilets. But the major form of transmission was primarily through large respiratory droplets.

No sunlight disinfectant 

An old aphorism claims sunlight is the best disinfectant, but that may not be the case for the coronavirus, researchers warn. 

The type of ultraviolet light, known as UV-C, used to disinfect objects in hospitals and laboratories is absorbed by the Earth’s ozone layer, and doesn’t reach the ground in sunlight, researchers write in the May Lancet Microbe. UV-C can kill microbes and viruses because its wavelength matches the wavelength of radiation absorbed by genetic molecules, including DNA and RNA. Absorbing that radiation causes chemical changes in the genetic material that make it impossible for a virus to replicate.

UV-A, the major component of sunlight, isn’t absorbed by those genetic molecules, so it has no germicidal effect. UV-B is also in sunlight, and has weak microbe- and virus-killing capabilities. But most UV-B light is absorbed by the atmosphere, and little reaches the ground where it might help disinfect packages left on doorsteps, for example. 

Lab experiments have shown that the virus can linger on cardboard, and potentially infect people for up to 24 hours. Dehydration and damage to the virus gradually deteriorate its ability to infect people, but scientists don’t fully understand how the environment affects the coronavirus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month updated its guidance on how COVID-19 spreads to clarify that touching contaminated surfaces isn’t a main mode of transmission. But the agency still notes that “it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.”

From Science News

As we wait for a vaccine, here’s a snapshot of potential COVID-19 treatments

Waiting for a coronavirus vaccine or potential treatments is frustrating. But there’s still so much doctors and scientists don’t know about how the virus affects the body. Getting answers will take time, and finding measures to counter the virus that are both safe and effective will take even more. 

Tina Hesman Saey takes a look at a few early potential treatments that have some doctors hopeful. Read more

New data suggest people aren’t getting reinfected with the coronavirus

Reports from South Korea of people testing positive for the virus after their apparent recovery had raised concerns that you could get infected more than once in the short term. Now, scientists have shown that samples from “reinfected” patients don’t have infectious viruses, only dead viral fragments. That lack of infectious particles means that these people aren’t currently infected and can’t transmit the coronavirus to others, Erin Garcia de Jesus reports. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the pandemic on our coronavirus collection page.

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Number to know

72 percent

That’s the percentage of Americans who say they would get vaccinated with a coronavirus vaccine if it were available, a survey from the Pew Research Center finds. The survey of nearly 11,000 people was conducted April 29 to May 5. Eighty-three percent of Americans also said they expect an effective treatment or cure for COVID-19 in the next 12 months.  

Antivaccination activists at rallies protesting state closures have some public health experts worried the activists could convince some people to forgo a coronavirus vaccine, which could hamper efforts to reach herd immunity. 

What we’re reading

  • As the number of COVID-19 deaths continues to climb in the United States, experts estimate that the true number of people dead from the disease is much higher. FiveThirtyEight follows the story of one uncounted case to understand why some people are falling through the cracks.
  • Experts in animal health such as veterinarians, farmers and zookeepers could help us better spot emerging threats to human health, but only if that expertise is tapped into, Undark reports. Scientists suspect the coronavirus originated in bats, and a still unknown intermediary host animal may have passed it to humans.

Science News is a nonprofit.

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Coronavirus Update: Fitness class risks

May 19, 2020

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From Science News

Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine stimulates an immune response in people

An experimental vaccine may help protect against a coronavirus infection, preliminary results in people and mice suggest. One or two doses of the vaccine prod people’s bodies to make as many or more antibodies against the virus as are made by those who have recovered from COVID-19, Tina Hesman Saey reports. 

Biotech company Moderna Inc., and the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases worked together to develop the vaccine, the first to be tested in people in the United States. Read more

T cells may help COVID-19 patients — and people never exposed to the virus

Scientists found certain immune cells that target the coronavirus in the blood of people who had recovered from an infection with the virus. These T cells, some of which hunt down and kill infected cells, may help people recover from COVID-19. But their exact role is still unknown. 

Some people who had never been exposed to the coronavirus also had T cells that attacked the virus, Erin Garcia de Jesus reports. That suggests that previous infections with other coronaviruses, like the ones that cause common colds, could provide some protection against the new coronavirus, such as preventing people from developing severe disease. Read more

The latest science

Fitness class dangers

As more U.S. states reopen and people return to public life, dance fitness classes in South Korea tell a cautionary tale.

A workshop to train instructors for the classes, which are similar to Zumba, ultimately led to more than 100 people falling sick with COVID-19, a new study finds. Nearly 30 teachers participated in the Feb. 15 workshop, which involved intense physical activity for four hours. Later, it was revealed that eight of the participants were infected with the coronavirus, though none had symptoms at the time. By March 9, scientists had identified 112 cases linked to roughly hour-long dance classes at 12 sports facilities and traced them back to the workshop. 

The turbulent air flow caused by intense physical exercise in densely populated sports facilities could help spread the virus, the researchers report May 15 in Emerging Infectious Diseases. Curiously, one infected instructor taught Pilates and yoga classes of about eight people, but none of those students tested positive for the virus. Those classes’ lower aerobic intensity may be why the virus didn’t spread as easily, the researchers speculate. Class size may also be a factor. 

Some states are letting gyms reopen, but there are lots of unanswered questions about whether that’s safe, as detailed by female powerlifter Casey Johnston in Vice. 

COVID and carbon

Stay-at-home orders haven’t just curbed the spread of COVID-19. They’ve briefly cleared the air.

Daily global carbon dioxide emissions dropped 17 percent, on average, by early April compared with average daily emissions in 2019, researchers report May 19 in Nature Climate Change. That represents a decrease from about 100 million metric tons to about 83 million metric tons worldwide.

Among other changes, the lock-downs have temporarily grounded planes, reduced traffic and changed patterns of energy consumption. Since most emissions data are reported annually, not day by day, the scientists used daily data such as electricity demand, city congestion and readouts from smart meters in homes to estimate emissions for 69 countries.

If the world returns to a pre-pandemic level of activity by mid-June, the researchers say, 2020 emissions will be about 4 percent lower than in 2019. If some restrictions remain through the end of the year, 2020 emissions could be as much as 7 percent lower. That highlights the depth of the cuts needed to reach emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100, nations would need to reduce emissions by 7.6 percent each year over the next decade, scientists say.

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More from Science News

Past plagues offer lessons for society after the coronavirus pandemic

Epidemics and pandemics that struck before 20th century vaccines and medical knowledge hold lessons, but no easy answers, for governments and people today grappling with COVID-19. One lesson looms large: Societies can’t indefinitely avoid outbreaks, but they can withstand even severe pandemics. Starting with the Roman Empire, societies have often dealt resiliently with deadly outbreaks, Bruce Bower reports.

That doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be lasting changes. “Sometimes [infectious diseases] accelerate history or reveal where a society was already going, while sometimes they fundamentally change the trajectory of societies,” says historian Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the pandemic on our coronavirus collection page.

Reader questions, answered

 Is there something different about coronaviruses whereby we do not have long-lasting immunity once infected? — Bob Schalhoub

That is a million-dollar question, and researchers don’t know the answer.

When we get infected by a virus, our bodies typically mount immune responses to fight off the infection. Once the culprit is gone, memory cells help the immune system recognize the same pathogen in the future. But that memory tends to fade over time for some viruses, like coronaviruses, and not for others, like measles. Researchers still don’t fully understand why there’s a difference. Some vaccines also don’t provide lasting protection, and knowing why could help scientists design better ones.

For coronaviruses, one possibility is that disease severity could affect long-term immunity. Coronaviruses that cause colds don’t generally trigger severe symptoms, but the ones responsible for diseases like COVID-19 and SARS can be deadly. The more virulent viruses might lead to longer-lasting immunity. But there is no evidence yet to support this idea.

Studies have shown that people can be repeatedly infected with coronaviruses that cause colds. It’s still unclear whether that will be the case for the new coronavirus, in part because the outbreak sparked by its cousin, SARS, ended thanks to containment efforts. Another close relative, MERS, infects so few people a year that it doesn’t offer any helpful insight into the question either. 

Tip of the week

Be sure to check out COVID-19 sessions featuring Science News’ Editor in Chief Nancy Shute and molecular biology reporter Tina Hesman Saey at the Virtual Regeneron International Science & Engineering Fair 2020. The event started Monday, and is put on by the Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News. You can find the daily schedule here, with sessions also available for viewing at later times once you register. And it’s free!

What we’re reading

Science News is a nonprofit.

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Coronavirus Update: Fear vs. anger

May 15, 2020

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The latest science

AWOL virus-killing cells

People with severe COVID-19 symptoms may be lacking a crucial defense against viral infections.
 
Specialized immune cells, called CD8+ T cells, can target and kill virus-infected cells. Though patients with severe COVID-19 have high amounts of T cells in general, researchers found that they have many fewer cell-killing T cells than do people with more moderate symptoms. The finding, reported May 12 in Nature Medicine, hints that the body’s lack of a coordinated response to kill cells infected with the coronavirus could play a role in disease severity.
 
Very sick patients also had higher numbers of immune cells involved in inflammation compared with people who had moderate disease. Those cells, part of the early immune response against the virus, add to evidence that an overactive immune system is also linked to the severe symptoms.

Superspreader singer

It just took just one person to spread the coronavirus to at least 52 other people at a choir practice. Now researchers are reporting how that March 10 get-together of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington unintentionally turned into a superspreading event.

Such events occur when an infected person passes a virus or other pathogen to an unusually high number of other people. For instance, a MERS outbreak in 2015 in South Korea was largely driven by superspreaders, including one man who infected 82 others.

Initial accounts of the choir practice suggested that no one was sick and the choir maintained proper social distancing. But in fact, one participant had come down with coldlike symptoms three days before, researchers report in the May 15 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Chairs were only six to 10 inches apart, not the recommended six feet. And choir members shared snacks and congregated while returning their chairs to storage racks.

Ultimately, 53 of the 61 people — 87 percent — who attended the practice ended up infected. Three were hospitalized, including two who died. “If we have learned anything from this event, it’s that social distancing is absolutely vital to protecting ourselves and our community,” Polly Dubbel, of Skagit County Public Health, said in a news release. 

Far short of herd immunity

Even as France begins relaxing social distancing measures, only about 4.4 percent of its population has contracted COVID-19 and potentially has immunity from it, scientists estimate May 13 in Science.

That’s well below what’s needed to create herd immunity and prevent a second wave of infections as people emerge from isolation. Approximately 65 percent of the population would need to have immunity, the researchers say.

France’s lockdown started March 17 and brought the infection rate down to a level at which the outbreak would start to peter out. Before lockdown, each person who caught the virus had the potential to pass it on to about three people. Isolation measures dropped that pass-along number to less than one person.

Still, as of May 7, more than 95,000 people had been hospitalized in France with COVID-19, and more than 16,000 had died. Researchers combined these data with surveillance testing from French hospitals and data from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where nearly everyone was tested, to come up with an estimate of how many people in France had contracted the virus as of May 11: 2.8 million people out of a population of more than 65 million.

Other control measures, like contact tracing or more targeted social distancing, will need to kick in as social restrictions lift to limit a second surge, the scientists say.

From Science News

The new COVID-19 drug remdesivir is here. Now what?

Remdesivir, a new treatment for COVID-19, has been hailed as a game changer for those who are seriously ill, but supplies of the drug are limited. Gilead Sciences, the company that makes the drug, warned in a May 5 statement that manufacturing remdesivir requires scarce raw materials, and disruptions to supply chains for those materials might slow production or limit the amount of remdesivir that can be produced. 

Supply chain problems aside, it’s not at all clear that remdesivir is the best treatment against the coronavirus, some scientists say, and its widespread use might even make finding better treatments harder, Tina Hesman Saey reports. Read more

Kids can develop severe complications from COVID-19 in rare cases

Although severe illness with COVID-19 remains rare among children, they are not immune from life-threatening complications. And an inflammatory syndrome similar to shock may also be connected to the coronavirus, Aimee Cunningham reports. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new health alert on May 14 warning doctors of the mysterious syndrome. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the outbreak on our coronavirus collection page.

Number to know

8 minutes

That’s the estimated minimum length of time that 1,000 infectious coronavirus particles can hang in the air indoors after one minute of loud talking.

Researchers previously used lasers to measure the volume of moisture expelled when people speak. Now, figuring in evaporation and other factors and adding calculations for how much virus is shed in saliva, the team estimates that even brief conversations inside may leave behind a multitude of infectious airborne viruses. 

The research was published May 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s unknown how much virus a person needs to be exposed to in order to contract COVID-19. 

Q&A

How do fear and anger change our perception of coronavirus risk?

Even as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in many places, states are starting to relax social distancing guidelines. Some people are responding by crowding bars and other public places, while others think that’s much too dangerous. 

Science can help explain why people respond so differently to risks, even life-threatening ones. And it can also provide clues for how to make sound choices when the answers are far from clear — a position many people now find themselves in. Science News asked Jennifer Lerner, a behavioral scientist at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who studied people’s responses to the 9/11 attacks, about how fear and anger influence how people perceive risk and make decisions. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

SN: Why are risks so hard to evaluate during this pandemic? 

Lerner: We know that anything that’s unpredictable or uncertain ratchets up people’s perception of risk. For instance, people perceive that handguns are safe because they’re under individual control, even though handguns have enormously high accident rates. Conversely, things that seem uncertain, unpredictable and not controllable seem more risky.

Other research shows that when people are in heightened stress for a very long period of time, they’re not in a good mind-set to carefully weigh costs and benefits of different actions. There becomes this need to resolve and get certainty about things. So that’s where we are now.

SN: Your research looks at how emotions color decision making. Can you talk about that?

Lerner: Many psychological scientists now assume that emotions are, for better or worse, a dominant driver of most meaningful decisions in life.

It used to be thought that when people were experiencing negative emotions like fear, anger, anxiety, hostility or frustration, they would have a pessimistic outlook and see everything as riskier than if they were in a neutral emotional state. But that’s not true. We’ve conducted a lot of studies all showing that fear heightens subsequent perception of risk, while anger reduces that perception of risk. Labs around the world have also replicated this finding.
 

SN: So is it safer to be angry or afraid during a health crisis?

Lerner: Extreme levels of either fear or anger are both detrimental to the kind of careful trade-off analysis that will help people make smart choices for their families. The more people are in a state of anger, the more their perception of risk will be diminished. 

A protracted state of anxiety nudges people to avoid risks, but staying in that high anxiety state for too long can lead to excess secretion of cortisol [a stress hormone] that can suppress the immune system. And people in an extended hyper-state of vigilance struggle to distinguish lower threats from higher threats.
 

SN: If emotions get us into trouble, what can we do to make better decisions?

Lerner: We are actively researching that question in relation to COVID-19 in countries around the world. We have one study looking at how the way risks are communicated affects citizens’ adherence to risk-prevention behavior. The other study is on emotional regulation and how to increase resilience. 

Our hope is that those findings will help us identify ways to teach people strategies to decrease negative emotions like fear and anger and increase positive emotions like gratitude and compassion, so that they can make sound judgments and decisions.

What we’re reading

  • Untreated sewage may give researchers clues about where the coronavirus is circulating and the size of the outbreak, The Scientist reports. Viral RNA in wastewater probably isn’t infectious, but could indicate when people served by the treatment plant are infected. Public health officials could use the information to decide where to concentrate testing efforts.

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Coronavirus Update: Revisiting COVID in kids

May 12, 2020

Thank you for subscribing to Science News Coronavirus Update. If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Did a friend forward this to you? Sign up for twice-weekly updates. Got questions, suggestions or comments? Drop us a line at feedback@sciencenews.org and put “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. We’ll answer selected questions in future newsletters.

The latest science

Dangerous syndrome in children

In New York state, 93 children have fallen ill with a dangerous inflammatory syndrome related to infections with the coronavirus. Three children have died of the syndrome, and two more deaths are being investigated. Physicians in a few other states and some European countries are also seeing symptoms in children, which include a persistent high fever, low blood pressure and abdominal pain.

Overall, severe illness is still much less frequent in children than in adults with COVID-19, researchers say. A review of 46 North American pediatric hospitals from March 14 to April 3 found just 48 children who had COVID-19 were admitted for intensive care. 

The children were mostly aged 4 to 16 years, and some got very sick. Thirty-five had respiratory symptoms, with 18 needing ventilation. Seventeen were critically ill, with respiratory failure, inflammatory syndrome, and/or multi-organ failure. Nearly all of the children had underlying medical conditions, such as cancer or obesity. 

As of April 10, two of the children had died, and 15 were still hospitalized, researchers report May 11 in JAMA Pediatrics. This early report “confirms that severe illness in children is significant but far less frequent than in adults,” the researchers write.

Keeping hospitals safe

Widespread screening of health care workers — even if they aren’t showing COVID-19 symptoms — is crucial to curb the coronavirus’ spread in hospitals, a study suggests.

Researchers tested 1,032 health care workers who did not have symptoms at the time of testing at a hospital in England. Of those, 30 tested positive for the coronavirus and five never developed symptoms, the team reports May 11 in eLife.

Focusing on only symptomatic people will inevitably miss cases, the researchers write. One option, the authors suggest, is to test all workers assigned to parts of the hospital where worker cases are beginning to spike to catch infections early. As testing capacity increases, hospitals could implement more widespread screening programs.

Travel trouble

Domestic air travel spread more cases of COVID-19 than did international travel to the United States, according to an analysis of coronavirus cases in Connecticut. And this has been the case since mid-March, researchers say, even though efforts then were focused on international restrictions.

The United States first detected a case of COVID-19 on January 19, in a resident of the Seattle area who had traveled to Wuhan, China. In response, the Trump administration instituted travel restrictions from China on January 31, Iran on February 29 and Europe on March 11. But U.S. cases not connected to foreign travel began emerging in February, with total reported cases topping 13,000 by mid-March. 

Connecticut’s first identified cases were detected in early March, and slight variations in those viruses’ genetic material suggests that most of these cases came from outbreaks in other states, the team reports May 28 in Cell. By mid-March, the researchers estimate that domestic travel introduced more COVID-19 cases to the state than international travel, largely because of higher domestic travel volume. 

Restricting travel from China and Iran did little to slow the U.S. outbreak, the researchers found when they extrapolated to the entire United States. Restrictions on travel from Europe, however, did reduce the risk of importing the virus because of the higher number of flights from the continent, compared with China or Iran. But those restrictions came too late, the scientists say. By the time they were instituted, domestic spread was a larger issue than international importation.

From Science News


Loss of smell and taste may actually be one of the clearest signs of COVID-19
The World Health Organization lists loss of taste and smell as a less common COVID-19 symptom. But new findings suggest that it should be added to the list of top symptoms used to screen people for the disease, Tina Hesman Saey reports. Read more


A multiple sclerosis drug may speed COVID-19 recovery
The coronavirus has genes known to hamper interferon beta 1b, an immune system chemical that the body produces to goad immune cells into fighting viruses. Providing extra amounts of the chemical may counteract that interference, keeping people from becoming seriously ill.

People taking a drug cocktail containing interferon beta 1b plus a combination HIV drug and an antiviral drug took seven days to recover from COVID-19, on average. In comparison, it took people on only the HIV combo drug 12 days to get better. Everyone who got the drug cocktail was mildly ill, so the finding may not apply to people who are seriously sick, Tina Hesman Saey reports.

A drug based on the chemical is used to help control some forms of multiple sclerosis, although exactly how the drug helps that disease isn’t yet understood.  Read more

You can find all of our stories about the outbreak on our coronavirus collection page.

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Tip of the day

Contact tracing has long been relied on to break a pathogen’s chain of transmission. To curb the spread of COVID-19,  the United States needs a public health workforce large enough to track down most coronavirus cases and contacts. But as Science News has reported, we and many other countries don’t have that network of trained people

Now, researchers with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have released an online course to teach would-be contact tracers, or just anyone who wants to learn, how to do the job. The course is free and started May 11.

What we’re reading

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given emergency use authorization for a rapid antigen test for coronavirus. Antigen tests detect specific proteins from a virus. The flu tests conducted in doctors’ offices are antigen tests. The drawback: Such tests are often wrong, the Washington Post reports. Flu antigen tests, for instance, miss 50 to 70 percent of cases that could be detected by more sensitive PCR tests, such as ones being used now for coronavirus testing.   
  • Public health campaigns that encourage completely eliminating risk (such as abstinence-only sex education and the extreme social distancing measures in place across the United States) aren’t sustainable, a researcher from Harvard University writes in this commentary in the Atlantic. What people need, she argues, are strategies for distinguishing among low-risk and high-risk activities. 

    Indoors, for example, heating and air conditioning units may draw virus-laden air toward certain parts of a room. But the systems may also bring in fresh air and cycle out stale air containing viruses and other particles. Ceiling fans and other fans may also blow the virus around a room.

    In such settings, it may be hard to figure out where best to evade the virus, and the recommended six feet of distance may not be safe. Outdoors, six feet is probably a safe distance, though that depends on how the wind is blowing and how long virus particles last in the air.
  • Some countries and U.S. states and territories are winning the battle against the coronavirus, and some need to take stronger action. See who’s ahead and who still has a lot of work to do in this series of graphics from the EndCoronavirus.org network of experts and scientists.

Science News is a nonprofit.

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One more reminder: If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Did someone share this e-mail with you? Subscribe to this newsletter here. And if you’ve got questions, e-mail feedback@sciencenews.org with “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. Thank you for reading.

Coronavirus Update: Door-to-door testing

May 8, 2020

Coronavirus Update: What’s up with kids?

May 5, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Drug treatment progress?

May 1, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Checking your symptoms

April 28, 2020

Coronavirus Update: No disinfectant injections

April 24, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Silent spreaders

April 21, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Test and trace

April 17, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Meet a vaccine volunteer

April 10, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Masking up

April 7, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Spread by breathing?

April 3, 2020

Coronavirus Update: What’s a viral load?

March 31, 2020

Coronavirus Update: Do homemade masks help?

March 27, 2020

Thank you for subscribing to Science News Coronavirus Update, delivering the latest news and context about the coronavirus pandemic to your inbox twice weekly. 

We also thank you for trusting Science News to bring you what you need to know about this outbreak. How are we doing? Let us know in this short survey. It should only take a few minutes.

If you like this newsletter, share it with friends. Here’s where they can subscribe. Got questions, suggestions or comments for us? Drop us a line at feedback@sciencenews.org and put “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. We’ll answer selected questions in future newsletters. 
—The Science News team 
The United States has now surpassed all other countries in total COVID-19 cases — with 86,012 as of March 27 — and new understanding of the virus and the pandemic continues to come to light in the scientific literature (more on that in a moment). As the virus’s origins face continued scrutiny, two big questions were on the minds of millions: When will this end, and how can we help? Our writers took those on and more.


Face mask shortages have sparked creative solutions. Will they work?
Homemade masks, reusing masks and even scuba gear are some of the ideas for dealing with health care workers’ lack of supplies during the pandemic. Laura Sanders reports on how best to conserve the equipment we do have, and how to make more. Read more


When will the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing end?
No one knows for sure, but it’s probably not any time soon. Jonathan Lambert reports on what we do know about when it may be safe to come out of our homes and resume normal life. Read more
 

No, the coronavirus wasn’t made in a lab. A genetic analysis shows it’s from nature
Scientists took conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins seriously, and debunked them, Tina Hesman Saey reports. Read more
 

You can help fight the coronavirus. All you need is a computer
In Tuesday’s newsletter, Maria Temming reported on how the Folding@home project has deployed its crowdsourced computing power to help researchers studying the coronavirus. People help by linking their home computers to a network, creating a virtual supercomputer.

Update: In the past week, the number of volunteers has almost doubled, from 400,000 to around 700,000. The collective computing power of that legion makes Folding@home by far the most powerful supercomputer in the world. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the outbreak on our coronavirus collection page.

The latest science

Here for the long haul

Without a coronavirus vaccine, treatments or widespread testing and case isolation, some form of social distancing measures may have to be implemented in the United States into early 2022. That’s if we want to avoid overwhelming the health care system, epidemiologists Marc Lipsitch and Yonatan Grad and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston report March 24 at medRxiv.org. 

Why it’s important: For now, and the foreseeable future, social distancing remains the main tool in the U.S. arsenal to fight the spread of the disease.

Not pangolins

Pangolins smuggled into southern China were found to carry coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But the viruses are different enough from the new coronavirus to hint that pangolins were not directly responsible for transmitting the virus to people, which had been suggested. The closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 is still from a bat, the only other mammal known to be a reservoir for similar coronaviruses. 

Pangolins should be handled carefully to prevent the viruses they carry from infecting people, the researchers write March 26 in Nature. The anteater-like animals are the most illegally trafficked mammal, used both as food and in traditional Chinese medicine.

Travel tests

China’s decision to place extensive restrictions on travel initially helped curb the new coronavirus’ spread in the country, scientists report March 25 in Science. But other measures became more effective once COVID-19 began spreading locally. 

Analyzing mobile data from a tech company and epidemiological data from a global group of scientists showed that during the early stages of the outbreak, the virus’ spread was easily explained by people’s movements. After officials locked down entire cities, that link went away, and local public health measures such as case testing, tracing and isolation were more effective at curbing spread, the scientists found. 

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Reader questions, answered

Why did the SARS outbreak not spread like the coronavirus? — Anamika G.

In 2002 and 2003, the SARS coronavirus infected more than 8,000 people in 29 countries before public health officials successfully stopped human-to-human spread of the virus. With SARS, patients were most infectious when they were clearly ill with respiratory symptoms and were easy to identify and isolate. Public health officials could trace and quarantine contacts.

As of March 27, COVID-19 has infected over half a million people in 176 countries and territories. The disease has played out differently from SARS for several reasons. For one, COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than SARS. And people transmit the virus early in the illness, even before symptoms emerge. That makes identifying and isolating cases more difficult. 

Since the coronavirus could be spread by people who didn’t know they had it, the virus made its way around and out of China to other countries before it could be contained with testing and isolation of cases and travel restrictions.

Outtakes

This week, the United Kingdom ordered 3.5 million antibody tests, which would show, with a drop of blood, whether someone has been exposed to COVID-19. Such tests could help reveal people who’ve been exposed to the virus and are now immune, meaning they could go back to work and resume their normal lives.

Antibodies are proteins that the body produces to fight an infection. They bind to a virus, preventing it from infecting a cell, and can remain in blood long after the infection clears. Antibody tests are commonly used to test for exposure to other viruses.

Science News spoke with David Weiner, director of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, and Charles Cairns, dean of the Drexel College of Medicine, about how antibody tests work and some of the challenges of developing the tests. The following responses have been edited for clarity.

SN: What does an antibody test do?

Cairns: Antibody tests look to see if someone has been exposed to a specific antigen, like a virus. The British tests are designed to work in one of two ways. They either detect human antibodies in blood using an antigen designed to be similar to a feature of the virus. Or conversely, the test detects the virus in blood using a [human-made] antibody designed to trap the virus.

SN: How is it different from tests that diagnose an infection?

Cairns: Diagnostic tests are using RT-PCR tests. You take a nasal swab that identifies the specific viral RNA from the COVID-19 virus. It’s the gold standard to see if you are actively infected. 

The antibody tests are quick — a blood prick and you get a yes/no answer. You’ve had COVID-19 or you haven’t.

SN: Why do antibody tests matter?

Weiner: People who have recovered won’t have RT-PCR positive tests, as they’ve already cleared the virus. Those who are recovered, those antibodies protect them from reinfection. (It’s still unclear, however, how long that immunity might last.) 

We’re now screening to find people who are positive [and have a current infection]. But it’s important to find people who have recovered and who are unlikely to be reinfected, so they can go out and be the buffers for the rest of us. That’s how herd immunity develops. Antibody tests also give us a better idea of how many people have been infected and how many have recovered, so we can start to move forward. 

SN: Who should be prioritized for getting an antibody test?

Weiner: I think the first responders and health care workers should be screened first, because it’s very important for them to get back out on the front line. 

SN: The United Kingdom has ordered antibody tests that could be ready for use soon, though it’s not clear how soon. Is the U.S. doing something similar?

Cairns: There are lots of people working on [antibody] tests [in the United States]. The big question is: Does a positive response for the antibodies mean that person is actively infected, or that they have been infected in the past? The tests need to be accurate, and that’s the challenge.

What we’re reading

  • Southern states like Mississippi and Alabama have yet to see an explosion of coronavirus cases like in other states. But that could change, Laura Beil reports for Undark. Given the region’s high rates of chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes and coronary heart disease — all known risk factors for severe COVID-19 — the virus could prove especially deadly in the South. Louisiana may currently be experiencing one of the biggest surges in new cases anywhere in the world.
  • Sheltering in place? Home from school? Avoiding groups larger than 10 people? Each state in the United States has enacted social distancing measures on different timelines to avert the spread of COVID-19. See how the patchwork shutdown has played out across the country in this graphic from Reuters.

Science News is a nonprofit.

We depend on our readers to support our journalism. You can help by subscribing for as little as $25.


SUBSCRIBE NOW
One more reminder: If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Did someone share this e-mail with you? Subscribe to this newsletter here. And if you’ve got questions, e-mail feedback@sciencenews.org with “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. Thank you for reading.

Coronavirus Update: Young adults at risk

March 24, 2020

Thank you for subscribing to Science News Coronavirus Update, delivering the latest news and context about the coronavirus pandemic to your inbox twice weekly. 

If you like this newsletter, share it with friends. Here’s where they can subscribe. Got questions, suggestions or comments for us? Drop us a line at feedback@sciencenews.org and put “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. We’ll answer selected questions in future newsletters. 

Thank you for trusting Science News to bring you what you need to know about this outbreak.
—The Science News team

The latest science

Hard choices

There are roughly 160,000 ventilators in U.S. hospitals and 8,900 more in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s strategic national stockpile. But experts worry that won’t be nearly enough. Shortages in other countries have put doctors in the agonizing position of rationing care. Forming triage committees in hospitals so that an individual doctor isn’t faced with those decisions could help, physicians and ethicists at Harvard Medical School suggest. 

“Never before has the American public been faced with the prospect of having to ration medical goods and services on this scale,” the scientists write March 23 in a perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Repurposed drugs

Scientists have compiled a menu of drugs that potentially could be used to treat COVID-19. The list describes 69 experimental compounds and existing medicines, including those in clinical trials. Some of the drugs are used to treat unrelated diseases such as cancer, diabetes and hypertension. An antimalarial drug called chloroquine, which has recently made headlines based on anecdotal and limited scientific evidence that it might be effective against the coronavirus, is also on the list. 

The potential treatments still need to be tested, however, to ensure they are truly effective against the virus and don’t have toxic side effects, the team reports March 22 at bioRxiv.org. One man has reportedly died after taking a chloroquine product used in aquariums, not medication, as a coronavirus preventive. 

From Science News


Young adults can face severe cases of COVID-19, too
Early data from China suggested that most younger people weren’t at risk for developing severe COVID-19 symptoms. But among 508 U.S. patients who required hospitalization, 20 percent were 20 to 44 years old, Erin Garcia de Jesus reports. It’s unclear, however, whether any of these younger adults had underlying health conditions — a risk factor for developing severe disease. Read more

Why some heart patients may be especially vulnerable to COVID-19
People with high blood pressure and heart disease seem to be especially at risk of developing severe illness. Infections can take a toll on people who have other health problems. But the coronavirus may pose particular danger to the heart because of how the virus gets into cells,  Aimee Cunningham reports. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the outbreak on our coronavirus collection page.

Reader questions, answered

"What are the false-positive and false-negative rates for COVID-19 [diagnostic] tests?" — Terry Provost

Science News isn’t aware of any published data on false-positive or negative rates of COVID-19 testing. However, given the nature of the testing, false positives — where someone is told they have the virus but really don’t — are likely to be exceedingly rare.

At this point, COVID-19 diagnostic tests conducted by public health officials use a technique called real-time RT-PCR to detect very small amounts of the virus’s genetic material. RT-PCR is incredibly sensitive and precise. If just a whiff of the virus’s RNA is present in a throat or nose swab, RT-PCR finds it and amplifies it, resulting in a positive test. If there’s no RNA from the virus, there’s nothing for RT-PCR to amplify, making false positives very rare. For influenza, the false-positive rate using RT-PCR is considered negligible

False negatives likely occur more often, though they are still rare too. By chance, a nose swab might hit a patch of tissue with no virus on it. A negative test result does not rule out the possibility of having COVID-19, and any final diagnosis should be corroborated by a clinician.

Outtakes

Staying home isn’t the only way that people can help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of thousands of volunteers have already added their home computers to a vast network that forms a virtual supercomputer called Folding@home. The Folding@home project, which uses crowdsourced computing power to run intricate simulations of proteins for researchers studying diseases, announced in February that it would begin analyzing proteins found in the coronavirus. Such proteins help the virus infect human cells. Using computer simulations, researchers aim to create maps of the virus’s proteins that will reveal vulnerabilities to attack with new drugs.

Science News’ Maria Temming spoke with Gregory Bowman, a biophysicist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and leader of the Folding@home project, about how this effort works and how to help.

How do simulations help map coronavirus proteins?

Researchers can take snapshots of the coronavirus’s proteins using techniques like cryo-electron microscopy, Bowman says, but proteins don’t hold still. “All the atoms in the protein and [its surroundings] are continually pushing and pulling on each other,” he says. “What we’re doing is modeling those physical interactions in the computer.” Those simulations reveal how a protein’s structure can change shape over time.

What kinds of vulnerabilities are you looking for?

“You want a nice pocket on the surface of a protein, where you can imagine this little molecule that we design inserting into a groove,” Bowman says. But many proteins, particularly those in viruses, have seemingly smooth surfaces, making them hard to target. Folding@home simulations give scientists a chance to uncover what Bowman calls “cryptic pockets” — docking sites for drugs that aren’t visible in still images of a protein, but are revealed as the protein wriggles around in a computer simulation. 

Why do you need a virtual supercomputer to run your simulations?

“We have to work on very, very, very small timescales” to capture the tiny jitters of atoms in proteins, Bowman says. “Each step in the simulation is on the order of a femtosecond,” or one quadrillionth of a second. To track protein motion over, say, a second, “we’ve got to do like a billion-squared operations on the computer, and each of those operations requires us to ask how every pair of atoms in the protein and surrounding solution are interacting with each other,” he says.

By drawing on the computing power of many volunteers at once, Folding@home performs calculations that might take a single desktop computer 100 years in only about a month. 

Who can help with Folding@home?

“Anyone can install our software on their personal computers and contribute” some of their unused computing power, Bowman says. “We’ve got everyone from people running it on their older laptops, to gamers that have really hardcore machines to … businesses who are pointing computer clusters at Folding@home.” Since the project announced its new focus on the coronavirus in late February, around 400,000 new volunteers have joined.

What we’re reading

  • See how coronavirus cases, death tolls and economic impacts compare in cities and countries around the world in this series of charts from the Financial Times.
  • One of the thousands of potential questions you may have about social distancing is: Can I go for a drive? The answer, like all answers now, is complicated, but the New York Times breaks it down well in this Q&A with multiple experts.
  • At this point in the coronavirus crisis, “Fauci” and frankness are practically synonyms. And this striking Q&A with Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key expert on the White House coronavirus task force, from Science’s Jon Cohen shows why. Come for the insight on the scientist’s interactions with President Trump; stay for those quotes.

Science News is a nonprofit.

We depend on our readers to support our journalism. You can help by subscribing for as little as $2.99 a month.


SUBSCRIBE NOW

One more reminder: If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Did someone share this e-mail with you? Subscribe to this newsletter here. And if you’ve got questions, e-mail feedback@sciencenews.org with “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. Thank you for reading.

Coronavirus Update: Family safety and sanity

March 20, 2020

Thank you for subscribing to Science News Coronavirus Update, delivering the latest news and context about the coronavirus pandemic to your inbox twice weekly.  

If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Here’s where they can subscribe. Got questions, suggestions or comments for us? Drop us a line at feedback@sciencenews.org and put “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. We’ll answer selected questions in future newsletters. 

Thank you for trusting Science News to bring you what you need to know about this outbreak.
—The Science News team

The latest science

Undetected infections

Scientists estimate that the United States may have had up to 53,000 undetected cases of COVID-19 by the time a national emergency was declared on March 13. The result indicates that no more than 10 percent of cases of community-acquired infections were detected in February, epidemiologist Alex Perkins of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and colleagues estimate in a paper posted March 18 at medRxiv.org. The lack of testing could mean that “a crucial opportunity to limit the impact of SARS-CoV-2 in the U.S. may have been missed,” the team writes. 

Fast as the flu

The coronavirus may spread among people as quickly as the flu, which is faster than other coronaviruses that have caused outbreaks. 

The time between two people in a chain of transmission beginning to show symptoms is about four days for COVID-19, which is similar to influenza (3.6 days) but faster than SARS (8.4 days) and MERS (12.6 to 14.6 days). Scientists call this the serial interval. The findings were reported March 13 at medRxiv.org and are currently in press in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Telltale antibodies

Researchers have developed a new blood test that can detect antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, a sign someone has been exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and successfully fought off an infection. The test, described March 18 in a study posted at medRxiv.org, is the first of its kind in the United States. 

Why it’s important: The ability to screen for signs of previous infection could help reveal how widespread the virus is in the country. It could also help officials monitor health care workers, to ensure that those who are treating patients are already immune and reduce transmission of the virus. 

From Science News


Repurposed drugs may help scientists fight the new coronavirus
Several drugs are being tested to see if they could help people who are sick with the virus, Tina Hesman Saey reports. Those include drugs designed to treat viruses that, like the COVID-19 virus, contain RNA instead of DNA as their genetic material. Some of these repurposed drugs include lopinavir and ritonavir, which were created to tackle HIV. Read more 

But those HIV drugs didn’t work as a coronavirus treatment in a clinical trial in China. Scientists tested lopinavir and ritonavir in 199 people randomly assigned to get the drugs plus standard care — including supplemental oxygen and antibiotics for follow-on bacterial infections — or standard care alone. The drugs “showed no benefit,” Saey reports. Read more


How parents and kids can stay safe and sane during the coronavirus pandemic
Infectious disease experts weigh in on playdates, playgrounds and other parenting questions, Science News writers (and moms) Laura Sanders and Sujata Gupta report. Read more



Here are some free resources for kids (and parents) now learning at home
Are you suddenly scrambling to organize homeschooling and other activities for children? Check out these resources, including scientific experiments and stories that look into the science behind fiction, from Harry Potter to Bigfoot, from Science News’ sister site, Science News for Students. Read more

If you’re a parent, let us know what resources you’re seeking or questions you’d like to have addressed. Email us at sns@sciencenews.org

You can find all of our stories about the outbreak on our coronavirus collection page.

Reader questions, answered

How are we supposed to disinfect our phones? So much contradictory information out there. —Jen Cole

Let’s get the obvious answer out of the way first. No bleach. Spray products that may introduce too much moisture to your phone are also not recommended. A household cleaning wipe that has at least 70 percent isopropyl alcohol will work. 

COVID-19, explained

Should I avoid taking ibuprofen if I think I have COVID-19?

A tweet from the French health minister, Olivier Véran, suggested that taking ibuprofen, the active ingredient in Advil or Motrin, could make the disease worse. 

What’s the evidence?

There are no data to suggest that claim, experts and health officials have said. The French health minister may have gotten the idea from a report in the Lancet that ibuprofen may increase the amount of ACE2 protein on human cells. That’s the protein the coronavirus uses to enter cells. 

Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, however, speculated in an interview with JAMA that the recommendation is an extrapolation from knowledge about how children with the flu may develop a neurological condition called Reye’s syndrome after taking aspirin. 

There have been reports that the World Health Organization also recommended that people take acetaminophen, the generic name for Tylenol, instead of ibuprofen for COVID-19 symptoms. But the global health organization said March 18 that it doesn’t recommend avoiding ibuprofen. 

What we’re reading

  • A bleak Imperial College London report suggests that the coronavirus could kill millions of Americans or force a lockdown of 18 months or more. But two experts argue in the Atlantic that there’s a third, more hopeful option: beat COVID-19 entirely by moving from mitigating the outbreak to suppressing it with ramped-up testing and massively strengthening our medical infrastructure.
  • Experts say that the new coronavirus isn’t airborne; it is spread by large respiratory droplets. But what does “airborne transmission” even mean? Wired explains how health officials use the term, why scientists who study viral transmission through the air disagree, and why that might matter for our health.

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Coronavirus Update: Slowing the spread

March 17, 2020

Thank you for subscribing to Coronavirus Update, a newsletter from Science News featuring the latest news and context about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. We’ll send you an update twice a week as the situation develops. We know there’s a lot of coronavirus information out there, so we’ll keep it brief while still giving you the details you need to stay informed.

If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Here’s where they can subscribe. Got questions, suggestions or comments for us? Drop us a line at feedback@sciencenews.org and put “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. We’ll answer a selection of your questions in future newsletters. 

Thank you for trusting Science News to bring you what you need to know about this outbreak.
—The Science News team

The latest science

COVID-19 in kids 

A new study describes the disease in 2,143 children under 18 years old in China, about half of whom were from Hubei Province, the epicenter of the pandemic. Compared with adults, these children generally had milder cases, researchers describe March 16 in Pediatrics. It’s unknown why most kids aren’t getting as sick as adults.

But children weren’t wholly protected. An estimated 5.9 percent of kids had severe or critical cases. Infants and preschoolers generally had more severe illnesses, including symptoms such as breathing trouble, than older kids, the team found. The researchers report one pediatric death, of a 14-year-old boy. 

Severity signs

COVID-19 patients who exhibit difficulty breathing may be more likely to need hospitalization, researchers report in an analysis of seven studies posted March 16 at medRxiv.org. The analysis, which examined a total of 1,813 cases in China, also found that people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure were more likely to require intensive medical care.

Why it’s important: The preliminary findings could help health care workers determine which COVID-19 cases might need extra attention, the researchers say. 

Infected again?

A small study in rhesus macaques found that the animals couldn’t be reinfected with the coronavirus, at least in the short term, researchers report in a study posted March 14 at bioRxiv.org. Reports from some health officials of patients who recovered from an infection but later tested positive for the virus have raised concerns about reinfection, though experts say it’s unlikely

The monkeys developed antibody responses that probably protected them from getting infected when they were exposed again 28 days after their first exposure. It’s still unclear, however, how long immune responses against the virus last. 

From Science News


Coronavirus is most contagious before and during the first week of symptoms
A new study shows that a person just getting sick or who is mildly ill is shedding “a whole lot of virus,” explaining why we’re seeing so much spread within communities, Tina Hesman Saey reports. Read more


To tackle the coronavirus, scientists are accelerating the vaccine process
The virus has inspired scientists to take creative approaches to making a vaccine, which is helping speed up the process, Tina Hesman Saey reports. Read more

Update: 
The first people in a U.S. clinical trial for a vaccine against COVID-19 received experimental doses on Monday, the Associated Press reports. That Phase 1 trial will gauge the safety of the vaccine and its ability to induce an immune response, and was launched in record time. But a vaccine available for widespread use is still not expected for another year to a year and a half.

You can find all of our stories about the outbreak on our coronavirus collection page.

Reader questions, answered

How will we know when it’s safe to socialize again?

It’s hard to say. Everyone is susceptible to infection with the coronavirus —and only a relatively small portion of the global population has been infected so far. So once measures limiting person-to-person interactions are lifted, the virus could begin circulating again. 

In China, the number of new cases announced each day has fallen after officials enacted extensive quarantines and travel restrictions roughly six weeks ago. But some restrictions are now being lifted and people are beginning to socialize again. (The majority of newly detected cases in China are reportedly from incoming travelers.) 

Continued widespread testing and tracing of contacts will be crucial to prevent the virus from starting another round of new cases.

Number(s) to know

50 and 10

To curb the virus’ spread, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that gatherings of 50 people or more be suspended for the next eight weeks.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration recommended on March 16 that people not gather in groups of 10 or more for at least the next 15 days, signaling the urgency of preventing a surge in COVID-19 cases from overwhelming hospitals in the coming weeks.

“Given that there’s so many unknowns about this new virus, the prudent approach is to defer social gatherings,” said CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases Jay Butler in a March 16 interview with JAMA. While limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people is reasonable, “there’s no reason to think nine is going to be safe, and 10 is not going to be safe. It really depends on a lot of variables,” such as how long people are together and how closely they interact. 

Key Quote

"You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected."

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on the global need for more testing, isolation and contact tracing, March 16, 2020 

What we’re reading

Why does influenza fade in the summer? Will COVID-19 follow a similar path? Don’t hold your breath. “What’s known about other diseases doesn’t offer much support for the idea that COVID-19 will suddenly disappear over the next few weeks,” writes Science’s Jon Cohen in this deep dive on the seasonality of dozens of infectious diseases.

How does social distancing help limit spread of the coronavirus and slow the infection rate, a concept known as flattening the curve? These simulations from the Washington Post illustrate the idea, which can help prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. 

Wired reports on how SARS and the H1N1 influenza helped Singapore, Taiwan and others be ready when COVID-19 struck. 

Science News is a nonprofit.

We depend on our readers to support our journalism. You can help by subscribing for as little as $2.99 a month.


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One more reminder: If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Did someone share this e-mail with you? Subscribe to this newsletter here. And if you’ve got questions, e-mail feedback@sciencenews.org with “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. Thank you for reading.

Coronavirus Update: Keep your social distance

March 13, 2020

Thank you for subscribing to Coronavirus Update, a newsletter from Science News featuring the latest news and context about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. We’ll send you an update twice a week as the outbreak continues. We know there’s a lot of coronavirus information out there, so we’ll keep it brief while still giving you the details you need to stay informed.

If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Here’s where they can subscribe. Got questions, suggestions or comments for us? Drop us a line at feedback@sciencenews.org and put “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. We’ll answer a selection of your questions in future newsletters. 

Thank you for trusting Science News to bring you what you need to know about this outbreak.
—The Science News team

The latest science

Hospital triage

U.S. hospitals must begin planning now “in full force” for how to manage an expected surge of  COVID-19 patients, scientists write March 11 in Annals of Internal Medicine. If the coronavirus pandemic follows the course of two previous flu pandemics, in 1957 and 1968, the United States may need about twice as many critical care hospital beds as the approximately 95,000 that are now available. 

Sticking around

The coronavirus behind COVID-19 has spread more widely and caused more damage than SARS. But new research suggests that this isn’t because it persists in the environment longer

The virus remains viable longest on plastic and stainless steel, where it can be detected for two to three days, though infectivity drops substantially after 48 hours, similar to SARS. On cardboard, the virus lasts for 24 hours, and it couldn’t be detected on copper after three hours, according to a preprint study posted March 9 at medRxiv.org.

Treatment woes

Repurposed HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir are being tested as a possible therapy against the coronavirus. No one knows yet if the drugs will work, but they do come with side effects, including severe diarrhea and elevated liver enzymes, a possible sign of liver damage. 

Now, some COVID-19 patients in Singapore and Germany who were given the drugs have developed those side effects, causing doctors to quit treatment. In Singapore, four of five patients were affected, researchers report March 3 in JAMA. And in Germany, two of four patients were, says Clemens Wendtner, director of infectious disease and tropical medicine at the Munich Clinic Schwabing.

From Science News

Social distancing, not travel bans, is crucial to limiting coronavirus’ spread
Acting now to reduce the virus’ spread will help avoid worst-case scenarios, Jonathan Lambert and Tina Hesman Saey report. Read more

Cruise ship outbreak helps pin down how deadly the new coronavirus is
Using data from the Diamond Princess quarantine, a study suggests that 0.5 percent of COVID-19 infections end in death, Tina Hesman Saey reports. That’s about five times as deadly as seasonal flu. But exactly how deadly COVID-19 is remains up in the air. Read more


What it means that WHO has declared a pandemic
The world’s top global health organization is asking countries to double down on virus containment and mitigation efforts, even as it acknowledges that the situation is likely to get worse before it improves, Jonathan Lambert reports. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the outbreak on our coronavirus collection page.

Reader questions, answered

I have been reading that there are two strains of the virus, one mild and one severe. Which is predominant in the U.S.? —Ken M.

There are not two strains of the coronavirus going around in the United States or elsewhere. 

A study published March 3 in the National Science Review claimed that two types of the virus, which had varying severity and were called L and S, were infecting people. The researchers had studied viruses from 103 people, and found that some viruses had a particular mutation. Those viruses, the L type, were more prevalent in Wuhan, China, in the early stages of the outbreak, and produced more severe symptoms, the team concluded.

But that mutation doesn’t change any of the virus’s proteins and probably has no effect on disease severity, experts say. “The differences between [the two virus types] … can be likened with comparing two cars of identical type and color, just with a different license plate. That license plate helps you find out where the car was registered but not how fast it can go,” researchers from GISAID, a repository that has been collecting all of the coronavirus genomes deciphered so far, said in an e-mail.

Outtakes

  • Science News’ senior writer and molecular biology reporter Tina Hesman Saey was on NPR and WBUR’s On Point on March 12, sharing her take on coronavirus science. Listen here.
  • Mike Denison, Science News’ audience engagement editor, and Erin Garcia de Jesus, our science writing intern who has a Ph.D. in microbiology, went to Baltimore on March 11 to tour the Johns Hopkins Hospital biocontainment unit, where some COVID-19 patients from the region will go for treatment. The unit, built in 2014 in response to the Ebola outbreak, is designed to handle deadly viral hemorrhagic fevers. But it also has features that help with respiratory diseases such as COVID-19, including rooms where the air pressure inside is lower than outside, which keeps airborne pathogens contained within the unit.
Fun fact: All of the unit’s doors are color-coded. Green means go through, yellow means follow special instructions before entering, and red means don’t enter unless it’s an emergency.   
 

What we’re reading

  • As hospitals around the United States prepare for a rising number of COVID-19 cases, simple math provides a grim outlook. In an opinion piece in STAT, synthetic biologist Liz Specht outlines the pressure that a growing outbreak could place on the health care system by roughly calculating how many hospital beds patients will need and how many masks health care workers will use up. Without measures to slow the spread of the virus, hospitals will quickly be overwhelmed, she writes.    
  • As more and more U.S. employees are being told to work remotely to avoid spreading or catching COVID-19, the Science News staff is also going remote. The Washington Post provided this first-person account of technology columnist Geoffrey Fowler’s first week working from home in San Francisco. Spoiler: It’s no snow day, he writes. But some of us introverts think it won’t be so bad. 

Science News is a nonprofit.

We depend on our readers to support our journalism. You can help by subscribing for as little as $25.


SUBSCRIBE NOW
One more reminder: If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Did someone share this e-mail with you? Subscribe to this newsletter here. And if you’ve got questions, e-mail feedback@sciencenews.org with “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. The next issue should be in your inbox on Tuesday. Thank you for reading.

Coronavirus Update: COVID-19 season?

March 10, 2020

Thank you for subscribing to Coronavirus Update, a newsletter from Science News featuring the latest news and context about the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak. We’ll send you an update twice a week as the outbreak continues. We know there’s a lot of coronavirus information out there, so we’ll keep it brief while still giving you the details you need to stay informed.

If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Here’s where they can subscribeGot questions, suggestions or comments for us? Drop us a line at feedback@sciencenews.org and put "Coronavirus Update" in the subject line. We’ll answer your questions in future newsletters.

Thank you for trusting Science News to bring you what you need to know about this outbreak.
 
— The Science News team

The latest science

Cruise control

Even as the U.S. State Department warns people to avoid cruises, the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that was quarantined off the coast of Japan in February, is providing new insight into the virus that causes COVID-19. Only about 17 percent of people onboard contracted the virus and many of them were asymptomatic, researchers report in a preprint study posted March 9 at medRxiv.org. Of all infected, 1.2 percent died; of those sick enough to need hospital care, 2.3 percent died.

Why it’s important: Just how widely this virus will spread is a big unanswered question, as is how deadly it is. While it’s a big leap from a ship with a few thousand people to a country of over a billion people, the researchers used that data to estimate how deadly the disease may actually have been so far in China: 0.5 percent of all infected have died. That number has been hard to get a handle on due to trouble tallying undetected infections.

Coronavirus season?

Some scientists think that the coronavirus may end up coming back every winter like the flu. Researchers simulated virus transmission through the year 2025 and found that the seasonal patterns of any future outbreaks depend on when, or if, people’s immunity against the virus wanes. If immunity wanes every year, similar to what happens with the coronaviruses that cause common colds, then we may get annual outbreaks.  

Why it’s important:
It’s unclear whether the new coronavirus will disappear as SARS did after it caused an outbreak in 2002 and 2003 or whether it will cause seasonal disease. The new study, posted March 6 at medRxiv.org, identifies key factors that might influence which scenario becomes reality. 

Good news and bad news

Scientists examined hospital rooms in Singapore to find out where the virus hangs out. The good news is that the virus couldn’t be detected after patients’ rooms were cleaned with a disinfectant, and no virus was found in air samples. The bad news is that before cleaning, the virus was all over a patient’s room, including the bed rail, light switches, sink, window, floor and an air outlet fan. The coronavirus was also found in the toilet bowl, the team reports March 4 in JAMA. That might be evidence that stool is a route of transmission, a possibility other scientists have raised.

From Science News


 
Repurposed drugs may help scientists fight the coronavirus
Several drugs are in testing to target various parts of the new virus, Tina Hesman Saey reports. Those include remdesivir — designed to treat viruses like MERS and Ebola that have RNA, instead of DNA, as their genetic material — as well as lopinavir and ritonavir, which were created to tackle HIV. Read more

 


What you need to know about coronavirus testing in the U.S.
Saey also explains that while testing for the new coronavirus is still limited in the country, it could ramp up soon. That’s thanks in part to tests developed by state laboratories and companies. Read more



Travel bans have barely slowed the coronavirus’s spread
Italy has restricted travel throughout the entire country until April 3, affecting about 60 million people. The nation has already exported a large number of cases around the world, and the latest evidence suggests travel bans may delay, but don’t stop, the spread of the virus, Aimee Cunningham reports. Read more

You can find all of our stories about the outbreak on our coronavirus collection page.

Reader questions, answered

"Why are people in such a tizzy about it? … With regard to numbers killed, influenza in the U.S. alone far surpasses it. It just seems like the level of concern is disproportionate to the actual threat. Am I missing something?" — Joe B. 

Scientists are worried that the new coronavirus could take hold in the United States, causing yearly epidemics like the flu, which killed about 34,000 Americans during the 2018–2019 season. That means we’d have another serious respiratory disease to deal with. While it’s still unclear, the new coronavirus appears deadlier than the flu. Like the flu, this virus seems to hit older people hard (though flu can also harm young children). Unlike the flu, there isn’t yet a vaccine or treatments for the new virus. And because it’s new, no one has immunity against the virus. That means everyone is susceptible to getting infected and transmitting the virus to others, so it can spread rapidly and widely.

If there’s a sudden, big spike in U.S. cases like we’ve seen in other countries, COVID-19 patients could have to compete for hospital space with other sick people. Too big a spike could overwhelm hospitals.  

Got other questions? You may find answers in this coronavirus FAQ that we’re frequently updating. If you’d like us to answer a question in this newsletter, e-mail feedback@sciencenews.org and put “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. 

Key quote

"The threat of a pandemic has become very real. But it would be the first pandemic in history that could be controlled. The bottom line is: We are not at the mercy of this virus." 

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, March 9, 2020

Number to know

1.3 percent

That’s how much global gross domestic product is expected to decline as a result of the outbreak, according to a March 6 report from the WHO’s Global Preparedness Monitoring Board

About $280 billion may be lost globally in the first quarter of 2020, with China sustaining $62 billion of that loss. “Such losses would be greater than the economic losses from SARS (2003), Ebola (2014–2016), MERS in South Korea (2015) and Zika (2015–2016) combined,” the report states.

What we’re reading

Curious about Anthony Fauci, one of the country’s top experts on infectious diseases? The New York Times’ profile of Fauci highlights his role in communicating accurately and clearly about the science.

Amy Maxmen at Nature has the inside story of how researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have led testing efforts in the United States and uncovered community spread of the virus in the state, ground zero for COVID-19 in the country. 

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles sorts through the insta-books popping up on the coronavirus crisis on Amazon.com. Hint: Buyer beware. 

Science News is a nonprofit.

We depend on our readers to support our journalism. You can help by subscribing for as little as $25.


SUBSCRIBE NOW
One more reminder: If you like this newsletter, share it with a friend. Did someone share this e-mail with you? Subscribe to this newsletter here. And if you’ve got questions, e-mail feedback@sciencenews.org with “Coronavirus Update” in the subject line. The next issue should be in your inbox on Friday. Thank you for reading.